Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Sheepman

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 31, 2014

The Sheepman—Glenn Ford, Leslie Nielsen, Shirley MacLaine, Pernell Roberts, Edgar Buchanan, Slim Pickens, Mickey Shaughnessy, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (1958; Dir:  George Marshall)


A congenial range war western, as the cattlemen in town try to cope with and drive out Jason Sweet (Glenn Ford), a newcomer-sheepman who’s good with a gun and has a sense of humor and his own way of going about things.  Not exactly a full-on satire like, say, Support Your Local Sheriff, it nevertheless has a well-developed sense of humor and a lot of satiric elements, especially in the first half. 

Col. Stephen Bedford (Leslie Nielsen), now a respectable local cattle baron, is also the morally slippery Johnny Bledsoe from Sweet’s Texas past.  Sweet has won all these sheep in a card game in Denver and wants to graze them on common range. He begins by winning a fight he picks with the toughest man in town, the none-too-smart Jumbo McCall (Mickey Shaughnessy).

SheepmanRoberts Roberts as Choctaw Neal.

The conflicts here include not only the obvious cattle vs. sheep, but there are also the conflicted loyalties of Shirley MacLaine’s Dell Payton, who’s attracted to Sweet but all of whose other interests are on the side of the cattlemen.  She’s also engaged to Bedford.  She does participate in a plan to distract Sweet at a dance while his sheep are removed, which Sweet takes as a betrayal.  Sweet will obviously have to confront Bedford’s gunman Choctaw Neal and probably Bedford himself.  The question is less what will happen than how it will happen.

In addition to pitting two Canadian-born actors (Ford and Nielsen) against each other, Pernell Roberts is gunslinger Choctaw Neal, in his pre-Bonanza days (and a year before playing another more nuanced role as a quasi-heavy in Ride Lonesome).  The young Shirley MacLaine is excellent as the cattleman’s daughter/romantic interest in one of her two westerns (with Two Mules for Sister Sara).  Character actors Edgar Buchanan, Slim Pickens and Mickey Shaughnessy are also good in this one.  Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez is good as Sweet’s head sheepherder, a year before playing a Mexican hotelier in Rio Bravo. 


Altogether, a pretty good and quite watchable western, nicely paced.  It came out the same year as Cowboy, another seldom-seen but good Glenn Ford western.  It has good dialogue; William Bowers and James Edward Grant (a favorite writer of John Wayne’s) got an Oscar nomination for the screenplay.  It should be seen in several ways as a precursor of Support Your Local Sheriff.  It uses the phrase “town character” ten years before Support Your Local Sheriff (which was also written by William Bowers).  It’s one of several good George Marshall-Glenn Ford movies (comedies, some military like Advance to the Rear, Imitation General, It Started with a Kiss; The Gazebo), several of which were written by William Bowers, too.  George Marshall, director of the original Destry Rides Again and the less memorable 1954 remake with Audie Murphy, had a good touch with humor.  In color. 

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Drums Along the Mohawk

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 30, 2014

Drums Along the Mohawk—Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, Edna May Oliver, John Carradine, Ward Bond, Francis Ford, Roger Imhof, Arthur Shields, John Big Tree (1939; Dir:  John Ford)


Based on Walter D. Edmonds’ 1936 best-seller of the same name, this is the story of life on the frontier in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York during the American Revolution.  Whereas the Iroquois tribes and the British had been allies of the American settlers during the French and Indian War of the late 1750s (the setting for the events of Last of the Mohicans), they are now the enemies of the Americans trying to assert their independence from the British.

The movie opens with the marriage in Albany of Gil Martin and his new bride Lana in 1776.  The same day they move on toward his new farm near Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley.  Lana is taken aback at the rustic nature of his cabin and the sudden terrifying appearance of an Indian, who turns out to be Blue Back, a friend and a “good Christian.”  Lana meets neighbors at the nearby Fort Herkimer in German Flats, and Gil takes his place in the militia commanded by Gen. Nicholas Herkimer (Roger Imhof).


The young couple heads west from Albany.

As the neighbors are helping Gil to clear his land, the farm is attacked by Indians led by one-eyed Caldwell (John Carradine), a Tory.  The farm and crops burn and the settlers straggle to Fort Herkimer, where Lana suffers a miscarriage.  With no farm, the Martins hire on to work for the widow Mrs. McKlennar (Edna May Oliver).  Soon Gil leaves with the militia, and after the Battle of Oriskany, they straggle back.  The Americans have won, but at a cost.  Gen. Herkimer is wounded in the knee; his leg is amputated but he dies from blood loss.  Gil is wounded but survives.  Lana is expecting again.


The enigmatic and serpentine Caldwell (John Carradine).

Tories and Mohawks attack German Flats, and the settlers again take refuge in Fort Herkimer.  Mrs. McKlennar is mortally wounded, and powder and ammunition run low.  Gil escapes and runs toward Fort Dayton for reinforcements, followed by three Mohawks.  Those in the fort are pressed hard, as the Mohawks force the gates and attack the church where the women, children and last defenders are holed up.  At the last moment the regular army from Fort Dayton appears, the Mohawks are vanquished, Cornwallis has surrendered to Washington, and the new nation is born.  The implication is that Blue Back has killed the Tory Caldwell.  Mrs. McKlennar has left her place to the Martins, and they resume the life they had planned in 1776.  The film has covered a period of about five years without being very specific about the passage of time.

This was director John Ford’s first film in Technicolor, made right after Stagecoach and Young Mr. Lincoln.  You can see elements of his developing visual style in shots with a two-wheel horse-drawn cart along a ridge against a looming sky, and with the three Mohawks pursuing Gil outlined against a red sunrise as they crest a ridge. 


The Widow McKlennar (Edna May Oliver) buys a round; Lana holds off the savages.

Henry Fonda is good (it was his second film made with Ford, after Young Mr. Lincoln), and Claudette Colbert is fine as previously-pampered Lana who adapts to life on the frontier.  (Jean Arthur would have been spunkier and more interesting, and Claire Trevor would have been sweeter and a little more age-appropriate.) 

