Burt Lancaster is an uncompromising lawman who defies the odds when he single-handedly confronts a gang of killers in this "extraordinarily perceptive" (Films & Filming) and action-packed taleof life and justice on the American frontier. When Sabbath town-boss Vincent Bronson (Cobb) and his drunken ranch hands unwittingly kill an old man in Bannack, everyone knows it was an accident. Everyone, that is, except Bannack's marshal, Jered Maddox (Lancaster). A tough, no-nonsense manof the law, Maddox is determined to bring the killers to justice. Trailing them back to Sabbath, Maddox makes his intentions clear: "I'm gonna take these men back with me," he vows, "or kill them where they stand." So when Bronson sends word that he wants to make a deal, the inflexible Maddox refuses, a decision that forces Bronson's men to let their guns do the talking. But Jered Maddox is not aman to back down...he'll bring these desperate killers back to Bannack, his way. Dead or alive. Burt Lancaster is excellent as the title character, a pitiless, unbending marshal out to arrest seven cowhands who left a dead man in the wake of a drunken tear, in this stoic, modern take on a classic Western theme. He confronts a rancher baron, trigger-happy gunmen, and the cowardly hypocrites of a frontier town: the usual bunch of Old West types sculpted into intriguing character by a crack cast. Robert Ryan brings a sad dignity to his former gunfighter tamed into a meek town marshal, and Lee J. Cobb is introspective and thoughtful as the aging cattleman weary of his life of violence: "It took guns to take this land, guns to keep it, and guns to make it grow.... Each time we bury the cost." Robert Duvall, Albert Salmi, and a young Richard Jordan (as an idealistic cowpoke whose sense of honor gets a workout in the complex conflicts) also star.
The first American feature by British director Michael Winner (who went on to make numerous tough Charles Bronson pictures, including the first three Death Wish movies) is lean and tough, with a streak of "passing of an era" melancholia, but surprisingly old-fashioned. The hard-edged, unsentimental violence, arid, austere look of the picture, and distracting overuse of zoom shots mark it as an unmistakable product of the early 1970s, but it's not so much cynical as sorrowful in its clash of ideals, and never less than clear-eyed in the presentation of harsh frontier realities. --Sean Axmaker