Monthly Archives: November 2013

Purgatory

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2013

Purgatory—Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts, Donnie Wahlberg, J.D. Souther, Randy Quaid, Peter Stormare, Brad Rowe, Amelia Heinle, R.G. Armstrong (Made for television, 1999; Dir:  Uli Edel)

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Much more watchable than the premise and the fact that it was made for television would suggest.  Despicable outlaw Blackjack Britton (Eric Roberts in his evil mode) and his numerous gang rob a bank in the town of Sweetwater, killing a number of citizens and soldiers in the process.  Pursued closely by a posse into the desert heading for Mexico, they get lost in a storm and emerge into a green valley and a small town.  They enter the town of Refuge and are welcomed, bemused by the fact that the sheriff (Sam Shepard) doesn’t wear a gun and asks them not to curse.  Meanwhile, they get free booze and accommodations, but, given their predilections, that’s not enough for them.

The gang’s segundo, Cavin Guthrie (Peter Stormare, recognizable from Fargo), is if anything even more despicable than Blackjack, but he’s hampered by his green nephew, Sonny Dillard (Brad Rowe), an avid reader of dime novels.  Sonny fancies he starts to recognize some of the town’s characters.  The sheriff bears a resemblance to Wild Bill Hickok; the town doctor (Randy Quaid) seems like he could be Doc Holliday; the storekeeper (J.D. Souther) seems like Jesse James; and the impetuous deputy (Donnie Wahlberg) like Billy the Kid.  And Sonny is taken with Rose (Amelia Heinle), a young lady of the town.  They all seem to spend an unusual amount of time in church. 

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Eric Roberts as the loathsome Blackjack Britton; Brad Rowe as Sonny Dillard.

[Spoilers follow.]  Not seeing any viable resistance, Blackjack loosens the controls on his men and they start tearing the place up.  Among them, Cavin develops plans to molest Rose.  Meanwhile, Sonny finds himself identifying more with the townsfolk than with the miscreants he rode in with.  He discovers Rose has a hanging scar around her neck; she was Betty McCullough, the first woman hung in Arizona Territory, at age 19 for killing her father with a meat cleaver after he had molested her for seven years.  [Note:  Betty McCullough seems to be a fictional creation, not an actual historical character.]  She does not encourage Sonny’s attentions, and describes the setup of Refuge:  they are there as a place of repentance and reformation after living questionable lives.  If they succeed in reforming, they get to move on to heaven in due course.  In fact, the sheriff is due to leave in a couple of days after ten years in Refuge.  But they can’t return to their former vices and violence, or they’ll go the way of the truly damned.  And they’ve spent years reforming in Refuge.

Finally, the gang plans to leave in the morning and burn the town down, having their way with whomever they feel like.  Sonny tries to get the sheriff and townsfolk to resist, but that would be violating the rules of their probation.  Finally, he declares that even if they won’t help him, he’ll defend Rose and the town the best he can.  There are more than 16 in the gang against him, and he’s not that good with a gun.  The question is less what will happen than how it will happen, and what will follow from it.  

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The uneasy sheriff (Sam Shepard) and his impetuous young deputy (Donnie Wahlberg).

This is about choices, and not easy ones.  Sonny has drifted into some bad choices in the past, and he’s choosing where (and with whom) his future will lie.  He chooses to give Rose something she’s never had:  somebody to stick up for her.  For the four, it’s different.  They made bad choices in the past as well, or at least some that played to their violent skills and strengths, and they’re having to choose where they want their strengths to be long term.  Ultimately they go, as we knew they must, with what feels right in the moment, despite having lost some of those skills they valued in life.

Hickok concludes that he’s been thinking too much about his own good and shortcomings, and straps on his two guns, handles forward.  Even Blackjack recognizes that.  Similarly Jesse and Billy put on their guns, and even Doc takes a hand.  Unlike Sonny, they probably can’t be killed (since they’re already dead), but they have just put themselves in line for eternal damnation and given up any hope for redemption.  In the extended shootout all the outlaws but Cavin and Blackjack are taken out (these four defenders are really good, and they move well). 

Sonny stands up with his dime-novel heroes and plays his part, but he’s clearly out of his league, both with his deceased colleagues and against his former outlaw friends.  Finally, it comes down to just Hickok, who is putting away his guns after the showdown, and Blackjack, who won’t take no for an answer.  It isn’t even close.  Sonny discovers that he has mortal wounds but somehow isn’t dead—or if he is, he’s now a resident of Refuge like everybody else.

The four and Sonny present themselves at the cemetery, where they expect the old Indian Chiron figure (Saginaw Grant) will conduct them to hell.  As they prepare to enter, the eternal stagecoach pulls up.  It is driven by R.G. Armstrong, who says that the Creator takes their self-sacrifice for what it seems to be, and they can now all get in.  Sonny, too, but he declares he wants to stay.  Hickok passes the badge to him, and the coach takes off.

purgatory4 Taking on the bad guys.

This is better done than we have any right to expect.  The writing is good, by Gordon Dawson, a long-time television writer with experience on The Rockford Files and Bret Maverick, among many other things.  The pacing is good while the premise develops, presumably the work of the director Uli Gellen, a German television veteran.  The social attitudes are not unbearably anachronistic.  We could wish that this were in widescreen, but mostly made-for-television westerns weren’t in 1999. 

