An uncharacteristic drama in a career dominated by comedies like The Court Jester and A Touch of Class, Melvin Frank's The Jayhawkers! is an ambitious Western drama with some interesting psychological undercurrents as Fess Parker's escaped convict is promised his freedom if he can deliver Jeff Chandler's ruthless empire builder for execution. Rather than the customary cattle king or ruthless outlaw, Chandler's got bigger plans, forming a private army of Jayhawkers to seize control of Kansas and turn it into his personal kingdom. Masquerading as brutal redlegs brutally pillaging small towns and then `liberating' them under their own colours, he's a keen student of history as well as a callous womaniser who uses women like wine - when the bottle is empty, he just throws the bottle away, with one difference "With a wine you sometimes learn the name, with women never." And wouldn't you know it, one of the women he threw away and left to die in the gutter was Parker's wife. But Parker falls under the spell of his big ideas and powerful personality, and it's not a one-way attraction. Chandler clearly has a more than fraternal interest in his latest recruit, casting aside former favourite Henry Silva and even killing his own men when they threaten Parker because "Nobody cheats me out of you!"
Chandler dominates the film as the would-be dictator with a fear of being hung to dance on the end of a rope "like a clown" and something of a Napoleon complex (he even keeps a bust of the man in his home and gets Parker to read up on his campaigns) but who, as Nicole Maurey's French widow points out in the odd less than subtle nod to 20th century history, is just fooling the gullible to further his own ends. Often a better actor than his material, he has particularly strong material here and rises to the challenge admirably, leaving Parker's solid turn in the lead distinctly one dimensional by comparison. Silva, often either enjoyably over the top or disinterestedly walking through parts in many of his films is particularly impressive here as his homicidal spurned puppy as well. Sadly the film's climax is a bit underwhelming as the two protagonists go mano a mano in an abandoned bar while the sounds of offscreen battle rage around them before the film regains its footing, and at times the budgetary limitations show (some of the exterior locations are very noticeably studio interiors or backlots), but all told it works more than well enough to forgive the shortcomings. It's also helped along by a terrific Jerome Moross score that's got more than a hint of his previous year's The Big Country to it, while you can spot an unbilled Harry Dean Stanton as a lawman in an early scene.
Olive Films' region-free Blu-ray disc is for the most part an impressive widescreen transfer that is more than sharp enough to show why the VistaVision system the film was shot in used to herald itself as `Motion Picture High-Fidelity,' though also clear enough to see a few scratches and slight tramlines on the negative around a couple of reel changes, some of the latter, because the film ran through the camera sideways, horizontal rather than vertical. No extras.
- Actors: Jeff Chandler, Fess Parker, Nicole Maurey, Henry Silva, Herbert Rudley
- Directors: Melvin Frank
- Writers: Melvin Frank, A.I. Bezzerides, Frank Fenton, Joseph Petracca
- Producers: Melvin Frank, Norman Panama
- Format: Closed-captioned, Color, HiFi Sound, NTSC
- Rated: Not RatedNR
- Number of tapes: 1
- Studio: Paramount
- VHS Release Date: January 1, 1998
- Run Time: 100 minutes
- Average Customer Review: 40 customer reviews
- ASIN: 630199616X
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #381,596 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)