I first heard of Ramrod a number of years ago when I was reading about dark or noir Westerns like Pursued (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948), The Furies (1950), and Forty Guns (1957). I’ve kept an eye out for it ever since, and jumped at the chance when Olive Films finally put it out on DVD last year. It was certainly worth the wait. Amongst other things it’s probably Veronica Lake’s best role, as she plays the angry, vengeful rancher’s daughter, Connie Dickason — the femme fatale role that Lake never really was given in any of her famous film noirs with Alan Ladd.
The film is an adaptation of a novel by Luke Short, who also wrote that novel that Blood on the Moon is based on. (Still looking for two other films adapted from his novels in 1948: Station West and Coroner Creek.) The story is pretty basic: Connie’s fiance, Walt Shipley, is threatening to bring sheep into cattle country. Naturally the local cattlemen, including Connie’s father and alpha rancher Frank Ivey, oppose this move. Ivey forces Shipley to give up his plan, and Shipley leaves town, humiliated. Connie is determined to defeat both her spineless father and the arrogant Ivey, and she hires Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) to help her start her own ranch. Dave is the ramrod, or foreman, of the new ranch. Ivey won’t stand for the competition, and he works to undermine Connie and Dave.
Part of what’s unusual about the film, as Rick Thompson points out in his article for Senses of Cinema, is that Connie is in many ways the central character, rather than the nominal hero, Dave Nash. Connie drives the action and thus presages such later Western characters as Barbara Stanwyck’s roles in The Furies and Forty Guns and Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1954). Jeffrey M. Anderson at Combustible Celluloid calls Ramrod ‘arguably the first example of the so-called “Freudian” Western, with strong females in aggressive roles, alongside somewhat emasculated men.”‘ Veronica Lake is remarkable in the role, casting aside her usual kewpie doll passivity to become a vindictive, manipulative harpy who is enraged by both the weak and powerful men around her. She isn’t a sympathetic character, but as so often the case in fiction her selfish villainy is more compelling than the nobility of the Good Girl, the dressmaker Rose Leland.
In contrast, Joel McCrea plays Dave Nash as something of a chump who, in the best noir tradition, is in over his head. This is a bit unusual for McCrea, who typically played a more heroic character in his Westerns, although he was also capable of playing the mentally unbalanced Sgt Vinson in Fort Massacre (1958). But just as Connie tugs at our sympathies because all the men in her life are either bullies or weaklings, Dave’s backstory as a man who lost both his wife and child and then tried to drink himself into oblivion gives him a reason to be looking for salvation, even if he’s going about it the wrong way. The most fascinating thing about it in the morally ambiguous world of this story is that Dave tries to use the law to his and Connie’s advantage, only to be undone by those like Connie and Ivey who scorn the law. Part of what makes Dave a chump, it seems, is his respect for the rules.
Yet Dave really is the hero in the end, and those who play fast and loose with the law all ultimately lose, even if some law-abiding folks lose as well. The most fascinating of the lawless characters is Dave’s friend Bill Schell, who is a womanizer and drifter who acts totally irresponsibly until he’s backed into a corner. Another one of the strange ambiguities in the film is that the Good Girl, Rose, has a picture of Bill in her house, implying that there’s something going on between them, and Bill is clearly in love with her even if that doesn’t mean he wants to settle down with her.
The film is also remarkable for its treatment of violence. This is not one of those Westerns where guns never run out of bullets. Guns are used sparingly, and one of the most effective sequences comes when three men hunt another down in the darkness and fire two shotgun blasts into him. Likewise, fistfights are treated more realistically than usual, with few punches thrown but causing real damage when they land. There is a savage beating of one man that is shown only in the shocked, horrified expressions of people who look at him in the aftermath. The camera never shows us how bad it is, leaving it up to our imaginations. He ultimately dies off-screen as well — a shattered absence.
The ending is a typical Hollywood denouement in which the bad people are punished and the good couple get together. Yet as is often the case with Hollywood films, the happy resolution is a bit ambiguous. For one thing, Connie wins. We’re supposed to feel sorry for her, because her victory has left her utterly alone in the world, yet the fact remains that she cheated and manipulated and caused men to die, and she gets away with it. Dave’s final line as he walks away from her, “So you don’t want it alone: I guess that squares everything,” is more like a question than a resolution. But beyond the ambiguous morality of Connie’s victory is the image we’re left with of Dave clasping Rose to him, his blunt fingers buried in the curls of her hair. It’s a remarkably sensual, intimate image that enriches the rote implication of happily-ever-after.