Monthly Archives: February 2014

San Antonio

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 17, 2014

San Antonio–Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, S.J. Sakall, John Litel, Paul Kelly, Victor Francen (1945; Dir:  David Butler)

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This is the first of two westerns teaming Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith and S.J. Sakall (the Hungarian character actor best known as Karl the waiter at Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca).  As with other Flynn westerns, this was written by Alan LeMay (author of the novels on which The Searchers and The Unforgiven were based) and W. R. Burnett (Yellow Sky, This Gun for Hire, High Sierra and the novels of Little Caesar and The Asphalt Jungle).

Clay Hardin (played by Flynn; his name could just as easily have been John Wesley Allison) is a San Antonio-based cowboy in post-Civil War Texas.  At the start of the movie, he’s in hiding (more or less) on the Mexico border, where he’s been looking for evidence of Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly) running a large-scale rustling operation.  There he meets Jeanne Starr (Smith), a very attractive musical performer heading for San Antonio.  He uses her for cover to sneak back to San Antonio himself, with the help of his long-time friend Charlie Bell (John Litel). 

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On the stage back to San Antonio.

In San Antonio, Hardin makes clear to Bell and his friends that he has a tally book which shows Stuart’s rustling, and he further develops his relationship with Starr.  Bell is killed and the tally book stolen by Stuart’s partner Miguel Legare (played by sinister Belgian Victor Francen).  As Hardin finds out who killed Bell and as Stuart tries to kill Hardin, there is an improbably large shootout in the Bella Union saloon (bodies falling scenically from balconies and one bad guy is even run over by a piano). 

Hardin’s near-final confrontation with Stuart takes place in the supposed ruins of the Alamo.  And Hardin and Starr get together as expected, although it’s not clear that Stuart is either dead or in jail.

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Worth watching, perhaps, but not as good as Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940) or some of the other seven Flynn westerns.  This, Rocky Mountain and Montana are the least seen of them.  Clips are sometimes shown of Flynn walking with a curiously stiff-armed gait toward a shootout; in close-ups he’s starting to show the physical effects of his dissipated lifestyle, and he’s coming to the end of the period of his best work.  Smith is tall and elegant, with excellent 1940s shoulder pads.  Sakall as Starr’s manager and musical director Bozic is less effective here than in other roles.  Flynn, Smith and Sakall would be teamed again five years later in Flynn’s last western, Montana (1950).

The song “Some Sunday Morning,” written for this film, is sung by Alexis Smith and was nominated for an Oscar.  It went on to be a hit for various singers in the 1940s.  On its original release, this was Flynn’s highest-grossing movie.  Music was by Max Steiner, who reuses his theme from Dodge City over the credits here.  In color, with excellent cinematography by Bert Glennon.

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Vera Cruz

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 15, 2014

Vera Cruz—Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Cesar Romero, Denise Darcel, Sara Montiel, Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Henry Brandon, George Macready (1954; Dir:  Robert Aldrich)

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After the American Civil War, rootless American soldiers of fortune are drawn southward into Mexico, where the Mexicans led by Benito Juarez are rebelling against the Austrian-French regime of the emperor Maximilian.  Among these mercenaries are the two protagonists of this film:  Joe Erin, a flashy, grinning gunfighter of dubious morality (Burt Lancaster) and an impoverished plantation owner from Louisiana who had fought for the Confederacy, Ben Trane (Gary Cooper).

At the beginning of the film, Trane’s horse breaks a leg.  As he tries to find a replacement he encounters Joe Erin, who sells him a horse for an exorbitant $100 in gold.  He has stolen the horse from a platoon of lancers, who show up and chase the two as they make their escape.  During the chase, Trane makes one of those shots so common in the 1950s, in which, shooting over one shoulder while his horse is rearing, he shoots a gun out of the hand of the captain of the lancers.  Wildly improbable, this establishes Trane’s skill with a gun, however.  Erin seems to have heard of him.  As Trane is knocked off his horse by a shot, Erin leaps to loot the body, but Trane re-awakens and takes Erin’s horse and saddle instead.

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Lancaster, flashing his pearly whites, as he does for much of the movie; and Cooper, with his unflinching rectitude.  The collaborations and collisions between these two provide most of the tension in the film.

In the next town, Trane encounters a rough band of Americans in a cantina, who assume that he has killed Erin to take his flashy horse and rig.  As they set upon him and are about to kill him, Erin shows up, demonstrates that he’s not dead, and they all head off to meet with the Juarista general to see how much he’ll pay them.  As they enter another town, they see another rough band of Americans tormenting young maidens.  Trane rescues one of them, the fiery Nina (Sarita Montiel), who kisses him and steals his wallet.  Erin takes over the new band of Americans, adding them to his own unsavory gang.

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Trane unconvincingly romances the fiery Nina (Sarita Montiel).

The first potential employer they encounter is not the Juarista general but Maximilian’s general, Marquis Henri de Labordere (played by the smilingly cosmopolitan Cesar Romero).  He recruits them for a mission for Maximilian and is willing to promise more than the Juaristas can pay.  However, all of them are trapped in the town square by the Juarista forces until Erin and Trane engineer a way out by using children as hostages.  The Juarista general mouths a number of honest-sounding revolutionary platitudes, so we know now which party has the moral high ground in this struggle.

Arriving in Mexico City, the crude-mannered Americans attend a magnificent soiree at Chapultepec Palace, where they meet Maximilian (George Macready), give a demonstration of marksmanship and weaponry, and negotiate a mission for $50,000.  They are to conduct the French countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz on the Mexican coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where she will catch a ship for France.  In an aside between Henri and Maximilian, it is clear they do not expect the Americans to survive to collect their fee.  From this point, everyone is trying to doublecross everyone else, with Joe Erin and increasingly Ben Trane frequently quoting Erin’s cynical mentor Ace Hanna, whom Erin killed.