The cast is very good for such an enterprise, especially Sam Shepard as Hickok.  Brad Rowe is also surprisingly good as Sonny; if we don’t care enough about him, this story loses a lot of its punch.  Eric Roberts can do evil in his sleep, and he does exactly what’s required of him.  Peter Stromare is a little over the top as the evil Segundo uncle, but it works.  Randy Quaid is a little broad as Holliday; we’re aware that others, including his brother Dennis, have played Holliday more elegantly.  Souther is lacking in charisma as Jesse James.  Given the balances of this, the film has to depict horrible evil convincingly without showing it too explicitly, and it does that well.  It’s one of the best things of its kind, although it’s hard to think of very many other things of its kind.  Usually a high concept supernatural premise like this would find a lot of ways to be irritating, and this is actually quite watchable and involving.  One could quibble about Billy the Kid and Jesse James as candidates for redemption, but what the heck.  This deserves to be better known.

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At the cemetery: Holliday (Randy Quaid), James (J.D. Souther), Hickok (Sam Shepard), and Billy (Donnie Walberg).

There are a couple of echoes of other westerns, particularly Ride the High Country.  There is a reference to Hickok’s upcoming “entering his house justified.”  And of course, the presence of R.G. Armstrong, often cast as a religious fanatic in Peckinpah films (High Country, Major Dundee), here used as a much cheerier sort of quasi-religous figure in his last western.

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The Big Sky

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 29, 2013

The Big Sky—Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Elizabeth Threatt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Henri Letondal, Steven Geray, Buddy Baer, Hank Worden, Jim Davis (1952; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

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Underrated and slow-developing story of the voyage of the keelboat Mandan up the Missouri River in 1832 to trade with the Blackfoot Indians.  In other words, it’s a mountain man movie–the second best of that kind, after Jeremiah Johnson.  The guide and hunter for the expedition is Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt); his nephew Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) and Boone’s friend Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) learn their way in the unopened west as they go along.  Frenchie (Steven Geray), the head of the expedition, intends to bypass the usual fur company trade channels and go directly to trade with the Blackfeet at the headwaters of the Missouri, a trip of 2000 miles from St. Louis.  He is taking along non-English-speaking Teal Eye (half-Cherokee actress Elizabeth Threatt), a Blackfoot princess captured by the Crows and sold down the Missouri River, hoping she will facilitate trade with the otherwise hostile Blackfeet.  The expedition also acquires Poordevil (Hank Worden), an alcoholic Blackfoot who ends up being quite useful. 

BigSkyKeelboat Heading up the Big Muddy.

On the way upriver the Mandan is attacked by fur company minions led by Streak (Jim Davis) and by Crow allies of the fur company.  On the way Deakins and Caudill both develop relationships with Teal Eye, notwithstanding her initial hostility to Caudill and lack of English skills.  Aside from the conflicts with the fur company and Crows, the other questions are whether it will be Deakins or Caudill that Teal Eye will choose, and whether the one she chooses will stay with her or go back down the river. 

BigSky3 Boone, Zeb and Deakins.

The best actor in this film is Hunnicutt as mountain man Zeb Calloway, and he also provides the voice-over narration.  This may be his best role ever, and he is utterly convincing with period dialogue that could well seem highly artificial from another actor.  Kirk Douglas is the best-known of the stars today, and he is fine, playing the whole film with his hat pushed back on his head.  There are several reasons the film isn’t better-known today despite its top-of-the-line director and excellent quality.  Two of the leads, Threatt and Martin, didn’t have notable movie careers, although they are good here.  This was Threatt’s only film, and Martin had only a modest few good roles in the early 1950s before drifting into television work. 

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Elizabeth Threatt as Blackfoot maiden Teal Eye.  Douglas and director Hawks block out a fight scene.

Another is that the movie was not shot in widescreen or color at a time when westerns with any scope or ambition (Shane, Bend of the River) were mostly shot that way.  It was not particularly successful on its initial release.  A little slow-paced at its original 141 minutes, it was later edited down to 122 minutes by the studio, and it is difficult to find a decent print of the extended version these days.  That is what TCM shows, however, and the re-inserted material is of noticeably worse quality visually and in its sound.  It is in need of restoration and is not available on DVD currently (2013). 

This was an expensive production shot on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming–like Shane and Jubal.  Hawks was both director and producer.  Based on a classic novel by Montana author A.B. Guthrie, the screenplay was written by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach et al.).  The music is by Dimitri Tiomkin.  The black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan and supporting actor Hunnicutt were both nominated for Academy Awards.  The novel is probably still stronger than this film.  If it had been made a few years earlier (at the time of Hawks’ Red River, say, when color and scale expections were smaller), the movie would probably be regarded as a classic.  It’s one of Hawks’ three best westerns.

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If you like Arthur Hunnicutt here, look for him in smaller roles in two other good westerns from 1950:  Broken Arrow and Two Flags West.  For other westerns based on novels by A.B. Guthrie, see The Way West, also with Kirk Douglas (1967), or the seldom-seen These Thousand Hills (1959).  This is better, though.

