William S. Hart is a wanted man. He’s wanted by the law and he is especially wanted by Mercedes (Enid Markey), a local beauty with a giant crush on our antihero. This early Hart short zips along at a fierce pace until its bloody conclusion.
He always did like a Mercedes.
Some people believe that with very few exceptions, the western film was a genre for kiddies and B actors until mid-century “adult” westerns from Hollywood and the stylish, violent spaghetti westerns of the sixties and seventies.
Of course, the western genre had been used to tell mature and deep stories long before mid-century but many viewers are surprised to learn just how old the western antihero really is. Half a century before Sergio Leone shot a single foot of western footage, William S. Hart was leaving a trail of bodies and destruction across the Wild West.
A lot of early films featured painted sets and stage-inspired artificiality but 1910s audiences were demanding more and more authenticity. When Hart jumped into the movie game in 1914, he already had decades of stage experience under his belt and childhood memories of the west that would inspire the rugged, dusty authenticity of his films.
Just shy of fifty when he became a movie star, Hart was every inch the Victorian and the darkness of the previous century’s entertainment clung to him and infused his motion pictures with a grimness and ruthlessness that often comes as a shocker to modern viewers. Ironically, this very modern darkness made Hart’s films seem unfashionable to Jazz Age audiences, who preferred their cowboys to be affable stuntmen or bold pioneers rather than steely killers.
In 1914, though, Hart’s assertive characters and authentic settings—not to mention his twin pistols and his one-handed cigarette roll—took movie theaters by storm. No one could get enough of the Good Bad Man and the badder the better. The prime years for Hart were between 1916 and 1920. In 1915, he was still tinkering with his formula and seeing how much wickedness he could get away with on the screen. (Quite a lot, as it turned out.) While critics were soon sniffing at Hart’s stylized brutality, the general public was entranced.
The story of The Taking of Luke McVane opens in a sandy saloon. Luke McVane (William S. Hart, who also directed) is passing through (or, since this is a western, “passin’ through”) and has stopped for a drink and a game of cards. He is spotted by Mercedes (Enid Markey), the “belle of the Chuckawalla Valley,” which is a compliment if I have ever heard one.
Oh, before we go further, let’s talk a bit about Miss Markey. She may look familiar to you and if you enjoy 1960s TV, you probably have seen her. She is best known as Barney Fife’s landlady in the Up in Barney’s Room episode of the Andy Griffith Show, filmed nearly fifty years after The Taking of Luke McVane. Markey’s other claim to immortality is her title as Tarzan’s very first on-screen Jane. She played the role opposite Elmo Lincoln’s jungle hero in Tarzan of the Apes (1918).
But back to the movie!
Luke helps Mercedes out when one of her admirers gets a little grabby and Mercedes returns the favor by signaling Luke that his card partner is cheating. Luke shoots the skunk dead (as one does) and escapes just ahead of a lynch mob.
While the mob struggles to get organized, Sheriff Stark (Clifford Smith, Hart’s assistant director) rides off in pursuit of the fugitive. Mercedes see the chaos as a chance to help Luke once again. She takes two horses and, riding one and leading the other, she gallops all over the desert, creating a false trail. Mercedes’ plan works and the posse is hopelessly turned around.
The sheriff’s horse is fresher and he will soon overtake Luke and so our antihero sets up an ambush and shoots the sheriff. (And, no, he does not shoot the deputy.) When Luke approaches the body, he sees that the sheriff is not dead but gravely wounded. Now it’s one thing to gun a fellow down but leaving a wounded man to die under the desert sun is more than Luke can stomach.
Will Luke save the sheriff? Will Mercedes get her man? Will the mob get their hanging? These are the questions that drive the final act of The Taking of Luke McVane.
One thing I really liked about this film is that the heroine takes an active role in the proceedings. Silent films have an undeserved reputation for containing damsels and the old myth about train tracks still gets trotted out. In fact, silent heroines were a feisty lot and quite often rescued their lovers/families/friends, as is the case here. That being said, Hart’s leading ladies did tend to be on the passive side and so it is fun to see Mercedes make monkeys out of the posse.
It has sometimes been said that William S. Hart only had one plot and he used it again and again. While this is an enormous oversimplification, most of his best films did share certain story elements. Hart would play a psychotic killer who gets turned to the side of right either by religion, love of a good woman or some crisis of conscience. Then he would set out for revenge against the villains of the piece. His body count would be just as high or higher than it was before his conversion, mind you, he was just more particular about who he killed.
The Taking of Luke McVane can be seen more as an exercise or a dry run rather than a true Hart film. It has a lot of ingredients that Hart would incorporate into his later films but the seams show in a few places. The climax in particular seems tacked on and only included because no one knew how to end the thing. Contrast this to the apocalyptic fury of Hell’s Hinges (1916) in which Hart takes vengeance for a murdered minister and a vandalized church by burning an entire town to ashes.
(Spoilers in this paragraph) What The Taking of Luke McVane does have on its side is a heaping helping of dramatic irony. Luke nurses the sheriff back to health, is promised a fair trial and agrees to surrender himself. He carries a rose given to him by Mercedes and it is clear she is the reason why he is returning. However, both Luke and the sheriff are killed by Apaches en route to town. If Mercedes had not led the posse away, the sheriff and Luke may have survived. If Luke had refused to return to town, he and the sheriff may have survived. The love story of the picture dooms its lead. (I should note that Hart very rarely died on-screen.)
William S. Hart’s films are not always the easiest for modern audiences to appreciate. True, they have darkness and a high body count but remember that I said that Hart was every inch the Victorian? Well, the other side of the coin is that he also tended to be sincere, sentimental and he included strong doses of old-time religion in his pictures. The resulting films are simultaneously ahead of their time and behind it. This curious combination takes some getting used to but it’s worth the effort.
The Taking of Luke McVane is intriguing because of the foundation it lays down. You can see the Hart persona becoming clearer and clearer in his 1914 and 1915 films and this short added a few more ingredients to the recipe. Is it Hart’s best? No. Most fans choose either Hell’s Hinges, The Toll Gate or Tumbleweeds for that title. Is it worth seeing? It certainly is. You get to see the invention of a screen legend.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
The Taking of Luke McVane was released on DVD by Grapevine. Be aware that the versions of this film found on YouTube and other online sources are played at the wrong speed; they are far too slow.