Monthly Archives: February 2014

Wrangler

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 5, 2014

The Wrangler (MInnamurra, Outback, The Fighting Creed)—Jeff Fahey, Tushka Bergen, Steven Vidler, Richard Moir, Shane Briant (1989; Dir:  Ian Barry)

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This slow-developing tale feels like it wanted to be a large-scale family saga, but the first hour of financial maneuvering and character development feels turgid and not entirely clear.  It didn’t have the budget, running time or editing to be a bigger story.  Set at the time of the Boer War in South Africa (ca. 1898), this is a low-profile Australian production with a largely Australian cast. 

Tushka Bergen is Alice May Richards, a once proud but now financially beleaguered rancher left on her own when her father dies.  (She’s not entirely alone, but her mother and brother aren’t much help in trying to save the ranch.)  She has to ward off a takeover of the family ranch Minnamurra by Allenby (Shane Briant), a ruthless neighboring rancher.  With the help of two men who are romantically interested in her—American businessman Ben Creed (Jeff Fahey), who turns out to be good with guns, and illiterate but expert drover Jack Donaghue (Steven Vidler)—she stages a last-minute desperation drive to get her herd of horses to a port where Lord Kitchener is willing to buy them for a price that will save her ranch and, better yet, enter into a contract for many more horses, helping to insure the continuing survival of Minnamurra. 

WranglerFaheyTushkaCreed and Alice May Richards.

Creed’s trading company has been ruined by sabotage that seems to point again to Allenby.  But the big rancher is willing to use violence to stop Alice in getting her horses to Kitchener.  Needless to say, the drive ends in triumph for Alice, and she chooses the faithful and heretofore underappreciated Creed.  Alllenby suffers no apparent punishment for his nefarious deeds other than losing his chance at Minnamurra and being dumped into a sack of grain when the horses run into the ship. 

Jeff Fahey is the only member of the cast seen much in the US (e.g., as Brian Dennehy’s principal bad guy in Silverado), and he’s pretty good here.  Not released theatrically in the US.  Filmed in New South Wales.  Short, at 92 minutes.  Cinematographer Ross Berryman won an Australian award for this.  It’s better than one might have expected, but it would have been better yet if the story had focused more on the horses and less on the financial shenanigans.  Or if it had had enough time and tight enough editing to make the Allenby shenanigans clearer. 

The main plot line is very similar to the first two-thirds of Baz Luhrman’s 2008 epic melodrama Australia.  For another story about a horse drive (this one from Oregon eastward across Idaho to north central Wyoming) to sell animals to the British for the Boer War, see Broken Trail (2006).  For another Australian horse film, see the better known The Man from Snowy River.

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The Comancheros

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 4, 2014

The Comancheros—John Wayne, Stuart Whitman, Ina Balin, Lee Marvin, Bruce Cabot, Michael Ansara, Jack Elam, Edgar Buchanan, Nehemiah Persoff, Patrick Wayne (1961; Dir:  Michael Curtiz, John Wayne [unaccredited])

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It is 1840.  In Louisiana, Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) is involved in a duel with an unscrupulous opponent, whom he kills.  The dead man is the son of a judge, so a warrant is issued for Regret’s arrest.  He prudently leaves, and on a gambling boat meets Pilar Graile (Ina Balin), a wealthy and assertive young woman with whom he shares a night.  In Galveston the next morning, however, Pilar is nowhere to be found, and Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne) arrests him on the Louisiana warrant.

As they head toward Ranger headquarters, Regret is educated about Texas, its geography and a bit of widower Cutter’s history.  They come upon a ranch that has been hit by a Comanche raiding party, and as they finish burying the victims Regret bashes Cutter with a shovel and disappears.

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The chagrined Cutter proceeds to Ranger headquarters, where Major Henry (Bruce Cabot) shows him prisoner Ed McBain (Guinn Williams in his last film), apprehended with a wagonload of rifles he intended to sell to the Comanches.    Henry persuades Cutter to take McBain’s place and head for a planned rendezvous in Sweetwater with a Comanchero connection.