The strength of this movie is in several strong performances by supporting characters, starting with Edna May Oliver as the forthright Mrs. McKlennar.  Roger Imhof is an avuncular Gen. Herkimer with an appropriately German accent.  Arthur Shields is good as Rev. Rosencrantz, the German Flats pastor, and Chief John Big Tree is excellent as Blue Back, the Christian Indian.  Big Tree had been in 1924’s The Iron Horse and Stagecoach (1939), and will show up again in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as an old Cheyenne friend of Capt. Nathan Brittles.  In fact, he was a Seneca who was in 59 films between 1915 and 1950.  Ward Bond is effective as Adam Hartman, Gil’s close friend in the militia, and John Carradine is a good but shadowy figure as the villainous one-eyed Tory Caldwell, apparently based on the Tory leader Walter Butler.  John Ford’s brother Francis plays an aging scout captured by the Mohawks and torched in a wagon filled with straw.  There’s lots of Technicolor fire in the movie.


Gil Martin races Mohawks against a Technicolor sunrise.

This film was a big success at the box office in Hollywood’s greatest year ever.  Ford had planned to spend three weeks in filming the Battle of Oriskany at great expense, but studio head Darryl Zanuck ordered him to find ways to cut the expense.  The battle and its results are narrated effectively by the wounded and delirious Gil as he receives medical care at the Widow McKlennar’s farm.  The screenwriter was Lamar Trotti, who also wrote the screenplays for Young Mr. Lincoln and The Ox-Bow Incident.  The film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress for Edna May Oliver’s performance as the Widow McKlennar and for Best Cinematography.  Music is by Alfred Newman.  Filmed in Cook County, Pennsylvania, and even in southern Utah, but Monument Valley doesn’t show up.


As with Gone With the Wind, 1939’s biggest movie, there are a few attitudes that can seem archaic to modern tastes.  Lana’s a little too hysterical initially for modern feminist sensibilities.  The Mohawks are faceless, menacing savages.  The alcoholic comic relief doesn’t play as well now as it did then.  And John Ford’s pre-World War II unquestioning patriotism is on display as the new nation is born at the end.  Still, it’s a mistake to expect a movie from 75 years ago to conform to more modern social attitudes.  On its own terms, it’s pretty good and eminently watchable.

The film’s sense of community among those living on the frontier, based around a church, is quite good.  The American Revolution has seldom worked well in movies, and this is one of the best of such films.  It would have been nice to have a little more background on the Mohawks and other Indians involved, as well as the enigimatic Tory Caldwell.  That wasn’t done much in 1939, and the movie budget and pacing probably wouldn’t have allowed for it anyway.  If you want more information on the actual history of this branch of the American Revolution in Iroquois country, see Glenn F. Williams’ Year of the Hangman:  George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois (2006).  The title refers, a bit sensationally, to the year 1777, when the Battle of Oriskany took place and the 7s were thought to resemble gallows.  But the scope of the book is much broader than that. 


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Cavalry Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 29, 2014

Cavalry Westerns:


The U.S. Cavalry has been showing up in westerns almost as long as there have been westerns.  Cavalry movies as a subgenre came into their own right after World War II, with John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, and continued to be popular up to the Vietnam era, around 1972.  Then they largely disappeared, after Ulzana’s Raid.

The list below, which is admittedly incomplete, is a collection of westerns in which the cavalry plays some significant role in the plot.  The cavalry shows up briefly in Stagecoach, for example, but it does very little in the movie aside from chasing off the Apaches at the last minute in stereotypical fashion.  So Stagecoach is not really considered a cavalry movie.  The best of these cavalry movies have a post of their own, and more of them will have posts in due course.  If you have a nomination for a cavalry movie that is not on the list, leave a comment.  We’re always adding more as they come to our attention.

The sublists involve themes one finds only in cavalry westerns, or in military movies generally:  Dealing with the Wrong-Headed Commander, Teaching the Young Lieutenant, Managing Mutinous Troopers, The Old Scout Who’s Almost Outside the Military, and the use of Indian Scouts, usually Apaches of questionable loyalty.


John Wayne as Capt. Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, one of the most visual of cavalry movies.

The Plainsman (1937; Sioux and Cheyennes, southern plains to Dakotas)

Santa Fe Trail (1940; pre-Civil War, chasing John Brown across Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry)

They Died With Their Boots On (1941; Custer, Civil War and the Sioux)

Fort Apache (1948; Cochise’s Apaches, Arizona)

Station West (1948; Arizona)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949; Sioux, Cheyennes, etc.)

Ambush (1950; Apaches, Arizona)

Two Flags West (1950; Civil War, New Mexico)

Rio Grande (1950; Texas-New Mexico, Apaches)

Rocky Mountain (1950; Civil War, southern California, Shoshonis)

Tomahawk (1951, Red Cloud’s War and Fetterman Massacre, Wyoming, Sioux)

Apache Drums (1951, Mescalero Apaches, Arizona)

The Last Outpost (1951; Post-Civil War, Confederate raiders, Arizona)

Only the Valiant (1951; Apaches, New Mexico)

Slaughter Trail (1951, Navajos, New Mexico)

Red Mountain (1951; Civil War, Confederate Raiders, Colorado)

Warpath (1951; Sioux, Dakotas)

Wild Stallion (1952)

Bugles in the Afternoon (1952; Dakotas)

Springfield Rifle (1952; Colorado, Civil War)

Last of the Comanches (1953; Comanches)

Thunder Over the Plains (1953; Reconstruction Texas, Vigilantes)

Escape from Fort Bravo (1953; Civil War, Apaches, Arizona)

Hondo (1953; Apaches, Arizona)

War Paint (1953; Death Valley)

Conquest of Cochise (1953; Apaches, Arizona)

Charge at Feather River (1953; Cheyennes)

War Arrow (1953; Kiowas, Texas)

Seminole (1953, Seminoles, Florida)

Column South (1953; Apaches, Navajos)

Drum Beat (1954; Modoc War, California-Oregon)

Arrow in the Dust (1954; Nebraska-Wyoming, Pawnees and Apaches)

They Rode West (1954; Kiowas, Comanches)

Battle of Rogue River (1954; Pre-Civil War, Oregon)

Sitting Bull (1954; Sioux, Northern Plains)

Southwest Passage (1954, camels vs. Apaches, Arizona-N.M.)

