The Man from Colorado was one of those rarities; a Western with something to say.
The story is concerned with Owen Devereaux (Glenn Ford), a small-town lawyer who has joined the Union army in the Civil War and been elected by the men to Colonel. As the war ends, and we join the action, Devereaux has become a man out of control. He is addicted to killing as well as having developed martinet tendencies. The film opens with the slaughter of confederate soldiers trying to surrender, Devereaux ignoring their white flag.
On their return to Colorado, the regiment soldiers are hailed as heroes and Devereaux is invited to be the federal judge, much to the disquiet of William Holden, playing his loyal friend who joined the army with him. Naturally Devereaux turns out to be a hanging judge of the worst possible kind and conflict is inevitable between him, upholding the law, and his former soldiers, many of whom turn to banditry when they are cheated out of their gold claims by stay-at-home businessmen using federal law. The irony is that they have not worked their claim for three years so, by law, the land returns to the federal authorities, but, of course, they've been fighting for the Union for four years, hence the injustice.
This Western works so well because it is not your usual good guy/bad guy shoot 'em up. It was made just after the Second World War, when hundreds of thousands of American men were returning to their homes and trying to integrate. Some of those men felt resentful towards the ones that stayed behind. Some of those men had killed and were lost in psychological confusion. The Man from Colorado spoke directly to those men. Partly it said 'it's okay to be affected by war,' partly - in the Holden character - it showed a way to cope.
The film was made just over 80 years after the end of the Civil War. Those times were still embedded in popular consciousness, and the evocation of ordinary men going to war and finding the world changing was superb.
Director Henry Levin, a former stage actor, draws a powerful performance from Ford as the tortured Devereaux. He is not a 'bad man' he is a sick man. That is recognised in the film, but Holden and 'the doc' have no answers to offer save 'going away.'
Holden is decent, Mr Reasonable, but even he gets to flex his acting muscles a bit when he loses out on the girl to Ford.
The Man from Colorado is mid-century American cinema at its best. In terms of Westerns, it is up there with The Searchers and The Wild Bunch, but in a far more mainstream, middle America setting.