Jane Got a Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 11, 2016

Jane Got A Gun—Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Noah Emmerich (2016; Dir:  Gavin O’Connor)

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This female empowerment story with an extraordinary international cast and a clunky title had a bumpy path to the screen.  Originally, (Irish actor) Michael Fassbender was to star opposite (Israeli-born) Natalie Portman, but he left early on due to either (a) clashes with original (Scottish) director Lynne Ramsay, or (b) scheduling conflicts with an X-Men movie, depending on which version one believes.  (Australian actor) Joel Edgerton was moved from playing the villain to the role opposite Portman, and (English actor) Jude Law signed up to be the villain, only to leave shortly after Ramsay’s departure as director just as shooting was to start.  Bradley Cooper was then to come in as the bad guy, but also had scheduling conflicts.  Finally, (Scottish actor) Ewan McGregor was signed, Gavin O’Connor (director of the underrated Warrior) came in on very short notice, and the film was shot in New Mexico in early 2013.  Then it languished on the shelf for almost three years, while its distributor went into bankruptcy.  Eventually, the movie came to the Weinsteins and then to the big screen in early 2016.  Such turmoil in production often leads to very lowered expectations for the product.  It shouldn’t, in this case.

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Jane (Natalie Portman) seeks help from former flame Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton).

In New Mexico Territory in 1871, Bill Hammond (character actor Noah Emmerich) rides up to the remote ranch he shares with his wife Jane Ballard Hammond (Natalie Portman) and young daughter, only to fall off his horse with five bullets in him.  He mutters something about the Bishop Boys coming.  After providing some doctoring to Hammond, Jane takes her (three-year-old?) daughter Kate to a neighbor for safety.  And then she seeks out Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton).  Much of the rest of the story is told in various flashbacks.

Frost and Jane had been lovers in Missouri before Frost left to fight for the Union early in the Civil War, ten years previously.  He was apparently some kind of hero in that conflict and now has some talents as a gunslinger, which is what Jane says she’s seeking.  In another flashback, we see that in 1866 Jane, believing Frost had been killed in the war, took her daughter Mary and joined a wagon train of women heading west under the leadership of John Bishop (Ewan McGregor).  Meanwhile, Frost had also come west in search of her and had eventually ended up asking Bishop, who was also looking for her by the time Frost came to him.

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Jane (Natalie Portman) is not a natural with a pistol, although she can handle a rifle.

[Spoilers follow.]  Finally finding Jane married and with a child, Frost has apparently taken to drink and bitterness.  However, he reluctantly comes to Jane’s aid when she is attacked in town by one of Bishop’s men.  At the ranch Frost directs the effort in putting together a makeshift mine field in front of the cabin with mason jars, kerosene, nails and glass shards.  In more flashbacks, we see that Hammond was one of Bishop’s men.  He fell in love with Jane and rescued her from a brothel in Raphael, New Mexico, which is where the nefarious Bishop planned to take the women all along.  Jane’s daughter Mary had apparently been drowned, and current daughter Kate was conceived as a result of her brief stay in the brothel.

Another Bishop man shows up at the ranch, and Frost dispatches him.  The principal Bishop attack comes at night, with an incredible barrage of bullets shredding the ranch house.  However, the mine field works spectacularly, and the odds against Jane and Frost are reduced.  Both Frost (right shoulder) and Jane (torso) are hit, and Hammond is finished off, although he was apparently dying anyway.  Frost gets the last few attackers, but the final one is Bishop himself, who captures Frost.  Jane gets the drop on Bishop, and he claims that Mary is still alive.  As Jane blasts him, Bishop reveals that Mary is at the brothel in Raphael.

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The makeshift mine field takes its toll on the attackers.

In the final scenes, Jane and Frost retrieve Mary, and Jane claims the rewards for the now-deceased members of the Bishop gang (including $5000 for Bishop himself).  She forgoes the $2000 reward on Bill Hammond.  With the proceeds, she, Frost (with arm in a sling) and their two daughters head for a new life in California.

The actors are excellent.  Portman, Edgerton and McGregor all appeared in earlier Star Wars movies together and are unusually capable.  One of Edgerton’s major roles a few years ago was in the very good Warrior, directed by Gavin O’Connor.  Here, Portman gets a producing credit, along with several others, and was the moving force behind it all.  Edgerton has a writing credit, as one of three.  McGregor doesn’t actually show up on camera that frequently, but he is snakily evil when he does, and his menace looms over the entire movie.  The film has some grittiness; it is rated R for graphic violence, brothel scenes, loathsome bad guys and some bad language.  But if you can stomach that, it’s not a bad western.  Jane’s costume design is unusually good, managing to look both 19th-century, attractive and utilitarian together—especially her hat, which looks good but is less authentic.  Women’s hats can be a problem in westerns (but see Linda Darnell in Two Flags West from 1950), although they would seemingly be a necessity for any woman who spent much time out-of-doors.

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So what doesn’t work?  There is some excellent cinematography by Mandy Walker (the young lovers in a field of cattails, for example, and the explosion of the minefield).  But much of the night attack can be hard to see in the dark.  Although it’s not a long movie at 98 minutes, the story is lacking a spark of something.  Frost apparently did something extraordinary during the late war, but that isn’t established very well, nor is his status or skill as a gunslinger.  (Use of that term by Jane seems anachronistic.)  A couple of small scenes could have remedied that.  Perhaps the worry was that making the Dan Frost character a bit stronger would take away from focusing on Jane’s strength.  That doesn’t need to be the case, however; it can be a very good thing to have two strong characters to play off each other.  The storytelling is not entirely smooth, and things seem to bog down slightly from time to time as we wait for the next attack or flashback.

The inspiration for the title was apparently the 1989 Aerosmith song “Janie’s Got a Gun,” which plays on outrage for mistreatment of women and the helpless.  A better title would have let this story stand on its own, even though those themes are present here, too.  Movies with an overt ideological bent often do not thrive as stories; that’s why most revisionist westerns are not that good as westerns.  But this one mostly works.  Capable women with guns in westerns go back more than 70 years, at least to Loretta Young saving Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones (1945).  Strong, vengeful women with guns go back at least 45 years to 1971’s Hannie Caulder, with Raquel Welch, through Bad Girls (1994) and a number of others, and this fits into that genealogy.