The Yellow Tomahawk (1954; Cheyennes)

The Command (1954)

Saskatchewan (1954; Sioux in Canada)

Smoke Signal (1955; Utes, Grand Canyon)

The Gun That Won the West (1955; Sioux, Red Cloud’s War, Wyoming)

The Last Frontier (1955; Sioux, Red Cloud’s War, Wyoming-Montana)

7th Cavalry (1956; In the Wake of Custer, Dakotas-Montana)

Comanche (1956; Comanches, Texas)

Pillars of the Sky (1956; Yakima War, 1855, Oregon-Washington)

Trooper Hook (1957; Apaches, Arizona)

Run of the Arrow (1957; Sioux, Red Cloud’s War)

Ride Out for Revenge–Calhoun (1957; Cheyennes, Colorado?)

Tomahawk Trail (1957; Apaches, Arizona)

Revolt at Fort Laramie (1957; Civil War/Red Cloud’s Sioux, Wyoming)

Escort West (1958; Modocs, California?)           

Fort Bowie (1958; Apaches, Arizona)

Oregon Passage (1958, Shoshones, Oregon)

Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958; Apaches, New Mexico)

Apache Territory (1958; Apaches, Arizona)

Fort Massacre (1958; Apaches, Arizona)

They Came to Cordura (1959; Mexican revolution)

The Wonderful Country (1959, chasing Apaches in Mexico)

Yellowstone Kelly (1959; Sioux, Montana)

The Horse Soldiers (1959, Union Cavalry, Civil War in the East)

Pillars of the Sky (1868, Palouse War, Oregon)


Buffalo soldiers on patrol in Sgt. Rutledge.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960; Apaches, Arizona)

Two Rode Together (1961; Comanches, Texas)

A Thunder of Drums (1961; Apaches, Arizona)

Sergeants 3 (1962; Indian Territory, 1870)

Cheyenne Autumn  (1964; Cheyennes, Oklahoma to Montana)

A Distant Trumpet (1964; 1883, Apaches, Arizona)

Advance to the Rear (1964; Civil War, comedy)

Major Dundee (1965; Civil War, Apaches, Mexico)

The Great Sioux Massacre (1965; Sioux, Custer in the Dakotas)

The Hallelujah Trail (1965; Cheyennes, Colorado, comedy)

The Glory Guys (1965; a Custer-figure in the Southwest, like Fort Apache)

Fort Courageous (1965)

Alvarez Kelly (1966; Confederate Cavalry, Civil War in the East)


Duel at Diablo

Duel at Diablo (1966; Apaches, Arizona)

Savage Pampas (1966; Argentina)

A Time for Killing (1967; Confederates, Utah to Mexico)

Custer of the West (1967; Sioux and Cheyennes, Kansas, Dakotas, Montana)

40 Guns to Apache Pass (1967; Apaches, Arizona)    

Chuka (1967; Arapahoes, 1876, New Mexico?)

Soldier Blue (1970; Southern Cheyennes)       

The Bravos (1972; Kiowas, New Mexico?)         

Ulzana’s Raid (1971; Apaches, Arizona)

The Revengers (1972; Comanches)

Dances With Wolves (1990, Lakotas)

Geronimo:  An American Legend (1993; Apaches, Arizona and Mexico) 

In Pursuit of Honor (MfTV, 1995)

Buffalo Soldiers (MfTV, 1997)  

Hostiles (2017, Comanches and Cheyennes) 

 CavFtApache Henry Fonda in Fort Apache.    

The Wrong-Headed Commander

Fort Apache

Two Flags West


Bugles in the Afternoon


War Arrow

Column South

The Yellow Tomahawk

Fort Bowie

Tomahawk Trail

The Last Frontier

7th Cavalry


Run of the Arrow


Ride Out for Revenge

Oregon Passage

Yellowstone Kelly

The Raiders

The Glory Guys

Custer of the West

Fort Courageous


Little Big Man


Bruce Davison and Burt Lancaster in Ulzana’s Raid.             

Teaching the Lieutenant

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon


A Thunder of Drums

A Distant Trumpet

Ulzana’s Raid


John Russell and Joel McCrea in Fort Massacre.

Mutinous Troopers

Only the Valiant

War Paint

The Command

7th Cavalry

Revolt at Fort Laramie


Apache Territory

Fort Massacre

They Came to Cordura

Fort Utah



John Wayne as Hondo Lane in Hondo.

The Old Scout

Ambush (Robert Taylor and John McIntire)

Hondo (John Wayne and Ward Bond)

The Yellow Tomahawk (Rory Calhoun)

Apache Territory (Rory Calhoun)

Yellowstone Kelly (Clint Walker)

Major Dundee (James Coburn)

Duel at Diablo (James Garner)

The Stalking Moon (Gregory Peck)

Valdez Is Coming (Burt Lancaster)

Ulzana’s Raid (Burt Lancaster)

Geronimo:  An American Legend (Robert Duvall)


Jorge Luke as Ke-Ni-Tay in Ulzana’s Raid.

Indian Scouts


War Arrow

Apache Drums

Tomahawk Trail

Oregon Passage

A Distant Trumpet

Major Dundee

Ulzana’s Raid

Geronimo:  An American Legend







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Nicholas Chennault ~ January 28, 2014

Rawhide—Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Hugh Marlowe, Dean Jagger, Jack Elam, Edgar Buchanan, George Tobias (1951; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)


No, not the trail drive television series, with the memorable theme song by Frankie Laine, that gave Clint Eastwood his start.  Eastwood has nothing to do with this.  The title refers to Rawhide Pass, the stagecoach relay station where this movie takes place, as well as perhaps to a stagecoach driver’s whip.  The geography doesn’t entirely make sense; Rawhide Pass is supposed to be about midway on the trip between San Francisco and St. Louis, but it seems to be perhaps in Arizona Territory from the references to Yuma and Tucson.  There are references to the prison at Huntsville, which would seem to be Texas.  Timewise, it’s before the transcontinental railroad, perhaps in the late 1850s. 

In any event, Tom Owens’ father is a big cheese in the overland stage line, and Owens (Tyrone Power) is at Rawhide Pass relay station to learn the business from old timer and stationmaster Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan).  Owens is not doing too well at it and can hardly wait to head back east in a week.  The stage comes through, carrying among others Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) and a one-year-old baby, Callie.  She’s heading east from the California gold country, but before she can continue her trip she’s forced off the stage by company policy. 


