Monthly Archives: August 2014

Dawn Rider

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 29, 2014

Dawn Rider—Christian Slater, Donald Sutherland, Jill Hennessy, Lochlyn Munro, Ben Cotton, Ken Yanko (2012; Dir: Terry Miles)

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By the time of this movie’s release in 2012, Christian Slater was getting a bit long in the tooth and lower in the Hollywood pecking order than he had been twenty years earlier. Looking at the cast here, one concludes that this the modern equivalent of a B movie, which is only appropriate, considering that it is a remake of 1935’s The Dawn Rider with John Wayne, made at a period when Wayne was not yet a star and was only making B westerns.  Except for Slater, this appears to be a largely Canadian production.

John Mason (Christian Slater) is in Gray Falls, Montana, in 1883, when he rescues Ben McClure (Ben Cotton) in a card game that turns bad.  We hear that Mason is referred to as Cincinnati John Mason, although he has a recurring line about never having been in Cincinnati.  However, he has been the sheriff in Dodge City, a Texas Ranger, a Pinkerton man, and a prisoner in a Mexican jail.  He is hunted by bounty hunters from Missouri, led by U.S. Marshal Cochrane (a white-bearded Donald Sutherland in a brief but talkative role).  McClure works in the express office in Promise, Wyoming, with Mason’s father Dad Mason (Ken Yanko).  Father and son are not on great terms, but when a gang of hooded outlaws robs the express office and kills Dad, John wants revenge.

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John Mason (Christian Slater) renews a relationship with Alice Gordon (Jill Hennessy).

Also wounded in the attack on the express office, Mason is nursed back to health by his old girlfriend Alice Gordon (Jill Hennessy), who lives on the XX (Doublecross) Ranch with her brother Rudd Gordon (Lochlyn Munro), John’s childhood best friend.  Cochrane catches up to Mason and agrees to give him a couple more days to hunt for his father’s killers if he will surrender peaceably and without further resistance at the end of that time.  (This seems unlikely, given how hard a time Cochrane has had finding and capturing Mason.)  McClure wants Alice to marry him, but Alice and Mason have resumed an intimate relationship.

We see early on that the hooded outlaws are led by Rudd Gordon, who is about to lose the XX unless he can come up with $5000 in cash.  Gordon’s gang ambushes Cochrane and his men, leaving them for dead and planting hoods on them.  Mason is not persuaded.  He sets a trap for the gang, and they take the bait, killing the local sheriff as the trap is sprung.   As a final showdown looms, McClure takes the bullets out of Mason’s guns out of jealousy.  But when Mason meets Rudd and the surviving gang members, he notes that guns without bullets feel lighter, and he has reloaded them.  Rudd reveals his low character by his willingness to kill his own sister.

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Armed and hooded bad guys.

Finally, Cochrane shows up, revealing that Mason saved him after he was ambushed, and he takes Rudd into custody.  He also produces documents exonerating Mason and rides off into the sunset.  Mason, who blew up the express office money during the showdown, reveals that somehow $5000 of it has ended up at the XX Ranch, where he and Alice will presumably retire.

This isn’t absolutely terrible, but it’s not really good, either.  Slater is not a strong choice as the leading man.  The best performance here is probably by Jill Hennessy as Alice Gordon; she seems lively and a bit like a younger Charlotte Rampling.  The original movie was only 53 minutes long, and this is 40 minutes longer; the plot feels like it meanders a fair amount.  The film looks good, shot with a lot of gray and brown tones.  Everybody wears dusters, which look nicely western.  Although cowboys and others did wear dusters occasionally, if you look at old photographs of the west from that period, you don’t see them as often as they are worn in westerns since, say, The Long Riders made them cinematically fashionable in 1980.  They look great flying out behind a rider racing along, but they probably weren’t actually worn as much as movies like to show (e.g., The Lone Ranger, 2013).

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Donald Sutherland as loquacious, bounty-hunting Marshal Cochrane.

Shot in color in Vancouver, British Columbia, at 94 minutes.  It’s rated R for violence and a lot of unnecessarily bad language, which gets in the way.