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Joe Erin meets the Emperor Maximilian.

The countess sets off for Vera Cruz, accompanied by the Americans, Henri and a troop of lancers led by Capt. Danette (German actor Henry Brandon).  Various competitions are developing among the alpha males in the entourage.  There is constant tension between Erin and Trane about whether they are really on the same side.  They both want the countess, although they don’t trust her.  Danette despises the Americans, especially Erin.  Henri is playing them all.  And what about the Juaristas?

Erin and Trane discover the real reason for the mission:  the countess’ carriage is carrying $3 million in gold, to be used to hire more mercenaries for Maximilian.  She tells Erin and Trane, however, that she intends to steal the gold, and she’ll cut them in.  They run into a Juarista ambush in a small town, and fight their way out with some casualties.  Nina takes over a cart when the driver is shot, and joins the caravan.  The countess secretly meets with a sea captain who’ll help her get away, and she makes arrangements that exclude Erin and Trane.

[Spoilers follow.]  Henri really doesn’t trust the countess, either, and he takes her prisoner with the intent of executing her.  Erin and Trane follow the carriage, and it is attacked by Juaristas.  They find the gold is gone and join the Juaristas, for a promise of $100,000.  They provide covering fire for a Juarista attack on the town held by Henri and Danette, where the gold supposedly is.  At great cost, the attack is successful.  Erin kills Danette.  With Lancaster’s trademark acrobatic agility, Erin climbs up into a third-floor room to rescue the countess.

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“So if the gold isn’t in the wagon …”

And finally, the ultimate loyalties get sorted out.  Erin has demonstrated that he doesn’t have any except to himself.  Trane has now decided that he supports the Juaristas.  They shoot it out in classic fashion; Trane even throws away his rifle to do it with handguns.  (The final showdown is very well done, with due gravity given to the ceremony of the occasion.)  Trane rides off into the sunset with Nina, and apparently will get the $100,000 to rebuild his plantation, with all the rest of the unsavory Americans killed.  

This was produced by Lancaster’s company (with Henry Hecht), and it’s bursting with vibrant color cinematography, great locations in Mexico, a huge and talented cast, a complicated plot and ultimately even a good guy (Trane) to root for in all the doublecrossing.  That’s a lot to cram into 94 minutes.  As with most of his westerns during the 1950s, Cooper seems old for his role.  But Trane’s still Gary Cooper, so it works.  He doesn’t sound a bit like he’s from Louisiana, nor does Lancaster sound like he’s from Texas.  Next to Cooper’s understated acting style, Lancaster’s performance seems a bit manic here.  A more experienced director would probably have helped him tone it down, if he had the clout to do so.  Among the other Americans, Ernest Borgnine stands out as Donnegan, about the same time as he was playing effective bad guys in movies like Johnny Guitar and sort-of-good guys in films like The Badlanders.

This is the second of Denise Darcel’s two westerns.  She’s better in the other, Westward the Women.  She and Sarita Montiel, who is fine here but has no chemistry with the much older Cooper, did not appear to have much in the way of American film careers after this.  Cesar Romero, whose smilingly corrupt Marquis is sometimes referred to by the other characters as “Old Crocodile Teeth,” has his second most prominent role in a western after playing Doc Holliday in 1939’s Frontier Marshal.  It is a close contest whether his teeth or Lancaster’s are more in evidence in this film; Lancaster probably wins that one.  Henry Brandon, Capt. Danette here, shows up as Indians in other westerns:  Comanche chief Scar in The Searchers, and a Sioux in The Last Frontier and as Comanche Quanah Parker in Two Rode Together.  Charles Bronson, in the days when he was playing Indians and heavies at the start of his career, plays the crass Pittsburgh, under his real name, Charles Buchinsky.  Jack Elam’s here, too, although he doesn’t get to do much.  George Macready as Maximilian was 54, twenty years older than the real Maximilian was at the time of his death.

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Aside from the individual performances, the direction of the larger-scale action scenes is good.  The script isn’t great; in a short movie we hear way too many quotes about Ace Hanna, who’s dead long before it begins.  The music by Hugo Friedhofer is very good.  The story is by experienced western writer Borden Chase.  The use of not-completely-bad and not-entirely-good characters in westerns was innovative for its time.  It is said to have strongly influenced Sergio Leone and other makers of spaghetti westerns.  The camera work sometimes (as in the scene where Erin kills Danette) makes one wonder whether they thought this might be shown in early 1950s 3D.

Many see Vera Cruz as one of the great westerns, but the parts don’t work together well enough for that.  It is one of those rare cases where maybe the film should have been longer to help us cope with the spectacle and plot twists.  It is fun to watch, however, and more than once, to try to figure out what the various characters’ real motivations and allegiances are.  Dave Kehr refers to it as “Robert Aldrich’s hugely influential comic western … This cynical and exuberant film [is] the direct precursor to the disillusioned 1960s westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.”  It’s probably only comic in the limited sense that there are some elements that can’t be taken quite seriously, rather than in the sense that it’s played for laughs.

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Trooper Hook

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 14, 2014

Trooper Hook—Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Earl Holliman, Royal Dano, John Dehner, Edward Andrews, Rodolfo Acosta (1957; Dir:  Charles Marquis Warren)

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This is both a cavalry movie and a strangers-on-a-stagecoach movie, based on a short story by Jack Schaefer (author of Shane and Monte Walsh).  It makes good use of the decency Joel McCrea always projected; the strong cast, led by McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, elevates the movie slightly over what it might have been. 