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The Bishop Boys, led by John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), get their orders.

This is also one of those movies in which young lovers are separated by the Civil War and afterward have to sort out the consequences—or are unable to do so.  See The Last Sunset, for example, and Cold Mountain.  More recently, see Forsaken, which is slightly better than this film.

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Forsaken

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 5, 2016

Forsaken—Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Demi Moore, Brian Cox, Michael Wincott, Aaron Poole, Greg Ellis (2015; Dir: Jon Cassar)

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Canadian father and son actors Donald and Kiefer Sutherland have not really worked together in a film before, although each has done westerns (Kiefer in the Young Guns movies, and Donald in a remake of Dawn Rider).  This is a traditional sort of western, presenting again the question of whether a gunman can reform, when despite his good intentions circumstances call him back to his former ways and skills (like many westerns from Hell’s Hinges to The Gunfighter to Unforgiven).

The movie begins with a flashback, although we don’t know that’s what it is yet, of a boy apparently dying of a gunshot.  Then come introductory shots reminiscent of films by directors Budd Boetticher, Sergio Leone and any number of other westerns, of a lone rider making his way across the landscape and the credits.  It is 1872 in Wyoming Territory, and this is John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) heading homeward to Fowler, where he has not been since he left to fight for the Union in the Civil War ten years earlier.

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John Henry (Kiefer Sutherland) has returned, but he and his father (Donald Sutherland) have a difficult past and are still wary of each other.

His father is the Rev. William Clayton (Donald Sutherland), a white-haired, unyielding man from whom his son has long been estranged.  John Henry discovers that his mother is recently dead, and there seems to be little common ground with his father.  In town, we find that John Henry is a well-known gunman, although he says he no longer wears a gun.  He meets Gentleman Dave Turner (Michael Wincott), a southern-born gunman whom he treats with a modicum of respect, and Frank Tillman (Aaron Poole), whom he doesn’t.  They are both employed by James McCurdy (Brian Cox), who is trying to buy up all the surrounding land cheaply in anticipation of the coming of the railroad.

John Henry Clayton, explaining his failure to come home after the war:  “I was done with killing, but she wasn’t done with me.”

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John Henry (Kiefer Sutherland) and Mary-Alice (Demi Moore) try to sort out life’s turns.

John Henry also encounters a former flame, Mary-Alice Watson (Demi Moore), who married someone else eight years ago.  Although there is clearly still some affinity between them, John Henry tells her she was right to have married Tom Watson.  Watson (Greg Ellis) is not so sure of his wife’s affections.  As McCurdy’s men increase the pressure and the violence, Tillman sees that John Henry is serious about not taking up the gun again, and they beat him mercilessly.  Mary-Alice helps the Rev. Clayton drag John Henry to his buggy, to her husband’s distress, and he decides to sell out.

John Henry revisits his family’s past. He starts clearing a field that he says his mother had wanted him and his father to clear together, although the father denies it.  Finally, he seeks some solace at church, where he and his father talk about the death of his brother William in a drowning accident when they were boys (echoes of one of Donald Sutherland’s best movies, Ordinary People).  And he confesses that he quit the gunman’s life when, defending himself against two attackers, he accidentally killed a boy in the scene we saw at the movie’s start.  We see Rev. Clayton start to work on clearing the field, indicating changes in his relationship with his son.

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Father and son (Donald Sutherland and Kiefer Sutherland) work on their relationship, which is not as dreary as that sounds.

[Spoilers follow.]  As McCurdy’s violence mounts, John Henry maintains his resolve not to resort to his old skills.  But when Tillman and his boys knife the Rev. Clayton in town, and it looks like Mary-Alice’s husband is next, John Henry is pushed over the edge.  He gets out his gun again, and at the general store picks up a big LeMat revolver, which holds nine bullets and a 10-gauge shotgun shell.  There follows a classic extended saloon shootout, very well done.  But when John Henry emerges into the street, there is Gentleman Dave.  Pleading that he has left his Colt in the saloon and the heavy LeMat would put him at a disadvantage, he goes back into the saloon.  But instead of returning immediately to the street, he finds and initiates a showdown with McCurdy.  At the end, Gentleman Dave concedes that he no longer has an employer, and the two of them go their separate ways.  Narration by Gentleman Dave closes out the movie with what little is known of the rest of John Henry’s doings.

John Henry Clayton (coming to a decision):  “It’s time I did something right in my life.  This is what I know how to do.”

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John Henry (Kiefer Sutherland) makes an entrance in McCurdy’s saloon.  Note the big LeMat in his left hand.

There is not much about this film we haven’t seen before, but it’s done well here.  The Sutherlands are good actors, and are convincing as father and son in a strained relationship.  The development of that relationship works.  John Henry Clayton is not so different from Jack Bauer (the relentless and deadly character he played in several seasons of television’s 24), it turns out.  He’s persuasive as the haunted gunfighter trying to quit, and he’s very good as the experienced killer who knows his business.  Demi Moore, who is not seen much on film these days, is also good as Mary-Alice.  She seems well cast.  One of the juicier roles, that of Gentleman Dave, is very well done by Michael Wincott, albeit in a strange hat.  He plays Gentlemen Dave with a courtly silkiness and quasi-ethical consideration that adds interest.

That is not to say that the film is without missteps. When Tom Watson confronts John Henry and demands whether he still loves Mary-Alice, he remains silent, feeding Tom’s fears.  The appropriate answer is “She’s married to you, and I respect that,” which he has already told her.  John Henry’s use of language changes.  At first, he speaks in a relatively uneducated manner, while his preacher-father speaks more formally.  But when he’s talking with Gentleman Dave at the end, he adopts Dave’s courtly form of speech with polysyllabic words.  That’s probably intentional by the writer, Brad Mirman.  Although not quite a classic, if you’re looking for a good traditional western, this is worth seeking out.  The end is curiously satisfying, seemingly formulaic but also true to the characters as they have developed.

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Michael Wincott (dressed as Gentleman Dave), Donald Sutherland and Kiefer Sutherland on the set.

