Monthly Archives: December 2013

Australia

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 31, 2013

Australia—Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Bryan Brown, David Wenham, Brandon Walters (2008; Dir:  Baz Luhrman)

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As the title suggests, this is one of those westerns that does not take place in the American west.  But it involves two traditional western themes:  the European coming to the frontier (see The Big Country, Cowboy, even Last of the Mohicans) and learning to appreciate it, and the cattle drive against great odds (e.g., Red River, Cowboy and Broken Trail).

The first half or more of this lengthy epic involves a cattle drive across northern Australia to Darwin.  It takes place in 1939, but this part is a typical cattle drive story.  Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat whose husband has been developing Faraway Downs as a cattle operation in the deserts of the northern Australian outback.  The ranch has been hemorrhaging money—Lady Sarah’s family money.  Lady Sarah determines to sell the operation and heads for Australia. 

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Jackman emphasizing western themes.

Her husband Maitland is killed just as she arrives; she fires his treacherous foreman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) and hires the Drover (Hugh Jackman) to get what cattle she has to Darwin to sell to the military (virtually the same story as Wrangler, but a different war).  She develops an affection for the child Nullah (Brandon Walters), Fletcher’s half-aborigine son who’s also the grandson of aborigine shaman King George.  After a successful drive against great odds, Lady Sarah and Drover shack up together.  His first wife was an aborigine, and he maintains close ties with them, for which he is ostracized by many whites.  Cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) keeps trying to subvert Lady Sarah’s efforts and buy Faraway Downs (also much like the plot of Wrangler). 

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Nullah and his grandfather King George.

In the last part of the movie, Fletcher connives to get Nullah taken away until Lady Sarah sells Faraway Downs to him (Carney now being dead and Fletcher being married to his daughter).  The Japanese attack both Darwin and the mission island where the children are kept.  The Drover, thinking Lady Sarah has been killed in the attack, gets a small sailboat to the mission island and rescues the surviving children, including Nullah, just as the Japanese overrun the place. 

Back in Darwin, Fletcher’s wife has been killed and he’s consequently lost his control of the Carney empire.  In a rage he tries to shoot Nullah but is himself killed by King George.  The Drover, Lady Sarah and Nullah are all reunited happily in the fiery ruins of Darwin. 

The film is overblown, poorly edited and too long, with a story that doesn’t hang together all that well.  There are lots of lingering shots of passionate characters with swelling music, telling us how we’re supposed to be feeling rather than trusting the story and acting to get us there.  It’s very politically correct (in current terms) about looking down on former racial attitudes, and contains a fair amount of ill-defined aborigine mysticism.  It’s not that former racial attitudes were correct–one cannot deny that blacks, Indians and Australian aborigines were treated badly in ways that would not be countenanced today.  But it feels anachronistic to adopt completely the modern views on such matters.  There are lots of obvious CGI effects, especially in the harbor at Darwin. 

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For those who are wondering if there was an island near Darwin filled with children attacked by the Japanese, there wasn’t.  But one of the first Australians to spot the incoming Japanese planes in the attack on Darwin in Feb. 1942 was a priest stationed on a lonely island off Darwin’s shore.  “An unusually large air formation bearing down on us from the northwest,” he radioed into Darwin’s operators on the morning of the attack.  The operators shrugged off the warning.  Twenty minutes later, the town was attacked.  (This, according to Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois.)

Along with the title, this is an almost entirely Australian production, funded in part by Australian government sources.  The director, Baz Luhrman, is Australian, as are the leads (Jackman and Kidman) and most of the other actors.  The multi-talented Hugh Jackman obviously needs to find a good script for a western and do a real one.

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Arizona

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 30, 2013

Arizona—Jean Arthur, William Holden, Warren William, Edgar Buchanan (1940; Dir:  Wesley Ruggles)

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Set in Tucson before and during the Civil War.  Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) is the quintessential strong western woman, running a pie business, starting freighting operations and building her dream ranch.  The movie revolves around her.  Pete Muncie (William Holden) is originally passing through on his way to California, but they catch each other’s eye.  When this movie was released, in a reversal of the usual pattern Jean Arthur was 40 and Holden only 22, but the difference isn’t very visible on screen.  This and Texas are among the earliest films for both Holden and Edgar Buchanan; this was Holden’s first western and first starring role. 