Sgt. Clovis Hook (McCrea) is 47, a veteran of the Civil War and graduate of Andersonville Prison during that war.  He’s in charge of a detail that captures Chiricahua Apache chief Nanchez (Rodolfo Acosta) and his band, including Cora Sutliff (Stanwyck), a white woman captive who has borne Nanchez’s son.  She was taken by the Apaches a few years ago while traveling from the east to rejoin her husband on his new ranch in Arizona.  Most of the movie concerns Hook’s attempts to reunite her with her husband, while both Nanchez and well-meaning whites try to part her from her son.

Cora comes in for a fair amount of hostility and abuse from whites over the course of the movie.  Hook reacts with more humanity. One of the best scenes comes as their relationship develops.  Cora talks about the humiliations for her in dealing with the reactions of other whites; Hook tells her about his survival at Andersonville, where he pretended to be a dog in order to get more food in that hellish environment.  There are references to Hook’s own wife and family, who never appear.

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Hook with the captured Nanchez; the recently liberated Cora Sutliff and her son by Nanchez.

Hook, Sutliff and her son take a stagecoach toward the modest ranch her husband has built up.  The stagecoach passengers include young cowboy Jeff Bennett (Earl Holliman), a Mexican grandmother and granddaughter and a talkative Charlie Travers (Edward Andrews), with a colorful ex-Confederate driver (Royal Dano).  Along the way they hear that Nanchez has escaped, and he catches up with the stage.  Hook resorts to a strategem to get Nanchez to let them depart, but we haven’t seen the last of him.

When they arrive at the Sutliff ranch, Cora’s husband, who hasn’t seen her for years, takes the approach most whites have.  He hadn’t heard about, and wants nothing to do with, the half-Apache kid, and Cora won’t let the child go.  Nanchez finds them, and the four of them make a run for it in the Sutliff wagon.

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The ending is a bit contrived, with both Nanchez and husband Fred Sutliff (John Dehner) dead and Hook riding off into the sunset with the woman and her son. Hook admits he has no family; he just invented one to fend off the questions and good intentions of others.  He remarks, “I’m 47.  Nearly 30 of that in the Army makes a man rough.  Got four months ‘til the end of my last hitch.” It sounds like a proposal, sort of.

The movie has intrusive, clunky theme music (e.g., Rancho Notorious and Will Penny) sung by Tex Ritter; such music seldom works as well as it did in High Noon.  There are good supporting performances by Royal Dano as Mr. Trude, an ex-Confederate stagecoach driver, and Earl Holliman as Jeff Bennett, a good-hearted young cowboy.  Rodolfo Acosta as Nanchez isn’t bad, either, in a role very similar to what he did in Hondo.  Barbara Stanwyck isn’t very convincing at first, but she can act and becomes more believable as her character develops. 

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 A still of Hook (McCrea), Quito, Cora (Barbara Stanwyck) and Fred Sutliff (John Dehner).

This was the sixth and last film McCrea and Stanwyck made together.  McCrea and Stanwyck teamed in this modest western 18 years after being in DeMille’s more epic Union Pacific.  The boy who plays Cora’s mixed-race son in a black wig (Terry Lawrence) isn’t great; the direction may be at fault for some of that.  Unresolved question:  Who got Charlie Travers’ $15,000?  In black and white.  Both the Four Corners setting and the stagecoach elements recall John Ford, but the direction obviously isn’t as good.  In black and white.

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River of No Return

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 13, 2014

River of No Return—Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Rory Calhoun, Tommy Rettig (1954; Dir:  Otto Preminger, Jean Negulesco)

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Reportedly, neither Marilyn Monroe nor director Otto Preminger wanted to make this movie; they were forced to do so because of contractual obligations.  Both were said to have reservations about the script, and they didn’t get along with each other much, either.

In 1875 Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) has sent for his ten-year-old son Mark (Tommy Rettig) to live with him on a remote homestead on Idaho’s River of No Return after the boy’s mother dies.  While waiting in a mining camp for his father, Mark makes the acquaintance of dance hall girl Kay (Marilyn Monroe).  Once back on their farm, gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) and his “wife” Kay are on a raft headed downriver to file a gold claim in Council City but are marooned at the Calder place.  When Matt declines to lend Weston his rifle and horse, Weston knocks Calder out and takes them, leaving Kay behind.

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Calder worries about hostile Indians (of unspecified tribe, but one supposes that in 1875 they’d be Nez Perces or Northern Paiutes, maybe Bannocks) without the rifle, and they show up.  In desperation, Calder, Mark and Kay are forced to take the raft downriver, although there is little hope they can get through the rapids in the 15 miles to Council City.  The Indians burn the Calder cabin as the trio heads downstream.  Starvation becomes a problem, as they exist on berries and what few fish they can spear.  Finally, they catch an elk in the river, but the roasting meat attracts a mountain lion.  Calder attacks Kay, and the the lion attacks Calder.  He is saved when the lion is killed by a couple of hunters, one of whom turns out to be Colby, the person from whom the gambler Weston won his gold claim.  He’s determined to get it back and coarsely comes on to Kay.  Calder is up and down in his relationship with Kay; mostly he’s suspicious of her because of her association with Weston.

