Monthly Archives: April 2014

They Came to Cordura

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 17, 2014

They Came To Cordura—Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, Michael Callan, Dick York, Richard Conte (1959; Dir:  Robert Rossen)

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Gary Cooper is a little old (again) in his last western and one of his last roles of any kind, as Major Thomas Thorn, the Awards Officer of the 1916 Pershing expedition into northern Mexico against Pancho Villa after Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico.  Thorn had been at Columbus, and his conduct there he (and others) viewed as cowardly.  So a coward is in charge of selecting and writing up the heroes of the expeditionary force into Mexico. 

After Thorn’s first hero is killed in subsequent action, he obtains permission from Pershing to take any others he may select with him back to forward headquarters base at Cordura.  As Thorn observes a successful cavalry charge on a rancho at Ojos Azules (“blue eyes”) owned by Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth), the alcoholic daughter of a disgraced (and now deceased) former U.S. senator, he selects four or five soldiers for their conspicuous heroism during the charge (historically, the last cavalry charge made by the U.S. army).  But the movie is about role reversal and the transitory nature of both cowardice and heroism. 

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The group of awardees is comprised of Lt. Fowler (Tab Hunter), Sgt. Chawk (Van Heflin), Pvt. Hetherington (Michael Callan), Cpl. Trubee (Richard Conte), and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York).  As the six soldiers, now including Miss Geary in their group, move toward Cordura, they are attacked by the remnants of the Villa forces from Ojos Azules and lose their horses.  Under the stress of trying to make it across the Chihuahua desert, the potential awardees all show themselves to be despicable, mutinous and/or weak in various ways, while it is Thorn’s iron will supported only by Adelaide (who knows that she will be imprisoned for aiding the enemy once she is in army custody) that keeps them going.  Thorn asks them individually what led to their heroism in battle, and they don’t know.  They simply did it.  But whatever courage they briefly showed in battle, they don’t seem to have courage with stamina for the longer haul—for the desperate trip to Cordura, once they lose their horses.  The coward Thorn does have that kind of courage. 

In the end he is successful at getting them through despite themselves and presumably submits the miscreants for their original awards as he wrote them up.  But the exact ending is a bit unclear.  The movie, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote the novel “The Shootist”), is not as good as the novel, which was a best-seller in its time.  Neither the film nor the novel is much seen these days.  Rita Hayworth isn’t bad, but Gary Cooper is miscast; he’s a little long in the tooth at 58 to be playing an army officer in the field.  Tab Hunter is wooden.  Van Heflin, known for being stalwart in Shane and 3:10 to Yuma, is excellent here as the angry and mutinous Sgt. Chawk.   The benediction on all this is pronounced by Adelaide Geary:  “One act of cowardice doesn’t make a man a coward forever, just as one act of bravery doesn’t make a man a hero forever.”  

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Reportedly the film was taken out of director Rossen’s hands by the studio, which cut and re-cut it.  Rossen’s original, about half an hour longer, was said to be a significantly better film.  Even so, the shorter version is more than two hours long.  It’s hard to escape the feeling that it should have been better.  One viewer’s comment:  “There are definite moments of insight and interest in the film, but it tends to wear down the viewer with its nearly relentless cynicism and unpleasantness.”  Even so, it isn’t as downbeat as it could have been.  The studio insisted, for example, that Cooper’s character couldn’t die in the end.  Hayworth is good in this, receiving some of the best reviews in her career for her acting here.  The film was a flop at the box office, though.  This is in need of restoration to a director’s cut.  In color, filmed on location in Mexico, Las Vegas and St. George, Utah.

For other films about the same period, see Bandido, The Professionals, The Old Gringo and various movies about Pancho Villa.  Maybe The Wild Bunch.  The Mexican revolutions in the 1910s seemed to breed cynicism.  Toward the end of her career, Rita Hayworth was in two westerns, both of them set in 20th century Mexico or central America:  this, and The Wrath of God (1972), her last film.

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Fort Massacre

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 16, 2014

Fort Massacre—Joel McCrea, John Russell, Anthony Caruso, Denver Pyle, Forrest Tucker (1958; Dir:  Joseph M. Newman)

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This is a grim psychological cavalry western, with Joel McCrea as Sgt. Vinson of Company C in southwest New Mexico in 1879, a variant of the “lost patrol” story. 

At the start of the film, the captain and lieutenant of Company C have been killed by Apaches, and the decimated company is trying to get back to Fort Crane under the leadership of Sgt. Vinson.  Forrest Tucker is Pvt. McGurney, a particularly malcontent Irishman; Anthony Caruso is Pawnee, the patrol’s sardonic Indian scout.  Vinson is experienced but influenced by the death of his wife and son at the hands of Indians.  His men gripe and seem on the point of mutiny the entire film, but he forges ahead, attacking the Apaches twice with the resulting reduction in his own numbers. 

Only Pvt. Travis (John Russell) becomes something of a reluctant confidant for the embattled sergeant.  “Fort Massacre” is the name given by the men to the cliff dwelling where they take refuge, only to have a war party of Apaches show up.  In the end, Vinson is shot by the last of his own men, Pvt. Travis, when Vinson tries to shoot a couple of non-hostile Paiutes at the cliff dwelling. 

FortMassacreMen Sgt. Vinson and Company C.

In some ways this can be compared with They Came to Cordura, released about the same time.  It’s a cavalry movie with a revisionist view of the cavalry.  Joel McCrea being who he was, we keep waiting for him to reveal his good side, but it’s apparently not there in this movie.  In some ways, McCrea toward the end of his career seemed to be looking for roles that were more varied than he had tended to play for the previous decade. 

