John Wayne plays a man searching for his parents’ murderer, a notorious outlaw named Pandro Zanti, a “half white, half Apache Indian who poses as a Mexican.”
Zanti, on the run, discovers a miner’s homestead and plans an ambush. The miner, played by Gabby Hayes, gets wise to Zanti’s scheme and flees with his daughter, Ruby. The pair cross paths with Wayne when their escape plan backfires and Wayne rescues a drowning Ruby.
A bull-headed sheriff and a secret passage complicate Wayne’s attempts to bring Zanti to justice.
This was one of sixteen Lone Star westerns Wayne made for Monogram. These sixty-minute features shot back-to-back, each taking six days max. Thus, they recycle locations, sets, and cast. But unlike Wayne’s prior oaters at Warner Bros., which recycled action footage from Ken Maynard silents, these featured all original stunt work, much of it courtesy of Yakima Canutt.
These stunts prove the major differentiators between the films. The Lawless Frontier’s highlights include Wayne bodyboarding down a sluice run, and a fight sequence that sees him run up an incline, then jump backwards to body slam his opponent.
Besides doubling for Wayne and coordinating the stunts, Canutt also plays Zanti’s right-hand man.
Like all of Wayne’s Monogram releases, The Lawless Frontier suffers from stilted dialog, wooden performances, and rushed production. These aren’t good films, but important ones. Their limitations, combined with their relentless production schedules and Wayne’s professional insecurity1, pushed Wayne to improve. Watching them is watching John Wayne as a work-in-progress.
- Said screenwriter Lindsley Parsons of Wayne in those days, “We’d be out on location, he’d do a dialogue sequence and he’d just cuss himself out terribly. He’d go off behind a rock and talk about how lousy he was.” Eyman, Scott. John Wayne: The Life and Legend (Simon & Schuster, 2014), 75.↩
The Watch TCM print lacks the synthesized score dubbed onto most distributions.