Apparently the original cut of the film was three hours and fifteen minutes long.  Deciding to trim it to focus on the father-son relationship, the producers have a final film less than half that, at 90 minutes.  They were probably right to do that, although one would like to see the longer cut, too.  Among the material on the cutting room floor are an introductory scene showing how John Henry was in a gunfight that led to his life as a gunman, and a subplot involving a young man drifting into the gunslinger’s life and leaving his girlfriend, while John Henry moves in the opposite direction.  Kiefer Sutherland was the moving force behind the film and putting it together.  He and director Jon Cassar had worked together on 24 (Cassar directed 58 episodes), along with co-stars Michael Wincott and Greg Ellis.

Made for a budget of less than $20 million, this is one of those productions involving a lot of Canadian talent, locations and funding, like The Grey Fox and Gunless.  It’s not clear what the title “Forsaken” refers to, unless it’s John Henry’s attempt to forsake his gunman’s life or his feeling that God has forsaken him.  This was filmed in Alberta near Calgary, and the cinematography by Rene Ohashi makes good use of the scenery.  The elegiac music is by Jonathan Goldsmith.  Rated R for violence and McCurdy’s bad language.

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Diablo

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 3, 2016

Diablo—Scott Eastwood, Adam Beach, Walton Goggins, Danny Glover, Camilla Belle, (2015; Dir: Lawrence Roeck)

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It has been almost 25 years since Clint Eastwood, the greatest western star (see our post on Shooting Stars 1) since John Wayne, appeared in his last western, the impressive Unforgiven.  Now in his 80s, he is still working, but it seems doubtful he will ever appear in or direct another western.  Now comes his son Scott Eastwood (formerly known as Scott Reeves; his parents weren’t married) in his first western.  He has appeared in other movies (Fury and The Longest Ride, for example), and it appears that he may be a real actor.  Part of the enjoyment in watching this intensely psychological western is looking for those moments when Eastwood’s hair, the angles in his face and, just occasionally, his way of speaking remind one of his father.  It seems apparent from the movie posters that a little tweaking was done there to emphasize any resemblance to his father’s appearance.

As a psychological western with a significant twist, be warned:  there will be spoilers regarding that twist.  Read no farther if you don’t want to know it.  The movie develops slowly, and we are almost an hour into a short movie (83 minutes in total) before the plot starts to develop its point.  It begins with an action scene, of Mexican night raiders burning a ranch belonging to Jackson (Scott Eastwood) and abducting his wife Alexandra (or Alexsandra, which seems an unlikely way to spell it).  This is Colorado Territory in 1872; the titles inform us that it is seven years after the Civil War, so we assume that will play some role in the film.  Jackson assumes that the raiders have taken the “South Trail” toward New Mexico, and he follows.

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Jackson (Scott Eastwood) follows on the wintry “South Trail.”

As the story develops and he follows deeper into the wintry mountains, two elements become apparent. Jackson is not very trail-wise, being taken unawares by an Indian boy whom he allows to escape, and being jumped by an itinerant Chinese trader and then by Ezra (Walton Goggins), a possibly deranged man claiming to own the road.  Ezra gratuitously kills the trader and threatens to kill Jackson.  It also becomes obvious that Jackson should, in addition to his rifle, be wearing a sidearm, since he gets taken by surprise so often when he doesn’t have the rifle.  When he finally does see the Mexican party at a distance, one of them shoots him.  Dying, he is visited again by Ezra and awakens to find himself in a teepee being attended by the Indian boy’s father Nakoma (Adam Beach).  They give him peyote, and it is revealed in a gruesome scene that Jackson accidentally killed his younger brother during the late war.  The Indians drive him out, and as he goes, Ezra appears and shoots several of them.

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Jackson (Scott Eastwood) meets the volatile Ezra (Walton Goggins).

[Spoilers begin in earnest.]  The wounded Jackson visits Benjamin Carver (Danny Glover), a black man he knew during the war who now lives with his granddaughter in the mountains.  Carver offers to help, but is clearly afraid of Jackson, referring to Jackson’s service under Gen. Sherman as a killer and killing his own brother.  It now starts to become obvious that Ezra is Jackson’s alter ego, and that Jackson is a deranged killer, probably unhinged by killing his brother.  He is now using a pistol and moving like he knows very well how to use it.

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Jackson (Scott Eastwood) encounters Alexsandra (Camille Belle) at a stream.

He finds the Mexicans, and approaches Alexsandra at a stream.  She flees from him in terror, and the Mexicans bolt for the south.  They come to an extensive hacienda/homestead and prepare for Jackson’s arrival.  He kills several of them, using the pistol with great efficiency and ferocity.  Invading the house, he finds himself in the same room with Alexsandra, who pleads with him to leave her in peace with the father of her children and then shoots him in fear.  She flees to the next room, and a badly wounded but still ferocious Jackson appears at the door.  The movie ends with a close-up of Jackson in freeze frame, but the soundtrack continues, making it sound like he shoots Alexsandra’s husband and perhaps Alexsandra herself.  Jackson is the “Diablo” of the title.

This movie won the Best Feature award at the 2015 San Diego Film Festival.  Subsequent audiences have not generally been so fond of it, perhaps because of its slow initial development and its bleak, nihilistic ending.  Scott Eastwood is an attractive young man and a decent actor, although not as good as Walton Goggins (Cowboys & Aliens, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight), who is downright scary as the murderous half of his mind.  Camille Belle, as the young Mexican woman Jackson may have abducted himself before the film began, has very little film time but does well enough with it.  We needed a little more backstory on Jackson earlier in the movie to avoid losing patience with the story; the sense is that it wasn’t quite playing fair and delayed the real developments in the story too long.

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Eastwoods, pere et fils.

The film was shot in color in Alberta, as many westerns are these days.  The cinematography (by Dean Cundey) of the wintry landscape is beautiful, although it is not entirely clear what the season is and why some places are snowier than others, making it seem capricious.  The overhead shots of Jackson riding through the scenic landscape may be overdone.  This is the second film for director-producer Lawrence Roeck, who co-wrote it.  Overall, the movie is not as watchable a western as it could have been, but it shows some promise.  Rated R for violence.