The movie is short at around 80 minutes; in color.  Filmed at three locations:  Gallup in New Mexico, Red Rock State Park, New Mexico, and Kanab, Utah.

For a couple of other variants of the mutinous patrol story from the late 1950s, see 7th Cavalry with Randolph Scott (1956) and They Came to Cordura with Gary Cooper (1959).

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Great Directors: Sergio Leone

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 15, 2014

Sergio Leone

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From The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:  Tuco (Eli Wallach) is in a bubble bath. The One Armed Man enters the room.
One Armed Man:  “I’ve been looking for you for eight months.  Whenever I should have had a gun in my right hand, I thought of you.  Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me.  I had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left.”
[Tuco kills him with the gun he has hidden in the foam.]
Tuco:  “When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don’t talk.”

“When I was young, I believed in three things:  Marxism, the redemptive power of cinema, and dynamite.  Now I just believe in dynamite.”—Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone was born in Rome in 1929 into a cinematic family.  His parents were the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti or Leone Roberto Roberti) and the silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Waleran).  During his school days, one of his friends was Ennio Morricone, his future musical collaborator on films.  Leone’s parents did not sympathize with the Fascists in power in Italy before and during World War II, and they were effectively exiled to Naples until the war was over.

LeoneMorricone Leone and Morricone.

Working in cinematography, Leone began as an assistant to director Vittorio di Sica on the classic The Bicycle Thief in 1948.  During the 1950s he started writing on screenplays for the historical “sword and sandal” epics popular at the time, including work on some large-scale films at the famous Cinecittá studios in Rome, such as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959).  His big break came in 1959, when director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the filming of The Last Days of Pompeii, with Steve Reeves, and Leone was asked to step in and complete the film.

When historical epics fell out of favor with the public, Leone turned his attention to inexpensive westerns, with largely Italian casts, filmed mostly in Spain—the so-called spaghetti westerns.  He first brought them to international prominence in 1964 with the release of A Fistful of Dollars, starring American television actor Clint Eastwood and based on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo.  It wasn’t the first spaghetti western, but it was far and away the most successful to date.  With progressively larger budgets, it was followed by For a Few Dollars More, with Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in 1965, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with Eastwood, Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in 1966, completing what came to be referred to as his “Man With No Name” trilogy.  There is no continuity of story or character between the three, and sometimes the Eastwood character actually does have a name.

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By the conclusion of the trilogy, Leone had started a revolution.  He had developed an international market for inexpensively-made Italian westerns and had introduced a vogue for them that lasted a decade.  He had made Clint Eastwood a major star, and created another in Lee Van Cleef.  He had introduced a different kind of moral universe in westerns, one less aligned with easily-identifiable good guys and bad guys but with even more violence.  There are those who would say he introduced sweat and dust to westerns, but those had long been there (see Hondo, for example)—just not so prominently and consistently, nor so lovingly captured on film.  He prolonged the careers of such actors as Jack Palance and Henry Fonda, who found prominent roles in spaghetti westerns when such roles became scarcer for them in Hollywood.  And he was godfather to an entire generation of Italian filmmakers, often while simultaneously fighting with them:  Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, Tonino Valerii, Sergio Corbucci and many others.

In terms of cinematic style, Leone was revolutionary as well.  The music for his films, composed by his friend Morricone, brought a new way of thinking about music in films, and not just in westerns, much different from more traditional studio composers like Elmer Bernstein and Dimitri Tiomkin.  Morricone said that Leone asked him to compose a film’s music before the start of principal photography, contrary to the normal practice.  He would then play the music to the actors during takes to enhance their performances.  His film-making style was noted for juxtaposing extreme close-ups (often focusing on the eyes, especially if they were blue), with extreme long shots.  He was always willing to sacrifice story for effect or mood.  His work has been much imitated since.

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Once Upon a Time ,,, Leone with stars Fonda, Cardinale, Bronson and Robards.

Leone’s success with the Man With No Name films enabled him to make what many consider his masterpiece:  Once Upon a Time in the West (C’Era una Volta il West), released in 1968.  The film, starring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale, was shot mostly in Almería, Spain, and Cinecittá in Rome, with some shooting in Monument Valley, Utah.  A bigger budget gave Leone the scope for a long meditation on the mythology of the American west, with many references to previous iconic westerns and with Leone giving his cinematic impulses free rein.  The resulting three-hour epic was ruthlessly edited by Paramount and was not a box office success in the U.S., though the full movie was a huge hit in Europe, especially in France.  

During the 1970s, Leone went on to direct Duck, You Sucker!, set in the Mexican revolution, although he had intended only to produce it, and he produced the spaghetti western comedy, My Name is Nobody.  He turned down an opportunity to direct The Godfather to focus on his own gangster pet project, a four-hour gangster movie titled Once Upon a Time in America, with Robert De Niro (1984).  Warner Bros. recut it drastically to two hours for the American market, where it was a flop.  It was his last significant work.  When the four-hour film was restored and made available, some hailed it as a masterpiece as well.  Leone died in 1989 of a heart attack at the age of 60.

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Experimenting with the tools of the trade:  Playing guns with Jason Robards, and using the basic form of transportation.

“Ever since I was a small boy I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood Westerns where, if you cut the woman’s role out of the film in a version which is going on in your own head, the film becomes far better.”–Sergio Leone.  That explains a lot about the Man With No Name trilogy.