They spar verbally, with Kay saying she knows that Calder’s wife died while he was in jail for shooting somebody in the back.  For his part, Calder treats Kay like a dance hall girl.  It turns out Weston and Kay haven’t yet been married.  Calder drives off Colby and keeps his rifle and ammunition belt.  The next day as they head downriver again, the Indians find them just before they get to the rapids.  Calder drops several of them but runs out of ammunition.  Two of their Indian attackers make it to the raft, and Calder has to fight them off just as they reach the rapids. 

They shoot the canyon, although Calder falls off and only stays with them by hanging on to the steering rudder.  Just before they get to Council City, Kay makes Calder promise to let her talk with Weston first to avoid violence.  Reluctantly Calder agrees, and he and Mark go off to the general store.  Kay explains things to Weston, but he responds by taking out his gun and shooting Calder as he walks out of the store.  With Calder down, Weston heads for him, obviously planning to finish him off.  Just as he aims his gun to do so, Mark in the store at the rifle rack shoots him in the back. 

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Kay (Marilyn Monroe) returns to her former career.

Kay takes her red shoes (symbols of her former life and unsavory career) to the local saloon and resumes that career there.  The Calders get a horse, wagon and supplies.  In the final scene, Kay wistfully sings (dubbed by Gloria Wood) “The River of No Return.”  As she finishes to enthusiastic applause, she smiles ruefully.  Calder walks through the door and carries her out over his shoulder.  “Where are you taking me?” she says in presumed outrage.  “Home,” he replies.  As the wagon heads out of town, she throws the red shoes in the dust, much like Will Kane’s badge at the end of High Noon.

Despite any reservations Monroe and Preminger may have had about the script, this did well at the box office.  The movie is watchable, but Monroe’s not a natural in westerns.  She’s all right in this, if a bit distracting.  It was said that during the shooting Preminger and Monroe stopped speaking to each other and would only communicate through Mitchum, who had known Marilyn a long time.  Mitchum was quite at home in westerns, and Rettig went on to star in Delmer Daves’ The Last Wagon and in a television series with Lassie.  Rory Calhoun is in his slick and sleazy bad guy mode, as in The Spoilers.  He’s not on screen all that much.

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She didn’t get along with director Preminger’s screaming style, but she did get along with long-time friend and co-star Mitchum.

In color, filmed in Banff and Jasper, Alberta, in Cinemascope and 3D.  When Preminger was not available for some reshoots, Jean Negulesco directed those.  It’s not very long at 91 minutes.  Preminger did not consider this one of his best.

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Mackenna’s Gold

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 12, 2014

Mackenna’s Gold—Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Camilla Sparv, Telly Savalas, Keenan Wynn, Julie Newmar, Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach, Edward.G. Robinson, Burgess Meredith, Ted Cassidy, Anthony Quayle, Raymond Massey (1969; Dir:  J. Lee Thompson)

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In this big-budget effort set in 1874, Mackenna (Gregory Peck), a former prospector in Apache country, is now the local marshal, with only iffy support in his community.  His primary supporter has been Judge Bergmann.  Bergmann is killed early in the movie by John Colorado (the miscast Omar Sharif, who might look sort of Mexican but doesn’t sound it, at the peak of his American film career after Dr. Zhivago and Funny Girl).  Colorado and his gang, after killing Bergmann, abduct his daughter Inga (Swedish actress Camilla Sparv, who sounds European). 

Mackenna is shot at in the desert by an old Indian, who has a treasure map to the lost Adams gold.  Mackenna looks at the map, doesn’t believe it and destroys it.  Turns out the old Indian was being tracked by Colorado, who is looking for the gold and now has Mackenna as a prisoner.  He stays to try to rescue Inga.  The group includes several Indians, including Hesh-Ke (Julie Newmar), with whom Mackenna has a past history but no current interest.  She does have current interest, though. 

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The large cast includes a number of actors at the ends of their careers in bit parts as townspeople also searching for the gold; they’re not managed well, and none of them matter much.  Telly Savalas is a corrupt cavalry sergeant who kills his own men and wants in on the gold. 

Of course, there does turn out to be gold in the fabled Canon del Oro, which is protected both by Indians and by mystical natural forces.  At the end, all the seekers are killed except for Mackenna and Inga in a cataclysm featuring skinny-dipping near the gold deposit, earthquake, toppling geological formations, battles with Indians and betrayals within the group.

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Apache warrior Hachita (Ted Cassidy) takes a knife to an unarmed Mackenna (Gregory Peck).

Shot in color in Utah and Arizona.  Narration is by Victor Jory.  A troubled production, with rambling story, and some technical problems in the filmmaking.  Kind of campy-seeming now.  Director J. Lee Thompson had a hot streak in the early 1960s with mainstream movies such as The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear and Taras Bulba but was fading by the time he made this.  The movie is said to have been intended for a running time of three hours, but was cut back by the studio to two.  Not much seen these days.  Compare the story with 1949’s Lust for Gold, featuring Glenn Ford, and with The Walking Hills, also from 1949, with Randolph Scott and John Ireland.  In color.  Score by Quincy Jones; theme song sung by Jose Feliciano.

Upon later reflection, star Gregory Peck said “Mackenna’s Gold was a terrible western.  Just wretched.”  He should have been in a good position to judge, having starred twenty years earlier in David O. Selznick’s overheated epic turkey Duel in the Sun, referred to by some critics as Lust in the Dust.  Perhaps by the time of his comment he wished that he had joined Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood in turning down the lead in Mackenna’s Gold.