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In Tucson the local bad guys are led by saloon owner Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall), until Ward is taken over by new arrival Jefferson Carteret (Warren William).  They sell guns to the Indians (Apaches) and organize other forms of theft and evildoing.  Muncie takes his time getting ready to settle down, and Titus’ freighting business allows her to build up the money she needs for her ranch.  The Ward-Carteret gang steals her money, and she borrows it back from Carteret.  Muncie takes it to Nebraska to buy a herd.  On his return, he is attacked by Apaches paid by Carteret, who shoots his own partner Ward in the back.  After his wedding the next day, Muncie shoots it out with Carteret, offscreen (as in Stagecoach).  The focus remains on the new bride Phoebe as she stands in the local store ordering supplies for her ranch, hearing gunshots outside and wondering whether she’s already a widow.  The camera stays on her face, and there is real acting going on there. 

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Phoebe Titus interrupts a poker game.

Arthur anachronistically wears pants for almost all of the movie, and the plot is kind of uneven, but it’s watchable and Arthur in particular is good.  Edgar Buchanan, a former dentist in real life, plays the first of his reprobate judge roles, in which he would specialize for the rest of his career.  Long for a western in 1940, at just over two hours, and some feel it has pacing problems.  In black and white.

Jean Arthur didn’t make a lot of westerns, but she’s in some good ones.  Look for her as Calamity Jane in The Plainsman, for example, with Gary Cooper.  Her final movie, for which she was enticed out of retirement in her 50s, was Shane.

One of the lasting legacies of this film was the creation of the set, the Old Tucson Studios, used as a setting for western towns in hundreds of movies and television shows since, including, for example, Rio Bravo and Tombstone.

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The War Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 28, 2013

The War Wagon—John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Howard Keel, Bruce Cabot, Robert Walker, Keenan Wynn, Bruce Dern, Harry Carey, Jr., Sheb Wooley, Chuck Roberson (1967; Dir:  Burt Kennedy)

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Fairly good late period John Wayne, better written by Clair Huffaker than most of Wayne’s regular fare.  This is an assembling-the-team-and-pulling-the-caper western (like The Badlanders and The Train Robbers) by Wayne’s Batjac production company.  It also represents Burt Kennedy’s move from writing (the best of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott films) and television directing to directing movies.  This was about as good as director Kennedy would get, though, except for his Support Your Local … pair starting the following year. 

Honest rancher Taw Jackson (Wayne) gets out of prison after three years and returns on parole to Emmett, New Mexico, about 43 ½ miles from El Paso.  He lost his ranch and was framed for some unspecified crime by Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot), owner of the Pierce Mining Company, when gold was found on the ranch.  The wagon of the title is Pierce’s armored stagecoach, used for delivering gold to the railroad, accompanied by more than thirty armed guards on horses.  The sheriff is clearly in Pierce’s pocket. 

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Jackson aims to get back some of his gold when an unusually large shipment ($500,000) is due to move.  He first recruits amoral old enemy Lomax (Kirk Douglas), gunman, gambler, womanizer, bon vivant and, not incidentally, safecracker.  He had made arrangements in prison with Billy Hyatt (young Robert Walker, son of Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones), alcoholic but good with explosives, and with dishonest Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn), who hauls freight for Pierce and provides both information and a means of transporting the loot (in barrels of flour).  The final member of the team is Levi Walking Bear (a ludicrously cast Howard Keel, but he’s mostly comic relief), for his connections with the Kiowas led by Wild Horse, who is to provide a diversion for the wagon’s outriders during the robbery.

WarWagon2Lomax and Jackson.

Pierce outfits the wagon with a gatling gun just before the run, but with a few ups and downs things work out mainly as planned.  When the outriders are distracted by the Kiowas, Billy uses nitroglycerin to blow up a bridge and separate them from the wagon.  Lomax and Walking Bear set a trap to remove the wagon’s driver.  Pierce, inside the wagon, has a falling out with two of his henchmen at a critical moment, and they shoot him as he shoots them.  Fletcher shows up at the appointed place with his young blond wife (bought from her parents and played by Valora Noland), and the team puts the gold loose in the flour barrels.  Wild Horse, however, tries to double-cross them until distracted, and perhaps blown up, by nitroglycerin.  The Indians shoot Fletcher and the flour/gold wagon bolts driverless.  The barrels roll out toward the starving Kiowa women and old people, and the gang appears to have lost its loot—except that Jackson finds a few bags that Fletcher had surreptitiously stolen.  Presumably, Jackson gets his ranch back, and Billy gets Fletcher’s young, blond wife.