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The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 27, 2014

The Mask of Zorro—Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Stuart Wilson, Tony Amendola, Matt Letscher, L.Q. Jones (1998; Dir: Martin Campbell)

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This overlong and overcomplicated revisit to the Zorro story differs from the source material (a 1919 novel by Johnston McCulley) in several ways.  One is the title.  Earlier versions with Douglas Fairbanks (1920) and Tyrone Power (1940) shared the title of the novel, The Mark of Zorro, referring to the Z that the sword-bearing bandit often carved into walls, draperies and unfortunate corrupt local officials.  Perhaps this new title emphasizes the transferability of the Zorro identity with the mask and other accoutrements.  In general, the movie is constructed as a series of set pieces and action segments, loosely held together by an erratic story.

This story has not one but two Zorros, one a dashing but untrained young outlaw (Antonio Banderas) and the other an aging former Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) seeking revenge for wrongs now a generation past.  As the movie starts in 1821, the Spanish are taking their leave of Alta California as the Mexicans under Santa Anna take possession of the Mexican realms.  The corrupt Spanish governor Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson) makes one last attempt to capture his nemesis Zorro by excecuting three innocent peasants.  Zorro indeed makes one last appearance and rescues the three but gives away his identity to Montero.  Making a raid on the De la Vega mansion (very computer-generated in appearance), Montera’s men kill Diego’s wife Esperanza; Montero throws Diego into a dungeon and makes off with Diego’s infant daughter Elena to Spain.

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Twenty years later, Montero returns, hoping to enlist those dons he had given land grants to join him in a gold-mining enterprise and takeover of California.  Diego escapes from his prison and encounters a drunken outlaw (Banderas) he recognizes as one of two Murrieta brothers who as children had helped Zorro escape during his final adventure.  The other brother, Joaquin Murrieta, has been killed by vicious American Captain Harrison Love (Matt Letscher), who turns out to be in league with Montero.

Recognizing that his age prevents him from being Zorro still, Diego trains the hot-headed Alejandro Murrieta as a younger Zorro—in swordplay, in manners, in riding and other skills he will need.  His initial foray in the role is nearly disastrous, but through luck and the assistance of the lovely Elena Montero (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he escapes.  Together, Diego and Alejandro plot to discover Montero’s plans and thwart them.

Don Diego de la Vega:  [Indicating the sword Alejandro is holding.]  “Do you know how to use that thing?”
Alejandro Murrieta:  “Yes.  The pointy end goes into the other man.”
Diego de la Vega [Sighs.]:  “This is going to take a lot of work.”

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The new Zorro (Antonio Banderas) with his mentor, the old Zorro (Anthony Hopkins).  And Diego de la Vega’s feisty daughter Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Two of the three leads are Welsh.

Alejandro arrives at the large estate where Montero is hosting a party for the local dons whom he hopes will support his plan.  Diego masquerades as his servant Bernardo.  In the course of the evening, Alejandro engages in a passionate dance with Elena, discovers where Montero is hiding his plans and maps, and is invited to join the larger conspiracy to take California.  Diego also meets Elena without revealing his identity as her father.  Capt. Love thinks he knows who Alejandro is, although the cultured young man bears little resemblance to the hairy outlaw he had been.

Alejandro makes a return visit to the Montero hacienda as Zorro, looking for the map to the gold.  He finds it.  In a stable, he also encounters Elena again, and they engage in swordplay and banter, in which Elena loses most of her clothing while confirming the attraction between them.

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At the mine, which is run with slave labor, Capt. Love kills Three-Finger Jack (L.Q. Jones), who had been in the Murrieta brothers’ gang.  Alejandro puts on his Zorro garb and engages Love in battle.  Meanwhile, Diego, who had said he would no longer be engaged in Zorro’s exploits, shows up and fights Montero.  Predictably enough, Diego beats Montero with swords, but Montero cheats and shoots Diego while using Elena for cover.  These acrobatic battles center around a wooden crane for lifting gold out of the canyon where it is mined.  In the end, Alejandro vanquishes Capt. Love, who is crushed by a falling gold wagon which also pulls Montero to his doom.  Zorro and Elena rescue locked-up slaves from a complicated explosion, and Diego dies of his wound, surrounded by his regained family–Elena and Alejandro.