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The Walking Hills

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 24, 2016

The Walking Hills—Randolph Scott, John Ireland, Ella Raines, William Bishop, Edgar Buchanan, Josh White, Jerome Courtland, Arthur Kennedy, Charles Stevens (1949; Dir: John Sturges)

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The enigmatic title of this treasure-hunting noir western set in modern times (ca. 1950) refers to a large area of dunes that move around in strong winds.  An 1852 wagon train supposed to have been full of gold was been lost there, and in a back room card game in Calexico, young Johnny (Jerome Courtland) refers to having seen what might be a line of wagons out in the sand.  Old Willy (grizzled former dentist Edgar Buchanan) supplies the legend, and it is determined that everybody in the room must go, lest anybody staying behind later follow with his own search party and cut them out.

They are soon joined by Chris Jackson (Ella Raines), who works at a local lunch counter and has romantic history with two members of the group.  Aside from Old Willy, the most experienced hand is Jim Carey (Randolph Scott), a rancher and horse breeder, who brings along a mare he expects to foal at any time.  He supplies the expedition with horses, wrangled by his Indian hand Cleve (Charles Stevens).  Chris and Jim were a romantic item before she left him for rodeo rider/gambler Shep/Dave (William Bishop).  Shep in turn abandoned her in the rain in Denver.

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Jim Carey (Randolph Scott) is the center, figuratively and visually, of the group of gold hunters.

Frazee (John Ireland) is a private detective who was pursuing Shep but is now more interested in gold.  He has a gun and a heliograph, with which he signals a confederate in the foothills.  Bits of backstory are told in flashback, such as the fact that Shep had been in a card game in Denver that resulted in an accidental death, for which he is now wanted by the law.  That’s why he left Chris in Denver.  Johnny sees Frazee burying something and jumps him; he is shot by Frazee and initially thought to be paralyzed.  Chris insists that Jim get Johnny to a doctor, but Jim can’t leave his mare and thinks that Johnny won’t make it anyway.  He doesn’t, although he supplies a couple more bits of information before his demise.

[Spoilers follow.]  Old Willy discovers a wagon, giving the group new energy.  But there’s no gold in the wagon, and the band is hit by a sand storm, during which Frazee battles Shep, Chalk (Arthur Kennedy) and Jim with shovels and fists before Chalk shoots Frazee with his own gun.  Jim scrambles to round up the scattered horses in the storm, while the others seek cover.  When the storm passes, the wagon train stands revealed, but with no gold.  Shep takes off to turn himself in and sort things out; Jim gives Chris one of the few remaining horses to follow him.  And he forces Old Willy to reveal that he has in fact found $10,000 in gold, which he will have to split with the survivors.  Jim takes the remaining horse and the new foal, saying that he will send horses for them.

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Treasure-seekers and romantic triangle Chris (Ella Raines), Shep/Dave (William Bishop) and a shirtless Jim Carey (Randolph Scott).

The cast is very good.  Randolph Scott was the biggest star at the time, and he is the moral center of the movie, although he doesn’t seem all that moral at the start.  He’s in good physical shape for a man in his 50s, as his shirtless scenes remind us (for more of those, see him in Carson City).  His strong, taciturn role here reminds us of his work ten years later with director Budd Boetticher.  Sultry Ella Raines is good as Chris; this may have been the peak of her modest movie career, though.  John Ireland was also at the early peak of his long movie and television career following Red River, My Darling Clementine and I Shot Jesse James and before All the King’s Men.  Look for Scott and Ireland together again the same year in The Doolins of Oklahoma, a more conventional western.  William Bishop was fine in this, but did not have a particularly notable career before his early death at 41.  Arthur Kennedy doesn’t have much to do or much camera time.  For Edgar Buchanan in another role as a grizzled gold seeker about this time, see him with Glenn Ford in Lust for Gold. Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens gets more screen time here than he usually did, and he looks authentic.

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Fights break out, mostly centering on private investigator Frazee (John Ireland).

Surprisingly for a relatively short film, this includes a couple of musical interludes by bluesman Josh Smith.  Note the camera angles used by director Sturges during those interludes to provide visual interest and prevent things from becoming too static during the songs.  The birth of a foal in the desert provides a symbol of hope and renewal when things are going badly.

The classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre had come out the previous year (1948), and this was obviously influenced by the success of that film.  It was shot in Death Valley and Lone Pine in beautiful black and white by Charles Lawton, Jr., who later worked with producer Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott several more times on the Boetticher westerns.  The sandstorm scenes are particularly effective.  He also worked with eminent western directors Delmer Daves, including the marvelously shot 3:10 to Yuma, and John Ford.

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At a compact 78 minutes, much is revealed by flashback, but not everything.  The story is left with a few holes in it, and that appears to be by design.  Story and screenplay are by Alan LeMay (Gunfighters, San Antonio, Rocky Mountain, novels for The Searchers and The Unforgiven).  This is from early in the career of excellent director John Sturges (Escape from Fort Bravo, Bad Day at Black Rock, Last Train from Gun Hill, The Magnificent Seven, Hour of the Gun et al.).  It is not as polished as some of his later work, but it is well worth watching (and even re-watching), although it can be hard to find

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Night Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 16, 2016

Night Passage—James Stewart, Audie Murphy, Dan Duryea, Jay C. Flippen, Dianne Foster, Elaine Stewart, Brandon De Wilde, Hugh Beaumont, Robert Wilke, Paul Fix, Olive Carey, Jack Elam, Chuck Roberson (1957; Dir: James Neilson)

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This is the movie that broke up the Anthony Mann-James Stewart partnership.  Beginning in 1950 director Mann and leading man Stewart had revitalized both westerns generally and Stewart’s career specifically with five westerns:  Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie.  (They had also made three non-westerns together.)  Mann and Stewart had planned to work together on this one, although neither thought the script was strong enough.  Mann also thought Stewart and Audie Murphy were too different to be believable as brothers, he didn’t think much of Murphy’s acting skills generally, and he was not fond of the continual emphasis on Stewart’s accordion.  Stewart liked the idea of being able to show off his accordion skills (although all his accordion-playing in the film was later dubbed in by a more expert musician).  So Mann left the production to go make The Tin Star, Stewart stayed, and the two never worked together again.