Kirk Douglas had been a significant movie star for 20 years when this was made, but a point is made of his athleticism, such as frequently leaping on to horses without using the stirrups.  He wears a hat less than most actors in westerns, as in The Last Sunset.  Douglas is dressed in very tight-fitting clothes, including a suede tunic-vest that must have been difficult to get into, matching suede boots, black form-fitting stretch pants and black gloves with a large ring on the outside of one finger.  The Douglas-Wayne interplay is very effective; they made three films together in as many years.  According to the production notes on the 2003 DVD release, Keenan Wynn’s battered hat that he wears in the picture was Leslie Howard’s Confederate cavalry hat from Gone With the Wind which Wynn purloined from MGM.  Wynn first wore the hat in a 1942 MGM screen test and “wore it in every picture he made.”  Although Wynn plays a crazy/dishonest old man, he was in fact nine years younger than Wayne.  According to Wayne, the (gratuitous) fight in the saloon was his 500th on-screen fight.

 WarWagonGold Loading the gold.

There are a number of the Wayne regulars along for the ride.  Harry Carey, Jr., Bruce Cabot, Sheb Wooley, Chuck Roberson.  Bruce Dern, a slimy Pierce henchman who gets killed early in the movie, would be the first to kill John Wayne in a western a few years later in The Cowboys.  The gold dust looks rather obviously like iron pyrite.

To see John Wayne as an outlaw again, look at 3 Godfathers, The Angel and the Badman, The Searchers, and The Train Robbers.  Maybe The Sons of Katie Elder.  He’s showing his age here; he’d already lost a lung to cancer, and it’s not terribly believable when he and Douglas seem to leap from the crashing war wagon.  But it’s an enjoyable and watchable movie anyway, if not among his best—better and more coherent than the previous year’s El Dorado, even though the estimable Howard Hawks directed that one.

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Filmed in color by William Clothier in Durango, Mexico.  Music by Dimitri Tiomkin, but it’s not one of his more memorable scores.  Theme song sung by Ed Ames.

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Four Faces West

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 27, 2013

Four Faces West—Joel McCrea, Frances Dee, Charles Bickford, Joseph Calleia, William Conrad (1949; Dir:  Alfred E. Green)

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An independent production, in which McCrea had a hand.  This is an excellent part for him, using to good effect the basic decency he always projected.  The title’s not great; it’s not clear who the four faces are.  It’s kind of a generic title that doesn’t fit the story.  Presumably McCrea (as Ross McEwen), Frances Dee (McCrea’s real-life wife, playing romantic interest and nurse Fay Hollister), Charles Bickford (as Pat Garrett), and Joseph Calleia (as Monte Marquez, looking nefarious but maybe not).  Look for William Conrad in a bit part as a sheriff pursuing bank robber McCrea.  Based on a story (“Paso Por Aqui,” first published in 1926) by Eugene Manlove Rhodes.  From a vantage point sixty years after its release it seems to have a sentimental Christian morality from the era about it.  (Compare it to John Ford’s 3 Godfathers, for example.)  Not much seen these days, but it’s good.

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McEwen (Joel McCrea) meets nurse Fay Hollister (Frances Dee) on a train and is immediately taken with her.

Ross McEwen is escaping from having robbed the bank in the small New Mexico town of Santa Maria.  He committed the robbery when the bank refused to lend him the money he needs to help his father–$2000, for which he leaves an IOU signed “Jefferson Davis.”  He is bitten by a rattlesnake shortly before boarding a train, and on the train he is tended by railroad nurse Fay Hollister, with whom he falls in love.  She figures out that he is the man wanted for the bank robbery as they travel together on the train to Alamogordo, and she urges him to turn himself in.  He gives her a ring and a kiss but takes off for the border.

Although he took only $2000, the vengeful banker has offered a $3000 reward for McEwen, dead or alive.  Much of southern New Mexico gets involved in the manhunt, it seems.  An ambiguous Mexican gambler Monte Marquez (the Malta-born Joseph Calleia), whom he also met on the train, ends up helping McEwen and being helped by him.  When McEwen wins a substantial amount of money at Marquez’ gambling tables, he sends much of it back to the bank in Santa Maria to start repayment of what he took. 

After an arduous pursuit, it looks like McEwen will get away, but he stumbles on a Mexican family dying of diphtheria and loses his chance at escape by taking the time to nurse them back to health.  The family turn out to be cousins of Marquez.  Sheriff Garrett is moved by this sacrifice to help McEwen resolve his affairs in the most favorable way possible.  In the 1940s and 1950s, even sympathetic not-so-bad guys were seldom allowed to escape punishment, even when the whole movie has been geared toward getting the audience to want that.  (Just look at 3 Godfathers for a similar case and a similar result.  And, if you’re into Christmas movies, look at what happens to Barbara Stanwyck’s character at the end of 1940’s Remember the Night.) 

