Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Baron of Arizona

The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950) The second film directed by Samuel Fuller—the first was I Shot Jesse James—was another take on "The Old West," combined with a True Tall Tale of an entrepreneur who tried to win the West—by cheating—and, for a time, pulled off one of the greatest attempted swindles in the United States...of the United States. There is a saying that no great fortune was made without larceny and The Baron of Arizona tells the story of James Addison Reavis (played with a malevolent charm by Vincent Price), who conducted a decades length long-con back in the day when land was unclaimed and the paper-trail was basically three sheets to the wind, and when the previous residents were indigenous people...who never kept records.

So, Reavis came up with a plan (fictionalized by Fuller): He finds an orphan with Spanish roots and invests in her (and his) future, placing her with a governess (Beulah Bondi) who will raise her with a regal breeding. Leaving them for years, he travels to Spain and, of all things, joins a monastery with the intent of gaining access to its land records and forging a document indicating that the Arizona territory were granted by King Ferdinand of Spain to a fictitious baron of the territory, Miguel de Peralta. To complete the claim, he gains access to a duplicate archive and repeats the forgery.  
Reavis travels back to America and reunites with the orphan, Sofia (Ellen Drew), who has now grown to womanhood. He marries her, and, with the bogus records carefully set in place, claims her as the descendant of the fabricated baron, the true baroness of the territory, before all other claims, and, conveniently, making him the baron. He manages to make the case to the U.S. government that Arizona is deeded to her by Spanish decree, and then sits back, king of his own makeshift kingdom. The U.S. Government, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the terms of the Gadsen Purchase, is bound to honor the earlier claim, but the land has since been settled with towns, government and blocks of land for the development of a transcontinental railroad, all of which are now held by the "previous owner," and Reavis imposes a duty ("revenues, rents and royalties") for the use of "his land."
Those who don't pay it or can't afford it (that would be the settlers) are kicked off their land. This, of course, does not sit well with the citizenry that start rumbling about the situation,  and start to take matters into their own hands, even fire-bombing the Reavis home, previously the mansion of a railroad baron. The scheme brings Reavis thousands of dollars and a large headache for the government, which attracts the attention of John Griff (Reed Hadley) who works for the Department of the Interior who suspects the forgery ("It's a bad cigar wrapped in a rich Spanish leaf") but has difficulty proving it. As a quick fix, the Government sends the Secretary of the Interior to buy Reavis out for $25 million. He refuses. After all, as he says at one point (quoting what he is called by Pulitzer) "Nothing is sufficient for the man who changed geography"
When a surveyor general disputes the claim, and the citizens' resentment turns to mob-violence, Reavis doubles down and sues the government for $11 million dollars, prompting a more thorough government investigation and the further resentment of the settlers. But their increasing resentment outside causes rumbles inside the Reavis home, and it's here where Fuller the writer stumbles a bit with conflicting emotions and strained credulity for the motivations of both Reavis and Sofia. She fears the mob and the violence but at trial, she stands before the court and vehemently defends her husband despite her doubts. Reavis, for his part, risks everything with his actions, the only saving grace of the episode (besides having Price and Drew "selling it") is a cracker-jack line that Reavis delivers when asked why he does what he ultimately does: "I fell in love with my wife."
Shot in just 15 days with a cost of around $135,000, The Baron of Arizona rarely betrays its threadbare budget or quick shooting schedule, thanks to the cinematography of James Wong Howe (a stroke of luck for Fuller—Howe was a veteran of the Hollywood studio system since the silents) who manages to burnish the high-noon scrub and midnight street scenes with a high contrast richness far beyond the dollars spent on the cheapest locations and the backwater western town sets.
It is a Western, but based on a true incident in the Western migration and not on the romantic myth of Manifest Destiny. It is just as much a part of the American story and the snatch-and-grab greed behind the taming of the West in the name of fresh starts and seeking the Dream. There are ranchers but no cowboys, no shoot-outs and the Cavalry doesn't come to the rescue. No Indians to fear, but only what they feared—the naked avarice of white men who wanted it all for themselves.

Without the trappings of the Western, it may be the truest Western of all. 
The Baron of Arizona—a story of two "miracles in the rain"

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