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The connection in Sweetwater is Tully Crow (Lee Marvin), a partially scalped, heavy-drinking hardcase.  Crow and the faux-McBain carouse noisily and drift into a poker game, where one of the players is Paul Regret.  He does not give Cutter away, and during the game Cutter wins consistently and Crow gets progressively surlier.  As Cutter takes up his winnings and prepares to leave, Crow calls him out and draws on him.  Cutter wins, but it leaves him without a Comanchero connection.  They head for Ranger headquarters, but encounter  Comanche and Comanchero raiders at a ranch with Cutter friends.  Regret saves the day by escaping to get the Rangers back, and the raiders are driven off. 

Regret is now a Ranger friend, having proved himself.  On their way back to headquarters Cutter and Regret stop at the ranch of a young widow Cutter knows to take her into town.  The interlude gives Cutter a little additional humanity but doesn’t really go anywhere.  The Rangers provide Cutter with a feathered Indian lance that supposedly will give them safe conduct in Comanche country.  They are followed by young Ranger Tobe (Patrick Wayne), who is supposed to keep an eye on them from a distance.  He is killed, however, presumably to demonstrate that this is serious business despite how easily Cutter and Regret will make their own escape.

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They are accepted by the Comanches, who take them to Comanchero headquarters, where they are strung up because Amelung (Michael Ansara) recognizes Cutter from when he was arresting Regret.  However, Pilar appears and is the daughter of the head Comanchero.  She has them cut down and invited to dinner, but they are on thin ice.  They meet her crippled father (Nehemiah Persoff), and it turns out that of all the forces and loyalties in play, true love is strongest (not all that convincingly).  They make a run for it in a wagon with Pilar and her father, with both Comanches and Comancheros in hot pursuit.  The wagon overturns in the chase, Pilar’s father is killed, and the Ranger company arrives just in time to rescue them.

At the end Cutter willingly gives up his prisoner and Regret and Pilar head for Mexico.  The Comanchero ring has been broken.

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Based on a novel by Paul Wellman, the screenplay was originally penned by experienced writer Clair Huffaker.  But the studio ordered it worked over by James Edward Grant, a favorite of Wayne’s, and the seams show.  They may both have been good writers, but at several points the plot doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, beginning with Regret’s arrest.  The original director was Michael Curtiz, but he had health problems and the movie was finished with the uncredited Wayne acting as director.  Curtiz died of cancer shortly after the film was finished.

In terms of production design, although the film is set in Texas in 1840, it looks the same as every other John Wayne movie after The Searchers, whether set in 1840, 1898 or 1909, with anachronistic weapons and clothing.  Some of the references to Fort Sill and the prison at Yuma are off, since neither existed until at least twenty years later.  When Cutter steps into the McBain role, he wears a tall hat and long duster for no good reason, and they look silly on him.  Lee Marvin’s energetic malevolence as Tully Crow is more threatening than all the Comanches and Comancheros in the rest of the movie, but his role is much too brief. 

A strong point is the music by Elmer Bernstein, with a stirring theme second only to Bernstein’s work on The Magnificent Seven.  Cinematography is by the experienced William Clothier.  Shot near Moab, Utah.  In general, the movie is fun if you don’t require too much consistency or reasonableness in your plots.  Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called the film “so studiously wild and woolly it turns out to be good fun”; according to Crowther, “[t]here’s not a moment of seriousness in it, not a detail that isn’t performed with a surge of exaggeration, not a character that is credible.”

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Three years later Stuart Whitman starred in Rio Conchos, also written by Clair Huffaker, which has many similarities to the plot here but is a better movie.  By setting it after the Civil War, some of the anachronisms of this movie are avoided.  Among John Wayne films of this period, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, El Dorado, The War Wagon and True Grit are all better.  But several others are worse, too.