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Nurse Hollister tries to talk McEwen into giving himself up.

At the end, it looks like he’ll go to jail, but maybe not for long.  And Nurse Hollister will wait for him.  As a western, this is better than average and well worth watching, despite the slightly snarky tone of this summary.  It’s visually arresting.  The cinematographer was Russell Harlan, who did Red River and many others as well.  And no actor looked better on horseback than McCrea did.

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McEwen risks diptheria and capture.

Interestingly enough, the film’s end is different from that of the Manlove story on which it is based.  While the film ends with Garrett taking McEwen into custody, albeit with humane intentions, the original story ends with the two men gathering firewood together and not acknowledging each other’s true identities.  A nurse from the East learns that this is the way of the West.  The story’s end is better.

The story takes its time developing, and it is the sort of thing that would not be made today, more than sixty years later.  But it’s good.  This is the better of two westerns in which McCrea stars with his real-life wife Frances Dee.  For the other, see Wells Fargo (1937).  For another good western with the excellent Joseph Calleia as a maybe-not-so-bad guy, see him as a Mexican bandit chieftain in Branded (1950), with Alan Ladd.

Not to be confused with 1940’s Three Faces West, starring John Wayne, or Two Flags West from 1950, with Joseph Cotton, Jeff Chandler and Linda Darnell.  In the John Wayne film, he’s the leader of a town in the 1930s that takes in a doctor fleeing the Nazis in Europe with his attractive daughter.  The entire town has to flee the dust bowl of the southern plains and head for Oregon.  Or Four for Texas, a ratpack western from the 1960s with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

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Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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3 Godfathers (1948)

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 25, 2013

3 Godfathers—John Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., Pedro Armendariz, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, Mae Marsh, Jane Darwell, Hank Worden, Guy Kibbee, Ben Johnson (1948; Dir:  John Ford)

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If one were asked to name a Christmas western, 3 Godfathers would be the first that came to mind.  One might also add the made-for-television Jericho.  The official title of this version appears to have the numeral 3, instead of spelling out Three Godfathers.

This was at least the sixth remake of this story, including two previous silent versions by John Ford and a 1929 talkie directed by William Wyler.  Audiences at the time this was released probably thought it was better than current audiences would.  In fact, this is probably among the least-watched of Ford’s post-WW II work.  It seems old-fashioned, and it was not the first time that Ford had told this story.  It was made during the last period when not only was the reformed-badman theme in vogue but so was a kind of overtly sentimental religious outlook that was part of society’s general consensus.  That consensus has since disappeared.  For purposes of comparison, look at Wayne’s Angel and the Badman and Joel McCrea in Four Faces West, both from about the same time.  If we can’t exactly share those sentiments in our more cynical time, we shouldn’t lose the ability to appreciate the stories, since they were part of life in the American west, too.

Bob Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William Kearney, the Abilene Kid (Harry Carey, Jr., “introduced” in a story his father had starred in twice) ride into Welcome, Arizona, formerly known as Tarantula, planning to rob the local bank.  They meet Perley “Buck” Sweet (Ward Bond), the canny local sheriff, and his wife (Mae Marsh).  They hit the bank and as they are making their escape out of town, Sweet wings the Kid and puts a bullet hole in the bandits’ water bag.  They take out into the desert, heading for Mojave Tanks—three men on two horses. 

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At Mojave Tanks, they find Sweet has used the train to get two men there already.  They move on to Terrapin Tanks, only to find that a tenderfoot has ruined the granite tanks with dynamite, seemingly out of greed.  They lose their two remaining horses and are now afoot in the desert.  They find the tenderfoot’s wife—Perley Sweet’s sister (Mildred Natwick)–in her Conestoga wagon, out of water and about to give birth.  Her husband has disappeared four days previously, chasing their own horses.  Pedro, having had an Indian wife, is deemed the one best qualified to help with the birth, and a baby boy is born.  Before she dies, the new mother makes the three promise to be godfathers to the newborn and to save him from the desert.  Also being reborn in this grueling process is the faith of Robert Marmaduke Hightower (Wayne), who starts off as a nonbeliever. 

