Along the Great Divide (1951) is a great vintage western, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Kirk Douglas. As Len Merrick, a federal marshall, he stops a lynching, about to take place seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Then, a long trek to town for a trial occurs, forming almost the entire substance of the plot. For some odd reason, the black and white west shown in this film is more realistic than technicolor, which has always tended toward the unreal anyways. The background to every piece of dialogue and every action is dry, dusty, indifferent, lifeless, rocky, mountainous, and, forcing half-day marches to skimpy water-holes, merciless.
Also, as it turns out, some of those old westerns were not so mindless and hollow. There are many themes worth looking at from a scholarly point of view, such as law versus lawlessness, the role of guns, and family issues, as well. Merrick hates hearing a certain song that reminds him of his father. The accused, known mostly as Pop or Old Coot (Walter Brennan), has a daughter (Virginia Mayo), who unflaggingly sticks up for him. Merrick takes a strong liking to her against the grain of his more major pursuit, which is to make sure the law prevails. Pop, who claims to be innocent, has a different take on the situation, since he has no confidence that the law will not hang him, too, despite being innocent, just as his lynchers tried to do.
It is hard to know exactly why this western clicks and another, maybe not too unlike it, does not. But one element has to be the characters involved, who are all interesting. In a movie such as this, words and deeds alone are all one has to evaluate who is who, and sketchiness is the best available level of assessment. The cattleman who loses one son and then stands to lose another is someone it might have been nice to get to know better. He appears to be the bad guy, having tried, convicted, and almost executed his son's killer strictly on his own, but one can relate sympathetically to his loss.
Merrick is the gravitational center of this western. His monomania for the law gets to all the other characters, and nearing town, he falls from his horse, exhausted and sleepless. His adherence to the letter of the law almost results in a complete failure, but then a plot twist comes to the rescue. Those old Hollywood matinees can be relied upon to provide good endings, if nothing else. Along the Great Divide, however, is far superior than the basic minimum.