Although Stuart Heisler’s The Burning Hills has a fantastic story with interesting characters, poor acting and an abysmal script bring it down. Not even the wonderful Natalie Wood can bring this script to life.
The film starts out with a man getting shot in the back on a ranch and his horses being stolen. The man is the brother of Trace Jordan (Tab Hunter), the hero of our picture. Trace gets word from one of his ranch hands that the dirty business of horse-theft and murder comes from the nearby town, so he heads in to investigate.
He learns that Mr. Sutton runs everything in town. (Sutton is played by Ray Teal, whose small role is the only noteworthy performance in the film). Trace goes to pay Sutton a visit, and upon his arrival at his gate he notices some of his brother's horses with their brands changed from JJ to JS.
After forcing his way inside, he confronts Sutton, who is very upset about his people being accused of murder and horse thievery. He insists it was no one from his town, but Trace knows better. Trace informs Sutton that since the town has no sheriff, he will head out to bring in the US Military to bring justice to the men that killed his brother.
Sutton cannot allow this to happen, so he takes a shot at Trace, who returns fire and hits Sutton in the belly. On his retreat out of town, Trace gets shot in the side, injuring him severely. He rides as far as he can, and ends up collapsing in a small creek at the opening of an old abandoned mine.
The small creek trickles down the hill and into the valley below where it is used to hydrate the sheep of the ranch on the property. The water stops flowing into the valley because Trace’s body is blocking it. Maria (Natalie Wood) heads up the hill to see what is going on. She finds Trace lying there wounded, and nurses him back to health.
Maria has a strong hatred for Sutton and his men because they killed her father. As soon as she finds out Trace shot old man Sutton, she vows to do anything she can to help him. She helps distract Sutton's men, and tells Trace of a place to go and hide until she can join him and help him to go get the Military. Unfortunately, Sutton's men, led by Sutton's son, Jack (Skip Homeier), soon learn that Maria is helping Trace, and it doesn't take long to extract his hiding place from her younger brother.
The rest of the film is an exciting game of cat and mouse as Trace and Maria try to outrun Sutton's men until they reach the Military outpost.
It's a shame The Burning Hills has so many flaws because, with the strong story and the incredibly talented Natalie Wood in one of the lead roles, it could have been an all time classic Western. Tab Hunter and Skip Homeier are absolutely dreadful in their roles.
The lines written for Miss Wood (whose character is half Mexican and speaks broken English) are laughable. They kept emphasizing that she is only half Mexican on her mother's side and that her father was a Yankee, which leads me to think she should have spoken much better English then she did.
The majority of the problems in The Burning Hills can be attributed to Irving Wallace, the screenwriter. Even though many of the performances were weak, a good script can strengthen any performance. I would have to think that Louis L'Amour's novel would be far superior to the film, especially since the major strength of the film is the story that L'Amour created. I'd only go out of my way to see The Burning Hills if you're a huge Natalie Wood fan, since she's the only real star in the film.