“The [John] Ford film I like most of all…is also the least sentimental, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  Ford finally, at the age of almost sixty-five, finally understood what pessimism is all about.  In fact, with that film Ford succeeded in eating up all his previous words about the West… because Liberty Valance shows the conflict between political forces and the single, solitary hero of the West…  He loved the West and with that film at last he understood it.”—Sergio Leone, in a very European view.

“I can’t see America any other way than with a European’s eyes.  It fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time.”—Sergio Leone

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The opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West:  Waiting for the stranger.

Leone Essentials:  A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West

Second-Rank Leone:  Duck, You Sucker!

Leone Non-Western Essentials:  Once Upon a Time in America

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Posse (1975)

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 14, 2014

Posse—Kirk Douglas, Bruce Dern, Bo Hopkins (1975; Dir:  Kirk Douglas)

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A 1970s revisionist western—anti-establishment, anti-authority, anti-military, anti-railroad, although more watchable than most such.  The message, when we get down to it, is that there is a very fine line between the outlaws and the men who hunt them—perhaps no line at all. 

Howard Nightingale (Kirk Douglas) is a Texas marshal with political ambitions, leading five uniformed men as his regular posse.  At the movie’s start, they are in pursuit of Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern) and his gang.  They burn down the barn in which the gang is sleeping (also burning down $40,000 in loot in the process), but Strawhorn escapes.  He quickly recruits another gang as the posse closes in on him again.  In the ensuing battle, the others in the gang are killed and Strawhorn surrenders. 

PosseMarshals Nightingale’s posse.

He is taken to the town of Tesoto, where Strawhorn earlier had killed the town sheriff who tried to arrest him.  With Strawhorn in custody, Nightingale takes the opportunity to give a campaign speech for his election as senator, and his men make free with the local women.  The local newspaper is run by Harold Hellman, missing his right arm and leg (James Stacy, who’d lost them two years earlier in a motorcycle accident), who doesn’t much like Nightingale.  Nightingale is self-serving and too cozy with the railroad but doesn’t seem overtly bad or unduly corrupt. 

As they take Strawhorn away on their private train, he contrives to escape and, as they pursue, he takes the train and Nightingale as a prisoner and heads back to Tesoto.  With Nightingale as hostage he demands the posse pay $40,000 for Nightingale to remain alive.  They ruthlessly take all the money in the town, about $30,000.  Strawhorn hands it back to John Wesley (Bo Hopkins), head of the posse and invites them to mount up and join him.  All but one do, and they ride out of town as Strawhorn’s new gang. 

PosseDernDern as Strawhorn.

One of Douglas’ last westerns, this cynical film should be compared with the anti-authoritarian There Was a Crooked Man from 1970, with greater ambitions, a bigger budget and bigger cast.  This is better, although very much a creation of the 1970s.  Douglas produced, starred and directed.  Dern is pretty good as Strawhorn.  The plot reversal at the end isn’t entirely believable, but it’s well done.  Shot in Old Tucson.  A movie with the same name was made by Mario Van Peebles in 1993 with a mostly ex-slave black posse.

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Jubal

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 12, 2014

Jubal—Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Valerie French, Felicia Farr, Noah Beery, Jr., Rod Steiger, Charles Bronson, John Dierkes, Basil Ruysdael, Jack Elam (1956; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) is a hard-luck cowboy whose horse dies while carrying him over Glacier Pass from Montana into Wyoming.  He is found unconscious by Shep Horgan, a big rancher in Jackson Hole, who offers him a job.  The situation is not without obvious complications:  one of the resident cowhands at Horgan’s ranch, Pinky Pinkum (Rod Steiger), resents any authority and the newcomer.  Even trickier is Mae (Valerie French), Horgan’s young wife from Calgary.  They’ve been married for 16 months, and she’s unhappy.  She’s previously had some kind of relationship with Pinky and now is coming on to Jubal, who’s having none of it.

Pinky:  “If you’re a cowhand, how come you stink of sheep dip?”

Jubal Troop:  “I hired out to a sheep ranch ’cause it was the only job I could get.”

Pinky:  “Most cowhands would die before they’d herd sheep.”

Jubal Troop:  “Show me one.”

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Glenn Ford as Jubal Troop, trying to figure things out.

Horgan soon appoints Jubal his foreman, and Jubal accepts with misgivings.  The prickly situation with Pinky becomes more difficult, and he has more interaction with Mae.  A group of ten “rawhider” wagons on their way to Idaho camps on Horgan’s land while some of their members recuperate from illness.  Pinky and several Bar 8 riders try to run them off, but Jubal overrules him and lets them stay, incurring the gratitude of their religious leader Shem Hoktor (Basil Ruysdael) and the admiration of his daughter Naomi (Felicia Farr).  Naomi is promised to Jake, another member of the group who is jealous, and Jubal hires Reb Haislipp (Charles Bronson), a good-natured cowboy who’s been riding along with the rawhiders.

Tensions on the Horgan ranch get higher with mountain lions raiding their stock and with Jubal developing a romantic interest in Naomi, which she reciprocates.  While the men are camped far from the ranch house on roundup, Mae lures Jubal back to the ranch and tries to get him into bed.  He doesn’t go for it and heads into town and starts drinking.  Reb goes looking for him when he doesn’t return promptly.  Pinky is filling Shep’s mind with imprecations of a relationship between Mae and Jubal.  When Shep gets back to the ranch, Mae lies and says it’s true.  Shep bursts into the saloon and starts shooting at Jubal, who’s not armed.  He doesn’t want to shoot back, but when Reb tosses him a gun he uses it in self-defense.  Wounded, Jubal makes it back to the rawhider wagons.  They take him in, with Shem Hoktor’s wagon heading east to hide him, and the rest heading west for Pocatello.

