Note from Annika: Will wrote up this review about a year ago, when we started losing steam with this project. I meant to publish it then, but somehow it got lost in the shuffle.
Below the Border promised us a tale of “The Rough Riders.” Not to be confused with Teddy Roosevelt’s charge on San Juan Hill, The Rough Riders were the stars of a short-running series of B-Westerns.
“C’mon Rough Riders, let’s ride again!” shouts one of them jubilantly as the chase is joined. Hard not to grin.
Below The Border stands out in that it has one of the most difficult to follow plots–mainly because there were several characters who COULD have been the lead, but weren’t, and several characters who SEEMED to be one thing, were something else… actually, it’s clever that way, but this is the first of the Rough Rider films we’ve watched at 200 Westerns. Maybe if we knew Buck, Tim and Sandy by sight, we wouldn’t have wondered who these guys were, and what was going on…
Below The Border is almost like a heist or caper film, in that three men under assumed names infiltrate a small rustling outfit and pretend not to know each other, only to turn the tables on the rapscallions.
Young rancher Joe is the foreman of a ranch on the Mexican side of the border. He’s in love with his boss’s daughter–and everyone likes Joe. Scully, the seedy barkeep, oozes malevolence, so we know he’s bad.
Buck (travelling as John Robbins) rides into town in a stagecoach and doesn’t foil a robbery. Not only does he not stop the robbery, he actually tells the outlaws where the less-than-convincing “senorita” has her father’s Jewels hidden (insert family jewel joke here). This should be shocking–except Annika and I didn’t know that John Robbins was Buck, or that Buck was a US Marshall until we remembered that the text on the DVD envelope told us “one of the Rough Riders must infiltrate an outlaw gang,” so then we put it together.
In town, Sandy is a saddlebum turned broom-pusher, and is soon getting into a fight with cattle-trader Tim–only they are BOTH Rough Riders. Phew. It’s how they communicate without suspicion, with the massive and burly Tim getting Sandy into a headlock so they can whisper to each other.
Soon enough, the three undercover do-gooders are shooting bad guys and riding horses and all that normal good-guy stuff. There are a couple of standout moments–the best being a gunfight along a border-fence (in the 1870s?). One of the Rough Riders–Tim, I think–stalks along the Mexican side of the fence while the outlaw gunman walks along the other side as they approach each other for a standard fast-draw gun-down… it’s nicely staged, a unique location, and setting it at night adds to a sort of gloomy feeling that you rarely get in screen gunfights of that era.
Another nice touch is Buck’s refusal to drink whisky (“In my line of work I like to stay sharp”) or smoke–but he does chew gum. Before his big shootout he unfolds a stick of gum and casually tosses the paper aside in a similar movement to a smoker tossing away a match–that got a laugh out of me.
Raymond Hatton easily fills the comic role. I liked him more in Come On, Rangers, but he’s solid. Physical comedy isn’t his forte, so a few slapstick bits involving a bar-rag fall flat, but his weathered scowl can provide a laugh just be squinting.
Tim McCoy is more of a traditional white hat, tall and strong and noble–and he didn’t get a lot to do in this feature, but I’m sure we’ll be revisiting the franchise later. McCoy was obviously meant to be a western star–he ran off to work on a ranch in Wyoming when he was just a kid after seeing a Wild West show. Served in World War I and II, mustering out a Colonel in the Army Air Corps. He was fluent in Indian Sign language, was made an honorary Arapaho and had one of the fastest draws ever recorded on film at that time–filmed on 35mm at 24 frames per second, it only took six frames for his pistol to clear the holster and fire.
1942 was a bad year for the Rough Riders–it was their last. Which is too bad, as the series had a good set-up: Buck Jones (as Marshall Buck Roberts), Tim McCoy (as Marshall Tim McCall) and Raymond Hatton (as Marshall Sandy Hopkins) ride from town to town, righting wrongs as US Marshalls. Nine Rough Riders films in all, six of them in 1942–they were very popular and it looked like the Rough Riders would keep riding for a long time–but co-lead Buck Jones died in a tragic fire at the Coconut Grove nightclub in Boston.