Tall in the Saddle: Clint Walker in Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly

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In the late 1950s Warner Brothers was using their television properties to create stars on the cheap. One of them was Clint Walker, a former merchant marine and deputy sheriff whose freakish physique and down home sincerity carried the TV Western Cheyenne to high ratings. A March 1958 issue of Screenland checks off his measurements as if he were a prize heifer:  “It’s safe to say he is the biggest man in cowboy movies. He stands six-feet-six, with an 18-inch neck, a 38-inch waist and hips so slim that he can hardly keep his gun belt up.” Signed to a seven year contract by WB in 1955 at $175 a week, Walker began chafing at his rock bottom salary, even when it was bumped to $500 (he walked off the show to protest  in ’59). To placate their brooding star, WB cast him in two big screen Westerns, both directed by Gordon Douglas and scripted by Burt Kennedy (and available on DVD through the Warner Archive): Fort Dobbs (1958) and Yellowstone Kelly (1959) (they would make a third in 1961, Gold of the Seven Saints). They are lonesome works, with Walker playing an outsider plying his trade at the edges of society. In Fort Dobbs he’s a wanted murderer, while in Yellowstone Kelly he’s an individualist scout and trapper mocked by the Army brass for his sympathy towards Native Americans.

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Kennedy wrote the stories for the Budd Boetticher-Rudolph Scott “Ranown cycle” of Westerns, in which the majority of violence is psychological. Fort Dobbs retains the spirit of those Boetticher films, a three-person battle of resentments between Walker, Brian Keith and Virginia Mayo. The ever-reliable Gordon Douglas keeps the focal points of the triangle shifting in the frame, and makes the dramatic Utah desert-scape constrict around its characters. The near wordless opener depicts Gar Davis (Clint Walker) storming into a house to kill a man offscreen. Douglas keeps the camera outside, the only indication of violence a broken window and the sound of a gunshot. Gar then gallops away from the posse forming to catch him, and dresses a corpse in his clothes to throw them off the scent. The desert is a repository of dead things, which is why Gar seems genuinely surprised to find a working farm out there, operated by Celia (Mayo) and her son Chad (Richard Eyer). Knowing the Comanche are on a push to drive white settlers out, he agrees to lead them to safety at the titular Fort Dobbs. Along the way Gar runs into Clett (Keith), a black market gun seller. They were old running buddies turned sour, with a history of distrust between them. Celia is led to believe Gar had killed her husband, while Clett has less than respectable designs on Celia. The whole miserable group troupes through the dirt with eyes implanted in the back of their heads. Douglas emphasizes the act of looking through POV shots through Gar’s eyes, as well as in a remarkable reaction shot from Mayo, gazing at a shirtless Gar as he cleans his gun. An unruly mix of lust, hatred and confusion flickers through her eyes. Walker is improbably good looking, but what makes him compelling is his unwavering sincerity. He delivers his lines as straight as his ramrod posture, without modulation or any kind of visible performance. With Clint, what you see is what you get, and that’s very reassuring, almost calming. He didn’t make enough films to develop a persona beyond this, like how Marion Morrison was able to workshop “John Wayne” in all those Republic B-Westerns, but what’s there is clear and true.

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Wayne and John Ford were once attached to make Yellowstone Kelly. They passed, and it fell down the bureaucratic ladder to Douglas and Walker, who turned in a fine-grained epic on a budget. The studio was attracted to the story of Western trapper and Indian scout Luther Sage Kelly because of an advertisement in Variety. According to Susan Compo’s biography of Warren Oates, A Wild Life, an ad centered around Kelly ran for U.S. Savings Bonds in early 1956 with the tagline, “His calling card had claws on it.” WB registered the title Yellowstone Kelly in February of ’56. In Burt Kennedy’s script Kelly (Walker), along with his assistant Anse Harper (Edward Byrnes) get caught up in an inter-Sioux feud when they nurse a young Arapaho woman, Wahleeah (Andrea Martin), back to health. Both the Sioux chief (John Russell) and his young charge Sayapi (Ray Danton) wish to have Wahleeah as their wife. Kelly has to return her or he’ll lose access to Sioux land for his trapping. And when a power hungry army captain attempts to push the Sioux off their land, the love quadrangle turns into a war.

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While the land in Fort Dobbs is a deathtrapin Yellowstone Kelly it’s fertile, lush, and Kelly’s sole source of sustenance. The Technicolor cinematography by Carl Guthrie is rich and viridescent – bursting with life. Walker’s red felt shirt emblazons itself on the screen. The plot is one of revivification, of Kelly’s soul and Wahleeah’s body. Kelly is a loner and a bit of a nihilist, becoming skeptical of all forms of society as he lives like a monk in the Western mountains. He finds peace in work and solitude, successfully repressing needs for human contact. It is the persistent annoyance of Harper asking for a job that begins to open Kelly up to human interaction, and it is the sarcastic, flirtatious Wahleeah who re-introduces him to the possibility of love. An intelligent matching of landscape, plot and theme, Yellowstone Kelly is top notch filmmaking.

