Some films don’t make much of an impression. Watch them and they spend a few days in your short-term memory but are soon forgotten. The 1980 production of BELLE STARR is not that kind of film. It stays in your long-term memory, because of Elizabeth Montgomery’s fantastic performance.
Previously Fox made a feature in 1941 with Gene Tierney playing the famed outlaw. Jane Russell also took a turn in RKO’s MONTANA BELLE. But Liz Montgomery’s interpretation is much grittier; and it is clearly a continuation of the roles she took to distance herself from the Samantha Stephens image of Bewitched. As Belle she’s a woman who likes danger. She rides with Cole Younger, the James Brothers and other gunmen. And when she aims her rifle she means it.
Interestingly this version was produced by Hanna-Barbera, a company known for animation projects. There’s extensive outdoor filming, and the attention to period detail is outstanding. Cliff Potts, who costarred in an earlier film with Liz, is cast as Cole; and it is revealed that he is the father of Belle’s youngest child, which historians would probably dispute. In fact there are several liberties taken with actual details of the main characters’ lives, but I think the general sense these were kindred spirits who marauded and reveled together is fairly accurate.
There’s a feminist angle to this story I enjoyed very much. The Belle in this picture sees the prim and proper townswomen for the hypocrites they are. Ironically, she is forced to entrust the care of her daughter to one of the stuck-up women who intends to turn the girl against her. Belle’s motives are always pure with her daughter. And she’s more of a woman than those snobs will ever be.
Belle’s relationship with an older son is depicted in a more incestuous way. Again, not sure if historians would agree with some of the liberties taken…but it gives Liz plenty of juicy material to play. There are two particularly effective scenes. One is when locals burn Belle’s farm to the ground in an attempt to drive her from their community. She carefully surveys the damage and knows what must be done.
Then there’s the final scene where Belle’s dramatic death is depicted. After encountering trouble on a robbery, she returns to the farm to find her son. As she dismounts, ties her horse and goes inside the house, she is unable to find him. She is still looking for the boy moments later when an unknown assailant is heard approaching off-camera, shoots and kills Belle. It is left ambiguous who her murderer might be. Did her son shoot her? It’s a powerful ending for a woman whose life of crime comes to a sudden end.
BELLE STARR is directed by John Alonzo and can be found on DVD.