Monthly Archives: June 2014

Gun Fury

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 30, 2014

Gun Fury—Rock Hudson, Donna Reed, Philip Carey, Leo Gordon, Pat Hogan, Roberta Haynes, Lee Marvin, Neville Brand (1953; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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Three of the principal characters in this western from the early 1950s are still wallowing in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ben Warren (Rock Hudson in an early starring role) fought for the Union, has had more than enough killing and now wants only to marry his fiancée Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) and live on his large California ranch.  He doesn’t even wear a gun any more.  Jennifer is from Atlanta and is anxious to start a new life where the the desolation of Sherman’s March is not remembered.  And Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) is an embittered former Confederate, now an outlaw in the southwest.

As the film starts, Jennifer is on a stage carrying a large amount of gold and two former Southern gentlemen, along with a cavalry escort.  They stop in Haynesville, Arizona Territory, where Jennifer is meeting her future husband Ben.  He joins the stage passengers, and after it takes off Ben and Jennifer discover that the two Southerners are the noted outlaws Frank Slayton and Jess Morgan (Leo Gordon), and their new cavalry escort are Slayton’s men.  They rob the stage and think they’ve killed Warren, and Slayton abducts Jennifer, for whom he has developed a fascination.

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Strangers on a stagecoach:  Slayton (Phil Carey), Morgan (Leo Gordon), Warren (Rock Hudson), Ballard (Donna Reed), and a real stranger.

Slayton and Morgan have a falling out over the abduction, and Slayton leaves Morgan tied to a corral post for the buzzards.  Meanwhile, Warren discovers he isn’t really dead and takes one of the stagecoach horses in pursuit.  He releases Morgan, and they join forces to pursue Slayton for vengeance and to rescue Jennifer.  They are joined by an Indian Johash (Pat Hogan), whose sister was also taken by Slayton’s men in an earlier raid on Taos.

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Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) leaves Jess Morgan (Leo Gordon) to die.

As Slayton and his men get closer to the Mexican border, Morgan and Warren find a couple of his men buying supplies in a town and kill one of them.  Now Slayton knows they are following.  He stops by a village notable for its cantina and Mexican ladies of easy virtue, where Slayton has a girl Estella Morales (Roberta Haynes).  He has Jennifer cleaned up and has his way with her, although the camera doesn’t show that very explicitly.  Estella is enraged at being abandoned so casually.  Slayton makes a deal with Warren and Burgess: he’ll trade Jennifer back to Warren in exchange for Burgess.  Although Warren isn’t minded to make that trade, not trusting Slayton in the slightest, Burgess insists he can take Slayton.  It doesn’t work, and Burgess is killed.

Now it’s Warren and Johash against Slayton and the remainder of his band of outlaws.  Estella tries to get Slayton and is killed for her pains.  It comes finally, as we knew it would, to former pacifist Warren and the ruthless outlaw Slayton.  Just when it looks like Slayton has the advantage, it turns out he has forgotten Johash, and Slayton ends with a knife in his back.  Warren and Jennifer ride off to their California ranch.

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Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) is fit to be tied; Ben Warren (Rock Hudson) seeks vengeance.

This is one of three movies from 1953 in which director Raoul Walsh used his new discovery Rock Hudson. (The Lawless Breed and Sea Devils are the other two.)  None of them are particularly memorable.  Like Hondo, this film was made in the 3-D process that was all the rage that year, and the camerawork, especially in the second half, shows the usual evidence of that in the angles of thrown objects, striking rattlesnakes and such.  Carey as the sociopathic outlaw Slayton and Leo Gordon as the vengeful Jess Burgess give the best performances in the cast.  Leo Gordon was just breaking into movies, the same year that he played Ed Lowe (Geraldine Page’s despicable husband, shot by John Wayne) in Hondo.

Donna Reed is beautiful but nothing special as Jennifer (she’s more notable in Hangman’s Knot and Backlash later in the decade, for example), and Rock Hudson was never a dazzling actor, but he was more wooden here than he would be later in his career.  Lee Marvin and Neville Brand have early roles as members of Slayton’s gang, but they have neither enough lines nor enough camera time to distinguish themselves here.  Roberta Haynes is modestly interesting in a limited role as Mexican spitfire Estella, but one does feel that actual Mexican Katy Jurado could have done it better, and that the smoldering Linda Darnell did do it better in My Darling Clementine.

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The script by Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins is fine, based on Kathleen George’s novel Ten Against Caesar.  Warren has interesting exchanges with lawmen and townsfolk of the small towns he and Burgess go through in their pursuit, as he tries without success to get some help.  The title of the movie doesn’t mean anything in particular, which was common enough with westerns of that era.  One does expect better camera work from the experienced director Walsh; camera placement and angles here often telegraph what’s coming.  The one-eyed Walsh could not himself see the 3-D results of his work, but he had done better westerns—Colorado Territory, for example.  Shot on location in Sedona, Arizona.  83 minutes.