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Decision at Sundown

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 28, 2013

Decision At Sundown—Randolph Scott, Noah Beery, Jr., Karen Steele, John Carroll, Andrew Duggan (1957; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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Unlike most of the other Ranown westerns of the late 1950s, this one takes place mostly in a town.  The opening shot is not a lone rider making his way through the distant rocks of Lone Pine.  And the normally solitary Randolph Scott character has a sidekick played by the amicable Noah Beery, Jr..  And it’s written by Charles Lang, not Burt Kennedy, who wrote the best of the Ranown westerns directed by Budd Boetticher.  There are stories, however, that Kennedy did most of the writing without being credited.

However, Bart Allison (Scott) is seeking vengeance for matters relating to the death of his wife, as is usual with Scott characters in Boetticher movies.  He’s after Tate Kimbrough (played slimily by John Carroll), the corrupt town boss of Sundown, who’s about to marry spunky and beautiful young Kate Summerton (Karen Steele, who was Mrs. Budd Boetticher).  Allison is a Civil War veteran who’s heard that a dalliance with Kimbrough while he was gone led to his wife’s suicide.  There are good side characters in this one:  Ruby James (Valerie French) is Kimbrough’s long-time living-above-the-saloon paramour who’s not entirely reconciled to the marriage; Doc John Storrow (John Archer) has his own questions about Kimbrough, as does local rancher Morley Chase (Ray Teal). 

DecisionSundownWedding Breaking up the wedding.

By speaking up at Kimbrough’s wedding, Allison and Sam immediately are hunted by Kimbrough’s minions, including his pet sheriff (Andrew Duggan).  The battle takes most of the movie, as Kimbrough’s men take out Sam and Allison kills the sheriff.  In the end, however, though Kimbrough is a moral leper, he doesn’t actually deserve Allison’s vengeance because Allison’s wife dallied with a number of men.  The resolution is interesting; Allison gets his revenge, but not the way he thought he would.  And he’s not happy about it.  He’s not as admirable a hero as most of the Scott-Boetticher characters.  This is yet another case where the hero played by Scott doesn’t get Karen Steele, who probably ends up with the doctor.

DecisionSundownScott In desperate straits.

This is an interesting variation on the cowardly townspeople theme, though.  (High Noon, At Gunpoint, The Tin Star, the original 3:10 to Yuma, etc.)  It’s not, perhaps, one of the very best of the Ranown westerns, but better than an average western nevertheless.

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Two Mules for Sister Sara

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 27, 2013

Two Mules For Sister Sara—Clint Eastwood, Shirley MacLaine, Manuel Fabregas (1970; Dir:  Don Siegel)

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This one stars Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine.  It’s directed by Don Siegel, from a story by Budd Boetticher, with music by Ennio Morricone.  All of that sounds great, right?  Somehow this is less than the sum of its parts.  Clint Eastwood has cited Don Siegel (director of Dirty Harry and The Shootist) as one of his two greatest directorial influences, along with Sergio Leone; he dedicated his last western, Unforgiven, to them. 

This features Clint in his early 1970s leather hat period (albeit the hat appears to be basically of the same design as he wears in the Dollars trilogy and Pale Rider; leather would be hotter than felt, though).  He is Hogan, a Civil War veteran and mercenary working for the Juaristas battling occupying French soldiers in northern Mexico in the 1860s.  In the movie’s opening scenes, he rescues an unclad Shirley MacLaine from three very unsavory American bandidos. 

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When she dresses, he’s surprised to find she’s a nun—Sister Sara.  She’s also working for the Juaristas, it turns out.  Hogan has agreed to help Col. Beltran (Manuel Fabregas) take the French garrison in Chihuahua in exchange for half the treasury.  Sister Sara knows the garrison well, having taught the French soldiers Spanish there before they discovered she was working for the Juaristas.  Together they devise a plan for attacking the garrison with Juarista support, so Hogan can collect his treasury, Sara can help the Juaristas, and Col. Beltran can root out the French from his country. 

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On their way to Chihuahua, Hogan is shot with a Yaqui arrow and Sara has to help him blow up a railroad trestle with a train full of French troops going to reinforce Chihuahua.  Arriving in Chihuahua, Sara leads them to a house with a tunnel going into the garrison—a house of ill repute, as matters develop.  Sara is a resident of the place who has disguised herself as a nun to escape French retribution.  They storm the garrison, Hogan gets his treasury, and in the end Hogan and Sara ride off together, this time with Sara in a more suitable bright scarlet. 

TwoMulesRedSara Now Red Sara.

It’s unclear what the two mules of the title refer to.  The pairing of a profane adventurer with a woman of God echoes The African Queen.  In fact, MacLaine was said to get along with neither Eastwood nor director Siegel.  As with many films from the early 1970s, much of the blood looks like red paint.  Watchable, but the script has some clunky dialogue and the story doesn’t hang together real well.  Some have suggested it would work better if Sara stayed a nun.  Story by Budd Boetticher, music by Ennio Morricone.  In color, filmed in Mexico.

