Four years after the remarkable success of How The West Was Won (1962), Henry Hathaway directed Nevada Smith, a well-knit Hollywood western starring Steve McQueen as the young and naive Max Sand who finds his parents brutally murdered. Determined to hunt the bandits down for revenge, Max embarks on a journey into the West that will change him forever.
Set in the 1890s, the film opens with a young half-breed named Max Sand (Steve McQueen) and three men riding horses : Jesse Coe (Martin Landau), Bill Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy) and Tom Fitch (Karl Malden). As the trio pretends to be friends with Max’s parents, the young boy shows them the way to his family’s ranch. His parents are robbed, tortured and killed by the three bandits. Discovering the horrible scene, Max burns the house, and with eight dollars in his pocket, an old gun and a horse, he leaves everything behind him to track the killers. While crossing a desert with difficulty, Max meets Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), an old gunsmith. Generously, Cord takes the young boy in and teaches him how to shoot and play cards, but he also gives him vital pieces of advice about the rough laws of the West.
Steve McQueen, the famous Hollywood actor, playing the role of a teenager while he was 35 years old? It does not fit well with the plot. Indeed, Max Sand, whose character is based on the novel The Carpetbaggers written by Harold Robbin in 1961, is supposed to be 16 years old at the beginning of the movie. Plus, with his blue eyes and blond hair, it is hard to believe that the actor can play an Indian role. Yet those details can be forgotten by the actor’s naive gestures and by the fact that Steve McQueen is not physically imposing.
The movie is also quite interesting because it is not a story just about revenge but about self-discovery. It is smartly cut into several sections that reveal the progress of Max’s maturity and the transformation of an innocent man into a cold-blooded killer. The different parts of the movie highlight Max’s mutation and the loss of his Indian roots. Indeed, at the beginning of the journey Max is a half-breed wearing moccasins who eventually turns into a confident man looking like a cowboy.
Brian Keith, as Jonas Cord, plays brightly the good father figure by showing sympathy for the young boy, and his flourishing friendship with Max is intriguing. As for action, the fight with Jesse Coe in the middle of the cattle is spectacular and suspenseful, but some other scenes are too long and do not live up to expectations. The showdown between Max and Tom, for instance, is rather unexciting and somewhat botched up.
But it is perhaps esthetically that Nevada Smith is most successful. Beautifully filmed by Lucien Ballard, the major outdoors scenes show an incredible variety of Western landscapes. Mostly shot in the Inyo National Forest (South California) but also in the Alabama Hills of the Sierra Nevada, the film reveals the splendor of these different locations.
In conclusion, despite several incoherent details, Nevada Smith is overall a good movie whose classic revenge plot is well served by great actors and great settings.
Nevada Smith directed and produced by Henry Hathaway based on the story The carpetbaggers by Harold Robins, a Solar production, distributed by Paramount Picture. Screenwriters John Michael Hayes ; Running time 128 minutes
Steve McQueen as Max Sand (a.k.a. Nevada Smith)
Karl Malden as Tom Fitch
Brian Keith as Jonas Cord
Martin Landau as Jesse Coe
Arthur Kennedy as Bill Bowdre
Suzanne Pleshette as Pilar
Raf Vallone as Father Zaccardi
Janet Margolin as Neesa