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North West Mounted Police

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 27, 2014

North West Mounted Police—Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, Madeleine Carroll, Paulette Goddard, Preston Foster, Lynne Overman, George Bancroft, Montagu Love, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Wallace Reid, Jr. (1940; Dir: Cecil B. DeMille)

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This is a typical Cecil DeMille production for its time, with a large cast and shot in Technicolor at a time (1940) when that was still rare for westerns. Gary Cooper stars in the second of his three DeMille westerns. The first was The Plainsman (1936), and the third would be Unconquered (1947), set in colonial times. Cooper was a big star, and, although he initially made much of his reputation in westerns, he only made a handful of them in the 1940s. (See The Westerner, 1940, and the western comedy Along Came Jones, 1945.)

It is 1885, and the Second Riel Rebellion is brewing among the mixed-ancestry Metís (pronounced “meet-us” in this movie) people of Saskatchewan in Canada. Louis Riel (Francis McDonald) is retrieved from Montana, where he has been teaching school, by Dan Duroc (Akim Tamiroff) and Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft, who had played the good-hearted sheriff in Stagecoach the previous year).  Riel has reservations about any association with the rough Corbeau, who has a history of running liquor and guns to the Indians, but Duroc persuades him to go along because Corbeau has a gatling gun which will equalize things with the Queen’s forces.

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Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) and the fiery Louvette (Paulette Goddard).

Two red-coated Mounties, Sgt. Jim Brett (Preston Foster) and Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) discover in Batoche, the Metís capital, that the rebellion has reached dangerous proportions, with Big Bear’s Crees on the verge of joining the Metís. Romantic interests are established for both of them, Logan with Metís maiden Louvette Corbeau (daughter of Jacques Corbeau, played by Paulette Goddard as kind of a dark-skinned, blue-eyed Gypsy) and Brett with Logan’s sister April Logan (Madeleine Carroll), a selfless nurse among the Metís in Batoche.  She doesn’t seem convinced that Brett’s for her.

Into this cauldron of brewing rebellion and budding romance rides a Texas Ranger, Dusty Rivers (Gary Cooper), who is looking to arrest Corbeau for a murder in Texas.  He is received dubiously at Fort Carlton, especially by Sgt. Brett, when he develops an immediate attraction to April Logan. Brett goes off to persuade Big Bear to remain allied to the Queen, but when Corbeau promises to bring him red coats covered with blood, Big Bear gives him three days to do that before he will join the rebellion.

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Sgt. Brett (Preston Foster) negotiates with the Crees for Rivers (Gary Cooper) and a Scottish scout (Lynne Overman).

Ronnie Logan and another Mountie are sent off to remote guard duty at Duck Lake.  When April hears of the seriousness of the rebellion, she sends Louvette Corbeau to warn Ronnie.  Instead of warning him, she lures him into a situation where she can take him prisoner.  In his absence, a column of Mounties are mostly massacred at Duck Lake, including the commander (played by Montagu Love).  His dying command to Brett is that he get Ronnie and make him pay for his desertion.

While Sgt. Brett takes command of the few surviving Mounties left at Fort Carlton, heading on an apparent suicide mission to Big Bear, Rivers helps April flee the burning fort and heads for Batoche, where he distracts the defenders by cutting their canoes loose and destroying the gatling gun.  He helps Ronnie escape the clutches of Louvette, only to see him cut down by an Indian assassin hired by Louvette to get Rivers.

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Rivers liberates Ronnie Logan from his scheming captor Louvette;  River woos nurse April Logan (Madeleine Carroll).

At Big Bear’s camp, Brett is improbably successful at retrieving the Crees’ loyalty and the rebellion seems to be over, with Duroc dead and Riel and Corbeau captured.  A Mountie tribunal is on the verge of convicting Ronnie of desertion, until Rivers comes in and attributes to Ronnie his own efforts in destroying the gatling gun at Batoche, saving Ronnie’s reputation.  At the end, he abducts Corbeau to take him back to Texas, but as he leaves with his prisoner, Brett and April find him and announce that April is marrying Brett.  But Brett allows Rivers to take Corbeau and leaves Rivers’ version of Ronnie’s heroism to stand even though he suspects otherwise.

Joel McCrea had starred for DeMille in Union Pacific in 1939 and was the first choice to play Rivers.  But he dropped out to do Alfred Hitcock’s Foreign Correspondent and was about to be cast in two Preston Sturges films (all included in the best work of his career), so the role went to Gary Cooper.  English actress Madeleine Carroll had made her reputation working with Alfred Hitchcock as the first of his cool blondes (The 39 Steps, Secret Agent) and in costume dramas (Prisoner of Zenda, Lloyd’s of London).  By 1938 she was said to be the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.   After her sister Marguerite was killed in a London bombing raid, she spent the rest of the war as a field nurse and in other war efforts.   She became a U.S. citizen in 1943, but her career never revived after the war.  At this stage of his career, Robert Preston often played the friend or brother who went bad (Union Pacific, Blood on the Moon, Whispering Smith), and his character usually died because of that.  Several young actors, including Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Regis Toomey, Rod Cameron and Wallace Reid, Jr. (son of a silent star who died of drug addiction) play young Mounties or Indians.

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DeMille directs Carroll and Cooper as they flee Fort Carlton in a canoe.