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They Died With Their Boots On

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 26, 2013

They Died With Their Boots On—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy, Sidney Greenstreet, Anthony Quinn, John Litel, George Grapewin, Hattie McDaniel, Jim Thorpe (1941; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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From the heyday of the Flynn-de Havilland partnership comes this old-fashioned, adulatory and not-very-factual biopic of George Armstrong Custer, depicting both his Civil War service and his demise at the Little Bighorn.  In fact, it was their eighth film in seven years and their last film together.  Errol Flynn in a mullet is Custer; De Havilland is his wife Libby.  This was clearly a big budget production for its time, and it has a longer-than-average running time, too—140 minutes.  Flynn and De Havilland are watchable, but the plot neither makes much sense nor does it follow history very well. 

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Plebe Custer doesn’t get along with Ned Sharp at West Point.

The first half of the movie shows Custer at West Point, doing badly, making it into the Union army during the Civil War as a cavalry commander, wooing and marrying his wife Elizabeth Bacon, developing a headlong and heedless attacking style and then becoming an Indian fighter after the war.  In the later portion of his career, it shows him fighting on behalf of the Indians against those dishonest whites who would sell them alcohol, not slaughtering them in search of further military acclaim.  And, of course, in the end he dies with his entire Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.

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Taking a final leave of Libby before heading for the Little Bighorn.  And Custer still doesn’t get along with Ned Sharp.

The historical Custer was a relentless glory hound without much scruple.  This film captures his headstrong quality but makes him out to be much more admirable and somewhat smarter than he actually was.  Flynn was always watchable at this stage of his career, and de Havilland makes an admirable Libby.  A young Arthur Kennedy is Ned Sharp, an unscrupulous Civil War nemesis of Custer and a later an unscrupulous sutler whom Custer tricks into dying with the Seventh Cavalry.  A young Anthony Quinn is Crazy Horse, who was never captured by Custer as this movie depicts.  The plot points about Custer cleaning up Fort Lincoln and fighting a corrupt Indian agent-supply system are fiction.  Here Custer fights supposedly fictional reports of gold in the Black Hills; actually, Custer led the expedition that first found gold there, and he abetted the influx of whites to the area instead of resisting it.  The movie omits the massacre of peaceful Cheyennes that Custer carried out on the Washita.

DiedBootsLastStand2 At his last stand.

DiedBootsRealCusters The real Custers.

Worth watching for Flynn and de Havilland, and to get a sense of how Custer used to be seen 70 years ago after his widow had spent the 50 years after his death publicly tending the flame of his heroic memory.  (The real Libby died in 1933.)  The action is good.  Well made for its time.  Hattie McDaniel is what she usually was, a mammy-type domestic to young Libby—a stereotype that doesn’t play so well now.  George Grapewin is California Joe, a crusty and colorful civilian scout for Custer.  Sidney Greenstreet is Gen. Winfield Scott, who initially advances Custer’s career (although it seems unlikely the two ever really met and the elderly Scott played no active role in the Civil War).  An aging Jim Thorpe was said to have been an uncredited extra on this movie, and he claimed to have decked a belligerent (and typically drunk) Flynn.  Custer was as bad a student at West Point as this movie depicts, however.  The depiction of Indians is fairly sympathetic for 1941.  In colorful black and white.  Music by Max Steiner.

DiedBoots2StarsWalsh Walsh with his stars.

Raoul Walsh was a main-line director from 1913 into the 1960s, today remembered more for gangster movies (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat) than for westerns, although he made a number of those, too.  This one goes with his The Big Trail (1931, starring John Wayne in his first leading role) and Colorado Territory (1949, a remake of his High Sierra in an older western setting with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo) as eminently watchable examples of his work in westerns.  One of his earliest films was a quasi-documentary The Life of General Villa (1912 and 1914, both now lost), starring Villa himself.  Walsh, who did some directing with Christy Cabanne, had a bit part playing Villa as a young man, although his career as an actor was largely over by 1915.  The Villa film was made when Walsh was only 19 and Villa was still regularly in the U.S. news in a positive way, two years before his attack on Columbus, New Mexico, provoked a punitive (and largely futile) expedition under Gen. Pershing.  The film has apparently been lost, and its making became the subject of a 2003 HBO film And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself.

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Bend of the River

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 25, 2013

Bend of the River—James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Julia Adams, Jay C. Flippen, Stepin Fetchit, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano (1952; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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The second and perhaps the weakest of the five Anthony Mann-James Stewart westerns from the early 1950s.  However, even a weak Mann-Stewart western is still highly watchable.  Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) is a former Missouri border raider and gunman leading a wagon train to the Mount Hood area of Oregon (in 1847?) and trying to live down his past. 

On the way, he rescues horse thief Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from hanging, only to discover that Cole is a former Kansas border raider and gunman.  Together they fight off a small band of Shoshone renegades and the train arrives in Portland, where the settlers buy supplies to be delivered to them and head up the river toward Mount Hood.

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When the supplies don’t arrive on schedule in September, McLyntock and head settler Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen) head for Portland to find out why.  They discover Portland is now a mining boom town, and the miners have driven prices for food and supplies through the roof.  With the help of Cole and his young gambler friend Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson), McLyntock takes the supplies, closely pursued by saloon owner and slippery merchant Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie). 

