by Brian Holcomb
Director Sam Fuller is like that crazy uncle your family is afraid of having over for Thanksgiving. He says exactly what's on his mind and what's on his mind is so one sided that any mild dissent is likely to descend immediately into a shouting match over the cranberry sauce.
The thing is the man is right. He's even right when he's wrong because he tries so hard to speak the truth straight from his heart . You have to admire a man of such conviction.
This film, The Baron of Arizona (1950) is about the craziest true story I've never heard of that turned out to be pretty damn true. Even with Fuller shouting his own melodramatic version of the truth at the top of his lungs. It's really a great flick.
Who ever heard of this James Addison Reavis guy ? A guy who almost swindled the United States out of Arizona. I mean, he actually claimed ownership of the territory around and including the state of Arizona and moved there with his wife to lord over the unwilling locals as their "Baron". The US government apparently was dumbfounded by the incredible authenticity of his claim and unable to prove it a fraud for over a year. I know what you're thinking, "What? This really happened?" Well, a few clicks on the google device gets us a nice wikipedia entry that seems to hold up most of Fuller's claim that this is a "true story".
Vincent Price plays the Baron and his performance is right in line with the neurotic cads that he had been known for since his classic performance in Otto Preminger's Laura. This road would eventually lead him to the mostly great Corman Poe adaptations which would eventually lead him into becoming a parody of himself. But this is an early performance and it's one of his best, right up there with Matthew Hopkins in The Witchfinder General. The difference here is that Price's Baron is a great anti-hero rather than villain. You know the whole time that he's using people, lying to everyone and yet you can't help but admire him. Any man who is willing to invest years forging papers and deeds to create a fictional history of a family claim has to be admired on a purely mercenary level.
In the film James Reavis is shown joining an order of monks in California and living among them for what seems like months in order to earn their trust . All to get his hands on one of the original copies of the local land records and to use the very specific ink they make in their monastery to make a few important changes. The fact that this ends in failure and does not stop him is amazing. He just pushes on, finding another way to get at the original records and even marrying into the Peralta family to seal the illusion.
The film has an unusual effect. As you watch Reavis weave his web, you are on his side. As he achieves his goal and takes control of Arizona from an absurd James Bond styled headquarters (complete with a giant map of his kingdom on the wall), you still hope that the government fools won't find a flaw in his brilliant forgeries. Even the "good" people of Arizona start looking like monsters, turning into a mad lynch mob out for blood. But it's his treatment of his innocent wife that makes you question his actions. And since this is grand melodrama, Reavis questions his own actions as well and like the Grinch, his heart grows three sizes overnight. Fuller rushes this a bit and seems somewhat dispassionate about the man's redemption. He's much more excited by the fact that the locals couldn't care less about his change of heart and intend on burning down his evil lair and hanging the Baron and Baroness from a noose.
There is a happy ending of sorts but Reavis seems less redeemed than disappointed as he is released from Prison and surrounded by his family. After all this was a man with massive ambitions for personal power and glory. All he has to look forward to now is a nice dinner with some poor relatives. Too bad he couldn't craft a new plan to steal New York City.