by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Lawman is a Western which seems at first to be trite and predictable, then strays into some unexpected character and plot development.

Burt Lancaster plays a straight-laced sheriff whose town was shot up by some drunken cowhands just passing through town with their rancher boss. In the melee, an old man was killed. Lancaster identifies the murderous cowmen, then heads off to their county, determined to bring them back to stand trial. When he arrives in their jurisdiction, he finds that their town is "owned" by the powerful rancher.

Up to that point, it's just the usual Western set-up, but it gets complicated by several unusual details:

* The shooting back in Lancaster's town turns out to have been an accident.

* Everyone in the rancher's town considers the rancher to be their benefactor. Their town is quiet, prosperous, and crime-free.

* The rancher turns out to be a decent and reasonable man. He's willing to make more than generous restitution for the property damage and to take care of the family of the deceased.

* The group of cowhands includes a couple of hotheads, but also includes a few sensible men who want to reach a conclusion amenable to all.

* Even if Lancaster brings the men back for a trial, the rancher can easily afford to buy off the local circuit judge, so the cynical Lancaster knows full well that he's just following the law because it is the law, and not because anything positive will be accomplished by his actions.

The situation would have worked out better for the rancher if he had been a ruthless man. Because he tried to approach the situation with reason and compassion and negotiation, he lost control of his gang, and they panicked or lost their composure and went out one-by-one after Lancaster. Needless to say, square-jawed Burt easily bested them in single combat. If they had simply waited at the ranch for Lancaster to come for them, as he said he would, they could easily have dispatched him to Boot Hill.

Lancaster finds that he is unpopular not only with the accused men, but with the entire town, so the film's finale boils down to Lancaster standing in the street alone, facing down the last members of the gang, while surrounded by armed townspeople who plan to pick him off if the gang fails.

Just before the showdown, Lancaster thinks the whole mess through and tells the local sheriff he's walking away and resigning, and he's going to let the rest of the accused men go free, because there's just been too much tragedy over too small a cause, but as he tries to leave town, the rancher and his men and the townsfolk won't let him just walk away. Poor choice. Because the rancher and his men wouldn't let Lancaster walk away from the violence when he wanted to, they all ended up dead. All they had to do was shrug their shoulders, count their blessings for his change of heart, and get on with their lives

When the locals insist on pressing the showdown after his offer of clemency, Lancaster loses his cool completely, and eventually even betrays his own code by shooting an unarmed man in the back, completely unnecessarily. He then rides out of town having accomplished virtually nothing, leaving behind a bunch of grieving widows, and all over a matter which could have been resolved peacefully by a man willing to bend a bit. In addition to the harm Lancaster does to the rancher's town, he also fails his own town, which could have received some excellent compensation from the rich cattleman if only Lancaster had been willing to negotiate and compromise. Because he follows the inflexibly straight path, his town ends up with nothing.

In other words, there were plenty of chances for the parties on both sides to compromise and stop the bloodshed, but stubborn machismo ended up driving them to tragedy.

While Lawman isn't quite a complete reversal of the old-time Hollywood Western, it certainly has enough revisionist elements to qualify as an anti-Western alongside the works of Sam Peckinpah. In a sense, it is a difficult story to watch, because it doesn't give the audience a character to identify with. Watching this film, one doesn't know whether to pull for Lancaster or not, because he's nothing but a cold, efficient killer, even though he does technically have right on his side. Lancaster is honest, brave and completely incorruptible, and all of that is admirable, but on the other hand his black-and-white view of the world proves insufficiently sophisticated to produce the optimal result. The rancher is not sympathetic either. He could have simply surrendered himself and gone back to the other town and bribed the local judge. Then later in the story his men could have let Lancaster ride out of town, but in both cases the cattlemen chose instead to provoke a conflict. The townspeople group offered no sympathetic character either.

Perhaps because there's no character to identify with and perhaps because the film is such an unremitting downer, Lawman has been largely forgotten by history, but it deserves better based on its complex characters and situations. It's the kind of film that provokes debate and discussion in apres-cinema deconstruction chats, the kind of morally complex and thought-provoking cinema that seems to be disappearing from studio films.


* widescreen anamorphic. OK transfer, but slightly grainy.

* no features






3 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)


6.6 IMDB summary (of 10)


No data available.


  • Sheree North showed the areole of one breast in the DVD.
  • (The scene has been cut in the DVD version. In earlier VHS versions, North showed first one breast then both at the 79 minute mark, as reported by The Bare Facts.)














Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is not one of the best Westerns of all time, but it is just a notch below them.