To save himself from a trumped-up murder charge, rugged cowboy Steve Daily (Guy Madison) agrees to marry whip-wielding spitfire Julia “Cheyenne” O’Malley (ravishing Rhonda Fleming), daughter of an Irish fur trader and an Indian princess. It’s a marriage of convenience that enables Cheyenne to hold onto her burgeoning fur trading business. Once the ceremony is over she wants nothing to do with her husband. But rival fur trading tycoon Parnell (Peter Adams) convinces Steve to exercise his husbandly rights, so he can get his hands on the Indian land.
“His whole world will crash when he’s under the lash of a woman as cruel as a bullwhip!” sings Frankie Lane in the rip-roaring theme tune. This wild west rehash of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew was the final film scripted by the talented and incredibly prolific Adele S. Buffington. It was produced by a woman too, Helen Ainsworth, yet the sexual politics on display would most likely make any feminist’s blood boil. The opening narration ably establishes it takes a headstrong, hard-bitten woman to survive this harsh terrain, while the Cinemascope lens sweeps across the glorious western vistas. Far from a shrew, Cheyenne appears astute and capable. Her sole crime being she asks a bereaved mother to press on with the wagon train, and even that she does fairly politely.
“She ain’t a woman, she’s something made out of fire and brimstone”, sneers one of Cheyenne’s trail-hands. His fellow cowpokes are itching to see “the right man yank her off her high horse!” After stripping Cheyenne of her phallic whip, Steve swiftly emerges as a smirking git, only too eager to throw his weight around and humiliate her in front of her men. To further prove who “wears the pants around here”, he bests her hulking Indian bodyguard Pine Hawk (Burt Nelson) - who is so relieved not to be taking orders from a woman anymore, he smiles afterwards! At least he extends Cheyenne the courtesy of not taking advantage of her in bed, although her whooping cowboys think otherwise (“What a man!”).
Kirk Douglas or John Wayne would have combined such straight-faced machismo with wry humour or self-deprecating charm (indeed Wayne tackled similar material to more crowd-pleasing effect in McClintock! (1963)), but steely-eyed Guy Madison is carved out of balsawood. His wooden acting prevented him advancing further in his Hollywood career, but he headed to Europe and found some success in spaghetti westerns. He and Fleming were reunited in Michael Winner’s Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).
One can’t fault this for staying true to Shakespeare’s play, yet it is very 1950s in its preoccupation with the “unnatural woman” and maintaining a conservative, psychological normalcy. To do this, Cheyenne becomes a laughing stock. Even her Indian blood brothers prefer to deal with Steve and send her “back with the other squaws!” If real love is all about give and take, Cheyenne loses far to much and Steve gives precious little, for which she’s meant to be grateful. Buffington scores points for crafting a scenario wherein cowboys and Indians are on friendly terms, plus an interesting twist when Karp (James Griffith), the stone-faced gunfighter hired to kill Steve winds up becoming his most trustworthy and philosophical ally. Low on action for a western, it’s still a classy, mostly well acted affair, even if the sexual politics are a headache.
Nicknamed “Queen of Technicolor”, because her fair complexion and flaming red hair photographed so well, Rhonda Fleming first graced the screen in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949) and provided memorable turns in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and the splendid Bob Hope comedy-western Alias Jesse James (1959). She’s very watchable here and it’s no accident her character grows more beautiful and feminine as the plot progresses. By the fadeout one presumes she learns to love frilly dresses and stops worrying her pretty little head about men’s business.