Despite earning cinematic immortality with his moving performance as a victim of prejudice in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Brock Peters didn’t get many opportunities to play leading movie roles. The middling race-relations Western The McMasters is an exception, because even though avuncular thespian Burl Ives has top billing, this is Peters’ movie from start to finish. Set in a small Deep South town just after the Civil War, the picture dramatizes the explosive consequences of a free black man trying to live quietly as a property owner in a heavily racist white community. Benjie (Peters) returns from service in the Union army and reconnects with Neal McMasters (Ives), the white rancher who raised Benjie and regards him as a son. Recognizing that he’s getting older and has no other heirs, Neal gives Benjie his last name and half-ownership of his ranch. This development doesn’t sit well with nasty rednecks including Kolby (Jack Palance), a former Confederate officer, and Russel (L.Q. Jones), a local troublemaker. The racists ensure that Benjie and Neal can’t hire white workers for their ranch. However, Benjie befriends a band of Indians led by White Feather (David Carradine), and the Indians agree to help with chores. White Feather also “gives” his sister, Robin (Nancy Kwan), to Benjie as a concubine. Predictably, Benjie and Robin fall in love, and just as predictably, Robin is raped during a siege on the ranch. All of this leads up to a bloody showdown, though the climax of The McMasters is neither as decisive nor or simplistic as one might expect. And while it would be inaccurate to describe The McMasters as a surprising film, the story has just enough emotional texture to make a casual viewing worthwhile. The acting is generally solid, although Ives delivers rote work and Peters comes on a bit theatrically at times, while Western-cinema veterans including Jones, Palance, and R.G. Armstrong provide standard-issue varmint flavor. The miscast Kwan is appealing, and as for Carradine, his performance as an Indian is a stretch, since his line deliveries sound suspiciously modern, but his unique persona adds vitality. (The actor’s father, John Carradine, shows up for a small role as an idealistic preacher.) One of the only features directed by prolific TV helmer Alf Kjellin, The McMasters is never less than competent in terms of technical execution, and it’s never less than serious about its subject matter.
The McMasters: FUNKY