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A New Face in the American West: Vincent Price, Sam Fuller and The Baron of Arizona (1950) by Bryce Allen Patton

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“Samuel Fuller is not a beginner, he is a primitive; his mind is not rudimentary, it is rude; his films are not simplistic, they are simple, and it is this simplicity that I most admire”

François Truffaut

The late Roger Ebert once described Sam Fuller as, “The kind of guy who, when he walks into your living room, looks around for a place to sit down and sits on your television set.” He was the walking embodiment of his cinema: loud, brash, unrelenting, and always bold. Before becoming a film director, Fuller began his professional career working as a newspaper copyboy in his early teens, eventually rising to the position of crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic at age seventeen. He wrote pulp novels, screenplays, and served in World War II all before directing his first film at the age of thirty-seven. While his first film I Shot Jesse James opened to international acclaim in 1949 from both American and French critics, his second feature The Baron of Arizona was largely forgotten. Throughout his 1950 western, Fuller does what he does best and pushes the narrative boundaries of the American western.  While it might not hold the same place in American cinematic history as his 1957 masterpiece Forty Guns, The Baron of Arizona is a distinctly unique film that deserves critical reappraisal.


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The film opens in 1912 as a group of men celebrate the official founding of Arizona at the house of the governor of the new state. While they sit and smoke cigars, John Griff, a former forgery expert and current employee of the Department of the Interior, entertains his friends with the story of the self-proclaimed “Baron of Arizona”. As Griff begins his story, the film shifts backwards forty years to a rainy day in 1872. It is within this framed narrative that Fuller crafts an engaging tale of a man who could have been one of the greatest conmen in American history. From the moment he appears on screen, James Reavis, as played by Vincent Price in his first starring role, is an intimidating figure. Fuller hired Price because “He had an impressive voice and all the gestures of a bygone era.” These qualities, which would allow Price to perfectly inhabit the later horror and science fiction films that would make him a household name, seem out of place in the traditional American western. As Fuller shoots Price in close-up as rain pours down the brim of his hat, he is letting the audience know that this will not be the western they are expecting. Price is not Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Randolph Scott, or Jimmy Stewart. The audience is in for something completely different. 

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On top of not looking or sounding like the protagonist of a traditional western, James Reavis is not a good man in a white hat, but a cold-hearted villain. In his autobiography, Fuller describes the character as, “An arrogant son-of-a-bitch, always maintaining his aloof composure, treating everyone, except Sofia, like shit.” Through his con, Reavis attempts to take control of the entirety of the state of Arizona. To accomplish this, he engages in a multi-year scheme that takes him across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain and back again.  In a sequence that takes up 20 minutes of the film’s short runtime, Reavis spends three years living as monk in a monastery in Spain so that he can falsify one page within a historical record of land grants. Fuller is not concerned with staying within the geographic bounds of previous westerns. He takes his audience on a European journey through small villages, large monasteries, and a gothic castle in the middle of his western about the founding of Arizona. It is not until 40 minutes into the film that Fuller’s movie begins to take on a traditional western aesthetic.   

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While the Reavis character is eventually shown to be a forger by the film’s opening narrator John Griff, Fuller gives Reavis a somewhat happy ending. No, he does not get the state, but Reavis finds love at the end of the film. After being saved from a potential lynching, Reavis serves six years hard labor for his crimes. He is released from prison on a stormy night reminiscent of the rainy night that opened the framed narrative. He walks out of the jail in a slow gait as the rain pours down around him. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he sees a buggy where Sofia is sitting. As he walks toward the buggy, they lock eyes for several seconds before Sofia says, “Get in.” The music swells, as Reavis smiles, and the frame fades to black.  When discussing the ending of the film in his autobiography, Fuller wrote, “I wanted an upbeat ending to the picture, even though I knew it wasn’t historically accurate… in the movie business, a good ending must sometimes hold sway over the truth.” Like many reviewers of the film, Fuller seems to have forgotten the frame surrounding his narrative. Yes, it is Fuller’s film, but it is also Griff’s story. By not cutting back to the framing narrative, Fuller is essentially recreating the western within the mind of Griff, but not reminding the audience that this is happening at the end of the film. While John Ford makes this idea explicit twelve years later in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) by having Jimmy Stewart utter the famous line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” Fuller internalizes the concept within this earlier film. The audience is watching the telling of a legend; but by the end of the film, the frame narrative has been forgotten and thus the legend has been recreated. Some might call this new reality a forgery. If that is the case, then who better to craft the forgery than John Griff?

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