One of the screenwriters here is Alan LeMay, author of the novel The Searchers was based on.  But the dialogue is clunky, and Cooper’s, in particular, is excessively of the aw-shucks homespun variety.  Between that and his character’s too-precious name, it’s not one of his more successful performances.  He could play frontier characters naturally and was doing so convincingly at this time in his career (playing western in The Westerner the same year, and playing Appalachian backwoods in Sergeant York, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar the following year), but it doesn’t work well here.  Neither the abrupt end of the rebellion nor the abrupt change of heart by April Logan are entirely convincing, either.  After the opening scene, Riel largely disappears, and we never discover why he’s essential to the rebellion.  He certainly has little charisma as depicted here.

This is one of the fifty movies listed in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way) by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell (1978).  It’s not that epically bad, but is it worth watching? It is if you are interested in either Cooper or DeMille, not to mention the beautiful Carroll.  For another (and better) story of an American gone north, see Gunless (2010).  For another story of Mounties and Indians, see Raoul Walsh’s Saskatchewan with Alan Ladd (1954).  If you’re interested in the background of Canada’s Second Riel Rebellion, see Strange Empire by Joseph Kinsey Howard (first published in 1952).

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In color, at 126 minutes.  Shot principally around Big Bear Lake in California, San Bernardino National Forest.  The movie won an Oscar for Best Editing.

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(Far) East Comes West

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 25, 2014

(Far) East Comes West:  Asians in an American West

An Easterner coming west and coping with different behavior and values has been a subject for western movies from their earliest times, especially for western comedies in the days of silent films.  That idea is also at the heart of one of the oldest and most popular western novels, which has often been made as a movie: The Virginian, first published in 1902.  But Far Easterners, or Asians, are another matter.  There haven’t been so many of them coming west in the movies.

Historically, of course, Chinese were much more numerous in the American west than Japanese or other Asians, especially in building railroads and in mining camps.  Asians mostly showed up in western movies, if at all, as incidental characters.  For example, Henry Nakamura appears as Ito, the Japanese cook in a wagon train full of women in 1951’s Westward the Women, where he is both comic relief to some degree and Robert Taylor’s conscience and drinking partner.

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Henry Nakamura as Ito the cook, in Westward the Women, 1951.

However, beginning in the 1970s with a burgeoning interest in martial arts fostered by Bruce Lee movies, a new kind of Far Easterner occasionally appeared in westerns—an Asian warrior, fighting alongside a more traditional western gunfighter.  The first of these was the instantly recognizable Toshiro Mifune, from the greatest of the Japanese samurai movies, with Charles Bronson in Red Sun (1971).  It was a remarkably international cast, with not only the Japanese Mifune but with the Swiss Ursula Andress and the French Alain Delon, in addition to Charles Bronson (Charles Buchinsky, born in Pennsylvania to a Tatar immigrant father and a Lithuanian-American mother).

A generation later, a couple of the Great Westerns introduced actual Chinese immigrants more or less realistically into western stories, with A Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991) and Broken Trail (2006).  These were both stories of young Chinese women being sold into prostitution in western mining camps.  In the new century, there was an attempt to mix the fish-out-of-water comedy of the silents with the martial arts of the 1970s, which did well enough at the box office that it spawned a sequel:  Shanghai Noon (2000) and Shanghai Knights (2003), both with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson.  Most recently, a gentler comedy took a humanistic view of the Chinese in a western community, as part of the story of the Montana Kid in western Canada in Gunless (2010).  There is even a Korean-made Chinese martial arts movie set in a ghoulish American West, complete with circus, dwarf, hordes of evil outlaw thugs and invincible assassins:  The Warrior’s Way (2010).

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As with all such lists, there are bound to be others not included here. If you know of any that should be, please leave a comment.

Westward the Women (Henry Nakamura, 1951)

7 Faces of Dr. Lao (Tony Randall, 1964)

The Five Man Army (Peter Graves, James Daly, Bud Spencer and Tetsuro Tamba, 1970)

Red Sun (Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune, 1971)
The Stranger and the Gunfighter (Lee Van Cleef and Lo Lieh, 1974)
A Thousand Pieces of Gold (Chris Cooper and Rosalind Chao, 1991)
Samurai Cowboy (Hiromi Go, 1993)
Shanghai Noon (Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan, 2000)
Shanghai Knights (Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan, 2003)
Broken Trail (Robert Duvall, Thomas Haden Church and Chinese maidens, 2006)
Gunless (Paul Gross and a Chinese sub-community, 2010)
The Warrior’s Way (Dong-gun Jang, Kate Bosworth, Geoffrey Rush, 2010)

The Magnificent Seven (Byung-hun Lee, Denzel Washington, 2016)

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Westerners in Japan

The Silent Stranger (Tony Anthony, 1968)

The Last Samurai (Tom Cruise, 2003)

The martial-arts-meet-the-west movement spread in other media as well.  (See the Six-Gun Samurai pulp novel cover, below, the first in a series of at least eight such novels.)  And Tom Laughlin’s follow-up of sorts to Billy Jack, The Master Gunfighter, was a pretty terrible movie, but the titular Gunfighter carried a katana (which he actually uses several times) to emphasize his inner peace, his connection with the mysterious Far East, and his prowess with multiple types of weapons and mayhem in defense of that inner peace.

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The Jayhawkers!