At the start of the film, Grant McLaine (James Stewart) is scraping by playing his accordion for change.  He had once been a troubleshooter for the railroad but had been fired when he let an outlaw escape.  Now Kimball (Jay C. Flippen), the railroad’s boss and the older husband of McLaine’s former flame Verna (Elaine Stewart), reluctantly hires McLaine back for one job:  to get a $10,000 payroll through to the end of the line, despite Whitey Harbin’s gang.  Verna makes it clear she wouldn’t mind resuming their relationship, and McLaine encounters Charlie (Dianne Foster), whom he had known as the long-time girlfriend of the Utica Kid.  And he rescues Joey, a kid (Brandon De Wilde) being tormented by Concho (Robert J. Wilke).

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Grant McLaine (James Stewart) demonstrates his prowess with the accordion to Joey (Brandon De Wilde).

True to recent form, Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) and his gang, including the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy), rob the train.  Frustrated at not finding the payroll, they take Kimball’s wife Verna for ransom.  McLaine and his accordion show up at the abandoned mining camp where Harbin’s gang holes up, and it develops that McLaine and the Utica Kid are brothers.  The Utica Kid (real name:  Lee McLaine) was the outlaw Grant McLaine let go five years previously, ruining his career with the railroad.  Charlie arrives, too, and McLaine shoots it out with Concho, precipitating a fight with the whole gang.

In the course of the extended gun battle, McLaine sends Verna and the payroll in an ore cart to safety.  As he and Charlie trade shots with the gang, the Utica Kid reluctantly joins them.  (In general he finds McLaine’s attempts to reform him tiresome.)  But we know what traditionally happens to men with conflicted loyalties (see Randolph Scott in Western Union and Robert Preston in Union Pacific, to cite just two examples from railroading/technological westerns).  Utica takes a slug from Whitey, but McLaine gets Whitey.  In the end, McLaine heads off with Charlie, although they both would seem to need a longer mourning period for the Utica Kid before getting on with any relationship.

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Finally on the same side, the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) and McLaine (James Stewart) shoot it out with Whitey Harbin and his gang.

So was Anthony Mann right?  The script is muddled and less than clear, the cast is talented but overlarge, Stewart (six feet three inches tall, 48 years old) and Murphy (five feet five inches tall, 31 years old) don’t seem much like brothers, and the accordion quickly becomes tiresome.  On the other hand, Murphy does fairly well in his role.  There is interesting interplay between Whitey (thoroughly bad) and the Utica Kid (some bad and some not so bad), who are obviously going to have it out at some point.  The movie was not well-received by critics or at the box office, Stewart seemed to blame Mann, and the two never spoke again.  Stewart didn’t agree to another western for four years, until he did Two Rode Together with director John Ford (not one of Ford’s best).

Dan Duryea, doing a humorless variation on his Waco Johnny Dean role from Winchester ’73, seems louder, more irritating and generally less successful here.  The two female roles are undistinguished, both in the writing and as executed on screen; Charlie, particularly, needed more.  There is a lot of talent involved here, but it doesn’t come together well.  It’s not really terrible, but not very good, either.  It probably would have benefited from an extensive script re-write, ditching the accordion and keeping Mann.

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Mann said later, “The story was so incoherent that I said the audience wouldn’t understand any of it.  But Jimmy was very set on that film.  He had to play the accordion and do a bunch of stunts that actors adore.  He didn’t care about the script whatever and I abandoned the production.  The picture was a total failure and Jimmy has always held it against me.”  Obviously, a clash of egos was involved, as often happens in movie-making.  Night Passage was perhaps not so total a failure as that, but Mann’s instincts were mostly right this time.

Shot in color near Silverton, Colorado, at 90 minutes; it was the first film made using the Technirama process.  The compact running time doesn’t really allow for enough development of the numerous characters, which may be one reason the women don’t seem all that interesting.  The cinematography by William H. Daniels is excellent.  The screenplay is by veteran screen writer Borden Chase (Red River, Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Vera Cruz), and music is by Dimitri Tiomkin (too many westerns and other films to list, including several with John Wayne).  Director James Neilson was working mostly in television at the time and had a less-than-distinguished record in movies over his career.

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The Lone Hand

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 9, 2016

The Lone Hand—Joel McCrea, Barbara Hale, Alex Nicol, Charles Drake, James Arness, Jimmy Hunt (1953; Dir: George Sherman)

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In 1870, widower Zachary Hallock (Joel McCrea) and his young son Joshua (Jimmy Hunt) come to the town of Timberline, looking for a new start.  They buy a ranch at a good price and set about fixing it up, making friends with the Skaggs family, especially marriageable daughter Sarah Jean (Barbara Hale) and her young brother Daniel.  As their first harvest comes in, they buy a couple of riding horses from amiable horse trader George Hadley (Charles Drake) for a wagon load of grain.  Zachary and Sarah Jean are married, and she moves in.

Timberline is also plagued by a band of outlaws.  As Joshua is delivering the grain to Hadley, shots from ambush spook his horse and the grain is dumped into a creek and lost.  The slippery-seeming Varden brothers (Alex Nicol and James Arness) approach Zachary with an invitation to join them in a robbery.  They refer to a shadowy big boss, who gives them the information on which their robberies are planned.  It works out profitably enough, but Sarah Jean and Joshua wonder about Zachary’s unexplained absences on more jobs.  As Joshua follows Zachary, he is spotted by one of the Vardens (James Arness), who traps Joshua by the river until Varden slips, falls in and is drowned.

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Sarah Jean (Barbara Hale) thinks new husband Zachary (Joel McCrea) has been less than forthcoming.

Zachary is to bring the mules up for a final big score (robbery of a mule train of gold), where he meets the big boss:  George Hadley, the horse trader and head of the local regulators.  As Zachary is captured, he is rescued, and the robbery is thwarted by the Timberline regulators, alerted by Sarah Jean.  It turns out that Zachary was a Pinkerton agent and was undercover with the gang until he could identify the real leader.  And now he, Sarah Jean and Joshua can live happily ever after.