Escaped criminals from Huntsville Prison, led by Ray Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe), have raided one stage and supposedly make it too dangerous for the baby to continue.  However, waiting doesn’t help.  The four criminals show up at the station, taking Todd, Owens and Holt prisoner.  In addition to Zimmerman, there are Tevis (Jack Elam, in the juiciest role of his early career), a depraved killer crazed with lust for Holt; a German, Gratz (George Tobias); and a compulsive petty thief, Yancy (Dean Jagger).  They plan to wait for the noon stage the next day, which they know is carrying $100,000 in gold. 

The gang assumes that Holt is Owens’ wife; they kill Todd early on.  Owens and Holt try desperately to escape, with no success, and the gang members bicker among themselves.  There’s a fair amount of character development, and developing tension as well.  Ultimately Owens shows himself to have some character, and Holt may have fallen in love with him.  In the climactic shoot-out, Holt plays the pivotal role.  Owens’ pistol seems to have an inexhaustible supply of bullets, amazingly enough.

RawhideElamHay Tevis leers at Holt.

Susan Hayward is the most watchable actor in the movie, although Power and Marlowe are both good, too. At first we take her for a woman with a past, an unwed mother.  But she eventually explains that the child is not hers but her sister’s.  However, she seems to have a chip on her shoulder about it all.

The claustrophobic feel, the black and white cinematography, and the focus on unstable characters in desperate situations make it seem noir-ish.  The theme music over the opening credits by Alfred Newman had been used before, in 1940’s Brigham Young.  Written by Dudley Nichols, who also wrote Stagecoach and The Tin Star.  Shot at Lone Pine, in black and white, by Milton Krasner.  Very watchable; better even than Garden of Evil, a good western which was also directed by Henry Hathaway with Susan Hayward.  She wasn’t in many westerns, but there were at least three more:  Canyon Passage, The Lusty Men and The Revengers.  The situation of innocents held by bad guys has some similarities with The Tall T and Man of the West, as well as non-westerns The Desperate Hours and Key Largo.  The DVD is available in a Fox Western Classics set with The Gunfighter and Garden of Evil, a pretty good deal on three pretty good westerns.


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Jonah Hex

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 27, 2014

Jonah Hex—Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender (2010; Dir:  Jimmy Heyward)


Doomed/haunted/scarred/supernatural Confederate veteran Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) has a past, to put it mildly.  In the late Civil War he “betrayed” the unprincipled Col. Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), who was about to burn a hospital.  Hex shot Turnbull’s son Jeb, his own best friend, and aborted the hospital torching.  Turnbull subsequently returned the favor by forcing Hex to watch while his own family burned alive, and his own face was branded. 

JonahHexBrolinBrolin in Hex makeup.

Kept alive by Crow Indians, the near-death experience has left him able to talk with the dead, a useful talent in his new profession as bounty hunter.  As long as he maintains physical contact with a corpse, he can temporarily resurrect and communicate with the dead, bringing the corpse physically and mentally back to its condition prior to death.  Hunting Turnbull, he discovers that the Colonel has died in a hotel fire.

Now, more than ten years after the Civil War, Hex finds that Turnbull is still alive and planning high-tech atrocities for the 1876 centennial of U.S. independence from Britain.  Hex digs up the decayed corpse of Jeb Turnbull at Gettsyburg.  After a difficult interview, Jeb discloses that his father is at the improbably-named Fort Resurrection.  Hex himself has a taste for out-of-the-ordinary weaponry and overcomes numerous obstacles and setbacks to foil Turnbull’s plot and defeat not only Turnbull but quasi-supernatural bad guys, with only the help of Lilah (or Tallulah, played by Megan Fox), a sympathetic whore in the Angelina Jolie-action heroine mode who looks and acts very 21st-century.


Unconventional weaponry: repeating dynamite crossbows.

At Fort Resurrection, Hex sees Turnbull’s new steampunk-style weapons but is badly wounded by Burke, an Irish assassin employed by Turnbull, who escapes.  His Crow friends heal Hex again, and the pursuit is resumed.  Hex kills Burke, but Turnbull has captured Lilah and forces Hex to surrender.  As they are held prisoner on Turnbull’s weapon-ship, Lilah picks the locks on their manacles.  Together, they put a fiery end to Turnbull’s plans and to Turnbull himself.

The plot is something we’ve seen lots of times before, sometimes in epically bad and overblown movies (e.g., The Wild Wild West).  This is pretty bad, too, if not quite epically, mixing the modern, the fictional-steampunk and the 19th-century without much consistency.  This deserved a much better story, and Josh Brolin in particular is a better actor than this material allows him to demonstrate.  John Malcovich can be a very good actor, but that’s not in evidence here.  Michael Fassbender shows up before he became a big name, as the heavily (and anachronistically) tattooed Irish assassin Burke.  (The tattooing seems to have been used as a substitute for actual characterization.)  There was a lot of talent used badly in this film.  It’s said that Brolin initially did not like the script but came to appreciate its tongue-in-cheek tone.  His first instinct was right.  The character and situations are intriguing enough that this could have been interesting with a better story and script.  But it mostly isn’t. The music, by heavy metal band Mastodon, doesn’t help much.


Michael Fassbender as the heavily-tattooed assassin Burke.

This is based on a DC comic series, another bad sign.  During its domestic theatrical run, Jonah Hex grossed only $10.5 million back on a $47 million budget, officially making it a box office bomb.  Director Jimmy Heyward was a former animator at Pixar who worked on the first two Toy Story movies, which would seem to have little in common with this material.  Relatively short, at about 80+ minutes.  Often visually dark and eye-straining.  If you’re looking for a supernatural western, Cowboys & Aliens is significantly better.

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The Big Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 25, 2014

The Big Country—Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Burl Ives, Carroll Baker, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors, Alfonso Bedoya (1958; Dir:  William Wyler)


The Big Country is a self-consciously big movie, an epic sprawling family saga with a big, top-flight cast full of alpha males and a long running time, at 165 minutes.  William Wyler had inherited Cecil B. Demille’s spot as the master of the large-scale film, and this one was between The Friendly Persuasion (a Civil War movie, said to be Ronald Reagan’s favorite film) and the even more epic Ben-Hur.  Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Jean Simmons were at the peaks of their careers.  At the time of its release, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who was known to relax by reading pulp western novels) gave the movie four consecutive showings at the White House and called it “simply the best film ever made.  My number one favorite film.”

