A Lot of Bull in Fleming's Western Romance
By today's standards "Bullwhip" is very wrong, it is sexist, racist and to be honest quite cheesy but this convoluted western which sees Rhonda Fleming playing a tough trail boss being tamed by a man she marries to inherit her father's business is also entertaining. In fact whilst a western by setting "Bullwhip" has more in common with a romantic comedy as Steve Daley tries to tame his wife whilst she tries to fight him every step of the way. There is more to it than that with a gunman who finds himself hired by one man to kill Daley and then by another to protect him whilst there are also a couple of dodgy business men to convolute things. But at its heart "Bullwhip" is all about Daley taming his wife and the comedy of it all.
With it looking like he is facing the hangman's noose Steve Daley (Guy Madison - The Last Frontier) gets an unusual proposition from the town's judge. If he marries a woman without asking any questions or knowing her name he will receive a pardon and can go on his way. Understandably agreeing Steve meets the nameless woman and as soon as she has gone plans to get on his way, except a gunman called 'Slow' Karp (James Griffith) is waiting to kill him. Having avoided Karp, Daley then finds himself in the company of fur trader John Parnell (Peter Adams) who tells Steve that he has been tricked into marrying his rival fur trader Cheyenne (Rhonda Fleming - Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) and cuts a deal to try and get his hands on half of her business. And so Steve goes in search of the fiercely independent Cheyenne to claim what is rightfully his, not so much her but the business she inherited when she married him.
So as already mentioned "Bullwhip" is more akin to a romantic comedy than a true western and the set up really establishes this as we see Daley approached by a corrupt judge to marry a woman in return for a pardon to save him from the hang man's noose. It's daft and purposefully so and as are all the details such as the story the judge gives him about the woman being a widow and so he doesn't try and track her down after their arranged marriage he's not allowed to know her name. It's not all out comedy, there is no slapstick or major jokes but funny for basically being unbelievable.
Being unbelievable is how "Bullwhip" continues from Daley finding himself propositioned by John Parnell who would love to get his hands on Daley's wife's business through to gun man 'Slow' Karp first being hired by the crooked judge to kill Daley and then by Parnell to protect him. It is simply quite stupid but enjoyably so and provides a reasonably nice build up to what is the main story which sees Daley discovering the truth about his wife and then going after her to claim her business for his own. What this really means is that you have Daley trying to tame his head strong wife whilst she tries to outsmart him before everything comes together at the end where we get a mix of action and confusion comedy. Oh and if you couldn't guess, Daley and his wife end up having true feelings for each other despite their marriage being a sham.
The thing about "Bullwhip" is that it doesn't try to be anymore than it is a western which is as much romantic comedy as it is about cowboys and Indians. And it is entertaining on the simplest level but watching it now is also seriously dated with viewpoints which wouldn't be allowed in a modern movie. There is no denying that it is a sexist movie where Daley's wife should do what she is told by her man and it is also racist with Indians being shown as shallow and not very clever. But this is a movie over 50 years old and whilst these issues show themselves now and in some ways spoils things slightly they don't completely ruin it.
As for the acting well to be honest it's not brilliant, there is no stunning performance although there is a couple of bad ones. The best of the performances come from Rhonda Fleming who whilst as Cheyenne has to eventually play the obedient wife does brighten things up with a feistiness reminiscent of Maureen O'Hara. But then whilst Rhonda Fleming delivers entertainment James Griffith as 'Slow' Karp stinks the place up playing the gunman as so slow that you wonder whether he is called 'Slow' because he doesn't move quick or is not all there. It's simply wrong and whilst I am sure was meant to provide moments to smile at fails completely.
What this all boils down to is that "Bullwhip" whilst more of a romantic comedy than a western does deliver what you expect from a western made back in the 1950s. It has that almost factory line feel to it as it doesn't try to be different or clever, instead just delivering the action and comedy which so many other westerns did. It is seriously dated with sexism and racism being just 2 of its various issues but get beyond these and it does manage to keep you entertained even if it is both obvious and ultimately daft.