When it comes to the movies, in my opinion, craftsmanship trumps art most of the time. William Wellman's Yellow Sky is a movie with an intriguing story-line, strong characters in conflict, well-paced and dramatic direction, skillful acting and a satisfyingly good-natured conclusion...and without a "message" in sight. It's a small-scale and very well-made Western which, without DVDs, would probably remain as forgotten as it has been for the last fifty years.
James Dawson (Gregory Peck) leads a gang of bank robbers, a gang that includes Dude (Richard Widmark), a gambler with a bad lung, a taste for white shirts and a love of gold. It's a couple of years after the Civil War. They rob a bank and ride out of town with the money but find themselves pursued by a cavalry troop. Their only chance at escape is to head out over the salt plains, where it's deadly hot, there's no water and men and horses usually die. Half dead they manage to cross and find themselves in Yellow Sky, a broken-down ghost town filled with rolling brush and dust. They encounter the only people who live there, Mike (Anne Baxter), a tomboy who can shoot as well as most of the gang, and her aging grandfather (James Barton), an old miner. It doesn't take long for the gang to figure out that Grampa and Mike have been quietly mining and stashing away gold.
And that's the set-up. Dawson and the gang want the gold and will take it, but Dawson is prepared to share it with Mike and Grampa. Dude is willing to go along...until he has an opportunity to take all the gold for himself. And the rest of the gang? There's Lengthy (John Russell), mean and aggressive who plans to have his share of the gold as well as having Mike; Bull Run (Robert Arthur), a kid who may be too sentimental for his own good; Walrus (Charles Kemper), usually good-natured, not too smart and willing to follow along; and Half Pint (Henry Morgan), maybe he's okay, maybe not, but he's not one to break things up.
Before long Dawson realizes that Mike is someone special. He remembers that he wasn't always a bankrobber. But by then, in this blazing hot ghost town, it's Dude and the gang against Dawson, with Mike using her rifle to back Dawson. The resolution, which started as a good guy versus bad guy drama, ends up as a good guy versus bad guy versus bad guy shootout in the dark, deserted, broken-down saloon. Wellman plays it so we see no action inside, only Dawson walking in, then two or three gunshots and powder flashes. The movie ends with some good-natured bank robbery redemption on the part of Dawson, and a nice mixture of doubt at first by Mike and then trust.
The movie was shot in Death Valley and looks it. There is no shade, just burning hot boulders, dirt, dust and sand and the falling-apart buildings that were Yellow Sky. What makes this movie such a pleasure to watch is that Wellman knows his business. There are no false starts, unnecessary emotional anguish, over-acting, back stories or meaningful subtexts. Wellman shows us what these people are like, even the gang members, but he shows us just enough to keep the story moving forward. The story, with two attractive leads in Peck and Baxter and one creepy and untrustworthy bad guy (Widmark), is the important element. Wellman was one of the great craftsmen of Hollywood movie making. He was a pro. He directed such varied and excellent movies as Beau Geste, Nothing Sacred, Battleground, The Public Enemy, The Ox Bow Incident and Roxie Hart. Yellow Sky may not be in that category but it is a skillful and satisfying movie.