Early in his career director Samuel Fuller was making nice low-budget Westerns like this one and was developing some of the style that would characterize him later. As a bonus, we get Vincent Price as a scoundrel.
The film was based on the true story of James Addison Reavis, here played by Price, who attempted to gain title to most of the then-Territory of Arizona by forging Spanish land grant documents. Reavis started his career as a humble government clerk who was appalled to see that the federal government recognized the validity of Spanish land grants. He made up his mind to profit from this.
Reavis’s elaborate plan spanned decades. First, he befriends Pepito (Vladimir Sokoloff) and his little adopted daughter Sofia. He tells them that Sofia’s parents were the descendents of the Peralta famiily who had been granted most of the current territory of Arizona by King Ferdinand of Spain back in the 18th Century. This makes Sofia the Baroness of Arizona. Reavis promises to make her claim a reality and sets to work. Sofia falls in love with her benefactor when he gives her her first piece of candy.
First, Reavis goes to Mexico and creates a grave and monument for the Peraltas. Then he sets off for Spain where he gets himself accepted as a monk in the monastery at which land grants of the period were enscribed and preserved. Through years of patient effort he finally becomes one of the scribes himself, enabling him to use the monastery’s ancient supplies of ink and paper to forge his document. He then tells the monks he is not cut out for the life and flees. It turns out another copy of the records was preserved at the home of an aristocrat, so he must enlist the help of some gypsies and seduce the aristocrat’s wife in order to steal these.
His documents secured, Reavis returns to Arizona and marries the patiently waiting Sofia (Ellen Drew). He presents his proof that she is the Baroness of Arizona and proceeds to extort money from railroads and other entities wishing to do business on “his” land. This goes pretty well for awhile. What Reavis had not counted on was the violent reaction of the common settlers to anyone, legitimate or not, taking their farms away from them. And then there’s that pesky forgery expert who works for the Department of Interior …
I thought this was an interesting story and would like to learn more about the real Reavis. You have to admire someone who would go to such lengths for long-term gain! Some of Fuller’s flamboyance in staging is coming through here, as is shown by the huge Arizona map dominating Reavis’s office. Price is deliciously hammy as always, though he doesn’t go too overboard here. Worth seeing.