In the 1880s, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) is the marshal of the town of Bannock. After a night of drinking and carousing leads to the accidental shooting of an old man, warrants are issued for the arrest of six ranch hands. Maddox is determined to execute the arrest warrants but the problem is that the six men live in Sabbath, another town. They all work for a wealthy rancher (Lee J. Cobb) and the marshal of Sabbath, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), does not see the point in causing trouble when all of the men are likely to be acquitted anyway. Maddox doesn’t care. The law is the law and he does not intend to leave Sabbath until he has the six men.
Lawman starts out like a standard western, with a stranger riding into town, but then it quickly turns the western traditions on their head by portraying Marshal Maddox as being a rigid fanatic and the wealthy rancher as a morally conflicted man who does not want to resort to violence and who continually tries and fails to convince Maddox to leave. In the tradition of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, there are no real heroes to be found in Lawman and, even when Maddox starts to reconsider his strict adherence to the law and refusal to compromise, it is too late to prevent the movie from ending in a bloody massacre. Since Lawman was made in 1971, I initially assumed it was meant to be an allegory about the Vietnam War but then I saw that it was directed by Michael Winner, a director who specialized in tricking audiences into believing that his violent movie were deeper than they actually were.
Even if Lawman never reaches the heights of a revisionist western classic like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it is still pretty good, with old pros Lancaster, Ryan, Cobb, and Albert Salmi all giving excellent performances. The cast is full of familiar faces, with everyone from Robert Duvall to Richard Jordan to Ralph Waite to Joseph Wiseman to John Beck showing up in small roles. In America, Winner is best remembered for his frequent collaborations with Charles Bronson. Chuck is not in Lawman, though it seems like he should have been and Lee J. Cobb’s rancher is named Vincent Bronson. Winner would not make his first film with Charles Bronson until a year later, when he directed him in Chato’s Land.