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Valerie French as the faithless Mae, coming on to Jubal (Glenn Ford).

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Pinky arrives at the ranch after the killing and intends to renew his former relationship with Mae, who doesn’t want him now.  He beats her badly and recruits a posse of his Bar 8 friends to hunt down Jubal.  It takes a couple of days, and by the time they find Hoktor’s wagon (with the help of jealousy-crazed Jake), Jubal is heading back for the ranch so Mae can tell the posse the truth when they get to him.

Mae is in bad shape when Jubal finds her, but she manages to tell the doctor the truth about her and Jubal and about who beat her before she dies.  As the posse fingers their rope while looking at Pinky, Jubal and Naomi ride off into the sunset, or maybe just to Idaho.

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This is one of director Delmer Daves’ bigger movies, shot in color on location in Jackson Hole (like The Big Sky and Shane) and with lots of low camera angles that emphasize the sky and the magnificent Tetons.  The movie is well-paced at 100 minutes.  Cinematography is by Charles Lawton, Jr., who worked on many westerns (including 3:10 to Yuma and Comanche Station).  The very good screenplay is by Robert S. Hughes and Daves.  The music by David Raksin (Laura, Big Hand for the Little Lady, Will Penny) is also excellent.

The cast is very good, especially Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine, whose performances are well-calibrated.  Ford made the original 3:10 to Yuma with Daves the next year, and he was excellent in that, too.  See Ernest Borgnine in bad-guy roles from the same period in Johnny Guitar and Bad Day at Black Rock, and as a semi-good guy in The Badlanders.  Charles Bronson has a good-guy role, rare for the pre-Magnificent Seven stage of his career, and Jack Elam is one of the Bar 8 riders.  Rod Steiger is effective in another of his nasty bully roles from the 1950s.  Steiger had played the title role in the 1953 telecast of Marty, and Borgnine had just won an Oscar for the same role in the movie version (1955).  This was Felicia Farr’s movie debut, and Daves clearly liked her; she shows up again in 3:10 to Yuma and The Last Wagon.

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This melodramatic range saga has overtones of Shakespeare (Othello), although in this case the wife is young and faithless, and of Biblical stories (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife; and Jake is referred to as a Judas).  It’s often referred to as an “adult” western because of the all the sexual tension.  It was adapted from a novel by Paul I. Wellman.  For another big melodramatic range story, see Tribute to a Bad Man from the same year, one of James Cagney’s few westerns (he was not a natural in them).  But this one is better.  For other westerns from this stage of Daves’ career, in addition to 3:10 to Yuma, see Cowboy with Glenn Ford and The Last Wagon with Richard Widmark.

As of May 2013, Jubal is available on a Criterion Collection DVD, which refers to it as “an overlooked Hollywood treasure from genre master Delmer Daves.”

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Underrated Westerns, Part 2

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 11, 2014

Fifteen More Underrated Westerns

Now that we’ve thoroughly digested the earlier post on underrated westerns, here are fifteen more to check out.  If you have nominations for other westerns you think are underrated, leave a comment.

Blood on the Moon (1948)

Robert Mitchum could be very good in westerns, and some of his earlier work (Blood on the Moon, Pursued, Track of the Cat, Man With the Gun) isn’t seen as much as it deserves.  This noir-influenced story of drifter Jim Garry switching sides in a range war has an excellent supporting cast, with Robert Preston (in his patented brother/friend-gone-bad role with a loud plaid jacket), Walter Brennan and Barbara Bel Geddes giving strong performances.  In addition to his strong performance in a good story, Mitchum has a great hat.  An early work from director Robert Wise, who didn’t make many westerns.  Not often seen because it hasn’t been available on DVD.

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Yellow Sky (1948)

In another noir-western, Gregory Peck has a rare role as an outlaw.  James “Stretch” Dawson and his gang elude a posse by fleeing into the desert, only to face death from the elements and lack of water.  They stumble into the deserted mining town of Yellow Sky, inhabited only by an old miner and his granddaughter Mike (Anne Baxter).  Now they have to work out among themselves what they want, and different agendas start to emerge.  Dawson’s decency starts to show, but the gang members don’t want to go along.  A very strong supporting cast here, with Richard Widmark, John Russell and Harry Morgan, among others.  And an excellent director, William Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident and Westward the Women).   

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Ambush (1950)

A good and seldom-seen cavalry movie, with old scout Ward Kinsman (Robert Taylor) working out a romantic triangle involving Arlene Dahl and by-the-book Captain John Hodiak and trying to stay alive while fighting Apaches.  Another triangle involves a lieutenant in love with an enlisted man’s wife.  Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens shows up as Apache leader Diablito.  Taylor is almost a fixture on the underrated westerns lists; here he heads a large cast fighting Apaches, coping with wrong-headed military commanders and grappling with illicit and misguided romances.  This was the last film from director Sam Wood.

Devil’s Doorway (1950)

Robert Taylor again, this time as blue-eyed Shoshone Indian veteran of the Civil War Lance Poole.  Poole is returning home to Wyoming Territory in director Anthony Mann’s first western.  All kinds of nasty social and racial currents develop, as a sleazy land speculator tries to take over the Poole ranch.  There’s a doomed interracial romantic relationship, and things escalate to major battles.  How will Poole be able to stay true to his people and emerge with his family’s ranch intact?  There are no easy ways out here.  This is not nearly as well known as Mann’s later psychological westerns, mostly with James Stewart, but it’s well worth watching.

