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Live To Change The Tale: Tension at Table Rock (1956) by Grant Bromley

“All I know is that you are the person Jodi thinks you are.”

– Lorna (Dorothy Malone), in Tension at Table Rock

The oral tradition of mythologizing the exploits of the West, coupled with the presence of an enthusiastic press, has kept the wide-ranging myths of the American frontier alive for nearly 200 years. Gunslingers and gamblers, saloon gals and settlers, bank heists and bar brawls, and a fair dose of exaggeration have allowed for the West to live on as its own field of thought and imagination for both children and adults for generations.

One of the great participants in the forging of a continued Western mythology in 20th century pop culture was Charles Marquis Warren, who is best remembered now for producing the first two seasons of the CBS Western series Gunsmoke (1955-1975) as well as the entirety of Rawhide (1959-1965). Still, his film work beyond the small screen is quite impressive while presently proving more elusive. Prior to Tension at Table Rock (1956), which was his first film to make after cutting ties with Gunsmoke, Warren had directed five feature films – four of which are westerns and all of which are very well-crafted and invigorating stories. 

Notably his first Western film that isn’t based on a true story, Tension at Table Rock is instead an adaptation of the Frank Gruber novel Bitter Sage (1954). Still, this is a work that is very much within Warren’s wheelhouse, as the subject of a tarnished reputation is one that Warren had dabbled in before. In Warren’s sophomore directorial effort, Hellgate (1952), a civically minded ex-Confederate (Sterling Hayden) is wrongfully imprisoned for having treated an outlaw’s wounds after Federal officers implicate him as a member of the outlaw’s own gang. Tension at Table Rock is a comparable story of redemption, but – as the protagonist has already been pardoned – it’s less about proving one’s innocence, as in Hellgate, and more about the protagonist moving on from the falsehoods that others believe about him.

As a work markedly conscious of the myth of the American West, Tension at Table Rock is a film that utilizes song as a means of establishing the reputation of its protagonist. Unlike the use of Peggy Lee’s song “Johnny Guitar”, which Joan Crawford’s character Vienna memorably plays on the piano in Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), Eddy Arnold’s original song “The Ballad of Wes Tancred” exists within the world of Tension at Table Rock as a folk song of sorts. Seemingly everyone has heard the song throughout the territory, and its lyrics haunt its namesake. 

Wes Tancred (Richard Egan) – and that’s Tancred, as in rhymes with “acrid” – is the fictional protagonist at the center of Tension at Table Rock. Not too dissimilar from Samuel Mudd Sr., of the “your name is mud” variety of fame, Tancred might be more famous as an unfortunate sounding name than a person… had only the lyrics of the song about him not expressly slandered him for shooting his best friend, a self-described Robin Hood-like criminal, in the back. Any time that the lyrics are mentioned or sung, Tancred can’t help but have an outburst as he cannot prove his innocence. Wherever he goes, the song has already been sung, and he struggles to cope with the feeling that his honor has been destroyed over a lie.

Communicating the pain that Tancred feels over the event that inspired the song about him as well as the alienation that the lyrics incite in him, Charles Marquis Warren’s inventiveness as a visual storyteller is best exemplified in a montage set to Eddy Arnold’s rendition of “The Ballad of Wes Tancred”. Taking on a dreamlike quality, time-lapse footage of clouds are superimposed over Tancred’s face and a variety of other images of him on the fateful night that he killed his friend. Perhaps only Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947) can rival the strength of this representation of the protagonist’s psychological state in a Western from this era.

Riding along, Tancred arrives at a stagecoach post and meets a young boy who lives there named Jodi (Buddy Chapin). Instantly, Jodi is drawn to the mysterious masculinity that Tancred sports, and this is rendered believable with Richard Egan as the subject of Jodi’s budding idol-worship. His angular stubbled face, somber blue eyes, and his black leather gloves present us with a character who we hope will do the right thing, but there’s a chance that he won’t. A man of few words, his baritone voice carries a calm yet assured strength, so long as the name “Tancred” is never uttered. The boy’s father (Joe De Santis) is an ordinary and kind man with a pronounced limp, so the contrast of these two men is dramatically accentuated to allow for the audience to elevate Tancred just as the boy does. Like the boy in George Stevens’ Shane (1953), Jodi is a surrogate of sorts for the audience who wants to idolize a rugged cowboy.

Taking a job from the boy’s father, Tancred insists that his name is “John Bailey” as he attempts to start life anew, but his plans get interrupted by the arrival of three stagecoach robbers who take them hostage. Jodi’s father is gunned down by the bandits when he attempts an act of heroism, so it’s up to Tancred to either stand down and let the men rob the stagecoach or to fight back. Leaping for Jodi’s father’s pistol, he rolls, dodging bullet after bullet, and kills all three men just before the stagecoach arrives. Thankfully, he’s seen as a hero this time, and Jodi now respects “Mr. Bailey” even more than he did before.

While he had hoped to avoid the town of Table Rock, Tancred takes it upon himself to take the orphaned Jodi to the city where Jodi’s uncle (Cameron Mitchell) is the sheriff. Law in Table Rock is more of an idea than it is a reality, as the sheriff is afraid to enforce the law after having been brutalized for his efforts in the past. It is here that the oral tradition of myth in the West meets the press, as the dishonest lyrics of “The Ballad of Wes Tancred” will be taken to task by Tancred himself as he seeks the aid of an honest newspaperman (Royal Dano) to restore peace and order to a town on the brink of destruction.

As with Jodi’s father, Tancred is once again in a position primed for hero-worship, as the sheriff’s wife, Lorna (Dorothy Malone), begins to see the vestiges of who her husband once was and all that he could have been in the form of the honest and courageous “Mr. Bailey”. Whether she, Jodi, and the townsfolk of Table Rock will feel the same about him if they knew he was the notorious Wes Tancred is the ultimate threshold he must cross, not just for the good of the town but for the salvation of his own soul.

Could it be that a hero with a name so reviled can change the tune about him for a whole populace? Charles Marquis Warren seems to think so, and Dmitri Tiomkin’s original score takes hold of the Eddy Arnold tune of “The Ballad of Wes Tancred” and steers it from the dirge that it was to an anthem of something worth taking pride in – a life well-lived, regardless of what the naysayers and mythmakers think.

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