“Colorado Territory” is a 1949 movie starring Joel McCrea. I watched it recently for the first time and really enjoyed it. In candor, it’s not a great movie, but it’s fun to watch and well worth the 94 minutes. McCrea and his co-star Virginia Mayo are fun to watch. Plus, the scenery is stunning and some of the stunt work done with the horse scenes is worth rewinding and watching again.
Joel McCrea’s grandson, Wyatt McCrea, is a friend of mine and co-author of my book “52 Weeks • 52 Western Movies.” Not surprisingly, one of Wyatt’s entries was for “Colorado Territory,” and rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll let him tell you about it.
Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) is a lifelong outlaw, but one with a sense of dignity and his own code of honor. After escaping from prison, he heads to Colorado to join up with his old gang. Along the way he saves a stagecoach under attack. Among the rescued passengers are Fred Winslow (Henry Hull) and his daughter, Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone). McQueen manages to elude the lawmen chasing him and makes it to the gang’s hideout. There, he discovers there are a few new gang members, including a half-breed girl named Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo). He immediately feels a unique connection to her. McQueen wants to end his criminal ways, but is convinced to do one more job worth $100,000. After successfully pulling off the heist, the new gang members try to double cross McQueen and take the money. McQueen kills them and decides to take off for a new life with Colorado. When they stop at the Winslow house on the way out, Julie Ann tries betraying him in hopes of securing the posted reward money. Colorado senses the betrayal, and she and McQueen make a run for it. Trying to make it to the Mexican border, they end up trapped in a box canyon with no way out. With the posse hot on their heels, they hole up in an old Indian cave dwelling.
[Spoiler Alert] In the climactic shootout, McQueen is killed, and when she tries to surrender, Colorado is also shot down — the two outlaws dying together. This dramatic ending gives the film a deep emotional aspect and a dark drive, impacting viewers in a way rarely found in Westerns. Because of this, it is one of my favorite Joel McCrea Westerns.
When “Colorado Territory” was filmed, Joel McCrea was in his prime. He loved the genre, stating that when he put on a cowboy hat and a pair of boots and climbed onto the back of a horse, he just felt at home. McCrea was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers in 1969, given the Silver Medallion award at the Telluride Film Festival in 1982, awarded the Golden Boot in 1987 and given the Career Achievement Award by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 1987.
Virginia Mayo was also at her best in “Colorado Territory.” Sam Goldwyn had signed her to a contract after an MGM scout spotted her in a Broadway revue. Some of her best reviews came from her work with James Cagney in 1949’s “White Heat.” She was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
About director Raoul Walsh, McCrea said, “I’d do stuff for him I wouldn’t have done for any other director. He was a gutty little bastard. And funny. What a character.”
Much of the film was shot in New Mexico and Colorado, where the immensity of the setting enhances the emotion felt in the film.
“Colorado Territory” was one of the first films to be banned in West Germany because of its portrayal of gangsters and antisocial elements.
When asked if it bothered him that John Wayne had been first choice to play the part of Wes McQueen, McCrea answered, “No. When the picture opens, I’ll be the guy that’s riding out there — people won’t know how many were up for the part.”