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 23, 2014

The Jayhawkers—Fess Parker, Jeff Chandler, Nicole Maurey, Henry Silva, Leo Gordon (1959; Dir: Melvin Frank)

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Yes, this was initially one of those westerns with a title ending with an exclamation point (!).  No, it’s not a particularly good sign here, either.

Fess Parker spent the middle years of the 1950s as the most celebrated frontiersman in the American media:  Davy Crockett on a series of Disney television specials, some of which were also released as movies.  He inspired a craze for ersatz coonskin caps and other Crockett regalia and toys among children in the U.S.  In the 1960s he would go one to great success as Daniel Boone, also on television.  Handsome, silver-haired Jeff Chandler.spent most of the 1950s as a leading man in movies, including a number of westerns, either as the noble Apache chief Cochise (Broken Arrow, The Battle of Apache Pass), an Alaska gold miner (Roy Glennister in 1955’s The Spoilers), or a cavalry officer (The Great Sioux Uprising, Two Flags West, War Arrow, Drango).  Two years after the release of The Jayhawkers! Chandler would be dead at the age of 42.  Now it might seem strange to see Fess Parker as the good guy and Chandler as the villain, but Fess Parker was a big name in westerns in the 1950s.

Here Parker plays Cam Bleeker, a former Missouri raider who breaks out of a federal prison and makes his way back to his farm in Kansas.  It is just before the Civil War, when raids and counter-raids back and forth across the Missouri-Kansas border gave the area the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”  Bleeker finds his farm, but not his wife, who has died while he was imprisoned. Collapsing from wounds received during his escape, he is nursed back to health by Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey), a French (!) widow with two small children, who now owns the farm.  While recuperating, he bonds with the family and learns about how his deceased wife ran off with another guerilla leader, who then abandoned her.  Left to survive however she might, she took to alcohol and other forms of degradation and died of pneumonia.

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Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey) nurses an escaped convict back to health.

The military governor of Kansas recaptures Bleeker and makes him an offer.  Prominent among those with their own agendas for Kansas is Luke Darcy (Jeff Chandler), who has his own quasi-army of Jayhawkers and wants to set up his own republic of Kansas.  If Bleeker will go undercover, join Darcy and deliver him alive to the governor, Bleeker will have his own freedom.  Bleeker further learns that Darcy is the man who had debauched his dead wife.

Bleeker gains access to Darcy by saving Jake (Leo Gordon), one of Darcy’s men, from hanging.    Darcy is not a trusting man, and his gunslinger Lordan (Henry Silva) has suspicions, too.   Meanwhile, Bleeker works his way up in Darcy’s forces, reading from his small library and debating principles with Darcy.  Lordan goes back to Bleeker’s farm near Knight’s Crossing, meets Jeanne, attacks her and learns the some of the truth about Bleeker’s motivations.   He then makes arrangements for the local sheriff and a posse to find Bleeker during a brief visit there.

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Lordan (Henry Silva) assaults Jeanne but doesn’t have time to finish.

Bleeker continues to have his ups and downs within Darcy’s organization; when Lordan presents his evidence, there is a shootout, ending with Jake dead and Lordan fleeing.  Darcy leads a raid on Knight’s Crossing, in which Jeanne’s daughter is trampled by a horse, and Bleeker insists on taking her to a doctor in Abilene.  While in Abilene, Bleeker learns that there will be an unusually large cattle sale there, with more than half a million dollars coming in on the train.  He organizes a raid and a trap for Darcy.

Now in favor again with Darcy, Bleeker is to plan and lead the raid on Abilene.  Jeanne, staying in Abilene with her daughter, goes to Topeka to coordinate the trap with the governor.  Lordan sees her there and is suspicious.  Bleeker smuggles guns into Abilene in hay wagons, and Darcy’s men enter the town by twos and threes.  As the train arrives, so does Lordan, and he exposes Bleeker’s plan to Darcy.  Bleeker and Darcy fight it out in a saloon while the trap closes.  Finally Bleeker takes down Darcy, who will be hung.  Rather than let him hang, Bleeker shoots Darcy and therefore can’t deliver him to the governor alive, as promised.  The governor nevertheless pardons him, and he goes back to the farm with Jeanne.

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Bleeker (Fess Parker) and Darcy (Jeff Chandler) finally have it out in a bar in Abilene.

The story depends on the attractiveness of Darcy, and Chandler plays him well.  But Darcy is not written very consistently, and although Bleeker is sometimes taken with him and his big ideas, we are not so fond of him.  His views on women seem very unenlightened in our feminist age, and they must have been at least somewhat offensive in the 1950s.  There seems to be no reason for Jeanne to be French in frontier Kansas, and Nicole Maurey wasn’t well known enough to make her much of a draw.  She joins several more notable French women in westerns:  Denise Darcel in Westward the Women and Vera Cruz, Capucine in North to Alaska, and Jeanne Moreau in Monte Walsh.  This is watchable but not all that memorable, and the inconsistencies in tone and story can be frustrating.  The movie is not often seen these days.

Henry Silva had a good run as a persuasive villain in several good westerns in the 1950s.  Look for him in The Tall T with Randolph Scott and Richard Boone, The Law and Jake Wade with Robert Taylor and Richard Widmark, in The Bravados with Gregory Peck, and Ride a Crooked Trail with Audie Murphy.

