Program Notes: Quantrill’s Raiders (1958)

Last week the film series Quantrill’s Legacy screened 1950’s Kansas Raiders, a howler of an oater with war hero-turned-cowboy star (one dare not call him an actor) Audie Murphy as a young Jesse James riding with Quantrill’s Confederate guerillas.

The makers of that film were not discouraged by the fact that the real Jesse James never rode with Quantrill or participated in the Lawrence raid. That was just one of dozens of the movie’s howling historical inaccuracies.

As a followup we now have Quantrill’s Raiders, made eight years later but not appreciably more accurate.

It’s a sort of cowboy/spy movie with a Confederate agent Alan Westcott (bland Western star Steve Cochran) coming to Kansas to organize Quantrill’s bushwhackers on a raid of a federal arsenal in Lawrence. (I’ve been unable to find any evidence of a federal arsenal in Lawrence, though there was one about 60 miles away in Liberty, Missouri.)

Film Screening:
Quantrill’s Raiders (1958)
Monday, Aug. 12 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

When Wescott realizes that Quantrill (veteran movie heavy Leo Gordon) is a psychopath interested only in murder and plunder, the Rebel spy has a change of heart and lets the townspeople know of the approaching danger. The forewarned citizens of Lawrence are able to resist Quantrill’s attack.

That’s this movie Lawrence doesn’t even burn.

It gets better. The town sheriff, when told of the impending raid, asks with a straight face, “What’s Quantrill got against us?”

Sheesh. Time for some history.

The infamous Lawrence raid that took place 150 years ago this month was the culmination of nearly a decade of bad blood between free state Kansans and pro-slavery Missourians. There were plenty of atrocities committed by both sides, with Missouri “border ruffians” and Kansas Jayhawkers (or “redlegs,” for the leg wrappings they sported) raiding up and down the state line.

The Lawrence raid was precipitated by the collapse of a federal jail in Kansas City. The wives and sisters of Quantrill’s men had been imprisoned to prevent them from giving assistance to the bushwhackers; several died or were maimed in the incident.

The Confederate guerillas believed the jail disaster was deliberate sabotage by federal authorities and were eager for revenge. Within days Quantrill and his men were riding into Kansas, determined bring the fight to their old enemies in Lawrence.

In the resulting massacre the town was burned and nearly 200 unarmed men and boys gunned down. Quantrill’s raid is widely regarded as the single greatest atrocity of the Civil War.

Except that there’s no massacre in Quantrill’s Raiders.

In fact, the film blithely ignores the issues of slavery and sectional violence that led to the incident.

What we get is basically an outlaw movie, a standard-issue studio Western. We’re talking a B movie with B movie writing, B movie acting, and B movie action.

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 He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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