Anthony Hopkins is not convincing as the 35-40-year-old Zorro, but he does fine as Diego de la Vega at 60.  Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones make an enormously attractive couple, although they’re both playing at least ten years younger than their actual ages.  Stuart Wilson is a suitably serpentine villain.  The Capt. Harrison Love character, as he is played by Matt Letscher, is neither interesting nor necessary.  He seems to be a sort of pseudo-Custer character (a vain and venal American military commander with long blond hair) who has arisen sometimes in westerns now that Custer is no longer seen as much of a hero.  (See Barry Pepper in The Lone Ranger for another example.)

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A lot of money was spent on this movie, and technically it’s very well done.  There are some nice comedic touches in the dialogue.  Since this doesn’t use much of the traditional Zorro story, it seems to partake more of the episodic nature of the Disney television series from the late 1950s starring Guy Williams—yet another example, perhaps, of a movie driven by nostalgia for a past television series (e.g., The Wild Wild West, Maverick, The Lone Ranger).  One trick is to keep the moviegoer from asking the Indiana Jones question (see the first Indiana Jones movie for one approach to this question):  The essence of Zorro is the use of the sword and perhaps a whip, but, especially by 1840, how much chance does a sword-wielder actually have against firearms?  That’s why the movie almost has to be set earlier.  Zorro’s beautiful black horse Tornado (Toronado?) is said to be a black Andalusian stallion, but horse fanciers claim that he is really a Friesian.  If the Joaquin Murrieta in this movie is intended to be the notorious California outlaw from gold rush times, he is placed about fifteen years too early here; the real Murrieta was killed in 1853, after California had become a state.

The film was a commercial success.  If you don’t look for much coherence to the story, this one works well enough, although its 2005 sequel (also directed by Martin Campbell), The Legend of Zorro, is worse.  The Fairbanks and Power movies from decades earlier are still better as movies, though.  In color, at 136 minutes.

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The first Zorro movie (1920, the year after the novel was published), with Douglas Fairbanks in the title role.  And a later (1940) version, with Tyrone Power as the dashing masked bandit avenging wrongs.  The character Zorro was a fictional creation, not an actual historical person.

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Gunman’s Walk

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 25, 2014

Gunman’s Walk—Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, James Darren, Ray Teal, Kathryn Grant (1958; Dir: Phil Karlson)

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This is a son-goes-bad movie, a big-budget western, with Van Heflin (Shane, 3:10 to Yuma) as Lee Hackett, a prosperous and much-respected rancher with the largest spread in the state.  Sons Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren) are starting to differentiate themselves, but there are signs that one of them is going bad.

Ed, the blond older son and his father’s favorite, rides a half-breed wrangler (an uncredited Bert Convy) off a cliff while chasing a white mare on a horse drive.  Things look bad for Ed, who chafes under his father’s shadow.  But Ed is surprisingly exonerated at a hearing based on perjured testimony by itinerant horse trader Jensen Sieverts (Ray Teal).  Sieverts hopes to get some form of payoff from Lee Hackett in exchange for testifying.  Ed increasingly listens to neither his brother nor his father, nor even the local sheriff.  Younger brother Davy, who is dark and is said to look like his deceased mother, tries to strike up a relationship with Clee Chouard (Kathryn Grant), the half-Sioux sister of the dead wrangler.  Lee Hackett, who spent his younger years fighting the Sioux, finds the relationship highly unsuitable and expresses those feelings in intemperate words.

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Good brother Davy (James Darren) with Clee Chouard (Kathryn Grant).

Meanwhile, brother Ed becomes less and less controllable and more apt to rely on his skill with a gun. He rejects the attempts of both his father and his brother to reason with him.  Finally, Ed shoots the horse trader Sieverts and is thrown in jail.  The trader lives, and Lee buys him off yet again.  Ed escapes from the jail, killing an unarmed deputy, and his father tries to find him before a posse does.  There is the inevitable confrontation and shoot-out.  In the wake of Ed’s death, Lee is reconciled with his only remaining son and with the mixed-race young lady.