Wagon Master (1950)

A wagon train western by John Ford with less star power than most of Ford’s movies.  Here Ward Bond is Elder Wiggs, leader of a train of Mormons headed into rough country.  Guided by Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr., they have to deal with the Cleggs, a nasty family of outlaws, the temptations provided by a hard-luck medicine show including saloon girl Joanne Dru, and hostile Navajos (including Jim Thorpe, in his last movie appearance).  This was one of Ford’s favorites among his own movies, but it’s one of those least seen today.  It gave rise a few years later to the television series Wagon Train, also starring Ward Bond.

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Westward the Women (1951)

Another excellent wagon train movie, and another underrated Robert Taylor film.  Taylor here is Buck Wyatt, wagon master of a train of women recruited by John McIntire, headed from Independence, Missouri, to a valley in California.  They encounter the usual hardships, storms and Indians, although they are spared the depredations of outlaw gangs.  This may be Taylor’s best western.  He’s the dominant figure throughout the movie.  Director William Wellman was known for despising most actors he worked with, but he liked Robert Taylor.  The women included a few actresses (Denise Darcel, and six-feet-two-inch Hope Emerson) but were mostly stunt women.  It’s a remarkable achievement and a very watchable film, and it deserves more attention.

Man With the Gun (1955)

Robert Mitchum is Clint Tolliver, hired to tame the town of Sheridan while he also works out a few of his personal demons and battles the minions of local ranching baron Dade Holman.  Mitchum is very good at this kind of a role, and the town becomes progressively more uneasy with him and his methods, although he was very up-front about what it would take and how he would do it.  A young woman develops a fixation on him that he doesn’t want.  He’s a bit world-weary and has seen all this before.  Aside from Mitchum, this doesn’t have much star power, but it’s very good.  Look for a young and uncredited Angie Dickinson as one of Tolliver’s ex’s saloon girls.

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Jubal (1956)

This is a range melodrama shot on location in Jackson Hole.  Melodramas are not as much in cinematic fashion now as they were in the 1940s and 1950s, and that may be one of the reasons this story with Shakespearean and Biblical overtones is not seen much.  It is referred to as an “adult western,” largely because of themes related to sexual behaviors and tension.  Glenn Ford is Jubal Troop, a hard-luck cowboy rescued by Ernest Borgnine’s rancher Shep Horgan.  Horgan eventually comes to believe that his faithless young wife Mae has developed a fascination with Troop, although Troop’s romantic interests lie elsewhere.  This is a nicely-paced and well-acted work from director Delmer Daves’ best period (3:10 to Yuma, Cowboy, The Last Wagon).  And it’s beautifully shot, if you’re watching a good print or transfer; check out the DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Quantez (1957)

This, along with Yellow Sky and Purgatory, belongs to the category of western in which an outlaw gang is pursued into the desert by a posse and unpredictable things happen.  Here the gang is led by Heller (John Larch) and includes gunman-desert scout Gentry (Fred MacMurray), Heller’s girl Chaney (Dorothy Malone) and a couple of others as they seek refuge from the posse and hostile Indians in the ghost town of Quantez for one night.  They don’t have enough horses, and their separate agendas come into conflict.  Fred MacMurray made several westerns (At Gunpoint, Good Day for a Hanging, Face of a Fugitive, The Moonlighter) in the 1950s, and this might be the best of them.

 Trooper Hook (1957)

Joel McCrea has a role here that fits well with his age and personality; he’s an aging sergeant in the cavalry fighting Apaches in Arizona.  After his troop captures a band of renegade Apaches with a long-term white woman captive, Hook is assigned to accompany the captive and her half-Indian son to a reunion with her reluctant husband (a situation similar to one portrayed a decade later in Duel at Diablo).  Meanwhile, the Apache leader (Rodolfo Acosta) escapes and tries to take his son back.  This cavalry western features fighting the Apaches, a strangers-on-a-stagecoach story and racist social currents.  In the end, Hook is up to all the challenges, but it isn’t easy.

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 Will Penny (1968)

This end-of-an-era western features Charlton Heston’s strongest performance in a western.  Monte Walsh, with Lee Marvin and many similar themes, was released a couple of years later and is better known, but Will Penny is as good in its way as Monte Walsh.  They would make an excellent double feature. Aging cowboy Will Penny is thrown together with a younger widow (Joan Hackett) and her son for the winter, and they learn to tolerate each other and then something more.  As they battle the elements and some nasty rawhiders (Donald Pleasance, Bruce Dern), they form a relationship and the question becomes what will happen in the spring.  Heston, known for some of the biggest performances of the 1950s and 1960s, especially in historical epics, regarded this smaller kind of role as one of his favorites.  And Joan Hackett was great, too.

Skin Game (1971)

It’s not quite as good as Support Your Local Sheriff, but it features James Garner in the same kind of charming con man part that he did better than anybody else.  More than forty years later, it’s hard to imagine slavery as a subject for comedy, but this pre-Civil War western pulls it off, in large part because Garner is matched with Louis Gossett, Jr., and Susan Clark, who are also very good.  The plot wanders a bit, which we don’t really mind because we’re enjoying it so much.  It’s not perfect, but it’s fun.    

