In the 1930s and early 1940s, Clark Gable had been one of the top movie stars in Hollywood. After serving in World War II, Gable returned to a different movie industry. He still remained a star but younger talent was overtaking him at the box office, the new industry of television was stealing audiences away from the movie theaters and his decades-long contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ended by the early 1950s. Like so many of his contemporaries, Gable became a freelance actor, which allowed him to work for several studios. Gable’s MCA agent George Chasin got him a two-picture deal with Twentieth Century-Fox in which Gable would be paid an advance of $400,000 against 10 percent of the film’s gross if it made over $4 million. If it made over $10 million, the actor would walk away with a cool million dollars, which in those days was rare. One of the films Fox offered to Gable was The Tall Men (1955).
Gable stars as Texan Ben Allison, a former Confederate soldier who had fought as part of Quantrell’s Raiders during the Civil War with his brother, Clint (Cameron Mitchell). Now it is 1866. The war is over and the Allison brothers have turned to crime. A chance meeting in Montana territory brings them into contact with wealthy Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan), who they rob and briefly hold. Rather than turn the brothers into the authorities, Stark tells them of his plan to drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana at a big profit and offers them a partnership in the deal.
No one has ever driven cattle such a long distance but the Allison brothers agree to join forces with Stark. They return to Texas and on the way, they find a group of travelers headed to California who get stranded in a blizzard, including the beautiful Nella Turner (Jane Russell). Nella and Ben are immediately attracted to each other and Ben ends up rescuing Nella when the settlers are attacked by Indians. The couple seem headed for a relationship but soon realize they want different things out of life and Nella meets Stark, whose plans are more aligned with hers. Tragedy befalls the cattle drive and in the end Nella must choose between Stark and Ben.
Shot in both color and Cinemascope, the film was written by Sydney Boehm and Frank S. Nugent from the 1954 Clay Fisher novel, which had been purchased by producers William A. Bacher and William Hawks for $10,000. The Tall Men was directed by an old friend of Gable’s, Raoul Walsh, who was known as a fast worker, often shooting a scene in one take. Gable had worked with Walsh before and had even bought Walsh’s San Fernando Valley home shortly before his marriage to Carole Lombard in 1939. Walsh was a veteran of Westerns but could not film the movie in the intended locations because both Texas and Montana had changed since the 1860s and there weren’t enough Texas Longhorn cattle available for the film, so the crew set up in Durango, Mexico.
According to the studio, four thousand head of Mexican Crillo cattle were acquired to stand in for the Longhorns (the largest herd for a film up to that time) and three hundred horses stood at the ready. Gable, who owned horses and was an experienced rider went out to Palm Springs just before filming to brush up on his riding. The Tall Men went into production in early April 1955 and wrapped up two months later in early June. Production was a happy one with Gable and Walsh sharing a rented hacienda for the duration and Gable often visited by his new fiancée, Kay Spreckels, and her two young children, who Gable took horseback riding and introduced to some of the cowboys. Jane Russell also enjoyed her time on the film, later saying of Gable, “He was a doll to work with, and a terrible tease. I loved him.”
The Tall Men had its world premiere in Los Angeles on September 22, 1955 and opened in New York on October 11th. The following day, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in his review that The Tall Men was a “depressingly hackneyed horse opera [and] a badly beat-up conglomeration of weary Western clichés. […] Aside from the nonsense of the story, this film is also foolishly played by the assorted principals under the direction of Raoul Walsh. Messrs. Gable and Ryan go at it as though they were acting a deathless tragedy. Miss Russell heaves into it broadly as though she were still in The Paleface with Bob Hope. And Cameron Mitchell as Mr. Gable's brother, a callow and thick-headed youth, cuts loose with some gibbering histrionics that might denote a lunatic in burlesque.”
Despite Crowther’s dislike, audiences still loved Gable and even though the film industry was continuing to battle against television and theater attendance was down, The Tall Men made over $8 million worldwide.