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Sergeant Rutledge

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 3, 2014

Sergeant Rutledge—Jeffrey Hunter, Woody Strode, Constance Towers, Juano Hernandez, Willis Bouchey, Billie Burke, Carleton Young (1960; Dir:  John Ford)

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A late John Ford movie, a combination of a pretty good cavalry movie with a so-so courtroom drama.  Woody Strode is the eponymous sergeant in the 9th Cavalry, ex-slave and now buffalo soldier First Sergeant Braxton Rutledge.  Stationed at Fort Linton in Arizona Territory, he is accused of the murder of his commanding officer and the rape and murder of the officer’s daughter.  The story moves around in time, built around testimony at Rutledge’s court martial.  The prosecutor is Capt. Shattuck (a persnickety Carleton Young), sent from Gen. Nelson Miles’ headquarters for the assignment.  Defense counsel is the apparently overmatched Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), who has long served with Rutledge and likes and admires him. 

As the story develops, largely in flashbacks, Rutledge is wounded on the night of the killings and flees Fort Linton.  He thereafter kills several renegade Mescalero Apaches and saves Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) who has just returned from the east.  Rutledge is captured by Cantrell’s patrol, escapes custody and saves the patrol, only to be finally returned to Fort Linton as a prisoner.  His patent nobility is such we never think he actually did what he is accused of, and the eventual solution and confession seem to come out of nowhere—somewhat like that in Ford’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln. 

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Woody Strode, always kind of a wooden actor more comfortable in a supporting role, gives his best performance here, and Hunter and Towers are fine, although we don’t really care much about their supposed romance.  Hunter doesn’t have a lot of acting heft, and Towers (previously used by Ford in The Horse Soldiers) seems like an actress from the 1930s.  The movie just seems to be lacking a bit in star power.  This was Billie Burke’s final movie, and, at 76, she plays the flibberty-gibbet wife of Col. Fosgate (Willis Bouchey, age 53). 

This is one of Ford’s last movies, and it is not top-flight Ford—kind of like Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn in that regard.  Still quite watchable, though.  It features Ford’s usual excellent use of Monument Valley.  Written by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck.  In color, even though Ford was still shooting some movies in black and white (e.g., The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).  One looks in vain for John Wayne, James Stewart, Richard Widmark or somebody of similar stature.

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Jeffrey Hunter as Lt. Tom Cantrell, with his buffalo soldiers.

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Cowboys & Aliens

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 1, 2014

Cowboys & Aliens—Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Walton Goggins, Raoul Trujillo, Noah Ringer (2011; Dir:  Jon Favreau)

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Somehow the ampersand (“&”) emphasizes the high-concept nature of how the seemingly-incompatible science fiction and western elements of this movie were all put together.  And it seems to downplay the fact that there’s an interesting story and some pretty good acting going on here.  Based on a 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the title is pretty straightforward about going to the heart of what’s involved here.  But maybe it’s too simplistic, and it suggests a lightness of tone that isn’t present in the film.

It’s 1873 in the Arizona Territory desert.  A man (Daniel Craig) wakes up with no knowledge of who he is or how he got there, but he has a non-bullet wound in his side.  When three miscreants decide to rob him, he demonstrates a high level of skill with violence.  They donate clothes, a hat, mount and arms to him instead.  He rides off to find medical help for his wound, which he has no idea how he received.

In the tiny town of Absolution, he gets treated by Meacham (Clancy Brown), a local preacher/doctor.  As he goes out to get his bearings, he encounters young Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), son of the local cattle baron, terrorizing the few inhabitants and shooting randomly, and makes short work of him.  Entering the saloon, he interests Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde), who is drawn to the large high-tech bracelet he’s wearing.  Soon enough the sheriff (Keith Carradine) comes in with several deputies and suggests that the unknown man at the bar is in fact Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw and gang leader.  He successfully resists capture, expertly and without killing anybody, until Ella hits him over the head from behind.