They eventually fight off Hendricks’ men, killing Hendricks.  But Cole has come to realize miners will pay a lot more for the supplies, and he hijacks the entire wagon train, leaving McLyntock behind on foot.  McLyntock follows, picking off various of the drivers and taking their weapons.  Eventually he succeeds in taking back the wagons, only to have to fight off an attack by miners led by Cole. 

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Jeremy’s daughter Laura (Julia Adams) is the romantic interest, initially attracted to Cole but eventually repulsed by his obvious sleaziness.  The plot doesn’t hang together terribly well, and Jeremy Baile is kind of a tiresome character.  There’s rather a lot of killing, mostly not of Indians.  Set in an earlier period than other Mann westerns (presumably no later than the 1850s, with Oregon immigration and former Missouri-Kansas border raiders), but there are no concessions to that time in the look and weapons.  It looks just the same as all other Mann westerns, including The Far Country which is set in 1898. 

James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (1952). Courtesy Photofest. P

Former bushwacker, now trail scout.

Stewart and Kennedy are fine; Hudson seems a little out of place; and the lovely Julia Adams is given little to do.  This is supposedly the last film in which Stewart appeared with his real hair.  He’s wearing his usual westerns hat and presumably riding his horse Pie, though.  Stepin Fetchit plays kind of a jarring character to modern eyes—an old-fashioned black stereotype with near-unintelligible dialogue sometimes.  Based on the novel “Bend of the Snake” by Bill Gulick and filmed on location near Mount Hood.  In color.  The DVD is unfortunately only in full frame, like The Far Country, not in widescreen.

Note:  Reader Simón Cherpitel notes that Bend of the River was made when many movies and studios were still making the transition to widescreen formats.  This one was originally filmed in “academy ratio,” and therefore the DVD shows all there is to see (unlike, say, the later Mann-Stewart The Far Country, which was shot with a more widescreen aspect ratio).

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Tom Horn

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 23, 2013

Tom Horn—Steve McQueen, Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth, Slim Pickens, Geoffrey Lewis (1980; Dir:  William Wiard)

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This was the penultimate movie for 50-year-old Steve McQueen, who was dying of cancer in 1980.   It’s the story of a famous stock detective who hunted down rustlers in Wyoming around the turn of the century after a career as an Indian scout in Arizona.  He is now, and was then to some degree, an anachronism and a symbol of a freer and more open time on the frontier.  Even in Wyoming, the frontier was closing down and law had to be served.  Based in some significant measure on the memoirs of the actual Horn, some parts are remarkably accurate historically and others less so.

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Death and devastation seem to accompany Horn, regardless of how much of it he actually intends.

Horn’s principal tool is his rifle, with which he is remarkably accurate at long distances.  “The rifle Horn uses to such deadly effect in the film is an original Winchester Model 1876 in .45-60 caliber, fitted with a custom tang sight.  Manufactured from 1877-1894, the Model ’76 was an obsolete arm by the turn of the century, when the events of the story take place.  All the available historical sources state that Horn actually used a .30-30 Winchester Model 1894 for his controversial activities as a ‘stock detective’ in Wyoming.”  That is to say that Horn’s rifle in this movie is slightly anachronistic, but that’s quite common in westerns.

Beginning in 1901, in what looks to be too small a town for Cheyenne at that time, Tom Horn is hired by a group of Wyoming ranchers as a stock detective to stop rustling.  By most accounts, Horn’s method of stopping them was to pick off supposed rustlers at long range; this shows him mostly facing his opponents with the above-described rifle.  A couple of Horn’s victims were shot in Brown’s Hole on the opposite (southwestern) side of Wyoming.  The movie shows Horn as probably not being guilty of the murder (of a fifteen-year-old boy) for which he was hanged, but inarticulate and unable to cope with the process that condemns him.  Horn is finally done in by a conspiracy among the ranchers who hired him and then needed to distance themselves from the effects of his work.  And by an inaccurate transcript of a drunken conversation, which he does not bother to correct.  Horn’s last words, to the sheriff:  “Keep your nerve, Sam, ’cause I’m gonna keep mine.”  

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Horn (Steve McQueen) with Glendoline Kimmel (Linda Evans).

The dying McQueen makes Horn’s world-weariness and unwillingness to defend himself believable, if not entirely understandable.  Linda Evans is Glendolene Kimmel, a school teacher and romantic interest of Horn’s.  Richard Farnsworth is excellent as John Coble, the prime mover among the ranchers who remains loyal to Horn.  Slim Pickens is effective as Sam Creedmore, the sheriff in Cheyenne.  Rather an elaborate execution by hanging at the end, with an automated gallows.  Not enough background is given on why Horn is a legend of the west (i.e., his activities as a scout against the Apaches in Arizona), or his relationship with Glendolene.  The movie is shot with lots of stark browns and grays, and the second half is slow-moving. 

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This is an end-of-an-era western, shot in early 1979 and released in 1980 at a time when very few westerns were being made and McQueen’s career was no longer very active (no major commercial films since 1974’s Towering Inferno).  “If you really knew how dirty and raggedy-assed the Old West was, you wouldn’t want any part of it,” Horn tells Glendolene, who ultimately does not stick with him.  The actual deputy U.S. Marshal Joe LeFors, who set up Horn and testified against him, is here renamed Joe Belle (played by Billy Green Bush) for some reason.  There is a brief performance by an aging Elisha Cook, Jr. as a stable hand.