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Mackenna’s Gold was not a box office success in the U.S. (where it returned only $3 million on its then-substantial production costs of $14 million ), but it did better overseas.  In India, strangely enough, it remained the top Hollywood grosser in history until blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Titanic came along.  Even worldwide hits such as Jaws and Star Wars would not make as much money in India as Mackenna’s Gold did.  The film went through countless re-runs until well into the 1980s and could be seen in cinema halls across India, including small venues in the medium-size towns of North India. [http://indianquarterly.com/old-is-not-just-gold-its-mackennas-gold/]

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How the West Was Won

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 11, 2014

How the West Was Won–James Stewart, Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan (1962; Dir:  Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall)

NY Times, by Dave Kehr, Sept. 8, 2008.  Written on the occasion of the release of the restored version of the movie on DVD.

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The first Cinerama features were travelogues, transporting 1950s spectators to parts of the world most would never see.  (Many of the earliest Edison and Lumière films, at the turn of the 20th century, fulfilled a similar function.)  Released in the United States in 1963, How the West Was Won would be the first — and, as it turned out, the last — narrative film to be shot in the three-strip Cinerama process.

In a sense the film’s guiding aesthetic is still that of the travelogue, but instead of visiting various scenic locations, it makes brief stops at most of the symbolic locations of the western genre, from the embarkation points of the Erie Canal to the California mountains of the Gold Rush.

The script, by James R. Webb (Vera Cruz), does its best to touch all the thematic bases of the genre too:  the male characters include a mountain man (James Stewart) and a river pirate (Walter Brennan); a wagon master (Robert Preston) and a riverboat gambler (Gregory Peck); a builder of railroads (Richard Widmark) and a frontier marshal (George Peppard).  The main female characters are even more broadly archetypal: a pair of sisters, portentously named Lilith (Debbie Reynolds, who becomes a saloon singer and budding capitalist) and Eve (Carroll Baker, who stakes out a farm on a Mississippi riverbank and mothers two boys).

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As a dramatic narrative How the West Was Won doesn’t work all that well.  Few of the characters are on screen long enough to establish identities beyond those of the stars who play them.  Most of the episodes are thinly developed, and over all the film has a jerky, stop-and-start rhythm, perhaps because it is the work of three different directors.

Henry Hathaway (True Grit) reportedly was in charge of the project and directed three episodes (“The Rivers,” “The Plains” and “The Outlaws”).  John Ford directed one (“The Civil War”), and George Marshall another (“The Railroad,” although Hathaway later said he had to reshoot much of Marshall’s material).

Instead this is a movie of visual epiphanies, ingeniously realized in the face of crippling stylistic challenges.  The Cinerama camera — an 800-pound behemoth that resembled a steel-girded jukebox — could move forward and backward with ease and elegance, resulting in some of the most impressive moments in the film (like the long tracking shot through a river town that opens “The Rivers”).  But it couldn’t pan from side to side without creating registration problems, and close-ups were all but impossible to achieve with the system’s short 27-millimeter lenses.

Moreover, characters couldn’t move freely across the wide screen, because crossing the two join lines — where the images overlapped — would create a distracting jump, and the action (beyond the broad movements of rushing trains or stampeding buffalo) had to be restricted to the center of the screen.

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Hathaway and Marshall are resourceful and craftsmanlike in dealing with these limitations, finding ways to position the actors so that the join lines are hidden, or filling the unused space beyond the center frame with vertiginously detailed landscapes that fall off into infinite distance.

But it is John Ford who rises to the challenge most poetically, chiefly by ignoring it.  “The Civil War” is an exquisite miniature (unfortunately padded out by some battle sequences lifted from Raintree County, an earlier MGM Civil War film) that consists of only three scenes: a mother (Ms. Baker) sends a son (Peppard) off to war; the son has a horrible experience as night falls on the battlefield of Shiloh; the son returns and finds that his mother has died.  The structure has a musical alternation: day, night, day; exterior, interior, exterior; stillness, movement, stillness.

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In the first and last scenes the famous Fordian horizon line extends the entire length of the extra-wide Cinerama frame.  In the aftermath of the battle the horizon line disappears in darkened studio sets.  The sense of the sequence is profoundly antiwar — Generals Sherman and Grant, played by John Wayne and Henry Morgan, briefly appear as a couple of disheveled, self-pitying drunks — and it gradually becomes apparent that the elderly Ford is revisiting one of his early important works, the 1928 drama Four Sons.

The expressionistic middle sequence, with its studio-built swamp, refers to F. W. Murnau, whose Sunrise was one of the great influences on the young Ford, while the open-air sequences that bracket it, with their unmoving camera, long-shot compositions and rootedness in the rural landscape, recall the work of the American pioneer D. W. Griffith.

When, in the final panel of Ford’s triptych, a gust of wind tousles Peppard’s hair in the foreground and then continues across to the forest in the middle distance and on to the stand of trees in the most distant background, it seems like a true miracle of the movies: a breath of life, moving over the face of the earth.  No less formidable a filmmaker than Jean-Marie Straub has called “The Civil War” John Ford’s masterpiece; for the first time, thanks to this magnificent new edition, I think I know what he’s talking about. Birth, death, rebirth.

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Note:  This epic of the west is long, at 164 minutes.  Voice-over narration is by Spencer Tracy.  Music was by Alfred Newman.  In addition to this piece, Dave Kehr was the writer of a 2005 documentary on director Budd Boetticher entitled Budd Boetticher:  A Man Can Do That.  After fourteen years of writing a column for the New York Times on new DVD releases, of which this was one, he now works as a film curator for the MoMA in New York.

