Monthly Archives: July 2014

Selander’s Cavalry

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 9, 2014

Journeyman director Lesley Selander is said to have made more westerns than any other director, purely in terms of numbers–107 Westerns between his first directorial feature in 1936 and his last in 1968.  This requires a little explanation.  Allan Dwan, a well-known director between 1909 and 1961, directed 171 westerns.  But 157 of these were silent movies produced between 1911 and 1917, when movies were not yet generally at feature length.  (Cecil B. DeMille is thought to have made the first feature-length movie in 1914 with The Squaw Man.)  So Selander is considered to have made the most westerns in the modern era–since 1920 or so, let’s say.

In the hierarchy of directors, Selander was more prolific but less talented than, say, Andre de Toth.  He seldom had a large budget, well-known writers or a big star to work with; these were mostly B movies.  But leading actors in Selander movies occasionally included Randolph Scott (Tall Man Riding) or Rory Calhoun (The Yellow Tomahawk, below), and he often had good character actors (John Dehner, Robert Wilke, John Doucette, Noah Beery, Jr.).  Long-time character actor Harry Dean Stanton got his start on Selander westerns.  During the 1950s Selander was at the peak of his career when he made several cavalry movies, including these four.

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War Paint—Robert Stack, Joan Taylor, Keith Larsen, Peter Graves, Charles McGraw, John Doucette, Robert Wilke (1953; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Robert Stack is Lt. Billings, the commander of a small cavalry troop charged with delivering a treaty to an Indian chief.  If he doesn’t receive it within a week, the chief will go on the warpath.  The chief’s son Taslik (Keith Larsen) is guiding the soldiers to his father, but he secretly wants war to come and is undermining the mission.  His sister Wanima (Joan Taylor), a beautiful Indian princess, secretly follows the patrol, sabotaging their water and helping her brother in other ways.  Not a lot of action or much star power, but the cast is good aside from that.  Filmed in color in the vicinity of Death Valley.  Workmanlike directing, with occasionally clunky writing.  89 minutes.

The Yellow Tomahawk—Rory Calhoun, Peggie Castle, Noah Beery, Jr., Lee Van Cleef, Rita Moreno, Peter Graves (1954; Dir: Lesley Selander)

This was a B movie directed by Lesley Selander, so Rory Calhoun is a good guy in it.  In higher-grade movies, he tended to show up as a bad guy (The Spoilers, River of No Return), and he could be convincing as either good guys or bad.

Indian scout Adam Reed (Rory Calhoun) is a blood brother to the Cheyenne war leader Fireknife (Lee Van Cleef).  When the cavalry, led by Major Ives (Warner Anderson), insists on building a post in Wyoming Territory contrary to the treaty with Red Cloud, Fireknife warns Reed that there will be bloodshed, especially because Ives was one of the leaders at the Sand Creek Massacre of Black Kettle’s Cheyennes a few years previously.

While traveling to warn the cavalry detachment, Reed encounters Kate Bolden (Peggie Castle), who is looking for her betrothed lieutenant.  (Obligatory nude-bathing-in- the-wilderness scene.)  Ives refuses to leave and bit by bit all the soldiers are killed except Ives.  Reed guides the small party of survivors to Fort Ellis, where he hopes to turn Ives over to a court martial.  Finally, it comes down to Reed against Fireknife, one brother against another, and Reed wins.  Bolden has transferred her affections to Reed after her lieutenant is killed.  And it turns out Ives is part Cheyenne, which is the personal stain he was trying to wipe out at Sand Creek.

Filmed in Kanab, in southern Utah, this movie features some clunky acting and was seen in a very poor print.  It was theoretically shot in color, but the print I saw was black and white and grainy.  Castle wears anachronistic very tight blouse and pants.  Van Cleef doesn’t sound like an Indian, although his Indian looks are better than some whites in such parts.  Noah Beery is a Mexican scout, pursued by amorous Indian maiden Honey Bear (unconvincingly played by Rita Moreno).  Peter Graves is a cowardly prospector who kills his partner after they’ve discovered gold.  On the whole it’s watchable, but not really good.  82 minutes.