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The three stagger out toward New Jerusalem with the baby, guided by a scripture on the Nativity and saving their water for the wounded Kid and for the baby.  First the Kid dies, and Pedro takes the baby.  He falls down a bank and breaks his leg.  Realizing he can’t go on, he sends Hightower with the water over the mountain toward New Jerusalem.  Hightower can’t make it, but is urged along by the shades of his companions and the promise made to a dying woman.  As directed by the Bible, he finds a donkey and its colt—enough to stagger into New Jerusalem’s saloon with the baby. 

3 godfathersShielding Hightower shields the dying Kid.

Buck Sweet finds Hightower there just as the cowboy collapses.  When he revives (in jail), he’s willing for Buck and his wife (Mae Marsh) to take over custody of the child temporarily while he’s in jail.  The judge delivers a sentence in a barroom, after Hightower reaffirms his intention to keep the promise he made to the baby’s mother.  Because of his personal reformation and the care he has taken of the child, he gets the minimum, only a year and a day at Yuma.  Even the banker’s daughter seems taken with Hightower and promises to write to him. 

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Just ahead of the posse, Hightower delivers the baby to a bar in New Jerusalem, causing them to burst into the song “Silent Night.”  He collapses.

Interesting to note that the charismatic Pedro Armendariz had equal billing with Wayne in this film.  He’s very good as an actor, and as a rider—watch him handle the horse as the three make their getaway in Welcome.  However, Armendariz had blowups with Ford during filming and never worked with him again.  There are many Ford regulars in this cast:  Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick (who seems older than the 28 to 30 she’s supposed to be), Jane Darwell, Hank Worden, Harry Carey, Jr., and an early role for Ben Johnson.  They do fine, although the story does not move quickly during its period in the desert. It was the last film for Guy Kibbee, who plays the judge who sentences Hightower.  Mae Marsh had started in movies in 1910 at the age of 15, appearing in such classics as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance for D.W. Griffith.  By 1940 she was a favorite character actress of John Ford, appearing in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), 3 Godfathers (1948), and The Searchers (1956).

The movie was a bit old-fashioned even when it was made, and it seems a little more so now.  It shows more than usual of Ford’s sentimental streak, and the Christmas overtones are certainly leaned on.  About the same time this was released (1948), Wayne was starting some of his strongest work:  Fort Apache (with Ford), Red River (with Howard Hawks) and The Wake of the Red Witch.  The next year would see She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (with Ford) and The Sands of Iwo Jima, which garnered Wayne his first Academy Award nomination.  Although not as strong as these other films, this doesn’t need to be ashamed in their company, either.  It’s a kind of a tale, with a sort of sentimental Christianity about it, that has gone out of fashion now, but it’s worth watching.  It features the singing of Ford’s usual “Shall We Gather at the River,” and also “Bringing in the Sheaves.”  Filmed at Lone Pine, in color.  The cinematographer was Winton Hoch, who won an Oscar for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the next year and later shot The Searchers with Ford.

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Posters for the 1916 and 1919 versions of the story, both starring Harry Carey.

Note:  In the original story by Peter B. Kyne, the Hightower character does not survive, unlike the quasi-happy ending in this version.  The Kyne novel, published in 1913, was first made into a movie in 1916, starring Harry Carey as Bob Sangster (the John Wayne role here).  Carey, a mentor to a young John Ford, had died in 1947, the year before this movie was released.  Ford’s first version (and the second on film) was a silent movie Marked Men, in 1919, also starring Harry Carey.  His second (the third movie of this story) was called Action, only two years later in 1921, with Hoot Gibson.  Action is now considered to be lost, as are 60 of Ford’s 70 silent films.  William Wyler did a version in 1929 as Hell’s Heroes, starring Charles Bickford and Raymond Hatton.  A fifth version, Three Godfathers in 1936 by Richard Boleslawski, starred Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan.  This sixth version followed in 1948, and is by far the best-known now.  The seventh and last version (so far) to be put on film was The Godchild in 1974, with Jack Palance, Jack Warden and Keith Carradine as escaped Union POWs during the Civil War.  Some of the themes (three unsuitable stand-ins for parents under desperate circumstances) were used in Japanese Studio Ghibli’s 2002 anime Tokyo Godfathers, but that really isn’t a remake.

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Texas Rangers

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 24, 2013

Texas Rangers—Dylan McDermott, James Van Der Beek, Alfred Molina, Tom Skerritt, Robert Patrick, Randy Travis, Ashton Kutcher, Usher Raymond, Rachael Leigh Cook (2001; Dir:  Steve Miner)

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With a fairly good (youth-oriented) cast and excellent production values, this film suffers from poor direction and inadequate writing.  It’s only 90 minutes long, and there’s not much flow to the story and not nearly enough character development. 