Among Joel McCrea westerns of the early 1950s, this obscure one is not one of the most effective. It depends on a gimmick, with the movie being mostly narrated by Joshua from a position of partial ignorance.  Although the movie is not long (just 80 minutes), the gimmick is worn out before it is done.  Barbara Hale is competent and pleasant to look at, but not terribly charismatic.  (See her also as Randolph Scott’s fiancée in 7th Cavalry.)  Alex Nicol, who plays the surviving Varden brother, is a better and more interesting bad guy in both Dawn at Socorro and The Man From Laramie.  The river into which James Arness falls to his death is the same one (the Las Animas) used to good effect in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Charles Drake is so smooth and amiable as George Hadley that we know he must be the leader of the outlaws, so that development isn’t really much of a surprise.  If you are a particular fan of Joel McCrea (and I am), you may want to see this for the sake of completeness.  Although it’s pleasant enough fare, it may not be worth seeking out otherwise.  For other McCrea westerns from this period particularly featuring him in a parental role, see Saddle Tramp and Cattle Drive.

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George Sherman was a journeyman director who moved more into television work in the later 1950s and 1960s.  He made quite a few westerns of which his best may be a late one:  Big Jake (1971) with John Wayne.  Story is by Irving Ravetch.  Shot in color around Durango and Moses Lake, Colorado, with good cinematography and excellent scenery.  Cinematography is by Maury Gertsman and music by Joseph Gershenson and Henry Mancini (uncredited).

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The Wonderful Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 31, 2015

The Wonderful Country—Robert Mitchum, Julie London, Pedro Armendariz, Gary Merrill, Albert Dekker, Victor Mendoza, Satchel Paige (1959; Dir: Robert Parrish)

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In the 1950s, Julie London was known primarily as a sultry singer, but she also made three westerns:  Saddle the Wind (1958), with Robert Taylor; Man of the West (1958), with Gary Cooper; and this one with Robert Mitchum.  The story involves another of Robert Mitchum’s adventures in Mexico (e.g. Bandido and The Wrath of God), or rather back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., as he tries to sort out his loyalties.

Mitchum plays Martin Brady, an American who has long been working in Mexico as a pistolero for the Castro family—specifically for Cipriano Castro.  As the movie opens, he is delivering silver pesos to a German merchant named Sterner across the Rio Grande.  In a dusty border town on the U.S. side, his horse (a big black Andalusian stallion named Lágrimas—Spanish for “tears”) is spooked and throws him, breaking his leg.  As he is laid up for two months, he makes a number of acquaintances, most of whom have their own agendas for him.  And he begins to feel that he’d like to stay on the U.S. side.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) gets his broken leg set.

Brady initially fled Texas when his father was killed, and he in turn shot the killer.  But the local Texas Ranger authority (Albert Dekker), who would like to recruit him as a ranger, tells him that it was long ago now, and that most who know about it think he did a good thing.  The military commander at Fort Jefflin, Major Stark Colton (Gary Merrill), wants to form a joint venture with the Castros to hunt the Apaches who strike back and forth across the border.  Mrs. Helen Colton obviously hasn’t much attraction to her own husband, and Brady hears scuttlebutt about her affairs in Missouri.  As he thinks about staying, he attends a social gathering at the fort.  While he’s avoiding becoming involved with Mrs. Colton, a hardcase (played by Chuck Roberson, John Wayne’s favorite stand-in) picks a fight with a German friend of Brady’s and Brady is forced to kill him.

He then flees south of the border, where he finds that he is in trouble because the guns never made it back to the Castros while Brady was laid up.  Cipriano Castro (Pedro Armendariz) is now the governor in the capital city, but the Castro brothers no longer trust each other.  As Major Colton visits the capital and forms an alliance with Cipriano, Brady dallies with Mrs. Colton but is interrupted when Cipriano orders him to kill the other Castro brother—the general Marcos (Victor Mendoza).  Brady refuses and flees the city, but now neither Cipriano nor Marcos trusts him.  He flees north, with his pursuit being led astray by a friend.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) and the major’s wife (Julie London) try to come to terms with their mutual attraction.

The American force is now 100 miles deep in Mexico, but Marcos succeeds in assassinating his brother and repudiates the alliance.  Major Colton is mortally wounded in an encounter with Apaches, but Brady manages to retrieve the stolen wagon of rifles.  Colton dies, and Mrs. Colton tells Brady that if he wants her he’ll have to find her in the U.S.  Nearing the Rio Grande, Lágrimas is shot by a pursuer sent by Marcos Castro.  Brady kills the pursuer, but is forced to shoot Lágrimas as well, symbolic of killing his past life.  He leaves his sombrero and gun by the horse’s body and heads across the Rio Grande.

Some have referred to this as an “existential western,” as Brady tries to figure out where he belongs, if anywhere.  Based on a novel by Tom Lea (who has a cameo as a barber), the story is slow developing in its first half but picks up speed as Brady returns to Mexico.  At only 98 minutes, some of the characters and their competing agendas seem underdeveloped.  Mrs. Colton herself doesn’t really come alive as a character, as she might have with a little more development.  Without having read the novel, I’m guessing it probably works a little better than the movie in some respects.  Robert Mitchum, in his world-weary mode, is the primary reason to watch this movie, although it’s fun to see baseball pitcher Satchel Paige in his only movie role as a buffalo soldier sergeant.  Mitchum was also the executive producer.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) and a sergeant (Satchel Paige) find the stolen rifles.

Shot in color on location in Durango and Guanajuato, Mexico, the movie looks good, especially in a high definition print.  Director Parrish also did Saddle the Wind, but his career was nothing remarkable.  The “wonderful country” of the title is presumably Mexico—wonderful, perhaps, but dangerous.

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Belle Starr

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 20, 2015

Belle Starr (also known as Belle Starr, The Bandit Queen)—Gene Tierney, Randolph Scott, Dana Andrews, Shepperd Strudwick, Chill Wills, Olin Howland, Louise Beavers (1941; Dir: Irving Cummings)

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Early in her career, the beautiful Gene Tierney appeared in three westerns among her first four films:  The Return of Frank James (1940), with Henry Fonda, Hudson’s Bay (1941) with Paul Muni, and this, with Randolph Scott and Dana Andrews.  Although they were all based on historical persons or events, they had precious little historical accuracy in them.  In particular, this depiction of the west’s most famous female outlaw has almost nothing to do with the historical person, playing her as a kind of Scarlett O’Hara in Missouri after the Civil War.

