“Blood on the Moon” is a western that manages to transcend some of the cliches of the genre.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
When we first meet Robert Mitchum as Jim Garry, he’s riding through an Indian reservation to reach an old partner of his, Tate Riling (played by Robert Preston). He’s intercepted by a cattle outfit run by John Lufton. He tells Garry that Riling is trying to prevent Lufton from getting his cattle off the reservation in time to avoid their confiscation by the government over a voided contract.
When Garry finally reaches Riling, he finds out what kind of job he’s been summoned to perform. Riling is in cahoots with a federal agent named Pindalest that procures the cattle for the reservation. They’re trying to force Lufton to sell his cattle for pennies on the dollar and then sell them to Pindalest at the full price with a goodly bribe to Pindalest. Out of the huge profit Riling will cut Garry in for ten thousand dollars for being the gun hand to make sure nothing interferes with Riling’s plan.
When Riling and his men and the homesteaders that he’s fooled into helping him attack Lufton’s herd they manage to scatter it thoroughly which should be enough to guarantee that Riling’s plan will succeed. But one of the homesteaders, Kris Bardon (played by Walter Brennan) loses his son in the stampede and Garry decides the whole plan is too dirty for him to go on with. He quits Riling’s crew and manages to save Lufton’s life when two of Riling’s men were preparing to gun him down.
To further confuse the situation Lufton has two daughters. Carol Lufton is in love with Riling and has been providing him with information about her father’s plans and actions. Amy Lufton starts out hating Garry but over the course of the movie as she sees his actions are well-intentioned, she changes her mind and comes to trust him.
When Garry quits the crew Riling goes looking for him and they have a huge brawl in a cantina. Garry finally knocks Riling out. When one of Riling’s henchmen gets ready to execute a defenseless Garry, Kris Bardon shoots the gun hand. Now Garry goes to Lufton and reveals the whole plan about Riling conspiring with Pindalest to steal the herd. They come up with a plan to defeat it.
Garry goes to Pindalest as if he’s still working with Riling and tells him to suspend the government’s seizure order on Lufton’s herd and creates a ruse that has Pindalest go with him out into the mountains to give Lufton enough time to gather the herd and bring it off the reservation. The ruse succeeds up to a point but then an Indian whose friends with Riling tips him off that Pindalist is being stalled by Garry. Riling and his men come after Garry and in an altercation, Garry is stabbed and Pindalist is rescued.
A badly wounded Garry escapes to Kris Bardon’s cabin where Amy Lufton joins them to nurse Garry’s wound. Soon Riling, Pindalist and one other gunman show up and surround the cabin while Bardon and Amy hold them off with rifles. That night Garry, sensing that eventually the outlaws would manage to overcome the defense, tells Bardon and Amy to provide a diversion while he slips out the door and sneaks behind the gunmen and takes them on.
He manages to pistol whip Pindalist into unconsciousness and shoot the other gunman. And in the final confrontation he shoots it out with his former friend Riling. Garry is victorious and he reappears at the cabin. Later John Lufton and his men appear at the cabin. They take Pindalist into custody for delivery to the marshal. And as the drama ends Amy tells her father of her plans to marry Jim Garry.
Although this western was made during the heyday of that genre, this production differed substantially from the typical black hat, white hat conflict. Mitchum’s character is more reminiscent of the characters he usually portrayed in film noirs where he would be a small time criminal or a gun for hire. He straddles the line between good and evil pretty thoroughly until almost the end of the movie. And that’s what keeps the movie from devolving into a typical good guy, bad guy shootout. Mitchum and Preston manage to keep the battle between light and darkness alive and interesting throughout the movie. The rest of the cast isn’t afforded much opportunity to rise above the normal western tropes. The two actresses in love with Garry and Riling are given fairly stereotypical plot and dialog for those roles and the other parts fairly equally follow the conventions of the genre. But Mitchum and Preston provide the fireworks and it boosts the movie well above the average. Highly recommended for fans of westerns and fans of Robert Mitchum.