Directed By: Ray Nazarro
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Eve Miller, Barton MacLane
Tag line: "Built by bullets, dynamite, and blood-stained spikes!"
Trivia: The movie was filmed at the Iverson Movie Ranch and the Sierra Railroad in what is now Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Jamestown, California
Every now and again, I stumble across a movie I’ve never heard of before that proves to be a hidden gem, and 1953’s Kansas Pacific is surely one. Set in the days leading up to the U.S. Civil War, Kansas Pacific is a western that tells a good story while also offering its audience some rousing action scenes.
Construction on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, considered a vital transportation link for the United States military, has been disrupted time and again by those loyal to the Confederacy. Led by Bill Quantrill (Reed Hadley), the rebels have done everything from destroying the track to threatening workers, forcing them to quit. With the likelihood of a Civil War looming, the U.S. army sends Capt. John Nelson (Sterling Hayden) to assist with the railroad’s construction and ensure that it’s completed on time. Working as an assistant to the current boss, Cal Bruce (Barton MacLane), Nelson hires guards to protect the railroad and its workers, making it more difficult for Quantrill’s agents to sabotage the line. But as Nelson will soon discover Quantrill isn’t a man who gives up easily.
At times, Kansas Pacific looks as impressive as a John Ford western, taking full advantage of such historic locations as California’s Railtown 1897 State Historical Park, a functioning railway system that’s been around for well over a hundred years. Along with its sense of realism, the film benefits from a fine cast, led by the oft-underrated Sterling Hayden, who portrays Capt, Nelson as a heroic, yet very level-headed individual (when he first arrives in Kansas, Nelson jumps into a fight to protect, of all people, Bill Quantrill, mostly because the rebel leader is outnumbered three to one). The action sequences are also well-staged, and include everything from the standard (a chase on horseback, with Nelson trying to track down a trio of men who stole the railroad’s dynamite) to the extreme (one scene actually features an all-out cannon fight). Supporting the action at all times is the film’s tense atmosphere, with Nelson, Bruce and the others never quite sure when or where the rebels will strike (a few work to disrupt the construction from within, posing as railway workers). Not even the standard love story, which has Capt. Nelson falling head-over-heels for Cal Bruce’s daughter, Barbara (Eve Miller), can slow Kansas Pacific down.
Seeing as there were literally hundreds of Hollywood westerns produced in the ‘40s and ‘50s, odds are a few more hidden gems are out there just waiting to be discovered. And if they’re half as entertaining as Kansas Pacific, I can’t wait to find them!