The year 1958 saw two Westerns with similar stories: William Wyler’s big-budget, color The Big Country and the low-budget, black-and-white Terror in a Texas Town. In both, a sailor travels to the Old West and confronts his manhood. Beyond that, the two films couldn’t be more different.
In Terror in a Texas Town, Sterling Hayden plays a Swedish whale harpooner who comes to live on his father’s farm in Texas. A greedy land-grabber, well-played by Sebastian Cabot, is buying up all the land because he’s discovered oil. A gunslinger hired by Cabot murders Hayden’s father, and Hayden sets out to avenge the death—with a harpoon. (The pitch is: Harpooner vs. gunslinger. All right, I’m listening.)
Hayden, who was brilliant in The Asphalt Jungle and Dr. Strangelove, is saddled with the unfortunate burden of having to speak with a Swedish accent. (The sheriff says, “I’ll find your father’s killer.” Hayden replies, “That’s your yob.”) The poor guy is also stuck with a bowler hat, a short tie and floodwater pants, yet he still manages to come off with dignity and intensity. That goes to show you that Hayden was a good actor even in thankless parts.
Can a harpooner honestly duel with a gunslinger?
Director Joseph Lewis actually pulls it off. Lewis has an economical visual style, often covering, in a single shot, entire scenes that keep moving and reframing themselves (a tactic I have personally used on a number of occasions).
I find it interesting that this film was shot by cinematographer Ray Rennahan, an Oscar winner for Gone With the Wind and Blood and Sand, both of which are gorgeous Technicolor movies. He shot the first full-Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp, in 1935. Yet take away his beloved Technicolor, and he’s a perfectly okay shooter, nothing more.
Terror in a Texas Town starts with a showdown between a harpooner and a gunslinger, brings you to the moment of violence, flashes back to give the backstory and comes back around to finish the duel. You know what? It’s actually worth the wait.