Scarlett, er, Belle Shirley (Gene Tierney), is a Confederate sympathizer with a lot of unused feistiness as the war ends.  We see the family home as a large-scale southern plantation, which was probably pretty rare in Missouri.  She shows her canniness by tricking ne’er-do-well thief Jasper Tench (Olin Howland) out of a stolen horse.  Her brother Edward (Shepperd Strudwick) returns from the war, as does former romantic interest Thomas Crail (Dana Andrews), now a major in the Union army and the regional military authority.  Crail is seeking former Missouri border guerillas who have not surrendered, such as Sam Starr (Randolph Scott).

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Outlaw Sam Starr (Randolph Scott) and southern sympathizer Belle Shirley (Gene Tierney) seem to be getting along well.

Belle helps Starr escape Crail’s clutches, and Crail is obliged by the occupation rules to burn down her mansion.  She flees to join Starr’s rebellion, and they fall in love and are married.  Meanwhile, Starr’s rebellion continues to grow in size.  Among the new recruits are the Cole brothers from Texas, said to have ridden with Quantrill during the war.  The Coles have fewer scruples than Starr, and they influence him to move more in the direction of robbery and murder.  Belle’s brother Edward comes to warn her about these new activities of Starr’s, and the Coles gun him down.  Belle gives back Starr’s ring and leaves.

Meanwhile, Starr plans to show up at a speech of the carpetbagger governor as a show of strength.  Belle discovers that it is a trap, with Crail’s men waiting for Starr, and she rides to warn him.  As she does, she is shot from ambush by Tench for the reward on her head. The shot is taken as a warning by Starr, and the raid is aborted.  But Starr gives himself up when he hears about Belle’s fate.  He and Belle’s mammy (Louise Beavers) see the body, but claim that it is not Belle so the venal Tench won’t get the reward.  Crail knows as well as they do that the body is Belle’s, but he plays along.

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Gene Tierney as Belle Starr; and the real Belle Starr in a full-length studio portrait probably taken in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the early 1880s.

Tierney had marvelous facial bone structure and extraordinary beauty, but she was not a great actress and this is not her best work.  (See Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and perhaps Leave Her to Heaven for that.)  The writing makes Belle often seem angrily stupid, and the whole thing makes little sense.  Scott and Andrews are good enough, and Chill Wills makes an early appearance as the outlaw Blue Duck (a strangely religious outlaw), otherwise best known on film as the principal villain in Lonesome Dove.  But none of the characters in this film bear much resemblance to their historical counterparts.

The film has distinguished writing credits, with a screenplay by Lamar Trotti (Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky) and story by Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun, Pursued, The Furies).  It just goes to show that otherwise good writers can come up with an occasional bomb.  Director Irving Cummings had been an actor from the earliest days of the movies, but was not terribly notable as a director, having done a number of unremarkable films, along with uncredited work on 1939’s Jesse James.  Music is by experienced movie composer Alfred Newman; the title music had been composed for John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln two years earlier.  The film was shot in color (so it had a good budget for 1941), at the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California, at 87 minutes.

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For a much more interesting depiction of Belle Starr on film, see Pamela Reed in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980).  Although the real Belle Starr was ugly as a mud fence, she has been played on film not only by the glamorous Tierney, but also by Jane Russell, Elsa Martinelli and Elizabeth Montgomery, among others–usually in highly fictionalized form.

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Go West, Young Lady

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 5, 2015

Go West, Young Lady—Penny Singleton, Glenn Ford, Ann Miller, Charles Ruggles, Onslow Stevens, Jed Prouty, Allen Jenkins (1941; Dir: Frank R. Strayer)

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For current fans of westerns, the obvious star of this western musical comedy would be the young Canadian actor Glenn Ford.  But at the time this was made in 1941, he was not the biggest star; first billing went to Penny Singleton, then known for having appeared as Blondie in a series of slight films based on the Dagwood and Blondie comic strips.  (She and Arthur Lake would make 28 of them between 1938 and 1950, including one with Glenn Ford in 1940; many were directed by Frank Strayer.)  Here, she is Belinda “Bill” Pendergast, the young lady of the title.

The once-tomboyish Bill is headed west to join her uncle Joe Pendergast (Charles Ruggles) in the lawless town of Headstone, now terrorized by the outlaw gang of Killer Pete.  In the stage with her is Tex Miller (Glenn Ford), a federal marshal being sent as temporary sheriff to clean things up in Headstone.  When the stage is attacked by Indians, Tex is surprised to find Bill outshooting him in the stage’s defense (like Mae West in the previous year’s My Little Chickadee).  Uncle Joe owns the Crystal Palace saloon, where the principal entertainment (and most of the movie’s musical numbers, along with some anachronistic but well-executed tap dancing) are provided by Lola (Ann Miller).  He is shocked to find that Bill Pendergast is a young woman.  Unfortunately, Lola and Bill do not get along well.

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Young Belinda “Bill” Pendergast (Penny Singleton) is surprisingly adept with a gun.

Uncle Joe owes more and more of his saloon to his financial backer, Hannegan (Onslow Stevens), but both of them seem to be losing money to Killer Pete.  [Spoilers follow.]  Unknown to almost everyone, however, Hannegan is in fact Killer Pete.  Tex does his best to bring a little law and order.  As Tex keeps fighting with bad guys who are bigger than he, in a running gag Bill tries to help him but always ends up bashing Tex.  He warns her off (to no effect) in one fight.  “Don’t hit him!  It’ll be me!”  It always is.

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Bill (Penny Singleton) and Lola (Ann Miller) don’t get along.  Eventually physical hostilities erupt.

Elements of this are reminiscent of Destry Rides Again, from two years earlier, with the corrupt town, the diffident-seeming (but actually forceful in his way) young lawman, and the exuberant fight between two women (Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel in Destry, Singleton and Miller here).  Other than those references, the writing here is desultory and the comedy predictable, with pies in faces, law and order prevailing against Killer Pete, and the young lovers getting together after multiple misunderstandings.  Like Belle of the Yukon, this is edging more into musical comedy than western.  Along with all the other musical numbers (several written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin), one is provided by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.