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Perhaps the best element of the movie is the score by Jerome Moross, who had also done the music for The Big Country.  If the theme sounds familiar, it was later reworked by Moross as the theme for the television program Wagon Train.  If the terrain doesn’t remind you much of Kansas, that’s because it was filmed in southern California.  The excellent color cinematography is by Loyal Griggs, who did Shane.  Available on DVD since 2012.

For more Fess Parker on film, see him in Disney’s Old Yeller (1957), with Dorothy McGuire.

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Hard Ground

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 20, 2014

Hard Ground—Burt Reynolds, Bruce Dern, Amy Jo Johnson, Seth Peterson (MfTV, 2003; Dir:  Frank Q. Dobbs)

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A variation on a frequently-used theme:  two old-timers, a lawman and an outlaw, join forces to use their experience and old-time skills to deal with a gang of more modern (and nastier) bad guys.  In this case, John “Chill” McKay (Burt Reynolds) is a former bounty hunter serving twenty years in the Arizona territorial prison in Yuma.  He is released to the custody of his brother-in-law Nate Hutchinson (Bruce Dern) to track down psychotic bandit and prison escapee Billy Bucklin (David Figlioli), who has a new gang and is heading south toward the Mexican border to pull off some kind of nefarious job. 

The wrinkle is that Hutch’s deputy is McKay’s son Joshua (Seth Peterson); he’s tracking the bad guys out ahead of McKay and Hutch.  He rescues Liz Kennedy (Amy Jo Johnson) from a couple of the gang and leaves her at a remote trading post, for Hutch and McKay to send her back.  She won’t go back, predictably enough.  So now she’s following along with Hutch and McKay; she doesn’t have their survival and violence skills, but she gets by on spunk.  There’s an undercurrent of tension between McKay and his son.  Will there be some sort of rapprochement between the two, and, if so, how?  How many of them will survive the upcoming confrontation with Bucklin?

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Brothers-in-law, former antagonists and now partners:  Nate Hutchinson (Bruce Dern), lawman (for a change), and Chill McKay (Burt Reynolds), convict and bounty hunter.

Bucklin and gang hit a U.S. army gold shipment, slaughtering the soldiers escorting it.  Undeterred by the border, Hutch, McKay, Joshua and Liz head into Mexico after Bucklin, and there is a climactic shootout in a Mexican town.  It’s better than many of its made-for-television type, although Burt Reynolds’ facelift is distracting.  He’s actually not bad in the role, though.  The screenplay isn’t great.  One wonders it the director’s name, Frank Q. Dobbs, is a pseudonym.  He has apparently been involved in other television westerns and western minseries, mostly as a producer:  Streets of Laredo, Dead Man’s Walk, Rio Diablo, Johnson County War.

Burt Reynolds had a promising career in westerns beginning in the mid-1960s, when he became part of the cast in the late portions of the long-running show Gunsmoke on television.  He appeared as the protagonist in Navajo Joe (1966), a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Coliima.  (Reynolds supposedly signed on thinking the director would be another Sergio–legendary Sergio Leone.)  He did well enough in a couple of big budget westerns in the early 1970s:  the comedy Sam Whiskey and the more serious and underrated The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, based on a best-selling novel of the time.  He seemed like he might have had a robust career in westerns, especially those requiring a comedic touch but not too broad an edge–perhaps the sort of thing James Garner did well.  But the genre was dying out for the next couple of decades, and he drifted into such high-box-office-but-low-prestige good-ol’-boy fare as the Smoky and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies.  He’s pretty good here, in the twilight of his career.  He and fellow old pro Bruce Dern carry the film, although supporting players Amy Jo Johnson and Seth Peterson are fine in their roles, too..

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Take a Hard Ride

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 18, 2014

Take a Hard Ride—Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, Fred Williamson, Catherine Spaak, Jim Kelly, Harry Carey, Jr., Barry Sullivan, Dana Andrews (1975; Dir:  Antonio Margheriti)

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It may have had aspirations, but it’s not really in the league of the great westerns, despite the claims on the posters.

This features another of Jim Brown’s forays into Mexico (see, for example, 100 Rifles and Rio Conchos), this time in a merger of two genres from the early 1970s:  blaxploitation movies and spaghetti westerns.  Jim Brown plays Pike, trail boss for cattleman Morgan (Dana Andrews) in this late spaghetti western.  Pike is also a reformed wanted man in improbable red pants (they must have been a 1970s thing–see Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd).  He’s trying to take $86,000 into Mexico in fulfillment of a promise to Morgan, who dies early on. 

His unwilling accomplice in this task is Tyree (Fred Williamson), a black gambler and gunfighter, along with a tongueless black Indian named Kashtok (Jim Kelly of Enter the Dragon; he keeps being referred to as an Indian, although he looks completely black) with mysterious martial arts moves, and, for a while, Catherine Spaak as Catherine, a former New Orleans prostitute whose husband is killed by nasty outlaws before she is rescued by Pike and Tyree.  (Unaccountable accents in westerns are frequently attributed to New Orleans origins–see, for example, The Magnificent Seven [Yul Brynner] and North to Alaska [Capucine].)  There seems to be some sort of connection between Catherine and Kashtok, but we don’t know how or why. 