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Blackthorn

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 10, 2014

Blackthorn—Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott, Magaly Solier (2011; Dir:  Mateo Gil)

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This is a wintry Euro-western, with a Spanish director and mostly Spanish-speaking cast, shot in Bolivia.  It’s a “what if Butch Cassidy didn’t die in San Vicente in 1908?” story, starring Sam Shepard as the aging Butch.  It takes place mostly twenty years after Butch’s supposed death in Bolivia, as Butch, now calling himself James Blackthorn, considers a return to the U.S.  Etta Place has died of tuberculosis in San Francisco, leaving a young adult son with whom Butch has corresponded.  “I been my own man,” Blackthorn comments. “Nothing’s richer than that.”

Butch sells his horses and has a nest egg of $6000, sufficient to return to America.  While returning with the money to say goodbye to friends (particularly a young Indian woman named Yana [Megaly Solier]) before leaving the country, he finds a dead horse and rides on.  He is ambushed by the horse’s former rider, a young Spaniard named Eduardo Apodaca who had worked for a mining titan and robbed him of $50,000.  He was on his way to retrieve the money when he was shot at and lost his horse.  Now Butch’s horse, with his money, is scared off.  In return for reluctantly helping Apodaca out of the desolate, remote area to the mine, Apodaca promises Butch half his loot.

BlackthornCassidyApo Blackthorn and Apodaca.

There are flashbacks showing the young Butch (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney) and Etta Place (Dominique McElligott) being captured at one time by Pinkerton agent McKinley (Stephen Rea) and escaping.  As in the story we remember, Etta left Butch and Sundance in South America, returning to the U.S. alone—and pregnant in this version.  In San Vicente, Butch and Sundance are thought to be killed, but they get away, although Sundance is mortally wounded.  Butch helps him die in as humane a fashion as possible, and goes off to his life as a solitary rancher for the next twenty years.

While retrieving Apodaca’s ill-gotten gains, they are trapped in the mine by a posse of native trackers and frontiersmen.  Apodaca knows of a secret exit, and they make it away to Butch’s ranch, where Apodaca recovers from a wound.  One morning a couple of women show up, saying they have recovered Butch’s horse with the money.  They pull out guns, shoot Butch, kill Yana and Apodaca finally gets them.  But Butch and Apodaca are on the run again, this time with Butch badly wounded.

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They are followed by the relentless posse into the desert, where Butch, Apodaca and attrition wear the posse down.  Finally, Butch gives Apodaca the good horse that should get him out of the desert and instructs him to meet him in a town on the other side.  It seems unlikely Butch will make it.

But somehow he does.  We next see him in a near-coma on a doctor’s table.  The doctor seems to know who he is, and sends for the alcoholic McKinley, now an honorary consul in that town, to ask him.  McKinley says it is Butch, and sits with Butch until he awakens.  By that time he has thought better of giving Butch over to the authorities.  But he informs Butch that, instead of robbing a mining baron, Apodaca has stolen the money from poor mining familiies who had been awarded the played-out mine by a Bolivian court.  Butch sees this as an affront to his Robin-Hood-style ethics and similarly to his views on the sacredness of friendship.

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Young Sundance, Etta and Butch, in their carefree days.

[Spoilers follow.]  With McKinley’s help Butch escapes the town, once more into a desolate high desert, heading for the Andes to cross into Chile.  Apodaca, it turns out, was also in town, and barely escapes with his loot.  The two of them make their separate ways across the desert to the Andes foothills.   As Apodaca wakes up one morning he finds Butch watching him and hopes that they can continue their escape together.  Instead, Butch shoots him in the leg, runs off his horse and leaves Apodaca and his money to the pursuing posse, which now includes soldiers.  As he climbs the mountains on his horse he hears shots as they find Apodaca.  The soldiers have forced McKinley to accompany them, and as they crest the mountains on the Chilean border they are frustrated at having seen Butch’s track but not being able to find him.  So they strand McKinley there without his horse.  Not knowing anything of this, Butch moves on, presumably to make it back to the U.S., although that’s not shown.

There are a lot of positives about this bleak film.  Sam Shepard is convincing as the aging Butch, and the younger actors in the flashbacks are enormously attractive, especially Coster-Waldau (now known from his appearance in HBO’s Game of Thrones) and McElligott (later seen in AMC’s Hell on Wheels, a western series).  Coster-Waldau and Shepard do seem believably to resemble each other.  In a way, this attractiveness is a problem:  we’d like to see more of the younger Butch, Sundance and Ella than of the supposed main story, which takes its time developing.  Noriega is also very good as the amoral Spanish robber Apodaca.

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The use of the vast Bolivian landscapes is very good, with superb cinematography by Jose Ruiz Anchia.  It captures some of the wide-open feel of many good westerns, but it doesn’t look at all like the North American west.  It’s fascinating in its own way.  The music by Lucio Godoy is excellent, with wonderful use of U.S. folk music in songs like “Sam Hall.”  It’s not a long movie at an hour and forty-five minutes, but it’s not tightly put together, either.  Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be quite enough story here.  Watching this, one is reminded that a European sensibility has some differences from the American approach to westerns.  Not one of the greats, but one would like to see this sort of thing tried more often.

Shepard’s natural wintry reserve plays well in westerns, and it’s the heart of this movie.  He’s a living example of how a certain kind of what initially seems to be inexpressiveness actually translates well to a style of acting that works and seems quite natural in westerns.  That’s not to say that all inexpressiveness works in westerns; the argument is that for some actors it’s not as inexpressive as some may take it to be.  For more Shepard in a western context, see him in Purgatory and the miniseries Klondike and Streets of Laredo.  He also has a small role as an aging Frank James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and appears in All the Pretty Horses (2000).  One could wish that more westerns were being made so Shepard could be in them, even at his age (in his seventies).