It’s 1875 in southern Texas.  Consumptive Civil War veteran and former preacher Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott, playing an actual historical Ranger captain) is somewhat theatrically digging his own grave when he is approached to form a new company of Texas Rangers to fight the huge outlaw gangs along the Rio Grande and the Nueces Strip, especially the ruthless semi-army led by John King Fisher (Alfred Molina).  Captain McNelly has lost his own family to these brigands, and with a couple of experienced and faithful sergeants (Robert Patrick, Randy Travis) begins recruitment of a company of rangers in Brownsville.  Signing up are a number of green youngsters, including educated Philadelphian Lincoln Rogers Dunnison (James Van Der Beek) and rough Missourian George Durham (Ashton Kutcher).  Both of their families have been slaughtered by Fisher’s outlaws.

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Kutcher, Van Der Beek, McDermott, and Raymond

This is intended to be a story of Dunnison becoming a man, but we don’t see enough of that story for it to be believable.  He keeps a record of the expedition for McNelly and gets to know him.  McNelly is as ruthless in his own way as Fisher, although he’s not gratuitously cruel.  McNelly leads his company of 30 rangers in an attack on Fisher and is defeated by much larger numbers.  Twelve of his rangers are killed, and they retreat to the large, prosperous ranch owned by Richard Dukes (Tom Skerritt) to lick their wounds and recruit more rangers.  At the Dukes Ranch, Dunnison and Durham both are attracted to Dukes’ daughter Caroline (Rachael Leigh Cook), who inexplicably likes the feckless Durham more.  Rescued female captive Perdita (Leonor Varela) says she overheard Fisher planning to attack the Logan Ranch, and the barely-recovered rangers head in that direction, only to realize that they have been misled and the real attack is on the Dukes Ranch.

They double back but arrive at the devastated ranch too late and can only follow Fisher’s men with their stolen cattle to the Rio Grande.  The rangers try to trade Perdita for the captive Dukes, but Fisher hangs him anyway.  McNelly and his men follow Fisher’s outlaws across the Rio Grande to their Mexican stronghold and attack them there.  McNelly is badly wounded, and Dunnison is saved by Perdita and kills Fisher.  Back at the Dukes Ranch, the dying McNelly confers leadership of the ranger company on the young Dunnison, and they ride out at the end of the movie, presumably to continue cleaning out bandits and outlaws from the Rio Grande area.

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For the most part, the movie is well enough cast.  Dylan McDermott is appropriately implacable and hard as McNelly; Alfred Molina is even more despicable than you’d expect a bandit chieftain to be.  Van Der Beek, formerly known for the youth-oriented television series Dawson’s Creek, is fine as the city-educated Dunnison.  Other young elements of the cast are obviously influenced by the success of Young Guns some years earlier.  Ashton Kutcher is just plain bad as George Durham, and Rachael Leigh Cook might have been all right if she’d been given a real role and any motivation or development.  Instead, she joins a long line of extraneous and underused females in western movies.  Usher Raymond is good as a young black scout with equality issues.  Randy Travis isn’t bad, mostly because he doesn’t have to act much and has very few lines.  James Coburn provides uncredited voice-over narration at the beginning of the film.

The use of white armbands by McNelly’s men during attacks was historical.  There are some historical inaccuracies as well, including the fact that Fisher rarely raided in the U.S and wasn’t killed until 1884 (with his friend gunman Ben Thompson).  After his involvement with McNelly, Fisher became the sheriff of Uvalde County.  More appropriate antagonists would have been the Mexican bandit chieftains Juan Cortina and Juan Salina.  The weapons and use of dynamite are also inaccurate.  But for this kind of western, one expects more theatricality than accuracy.  Photographs of real Texas rangers during the 1870s and 1880s show more sombrero-looking hats than those used in this movie.  This film was apparently shot in Alberta, which, while beautiful, doesn’t look much like southern Texas.

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The bones of a good movie are here, but Miner and the various producers didn’t make one.  They didn’t trust their writers enough to develop the various characters, and the result is a string of episodes where motivation and change are simply thrown in without being developed so we can care.  Steve Miner, the director, is best known for such fare as Halloween and Friday the Thirteenth movies, and although those make money, they obviously didn’t prepare him for films that require more in the way of character and actual story.  The Weinstein brothers are listed as executive producers; they know how to make movies, but they didn’t spend enough time or effort on this one.  Or maybe they interfered too much.  Compare it with American Outlaws, another attempt by some of the same people to use a youth-oriented cast to tell a quasi-historical western story.  Both have a strongly anachronistic feel.

