Unlike the recently reviewed Shenandoah (1965), which was also directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, The Rare Breed is a more accomplished effort by the director and Jimmy Stewart. Considering the two films came out 1 year apart, they almost don’t seem like they were directed by the same filmmaker. This film still has its problems and it would be a far stretch to rank this anywhere near the greatest Westerns. However, it holds as an entertaining, feel-good movie.

The Rare Breed begins with a recently widowed Englishwoman (Maureen O’Hara) who along with her daughter has arrived in St. Louis to auction off her prize stud bull. With no husband, the mother and daughter no longer have any income and the money from the bull is desperately needed. They sell the bull to a wealthy Texan who hires a downtrodden drifter (Jimmy Stewart) to help the women on their journey to deliver the bull to its final destination. However, Stewart has been paid by another cattleman to deliver the bull to him. Stewart is at first tempted to scam the ladies, but in a moment of conscience, he decides to help the ladies reach their destination.

I made a comment in my earlier review of Shenandoah that I had an issue with Jimmy Stewart playing anyone other than a man pure of heart and integrity. I have been so used to seeing him in films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Harvey that seeing him portray a character of not so honest qualities is a bit jarring. I did not buy his character in Shenandoah, but much of it was due to his over-the-top performance. His character in this film isn’t even noble at first whereas his character in the former film was. Here, Stewart is someone who although shows some reluctance at first in scamming an innocent woman, he in the end is willing to do so for the money. However, we also see the old Jimmy Stewart halfway through the film after he realizes his mistake. Stewart is once again an upholder of integrity, honesty, and nobility. Because we witness his character learn and grow from his mistake, you empathize with him and you want to see him succeed in obtaining his goals.

Maureen O’Hara comes from a class of British actresses who were cast by the studios to play proper English ladies. I liken O’Hara to actresses like Julie Andrews, Deborah Kerr, and Audrey Hepburn. All of these women were wonderful actors who were underappreciated when compared to their male counterparts. O’Hara provides a great counterpoint in The Rare Breed to Jimmy Stewart (and Brian Keith, who starred with O’Hara in 1961’s The Parent Trap). She is the final vestige of civility in the wild, unruly plains of Texas and she refuses to give that up. One of the things that makes me like her character so much (as well as the other British actresses I mention above) is the nurturing qualities she possesses. The chemistry she and Stewart share reminded me a little of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. I suppose its a good thing if a screen couple is attractive enough to remind you of the Hepburn/Bogart classic (which is finally coming to Blu-Ray any day now).

For a western, the story here is quite unique. Rather than attempt to film another epic like Shenandoah, the director sticks with a much smaller-scale plot, which he pulls off much better. On paper, the story of a cowboy helping two English women deliver their bull to some far off ranch/fort doesn’t exactly scream non-stop excitement. The strength of the story lies in its characters, who in turn make you care about their problems. I felt the film faltered a little in its pacing once Stewart and O’Hara reach their journey’s end. The movie almost turns into something completely different. The first half is your typical journey through the wilderness where the characters face dangerous obstacles. The second half, however, is much slower paced and dramatic. I didn’t like the film’s abrupt change in tone, but I also didn’t dislike it. I just would have preferred to have seen the filmmaker handle the story’s tonal change in a different and smoother manner.

I stated above that Stewart’s change in character helped me empathize with him. That being said, I still felt his change to be too abrupt. There are not enough transitional scenes to establish his character undergoing a change in attitude from a scammer to a passionately optimistic and honest man. Its like he woke up one morning and decided to be a better person simply because he got scolded by O’Hara the day before. Nevertheless, the likability of the character almost overcomes these mistakes.

One mustn’t overlook the supporting role of the Scottish owner of the fort/ranch played wonderfully by Brian Keith. If you’re familiar with Keith’s work, you won’t recognize him here and the only reason I did was because I saw him in the opening credits. His face is covered with a beard and his thick Scottish accent, which he does very convincingly, completely masks any recognition of the actor. I recently watched Keith in an episode of Rawhide and I remember being struck by how strong of an actor he was even at such an early stage of his career. He is wonderful in this role and its evidence of what a woefully underappreciated actor he was.

For you film score fans (like myself), you may be interested to know that The Rare Breed was one of the earliest films scored by composer John Williams (here credited as “Johnny Williams”). Depending on how familiar you are with Williams’ work, you will notice familiar instrumental cues later used in Steven Spielberg’s films. Williams provides a very good score for this movie and I’m sure the quality of his work did not go unnoticed by studio executives.

The Rare Breed is a good Western that although doesn’t amount to a memorable film, it will provide a fun old-fashioned distraction. It has many light moments and melodramatic ones as well. Unlike Shenandoah, the melodrama isn’t overly sentimental and I actually felt somewhat emotional during some scenes. Its a solid effort by Jimmy Stewart and Maureen O’Hara and something that may be worth checking out if you’re looking to find some small unknown Western gems you haven’t seen yet.