Hampered a limited budget, overly sincere acting, and an unwillingness to depict violence with gritty impact, Smoke in the Wind explores an interesting aspect of the post-Civil War era—fraternal conflicts in the Deep South between dogged Confederates and Southerners who fought for the North. In some places below the Mason-Dixon Line, the end of the war was the beginning for a new period of aggression. The story begins with noble officer Cagle Mondier (John Russell) and his son, Whipple Mondier (John Ashley), returning home to Arkansas after serving in the Union army. They’re devoted abolitionists, which puts them at odds with former friends and neighbors, especially sadistic pro-slavery zealot Mort Fagan (Myron Healey), who commands a band of vigilantes determined to lynch every “traitor” to Southern values. The narrative tracks the Mondier family’s battle with Fagan’s thugs, and the situation is complicated by romances that cross enemy lines. In particular, one of Cagle’s wartime subordinates, Smoky Harjo (Henry Kingl), is in love with Cagle’s daughter even though Cagle hates the bloodthirsty and hotheaded Smoky.
Featuring the last performance of familiar big-screen character actor Walter Brennan—who plays the minor role of a shopkeeper—Smoke in the Wind feels a bit like a community-theater production, with amateurish players breathlessly delivering trite dialogue in costumes that look like they came straight from a rental house. Even nominal leading man Ashley, perhaps better known for the myriad exploitation flicks he made in the Philippines, gives a stilted performance, suggesting a lack of vision behind the camera. (Two directors are credited on Smoke in the Wind—Walter Brennan’s son, Andy, who never helmed another feature, and Joseph Kane, who directed countless programmers from the 1930s to the 1950s before shifting to episodic television.) For the most part, Smoke in the Wind is harmless, using life-and-death melodrama to put across a parable about decency vanquishing prejudice, but the combination of a turgid storyline and unimpressive acting ensures the highest this piece can ever rise is to the level of mediocrity.
Smoke in the Wind: FUNKY