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Brother Ed (Tab Hunter) blasts the lying horse trader.

James Darren has the thankless role of the the underappreciated good brother, who is romantically interested in the half-breed’s sister.  Heflin is good as the father.  Ray Teal is very good as the sleazy horse trader who perjures himself to get Ed off the hook and to get himself a payoff from Lee.  However, this is a clunky story, fairly predictable.  Even worse, there is clunky acting by Hunter and Darren, who don’t look at all like they might be brothers.  Saddle the Wind, from about the same time, does this story better.  Written by Frank Nugent.  Song “I’m a Runaway” is sung by Tab Hunter.  In color, at 97 minutes.

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The Big Gundown

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 22, 2014

The Big Gundown—Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, Walter Barnes (1966; Dir: Sergio Sollima)

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An early non-Leone spaghetti western featuring Lee Van Cleef in his new role as leading man, dressed in trademark black and smoking a pipe.  He’s Jonathan Corbett, a Texas lawman/bounty hunter with few challenges left.  He meets Broxton (Walter Barnes), a railroad baron who suggests Corbett run for the U.S. Senate.

Broxton then sets Corbett on the trail of Cuchillo Sanchez (Tomas Milian), a scapegrace Mexican very good with a knife who supposedly raped and murdered a 12-year-old girl.  After several scrapes with Mormons, an isolated female ranch owner and a Mexican whorehouse, Corbett finds Broxton (with his German bodyguard) in Mexico; he also discovers that Broxton’s son-in-law Chet committed the crimes of which Cuchillo is accused.

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In the manhunt, starting in a cane field and moving to rocky, mountainous terrain, Corbett sets up a showdown between Cuchillo with a knife and the Broxton son-in-law with a gun.  Then comes the big showdown between Corbett and everybody, including the German.  (Chennault’s Variation on a famous dictum of Chekhov:  “If a German gunman shows up in the first act, he will be firing before the end.”  See Vera Cruz and The Wild Bunch, for example.)  And Corbett and Cuchillo ride off into the sunset, one (Corbett) to the north and the other to the south.

Among aficionados of spaghetti westerns, Sergio Soliima enjoys a reputation as one of the three Sergios, behind only the great Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci as a director.  The Big Gundown is often reckoned one of the top ten spaghetti westerns.  Of course, it still has the limitations of its subgenre, and it’s not as good as Leone’s best work.  Cuchillo reappears, again played by Tomas Milian, in Sollima’s Run, Man, Run in 1968; it’s probably better, although this isn’t bad, as spaghetti westerns go.  The score by Ennio Morricone features kind of a shrieking theme song as well as “Chorus of the Mormons.”  This was released the year after Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and the same year as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  The version usually seen in the U.S. is a poorly-cut 84-minutes long.  Supposedly a 114-minute version exists.

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Forts in Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 20, 2014

Forts in Westerns

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Forts are the natural settings for cavalry movies, and the movie title often contains the name of a fort to convey that it is a cavalry movie.  As the popularity of cavalry movies waned in the late 1960s, these “fort” names for movies disappeared.

Fort Apache (1948)
Fort Defiance (1951)
Fort Osage (1951)
Fort Worth (1951)
Fort Vengeance (1953)
Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)
Fort Yuma (1955)
Revolt at Fort Laramie (1957)
Fort Bowie (1957)
Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957)
Fort Dobbs (1958)
Fort Massacre (1959)
Fort Courageous (1965)
Fort Utah (1967)

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Fictional Forts in Movies

Most stories for movies are fictional, although some, like Broken Arrow or Geronimo:  An American Legend, are based on fact.  Many westerns, especially cavalry westerns, used the names of actual historical military installations in the American west, but many of the names of forts were fictional as well.  The following is a partial list of fictional forts used in westerns.