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Another quibble:  Granted, Butch spent his adult years in wild places with rough companions on the wrong side of the law, but this Butch seems to drink heavily and swear a lot for a Robin Hood with a Mormon upbringing who maintained some connections with it.  One can see him drinking and using occasional bad language, but probably not to this extent.  This is rated R for profanity and violence.

For another story of Butch not dying in San Vicente, if you can find it try John Byrne Cooke’s novel South of the Border, with Butch in Mexico during the revolution.

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Quantez

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 8, 2014

Quantez—Fred MacMurray, Dorothy Malone, John Gavin, John Larch, Sydney Chaplin, Michael Ansara, James Barton (1957; Dir: Harry Keller)

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Talkative, melodramatic western with a small cast.  This is one of Fred MacMurray’s better westerns, and worth watching.  The title refers to a ghost town in which a small gang of outlaws finds itself after a robbery.

The band of outlaws is retreating across the desert toward Mexico, on the run from a posse after robbing a bank.  They haven’t been together long, just put together by the ruthless Heller (John Larch) for this job.  They include Chaney (Dorothy Malone), Heller’s woman; Gentry (Fred McMurray), an experienced desert scout; Gato (Sydney Chaplin), a white man raised by Apaches; and Teach (John Gavin), a young easterner good with a gun. 

QuantezGangHorseThe gang arrives.

After eluding the posse in Apache country, they come to Quantez one horse short, only to find it abandoned.  The action and a lot of dialogue take place over one night as they try to sort out their differing loyalties and objectives.  Heller, as it turns out, is willing to leave Chaney behind.  Gentry keeps trying to make things work, getting both Heller and Teach to back off in turn.  As matters develop, both Teach and Gentry seem to be interested in Chaney, setting up another potential conflict. 

Itinerant artist Puritan (a contrived-seeming name, played by James Barton) rides into the ghost town, singing about a gunfighter named John Coventry and painting Chaney’s portrait.  Gentry, it is revealed, is Coventry, and he helps Puritan escape Heller’s clutches.  Gato is trying to work out a deal with the Apaches led by Delgadito (Michael Ansara).  In the end, they kill him instead.  Gentry/Coventry is finally forced to kill Heller and holds off Delgadito’s band long enough to give Teach and Chaney a chance to escape. 

QuantezGavinMaloneMacM Getting out.

This is reminiscent of Yellow Sky, Rawhide, Man of the West and Incident at Tomahawk Gap, which all involve relative innocents captured by ruthless, unprincipled outlaws in remote locations in a movie with a noir-ish feel.  It might be Fred MacMurray’s best western; he and Dorothy Malone are particularly good.  In color, and short at just over 80 minutes.  This can be hard to find, but it’s worth seeking out.

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Blacks in a White and Indian West

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 7, 2014

Blacks in a White and Indian West

The American west is usually depicted, accurately enough depending on the time, as a region not heavily populated, but those who show up in westerns tend to be mostly white or Indian, or Hispanic in the southwest and Texas.  History indicates that there have long been blacks among them, however, from William Clark’s slave York with the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery (freed by Clark in 1811), and Jim Beckwourth in the mountain man era beginning in the 1820s.  We know that the proportion of blacks among cowboys was probably higher in Texas, a former slave state, and there were free black towns in Kansas after the Civil War.  But there haven’t been that many westerns in which blacks play a significant part or are in evidence at all.  Of course, there were minorities of various kinds in the history of the American west (Hawaiians with early fur trappers, eastern Iroquois among the fur traders and mountain men, Chinese building the railroads and in mining towns) who are frequently underrepresented in westerns, too, if we’re approaching the issue in an accounting frame of mind.  But those are other lists, or too few to even warrant lists.

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Charles Russell’s depiction of York with the Corps of Discovery; Jim Beckwourth, in a photograph taken about 1860 in Denver.  Coming west among the early mountain men, Beckwourth lived among the Crows, where he was known as Medicine Calf.

Beginning in 1960, there have been conscious attempts to show blacks as participants in the western experience.  Below is a collection of such films, although there must be others as well.  If you know of a film left off the list, leave a comment.

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The Wonderful Country (1959, Sgt. Satchel Paige leading buffalo soldiers)

Sergeant Rutledge (1960, Woody Strode)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, Woody Strode)

Rio Conchos (1964, Jim Brown)

Duel at Diablo (1966, Sidney Poitier)

The Professionals (1966, and anything else with Woody Strode)

The Scalphunters (1968, Ossie Davis)

Five Card Stud (1968, Yaphet Kotto)

Shalako (1968, Woody Strode)

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Woody Strode)

Sam Whiskey (1969, Ossie Davis)

Boot Hill (1969, Woody Strode)

Man and Boy (1971, Bill Cosby)

Skin Game (1971, Louis Gossett Jr.)

The Deadly Trackers (1971, Paul Benjamin)

Buck and the Preacher (1972, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte)

The Legend of Black Charley (1972, Fred Williamson)

The Revengers (1972, Woody Strode)

Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973, Vance Davis)

Blazing Saddles (1974, Cleavon Little)

Thomasine and Bushrod (1974, Vonette McGee and Max Julien)

The Shootist (1976, Scatman Crothers)

Silverado (1985, Danny Glover and Lynn Whitfield)

Lonesome Dove (1989, Danny Glover)

Unforgiven (1992, Morgan Freeman)

Posse (1993, Van Peebles et al.)

Lightning Jack (1994, Cuba Gooding, Jr.)