The making of this movie almost defines the term “troubled production.”  That by itself doesn’t mean a movie will be terrible, but when that many things go wrong, it becomes much harder for such a collaborative effort to turn out well.  Five directors worked on this film, but most were either fired or left because of disagreements with McQueen, who is credited as the producer.  It is widely believed that McQueen directed much of the movie himself.  One of those said to be associated in the early stages was Sam Peckinpah, but he and McQueen had a falling out (as Peckinpah often did with producers).  “Neither Don Siegel nor Elliot Silverstein made it past pre-production.  Electra Glide in Blue director James Guercio only lasted for the first three days of the shoot, and cinematographer John Alonzo and McQueen himself also had a hand in the finished film at one point or another, with credited director William Wiard apparently hired only to placate the Directors Guild when they wouldn’t allow the star to direct himself.  The screenplay went through many changes along the route as well, with Thomas McGuane’s 450-page epic being constantly chipped away, Abraham Polonsky’s rewrite being rejected and Bud Shrake’s final script eventually alternating with McGuane’s depending on which version the star felt like filming that day.  And just to add to the good news, the picture suffered from major budget cuts due to studio politics and the threat of a William Goldman-scripted Robert Redford rival project (eventually made for TV with David Carradine as Mr Horn).  It shrank from a three-hour $10m epic about the Indian tracker and interpreter’s life to a $3m small-scale Western about its ignominious end.”  Score by Ernest Gold.  Shot in subdued color, in Arizona.

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The citified gent on the left is the actual Joe LeFors, the competent Wyoming lawman who pursued Butch Cassidy, captured Horn and extracted a (perhaps inaccurate) sort-of-confession by getting Horn drunk.  On the right is the real Tom Horn in 1903 while incarcerated awaiting his execution.  He’s making the rope that will be used to hang him.

McQueen didn’t actually make many westerns, although he seems very much like a western star.  Tom Horn was also played by John Ireland in the 1967 Fort Utah, which hardly anyone has seen, and by David Carridine in the 1979 made-for-television version of the story, Mr. Horn.  This is better than both of those, but that’s not saying much.  The definitive version of Tom Horn’s story has yet to be made.

McQueen did make western screen history with one element of the production design here.  This movie marks the re-introduction of the traditional big cowboy hat to westerns, after several decades of 1950s-styled hats.  Now a western with any pretension to authenticity is likely to include more historically-correct hats, which have been worn with great success by Tom Selleck (see Quigley Down Under, for example), among many others.

For the definitive Tom Horn biography, see Larry D. Ball’s Tom Horn in Life and Legend (2014).

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Rachel and the Stranger

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 22, 2013

Rachel and the Stranger—William Holden, Robert Mitchum, Loretta Young, Gary Gray (1948; Dir:  Norman Foster)

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Set on the Kentucky-Ohio frontier, either before or shortly after the American Revolution—the exact time is not clear.  David Harvey (William Holden) is a still-bereaved widower with a young son Davey (Gary Gray), isolated on a remote farm.  Prodded by his hunter-friend Jim Fairways (Robert Mitchum), Harvey decides to travel to the stockade and see if he can find a new wife. 

He finds Rachel (Loretta Young), now a bondservant because of her father’s debts, with whom a Mr. Green is willing to part for $18 dollars plus $4 more in the fall, even though that’s a very steep discount from what he paid.  Since it would be inappropriate for the man and woman to live under the same roof otherwise, they are married before leaving the stockade.  The problem is that Harvey is still grief-ridden over his first wife’s death and thinks of Rachel as a bondservant more than as a wife.  He doesn’t try to talk with her much or develop the relationship.  The marriage is not consummated, with the two parties sleeping apart. 

RachelStrangerHome Arriving at her new home.

The plot bears noticeable similarities to Young’s better-known (and more complex) The Bishop’s Wife, in that her husband fails to notice her good points until Fairways returns and finds her interesting.  Whereupon she blossoms; she was always beautiful (being Loretta Young), but it now comes out that she’s educated, has musical talent (she can play the piano) and has taught herself to shoot as well as Harvey’s first wife did, for whom Harvey and Fairways were once romantic rivals.  Pushed by Fairways’ interest, Harvey is more open about his own developing romantic interest, leading to a fight between the two males. 

RachelStrangerYoung Loretta Young as Rachel

Rachel decides to leave, but fate intervenes in the form of a Shawnee war party.  Together the three of them hold off an attack by Shawnees on the homestead and it looks like they’re about to succumb to fire.  We know how all this romantic (or determinedly non-romantic) stuff will turn out; the interest is in how the characters will get there. 

For a similar setting with a more rollicking story, see Many Rivers to Cross.  This is better than that one, and better than average, mostly because of the excellent (if small) cast.  Young really makes it all work by her restraint, although she seems older than the 25 she gives as her age.  (She was 35 at the time.  A year past The Farmer’s Daughter, for which she won a Best Actress Academy Award, she was at her peak.)  There is also a question about whether Fairways is completely serious in his interest; he may just be prodding Harvey to help him out again.  Still, it’s one of those situations where there would be no plot if these people (Harvey and Rachel) would just talk with each other.

