“How did he do it?” A big wig asks John Griff (Reed Hadley), our narrator. “Ambition,” Griff replies. In typical fashion, Samuel Fuller lays much of The Baron of Arizona bare in its opening minutes with Griff’s statement. The film chronicles the stranger than fiction story of how James Reavis (Vincent Price in eyebrow raising, dastardly form) forged documents that allowed him to declare himself the literal Baron of Arizona for a brief time in the late 19th Century due to the United States’ faithfulness in honoring Spanish land grants. Told procedurally, the movie lays much of this out for us in title cards or via Hadley’s smooth-talking narration (one of the more aggravating aspects of the picture, in which Griff will often explicitly narrate what Fuller is telling perfectly well with the camera). Despite a few leaps in time, the minutiae of Reavis’ plot are methodically laid out. Price carries it with aplomb, and the time that Fuller allots the plotting and planning as opposed to the ultimate payoff of all of Reavis’ toils is key in the understanding of his character.
For much of The Baron, ambition isn’t simply a characteristic of Reavis – it shapes and defines him. His time spent as conquerer is very little, and Fuller spends as much time focusing on the angry Arizonians as he does on Reavis’ paranoia and relationship with Sofia (whom Reavis made the true heir to the mythical original Baron). Ambition here is represented as little more than swindling and stealing and muscling one’s way to undeserved treasures (Price puts his imposing physical frame to good use in a brief confrontation with a rioter). The irate Arizonians show ambition when opposing Reavis. There are repeated mentions about “their” land that Fuller subtly undercuts with disenfranchised Indian on-lookers in the mobs. One image defines this theme of conquering and ambition – Reavis’ enlarged shadow looming over the massive map of Arizona that hangs behind his new desk.
Like Reavis, The Baron of Arizona is visually smooth and graceful (the cinematography is by James Wong Howe), which is a bit unusual for Fuller’s usual brash and visceral style (although there is a torch-and-pitchfork sequence in which the crazed stylist in Fuller briefly takes over). Price’s charisma carries much of the film (which remains intriguing despite its methodical and procedural pacing), and although its ending does seem a bit unearned and contradictory to the buildup at first, Price and Fuller sell it. Whether it’s redemption through love, or the idea that with ambition, even when you lose, you win, I’m not sure, but The Baron of Arizona stands as a fine early entry into Fuller’s oeuvre of thoughtful genre pictures.