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Pike, Tyree et al. are pursued by a legion of bounty hunters and robbers led (more or less) by harmonica-playing Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef).  They include Barry Sullivan as Vane, a former lawman, and Dumper (Harry Carey, Jr.), a corrupt Bible-thumper and his assistant with a gatling gun, a bunch of venal and untrustworthy robbers and a troop of conscienceless Mexican bandits. 

In the end, everything is blown up, Kiefer is shot in the back by Dumper before Dumper dies, and things don’t seem all that resolved.  It does appear that Kiefer is only wounded, and the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with him at the end.  After spending the entire movie setting up some kind of confrontation between Pike and Kiefer, it doesn’t happen.  But plot is not the movie’s strong point; this film is more interested in action than in making sense.  Characters seem to be dropped in and out fairly arbitrarily.  The movie is watchable but not remarkable.  Filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands.  Jerry Goldsmith does the music.  Director Antonio Margheriti is listed as Anthony M. Dawson in the credits.

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The previous year (1974) Brown, Williamson and Kelly had appeared together in Three the Hard Way, a modern-era blaxploitation action thriller.  This movie was apparently conceived as a genre-jumping follow-up project.  In the western genre, Brown and Van Cleef would reunite in 1977 for Kid Vengeance, which was also released as Take Another Hard Ride.

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The Iron Mistress

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 16, 2014

The Iron Mistress—Alan Ladd, Virginia Mayo, Joseph Calleia, Phyllis Kirk (1952; Dir:  Gordon Douglas)

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Biopic about Louisiana gambler, land speculator and knife fighter James Bowie, based on the novel with the same title by Paul Wellman.  Shane (also with Alan Ladd in the lead) was made first, but this reached theaters earlier when Shane’s release was delayed.  The poverty-stricken Bowie goes to New Orleans in the 1820s, where he meets poor painter John James Audubon, develops a few social pretensions for his backwoods family, and moves into the fringes of a higher social circle.  Virginia Mayo has one of her best roles as the faithless Judalon de Bornay, a spoiled French creole aristocrat in New Orleans for whom Bowie isn’t socially upscale enough.  Most of the conflict in the film comes from wondering if they’ll ever get together, even after de Bornay marries a weakling.  And from the periodic outbreaks of violence that Bowie’s involved in, which are of course unavoidable as matters of honor but never really his fault. 

Finally Bowie has had enough and drifts toward the frontier–specifically, to Texas.  The film ends with Bowie’s marriage to the daughter of the Mexican governor of Coahuila, which includes Texas—not with the Alamo in 1836, where Bowie met his real end and became a Texas hero.  Just before that, dismayed by the carnage he has wrought (and his own not-very-savory reputation), Bowie tosses his legendary knife (the “iron mistress” of the title) into the Mississippi and is done with it forever. 

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Ladd as Jim Bowie in a production still; the knives used in the film–Bowie’s big Bowie knife and Bloody Jack Sturdevant’s Arkansas toothpick.

Much of this (especially his throwing the legendary blade in the Mississippi) is contrary to history, although the film contains some references to real elements of Bowie’s supposed story:  John James Audubon, the Quaker painter of Mississippi birds and wildlife, for example; the legendary Arkansas knifemaker James Black; the Bowie brothers’ not-entirely-savory history as land speculators; and the Sandbar fight on which Bowie’s reputation as a knife-fighter was made.  There’s a visually interesting sequence in which Bowie, armed with his knife, fights a duel with a man with a rapier in a darkened room, lit only by the occasional flash of lightning through the skylight.  Some writing is clunky, the obsession with Judalon becomes tiresome, and there are several outdoor scenes that were very obviously done on an indoor soundstage, but it’s watchable.  In color, with a score by Max Steiner.  Not really much seen these days.

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Bowie takes on swordsman Contrecourt in a duel, Bowie knife against rapier, to be fought in the dark.

Alan Ladd is now remembered among fans of westerns principally for his role as Shane, but he made a number of other westerns:  Whispering Smith (the last film version of an often-remade story about a railroad detective), Drum Beat (about the Modoc War), Saskatchewan (with Ladd as a misunderstood Mountie dealing with Sitting Bull’s Sioux in Canada), and The Badlanders (a western version of the caper story The Asphalt Jungle), for example.  For other versions of Jim Bowie on film, see Richard Widmark in John Wayne’s 1960 version of The Alamo or Jason Patric in the 2004 The Alamo (which is a better movie).

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The Hanging Tree

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 14, 2014

The Hanging Tree—Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, Ben Piazza, Karl Swenson, John Dierkes, Virginia Gregg (1959; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Gary Cooper in one of his last roles plays wounded-in-spirit gunslinging frontier doctor Joseph Frail—apparently not the doctor’s real name.  He comes to the Montana gold camp of Skull Creek in 1873 and sets up his medical practice in a cabin overlooking the town.  It’s a rough place, plagued by outlaws, giving rise in turn to a vigilante movement.  We see quickly that this has resulted in a rough, quick and sometimes misdirected form of justice, represented by the hanging tree.