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That evening, while Jake and Percy are loaded into a cage wagon for transport to the county seat, the town is attacked by flying vehicles that start to nab certain of the inhabitants, including the sheriff, Maria, wife of Doc the saloonkeeper, and Percy.  Jake’s bracelet comes to life and he blasts one of the vehicles with it, ending the attack.  Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde, Percy’s father, insists that Jake accompany them in pursuit of the invaders.  He goes his own way.

The next day Jake encounters a scruffy band of outlaws, who are apparently his former colleagues.  He reasserts his leadership by blasting with his bracelet the big ugly thug who has taken over in his absence.  Jake starts to have flashbacks involving a mystical hummingbird and a dark-haired young woman who resembles, but at the same time is clearly not, Ella.  

As matters develop, the invaders are after the same thing as the outlaws:  gold, which may power their large ship, now mostly hidden in a canyon.  After a brief and unsuccessful daylight scrap with the aliens, the outlaws are ready to run for Mexico.  A band of Chiricahua Apaches are also searching for stolen loved ones.  And Jake and Ella take down one of the flying craft, at the cost of perhaps a mortal wound to Ella.

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Taken to the Apache camp for whatever help she can get, Ella in fact regenerates and explains that she is not, strangely enough, from earth but is the last survivor of a planet devastated by these invaders.  She wants Jake’s help in stopping them, but he still can’t remember anything, until he takes an Indian potion.  Then he remembers (a) he and the young dark-haired woman were captured by the aliens, (b) how he got the wound in his side, (c) he escaped wearing the bracelet-weapon, and (d) the location of the alien ship in the canyon.

[Spoilers follow.]  Jake, Col. Dolarhyde and the Apaches put together an unlikely coalition of outlaws, Indians and the few remaining townsfolk to fight the aliens.  Jake and a few outlaws climb the outside of the ship and throw dynamite into the ship’s landing bay, provoking retaliatory attacks outside the ship, which is what they want.  While most fight the invaders, Jake and Ella sneak into the ship and find the chamber where the remaining captives are held.  The young dark-haired woman is not among them.  Jake and Ella release the captives and fight their way to the central core of the ship, where Ella takes the bracelet and goes to destroy the ship at its power source.  Jake is trapped by the alien who gave him his wound, until Dolarhyde helps him.

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Finally, Arizona Territory (and, incidentally, earth) are saved from the alien menace.  The colonel forgives Jake for the previous theft of his gold, since more gold has been discovered in the fight and the railroad will be coming through and bringing yet more new gold.  Jake rides on, having lost two loves, gained a sense of community in Absolution and apparently but not certainly having mended at least some of his outlaw ways.

Daniel Craig is impressive as Jake Lonergan, just as he is as James Bond.  He works in the western setting, and one would like to see him in more westerns.  Olivia Wilde is very good as a sexy alien, in what may be her best performance to date.  Harrison Ford is appropriately gruff and domineering as Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde.  Many of the supporting roles are played very well by Paul Dano (the feckless Percy Dolarhyde), Sam Rockwell (saloonkeeper Doc), Clancy Brown (the Reverend Meachum), Adam Beach (Nat Colorado, Col. Dolarhyde’s Apache foster son), Walton Goggins (one of Jake’s outlaws), Noah Ringer (the sheriff’s grandson) and Raoul Trujillo (the Apache chief Black Knife).

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It is well known that this was a box-office disappointment, falling $34 million short of making back its production costs during its domestic theatrical run.  It has been less well known that this is a fun and enjoyable movie if accepted on its own terms, skillfully directed with a very good cast and an interesting, if not entirely believable or consistent, story to tell and many of the traditional trappings of western stories.  It has a high degree of re-watchability; the well-staged fights and action sequences hold up pretty well.  The ending seems to have contemplated the possibility of a sequel, but the poor box office returns make that unlikely.  Still, if you’re game for a decent supernatural western, you could do a lot worse.  As of March 2014, an extended cut of the film was released on DVD, if you want more of it.

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