Fort Apache (Fort Apache)
Fort Stark (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon)
Fort Gamble and Fort Craig (Ambush)
Fort Thorne, a real fort in New Mexico, but it was abandoned in 1859, before the Civil War (Two Flags West)
Fort Bravo (Escape From Fort Bravo)
Fort McCullough (They Rode West)
Fort Vengeance (Fort Vengeance)
Fort Crane (Fort Massacre)
Fort Dobbs (Fort Dobbs)
Fort Shallan and Fort Medford (The Last Frontier)
Fort Canby (A Thunder of Drums). The real Fort Canby was in Washington state, named for a general killed in the Modoc War.
Fort Delivery (A Distant Trumpet)
Fort Benlin (Major Dundee)
Fort Creel and Fort Concho (there was a real Fort Concho in Texas, but not in Arizona) (Duel at Diablo)
Fort Clendennon (Chuka)

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Shadow on the Mesa

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 18, 2014

Shadow on the Mesa—Wes Brown, Kevin Sorbo, Gail O’Grady, Greg Evigan, Shannon Lucio, Micah Alberti, Barry Corbin, Meredith Baxter (MfTV 2013; Dir: David S. Cass, Sr.)

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This was made for the Hallmark Channel, so you know some of what you’ll find here: a certain kind of beautiful nature cinematography in establishing the mood and setting, the triumph of right over evil (could be a given in most westerns anyway), some kind of affirmation of the value of human relationships.  Not bad stuff, really.  And that’s all here.

Wes Rawlins (Wes Brown) is a bounty hunter, and a proficient one.  As he returns from his latest trip, he receives the news that his mother has been murdered—beaten to death.  She had been rescured from Comancheros thirty years previously, taken in by the kindly Rawlinses (Barry Corbin and Meredith Baxter), and, when her son Wes was born seven months later, they raised him as part of their family. Now Wes hears that not only was his mother killed, but not long before her death she had finally found Ray Eastman, Wes’ father, “down Palo Duro way,” and had written him a letter. Wes decides to pay him a visit and find out why he abandoned his family and what he had to do with his mother’s death.

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Rawlins (Wes Brown) and foster parents (Meredith Baxter, Barry Corbin) at the grave of his murdered mother.

So Wes comes to town as the Mysterious Stanger with a Gun.  As Wes enters the local saloon, a loud-mouthed young man is causing trouble and Wes backs him off.  Turns out that both the loudmouth and the local sheriff are sons of Peter Dowdy (Greg Evigan), a neighboring rancher who wants Eastman’s land.  He is in fact conspiring with Eastman’s wife Mona (Gail O’Grady), and it was she who gave Dowdy the letter leading to the death of Wes’ mother.  Dowdy’s men killed her.

Wes rides in to the Eastman ranch, where Ray (Kevin Sorbo) has a bad leg and is on crutches.  He gives Eastman the news that Mary Rawlins has died, and from Eastman’s reaction is inclined to leave it at that and ride on.  The next morning as he leaves he encounters Eastman’s headstrong daughter Rosalie (Shannon Lucio), and they further have an encounter with Dowdy and two of his gunmen.  When the gunmen try to kill Wes, he takes them out and returns with Rosalie to the Eastman ranch.

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Rancher Ray Eastman (Kevin Sorbo) and daughter Rosalie (Shannon Lucio) are determined to resist their greedy but powerful neighbor.

The Dowdy sheriff son keeps driving off Eastman cowboys and throws one in jail to lure Wes into town.  Wes breaks him out, and things get more violent.  Wes breaks the news to Eastman that he, Wes, is Eastman’s son, and he bonds with the existing Eastman son (Micah Alberti) and daughter.  Rosalie overhears her mother talking with Dowdy and discovers what’s been going on between them. Wes orchestrates the defense of the Eastman headquarters and goes looking for missing cowboys.  In the course of rescuing one, Wes and his new brother kill four Dowdy gunmen, including the loudmouth son.

Back at the Eastman ranch, Dowdy, having killed Mona as she pleaded for more time to work something out, is attacking the few defenders.  Eastman and his few remaining men take out some of them but things are going badly. Then Wes and his brother ride in and even the odds.  With some well-placed dynamite and good shooting, all but the Dowdy father are taken care of.  At the end, Dowdy tries a hidden gun on Wes, but that’s not going to work.  Eastman forgives the deceased Mona, Wes has a new family, and he rides off into the sunset.