Doc Frail is known by several of the townspeople.  The town itself is full of undesirables; among them Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden), with whom the doc has some history.  We can tell from the beginning that Frenchy is an undesirable because of the ugly ear-flap hat he wears.  We first see him taking shots at a young man stealing gold out of his sluice boxes.  The doctor takes in the young man (Rune, played by Ben Piazza ) and removes the bullet; as payment he says Rune must be his bondservant for an undetermined period of time. 

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Doc deals with Frenchy (Karl Malden); Doc Frail and Elizabeth (Maria Schell)

The haunted doctor gambles (he seems to be good at it) and drinks some, and he’s not very good tempered.  Some of his backstory comes out, involving his dead wife and brother and a house on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi in southern Illinois, deliberately set on fire.  Meanwhile, a stage is robbed and crashes down a hill.  Passengers include Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), a young Swiss woman, and her father.  The father is killed and Elizabeth is left blind and otherwise in bad shape due to exposure by the time she is found. 

The doctor takes over her care in a cabin near his.  Aside from those consumed with lust (Frenchy), those envious (Society Red, played by John Dierkes, and George Grubb [George C. Scott in an early role], a faith healer and alchoholic who sees the doctor as competition and a tool of the devil), there is also a self-righteous wife, Edna Flaunce (Virginia Gregg), of an otherwise decent general store keeper, suspicious that there’s something improper going on.  After all, the doc was known to treat loose women, too. 

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When Elizabeth can finally see again, she and Rune are released by the doctor, who also, unknown to them, provides them with a grubstake.  They use it to set up a mining partnership with Frenchy.  Just as Frenchy is on the verge of quitting for good, they have a big strike.  In the partying afterward, Frenchy tries to rape Elizabeth and the doc shoots him.  Grubb leads a mob to hang the doc; he is rescued when Elizabeth and Rune give the mob their claim.  Presumably the doc and Elizabeth live happily ever after, even without the claim.

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Delmer Daves directs star Gary Cooper on location near Yakima, Washington.

The story is based on a novel by Montana author Dorothy M. Johnson.  Montana native Cooper seems old for the part, as he has for most of his western romantic leads during the 1950s (High Noon, Garden of Evil, Man of the West, etc.), but he’s still effective.  Although Cooper was ill with lung cancer, he’s ironically shown smoking in several scenes.  Maria Schell is very good as Elizabeth, and Ben Piazza is fine as Rune.  The community seems a little too deliberately loathsome and the doctor a little too unreasonably haunted. 

Not much seen these days, and the print I saw (on TCM, even, which makes an effort to show the best prints available) was not great.  Still, it’s a pretty decent western.  It’s also one of the last westerns directed by Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Cowboy, The Last Wagon, The Badlanders) in a very productive career as a director of westerns.   In color, filmed around Yakima, Washington.  Score by Max Steiner, with a theme sung by Marty Robbins (better than most such, and nominated for an Oscar).  Finally released on DVD in 2012.

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The Return of Frank James

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 12, 2014

The Return of Frank James—Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper, John Carradine, Donald Meek (1940; Dir:  Fritz Lang)

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In color, indicating that it had a large budget for a 1940 western.  This sequel to 1939’s Jesse James stars Henry Fonda reprising his role as Frank James, a growing-up Jackie Cooper as Frank’s companion Clem and Gene Tierney in her first leading role as Eleanor Stone, a Denver reporter who is smitten with Frank.  The movie starts as Frank gets news of Jesse’s death, robs a bank owned by the railroad and goes off to Colorado in search of the Ford brothers and revenge. 

While in Colorado he meets Eleanor and gets news that his black farmhand Pinky (Ernest Whitman) has been arrested for and convicted of the robbery James committed, along with related deaths.  Reluctantly, he gives up temporarily on his pursuit of Bob Ford (John Carradine), returns to his home state and turns himself in to save his friend.  As he is put on trial in Missouri, Bob Ford shows up unexpectedly (and unnecessarily) in the courtroom, and Frank finishes him off in a shootout in a barn after Ford kills Clem in the town square.

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The entire film is not very factual, aside from Frank being acquitted at a Missouri trial after Jesse’s death, which he was.  Fonda is good, and Tierney is beautiful–the camera loved her.  Donald Meek has a nice role as the venal railroad executive.  Ford was actually killed in a saloon in Creede, Colorado, by a non-James. 

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The lovely Gene Tierney as Eleanor Stone, in her first starring role.

This is one of director Fritz Lang’s few westerns, together with Union Pacific and Rancho Notorious.  For another western focusing on Jesse’s assassin Bob Ford, see Samuel Fuller’s I Killed Jesse James, with John Ireland.

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High Plains Drifter

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 9, 2014

High Plains Drifter—Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Marianna Hill, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis (1973; Dir:  Clint Eastwood)

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Ben Manciewicz referred to this as an “allegorical morality tale,” heavily laced with understated mysticism.  It was the second movie directed by Clint Eastwood, his first western as a director, and the movie by Eastwood that most overtly shows the influence of Sergio Leone, one of his mentors.

This first shot is Leone-esque, with a lone rider approaching the camera from a distance through a haze.  (There will be a bookend of that shot at the end of the movie, with the lone rider leaving at a distance into a similar haze.)  Clint Eastwood is the Mysterious Stranger, one of his specialties, and, as with the earlier Leone trilogy, he is never really named.  He rides into the mining town of Lago (“Lake”), where the general vibe is fearful and unfriendly.  After an initial drink, he goes to get a shave and bath.  At the barber shop, three thugs insult and attack him until he shoots all three of them.  Outside he is repeatedly insulted by Callie Travers (Marianna Hill); he drags her into a stable and rapes her, although she appears to get into it.