Ride With the Devil (1999)

This is a big-budget Civil War movie, directed by a big name—Ang Lee.  About the war on the Missouri-Kansas frontier, this movie humanizes the bushwhackers and emphasizes their different motivations and approaches to the war.  The second half of the film focuses on the friendship between a German immigrant’s son (Tobey Maguire) and an ex-slave (Jeffrey Wright) as they ride with the bushwhackers.  If you want to see all Confederates as evil slave owners, you should avoid this film.  It’s beautifully shot with big themes and no easy answers.  Many of those in the movie (Maguire, Wright, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jim Caviezel, Mark Ruffalo, Simon Baker) have gone on to become bigger names than they were when this was made.  This is one of the best six or seven Civil War movies ever made.  It’s not short, though; make sure to give it the time to develop.

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The Jack Bull (1999)

This hasn’t received the attention it deserves because (a) it was made for television (cable channel HBO), and (b) it tells a grim story of a relentless quest for justice complicated by tragedy and unintended consequences.  It’s John Cusack’s only appearance in a western so far, and he and John Goodman give excellent performances.  The screenplay is by Dick Cusack, John’s father, based on a German novel.  Cusack is Myrl Redding, whose horses and Indian ranch hand are mistreated by a larger landowner (L.Q. Jones).  His search for redress gets out of hand and turns the territory upside down.  Judge Joe B. Tolliver (Goodman) has to sort it out, but some things can’t be fixed.  The film has a wintry look suitable for the bleak story of statehood and unequal justice in Wyoming in the 1890s.  A little modern political correctness creeps in around the edges, but it’s not too bad or distracting.

Purgatory (1999)

In addition to being a story of an outlaw gang chased into a strange and mysterious place they don’t know, it also has a strong whiff of the supernatural about it.  Usually the supernatural doesn’t work well in westerns; here it’s integrated into the heart of the story.  The ruthless outlaws think they can take over a small town of peaceful citizens.  One of them gets to know the citizens and starts to change.  Finally the outlaws find out they have taken on [spoilers, sort of] Bill Hickok, Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday.  The premise sounds kind of stupid, but it works surprisingly well.  It has particularly good performances by Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts and Brad Rowe.  It was made for television (TNT) and shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.  It’s not perfect or a big movie, but it is a well-written story (if you suspend disbelief and just go with it), and it’s well paced.

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Billy the Kid (1941)

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 10, 2014

Billy the Kid—Robert Taylor, Brian Donlevy, Ian Hunter, Mary Howard, Gene Lockhart, Lon Chaney, Jr., Guinn Williams (1941; Dir:  David Miller)

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In color in 1941, so this was a large-budget production.  Robert Taylor (at 30 in his second western, already ten years older than Billy ever was) makes a very elegant and smooth Billy, clad all in black and often wearing a leather jacket when he’s in gunfighting mode.  Brian Donlevy is in a rare decent-guy role as Billy’s best friend Jim Sherwood, now working for good-guy rancher Eric Keating (Ian Hunter) and his sister Edith (Mary Howard) in New Mexico.  Keating undertakes to help Billy reform his life, and Billy even develops an interest in the sister.  But things aren’t destined to work out for the Keatings or for Billy. 

Keating is on his way to getting an edgy Billy back into a more accepatable legal status when Keating is killed by minions of bad-guy Lincoln County boss Hickey.  Billy goes completely off the rails, gets the bad guys and is in turn killed by Sherwood in kind of a “suicide by cop” scenario.  Billy uses his right (and supposedly slower) hand so Sherwood can beat him.  Some elements of the actual story remain with a number of changed names, but overall this is not very historical.  Keating, for example, is a stand-in for Billy’s English employer, rancher John Tunstall, whose murder touched off Billy’s most murderous period.  There is no sheriff Pat Garrett, and Billy’s death in the movie doesn’t bear much resemblance to how he was actually killed.  Billy is heavily romanticized and much better looking (and better dressed) than in real life.  However, this version of the story is worth watching, and is much better than Howard Hughes’ Billy the Kid movie The Outlaw released just a couple of years later. 

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Robert Taylor as Billy, nattily dressed all in black with his gun on his left.  And a cleaned-up version of the only authenticated historical photograph of Billy, with his pistol on his left.  It is now thought that the historical image is flipped, and that Billy was in fact right-handed.

Frank Puglia is gratingly stereotypical as Billy’s Mexican friend Pedro Gonzalez, with an obviously dubbed singing voice and heavily swarthy make-up, before he is killed.  Lon Chaney, Jr., plays a thug working for Hickey (Gene Lockhart), the sleazily corrupt boss of Lincoln County for whom Billy initially goes to work.  As with Paul Newman 15 years later, Billy is played as left-handed with a gun as in the famous photograph, now thought to be reversed.  Fairly routine writing.  Filmed near Flagstaff, Arizona, although some of the scenery looks like Monument Valley.  For versions of Billy with more (but not complete) historicity, see The Left-Handed Gun, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and even Young Guns.

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In 1941 aging former western movie star William S. Hart shows Robert Taylor his authenticated pistol once owned by the historical outlaw Billy the Kid.  The front sight is filed down for a faster draw.

If you want more information on the historical Billy, see To Hell on a Fast Horse:  Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West by Mark Lee Gardner (2010), Billy the Kid:  The Endless Ride by Michael Wallis (2008) or Billy the Kid:  A Short and Violent Life by Robert Utley (1991), among many other possibilities.