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Greedy and corrupt Dowdy (Greg Evigan) attempts to take the ranch by force.

Kevin Sorbo is the best-known name in the cast, but he is not the main character.  That would be Wes Brown as the bounty hunter Wes Rawlins.  The writing is a bit clunky, but it’s not that bad.  Wes seems impossibly invincilble, but that can be okay in a western.  (See any of Clint Eastwood’s characters, for example, especially in spaghetti westerns.)  At least he doesn’t talk too much.  There’s lots of killing for a Hallmark Channel western.  In terms of production design, Wes’ hat and facial hair seem too modern.  A pleasant enough western, but not terribly memorable.  Short, at 79 minutes.

 

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Tension at Table Rock

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 15, 2014

Tension at Table Rock—Richard Egan, Dorothy Malone, Cameron Mitchell, Angie Dickinson, Royal Dano, DeForest Kelley, Billy Chapin, John Dehner, Edward Andrews (1956; Dir: Charles Marquis Warren)

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This is basically a bad-guy-goes-straight western, with overtones of the search for family and 1950s lawman-and-community tension.  Deep-voiced Richard Egan (his voice is reminiscent of Clint Walker’s) was never a big star, but he does well as the lead in this small western with an excellent and well-chosen supporting cast.  And it has an unusual and effective poster.

Wes Tancred (Richard Egan) has followed outlaw leader Sam Murdock (Paul Richards) since they both rode with Quantrill during the Civil War.  But when Murdock gratuitously kills a wounded gang member while fleeing a posse, Tancred decides to pull out.  Murdock’s girlfriend (a young Angie Dickinson in a very brief role) has a thing for Tancred and pours oil on the distrust between the two as Tancred tries to leave.  They shoot it out just as the posse arrives, and the girl tells them Tancred shot Murdock in the back.  However, he receives a complete pardon and even the reward for Murdock, which he spurns.

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Tancred (Richard Egan) and Murdock’s girl (a young Angie Dickinson).

Now wherever he goes he hears “The Ballad of Wes Tancred,” referring to him as a cowardly backshooter.  He keeps moving and is at a stagecoach outpost when three robbers try to take a stage.  The caretaker tries to break it up and is killed, but Tancred, now going by the name John Bailey, gets the three and agrees to take the caretaker’s young son Jody (Billy Chapin) to his uncle, the sheriff in Table Rock.

The tension in Table Rock is because a herd from Texas is about to arrive, and the sheriff (Cameron Mitchell) is nervous about his ability to control the cowhands.  He was badly beaten and physically and psychologically scarred in an earlier incident, and has lost his confidence.  Tancred/Bailey understands because he has his own scars.  He helps Jody get a job with the local newspaper editor Harry Jameson (Royal Dano), who is vocal about keeping law and order.  Kirk (Edward Andrews), owner of the biggest saloon, welcomes the cowhands, whatever it takes.  The sheriff’s wife is loyal to him but shows signs of being attracted to Tancred/Bailey.

When big rancher Hampton (John Dehner) brings in his herd with fifty trail hands, he drives it across the land of a local farmer, destroying fences and crops (for which he is willing to pay, but he gives no choice).  The hands are mostly just barely under control, but that night one of them shoots the farmer and puts a gun in the farmer’s hand to make it look like self-defense.  The sheriff and Tancred/Bailey are witnesses, though.  In court the next day, the sheriff tries to back out, but Tancred/Bailey testifies straight, including his real name.  It’s a turning point for both Tancred and the sheriff.  Hampton threatens to come back the next day and get his man, and Kirk arranges for a gunfighter to take out the sheriff.

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Tancred (Richard Egan) is attracted to the sheriff’s wife (Dorothy Malone); bad guys abound.

Gunfighter Jim Breck (DeForest Kelley) arrives the next day and turns out to be an old friend of Tancred.  Tancred asks him not to call out the sheriff, and it looks like he might accede.  But Kirk’s $2000 is too much for Breck, and Tancred and Breck have a classic showdown in the street.  Tancred wins, and Kirk is about to shoot him in the back when the sheriff takes down Kirk.  When Hampton and his fifty men ride in, they face the sheriff and Tancred—and the town’s populace with guns from the windows.  And Tancred leaves town so as not to threaten the sheriff’s marriage.