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Tomahawk Trail—Chuck Connors, Susan Cummings, George Neise, Harry Dean Stanton (1957; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Clunky writing distinguishes this B western about a beleaguered cavalry patrol in Apache country.  The two conflicts:  (a) an inexperienced, incompetent (and out of his head) lieutenant (George Neise) with the patrol in danger among Mescalero Apaches; and (b) Apache chief Victorio’s daughter (Lisa Montell) captured by the patrol.  Experienced sergeant Wade McCoy (Chuck Connors) has to take over, although some members of the patrol question his authority and he has the spectre of a court martial hanging over him (a la The Caine Mutiny).  McCoy gets them back to the post without horses, only to find all the personnel there slaughtered and the well water salted.  At the post they have to hold off an attack by Victorio’s superior forces, until the fight is resolved when his daughter returns to the Apaches.  The lieutenant is killed in the defense.

Susan Cummings plays Ellen Carter from Philadelphia; when she dons a military uniform out of necessity, it looks suspiciously tailored to her form (much as Joanne Dru looked good in military garb in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon).  A young Harry Dean Stanton (billed as Dean Stanton) plays the disabled lieutenant’s orderly.  The movie uses an actual Indian actor (Eddie Little Sky) as Johnny Dogwood, the patrol’s Apache scout.  Filmed around Kanab in southern Utah, in black and white.  Short, at only 60 minutes.

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Revolt at Fort Laramie—John Dehner, Gregg Palmer, Frances Helm (1957; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Generally, this is a decent late black-and-white B western curiously lacking in star power.  The Civil War is starting back east, and the garrison at Fort Laramie is (a) facing its own problems with Red Cloud and (b) trying to sort out where the individual loyalties of the soldiers will lie in the conflict between the states.  Major Seth Bradner (John Dehner) is from Virginia, with southern sympathies.  Second-in-command Capt. James Tenslip (Gregg Palmer) is a northerner, in love with Bradner’s niece Melissa (Frances Helm).  The soldiers appear equally split between north and south, although historically southerners tended (and still tend) to take to a career in the military more than northerners.  A too-venal-seeming Jean Selignac (supposedly a half-Sioux, played by Don Gordon) is a scout whose own loyalties are in question for different reasons.  Dehner is fine; Palmer is fairly forgettable; Helm is okay.  Filmed in Kanab, Utah.  Look for an uncredited Harry Dean Stanton as a southern-leaning private.  Short, at 73 minutes.

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Louis L’Amour Stories

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 7, 2014

Westerns Based on the Works of Louis L’Amour

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Louis L’Amour, a veteran of World War II, was a prolific author who began his career writing for the pulps under a variety of names.  In the 1950s, stories from his westerns (he called them “frontier stories”) began to be made into movies.  Partly from this, and partly from the fact that he could write an engaging story and turned them out frequently, by the 1970s his works began to show up on best-seller lists.  Many of them involved a large Tennessee family whose members moved west one by one–the Sacketts.  As he became better known to the general public, his works tended to be made for television.  Born in North Dakota in 1908, at the time of his death in 1988 he had written 105 works–89 novels, 14 short-story collections, and two full-length works of nonfiction, and many of them were still in print.  They have continued to be reprinted after his death.

Among the movies made from his novels, the best is the first:  Hondo, starring John Wayne as irascible scout Hondo Lane (1953).  The list of movies based on his works inevitably included some real clunkers, like Taggart (1965).  There are some curiosities, like the Euro-Western Shalako (1968), directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring the Scottish Sean Connery and the French Bridget Bardot.  Among the more successful adaptations are those made for television by TNT, frequently starring Sam Elliott and/or Tom Selleck:  The Quick and the Dead (1987, not to be confused with Sam Raimi’s 1995 movie of the same name with Sharon Stone, which has no relation to the L’Amour book), Conagher (1991) and Crossfire Trail (2001).  This list does not include movies based on L’Amour’s short stories.

