If the President James A Garfield in this film bears a resemblance to any real President Garfield, living or dead, it’s entirely coincidental.
As a matter of fact, there seems to be a blending of two Presidents, in the matter of their assassinations anyway, in the film. Van Johnson plays Garfield, a slim, blond, beardless Garfield.
President Garfield is in Dallas for meetings with higher-ups of the state. He’s riding in an open carriage where he can wave at the crowds. The First Lady by his side wears a pink dress and hat. The shots when they come hit him in the head. Two witnesses give differing testimony. One says the shots were in the base of his skull, indicating a shot from behind. The other doctor says he was shot in the neck by shots from the front. The patsy set up for it all is killed while being transferred from one jail to another.
That’s the set-up.
Bill Willer(Giuliano Gemma) is the man hunting for the real killers. An early attempt to blame him is foiled. He had a reason to dislike Garfield who prosecuted him for treason during the war and got him four years. Willer was a southerner who fought for the North and allowed his regiment to be attacked by Rebels because he refused to tell of a Rebel who he’d spotted watching. During the court-martial he’d refused to defend himself. We learn later that the Rebel he’d spotted watching his regiment was his father.
Willer foils an early attempt by stopping a group planning to blow up a bridge as the Presidential train rolls across. Garfield is grateful, but Willer admits his only reasons were to find his father’s killers. Most of the politicians in Dallas were in on it, as well as the law, and one had slipped when his father had come in to complain about harassment while they were “interrogating” Jack Donovan(Ray Saunders), Willer’s black friend. The sheriff escorts his father back to his ranch and Donovan fakes his own hanging to get the cell opened and escape to find Willer.
They get to the ranch to late, finding his father murdered. They are riding to the bridge to stop that when an ambush wounds Donovan.
Another difference is the VP Chester A. Arthur. He was one of the conspirators, but balked at assassination. He’d spent two years as VP and grown to respect Garfield(as opposed to the real Garfield death during the first year of his administration). The President’s assistant, now Arthur’s, learns there are papers that could embarrass his administration
unless he let southern interests control him. Something he didn’t intend to let happen. The assistant is charged with finding and taking those papers away.
Willer’s friend Donovan gets caught up in the assassination because of his admiration for Garfield and his stands on equality and equal education. He’s waving as the President passes and spots the killers waiting on a overpass. He takes shots at them just as they fire, setting him up to be the patsy for Garfield’s murder.
Now Willer has to find the murderers of both his father and best friend, as well as expose the plot.
Liked this one. Director Tonino Valeri always considered this the favorite of his many films, quite an admission from the man who brought us two acknowledged classics of the genre: DAY OF ANGER(with Van Cleef and Gemma) and MY NAME IS NOBODY(with Terence Hill and Henry Fonda)