For a Western directed by the great André de Toth, I was actually a pretty disappointed by this espionage piece taking place during the US Civil War. There’s a surprising lack of complexity to the film’s characters, and even protagonist Gary Cooper’s central moral dilemma (you can’t have a 50s Western without one) is rather clear-cut to me, with the film’s script underplaying and undervaluing copious opportunities to give more depth to the proceedings. The films seems to see no place for an actual character arc for Cooper’s Major Kearney, leaving us with a story about a man who starts the tale it tells just as he begins, with no changes to him at all in between.
Then there’s the Gary Cooper factor, the man’s very personal type of blandness that, as always, sees him saying his lines, scrunching his face up from time to time, but never developing much of a personality. Who is his Major Lex Kearney? Neither Cooper’s performance nor the script seem willing (or able?) to tell, which leaves quite the hole where the film’s emotional and intellectual heart should be.
Still, while this is a minor de Toth film, even working from a bland script that ends in pretty unendurable fawning about the (oh so wonderful, so buy one) Springfield Rifle (capital letters totally necessary), the director knew how to make an entertaining movie, even if there was no room for depth, so Springfield Rifle’s big set pieces really deserve the descriptor of “rousing”, with beautiful photography, excellent staging and the kind of visual imagination that should have been served by a better script. Plus, the film features one of Beloved Horror Icon Lon Chaney Jr.’s Western appearances as a rather dumb main henchman.