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Hondo (1953)

Four Guns to the Border (1954)

Stranger on Horseback (1955)

Treasure of Ruby Hills [Rider of the Ruby Hills] (1955)

The Burning Hills (1956)

Blackjack Ketchum, Desperado [Kilkenny] (1956)

Utah Blaine (1957)

The Tall Stranger (1957)

Apache Territory [Last Stand at Papago Wells] (1958)

Guns of the Timberland (1960)

Heller in Pink Tights (1960)

Taggart (1965)

Kid Rodelo (1966)

Shalako (1968)

Catlow (1971)

Cancel My Reservation [The Broken Gun] (1972)

The Man Called Noon (1973)

The Sacketts (MfTV 1979)

The Cherokee Trail (MfTV 1981)

The Shadow Riders (MfTV 1982)

Down the Long Hills (MfTV 1986)

The Quick and the Dead (MfTV 1987)

Conagher (MfTV 1991)

Shaughnessy [The Iron Marshal] (MfTV 1996)

Crossfire Trail (MfTV 2001)

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Drum Beat

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 4, 2014

Drum Beat—Alan Ladd, Audrey Dalton, Marisa Pavan, Charles Bronson, Elisha Cook, Jr., Anthony Caruso, Rodolfo Acosta (1954; Dir: Delmer Daves)

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In the wake of the enormous success of Shane, Alan Ladd formed his own production company, Jaguar Productions, and this was its first film.

Here Alan Ladd is Johnny McKay, former Indian fighter and now peace commissioner to the Modocs by appointment from Pres. Ulysses Grant.  He has two romantic interests going on in the film:  Toby (Marisa Pavan), daughter of the peaceful former Modoc chief, and Nancy Meek, niece of a local rancher and family friend of the Grants.  Charles Bronson in an early role (his first under that name rather than as Charles Buchinsky, his real name) is a muscular Captain Jack, leader of the warlike portion of the Modoc tribe.

The story bears only a passing resemblance to the actual course of the Modoc War of 1872-1873 in northern California and southern Oregon, and these Modocs mostly look more like a cross between Apaches (colorful cloth headbands) and plains tribes (leather shirts, etc.).  The warlike Captain Jack kills most of the peace commissioners, including General Canby (Warner Anderson), and leaves McKay for dead.  The rest of the war isn’t shown much until McKay captures Jack, and Jack is sentenced to be hung.  Toby is killed in the course of all this, so McKay is left with just one romantic interest by the end.  Anthony Caruso is Toby’s brother, who also doesn’t trust Captain Jack; Elisha Cook, Jr., is Crackel, trading arms and information to the Modocs.  So it appears that both sides have two factions.

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McKay (Alan Ladd) and Captain Jack (Charles Bronson) fight it out in a river.

The New York Times noted “Charles Bronson is probably the most muscular Indian ever to have brandished a rifle before a camera,” and Peter Baker wrote in Films and Filming:  “[Alan Ladd’s] performance is dwarfed by that of Charles Bronson as Captain Jack.”  It wasn’t hard to dwarf Alan Ladd under most circumstances.  The relatively short Ladd (at 5 feet 4 inches) is carefully filmed here, but shouldn’t have had much of a chance against any decent fighter the size of Bronson (only 5 feet 8 inches himself, but quite muscular).  When Bronson worked as Charles Buchinsky, his agent worried that name would stunt his career during the blacklist era.  Legend has it they were discussing possible new names while driving on Bronson Avenue in Los Angeles, looked up at the “Bronson Gate” sign at Paramount Studios, and a future star was rechristened.  In the 1970’s, after Bronson had become a global superstar, Drum Beat was reissued in some countries under the title Captain Jack with Bronson’s name on top.

This was one in a series of fairly good westerns Ladd made in the 1950s after ShaneDrum Beat, Saskatchewan, The Badlanders.  And another in a series of decent westerns made by Delmer Daves during the late 1940s and the 1950s (3:10 to Yuma, The Last Wagon, Cowboy, Jubal, The Hanging Tree).  Writer and director Daves had spent much of his youth living on reservations with Hopi and Navajo Indians, and his westerns such as Broken Arrow (1950, directed by Daves) and White Feather (1955, written but not directed by Daves) were notable for their sympathetic portrayals of Indians.  The film was shot in northern Arizona’s Coconino National Forest.  In color.  This is not currently available on DVD in the United States, so it can be hard to find.

