If you're going to watch a Jeff Chandler western, this is the one to see. I'd hestitate to call it a masterpiece, but it's a damn good try. Produced and directed by the team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, it is a tale of conflicting loyalties, megalomania, love, hate and a number of other issues I can't remember, in pre-Civil War Kansas on the eve of the Civil War. Star Jeff Chandler, who portrays the megalomaniacal but withal personally decent and charismatic bad guy, is quite good here. He had spent a decade in action pictures and romances, with an occasional comedy thrown in for good measure, and yet had not achieved major stardom. A mid-level star of the kind of medium grade movie that was going out of fashion, he was on the verge of becoming an anachronism; and had he not died a couple of years after this film one wonders what would have happened to him and his career. In The Jayhawkers he shows what he might have become: a fine, commanding, aristocratic character actor.
As the second-billed good guy, Fess Parker, fresh from his triumph as Davy Crockett a few years earlier, was attempting a mainstream, post-Disney career. Low-key and phlegmatic, and not without appeal, he lacks the edge of a Mitchum that might have propelled him into the big leagues, and is for the most part an uninteresting hero. Nicole Maurey is the incongruously Gallic love interest, and one can't help be curious as to why she was cast in this film. She was a lovely young woman, but way out of place here.
Loyal Griggs color photography is as good as his work in Shane, and far less mannered. The music of Jerome Moross is stirring and in its way as good as anything Dimitri Tiomkin ever did. With its larger than life good-bad guy, and reasonable (for a movie) historical accuracy, this could have been a major film. The problem with it is that though Panama and Frank were quite good at light comedy, they were inexperienced in the western genre. Frank does a good, derivative job of drawing from Ford and Hawkes; and there are some breathtaking vistas. There is even a touch of Nicholas Ray in his creative and interesting use of interiors, especially the main hideout. And Chandler gives an at times daring performance, with occasional lapses into mild effeminacy in his vocalizing and posture, his work is well-rounded and sophisticated, suggesting that his character's feeling for Parker is more than just friendship. Alas, this daring aspect of the story is never gone into with any depth or insight, and the result the movie is a near-miss, but a fascinating one.