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For WB, it was yet another attempt to milk their stars while they were still cheap and on their initial contracts. The film is thick with TV stars. Edward Byrnes had made his name as “Kookie” on 77 Sunset Strip, while John Russell was the lawman on Lawman. Along with maximizing their low-money contract players, using TV actors was an attempt to lure back the crowds who had abandoned film for the antenna. In an August 1958 issue of Motion Picture News, ,future New York Times film critic Vincent Canby thought these small-screen names “may well bring out to theaters that part of the so-called ‘lost’ audience which has been lost because of TV Westerns and action dramas.” Using the full force of their marketing power, WB sent Walker and Byrnes on a nationwide in-person tour, calling the two leads “Warners’ traveling salesmen.” The tactic was successful, as by all accounts the film took in healthy profits. It didn’t turn into big screen superstardom for Walker, who remained a bankable TV actor and occasional film lead. But his Westerns for Gordon Douglas should secure Walker’s legacy as one of the genre’s finest strapping soft-spoken heroes.

17 Responses Tall in the Saddle: Clint Walker in Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly
Posted By george : July 8, 2014 7:54 pm

According to the IMDB, Walker is still alive at 87. His last acting role was the voice of “Nick Nitro” in 1998′s SMALL SOLDIERS.

I would attribute Walker’s failure to become a major movie star to a couple of factors: despite his size, he didn’t have the larger-than-life personality of a John Wayne, or the danger and mystery of a Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen (who also starred in Western TV series of the late ’50s and early ’60s).

But I was always glad to see Walker whenever he turned up, thanks to childhood memories of watching CHEYENNE reruns.

Posted By robbushblog : July 11, 2014 8:16 pm

I love Cheyenne. It was a great show and he was a great lead on it. Despite being insanely huge and very good looking, he just didn’t have that undefinable “IT” that makes movie stars. Too bad. Several years ago I was watching an episode of Cheyenne and my sister, who doesn’t really care much for old movies or TV shows, saw a scene of Clint Walker with his shirt off. She got interested real quick!

I seem to always miss these movies when they play on TCM. I hope to catch them in the future. In the meantime, Clint is great in The Dirty Dozen as Samson Posey.

Posted By Nancy Passalacqua : August 28, 2014 4:17 am

Clint Walker has always had “it”. He is so much more than a body, he is a man of honor and integrity and Warner held him back from making more movies. The more you watch him act the more you can see his wonderful facial expressions, his singing talent, and comedic abilities. He stands tall among men not just because he is 6’6″ but because he is real not a phony!

Posted By Esther Nesselroad : August 29, 2014 3:06 pm

Clint’s physique referred to in this article as “freakish” was something he worked hard to develop and maintain. Clint still works out today at the age of 87 and is very health-conscious. It’s a shame that Hollywood couldn’t see past his physical ruggedness to appreciate his talent for comedy and his wonderful singing voice. There is nothing phoney about Clint Walker; he is the real deal… a true gentleman.

Posted By Tracey Martinez : August 31, 2014 7:53 pm

Thank for you for this wonderful article. I’ve been a big fan of Clint’s for the past almost-four years, when I discovered him on ‘Cheyenne’ showing on Encore Westerns. I’ve heard many people denigrate Clint’s talents, describing his acting as ‘wooden’, to which I’ve replied that they are missing the subtlety of Clint’s performances. This article’s phrases, “…but what makes him compelling is his unwavering sincerity. He delivers his lines as straight as his ramrod posture, without modulation or any kind of visible performance. With Clint, what you see is what you get, and that’s very reassuring, almost calming”, perfectly describe what we love about his acting!

The last sentence, “But his Westerns for Gordon Douglas should secure Walker’s legacy as one of the genre’s finest strapping soft-spoken heroes.” validates that his fans are not the only one who recognize what a wonderful actor Clint truly is!

Posted By Rob Lawson : September 20, 2014 12:10 am

“I’ve heard many people denigrate Clint’s talents, describing his acting as ‘wooden’, to which I’ve replied that they are missing the subtlety of Clint’s performances.”

And this: “He delivers his lines as straight as his ramrod posture, without modulation or any kind of visible performance.”

Indeed. Or any sense of complication in his character, either.

There is such a thing as being too subtle.

Clint Walker was hardly an actor at all, not did he need to be. However, his persona never got beyond being a nice guy, a gentle giant who could be stirred to action once an episode. Even those who became associated with the Western genre such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood played characters with some texture and ambiguity. Walker wasn’t asked to go there, and didn’t try.

