As Frank Miller writes of this exceptionally odd film on the TCM Website, “many movies have been built around the pursuit of a childhood love. Heathcliff pursued his [lifelong love] Cathy in nine film and 13 television versions of Wuthering Heights, and Charles Foster Kane built a business empire while dreaming of his [childhood sled] Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941). In the 1952 Western Wild Stallion, Dan Light (Ben Johnson) searches the Black Hills for Top Kick, the horse he lost the same day an Indian raid killed his parents.
Wild Stallion was an early production from Walter Mirisch, who started his career at Monogram Pictures making low-budget Westerns and action films, most notably the Bomba series that Johnny Sheffield moved into after he ended his run as Boy in the Tarzan films. Mirisch shot the film quickly, during the month of December 1951, with the land around the Corrigan and Iverson Ranches in California standing in for the Black Hills of Wyoming. Even a windstorm that destroyed some of the sets didn’t keep him from getting the film into theatres by April 1952.
Like many films from Poverty Row studios like Monogram, Wild Stallion provided a showcase for young actors on the way up though leading man fame may have seemed far away for Ben Johnson at the time he starred in the film. A former cowboy and rodeo champion, he had come to Hollywood as a wrangler when Howard Hughes hired him to transport horses to the locations for The Outlaw (1943).
After years of stunt riding for stars like John Wayne and Randolph Scott, he was spotted by John Ford, who promoted him to ever bigger roles in his Cavalry Trilogy and the title role in Wagon Master (1950). Then the two quarreled while making the third Cavalry film, Rio Grande (1950), after Johnson’s agent tried to squeeze Ford for more money on an upcoming film. As a result, the director simply stopped working with him, and Johnson’s career stalled. He even left Hollywood for a year to work the rodeo circuit. He wouldn’t get his career back on track until Ford convinced him to accept the role of Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (1971), which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Leading lady Martha Hyer went to school with Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman, and, like them, went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. After being spotted at the Pasadena Playhouse, she started landing film roles, earning her first billing as Tim Holt’s leading lady in Thunder Mountain (1947). It wasn’t until she signed with Universal, where she was promoted as their answer to Grace Kelly, that the icy blonde started moving up the career ladder.
Her biggest success came with a loan to MGM in 1958 to co-star as the frigid English professor thawed by Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running. The role won her an Oscar nomination, but she had a hard time finding a suitable follow-up in a Hollywood changing rapidly with the decline of the studio system. Instead she found a more satisfying role off-screen as the wife of independent producer Hal Wallis.
Rounding out the cast of Wild Stallion [are several] reliable character actors caught between the decline of the studio contract system and the rise of television. Edgar Buchanan, co-starring as the horse tracker who trains Johnson, had been a staple of Columbia releases in the ’40s, most notably as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s closest friend in Penny Serenade (1941). He did well as a free-lancer in the ’50s, but is best remembered as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.
Second-generation actor Hayden Rorke came to Hollywood after years on the stage and was a familiar face on movie screens in the ’50s, with small roles in everything from An American in Paris (1951) to Pillow Talk (1959). He entered television history as Captain Bellows, the suspicious commanding officer on I Dream of Jeannie.
In 1952, the cast of Wild Stallion was still far from the fame they would achieve in later years. As a result, ads for the film sold not the human characters, but rather the horse. Top Kick was billed as the ‘Untamed King of the Wild Outlaw Herds!’ and ‘Outlaw stallion defying man’s ruthless guns…battling snarling killer wolves!’ Hype aside, however, the taglines capture one of the film’s evergreen selling points, its focus on one of the animals that helped win the West. In most low-budget Westerns, the love story is of relatively minor importance. In Wild Stallion, it takes center stage, even if it represents a departure from the boy meets girl formula to create a boy meets horse epic.”
Indeed, this is what’s oddest about the film; Ben Johnson’s character seems utterly uninterested in anything except his beloved white stallion, to the point that any romantic interest between Johnson and Martha Hyer is reduced to the absolute margins of the film. The other thing, of course, is that when watching Wild Stallion, the viewer is conscious of the fact that these are real cowboys in the film, doing most of their own stunts; it’s as if Hollywood in the 1950s was desperately recreating the American saga of ”manifest destiny,” using ranch hands as out of date in their time as the cowboy drifters in John Huston’s The Misfits a decade later, in an attempt to hold on to the past.
A really bizarre little film, more “boy meets horse” than “boy meets girl”; worth seeing.