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Gunsight Ridge

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 9, 2014

Gunsight Ridge—Joel McCrea, Mark Stevens, Joan Weldon, Addison Richards, L.Q. Jones (1957; Dir:  Francis D. Lyon)

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This late Joel McCrea film seems more formulaic than it ought to; somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  McCrea, getting a bit long in the tooth (he was 52 at the time), plays Mike Ryan.  He and the attractive Molly Jones (Joan Weldon) are passengers on the stage to Bancroft near the Arizona border with Mexico, where her father is the sheriff.  On the way the stage is held up by two robbers, one of whom has distinctive eyes above his bandanna-mask.  During the robbery the other’s mask slips, and he is recognized by the stage driver (Slim Pickens in a small role).  Molly berates Ryan for not trying to thwart the robbery, as her father would have done.  As the bandits make their getaway, the one who was recognized is shot down by the other.

As Ryan arrives in town, some of the town fathers have their misgivings about whether the sheriff is too old for the job.  Four cowboys from a local ranch (the Lazy Heart) ride in and proceed to shoot up the town.  The sheriff squares his shoulders and goes out to stop them without obvious help.  But Ryan tucks a gun in his belt and helps the sheriff stop them.  Since Ryan needs a job, the sheriff hires him as a deputy.  Meanwhile, the penniless Ryan inveigles a place at Mrs. Donahue’s upscale boarding house, where one of the other boarders is Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens), a gambler-miner, who (as is immediately obvious to the viewer) has the eyes above the bandanna in the stage robbery.

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Mike Ryan (Joel McCrea) and Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens) get acquainted.

As Ryan starts about his duties, he observes Clark playing the piano in the parlor when Clark figures nobody is around.  Clark then proceeds to the saloon, where he loses.  He explains to his paramour, saloon girl Rosa (Darlene Fields), that he had the talent but not the funds to develop that talent; it appears that his turning to crime was because of the frustration.  Leaving for the Oriental across the street, he instead robs the bank, being careful not to be seen.  During the investigation of the robbery, Ryan displays his credentials as a Wells Fargo detective and steps in to support the sheriff. 

The train is robbed by the four drunken cowboys from the ranch.  On his way to arrest them, the sheriff crosses paths with Clark and Clark shoots the sheriff rather brutally.  Ryan is also on their trail and finds the murdered sheriff.  Clark sees the robbery of the train and plans to take the $30,000 in proceeds from the drunken cowboy-robbers.  Meanwhile Ryan is following and gets a Mexican to show him a short cut by an old Indian trail over the mountains to their likely destination.  The townspeople there have captured the four cowboys, but Clark takes the loot, killing one of the captors.  He shoots Ryan’s horse as Ryan pursues, and Ryan has to get another.

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Ryan negotiates with an irate farm girl.

At a ranch house, Clark charms a farm girl into giving him a replacement horse.  Ryan still pursues, and catches up with Clark at Gunsight Ridge.  They shoot it out in the rocks, and Ryan wins.  He returns to Bancroft to Molly and to become sheriff as her father’s successor.

McCrea is good as always, and rides better than anybody else in the cast.  Stevens is excellent as Velvet Clark, and his character and performance are what make this movie better than average.  However, Stevens was a career second-tier actor in movies, and, except for McCrea, this is a low-wattage cast.  L.Q. Jones in an early role is one of the train-robbing cowboys.  In black and white, filmed in part at Old Tucson.

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Dead Man

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 6, 2014

Dead Man—Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Lance Henricksen, Mili Avital, Iggy Pop, Michael Wincott, Gabriel Byrne, Alfred Molina (1995; Dir:  Jim Jarmusch)

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“It is preferable not to travel with a dead man.”–Henri Michaux

Jim Jarmusch is a cult figure among film makers.  His films are not like anybody else’s, and that includes this one, his sixth.  This is a western because it appears to be set in the American west and involves traditional kinds of figures from westerns—Indians, trappers, outlaws, marshals, whores, etc.  But it doesn’t use them in traditional ways.  A recounting of the film’s slow-moving plot doesn’t really convey how this often-surreal movie feels.  This is one of those movies that’s at least as much about mood and perhaps allegory as it is about story.

This is one of two westerns in which Johnny Depp has appeared (along with The Lone Ranger), and so far he has never been a traditional western protagonist.  As the film opens, a young, bespectacled and recently-orphaned accountant named William Blake (Depp) is on a train headed west from Cleveland, wearing a loud plaid suit.  Despite his name, he knows nothing of the English poet and artist.  The scenery changes, and so do his fellow passengers.  Finally, they are mostly rough, fur-clad hunters and trappers.  A fireman on the train speaks to him darkly about the area into which he is headed, describing it as hell.

And it seems perhaps it is.  Blake’s destination is a town named Machine at the end of the line (apparently in the northwest), where he has an offer of a job from the Dickinson Metal Works.  As he gets off the train into the muck of the streets, it is clear that he is in a rough environment.  He makes his way to the office of the Dickinson Metal Works, a dark, satanic mill where the office manager (John Hurt) tells him the position has been filled.  Blake insists on seeing Dickinson (Robert Mitchum in his last film appearance), who chases him out with a shotgun.

As Blake emerges into the street, a young prostitute Thel (Mili Avital) is pushed into the muck of the street as well.  Blake helps her and is invited back to her room.  As they awaken the next morning, a young man named Charlie (Gabriel Byrne) walks into the room and wants to resume what has apparently been an unhappy romantic relationship.  He pulls a gun and shoots at Blake; Thel throws herself in front of the bullet, which gets Blake anyway.  Blake uses a pistol he finds under Thel’s pillow and kills Charlie, making his escape wounded out Thel’s window and taking Charlie’s horse.