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Its theatrical release was delayed.  It cost $38 million to make and made less than $800,000 during its theatrical release.

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Rancho Notorious

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 23, 2013

Rancho Notorious—Marlene Dietrich, Mel Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, William Frawley (1952; Dir:  Fritz Lang)

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Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) is a former saloon girl who runs a horse ranch in the southwest where outlaws can take refuge while on the run.  She gets 10% of their ill-gotten loot as a fee.  (Among the outlaws staying there are George Reeves, Jack Elam and the blacklisted Lloyd Gough.)  The ranch is called Chuck-a-Luck because she won the money to start it at that roulette-like game.  Her paramour is gunfighter and bank robber Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer). 

When Kinch (Gough) robs an assay office in Whitmore, Wyoming, he rapes and kills Beth Forbes (Gloria Henry), fiancée of rancher Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) and kills his own partner Whitey (who wears an egregious wig).  Haskell laboriously becomes good with a gun and tries to track down the rapist-robber over the next year.  He keeps hearing stories about Altar Keane and a place called Chuck-a-Luck.  In one town he helps Frenchy break out of jail, and Frenchy takes him to Altar Keane and her ranch, where he becomes another of the guys on the run there.  He sees Keane wearing a brooch he’d given his fiancée and tries to find out where she got it, feigning an attraction to Keane. 

RanchoNotoriousDietKenKeane and Haskell.

The outlaws get shot up in a bank holdup when Kinch prematurely takes a shot at Haskell.  Haskell turns Kinch over to the local sheriff, and the rest of the gang (except for Frenchy) turns on Keane for telling Haskell about Kinch.  In the ensuing shootout, Haskell kills Kinch, but Keane takes a bullet for Frenchy and dies.  Haskell and Frenchy apparently ride off together, a la the ending of Casablanca.

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Haskell is a typical Lang hero with a fixation on vengeance after a terrible wrong.  But the Van Heflin-esque Kennedy is not particularly memorable in the lead role.  There a faintly amoral air to the movie, and a slightly European feel from the cosmopolitan Dietrich and Ferrer and Austrian director Fritz Lang.  Lang is not particularly interested in gunplay or action, except for the final shootout.  He tries to persuade us that Dietrich is fascinating; her character is the subject of most of the movie.  She inevitably reminds us of her role in Destry Rides Again 13 years earlier (where she played a character named Frenchy), and was said to have hated working with the Prussian-minded Lang.  The movie has a truly terrible theme song, which intrudes at several points throughout the movie, and there are several obviously painted vistas in a curiously lurid Technicolor.

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Lang’s most famous films are M and Metropolis, made when he was still in Europe, and this was the last of three westerns he made (along with The Return of Frank James and Western Union).  In the U.S., he mostly made films noir and suspense/thrillers.  This is an interesting, not-completely-effective, noir-ish, almost campy artifact, reminiscent in some ways of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar from the same era.

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Big Jake

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 21, 2013

Big Jake—John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Richard Boone, Patrick Wayne, Christopher Mitchum, Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey, Jr. (1971; Dir:  George Sherman)

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A better-than-average John Wayne western from his late period (post-True Grit), maybe the third best after The Cowboys and The Shootist.  Wayne plays Jacob McCandles, long estranged from his family and thought dead by many.  At the start of the movie in 1909, his family is attacked by evildoers led by John Fain (Richard Boone, in one of his better villain performances).  They shoot his oldest son Bobby (played by Bobby Vinton) and kidnap his grandson Little Jake (Ethan Wayne), demanding $1 million in ransom. 

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Big Jake is called back by his wife (Maureen O’Hara, in the last of their five movies together) and undertakes to lead a group into Mexico to deliver the money, aided by sons James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum), who are fans of new technology, longtime Indian scout Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot) and Dog.  There is friction, if not outright hostility, between Jake and the sons, and the writing for and acting of the sons is probably the weakest element of the movie.  Others hear about the money and would like to steal it.  There’s a good shootout scene when the ransom is delivered, with excellent dialogue between Big Jake and John Fain, although some criticize the film as too violent and bloody.  The juxtaposition of old West ways and new technology with its limitations is effective.

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These westerns in which John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara play an estranged married couple (Rio Grande, McClintock!) always seem to make the resolution of the estrangement a lot easier than it would be in any real relationship.  It isn’t clear why the Boone character wears an orange serape the whole movie.  Did they think we wouldn’t recognize him without it?  Did they suppose it made him look larger?  Is he related to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name?  The narration at the start, setting the late-west, early modern nature of 1909, is unnecessary and a bit clunky.  In general, the film isn’t stitched together all that well and has too close an eye on what seems to have sold in previous Wayne movies, but it’s nevertheless quite watchable.

