“What is this for a country, where a man is killed and nobody knows anything, nobody does anything?”
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions ‐ I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s pick is a small, under-appreciated Western about a man and his whale harpoon. Yes, you read that correctly. It was written by the great Dalton Trumbo under a front name as he was blacklisted at the time, and it stars Sterling Hayden — a man who named names while cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Awkward! It should surprise no one that the very themes both men fought with in real life make appearances here as a lone man stands up for the greater good in Terror in a Texas Town.
George Hansen (Hayden) walks through the center of Prairie City, TX — more a tiny town than a bustling metropolis — carrying only a whaling harpoon. He reaches his target, a man dressed all in black whose face we don’t see but whose taunting words are unavoidable. His hand on his pistol, he tells Hansen to step closer so his weapon of choice — the aforementioned barbed harpoon — has even a chance of piercing the gunslinger’s flesh. As a crowd gathers around them Hansen’s shoulders slump in apparent defeat.
The film then jumps backward a few weeks to show Hansen Sr. and his Mexican neighbors discovering oil on their land and surmising the black gold may be why a land baron named McNeil (Sebastian Cabot) has been trying to muscle them out of town. McNeil’s right-hand man, Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young) — described as “death walking around in the shape of a man” — shoots and kills the old man after the elderly Swede refuses to leave the land. When George arrives a few days later to visit his father he’s shocked and saddened by the news but determined to pick up where his dad left off.
McNeil and Crale aren’t about to let that happen.
There are clear similarities between director Joseph H. Lewis‘ low budget affair and the much higher-profiled High Noon — George is essentially on his own in standing up to McNeil as the other townspeople are too scared to join his fight despite desperately wanting him to prevail. There’s less subplot here though along with its streamlined telling at eighty minutes, but what it does have is a man who brings a harpoon to a gun fight.
It’s essentially the film’s gimmick, but Trumbo (via his Ben L. Perry pseudonym) has a bit more bubbling beneath the surface than just his hero’s odd choice of weaponry. There are two themes running through its short running time — the unfortunate reality that most people won’t lift a finger to help others, whether out of disinterest or fear, and the even sadder awareness that this is a country that’s long since stopped welcoming outsiders with open arms.
The townspeople refuse to help George for two distinct but compatible reasons. A fear of risking their own well-being is the primary motivator for ignoring his fight — their plan is instead to avoid conflict all together and even leave town, tails between their legs, if necessary. It’s a cowardly choice, but while the film clearly condemns it a later story turn involving the Mexican neighbor who witnessed the shooting seems to give that course of action some weight. Standing up against evil is risky, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary.
Second, and perhaps even more notable throughout the film, the people are disinterested in helping George because he’s a foreigner. (A Swede, but still, an outsider.) He has a funny accent — barely as Hayden clearly didn’t work too hard on it — and he simply doesn’t belong. Locals mock his words, and even the authorities — in the form of a sheriff deep in McNeil’s pocket — make it clear that George is an unwelcome intruder here in the land of the free. The sheriff tells him this is a land of laws meant to protect the people, and left unspoken but implied is that the “people” are the wealthy and powerful like McNeil.
Immigrants are at risk here as they’re viewed as outsiders by both the system and the “real” Americans. George’s plight is mirrored by his father’s neighbors, Pepe (Eugene Mazzola) and his wife and son, whose Mexican heritage sees them targeted by McNeil and Crale for intimidation and slaughter if necessary. Like George they’re told to pack up and leave — to get out of a land where they don’t belong despite having lived here for years — and it’s a demand fueled equally by greed and hate.
Over half a century later these ideas are playing out across the country on a daily basis, but there’s not a harpoon in sight.
Terror in a Texas Town may not be a lost classic, but it’s a sharp little gem that blends familiar threads, prescient themes, and a highly memorable choice of weaponry into an engaging and still-relevant Western.
Follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.
Buy Terror in a Texas Town on Blu-ray from Amazon.