Children of the Dust (aka A Good Day to Die, 1995, MfTV, Sidney Poitier)

The Quick and the Dead (1995, Keith David, Woody Strode)

Buffalo Soldiers (MfTV, 1997, Danny Glover et al.)

Ride With the Devil (1999, Jeffrey Wright)

Texas Rangers (2001, Usher Raymond)

Jericho (2001, Leon Coffee)

Gallowwalkers (2012, Wesley Snipes)

Django Unchained (2012, Jamie Foxx)

The Hateful Eight (2015, Samuel L. Jackson)

The Magnificent Seven (2016, Denzel Washington)

BlacksHarlemRidesBlacksTwo-Gun

 Mostly Black Westerns

Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938, Jeffrey)

Harlem Rides the Range (1939, Jeffrey)

Buck and the Preacher (1972, Poitier, Belafonte)

Posse (1993, Van Peebles)

Comedies Featuring Slavery

The Scalphunters (1968)

Skin Game (1971)

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Jim Brown in Mexico

Rio Conchos (1964)

100 Rifles (1969)

El Condor (1970)

Take a Hard Ride (1975, with Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly)

Interracial Marriage

Death of a Gunfighter—(1969) Richard Widmark and Lena Horne

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Buchanan Rides Alone

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 6, 2014

Buchanan Rides Alone—Randolph Scott, Craig Stevens, Manuel Rojas (1958; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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One of the Ranown westerns based in a town, like Decision at Sundown, instead of being shot out in the Lone Pine countryside.  Agry Town, on the California-Mexico border, is corrupt, like Sundown.  The genial Texan Buchanan rides in from Mexico and has trouble riding out.  The sheriff, the judge and the hotel keeper are all brothers named Agry, with a son of the judge as a short-lived trouble-maker.  That seems to make four Agrys.

In a saloon, Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas), a wealthy young Mexican seeking revenge, kills Roy Agry, son of Judge Simon Agry.  Buchanan helps him as the sheriff’s men proceed to beat him, and both land in jail, Buchanan with his $2000 from his years in Mexico confiscated.

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Buchanan rides in–alone.

Sheriff:  “Oh, you don’t like this town?”

Buchanan:  “I don’t like some of its people.”

Sheriff:  “Me included?”

Buchanan:  “You especially.”

Sheriff:  “Oh, you’d like to kill me maybe?”

Buchanan:  “I’d like to give you what your boys gave me.”

Sheriff:  “Take the law into your own hands, is that it?”

Buchanan:  “No, just you.”

As matters play out, Buchanan is sent out from town in the company of two deputies who obviously have instructions to kill him.  One of them, Pecos Hill, upon finding that Buchanan is a fellow West Texan, turns on the other and kills him.  Buchanan is released and they hold a non-stereotypical impromptu funeral for the deceased gunman.  Pecos has a speech in which he declares that his deceased friend was a cheater and a thief who couldn’t be trusted, but otherwise was not a bad guy.

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Pecos (L.Q. Jones) delivers an impromptu funeral soliloquy, while Buchanan (Randolph Scott) looks on.

The three senior Agrys are all conspiring against each other.  Judge Simon is the most powerful, and has his own gunman, Abe Carbo (Craig Stevens).  Sheriff Lew Agry has several deputies.  And hotel keeper Amos Agry is playing one against the other for his own advantage.  Simon keeps trying to extract a $50,000 ransom from Juan’s family, while Luke wants to get the money and hang Juan, too.  Amos wants a cut of the money.  Juan escapes and is recaptured; Buchanan is released and recaptured.   After several reverses, all the players end up at the border scrabbling over the $50,000.  The Agrys are on the U.S. side, and Juan and Buchanan are on the Mexican side.  The money is on the bridge in the middle, and there is a stand-off.  Lew sends Simon to get the money and then shoots him while he’s on the bridge. Lew then gets shot in turn.  With the two effective Agrys dead, Buchanan gets most of his $2000 back and then hands the $50,000 to Juan and the town over to Carbo.

This is based on the 1956 novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward.  The writing credit for this one is attributed to Charles Lang (as is Decision at Sundown), and Randolph Scott as Buchanan is talkier than in Burt Kennedy’s scripts, with more humor.  However, Boetticher later confirmed that he found the Lang script unsuitable and had Burt Kennedy re-write it.  Since Lang’s wife was gravely ill and they needed the money, Kennedy generously allowed the writing credit (and the fee) to stay with Lang.  Still, it’s not really Kennedy’s best work as a writer. 

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Buchanan (Scott), Carbo (Craig Stevens) and a nameless horse.

Interestingly enough, there is no significant female role in this film, not even for Karen Steele (the statuesque Mrs. Boetticher).  Television private eye Craig Stevens (“Peter Gunn”) plays Carbo, Simon’s hired gunman who always rides in a carriage.  Stevens gets second billing, but his character isn’t very developed.  There is an early screen appearance by L.Q. Jones as the chatty young Texan Pecos Hill. 

This is not one of the more highly-regarded Boetticher-Scott efforts, but it’s enjoyable enough to watch.  Cinematography is in color by Lucien Ballard.  Like all the other Ranown westerns, this is fairly short, at 78 minutes.  Filmed in Old Tucson-Sabino Canyon, in Arizona, not at Lone Pine like most of the other Ranown series.  So, although it’s the only one of the Ranown films to be set in California, it’s the only one not to be filmed in California.  Director Taylor Hackford has commented that Scott’s Buchanan is a sort of precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, the character at the center of Sergio Leone’s influential Dollar movies. .

 

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