Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) sits on the porch of the casino of Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes), the local madam in this town, and is brought his morning beer and cigar. This is a very good vantage point for him to survey the goings-on, as when a couple of ne'erdowells saunter up to him and are about to make trouble until he tells them his name, one which carries some respect around the territory, and they back down. One person who is well aware of Guthrie's reputation is First Lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) who rides up with his troops and starts to make conversation; this is goodnatured enough, but he has an ulterior motive since he has been entrusted with an onerous task...
Director John Ford made no bones about how much he disliked Two Rode Together, not considering it part of his greater body of work since it was more a contractual obligation than a pet project, which by this stage was more what he was interested in rather than being a gun for hire. Compounding his reservations were the responses from the critics and audiences, regarding this was not what they had come to expect from him when all they could see was a poor facsimile of Ford's recent classic The Searchers, concerning as it did the quest to bring back the kidnapped children and partners of settlers who had fallen afoul of the Comanche, especially when this was a lot less optimistic about the results.
Not that The Searchers had been all sweetness and light and happy ever after necessarily, but it did depict a success however qualified, and there was something a lot more cynical about Two Rode Together that made the hopes of that previous movie seem like a fairy tale. For that reason, and not acknowledged at the time, this made it more thematically interesting than it might have appeared on first glance and a clear look ahead to the more adult Westerns that would dominate the genre and eventually be its undoing as a popular form, with some exceptions. Not that this would ever supplant the earlier work in the affections of film buffs, and there was too much that leaned on the lazier retread of past glories, but it was by no means worthless.
Stewart was emerging from the fifties where he had essayed a selection of complex, troubled men, in the Western as well as other styles, and there was a measure of that here, only he was also requested to perform his more hokey characteristics for the sake of making Guthrie a loveable rogue, and these did not quite chime with the darker elements introduced over the course of the journey. When he gets a drink in him, he stops being polite and starts telling it like it is, which is not what the people who have hired him wish to hear; he is their only hope to communicate with the Comanche and get their loved ones back, except it has been years for most of them that they suffered their loss. Guthrie tells them straight, the women will have been raped, the girls enslaved, and the boys initiated and indoctrinated into the ways of the tribe.
There's a strong chance the victims will not wish to return to their previous lives at all, he points out, and so it turns out to be in what for a film including a lot of easygoing banter and one of Ford's trademark jokey brawls was a lot more pessimistic about human nature than audiences were willing to accept. This had been fair enough in an Anthony Mann Western, but was it what they wanted from this filmmaker? Was Ford's dismissal of it a pre-emptive tactic when he recognised it was far from the most accessible message he would ever convey? Funnily enough, it summed up his character fairly well, with its sentimental man's man side jostling with his nasty streak, with all the contradictions and offputting qualities that held, so it could be Two Rode Together was far more of a Ford film than he was willing to admit. Shirley Jones and Linda Cristal supplied the love interest, both too young for their leading men, though the latter found some nuance in the sole character to be saved only to meet with uneasy prejudice she ultimately must flee from. This would never be held up as classic Ford even with its fans, but it was a deeper, more complex effort than it was first credited with. Music by George Duning.
[Eureka's Masters of Cinema Blu-ray features a restored transfer, isolated music and effects track, a video essay and a booklet featuring an excellent article on the movie.]