Revisiting ‘Ride Clear of Diablo’, an underrated western starring Audie Murphy
Released in March 1954 by Universal International Studios, Ride Clear of Diablo is a well-paced western starring Audie Murphy that provides plenty of entertainment in its tight 81-minute running time.
After appearing in a string of largely forgettable westerns for Universal during the early ’50s, notably exempting Tumbleweed, Gunsmoke, and director John Huston’s MGM loan-out The Red Badge of Courage, critics were beginning to write off the actor’s burgeoning career.
Perhaps serendipitously, Ride Clear of Diablo became a definitive Murphy film that swiftly cemented his likable screen persona and jump-started the golden era of his career during the mid to late ‘50s.
Ably directed by Jesse Hibbs, who also helmed Murphy’s engaging war drama To Hell and Back, Ride Clear of Diablo opens with cattle rustlers murdering Murphy’s father and younger brother.
Portraying a railroad surveyor named Clay O’Mara, Murphy is away at the time of the killing. He is called into town by the executor of his father’s estate, only to discover that the executor and town sheriff may have something to hide.
The Congressional Medal of Honor recipient does not reveal any great acting depth in the film, yet he brings a certain authenticity to his role. Rarely showing excitement, Murphy portrayed the cool, calm, and reserved cowboy to the hilt. Most importantly, he realized his acting limitations, and screenwriter George Zuckerman created a script that played to Murphy’s strengths.
The unassuming actor always looked excellent whenever action scenes were required. In Ride Clear of Diablo, many are to be found in rustic locations like Burro Flats and Apple Valley, California, including the great chase sequence when Murphy returns a stallion to his rightful owner, and later when Murphy jumps on the executor’s horse, literally fighting the bad guy in the saddle. Incidentally, in real life the gallant soldier raised and trained quarter horses.
The scenes where Murphy demonstrates his fast draw are also entertaining. In fact, it is documented that he had one of the fastest draws in Hollywood. When a boastful Hugh O’Brian, then star of ABC’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, offered to bet $500 that he could beat any other western hero to the draw, Murphy countered with an offer to raise the stakes to $2,500, but stipulated only live ammunition could be used. Consequently, O’Brian quietly withdrew his wager.
The primary outfit that Murphy wears, simple by early 1950’s leading man standards, consists of a white long-sleeved shirt with gray pants. Fans of his work will notice that he wore this outfit, or a similar variation, in a number of his later westerns in the subsequent decade.
Dan Duryea co-stars as Whitey Kinkade, the villain, who’s not all bad. Duryea’s character is sadistic in nature, always provoking Murphy and gleefully cackling whenever something amuses him, often at the other characters’ expense.
Murphy is initially sent to arrest him in the town of Diablo. Duryea gradually comes to respect Murphy’s tenacity, going so far as to save his life on more than one occasion. Not surprisingly, any scenes featuring the duo are not to be missed.
In his 27-year career, Duryea appeared in approximately 110 movie and television roles. Though most often in secondary roles, the scene-stealing actor occasionally played the lead. Audiences today may recall Duryea’s many western roles, but he acted in virtually all film genres, including film noirs.
Some of Duryea’s best roles occurred in the James Stewart films Winchester ’73  and The Flight of the Phoenix . Classic Duryea television episodes that are syndicated regularly and easily available for viewing are “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” a 1959 Twilight Zone episode, and “Badge Without Honor”  and “Logan’s Treasure” , both episodes of the long-running Bonanza.
The beautiful raven-haired Susan Cabot, in her last of three back-to-back films with Murphy — the others were The Duel at Silver Creek and the exceptional Gunsmoke — has several good scenes as his leading lady. Murphy was notoriously ill at ease with many of his leading ladies, but his interactions with Cabot are not stilted. Murphy even goes so far as to crack a smile whenever he is in her company.
Another one of Universal’s contract players, Cabot grew tired of the roles the studio sent her and abdicated to the New York stage. The actress soon appeared in several B-movies with influential director Roger Corman, including The Wasp Woman and Machine-Gun Kelly, Charles Bronson’s first starring role. Her screen career came to a virtual standstill by 1959. After living in years of obscurity, the reclusive former starlet was tragically bludgeoned to death by her bitter, mentally-challenged son in 1986.
Abbe Lane is the second romantic lead in the film, and her scenes are strictly meant to be eye-candy, although she does sing an excellent, moody song at the very beginning of the film, before the cattle rustling occurs.
Russell Johnson, who will forever be known as the upright “Professor” on the comedy series Gilligan’s Island, appeared in many westerns at the beginning of his career, mainly for Universal. Generally playing a heavy, he does the same here, not having much to do and acting rather stiff in his delivery.
Two other individuals who went on to achieve fame were character actors Jack Elam and Denver Pyle. Both appeared in hundreds of roles, especially westerns. Here, it is interesting to see both without the full beards they would eventually grow.
Elam, blind in his left eye, was born to play menacing and vicious killers to great effect. He finally had a comedic role in James Garner’s Support Your Local Sheriff. Denver Pyle eventually went on to portray “Briscoe Darling” on The Andy Griffith Show and “Uncle Jessie” on The Dukes of Hazzard.
This film was made at a time when there were well-delineated good guys and bad guys, although Duryea’s character tends to blur that line. With non-stop action that is not gratuitous, no cursing, or inappropriate intimacy, Ride Clear of Diablo is recommended for Western fans, or anyone who wants to spend an entertaining hour and a half away in an innocent far-away land.
At the dawn of the new millennium, Universal released Ride Clear of Diablo on VHS as part of their Audie Murphy collection. In the ensuing decade the western was largely forgotten until it was finally made available on DVD stateside in 2011 by Turner Classic Movies via a unique manufactured-on-demand program licensed by Universal — several international DVD releases had floated around previously.
American Movie Classics [AMC] and Encore Westerns occasionally screen the film for television audiences. As of this writing, the complete shoot ’em up has also been uploaded on YouTube for good measure.
An informative Facebook page, Audie Murphy American Legend, promotes the memory of America’s most decorated combat soldier during World War II. The fan-friendly group offers the latest news, unseen photos, and daily Murphy discussions in splendid style.
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