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Charles Bronson as Captain Jack; the real Modoc leader Captain Jack (Kintpuash) in 1864.

Several books have been written about the Modoc War.  Dee Brown had a chapter on Captain Jack and the war in his 1972 best-seller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  For a longer account of the war, see Hell With the Fire Out:  A History of the Modoc War (1997) by Arthur Quinn.

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Ambush

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 2, 2014

Ambush—Robert Taylor, Arlene Dahl, John Hodiak, Don Taylor, John McIntire, Jean Hagen, Pat Moriarty, Bruce Cowling, Leon Ames, Charles Stevens, Chief Thundercloud, Ray Teal (1950; Dir: Sam Wood)

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This is a very good cavalry vs. Apaches tale, with a large cast, lots of plot, good writing and excellent use of locations with scenic Southwestern rock formations around Gallup, New Mexico.  It was the final film of director Sam Wood, based on a story by western writer Luke Short.

It’s 1878 in Arizona Territory, and Mescalero Apache leader Diablito (Charles Stevens) has jumped the reservation again with his people. Ward Kinsman (Robert Taylor, in his usual dark hat), a former scout for the army has been prospecting on Bailey Mountain, Diablito’s home ground.  Current army scout Frank Holly (an outrageously bearded John McIntire) seeks him out for a mission at Fort Gamble, but they have to fight their way out.

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Scouts in trouble: Holly (John McIntire) and Kinsman (Robert Taylor).

Maj. Breverly (Leon Ames), the commanding officer, explains that a white woman, Mary Carlyle, traveling with a surveying party without authorization, was taken by Diablito when he slaughtered the party.  Her sister Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl) has arrived at Fort Gamble with the new by-the-book senior captain, Ben Lorrison (John Hodiak).  Breverly wants Kinsman to guide a party to rescue Mrs. Carlyle, but Kinsman declines, saying that it would take too many troopers’ lives to rescue one woman from Diablito.

There are not one but two romantic triangles going on at Fort Gamble: one involves Kinsman’s friend 2nd Lt. Linus Delaney, who’s having an affair with the wife (Jean Hagen) of an enlisted man, Tom Conovan (Bruce Cowling), who beats her.  The other develops as it becomes apparent that Lorrison wants Ann Duverall to marry him, and bit by bit Kinsman is taken with her despite himself.  Kinsman steps into the middle of a drunken attack by Conovan on Delaney and punches out Conovan, who will get thrown in the guardhouse when he awakens.

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Lorrison (John Hodiak) interrupts Delaney (Don Taylor) and Mrs. Conovan (Jean Hagen).

Kinsman agrees to guide a patrol escorting the paymaster to Fort Craig.  While they’re gone, Conovan stabs Breverly with a pitchfork and really gets thrown in the guardhouse.  A sub-patrol under Delaney captures a party of Diablito’s women and Tana (Chief Thundercloud), who says he hates Diablito.  Kinsman doesn’t quite believe him and gets his information from a disgruntled woman, who says that Mary Carlyle is with a party just ahead of them, alive and so far unharmed.

With Breverly out of commission with a punctured lung, Lorrison becomes acting commanding officer and decides to take after Diablito and Mary Carlyle.  He believes Tana’s advice, and Kinsman decides to go along even though his advice is ignored.  Lorrison insists on knowing why Kinsman changed his mind, and Kinsman honestly tells him that he doesn’t think Lorrison knows what he’s doing as well as Breverly would.  They fight, and Lorrison wins handily.

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Lorrison doesn’t like Kinsman, but they both like Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl).

Lt. Delaney gives Kinsman something to deliver to Mary Conovan if Delaney doesn’t make it.
Ward Kinsman:  “Did you ever figure that maybe I won’t get back?”
Lt. Linus Delaney:  “You’ll make it. People only die when they have something to live for.”
Ward Kinsman:  “I know. That’s why I’m a little worried…for the first time.”
Lt. Linus Delaney:  “Well, I never thought I’d see the day.”
Ward Kinsman:  “That’s the point, isn’t it? To live to see the day.”