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After numerous altercations, misdirected punches and the occasional pie in the face, finally the young lovers (Penny Singleton and Glenn Ford) get together.

Shot in black and white at the Iverson ranch in Chatsworth, California, at only 70 minutes.  Not available on DVD in the U.S.  Not to be confused with Go West, Young Girl, a 1975 made-for-television movie with Karen Valentine.  Or with the better-known Go West, Young Man, 1936, with Mae West, Warren William and Randolph Scott.

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Cattle Empire

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 1, 2015

Cattle Empire—Joel McCrea, Gloria Talbott, Don Haggerty, Phyllis Coates, Bing Russell, Richard Shannon, Paul Brinegar (1958; Dir: Charles Marquis Warren)

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In the opening scenes of this late Joel McCrea cattle drive story, John Cord (McCrea) is being dragged through the streets of Hamilton by irate citizens as, bit by bit, his backstory emerges.  He has been just let out of Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona after serving a five-year sentence.  An experienced trail boss, his men had gotten out of control and trashed Hamilton, resulting in extensive property destruction and a few deaths.  Cord himself had ended it in a brawl with local cattle baron Ralph Hamilton (Don Haggerty), from which Hamilton had emerged blind but married to Cord’s one-time fiancée Janice (Phyllis Coates) after Cord had been sent off to prison.

Now Hamilton has sent for Cord for his trail boss skills, at a time when Cord has few other choices. The town has never recovered and is on the verge of blowing away in a drought.  Hamilton thinks Cord is tough enough to get a combined local herd of 4000 cattle to market at Ft. Clemson, at a time when water is even harder than usual to find.  They have to get there first to win an army contract.  There’s also a rival herd managed by another cattle baron Garth (Richard Shannon), which Cord also agrees to lead.  It’s not clear what Cord’s game is, other than various unresolved feelings of revenge—against Ralph Hamilton, Janice Hamilton and various of the townsfolk.  Aside from Ralph Hamilton, the only citizens who treat Cord decently are the aging brothers George Washington Jeffrey (Hal K. Dawson) and Thomas Jefferson Jeffrey (Paul Brinegar), who join the trail drive along with G.W.’s granddaughter Sandy (Gloria Talbott) and a number of other more or less resentful cattlemen.

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John Cord (Joel McCrea) drinks with the Jeffrey brothers (Hal Dawson and Paul Brinegar), two of the few friends he has left in town.

As matters get sorted out, Cord drops out of Garth’s drive, telling him to head for Horsethief Creek because there’s no water at the Dismal River.  Garth suspects that Cord is now trying to distract him and heads for the Dismal; in fact, Cord has been straight with Garth and is taking the Hamilton herd to Horsethief Creek.  Slowly relations with the Hamiltons and the townsfolk develop.  Hamilton offers Cord his ranch and cattle empire (and even Janice, by implication) for getting them through.  Janice in some ways regrets her faithlessness to Cord, and it is unclear how far matters between them go before the ultimate resolution.  It looks like they go quite a way, which was unusual for both a 1950s western and for a Joel McCrea character.  Sandy evinces some romantic interest in Cord, even though he seems significantly too old for her.

Needless to say, Cord gets the herd through.  [Spoilers follow.]  But Garth, thinking Cord was trying to slow down his herd, went to the DIsmal River and lost his herd.  He has now hired gunhands to take away the Hamilton herd at Indian Pass, before they can get to Fort Clemson.  Ralph Hamilton confesses that five years ago, when Cord beat his herd to market, it was he who had turned Cord’s hands loose on the town and started the fight with Cord.  Now Cord has to save the herd from Garth’s gunmen and shoot it out in traditional fashion with Garth himself.  As he leaves, it seems that rather than taking Ralph’s offer Cord will head for new ground in the northwest… and will come back for Sandy.

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It takes a tough trail boss (Joel McCrea) to get the herd to market.

Director Charles Marquis Warren was known more for his screenwriting than for his directorial abilities, although he did direct a few other westerns, of which Trooper Hook (also starring McCrea) and 1956’s Tension at Table Rock (with Richard Egan) are probably the best.  He then moved almost entirely into television work.  That this is worth watching at all is due almost entirely to Joel McCrea, who’s a little more morally evasive than normal for him; otherwise the writing is undistinguished and the acting (other than McCrea) is unremarkable.  The romantic triangle between McCrea, Coates and Talbott is interesting but seems at least partially unresolved.  As noted before, the McCrea-Talbott age difference is obviously significant, but, like Gary Cooper and John Wayne, Joel McCrea could make it work out believably.  The story seems unbalanced, with a lot of development of the various Cord-Hamilton-citizenry resentments and motivations and not enough of the actual arduous drive.  It might have benefited from another 12-20 minutes of cattle drive, if it was done well.  The film obviously utilizes a lot of stock footage during the cattle drive.

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The geography of the film is a little hazy.  Cord had been in prison at Yuma, making it seem like Arizona Territory.  But there are also references to the Staked Plains and to arriving at the Pecos, which sounds like maybe Texas-New Mexico.  Fort Clemson, the ultimate destination of the drive, is apparently fictional.  Fans of cattle drive westerns will note that there are several of the standard vicissitudes of trail drives missing here:  no stampedes with related deaths, no bad storms and bad weather interludes, no Indian raids and such.  That’s one reason the drive itself seems a bit light.  McCrea gives a speech about how the hardest part of the drive is coming up between them and Horsethief Creek, and, with the next scene cut, the herd’s at Horsethief Creek without any of the hard going.  It’s not the best of late McCrea westerns, but he makes it worth watching.  Not to be confused with Cattle Drive, another McCrea cattle drive western from earlier in the 1950s.  For the greatest of cattle drive westerns, see Lonesome Dove and Red River.

Shot in color in the Alabama Hills around Lone Pine, at 83 minutes.  This is not often seen these days, since it’s not available on DVD in the United States.  The year following this film, three members of the cast (Paul Brinegar, Steve Raines and Rocky Shahan) joined the television trail drive western Rawhide, with Eric Fleming as trail boss Gill Favor, a young Clint Eastwood as segundo Rowdy Yates, and writer-producer Charles Marquis Warren in control of the series.

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