Program Notes: Kansas Raiders (1950)

Though it’s inspired by the Kansas-Missouri Border War and is filled with characters drawn from history, Kansas Raiders says a lot more about assemblyline Hollywood moviemaking than it does about the era which it purports to depict.

Audie Murphy, the war hero-turned-actor, plays young Jesse James, who comes to Kansas bent on revenge for the deaths of his Missouri kinfolk at the hands of pro-Union redlegs.

Jesse and his pals – big brother Frank James (Richard Long), Cole and James Younger (James Best, Dewey Martin), and Kit Dalton (a baby-faced Tony Curtis, who spends most of the film pretending to blow on a harmonica) – join up with Confederate guerrillas led by William Clarke Quantrill to take the war to the hated Kansans.

Eventually, with the war lost – and having become skilled in robbing, looting, and killing – the boys leave Kansas to begin careers as the country’s most notorious outlaws. End of movie.

Film Screening:
Kansas Raiders (1950)
Monday, Aug. 5 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

Now nobody with any sense should look to feature films for an accurate reading of history. But Kansas Raiders is so wrong on so many points that it must set some sort of record.

For starters, while Frank James did ride with Quantrill and participated in the notorious raid on Lawrence, his little brother Jesse was too young. Jesse became a bushwhacker after the Lawrence raid. So the most basic premise of the movie is way off base.

Then there’s the portrayal of Quantrill by the Irish actor Brian Donlevy. The Missouri bushwhackers were young men – the average age was 18. Quantrill was only 28 when he died in 1865. Yet here’s the somewhat portly, hairpiece-wearing, 49-year-old Donlevy emoting in the full uniform of a Confederate colonel, complete with epaulets, gold braid, and brass buttons.

Moreover, the film gets all the visual details wrong. The hats, costumes, and weaponry on display date from the 1880s – the most common setting for Western movies – rather than the Civil War. It’s pretty obvious that the designers and prop crews simply pulled out the same old items they used for just about every other Western, authenticity be damned.


Still from Kansas Raiders
(1950: Universal Pictures)
 

The depiction of the famous raid on Lawrence is ludicrous. In this film there’s a fierce gun battle in the street between bushwhackers and citizens. In reality the Missourians swept down on unarmed citizenry and simply massacred every man and boy they could find.

And geographically, Kansas Raiders is a hoot. In this rendering Kansas is full of mountains and lodgepole pines (the movie was shot in Utah). Who knew there was so much gorgeous scenery around Lawrence? In some scenes barbed wire fences and telephone poles are clearly visible.

At least the Technicolor palette of the cinematography comes through nicely.

On rare occasions – usually when he was directed by John Huston (The Red Badge of Courage, The Unforgiven) – Audie Murphy was capable of giving a decent performance. Here he is wooden at best. Somnambulant may be closer to the mark.

But then this was only the fifth movie for a Texas cotton picker who, until he won the Congressional Medal of Honor, had displayed a talent only for marksmanship. Yet Murphy rode his wartime fame to a movie career that lasted for two decades. Only in America.

The career of Donlevy, whose high-water mark was playing the title role in Preston Sturges’ 1940 comedy The Great McGinty, was well on a downward spiral by the time he appeared in Kansas Raiders. His indifferent performance as the megalomaniacal Quantrill may not be all his fault. The screenplay sets up an impossible task, depicting him as a ruthless mercenary for most of the movie and then expecting him to sell a last-minute conversion to heroism.

Don’t think so.

Other films in the series “Quantrill’s Legacy”

August marks the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas. This film series illustrates how Hollywood has treated the subject of “Bleeding Kansas.” Part of our A Quantum of Quantrill series of August events.

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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