After a stint as a cavalry scout, white hat cowboy Joe Gordon (Buck Jones) learns that his father, a poor bastard who seems to only go by Pop (Alfred P. James) even to people who aren’t his son has already started their planned gold mining project by taking another elderly gentleman and riding out into the most dangerous part of the desert they could find.
Pop has never returned, and his partner came back as a supposed raving
madman, though in practice, he’s just semi-comatose and babbles a bit. Of
course, Joe sets out into the desert to rescue his dear old Pa, I mean Pop.
After some travails that nearly kill him, our hero is rescued by members of the
lamest lost civilization ever living in a fruitful valley right in the middle of
the desert. Well, alright, they’re not exactly a lost civilization but rather
bearded religious cranks who survived a wagon train into, if not exactly
through, the desert and now pretend to have found their own little
paradise where everyone follows the Word, young whippersnappers get literally
whipped, nobody is allowed to leave even if he or she wants to chance the
desert, and the old fogeys decide whom the young women are to marry. Preferably
the old fogeys, obviously.
But there’s an even bigger snake in this particular paradise, for two of the
elders are even more evil than their religion imposes on them. They have
secretly captured Pop and are holding him as their very own gold-digging elderly
slave, planning on killing him and absconding with the gold once he’s dug out
enough. There’s also some business about one of the bad guys planning to marry
one Sheila O’Neill (Cecilia Parker), one half of a sibling duo who just won’t
believe in The Word – and she’s of course Joe’s love interest to be as well.
Joe’s got his work cut out for him.
The era of B-western to which Columbia’s Unknown Valley belongs
isn’t really one I particularly enjoy, nor is it one I have spent much viewing
time on, and I can’t say Lambert Hillyer’s film is the one that’s going to
change my mind about this particular cinematic space. The film features pretty
much everything I don’t like much about the era: Buck Jones – one of the biggest
western stars of his time – is that most tedious mixture for a hero in that he
is both wooden and bland. I’m not necessarily looking for complexity, mind you,
or very deep acting but to my eyes, the film’s central character here is just
too much of a nonentity, whose most visibly noticeable character trait is his
liking for very big hats. But then, that’s also a thing of this era’s
Woodenness is generally the way of the acting here, something that is made
worse by Hillyer’s approach to shooting every dialogue scene between two
characters in the same, so static it borders on the absurd, way. Also bordering
on the absurd – and while I’m blaming Hillyer – is how overcranked the action
scenes here are shot, looking like silent movies shown at too fast a tempo.
Overcranking the action was par for the course at the time, but there’s
overcranking the action, and then there’s turning it into a cartoon, Hillyard
very much opting for the latter. On the more positive side, the man does know
how to shoot a picturesque desert landscape.
Having said this, I also have to admit the film – while certainly far from
anything even I would call “good” – is generally on the entertaining side. It’s
short, it’s snappy, and it certainly has a lot of bonkers ideas it is generally
willing to go with. Although I have to say I am mildly disappointed the film
didn’t make more of the fact that Joe is something like a certain snake in a
certain mythological garden here.