[Spoilers follow.]  There are two columns involved in the pursuit, one led by Capt. Wolverson (Ray Teal), and the other by Lorrison. Tana disappears, and Kinsman goes after him. He gets Tana and finds Conovan’s body. There are also two ambushes in the movie, the first by Lorrison at a watering hole Diablito is trying to reach. Kinsman stampedes Diablito’s horses and gets Mary Carlyle, but takes a spear in the hip. Lorrison and his men are on the verge of being overrun when Wolverson’s column hits Diablito’s forces in the rear, forcing him to take off into the desert.

Capt. Ben Lorrison to Kinsman:  “What do you think of the entire plan of action?”
Ward Kinsman:  “I wasn’t asked.”
Capt. Ben Lorrison:  “You are now.”
Ward Kinsman:  “The plan is based upon what Diablito should do.  You better be ready for what he can’t possibly do, but probably will.”

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Kinsman finally gets a moment alone with Ann.

Lorrison, intent on finishing Diablito, takes a patrol after him, thinking correctly that they can’t get far without horses.  That brings up the second ambush, by Diablito.  He and his surviving men have hidden themselves in pits in the desert, leaving just enough trail to keep Lorrison following them into the trap.  All of Lorrison’s patrol is killed, but so are Diabilito’s men—except for Diablito himself, who is wounded.  As Kinsman and Delaney lead their own patrol to the site of the second ambush, Diablito reloads his pistol and plays dead.  Lest we not get who he wants to kill, he mutters to himself, “Kinsman.”  But Kinsman is wary; the trap doesn’t work this time, and Kinsman gets Diablito.

Back at Fort Gamble, Mary Conovan is now a widow, but the path is clear for her to get together with Delaney if they want to–the end is deliberately a little ambiguous for them.  Kinsman stands by Ann Duverall as the flag is raised to the strains of a bugle call, just as John Ford would have directed it.  No ambiguity there.

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The characters in this are well differentiated and believable, although some of the well-written dialogue is crisper than real people would be able to come up with.  Ward Kinsman is not infallible or invincible, as he demonstrates in his fight with Lorrison.  Lorrison has some capacity to learn (unlike, say, Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache), but he’s still sure he’s right and lets his animosity with Kinsman lead him to trust the wrong souces of information and advice.  Ann Duverall is not as priggish as she appears at first, and can also learn.  Delaney has a little self-restraint, but not enough to keep him out of trouble, until he is overtaken by events.

Fort Gamble, as depicted in this movie, is the same setting as Fort Bravo three years later in Escape from Fort Bravo:  Ray Corrigan’s ranch in Simi Valley, California.  The cinematographer, Harold Lipstein, was clearly enamored of the rock formations around Gallup, New Mexico, and he used them to good effect, often from low camera angles.  The excellent screenplay is by Marguerite Roberts (True Grit, 5 Card Stud, Shoot Out) from a story by Luke Short, usually a good starting source.

At this point in his career Robert Taylor had made only one western, Billy the Kid about ten years previously.  He was just coming into a period when he would make several good ones.  In fact, after this he also made Anthony Mann’s first western, Devil’s Doorway, and the excellent Westward the Women.  This is one of the first really good cavalry movies not made by John Ford.  For similar good stories of the Old Scout with a headstrong or inexperienced commanding officer, see Hondo, Duel at Diablo and Ulzana’s Raid.  The plot has a number of similarities with Duel at Diablo, in particular.  For another good black-and-white cavalry western from 1950, see Two Flags West, with Joseph Cotten and Linda Darnell.

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Diablito is played by Charles Stevens, who was said to be Geronimo’s Apache-Mexican grandson.  He appeared in a number of westerns beginning in the mid-1930s as Indian characters of one sort or another (see Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine and The Showdown, for example).

In black and white, with a lot of plot packed into 90 minutes. The DVD has been available from Warner Bros. Archive only since 2011, and not that many people have seen it.  It deserves a wider audience.

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