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the scion of a family with a seafaring empire and has himself been a successful sea captain.  His father was given to dueling, and was killed in a final duel ten years previously, leaving McKay with a distaste for meaningless violence.  He has met young Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) in Baltimore, where she has been in school, and they became engaged.  He has come to the Terrill estate in Texas for the marriage.  So a familiar western plot emerges:  the easterner comes west, and the tenderfoot is educated in the ways of the west.  But in this case, the easterner is already competent in the world of men and does not automatically buy in to the supposed code of the west.


Major Terrill (the cranky Charles Bickford) gives the young couple his blessing.

In town, Jim is introduced to Pat’s friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), the local schoolmarm, granddaughter of one of the first ranchers in the area (now deceased), and owner of a neglected ranch with the best water source in the area, the Big Muddy.  Heading for the Terrill Ranch, McKay is hoorahed, roped and dragged by drunk cowboys led by Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors, clearly playing a bad guy).  When McKay is rescued by Terrill foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Pat is deeply humiliated that McKay didn’t stand up to the Hannasseys.  McKay has found himself in the middle of a long-term feud between Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and the patriarch of the lower-class Hannasseys, Rufus (Burl Ives), both of whom want the water of the Big Muddy.

Leech is the closest thing Terrill has as a son, and he clearly doesn’t think McKay is worthy of the Terrill daughter.  In one of the traditional tropes of a western like this, Leech has the cowboys saddle up Old Thunder, a beautiful but apparently unridable appaloosa, for the tenderfoot, but McKay declines the set-up.  Major Terrill leads a group of twenty of his riders in shooting up the Hannassey place in Blanco Canyon and beating up three of the riders involved in the McKay incident while Buck hides in a wagon.  While everybody is gone, McKay does in fact ride Old Thunder with only vaquero Ramon Guiteras (Alfonso Bedoya) to see.

At a Terrill party to celebrate the engagement of McKay and Patricia, Rufus Hannassey invades the festivities to issue a challenge to the Major.  McKay takes off on a multi-day ride around the country, and everybody assumes he is lost in the vastness of the ranch and its surroundings.  In fact, he can navigate fine with the help of his compass, and he encounters Julie again at her ranch.  She says she’d like to get rid of it, and McKay buys it from her, adding the promise that both Terrills and Hannasseys can use the water of the Big Muddy.


McKay (Gregory Peck) and Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) at the Big Muddy.

Terrill riders led by Leech finally encounter McKay, and tempers are at the boiling point.  McKay declines to fight Leech, and again Pat is humiliated.  McKay decides he has to leave, but before he does he visits Leech privately and they batter each other inconclusively at length.  Major Terrill and Rufus Hannassey come to the conclusion they have to decide matters between them as well.  Terrill gathers a force of riders, and Hannassey arranges his defenses in Blanco Canyon and sends Buck to bring back Julie Maragon.

Patricia Terrill:  “But if he loved me, why would he let me think he was a coward?”

Julie Maragon:  “If you love him, why would you think it?  How many times does a man have to win you?”


Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) at the battle of Blanco Canyon.

The abduction of Julie is ostensibly the reason for Terrill to ride against the Hannasseys.  Rufus sees that Julie despises Buck, and she tells him that she’s sold the Big Muddy to McKay.  Buck attacks Julie until he is pulled off by his disgusted father.  McKay also hears of the abduction and takes off for Blanco Canyon with Ramon.  He arrives and doesn’t believe Julie when she says she’s there of her own choice.  Rufus figures the matter should be decided in gentlemanly fashion, using McKay’s father’s pistols in an old-fashioned duel.  As they pace off and turn, Buck fires prematurely, demonstrating his cowardice again.  McKay fires into the ground.  As McKay turns away, Buck grabs a gun from a cowboy, takes aim at McKay’s back and is shot down by Rufus, who can’t countenance such dishonor.

Meanwhile, Leech has tried to talk Terrill out of the attack on Hannassey.  Terrill doesn’t listen, and the Terrill riders are trapped in the canyon.  As McKay and Julie ride out of Blanco Canyon with Ramon and Rufus, the Terrill and Hannassey patriarchs face off.  We don’t see exactly the results, but the suggestion is that both are killed.  Presumably McKay and Julie live happily ever after at the Big Muddy, and Leech marries the spoiled Pat and continues to run the Terrill spread.


Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) faces off against the scurrilous Buck Hannassey (not shown).

The dominant performances are by Peck, who had a producing role, and Burl Ives, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for chewing the scenery while wearing huge false eyebrows.  Those characters are the most interesting in the film, and they make it move.  Charlton Heston was at his epic peak, between his roles as Moses in The Ten Commandments and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur, as well as starring in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.  But he accepted a supporting role and fourth billing in order to work with director Wyler.  It turned out to be a good career move, since Wyler directed him in Ben-Hur, too.  He was big and in great shape, as we can see from a couple of scenes in which he’s shirtless.  (Gregory Peck has no similarly shirtless scenes.)


Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) and rotten son Buck (Chuck Connors).

The weakest point in the cast is Carroll Baker, a hot screen commodity since her performance in Baby Doll, but she’s a little light here.  There is no screen chemistry between her and Peck from the start: it is immediately obvious that Jean Simmons would be a better match.  Charles Bickford is fine, if a little stiff, as he’s supposed to be.  This was the last film for Alfonso Bedoya, who is surprisingly effective as Ramon the vaquero.

The elements of this film are top-flight as well.  The cinematography by Franz Planer conveys that it is, in fact, a big country, although most of it was shot in California, not Texas.  Several writers are credited, including Jessamyn West (well-known in her time, with whom Wyler had worked on The Friendly Persuasion) and Robert Wyler, the director’s older brother.  The memorable music is by Jerome Moross, who received his only Oscar nomination for this film score.

One difficulty was in the script; seven writers were involved, including novelist Leon Uris (Exodus, Battle Cry), but shooting began without all the bugs ironed out.  According to Gregory Peck, “After seven writers, I don’t think either of us [Peck or Wyler] was completely satisfied with the script.  But by this time, we had made expensive commitments with an all-star cast and a cameraman.  We had financing from United Artists.  So we got ourselves painted into a corner, where we were obliged to go ahead with a script that neither of us were fully satisfied with.”


On the set: the cast with director William Wyler.