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The name Billy Borders is mentioned to the Stranger:  “Don’t know the man,’ he confesses.  “You didn’t have much time to,” the sheriff replies, “because you shot him yesterday.  Billy, he wasn’t a loved man.  He didn’t have much personality and what he did have was all bad.”

It turns out that the three thugs had been hired by the town to defend it against three outlaws (Stacey Bridges and the Carlin brothers) being released from the territorial prison, and whom the town suspects harbor resentments against the citizens of Lago for sending them to prison.  Now the citizens approach the stranger to defend them, promising him anything in town that he wants.  He puts that to the test, giving blankets and candy to Indians and taking new boots for himself, and requiring the town to paint all building and structures red.  He appoints the town dwarf Mordecai (Billy Curtis) sheriff and mayor.  As he sleeps, the Stranger dreams of a man with a badge being whipped to death by three men with bullwhips.  Various townspeople refer to young Marshal Duncan, who was killed by being whipped to death.  There is some kind of collective guilt in their past related to this event.  The Marshal had discovered that the basis of the town’s prosperity, a mine, was actually on government land and not on the private property owned by the town.  He was going to report this to the authorities, so no one felt obliged to intervene when he met his vicious end.  His body is now lying outside the town in an unmarked grave: “They say the dead don’t rest without a marker of some kind…  He’s the reason this town’s afraid of strangers.”  The Stranger sees it differently:  “It’s what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid.”

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The Stranger is not a typical western hero, but a morally ambiguous man given to cruelty.  He also rapes Sara Belding, who deserves it even less than Callie Travers, but who similarly seems to get into it.  Some of the townspeople turn on the Stranger, and he blows up three who try to kill him in his hotel room.  He shoots and wounds at least one of another group of assailants, who escapes out of town only to be killed by the three approaching outlaws.  The Stranger sets up the town’s defenses but leaves before the outlaws arrive.

Mordecai:  “What happens after?

The Stranger:  “Hmm?”

Mordecai:  “What do we do when it’s over?”

The Stranger:  “Then you live with it.”

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Lago, now painted bright red, waiting for the outlaws.

[Spoilers of a sort follow.]  The citizens are unable to carry out the Stranger’s plan, and the three outlaws take over, with several of the townspeople being shot or otherwise killed.  With much of the town in flames, as the outlaws drink in the saloon a whip comes out of the night and drags out one outlaw standing near the bat-wing doors.  Sounds of him being whipped to death are heard, and we see his body lying in the street.  As the two remaining outlaws hunt the source of the whip, it comes from above, wraps around the neck of one and lifts him off the ground, hanging him.  That leaves only the outlaw leader Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis), who sees the long-coated stranger, pulls a gun on him and is shot several times for his pains.

As the Stranger leaves Lago, he passes the sign where the town name “Lago” has been painted over in red with “Hell.”  Mordecai is putting the final touches on a tombstone in the local cemetery as the Stranger rides past.  Mordecai says, “I still don’t know your name,” and the Stranger responds, “Yes, you do.”  And the camera shows that Mordecai’s tombstone reads “Marshal Jim Duncan,” who no longer has an unmarked grave.  Among the other graves near Duncan’s are those of S. Leone, Donald Siegel and Brian G. Hutton (director of Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes)–all directors of films Eastwood has appeared in to date.  The Stranger rides off into the haze, just as he came.

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Director Eastwood setting up a scene from the top of a red building; horsing around with Mordecai (Billy Curtis) behind the scenes.

The identity of the Stranger is left ambiguous.  One version of the script had him as Duncan’s brother, but Eastwood liked the ambiguity of not being too explicit and took that reference out.  The Stranger is a figure of heartless retribution for crimes left mostly vague, not an admirable hero.  Echoes of this Stranger will reappear in kinder and more sympathetic form in Eastwood’s Pale Rider more than a decade later.  The camera work (the long shots of lone riders, the frequent tight 2/3-face closeups) are reminiscent of the spaghetti westerns that made Eastwood’s movie career, as are other surreal touches, such as the dwarf.  The heavy ambient noises (the hoofs of the Stranger’s horse, the constant sound of the wind, the disproportionately loud jangle of the Stranger’s spurs, for example) also make it seem like a spaghetti western.  It is the most existential and supernatural of Eastwood’s works as director.  While not his strongest western, it’s a cult favorite in some circles.

It confirmed him on his path to becoming a major director.  He brought High Plains Drifter in two days ahead of schedule and under budget, and it was one of the highest-grossing westerns of the 1970s.  His next western would be the classic The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).  He was a bright spot in a decade not otherwise known for westerns.  His star was rising as John Wayne’s was fading (The Cowboys [1972] and The Shootist [1976]).  Shot on location at California’s eerie Mono Lake, 300 miles from Los Angeles on the Nevada border.  Bruce Surtees was the cinematographer.  Written by Ernest Tidyman (Shaft, The French Connection).  105 minutes.

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