An adequate Western elevated by the presence of genre vet Glenn Ford, who brings economy and gravitas to the title role despite being forced to play an endless string of clichéd scenes, Santee has an interesting place in the history of Hollywood’s engagement with emerging technologies. It was among the earliest theatrical features shot on video, even though it lacks such telltale traces as motion blurs and weak color reproduction. In fact, nothing about the picture’s handsome widescreen look betrays the format with which the images were captured. If nothing else, Santee serves to remind that at least in the realm of conventional narrative storytelling, the message usually matters more than the medium. In any event, Santee is ultimately no different than the average made-for-TV Western of the same vintage, but for a more luxurious running time and the absence of commercials. It’s comfort food for cowboy-cinema fans, and nothing more.
The movie opens with wide-eyed young man Jody (Michael Burns) tracking down his father, who rides with a gang of rough men. Turns out they’re criminals. Jody accompanies his dad’s gang into the wilderness until a bounty hunter named Santee (Glenn Ford) kills the father and the rest of the gang, leaving only Jody alive. Jody swears vengeance, but Santee—who is portrayed as a saintly character despite his bloody profession—offers to provide Jody lodging at his ranch until Jody’s ready to get on with his life. Caught off-guard by the bounty hunter’s compassion, Jody accepts the hospitality and soon abandons his revenge mission while becoming a surrogate son to Santee and the bounty hunter’s wife, Valerie (Diana Wynter). The shadow of the gun looms large over these people, however, because eventually Jory and Santee must face an outlaw gang with ties to Santee’s past. All of this plays out like pure American cornpone, complete with Ford barking lines like, “Don’t tell me what my guts say!”
Directed by the prolific Gary Nelson, who cranked out lots of meat-and-potatoes film and television during his long career, Santee goes down smoothly, despite the mechanical nature of the narrative. Characters change goals abruptly when doing so suits the storyline, exposition and motivations are explained too bluntly, and nothing remotely surprising happens until the suspenseful finale. Yet Ford keeps things interesting with his compelling take on noble stoicism, and it’s a kick to see Jay Silverheels—better known as “Tonto,” from the old Lone Ranger TV show—playing a significant supporting role. As it happens, Silverheels makes more of an impression than poor Burns, who spends most of the movie watching Ford with slack-jawed admiration, similarly to how supporting characters in John Wayne movies expend most of their energy deifying Wayne.