Showing my age, I watched this at the Palace Theater in Granbury Texas when it came out in 1953, and there are scenes that stick with me after all these years. It’s Pony Express, a highly fictionalized account centered around the actual Pony Express—1860-1861. Did I mention “highly fictionalized?” I am at times known for understatement. This has big names, maybe not as big in 1953 as later. There’s Charlton Heston as William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and there’s Forrest Tucker as Wild Bill Hickock. I caught it streaming on Hulu this month. It was released by Paramount. It’s a simple story made overly complex. Here’s a rundown of the plot.
The opening shows Bill Cody meeting up with some suspicious characters from a plains tribe. He tries to figure out if they are friendly. They are not. They chase him down and kill his horse, but they have only arrows, and he has guns. Their leader, Yellow Hand (Pat Hogan), tells Bill he’s breaking off the fight, but will come back when his band has some guns. They later get the guns.
Bill treks across the prairie until he intercepts a stage coach, and he shares a ride with Evelyn Hastings (Rhonda Fleming) and her brother Rance (Michael Moore). The two are up to no good. This is 1860, about the time states are figuring to break away from the Union, and they are part of a plot to engineer California secession. They eye Bill coldly, Evelyn, perhaps, with not so much chill. After all, that’s Charlton Heston sitting in the opposite seat.
At the next stop the coach is met by some phony soldiers who attempt to arrest Evelyn and Rance and take them away. But Bill sees through the ruse, and he breaks up the scheme with some amount of gun play. Problem is, Evelyn and Rance are in on the plot. It’s all a scheme to make it appear that… Actually, that’s an aspect that is never made clear to me.
At the next town Bill runs into his old friend Wild Bill Hickock. They engage in a bit of gun play to show off for the audience. Evelyn is impressed.
And here is the scene that I recall seeing at the age of 12. Evelyn needs a bath after that long stage coach ride, and she gets instructions from a girlfriend of Bill’s, Denny Russell (Jan Sterling). The dialogue that I recall after all these years goes like this:
Evelyn: Doesn’t this soap lather?
Denny: No, it’s sandstone.
Evelyn: Then how do you get clean?
Denny: Rub until the dirt comes off.
Truth be, Denny is hot for Bill to an unhealthy degree, but she is too rascally a woman for Bill’s taste, and the ardor is not reciprocated. Makes for some sexual tension, especially after Evelyn develops a shine to Bill.
Lot’s of stuff. Evelyn and her brother plot to bring down the Pony Express enterprise that Bill and Denny’s father are cooking up. If California is kept isolated from the eastern states, then secession is going to be an easy sell. The Pony Express will cut mail delivery from St. Joseph, Missouri, to 10 days.
The secessionist group considers a number of alternatives. Kill Bill, destroy the Pony Express stations, various other devious acts.
But Yellow Hand and his troops have their own ideas. They ambush a party that includes all the movie’s remaining principals, forcing a stand-off at a stage coach station.
That episode comes to conclusion when Bill defeats Yellow Hand mano a mano, and the white faces are allowed to go about their business.
Finally we arrive in Sacramento, the capital of California and the terminus of the Pony Express. A mail satchel is dispatched from St. Joseph, heading west, with a 10-day schedule. The bad guys put their plan into action.
A rider is stalked and wounded on the trail. Closer to the terminus two other stations are destroyed by explosives after the agents are gunned down. But Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill ride to the rescue, defeating the bushwhackers with gunfire, and Cody takes the satchel into Sacramento before the noon deadline, putting the kibosh on a bunch of carefully laid plans.
The secessionists are sore losers, and they attempt to ambush Cody, but Denny is killed, instead. She dies in his arms. A massive fire fight wipes out the secessionists, and Cody picks up the return mail pouch and heads off out of town toward the east.
And that’s the end of the movie.
There is a bunch of irrelevant stuff added to boil the plot. The entire business with Yellow Hand contributes nothing.
The action starts and stops. During the siege at the stage coach station, Yellow Hand rides up and offers to duel Cody, winner take all. Cody declines. His plan is to sneak out the back after dark and set the prairie on fire, spooking the enemy’s horses. He gets captured, instead and engages Yellow Hand in the fight to the death. During all this, his life not worth a cup of warm spit if Yellow Hand wins, Rance contemplates finishing off Cody with an “accidental” shooting.
Time lines don’t make sense, and this highlights something I never understood about depictions of the Pony Express. The transit time from St. Joseph to Sacramento is targeted at ten days, could be eight. All along the route we see relief riders waiting to pick up the relay when a rider comes in. How do they know when the rider is going to be there? The relay rider could be waiting for hours. There is no way to alert the relay station when a rider is approaching.
there has to be a lot of back and forth between St. Joseph and Sacramento, but communication time between the two was measured in weeks at the time. Whoever wrote the original story had telegraphs and telephones on his mind at the time.
Bill Cody did ride for the Pony Express, but he was 14 at the time. Much too young to be the fabled gunfighter depicted in the movie. Cody’s and Hickock’s lives did intersect, but I’m thinking much later, when Buffalo Bill recruited Wild Bill to his wild west show. Wild Bill’s involvement was as a partner in the parent company of the Pony Express. He was ambushed and killed in Deadwood, South Dakota.
Bill Cody died right before the United States entered WWI
Heston went on to become Judah Ben Hur in the DeMille production. Later he was Moses. We enjoyed seeing him hawk pseudo science on NBC’s Mysterious Origins of Man.
The completion of a telegraph connection to Sacramento put the end to the Pony Express after a few months of operation.