The Naked Spur

The Naked Spur is a 1953 Technicolor American Western film directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan and Ralph Meeker. Written by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, the film is about a bounty hunter who tries to bring a murderer to justice, and is forced to accept the help of two strangers who are less than trustworthy.[2] The original music score was composed by Bronisław Kaper and the cinematography was by William C. Mellor. The Naked Spur was filmed on location in Durango and the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, and Lone Pine, California.[3] The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay—a rare honor for a Western.[4] This was the third Western film collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart.

The Naked Spur
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAnthony Mann
Produced byWilliam H. Wright
Written bySam Rolfe
Harold Jack Bloom
StarringJames Stewart
Janet Leigh
Robert Ryan
Music byBronisław Kaper
CinematographyWilliam C. Mellor
Edited byGeorge White
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • February 1, 1953 (1953-02-01)
Running time
91 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3,850,000[1]


In March 1868, Howard Kemp is tracking Ben Vandergroat, who is wanted for the murder of the marshal in Abilene, Kansas.

On the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in southern Colorado, Kemp meets a grizzled old prospector, Jesse Tate, and offers him $20 ($380 today) to help. Tate assumes that Kemp is a sheriff, and Kemp does nothing to disillusion him.

They trap someone on top of a rocky hill who Kemp is convinced must be his Vandergroat. Looking for a way around the hill, Kemp and Tate encounter a Union soldier, Lieutenant Roy Anderson. He is heading east since being discharged from the 6th Cavalry at Fort Ellis in Bozeman, Montana. Kemp chances to see Anderson's discharge order, which describes him as "morally unstable" and a dishonorable discharge.

Tate tells Anderson that Kemp is a sheriff. With the aid of Anderson, who scales a sheer cliff face, Vandergroat is caught, along with his companion, Lina Patch, the daughter of Vandergroat's friend, Frank Patch, who was shot dead trying to rob a bank in Abilene.

Vandergroat sets Tate and Anderson straight on that Kemp is no lawman, and that a $5,000 reward ($94,000 today) is being offered to bring him in. Tate and Anderson want their shares to aid Kemp in getting Vandergroat back to Kansas. Lina is convinced that her father's friend is innocent.

On the trail to Abilene, Vandergroat attempts to turn his captors against each other, using greed as his weapon. He also encourages Lina to use her beauty to divide Kemp and Anderson. Scouting a mountain pass, Kemp and Tate spot a dozen Blackfoot, a normally friendly tribe, far from their normal hunting grounds. They tell the others, and Anderson confesses that the Indians are after him for raping the chief's daughter. Kemp tells Anderson to leave them and wishes him luck avoiding the Blackfoot. Anderson thinks Kemp just wants a bigger share of the reward money. He rides ahead, waits for Kemp's group to approach the Blackfoot to parley, then shoots the chief from his hiding place.

During the ensuing battle, Kemp saves Lina from the Blackfoot and she, in turn, helps him when he is shot in the leg. Kemp passes out as they ride on and awakes from a delirious nightmare. He thinks Lina is Mary, his ex-fiancée. Vandergroat tells the others that Mary sold Kemp's ranch while he was a soldier in the Civil War, and then left with another man. Vandergroat states that Kemp needs the bounty to buy his ranch back, explaining his offer of only $20 to the other men.

Lina is confused by loyalty to her father's friend, offset by a growing attraction to Kemp. She has only ever seen Vandergroat involved in fair fights, but is shocked when he loosens Kemp's saddle cinch and tries to push him off a high mountain pass.

Taking refuge from a storm in a cave, Vandergroat manipulates Lina into distracting Kemp. She tells the rancher of her dream to go to California, where she can make a fresh start. He tells her of his wish to repurchase his ranch. They kiss, and this gives Vandergroat a chance to escape. Kemp catches him, and Anderson suggests that, because the reward is for "dead or alive", they should just kill the troublemaker. Tate stops Anderson but, caught up in the anger of the moment and hurt by what he sees as Lina's treachery, Kemp challenges Vandergroat to a shoot out, which he declines.

Continuing on, the group comes to a high-running river. When they argue about where to cross, Anderson throws a rope around Vandergroat's neck and intends to drag him across the river. A fight ensues between Kemp and Anderson, as Vandergroat watches with malicious enjoyment. While Kemp and Anderson recover from the fight and Lina searches for firewood, Vandergroat convinces Tate to sneak off with him to find a gold mine, the whereabouts of which Vandergroat has been tempting the old man. When they sneak off during the night, he convinces Tate to include Lina.