Shooting the movie was not without its problems.  Tempers flared on the set between numerous individuals, particularly between director Wyler and Charles Bickford, who had fought on the set of Hell’s Heroes (1930) decades earlier and were continuing their antagonism.  Wyler liked to shoot numerous retakes and Bickford was very cranky, often refusing to say a line he didn’t like or to vary his performance no matter how many takes he was forced to deliver.  According to Charlton Heston, “Charlie Bickford was a fairly cantankerous old son of a bitch.”  Jean Simmons was so traumatized by the experience that she refused to talk about it for years until an interview in the late 1980s when she revealed, “We’d have our lines learned, then receive a rewrite, stay up all night learning the new version, then receive yet another rewrite the following morning.  It made the acting damned near impossible.”  The experience also also touched off bad feelings between Gregory Peck and Wyler, who made up a couple of years later.

Burl Ives in effect reprises his Rufus Hannassey character in the much smaller Day of the Outlaw, made about the same time with Robert Ryan.  Ives got on well with Wyler, unlike some of the others.  That year he was also getting rave reviews for his work as Big Daddy in the film version of Tennesse Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin RoofGregory Peck and Charlton Heston are good in several other westerns.  And Jean Simmons shows up ten years later in Rough Night in Jericho.


Director William Wyler was perhaps the most respected in the business by this time, or at least up there with John Ford.  Unlike Ford, Wyler didn’t make many westerns at this stage of his career, although he had started as a director making two-reel westerns in the 1920s.  During the 1930s and 1940s he had gone on to make such classics as Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives.  He had made The Westerner with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in 1940.  He had done well with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday earlier in the 1950s and would go on to do other successful large-scale movies like Ben-Hur and Funny Girl.  He was nominated for the Best Director Academy Award twelve times (the most ever–he was the Meryl Streep of directors), and he won three times.  He directed more Oscar-nominated performances than any other director (36), of which fourteen won.  No wonder actors wanted to work with him, even if he required so many takes.

The film was a modest, but not a universal, success in its time.  An expensive production, it barely made it into the black financially.  It was 11th at the box office for 1958.  As Gregory Peck put it:  “I suppose that any movie that grosses $9,500,000 can’t be classed as a failure. The exhibitors made money, the grips made money.  Everybody on the picture made money but me — the producer and star.”

If you were a film critic with a Marxist bent (Philip French of The Observer, say), you might see this sprawling film as an allegory of the cold war era, with the inconclusive fight between Peck and Heston demonstrating the futility of the macho ethos and the arms build-up of the 1950s and 1960s.

Make sure you have allotted enough time to watch this.  Wyler later admitted he should have cut the film more.  “Would I cut it today?  Yes, I would cut it.  I would probably cut 10 to 15 minutes out which would make you feel as though you cut half an hour out.”  The story occasionally seems to be developing at a leisurely pace, but it doesn’t drag.  At the end you may wonder if there’s really enough story here for all that time, but it works if you let it.  This is good enough that many consider it one of the great westerns, and it’s probably the best of its kind—the epic western family saga.  But for us, it’s on the line between great and near-great.  See what you think.  


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Joe Kidd

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 24, 2014

Joe Kidd—Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, John Saxon, Don Stroud, Stella Garcia (1972; Dir:  John Sturges)


One of the last films directed by John Sturges, with a screenplay written by Elmore Leonard.  The plot is similar to that of Valdez is Coming, which was also based on a novel by Leonard and made about the same time.  This is more predictable than Valdez, mostly by having Clint Eastwood playing Clint Eastwood in the title role but also by having a less organic plot.

This story is set in pre-statehood New Mexico Territory in 1912, starting in the small town of Sinola.  Joe Kidd (Eastwood) is a former bounty hunter and tracker hired by big rancher Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) to help his band of well-armed thugs find Luis Chama (John Saxon), a local Latino bandit chieftain/freedom fighter/land-reform agitator.  As Harlan shows himself to be merciless and his thugs brutalize those of Latino descent they come across, Kidd realizes his mistake.  He’s fired by Harlan before he can quit, and manages to escape with Chama’s girlfriend Helen Sanchez (Stella Garcia), only to find that Chama is not as noble as the native populace would like to believe, either.  There’s a great chase through the mountains, as Kidd hunts Harlan, who’s hunting Chama and Kidd.


Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood) uses an unusual modern pistol to defend himself and Helen Sanchez (Stella Garcia).

Helen Sanchez:  “He is right.  We must give ourselves up, don’t you see?  There is no other way.”

Luis Chama [clearly not a proto-feminist]:  “I do not care what you think.  I take you along for cold nights and days when there is nothing to do.  Not to hear you talk.”

Kidd leads Harlan and his men back to town, where the fight concludes in a not-terribly-believable fight, with lots of bullets flying and an improbable train crash.

Interesting elements:  (a) The brick-red pants Eastwood wears throughout the movie.  This must be an early 1970s thing.  Compare them with the red pants worn by Jim Brown in Take a Hard Ride, for example.  (b) The specialized “modern” firearms used by Harlan’s men, including the Mauser C96 pistol-with-a-stock (1896) used by Lamarr Sims (Don Stroud) and the long-range rifle–a Remington-Keene sporter (1880)–used by Olin Mingo (James Wainwright).  Special care is also shown with Frank Harlan’s Custom Savage 99 (1899) and Joe Kidd’s Cased Ross Rifle model M-10 (1910).  Apparently Elmore Leonard was behind the scrupulousness about period weaponry.  (c) Harlan’s repeated deliberate mispronunciation of Chama’s name (as “Louis Chayma”).  It gets irritating, as perhaps it’s meant to do.

JoeKiddMauser C96 “Broomhandle” Mauser

Set in 1912 New Mexico, and shot at Lone Pine and Old Tucson.  This is not one of Eastwood’s best, or Sturges’, although it’s watchable.  Apparently director Sturges commented in 1978, “There are a lot of holes in Joe Kidd–some in the script that were never fixed and some resulting from cuts made because scenes just didn’t play.”  The Harlan thugs are too unrelievedly bad and despicable, and the plot is a bit outlandish (the big finale involving a train and a not-well-choreographed shootout).  With the Sturges-Eastwood-Duvall-Leonard team, one hopes this would be better than it turns out to be.  Not a long movie, at 88 minutes.  The score is by Lalo Schifrin, who did the memorable Mission:  Impossible theme.  For another western interested in post-frontier technology and weaponry, see Big Jake, set in 1909 and made about the same time as this one.

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Great Directors: Howard Hawks

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 23, 2014

Howard Hawks


“I’m a storyteller – that’s the chief function of a director.  And they’re moving pictures.  Let’s make ‘em move!”