Posted By Glenn Boudreau : January 25, 2015 7:00 pm

I am a songwriter from Texas, I wrote a song about Texas and sent it to Clint. I asked him if he would listen to it and let me know what he thought about it. Not really expecting an answer, I got a phone call fron him the very next day! I was surprised beyond words. Mr. Walker is such a perfect gentleman and soft-spoken like he was in Cheyenne. He told me he liked my song, and we talked for 30 minutes. He was so generous of his time, and I think he enjoyed talking about the old Cheyenne days, and his movies, as much as I enjoyed listening. I will forever cherish that phone call, one of my biggest childhood Western heroes, I am still on cloud nine, I hope I do not wake up and discover it was just a nice dream! God Bless you Mr. Walker.

Posted By robbushblog : January 27, 2015 5:46 pm

That is one of the coolest stories I have ever heard.

Posted By Martha Dow : February 22, 2015 6:15 pm

Mr Walker is my hero. I didn’t grow up watching him but,started watching a couple of years ago and I must say as far as looks and acting he had it all. Then I started listening to his interviews on YouTube and Mark Levin and found he is a spiritual man as well as a right winged man you could say a man perfect in every way. Mr. Walker ,I love you and I would love to meet you some day. Your friend forever Martha

Posted By LoveCheyenneBodie : April 1, 2015 8:47 pm

I was born long after Cheyenne’s production was over. Actually though, my parents and Clint were of the same generation, which contributed tremendously to the morals of many of the people who lived then. I saw my first Cheyenne episode a few months ago and haven’t stopped watching since. I was struck with the Cheyenne/Clint obsession in full force during my first episode. My young kids love him too; my son, 8 years old, is the one who told me about him and my daughter, 11 years old, looked at Cheyenne and with glazed-over eyes, said, “Mom he’s perfect!” I have smart kids. ;) I am now collecting all things Clint Walker/Cheyenne Bodie. I had never heard of him 5 months ago so that says a lot about him and this “magnetic pull” (for lack of other words) he has over the people who become his true fans! And I collect nothing else/have no infatuation with any other celebrity. I am late to the game but so glad to have found him at his (still) extremely handsome age of 87. I believe the reason he didn’t become “the” famous leading man is because when he was compared to the so-called “stars,” he made them look 2nd rate. That’s just the truth. Although my dad (who would’ve been 7 years older than Clint) watched Westerns and later, reruns of Westerns (during my childhood), I wasn’t into them because none of them “struck” me. Only Cheyenne struck me like that. I did like watching Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) with my dad and had to smile when I saw an interview where Clint mentioned looking up to Johnny. For movies, I now only watch (and collect) those that Mr. Clint Walker is in. I’d rather watch nothing than the movies today. And I wouldn’t walk across the street to see most of today’s actors, but I’ve tried moving Heaven and Earth (to no avail unfortunately) to travel over 1600 miles to Kanab to see Mr. Walker. He is/was one of a kind. From research, fan pages, etc., I’ve learned he took roles that were respectable and moral, and he very much cares about his fans. I love watching his interviews. He was and IS beautiful inside and out. If you are his true, loyal fan, you are his 110% and no one else compares and no one else ever will. That’s just the truth. KD

Posted By kathleen : June 4, 2015 5:30 am

I think the funniest I saw Clint Walker in was The Great Train Robbery when Kim Novak was seducing him – she kissed him then asked if he liked it and he replied, “just because I talk slow does’t mean I am peculiar” and when she gave him the funny candy.

Posted By ms. billy joe smith : June 6, 2015 3:18 pm

I love Clint walker ever since I was a young girl,watch ever Cheyenne shows back then,still watching them at the age of 64,Clint is the most,he’s very good looking and so darn sexy,I had a very nice dream about him,I still have that big crutch on him,I always wanted a man that looks liked him,but I never found him,there just ain’t another Clint walker, you are the most,I love u Clint walker.

Posted By ms. billy joe smith : June 6, 2015 3:29 pm

U r the best,loved u since I was a young girl,watched Cheyenne every time it came on and here I am 64 years old now and still watching the most good looking,sexist man I seen,the dreams I had of Clint walker was so real,I wished I could had found a man that looks so good looking and sexy as Clint walker, I just love that man,u r the most,I’ll always watch u as Cheyenne and all your movies, and dreaming of u,and wishing u were mine.love u Clint walker. God Bless you Mr.Walker.

Posted By jdp : August 15, 2015 6:11 am

There is an interview of Clint in the current issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine that I just read at Books A Million bookstore. It’s a very good interview and Clint describes his acting part in The Ten Commandments (1956) that I’ve never seen described anywhere else.

Posted By Denise Morrow : October 1, 2015 3:07 am

Hi Mr Clint Walker feel the same loved you when i was a young girl and still love you. watch all your shows and movies LOVE AND MEMORIES !!!!!!! WE NEED ANOTHER YOU!!!!

Posted By Marilyn Swanson : October 14, 2015 5:48 pm

Clint Walker is still the best, he outshines all others, not only because of his looks but also he is very talented. Unfortunately was not used to his potential. His music is superb, very soothing.That man can do anything he wants to.

Posted By Keith Urban : April 11, 2017 7:09 pm

Clint Walker is a mortal man but he is one class act. His integrity shows through everything he does. What’s better than that?

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