Monday, April 14, 2008

The Burning Hills (1956)

Although Stuart Heisler’s The Burning Hills has a fantastic story with interesting characters, it is really brought down by poor acting and an abysmal script. Not even the wonderful Natalie Wood can bring this script to life.

The film starts out with a man getting shot in the back on a ranch and his horses being stolen. The man is the brother of Trace Jordan (Tab Hunter), the hero of our picture.

Trace gets word from one of his ranch hands that the dirty business of horse theft and murder comes from the nearby town, so he heads in to investigate. He learns that everything in the town is run by a Mr. Sutton (played by Ray Teal who gives the only noteworthy performance in the film in his small role). Trace goes to pay Sutton a visit, and upon his arrival at his gate he notices some of his brother's horses with their brands changed from JJ to JS.

After forcing his way inside, he confronts Sutton who is very upset to have his people accused of murder and horse thievery. He insists that it was no one from his town, but Trace knows better. Trace informs Sutton that since the town has no sheriff he will be headed out to bring in the US Military to bring justice to the men that killed his brother. Sutton cannot allow this to happen, so he takes a shot at Trace who returns fire, hitting Sutton in the belly. On his way retreating out of town, Trace gets shot in the side injuring him severely. He rides as far as he can, and ends up collapsing in a small creek at the opening of an old abandoned mine.

The small creek trickles down the hill and into the valley below where it is used to hydrate the sheep of the ranch on the property. When the water stops flowing into the valley because it is blocked by Trace's body Maria (Natalie Wood) heads up the hill to see what is going on. She finds Trace lying there wounded, and nurses him back to health.

Maria has a strong hatred for Sutton and his men, as they killed her father, and as soon as she finds out that Trace had shot old man Sutton she vows to herself that she will do anything she can to help him. She helps distract Sutton's men, and tells him of a place to go and hide for the time being until she can join him and help him to go get the Military. Unfortunately Sutton's men, led by his son Jack (Skip Homeier), soon learn that Maria is helping Trace and it doesn't take long to extract his hiding place from her younger brother.

Throughout the rest of the film is an exciting game of cat and mouse as Trace and Maria try to outrun Sutton's men until they reach the Military outpost. It's a shame that The Burning Hills has so many flaws, because with the strong story and the incredibly talented Natalie Wood in one of the lead roles it could have been an all time classic Western. Tab Hunter and Skip Homeier are absolutely dreadful in their roles, and the lines written for Miss Wood (who's character is half Mexican and speaks broken English) are laughable. They keep emphasizing that she is only half Mexican on her mother's side and that her father was a Yankee which leads me to believe that she would have spoken much better English then she was.

I suppose that the majority of the problems in The Burning Hills can be attributed to Irving Wallace the screenwriter. Even though many of the performances were weak, a good script can strengthen any performance. I would have to think that Louis L'Amour's novel would be far superior to the film, especially since the major strength of the film is the story that L'Amour created. I'd only go out of my way to see The Burning Hills if you're a huge Natalie Wood fan, since she's the only real star in the film. Overall 2.0/4 Stars Grade = C

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