The Gray Fox (as Hawks is called in the subtitle of a biography by Todd McCarthy) was a contemporary of John Ford and rivals Ford’s record of brilliant films across a spectrum of movie genres.  He only made five westerns, but four of them are great or near-great, and he was much better at gangster movies and comedies than Ford.  His films continue to rank very high in re-watchability, and they are known for assertive female roles in a pre-feminist age.  Many of his films seem to examine a Hemingway-esque vision of what it means to be a man (Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not [based on a Hemingway story] and Rio Bravo, for example).  

Howard Hawks was born into a wealthy family in Indiana in 1896.  They settled in Pasadena, California, before 1910, but he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Cornell, majoring in mechanical engineering.  Returning to California in 1916, he met fledgling director Victor Fleming while racing cars, and Fleming’s connections drew him into the movie business.   By the end of April 1917 Hawks was working on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American, where he met and befriended the then eighteen-year-old slate boy James Wong Howe.  Hawks next worked on the Mary Pickford film The Little Princess, directed by Marshall Neilan.  According to Hawks, Neilan did not show up to work one day and the resourceful Hawks offered to direct a scene himself, which Pickford agreed to allow.


He began to direct more regularly, along with serving irregularly in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I.  He was discharged as a Second Lieutenant without having seen active duty.  Hawks used his family money to make a loan to Jack Warner, and that gave him an in at Warner Brothers as a producer.  But by 1923, he decided he wanted to direct, rather than produce.  He became a story editor for Jesse Lasky (later Paramount), based on a recommendation by Irving Thalberg, and had his first official screenplay credit in 1924 on Tiger Love.  He moved to MGM in 1925 based on a promise by Thalberg that he could direct.  He quickly moved on to Fox, where he directed eight films over the next three years, making the transition from silents to talkies.  He would be an active director for the next 45 years.  After the expiration of his contract with Fox in 1929, he remained an independent director for the rest of his career.


Hawks’ first talkie, The Dawn Patrol, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Richard Barthelmess, was remade in 1938 with Errol Flynn and David Niven by a different director.  Barthelmess would show up again in a Hawks flying movie in 1939 (Only Angels Have Wings), a comeback role for him and one of his last.

In 1928, Hawks married Athole Shearer, Norma’s sister.  His brothers Kenneth and Bill married Mary Astor and Bessie Love, so the family became even better connected in the industry.  In all, Hawks would be married three times.  Kenneth, also an up-and-coming young director, died in a spectacular and much-publicized airplane collision over Santa Monica Bay in 1930 while filming Such Men Are Dangerous.

HawksScarface HawksAngelsP

As Hawks’ career as a director took off in the 1930s, he showed his versatility.  After his first talkie, The Dawn Patrol (1930), he made the first great gangster movie, Scarface (1932).  He proceeded to show a deft touch with screwball comedies, including Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940) and Ball of Fire (1941).  His best films of the period also include male action films like Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Sergeant York (1941, for which he received his only nomination for  the Best Director Oscar), To Have and Have Not (1944) and, edging into film noir, The Big Sleep (1946). 

He cast young model Lauren Bacall in her first role in To Have and Have Not, where she met Humphrey Bogart.  Her character is called Slim, like Hawks’ wife at the time, and her assertiveness and manner of speaking are characteristic of the typical Hawks female.  Among the writers he worked with on this project and others from the period were his favorites William Faulkner, Jules Furthmann and Leigh Brackett.  Hawks was a friend of author Ernest Hemingway, and apparently To Have and Have Not arose from a bet by Hawks that he could make a good movie out of Hemingway’s worst story.  He did.


Hawks directing Red River, with John Wayne and Joanne Dru.

In 1941, he had started directing The Outlaw, Howard Hughes’ Billy the Kid movie, but he didn’t finish it and was uncredited on the project—just as well, since it’s kind of a cinematic bomb.  In 1946 Hawks made his first western (if you don’t count Viva Villa!, the 1934 biopic about the Mexican revolutionary), the classic Red River, starring John Wayne and introducing Montgomery Clift.  It is the first great cattle drive western, and it finally convinced John Ford that John Wayne could really act.  Wayne went on to his long-term partnership with Ford, making the Cavalry Trilogy, The Searchers and others, but he also continued to work with Hawks, appearing in four of Hawks’ five westerns and in Hatari! (1962).  The release of Red River was delayed for a couple of years while Howard Hughes raised spurious legal claims against it, but upon its eventual release, it was a great box office and critical success.

The second of Hawks’ five westerns was 1952’s The Big Sky, with Kirk Douglas and Arthur Hunnicutt, a mountain man-fur trading story set in the 1830s and based on a best-selling novel by A.B. Guthrie.  It’s not often seen now, because (a) the film was mutilated in the cutting room by the studio to shorten it, and the footage that was removed has mostly been lost, and (b) it’s not available on DVD.  But it is an excellent western, the second-best mountain man movie yet made, after Jeremiah Johnson.


Blocking out a fight scene with Kirk Douglas for The Big Sky, directing Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo.

Hawks’ third western was another classic, Rio Bravo in 1959, with John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson.  Hawks said he made it in part as his take on the High Noon situation.  In the Hawks version, the beleaguered sheriff John T. Chance does not go around asking for help from townspeople but puts together a team consisting of himself, a drunk former deputy (Dean Martin, effective in an early movie role), a gimpy jailer (veteran character actor Walter Brennan) and a young untested gunman (singer-television actor Ricky Nelson) to fight much greater numbers.  It was taken as a commercial sort of film and not given much critical attention on its release, but time has shown it to be one of the very best westerns and a film with high re-watchability.  Angie Dickinson’s female gambler-dance hall girl Feathers is quite similar in her assertiveness to Slim in To Have and Have Not.  With writers Jules Furthmann and Leigh Brackett the same on both projects, the dialogue even sounds quite similar.

Hawks liked Rio Bravo so well that he used the story twice more for the basis of his last two westerns, both times with John Wayne again.  El Dorado (1966) is mostly successful, although not a classic like Rio Bravo.  Starring Robert Mitchum as a drunken sheriff with Wayne’s ethical gunman, it’s quite worth watching.   He made the story again in his last movie and last western, Rio Lobo (1970), and it’s not a very good movie—his only western dud.  Hawks died in 1977.

HawksFaulkner Working with William Faulkner.

