Grade: B
Not rated (would be PG)

Every now and then a different kind of western rides into town, and in 1966 it was The Rare Breed. The title was meant to refer not only to the Hereford steer a recently widowed English woman (Maureen O’Hara) and her daughter (Juliet Mills) brought to St. Louis to cross-breed with Texas longhorns, but also the tough old cowboy (James Stewart) they enlist to help them.

There are no Indians in this film, no cattlemen feuding with farmers, no gunslingers out to prove themselves, no saloons full of card sharps, no cavalry riding to the rescue, and no aging sheriff trying to keep it together while keeping order. There’s also very little violence, so The Rare Breed is rare for a western as well. After working with Stewart in the poignant Civil War western Shenandoah, director Andrew McLaglen dipped his bucket into the comedy well again, though it’s not as brimming as an earlier raucous film he made with O’Hara and John Wayne (McLintock!). This one isn’t a slam-bang action movie, though there are strategically placed moments of action and tension. With a minimalist plot, The Rare Breed is more of a character study, a slow-simmering romance, and a light-hearted western that’s offbeat enough to make it seem refreshingly different.

“Bulldog” Burnett (Stewart) is a complicated man. He’s a man of principles, you can instantly tell, but what principles? The epitome of the never-fazed stoic cowboy, he knows when to mind his own business and, in the spirit of American exceptionalism, tends to look out for Number 1. When a Hereford breeding bull named Vindicator (that only responds to a whistled version of “God Save the Queen”) is bought by a man representing a Scottish rancher (Brian Keith), the widow hires Burnett to deliver the bull. Pretty straightforward, right? Except that Burnett also accepts money from another rancher to allow his men to steal the bull at an opportune time. Call it the cowboy version of the Black Sox throwing the series.

But which side is Burnett actually on? Does he even know? That’s really the unanswered dramatic question that drives this picture, and for many viewers (especially Stewart fans) it will be enough. The Rare Breed works well as a family western because it’s fairly violence-free, only one person is killed, and the two feisty women prove to be up to the task of holding their own in the American West. Is it romanticized? Certainly. But it’s refreshing nonetheless to see O’Hara square off against Stewart, especially because of rumors that the pair didn’t like working together.

Brian Keith, a familiar face in sixties’ films and television shows, turns up as caricature of a Scottish rancher, complete with bagpipes in one scene. He’s part of the light-hearted angle of various men wanting to romance the widow, while screen staples like Harry Carey Jr., Jack Elam, and Ben Johnson add a kind of western authenticity just by being there. But perhaps the biggest surprise is how spectacular this film looks in Panavision and Technicolor, especially on Blu-ray. As is often the case, though, high definition draws attention to green screen work, and there are a few such sequences that are so obvious they’re laughable. Fortunately, those moments are few and easy to overlook.

The Rare Breed brought O’Hara and Keith together again as a “couple” for the first time since the two starred in the 1961 Disney version of The Parent Trap—which coincidentally starred Hayley Mills, Juliet’s younger sister, as the daughter. Of further interest for movie fans is that The Rare Breed is one of the earliest films scored by the legendary John Williams, back when he was billed as “Johnny Williams.”

Entire family: Yes (it has a pioneer vibe, for a western)
Run time: 97 min., Color
Studio/distributor: Kino Lorber (Universal)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link

Language: 0/10—Nothing I picked up on

Sex: 1/10—Just some references to breeding

Violence: 2/10—A handful of fistfights, a shooting, and a stampede

Adult situations: 1/10—Everything is polite, but the widow has several suitors

Takeaway: James Stewart made a darned good cowboy