Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Jeff Chandler Wants to Rule Kansas in "The Jayhawkers"

This Cafe Special was written by Raccoon713.

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a law which enabled territories west of Iowa and Missouri to vote on whether to be “free states” or “slave states.“ Missouri, which permitted slavery, wanted to extend the practice westward. So, wave after wave of Missourians galloped into Kansas to stuff ballot boxes, intimidate local voters, and raise a lot of hell. These Missourians were known as "border ruffians" and "redlegs." There were also other bands of raiders and murderers on the roam, unaffiliated with the slave movement. These marauders were generally known as "jayhawkers," named for the vicious bird that kills for pleasure. The territory became so violent that it was called "bleeding Kansas."

This historical prologue brings us to The Jayhawkers, an offbeat Western starring Jeff Chandler as Luke Darcy, a man who wants to enslave Kansas under his rule. Darcy "captures" towns by employing an ingenious strategy. First, he sends some of his soldiers dressed as Missouri Redlegs to terrorize a town. Then, Darcy and his Jayhawkers enter the same town and promise protection from the evil Redlegs.

"Some of you may not know me. My name is Luke Darcy. I've just taken your town," he tells the local residents. "Be not alarmed, my friends, for I've come not to rob, but to protect. Not to burn, but to build. Not to hurt, but to help. While others are destroying themselves, we will build our lands strong and beautiful--safe and beautiful. I will build hospitals for your sick, schools for your children. New roads, new churches. A new way of life!"

However, the territorial governor (Herbert Rudley) isn't too keen on losing Kansas to Darcy. He convinces a prisoner, Cam Bleeker (Fess Parker), to join the Jayhawkers and deliver Darcy to the hangman. Cam's real motivation, though, has to do with Darcy’s role in the death of Cam’s wife.

To his surprise, Cam finds Darcy an intriguing and complex man. He comes to realize that Darcy lives by his own standards, which include the following:

Rule No. 1: Whenever you meet a person, Darcian etiquette demands impromptu politeness--even though you might shoot that person in the next minute. For example, Darcy calls everyone "friend"--when he first meets Cam, when he addresses the townspeople in Abilene, and when he faces Cam in the final showdown.

Rule No. 2: Life is today. "That's all any of us have, friend--a little time. Most of it lonely, it goes so fast. A man sings, loves, fights and then he's nothing. Dust. Like a leaf that falls and then it's gone."

Rule No. 3: Man must die with dignity. Cam asks: "What's the difference? Dead's dead." But Darcy explains: "There are a thousand ways to die and each man finds his own. To strangle at the end of a rope with your eyes bulging, your feet kicking and your tongue hanging out--that's for a clown or an animal. Not a man!"

Rule No. 4: You are what you are. When confronted about Cam's wife, Darcy explains: "I make no excuses for what I am or what I did. I ask no forgiveness. Accept your wife [and me] as a human being with all the weaknesses and fallibilities of a human being."

Rule No. 5: The future is the same for everyone. Hours before Darcy meets his doom, he asks Cam's new girlfriend to tell his fortune. She answers: "Love. Death." Darcy replies: "That's everyone's fortune, friend."

It's easy to understand how Cam finds himself caught up in Darcy's world. Darcy is the swift, ambitious mastermind; Cam is the lunkering country boy sent to do a distasteful chore. The relationship between the two men resembles the one between George and Lenny in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Darcy parallels the crafty George Milton, while Cam Bleeker is a shade of Lennie Small. George dreamed of his own farm and used others, including Lennie, in his soft pursuit of it. Luke Darcy dreamed of his own Kansas and used everyone, including Cam, to try and gain it. But in The Jayhawkers, it's the slower of the two men who has to spare his friend from the mob.

A decidedly different Western with two actors who rarely got juicy roles, The Jayhawkers is a film that rewards discerning viewers.

(If you liked this post, check out Take the Spiral Road Upward by Raccoon713.)


  1. Raccoon713, what a cool pick for a review! I remember seeing this movie many moons ago. I admit that I wasn't enthused initially, not being a big fan of Jeff or Fess. But the premise quickly grabbed my attention (a takeover of Kansas?) and then I became intrigued with the characters, especially Darcy. In the end, I confess that I can't imagine anyone else but Jeff (very good) and Fess (good) in those roles. Love how you focus on Darcy's "rules."

  2. Raccoon713, I remember seeing this movie years ago. I love westerns. I have always liked Jeff Chander, and this is one of his best roles. I recall the horses in this movie were pretty too which is one reason I like westerns. After reading this nicely written review, I want to see it again. So I am off right now to go to Netflix. Thanks for reminding me of this film!!!

  3. Thought I was the only person that likes this movie. Own it on VHS. Deserves to be on DVD. Jeff is terrific and Fess ain't bad. Good write up, Mr. Raccoon.

  4. Raccoon713, I have not seen this film. Your review was wonderful and very entertaining to read.. Welcome to the Cafe.:)

  5. Rule 1: Welcome, Raccoon Friend!
    Rule 2: Since life is today, sit for a spell at the Cafe, and join in.

    Sure did enjoy this review! Haven't seen any Jayhawkers round my neck of the woods. Will be watching for them. Mighty thankful you shared this film with us.

  6. Very nicely done. This is one that has been sadly forgotten. The makers of this film put out some other underrated works, such as LI'L ABNER. They got their start working for Bob Hope as writers.

    I think this is one of Chandler's best performances. Moross' score rivals his legendary work from THE BIG COUNTRY. Another forgotten Western is THE HANGMAN.