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William Blake (Johnny Depp) and Thel Russell (Mili Avital).

When Blake regains consciousness, he is being tended by Nobody (Gary Farmer, with echoes of the spaghetti western My Name Is Nobody), of mixed tribal ancestry (apparently Blackfoot and Blood, two of the three tribes in the Blackfoot confederacy).  Nobody is unusually well-traveled and educated and takes Blake for the English poet.  He becomes Blake’s spiritual guide in a way, although Blake obviously needs his physical help as well.  Meanwhile, it turns out Charlie was Dickinson’s youngest son, and Dickinson puts a price on Blake’s head and hires three bounty hunters to get him.

Blake seems to be recovering from his wound, although Nobody could not remove the bullet from his chest.  At one point Nobody takes his glasses, and he seems to get through the rest of the movie fine without them.  The point seems to be, as Nobody says, that maybe he can see more clearly without them.  Blake encounters three hunters/killers (one dressed in a bonnet and dress, although he is male–Iggy Pop), and partly by intent but mostly by accident kills all three when they try to kill him.  At least he gets to eat their beans.

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Michael Wincott and Lance Henricksen as bounty hunters:  “I’ll Tell you one thing: If that there Blake fella keeps on shootin’ marshals I might end up likin’ the bastard!”

Back at his own camp, he finds two marshals waiting for him.  Again, through a combination of intent and fortuitous accident, the marshals are both killed, although Blake is badly wounded again.  He encounters Nobody again as well, and they stop at a store that Nobody says deliberately spreads disease to Indians.  The proprietor is willing to deal with Blake, but not with Nobody, whom he offers blankets (that may carry disease).  Blake shoots the proprietor but is getting weaker.

The three bounty hunters are trailing Blake and Nobody and arguing among themselves.  One (Lance Henricksen) kills the other two.  Nobody and the weakening Blake arrive at an Indian village on the Pacific, and Nobody puts in him a boat for his final voyage.  As Blake drifts out into the ocean (a metaphor for death?), in the distance he sees the final bounty hunter and Nobody kill each other.  Fade to black.

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Blake (Depp) and Nobody (Gary Farmer) on their pilgrimage.

This has sometimes been referred to as an “oddball western.”  It is both oddball and not much of a western, despite the violence.  This film is interesting, but it is neither (a) a traditional western, (b) even a revisionist western under the usual understanding of that term, or (c) a surrealist allegorical masterpiece on man’s journey into the spirit world, unfair treatment of Native Americans or despoiling of the environment.  (It may be most of that last one, but it doesn’t feel like a masterpiece.)  This seems like it is probably one of those films discussed at some length in film schools.  Those who like it watch it multiple times and claim to see more in it from the repeated viewings.  It’s shot in black and white, with slow pacing and perhaps dream sequences and images.  Unconventional music is by Neil Young.  Rated R for violence, gratuitous filth, occasional brief nudity, lots of violence and heavy surrealism.  121 minutes.

There is frequent and not-terribly-meaningful violence, except that it allows Blake to continue on his pilgrimage.  It has a large cast, although, except for Depp, Farmer and Lance Henricksen, most of them make only brief appearances.  As Blake takes on the persona of the English poet more and more, things get more mystical.  At one point, Nobody paints Blake’s face as for war, and Depp wears the paint for the remainder of the movie.  By the end, Blake appears to be the Dead Man of the title and this is his voyage in that direction, although a lot of people are dead by that point.

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This was rather hilariously offered on a two-disc DVD set with Texas Rangers.  It’s hard to imagine two films with less in common, except that they both have Alfred Molina.  If you’d like to read an interesting 1996 interview with Jim Jarmusch about the film and how William Blake got into it, together with how Neil Young’s musical reaction was captured, check this out:  http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1996/04/a-gun-up-your-ass-an-interview-with-jim-jarmusch-tk/H

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A Man Alone

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 5, 2014

A Man Alone—Ray Milland, Mary Murphy, Ward Bond, Raymond Burr, Lee Van Cleef, Alan Hale, Jr.  (1955; Dir:  Ray Milland)

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Although he’s frequently dirty and sometimes unshaven, Welsh-born Ray Milland still seems like an unusually fastidious cowboy with an eastern-ish accent.  Wesley Steele (MIlland) is a known gunman, but not exactly an outlaw, stranded in the desert.  He stumbles on a robbed stage, where six people have been killed, and then into a bank robbery in Mesa, a town controlled by Stanley (Raymond Burr).  He is blamed for both, and the hunt is on for Steele in earnest.

As he escapes, he seeks refuge in the basement of a house that turns out to be owned by local sheriff Gil Corrigan (Ward Bond) and his daughter Nadine (Mary Murphy, best known for her role as Marlon Brando’s girlfriend in The Wild One two years previously).  The sheriff is incapacitated with yellow fever, and the house is quarantined.  Steele wins Nadine’s confidence by helping to care for her father, even though she knows the whole town is looking for Steele. 

ManAlone2 Nadine and Steele.

It turns out that both the bank robbery and the heinous stage robbery were carried out by Stanley and his henchmen (including Lee Van Cleef).  Steele has to win over the recovered sheriff, who, once persuaded, lets him go and is then about to be lynched by irate townspeople.  Steele re-appears and saves him.  Steele gets the girl, who seems much younger than he.

In color, especially Murphy’s blond hair, at 96 minutes.  A rare western with Ray Milland, directed by Ray Milland, and it’s watchable, with a good supporting cast.  For Milland in another western, see Copper Canyon (1950), with Hedy Lamarr.

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