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Fairways romancing Rachel with music.

Mitchum comes off as a more attractive character here than Holden, who spends most of the film seeming stiff and grumpy.  Maybe part of that’s how the parts are written.  You could easily see Van Heflin in the Holden part, too.  Mitchum’s singing voice proves to be pleasant enough.  It’s unclear who the stranger of the title is—presumably Fairways?  But Rachel’s new husband is also a stranger to her.  And Rachel is never given a last name, other than “Mrs. Harvey” once she is married.  If you like Loretta Young in this western, try her in the 1945 sort-of-comedy with Gary Cooper, Along Came Jones. She plays a strong woman in that one, too.

Some see similarities to Rebecca, with a new wife living in the shadow of the now-deceased first wife and a conflagration at the end.  There might also be thematic similarities with The Sound of Music.  But that could also be over-analyzing a fairly simple and straightforward film.  Based on a story by Howard Fast; screenplay by Waldo Salt.  In black and white.  Filmed around Eugene, Oregon.  Short, at 83 minutes.  Despite its low budget, the film became RKO’s most successful film of 1948, making over $350,000.  Released briefly on DVD in 2008, it now has very limited availability.

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Alvarez Kelly

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 21, 2013

Alvarez Kelly—William Holden, Richard Widmark, Janice Rule, Patrick O’Neal, Harry Carey, Jr., Victoria Shaw (1966; Dir:  Edward Dmytryk)

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Mexican national Alvarez Kelly (William Holden) has brought a large herd of cattle to Alabama in 1864 at the request of the Union army.  Now that they’ve arrived, Col. Stedman (Patrick O’Neal), a Massachusetts lawyer in civilian life, insists they go by train to a location outside of Richmond, Virginia.  Kelly grudgingly complies and is paid at the Warwick farm.  Mrs. Warwick (Victoria Shaw), a southern belle, has arranged for Virginia cavalry (the so-called Comanches, led by one-eyed Col. Tom Rossiter [Richard Widmark]), to steal both Kelly and his cattle, on the theory that the Confederates are a lot hungrier than the Yankees, in part because their money isn’t any good. 

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Rossiter (Richard Widmark) and Kelly (William Holden) negotiate.

The relentlessly non-affiliated Kelly is hard to persuade until Rossiter shoots off a finger and threatens to shoot off the others unless Kelly agrees to go along.  Meanwhile, in part for revenge because of his mutilated hand, Kelly arranges to help Rossiter’s fiancée Liz Pickering (Janice Rule) escape Richmond aboard a Scottish ship bound for New York.  There is a not-terribly-convincing sequence where Kelly demonstrates that regular cavalry men don’t possess the skills to drive catlle.  Rossiter instructs Kelly’s watchdog Hatcher to kill Kelly if anything happens to Rossiter. 

Stedman figures out where Rossiter is heading with the herd and positions his men and a few artillery pieces to stop them at a bridge.  Kelly stampedes the cattle over the bridge and into the Black Swamp and on to Richmond.  At the end there is a not-terribly-convincing rapprochement between Kelly and Rossiter, and Rossiter even shoots Hatcher to keep him from killing Kelly at the bridge.

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Rossiter and the Confederates aren’t so good at herding cattle.

The story is based on an actual event from the Civil War—Gen. Wade Hampton’s “Beefsteak” raid of September 1864.  Holden is good, but was said to be suffering through a particularly bad bout with his alcoholism.  Production was held up for six months when Holden contracted salmonella.  The stars, Holden and Widmark, as well as director Dmytryk, were said to have reservations about the film’s script, which isn’t all that strong.  It’s hard to rehabilitate a character like Rossiter after the shooting-off-the finger incident; usually somebody who’d do that is an irredeemable bad guy, as in The Man from Laramie.  Whether the movie works at all depends on the two leads playing off each other, and they’re both excellent actors.  Holden and Widmark remained lifelong friends after the filming.  In color, filmed near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Steve McQueen was filming parts of Nevada Smith at the same time.    

alvarezkellyPoster2 French poster.

Ukrainian/Canadian/Californian Edward Dmytryk, who had been directing movies since 1935 and became known for his films noirs by the end of the 1940s, was one of the “Hollywood Ten” in 1948 and was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress.  Consequently he was among those blacklisted in the 1950s, but he was making his way back by the middle of the decade.  He made only five westerns, the best of which was probably 1959’s Warlock, with Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark and Anthony Quinn.  Second would be Broken Lance (1954), with Spencer Tracy and Richard Widmark.  But this might be the third best from a good director.  It would make a good double feature with John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959), another Civil War movie, also with William Holden as one of the leads and also with good battle scenes.

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Last of the Mohicans (1936 and 1920)

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 19, 2013

Last of the Mohicans—Randolph Scott, Binnie Barnes, Henry Wilcoxon, Bruce Cabot, Heather Angel, Philip Reed, Robert Barrat, Hugh Buckler (1936; Dir:  George B. Seitz)

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The official 1936 movie poster uses a 1919 N.C. Wyeth illustration from the book (upper left corner).

