John Wayne 1930s Movie Review – The Lawless Frontier

The Lawless Frontier (1934) Lone Star, Dir: Robert N. Bradbury, b/w, 50m
Cast: John Wayne, Sheila Terry, Jack Rockwell, George Hayes, Buffalo Bill Jr., Yakima Canutt

This entry in the Lone Star series is a bit more dramatic than others, the opening sequence in which John Wayne, as John Tobin, finds his murdered parents highly reminiscent of a similar scene in The Searchers when Ethan Edwards discovers the bodies of his brother’s family.

John Wayne and Gabby Hayes in The Lawless Frontier

On top of that the main villain of the piece, Pablo Zanti, a half white half Apache played by Earl Dwire, is a nasty piece of work who not only shoots JWs parents in the back but also moonlights as a serial rapist on the side.

So, not exactly a top choice for the usual Saturday morning matinee crowd.

I therefore literally broke out into a loud cheer accompanied by an overwhelming need to shout out ‘Tally ho, with a ying and a yang and a zing zang spillip’ at the glorious return of George Hayes in full “Gabby” mode, after what seemed to be a long run of him playing incompetent idiotic villains.

He’s even taken his teeth out, which is the mark of a truly dedicated thespian. 

The film goes out of its way to stress that Pablo, or Zanti the Misfit as I call him for all you sci-fi Outer Limits Season One fans who may be reading this, only poses as a Mexican. He’s not a real Mexican because if he was then that would be offensive to Mexicans, the people responsible for making the film intent only on offending Apaches and white people instead.

The message is simple; Mexicans onscreen can only be played by real Mexicans, unless you’re Duncan Renaldo, who played The Cisco Kid some years later, but then he was Romanian, so I guess that doesn’t count.

Tony Franciosa in Rio Conchos

Maybe that’s why Tony Franciosa could get away with playing Mexican Juan Luis Rodriguez in Rio Conchos, even though his parents were Italian. This whole “who can play what” ethnicity thing gets kind of complicated when you examine it. Now back to The Lawless Frontier.

The sheriff, played by Jack Rockwell, is a fully paid up member of the “Whole Other Kind of Stupid” club, erroneously suspecting JW of being in cahoots with Zanti. As JW exclaims sarcastically to “Gabby”;

An agreeable and appreciative sheriff you got here”, to which “Gabby” replies “He started off all right but he’s sure gone to seed.

Because the sheriff is short on grey matter, he decides for himself that JW is a villain and follows him at every opportunity, waiting for our boy to make a mistake.

In the meantime, I’m thinking there must be a supernatural element to John Wayne’s character. He seems to be able to foretell events before they happen.

There’s no rhyme or reason for him to know that Zanti and his cronies are going to be riding along a particular trail but he does.

He ties a piece of string to his gun trigger, places the gun further down the bluff and operates it from a distance. The shots spook the gang and, this is the bit that amazes me, everyone but Zanti goes off to investigate where the shooter is.

This then gives JW the opportunity to chase a now solitary Zanti. It’s all a bit weird if you think about it too hard.

After capturing Zanti and resisting the understandably natural inclination to throttle the living daylights out of the back-shooting vermin who killed his parents, JW turns him over to the sheriff.

In a scene that could have come from the yet-to-be-made movie, “My Friend Irma Goes West”, the moron sheriff chains Zanti to a bed by his boot. Zanti then commits a crime so reprehensible I’m having difficulty describing it.

He kills “Gabby” Hayes by knifing him in the back and shooting him. Oh yes. Then the sheriff arrests JW for the murder of the old-timer.

“Gabby” dead. Please, say it ain’t so.

And then it turns out it ain’t so. “Gabby”/Dusty lives to splutter and gurn again. It seems the knife in the back and the gun blast to the head caused only minor superficial injuries.

Which is lucky because he gets to save JW from being shot by Zanti, who rather unfairly has been slipping off the chain from around his bed, hopping off and trying to kill every living thing in the immediate vicinity before putting the chain back on again.

The version I watched jumped about a bit towards the end but basically Zanti meets his maker by drinking water from a poisoned well – Holy West of the Divide – with JW egging him on with “Drink yer fill, Zanti. It’s poisoned” which, although not quite as memorable as “get off your horse and drink your milk”, still has a ring to it.

John Wayne and Gabby capture Zanti’s gang then turns them over to the sheriff after which JW nicks the sheriff’s job and everyone lives happily ever after. Apart from the sheriff of course. 

To be fair, “The Lawless Frontier” is quite an entertaining watch compared to some of the other Lone Star efforts. I’d say this bodes well for the next entry in the series. 

Doesn’t it?

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Steve is a film scholar of note, gaining both an MA in film studies and a Ph.D. for his thesis on the silent films of John Ford. Steve, a scriptwriter and published novelist, provides much of the content you see here and is a dedicated aficionado and longtime fan of John Wayne, John Ford and Western films in general.

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