If you asked somebody who doesn’t like westerns to write a script for a western, they would probably come up with something similar to Don Siegel’s The Duel at Silver Creek (1952).
In other words, this hypothetical person would probably insert a lot of violence, landscape shots and stoic “cowboy” dialogue, neglecting to leave any room for the kind of emotional nuance that transforms typical genre pictures into great films.
As a result, The Duel at Silver Creek feels like a fundamentally hollow viewing experience, even though it does pack a punch on a visceral level.
Admittedly, the film’s screenwriters at least come up with a solid premise, with the plot centering around a gang of claim jumpers who execute honest miners after forcing them to sign over their property at gunpoint.
However, the gang eventually falls into the crosshairs of the Silver Kid (Audie Murphy) and Marshall Lightening Tyrone (Stephen McNally), who decide to team up after these ruthless outlaws murder their father and mentor figure, respectively.
Even though that kind of plot has been recycled in hundreds of different westerns, The Duel at Silver Creek at least captures your attention at the very beginning by showcasing how vicious these claim jumpers can be.
Not only do they murder innocent people in cold blood, but their methods of execution can be downright brutal for 1952, with the gang’s femme fatale character strangling a wounded witness before he can let slip some valuable information to the authorities.
This set-up puts you in the right headspace for a pretty strait-laced western, where you want to see the clean-cut white hats triumph over such obviously amoral black hats.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really have anything else offer beyond that initial sugar rush, especially when it comes to things like character, dialogue, and plot.
The film’s biggest missed opportunity, in my view, is the dynamic between McNally and Murphy, which could have been interesting if the screenwriters decided to dig at least an inch beneath the surface.
After all, both characters recently lost an important person in their life in the same horrific fashion; something that could have made for interesting scenes where the two bond over a shared tragedy.
But McNally and Murphy, while making for convincing gunslingers, don’t get a chance to talk in any meaningful fashion, and are just relegated to swapping factual information about their current circumstances.
I know that a lot of people may joke about how this describes most male relationships in real life, but I feel like even the most macho pairing in the world could have convincingly pulled off an exchange like:
“Your dad died? Damn! Mine too. That sucks.”
No such dialogue ever makes its way into the script of The Duel at Silver Creek, with McNally and Murphy mostly communicating through sarcastic quips that highlight their difference in age and experience.
Equally flat is the pair’s respective love interests, who aren’t developed in any meaningful way and don’t receive a satisfying send off before the credits roll.
Admittedly, actress Susan Cabot is slightly interesting playing a rough-around-the-edges tomboy, who dresses in jeans and isn’t afraid to get in a gun fight with the boys.
Unfortunately, she gets downgraded to being a damsel in distress for the film’s climax, which is disappointing and undermines any potential her character might have had.
For some reason, the filmmakers also made the baffling decision to give McNally an internal monologue, even though this technique is not used to flesh out his personality or state of mind.
Instead, this voice-over is only wielded to relay extraneous plot information, and it comes across just as unnecessary as Harrison Ford’s narration in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner (1982).
However, all those half-baked elements aside, The Duel at Silver Creek at least succeeds in activating that primitive part of your brain that just wants to watch cowboys punch and shoot each other, which is here in spades.
A lot of the stunt work is pretty impressive too, especially one scene where McNally tosses a bad guy through a window just to make a point.
And the story climaxes with an exciting shoot-out near the eponymous Silver Creek, even though the gun battle itself takes place between over a dozen men rather than the two hinted at in the movie’s title.
Still, all that technical expertise kind of goes to waste if you don’t care about any of the characters, and Siegel never managed to master that secret formula with this project.
And In the end, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for emotional depth in a classic Hollywood western, since cerebral genre pictures already existed in droves around that time.
In fact, I stumbled across one such example last September with Leslie Fenton’s Whispering Smith (1948), which features a touching male friendship at its core in addition to all your typical western window dressing.
Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) also presents a much better story about cross generational gunslingers, mostly because that film gives its characters room to breathe and chat with each other in between every obligatory bar fight.
Heck, even Siegel would eventually discover some thematic maturity later in his career, managing to pry a sensitive performance out of John Wayne for his final acting role in The Shootist (1976).
So, in this sense, it might be a little harsh to pinpoint Siegel as being the sole architect of this painfully by-the-book genre picture, especially since this marks his first western and his fourth feature film as a director.
But that doesn’t take away from the reality that The Duel at Silver Creek is in serious need of some nutritional value as far as things like characters, plot and dialogue go.
Instead, all you’re left with is the cinematic equivalent of empty calories that taste good in the moment, but don’t make a lasting impression in the long run.
In other words: it’s western junk food.
Corner store companion:
Doritos, Maynards Fuzzy Peach candy and an Oh Henry! bars (because these items will give you the sugar rush you need to get through the more derivative parts of this film)
-Release date: Sept. 5, 1952
-Box office: $1.25 million
-Director Don Siegel was renowned for collaborating with actor Clint Eastwood on a variety of high-profile projects, including: Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), The Beguiled (1971), Dirty Harry (1971) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979).
– Surprise cameo: Famous Hollywood tough guy Lee Marvin has a small supporting role playing a local roughneck who becomes a pawn in the bad guy’s overall scheme.