The successful 1992 version of this story was said to be have been based more on this 1936 movie than on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper.  There are several lines from this version that recur in the 1992 movie and the 1936 screenwriter Philip Dunne even has a credit in the 1992 film, but the two versions are not identical in plot. 

Col. Munro (Hugh Buckler) is at Albany, about to head for Fort William Henry on Lake George, when he is joined by Major Duncan Heyward (Henry Wilcoxon) and Munro’s two daughters, Alice (Binnie Barnes, with dark hair) and Cora (Heather Angel, blond).  Their column is led by adopted Mohawk Magua (Bruce Cabot), who talks Heyward and the Munro daughters into taking a short cut on which he plans to betray them to the invading Hurons.  The small party is rescued by Hawkeye (Randolph Scott) and father and son Mohicans, Chingachgook (Robert Barrat) and Uncas (Philip Reed).  While making for Fort William Henry, they steal canoes and elude the Huron pursuit.  Hawkeye and Alice begin to form a relationship, to the irritation of Major Heyward, as do Uncas and Cora.

LastMohicans36BarnesScott Alice and Hawkeye

Once at the fort, the British are besieged by the French, Hurons and Ottawas.  Uncas makes an unsuccessful attempt to carry a dispatch to Gen. Webb and is wounded.  Hawkeye tells the colonials their homes and farms are in danger and helps them to escape the fort; for this, he and Chingachgook are put in the fort’s brig.  Montcalm, the French commander, persuades Munro that further resistance is hopeless, and Munro surrenders on the promise of honorable terms and treatment.  Magua whips the French-allied Hurons and Ottawas into a murderous frenzy, and the Indians attack the now-vulnerable British before they are able to leave the fort.  The French are horrified and eventually put a stop to the massacre, but not before Magoa makes off with Alice and Cora and heads north.

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Hawkeye and the Mohicans escape the brig in the melee and head after Magua, encountering Major Heyward on the trail.  Magua brings the sisters to the Huron council, where it is decided that Alice will die by being burned to death, and Cora is given until morning to decide between joining her sister in death or becoming Magua’s squaw.  Uncas sneaks into the camp and rescues Cora, but Magua pursues.  Uncas is killed by Magua and Cora chooses death rather than be taken again by Magua.  In turn, Chingachgook kills the evil Magua.

Hawkeye and Major Heyward argue over who will volunteer to trade himself for Alice.  Heyward knocks out Hawkeye and steals his clothes; the Hurons agree to trade Cora for the disguised Heyward.  Hawkeye shows up and has a shooting match with Heyward to prove who is the real Hawkeye; he ends up being tortured and prepared for burning.  As the Mohicans, Heyward and Alice escape, they find a relief column near and return in time to save Hawkeye. 

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Once back in in Albany with the relief column, Hawkeye faces a court martial for the same changes for which he was imprisoned at Fort William Henry, but this time Heyward comes to his defense.  He is acquitted of all charges in return for joining the British army as a scout in their next expedition northward.

So the blond and dark Munro daughters are switched in this version; the canoe chase takes place before the fort surrenders, Major Heyward surivives, and Hawkeye joins the British army.  These are all changed in the 1992 version of the story.  But this version deserves to be regarded as a classic.  Scott is excellent as Hawkeye in one of the best of his early screen roles, and Wilcoxon does very well as Heyward.  The sisters are also excellent.  Cabot as Magua is neither as evil and leering as Wallace Beery (1920) nor as implacably cruel as Wes Studi (1992).  But this is well worth watching, despite a couple of clunky spots.  It was filmed in the Crescent City and Smith River areas of northern California, using Yurok, Hoopa and Tolowa extras.

The Last of the Mohicans—Wallace Beery, Barbara Bedford, Harry Lorraine, Alan Roscoe, Theodore Lorch, Henry Woodward (1920; Dir: Clarence Brown, Maurice Tourneur)

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The first film version of Last of the Mohicans was a 1911 one-reeler starring James Cruze, better known these days for directing the 1923 silent western classic The Covered Wagon.  The silent version most often seen these days is Maurice Tourneur’s 1920 version.  That same year there was a German version of the story featuring Bela Lugosi as Chingachgook. 

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Bedford and Roscoe as the young lovers Cora and Uncas.

This Tourneur version is notable for Wallace Beery’s leering performance as the evil Magua, for the prominence of Uncas (Alan or Albert Roscoe) as the romantic hero, and for the strangely hayseed depiction of Hawkeye (Harry Lorraine), giving him a much less prominent role in the drama than this character usually has.  The romantic leads of Roscoe and then-17-year-old Barbara Bedford (Cora) were later married.  Boris Karloff is said to be one of the Indian extras in the film, but if so he’s not very obvious.

LastMohicansBeery Beery as Magua

This was filmed around Big Bear Lake and the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California, with some shooting in Yosemite.  The directors are top-quality:  Tourneur did most of the movie, but after being injured on the set, he gave Clarence Brown one of his first directing chances in finishing the film and doing much of the outdoor shooting.  The restored print has a lot of color tints in it.  This version is one of the three (1920, 1936, 1992) most worth watching and is said to be truer to Cooper’s novel than most later versions.  At 73 minutes, it’s not terribly long.

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