Two brothers, Ben (Clark Gable) and Clint (Cameron Mitchell) ride into town aiming to kidnap and rob wealthy businessman Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan). However, smooth-talking Stark talks them into becoming partners on a cattle drive to Montana. As the uneasy allies travel to Texas to pick up their herd they happen upon a party of settlers pinned down by Indians, including beautiful Nella Turner (Jane Russell). Nella sparks up a romance with Ben but whilst sharing a log cabin through a lengthy snow storm they realize they each want different things out of life. Eventually Ben heads back to town where he discovers Nella has shacked up with the ambitious Stark. She tags along as their epic cattle drive heads into dangerous Sioux Indian territory.
As the most rugged of movie genres westerns are often studies in masculinity. Their chief thematic concerns are pinpointing precisely what qualities define a man or, more specifically, a heroic man. Weak examples simply serve up a tough-talking killer who is quick on the draw but in the case of a more ambitious and eloquent western like The Tall Men it boils down to a question of integrity. Throughout the course of a sprawling adventure yarn charted by screenwriters Sydney Boehm and Frank Nugent – adapting a novel by western stalwart Heck Allen – along with master director Raoul Walsh, while Nathan Stark remains defiantly practical, Ben exhibits grit, vigour and most crucially moral fibre. At first Walsh leaves the viewer as uncertain about Ben's character as Nella grows to be. After all he sets out to rob a man then blithely enters into an alliance with his intended victim for a share of a much bigger pot. Yet as things play out Ben risks his life to save strangers, refuses to back down in the face of bullies, boldly charges into Sioux Indian territory and even steps in to save Stark from his own brother.
Far from mere superfluous glamour, Jane Russell's sultry Nella Turner proves the focal character. The plot charts her gradual realization of Ben's value as a man and that some things are worth more than money and social status. Nella is written as a shrewd and self-aware young woman though the writers also take care to craft a back story that shows why she would be attracted to a man like Stark and her reason for wanting a better life. In that sense she is as desperate and mercenary as Ben initially seems to be, a flawed yet nonetheless engaging heroine. Nella's songs serve as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the story offering a window into her state of mind and on occasion also satirize the men. This was one of Russell's strongest roles reinforcing the idea that while she is still lauded as a sex symbol her qualities as an actress are too often overlooked. Would-be svengali Howard Hughes, who discovered Russell with The Outlaw (1943), saw her only as a pair of breasts but she often played heroines as formidable as any men. Here she proves a fine match for the ruggedly charismatic Gable.
Walsh takes time to establish what seems set to be a solid romance as the lovers share a snowbound cabin, then charts the rapid deterioration of that relationship as they discover each has a different dream. Jean-Luc Godard was a fan of Walsh's film and possibly lifted the idea of a lengthy scene in confined space charting the collapse of a relationship for his superb drama Contempt (1963). While Nella wants the world, Civil War veteran Ben has seen too much of it and wants only to settle down in a quiet cabin in Prairie Dog Creek. Many filmgoers in 1955 could relate to Ben's dream especially those who lived through the trauma of the Second World War. Thus The Tall Men also functions as an allegory for America's yearning for stability and simplicity after the war. The script also draws an interesting and unconventional relationship between antagonist and protagonist, with Ben and Stark neither allies nor entirely at odds. By the fade-out Stark even comes to admire Ben as the man “boys hope they'll grow up to be and old men wish they were.” Elsewhere sumptuous Cinemascope photography soaks up some truly spectacular scenery while Walsh mounts the action sequences on a scale as grand as the scenery, particularly the climactic cattle stampede-cum-battle against charging Sioux warriors.
American director with a talent for crime thrillers. Originally an actor (he played John Wilkes Booth in Birth of a Nation) his biggest silent movie successes were The Thief of Bagdad and What Price Glory? He lost an eye while directing In Old Arizona, but went on to steady work helming a variety of films throughout the thirties, including The Bowery and Artists and Models.
After directing The Roaring Twenties, Walsh really hit his stride in the forties: They Drive By Night, High Sierra, Gentleman Jim, The Strawberry Blonde, Desperate Journey, Objective Burma!, Colorado Territory and the gangster classic White Heat were all highlights. Come the fifties, films included A Lion is in the Streets and The Naked and the Dead, but the quality dipped, although he continued working into the sixties. He also directed the infamous Jack Benny film The Horn Blows at Midnight (which isn't that bad!).