Director George Sherman was an old timer, and this was his last significant film.  It is said that he was in bad health during the filming and that Wayne took over for him frequently.  There are some instances of less-than-great camera angles during fights; in general the directing isn’t remarkable.  The writing is by the same husband-wife team that wrote Dirty Harry about the same time.  Note some of the trademarks:  the recurring “I thought you were dead,” usually answered by “Not hardly.” And the lines repeated between Boone and Wayne are effective.  Good score by Elmer Bernstein.  Dog seems very like the feral character Sam from Hondo, made 20 years earlier.  This was also made by Batjac, Wayne’s production company.

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Yellow Sky

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 20, 2013

Yellow Sky—Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, Anne Baxter, John Russell, James Barton, Charles Kemper (1948; Dir:  William Wellman)

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Talky, noir-ish western with a small cast.  James “Stretch” Dawson (Gregory Peck) is the leader and perhaps the toughest of a gang of seven outlaws.  In 1867, the gang robs a bank in northern Arizona or New Mexico and is pursued by a posse into the desert.  One of them is killed, and they set out across the waterless waste.  (An outlaw gang pursued by a posse is a traditional set-up for a desert/isolation story, used, for example, in 3 Godfathers, Quantez and Purgatory, among a number of others.)  The survivors include Dude (Richard Widmark), a gambler with a gold fixation; Lengthy (John Russell), who likes both gold and women; Bull Run (Robert Arthur), a young man; Walrus (Charles Kemper), a hefty guy with a drinking problem: and Half Pint (Harry Morgan), the least developed character of the six.  

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On their last legs, they arrive at Yellow Sky, a ghost town, where they find water, an old prospector (James Barton) and his tomboyish granddaughter Mike (real name:  Constance Mae, played by Anne Baxter).  Trouble starts almost immediately, with various lusts coming into play.  And then Dude discovers that the prospector and Mike have gold.  With numbers on their side, Stretch makes a deal to split the gold 50-50.  Lengthy and Stretch are developing interests in Mike, and some backstory develops with Stretch.  It turns out he’s a Yankee veteran of the war on the border fighting Quantrill, and his intentions toward Mike may be more or less honorable, in contrast to Lengthy’s. 

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Mike (Baxter) meets Stretch (Peck).  Dude considers his chances for the gold.

As matters develop, eventually the gang with Dude as the dominant personality rejects Stretch’s leadership, and Stretch joins the prospector and Mike as they shoot it out.  Bull Run is killed, and Dude turns on Lengthy.  Stretch gets Walrus and Half Pint to join him, and in the end has to shoot it out with Dude and Lengthy in an old saloon.  None of the saloon shootout is shown—just the bodies on the floor afterward.  Stretch returns the stolen bank money, presumably to settle down to a permanent relationship with Mike.  This is one of the first westerns where an outlaw gets to return his ill-gotten gains and walk away (unlike, say, Joel McCrea in Four Faces West, Fred MacMurray in The Moonlighter or John Wayne in 3 Godfathers, all of whom have to serve some jail time as part of their rehabilitiation). 

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The story relies on believing Peck’s basic decency, even when he seems to be a bad guy.  Peck was initially reluctant to play an outlaw, feeling that he was miscast.  Hank Worden and Jay Silverheels have uncredited tiny parts.  Watchable but a bit talky, with an excellent cast.  This may have been one of John Russell’s best roles.  Charles Kemper is largely forgotten now, but in the late 1940s and very early 1950s he was an excellent character actor in such westerns as this, Wagon Master and Stars in My Crown before his early death in an automobile accident.  Harry Morgan shows up in a surprising number of good westerns, from The Ox-Bow Incident to this to High Noon to Support Your Local Sheriff, to mention just a few. 

This was an early entry in the series of “adult” or psychological westerns of the 1950s.  The setup has some similarities with The Law and Jake Wade, made a few years later.  Some say this is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but if so it’s not a very close one.  Director William Wellman said in the book “The Men Who Made the Movies” that he had no idea of the connection.  Wellman also made such excellent westerns as The Ox-Bow Incident and Westward the Women.  Produced by Lamar Trotti, who wrote The Ox-Bow Incident, among many other films.  Shot in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills in Owens Valley in black and white.  Music by Alfred Newman.

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