Vandergroat and Lina ride double; Tate follows, holding a rifle on them. Vandergroat yells "Snake!" and in the confusion grabs Tate's rifle then kills him. He positions Tates body on rocks beside a rushing river so he can ambush Kemp and Anderson. Lina finally accepts that he truly is a criminal.

When Kemp and Anderson discover Tate's body, Lina grabs Vandergroat's rifle barrel, saving Kemp's life. While Anderson exchanges gunfire with Vandergroat, Kemp removes one of his spurs to use as a climbing ax to get up the back of the cliff and outflank Vandergroat.

Vandergroat hears Kemp and just as he aims at the rancher, Kemp throws his spur into the killer's cheek. As Vandergroat reels from the pain, he is shot by Anderson and his body falls into the river, becoming entangled in the roots of a tree. Anderson lassos a branch on the other side of the river and crosses using the rope. He then wraps it around Vandergroat's body but is crushed and carried off by a large floating log.

Kemp drags Vandergroat's body across the river and, in a rage, vows that he will take him back to reclaim his land. Lina pleads with him not to sell the body for money, but says she will go with him, no matter his choice, marry him, and live with him on the ranch. Kemp realizes what he is doing and his love for Lina makes him stop. He buries Vandergroat and the couple make for California, leaving their pasts behind.


Stunt performers

Virginia Bougas, Ted Mapes, Frank McGrath, Chuck Roberson, Jack Williams, Jack N. Young.

Historical inaccuracies

The 6th Cavalry Regiment was stationed in Texas in 1868.[5][6][7] Fort Ellis was actually under the command of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. The actors carry Colt Model of 1873 Peacemaker revolvers, which did not exist in 1868.


The Naked Spur was the third of five Western collaborations between James Stewart and Anthony Mann and also, third of the eight collaborations they did overall. Two previous Westerns included Winchester '73 (1950) and Bend of the River (1952). Stewart was given the lead role of Howard Kemp, an embittered rancher turned bounty hunter. The film is notable for having only five speaking parts. There were a number of parts of a band of Native Americans that were ambushed by Anderson.

Robert Ryan, known for his roles as ruthless villains and hard-boiled cops, was cast as Ben Vandergroat, a wild killer with a $5,000 "dead or alive" bounty on his head for the murder of a Kansas marshal. Ryan would work with Mann again in Men in War (1957) and God's Little Acre (1958). Janet Leigh was cast as Lina Patch, Vandergroat's companion who eventually falls in love with Kemp. Leigh starred alongside Ryan in the film noir Act of Violence (1948), which was directed by Fred Zinnemann. Ralph Meeker was cast as Roy Anderson, a disgraced Army officer.

Millard Mitchell, who played Jesse Tate, a grizzled old prospector, died at fifty years of age from lung cancer shortly after this picture. This was his next-to-last movie, followed by Here Come the Girls (released October 1953), starring Bob Hope.

The film was filmed in Lone Pine, California, and on location in the San Juan Mountains and Durango in Colorado. According to writer and historian Frederic B. Wildfang, during filming Stewart dedicated a monument in town, marking the area as the "Hollywood of the Rockies". Production started in late May and ended in June 1952.


The film premiered in the first day of February 1953. That same year, two other films directed by Mann and starring Stewart were also released. These were Thunder Bay and The Glenn Miller Story.

Empire describes the movie as "a masterpiece that’s too easy to take for granted" and "the best of an outstanding run of Westerns".[8]

The movie holds a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.[9]

According to MGM records the film earned $2,423,000 in the US and Canada and $1,427,000 overseas, resulting in a profit to the studio of $1,081,000.[1]

This success ensured three more Stewart-Mann collaborations, including two more westerns. Screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom were nominated for the 1953 Best Screenplay Academy Award. In the years since its release, the film has achieved continued success, gaining more critical acclaim now than upon first release. Leonard Maltin has lauded The Naked Spur as "one of the best westerns ever made".

In 1997, The Naked Spur was added to the United States National Film Registry, being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Although much is made of the collaboration between James Stewart and Anthony Mann, Robert Ryan also teamed with Mann in The Naked Spur, Men in War, and God's Little Acre.


  1. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  2. "The Naked Spur". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved March 21, 2012.
  3. "Filming locations for The Naked Spur". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved March 21, 2012.
  4. "Awards for The Naked Spur". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved March 21, 2012.
  5. Carter, Captain William H. - 6th U.S. Cavalry. - "The Sixth Regiment of Cavalry". - United States Army Center of Military History. - Retrieved: 2008-06-13
  6. "Fort Griffin". - Handbook of Texas. - Retrieved: 2008-06-13
  7. "Fort Richardson". - Handbook of Texas. - Retrieved: 2008-06-13
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