Among the themes to which Hawks returned in his movies is an examination of male bonding and what it means to be a man.  Those are strongly present in his first talkie, Dawn Patrol (1930, with obvious connections to his World War I flying experiences), and he comes back to it throughout his career.  Compare Only Angels Have Wings from 1939 and Rio Bravo from twenty years later in that regard.  He’s more persuasive than Sam Peckinpah in dealing with those themes, in part because he doesn’t take his eye off the story and doesn’t lose his footing in self-indulgence as Peckinpah sometimes could.

Hawks didn’t win the awards that John Ford did, but his best work in a variety of genres is still widely watched.  Some would say that it ages better than Ford’s work, not being hampered by Fordian nostalgia and sentimentality.  In general, his work does not have the visual sense of Ford’s best movies; although Hawks’ visuals are less obtrusive, he is fine visually without calling much attention to that aspect of his work.  He was known for the use of overlapping dialogue in his films (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), including his westerns; see, for example, Red River and Rio Bravo., especially in male-female interchanges.  He is remembered now as one of the great directors of Hollywood’s golden age, into the 1960s.  Hawks’ own definition of what constitutes a good movie is revealing of his no-nonsense style:  “Three great scenes, no bad ones.”  Hawks also defined a good director as “someone who doesn’t annoy you.”  If what he made was art, he didn’t want to talk about it that way.  His reputation as a director is higher now than it was during his lifetime.


Hawks Western Essentials:  Red River, The Big Sky, Rio Bravo

Second-Rank Hawks:  El Dorado

Don’t Bother:  Rio Lobo

Hawks Non-Western Essentials:  Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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Allegheny Uprising

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 22, 2014

Allegheny Uprising—John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Wilfrid Lawson, George Sanders, Brian Donlevy, Ian Wolfe, Moroni Olsen, Robert Barrat (1939; Dir:  William A. Seiter)


Colonial settlers vs. Indians but mostly against British authority in western Pennsylvania in 1760 in this fictionalized account of the historical Captain James Smith and his Black Boys.  Released the same year as Trevor and Wayne appeared together in Stagecoach (it was the first movie they made after Stagecoach) and John Ford made the similarly-themed and bigger-budgeted Drums Along the Mohawk, this has been much more obscure and is seldom seen these days. 

At the start of the film, Smith (John Wayne) and a friend are returned from captivity with the Indians after three years.  Although the French and Indian War has just ended, Smith finds that unscrupulous traders Callendar (Brian Donlevy) and Poole (Ian Wolfe) are trading weapons and firewater to the Indians, despite the fact that the Indians will use those supplies to kill both settlers and British soldiers. 


Smith leads his Black Boys to circumvent blinkered British military authority, as represented by officious and hostile Capt. Swanson (George Sanders).  They take Fort Loudon from Swanson and capture the illicit supplies there.  They again take the fort to release colonials unjustly imprisoned in manacles by Swanson.  Callendar kills Smith’s best friend Calhoon (Moroni Olsen) and charges Smith with the murder.  He declines to be released by a mob and ultimately is acquitted. 

At the end of the movie he goes off to survey Tennessee with the lovely and spunkily tomboyish Janie MacDougall (Claire Trevor, mostly in anachronistic pants) in his wake.  In what is kind of an extraneous and loud role, she has spent the movie trying to get him to re-commit to a promise made years earlier, before his captivity, to marry her.  He never really does, although he seems closer at the end of the film.  Swanson is depicted more as rigid and unthinking than bad and gets sent home to England at the end of the movie. 


Robert Barrat, who had played Chingachgook in 1936’s Last of the Mohicans, is the local magistrate who sympathizes with Smith and the settlers.  Wilfrid Lawson is MacDougall, Janie’s Scottish heavy-drinking, Indian-scouting father.  It’s not very politically correct for our time, what with the heathen savages (“the only friendly Injun’s a dead Injun”) and “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” attitudes.  It also partakes of 1930s populist sentiments.  It looks like it was shot in southern California, not Pennsylvania.  It’s pleasant and watchable, but perhaps not all that memorable.  This was a good year for Brian Donlevy’s villainy:  he was the sleazy saloon owner in Destry Rides Again and the sadistic Foreign Legion sergeant in Beau Geste in 1939 as well.  Chill Wills has an early film role here, moving on from his musical group the Avalon Boys.  In black and white.

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The Law and Jake Wade

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 21, 2014

The Law and Jake Wade—Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Henry Silva, Robert Middleton (1958; Dir:  John Sturges)

LawWadePoster LawWadeGerm

“Do you want to die now, or in a few minutes?”

This is from director John Sturges’ early period; he made several very good westerns in the 1950s.  His major period was thought to be a little later, in the 1960s with larger-scale movies (The Magnificent Seven, The Hallelujah Trail, The Great Escape).  But with Escape from Fort Bravo, Bad Day at Black Rock, Last Train from Gun Hill and others, his work is worth seeking out.

Robert Taylor was usually kind of a wooden performer, but that stoic quality can work okay in westerns, of which he made several in the 1950s.  The real star of this modest western (shot at Lone Pine in Owens Valley) is Richard Widmark as Clint Hollister, a near-psychotic badman with whom Taylor has a past. 

LawWadeWidTayHollister and Wade negotiate.

Jake Wade (Taylor) is now a city marshal of a small town in New Mexico, but he springs Hollister from jail to save him from hanging because Hollister once did the same for him when they ran in the same outlaw gang.  The completely amoral (or even immoral) Hollister then repays him by abducting Wade and his fiancée Peggy (Patricia Owens).  It turns out that when Jake left the gang more than a year previously, he took the loot from their most recent robbery.  Now Hollister wants it, and he wants to kill Jake, too. 

The plots works itself out in the ghost town where Wade had buried the money in the cemetery, with a raid by Comanches and, ultimately (inevitably), a shootout between Wade and Hollister. 


Widmark is excellent as the relentlessly nasty Hollister.  Notable supporting characters include Robert Middleton as Otero, and Henry Silva and DeForest Kelly (later of Star Trek) as other members of Widmark’s gang.  Silva shows up again as Chink, an evil henchman of Richard Boone in The Tall T, also made about this time, and as a Mexican Indian outlaw in The Bravados.  He often has an ethnic edge of some kind.  This is very watchable.  In color, with Wade wearing Taylor’s usual black.  See also Saddle the Wind, made with Taylor about the same time.

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