It sounds like a standard western tale from the 1950s, but the execution of it is better than average, even though it was from bargain studio RKO.  Egan, Mitchell, Chapin, Dano, Dehner, Kelley and Edwards are all good; Dorothy Malone is also good but is largely wasted in a small part here.  Kelley was in several westerns about this time, usually as some form of bad guy (The Law and Jake Wade, Warlock), as he bounced back and forth between movies and television before finding his greatest fame in Star Trek.  The development of the moral crises of Tancred and the sheriff is nicely done.  The story is slightly understated but mostly convincing.  This is better than you’d expect from the relative lack of star power and low budget.

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Charles Marquis Warren was a screenwriter, director and producer who made ten low-profile westerns as a director in the 1950s.  His best were probably this and Trooper Hook (1957), with Joel McCrea.  He even directed Charro!, Elvis Presley’s western in 1969.  The screenwriter here was Winston Miller, based on a story by western writer Frank Gruber, with music by Dimitri Tiomkin.  In color, at 93 minutes.

For a similarly good story about a man on the run who rides into town under an assumed name and comes to the aid of a beleaguered sheriff, see Face of a Fugitive, with Fred MacMurray (1959).

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The Warrior’s Way

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 13, 2014

The Warrior’s Way—Dong-gun Jang, Kate Bosworth, Geoffrey Rush, Danny Huston, Tony Cox (2010; Dir: Sngmoo Lee)

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And now for something completely different:  A stylized Korean-made martial arts movie set in a ghoulish American West, complete with surreal circus, a dwarf, hordes of despicable outlaw thugs and invincible Asian assassins.  It was made in New Zealand, a truly international production.

“You are an assassin.  All you love, you will destroy.”

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Swordsman Yang (Dong-gun Jang) and the baby he names April.

Yang (Dong-gun Jang), a member of the Sad Flutes clan of assassins, has made himself into the greatest swordsman in the world.  As this movie starts, he has been instructed to kill all his enemies in a rival clan, but, finding himself lonely and bored with the life of an invincible assassin, he deliberately does not kill a baby girl and thus incurs the wrath of his own clan.  As they attempt to kill him, he and the baby leave the shores of his own country for the deserts of the American West, arriving in the town of Lode, “the Paris of the West.”  It is practically a ghost town, home only to the crumbling remnants of a circus, with its aging performers, and a few others, including Lynne (Kate Bosworth), a comely young woman who aspires to become a knife thrower but has accuracy problems.

Yang is looking for an old friend, who appears to have run the laundry in Lode before his death the previous year.  The unofficial mayor of the town is Eight-Ball (Tony Cox), a former circus performer and dwarf.  Yang would take over the laundry, but he doesn’t know how.  Lynne teaches him, and they develop a relationship and mutual respect of sorts.

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Lynne (Kate Bosworth) and a coterie of aging circus performers.

Yang:  “We are called Sad Flutes because when you cut the throat, the last sound is like a sad flute.”
Lynne:  “Dang!  Skinny, you sure know how to throw a dang cat in a party room, don’t ya.”

[Spoilers follow.]  By flashback, Lynne’s story is told, of how an invading band of outlaws led by the Colonel (Danny Huston) took over the town.  Lynne resisted his appetites for young females and escaped.  In doing so, she gave the Colonel massive facial burns and caused the death of her entire family.  Indeed, she was left for dead, too.  As is usually the case with such gangs, they will return (as was the case in The Magnificent Seven, for example).  Lynne wants to be ready, and Yang teaches her how to focus, and miraculously she becomes an expert at throwing knives and, with a little training, using short swords.

When the gang returns a second time, Lynne almost gets the Colonel, but he escapes.  He returns a third time with an even larger and nastier band of thugs.  Yang must defend his new home, and, in taking the seal off his sword, reveals his location to the Sad Flutes who are hunting him.  (Their leader can hear the voices of those Yang has killed with the sword when it is unsealed.)  With their arrival, a three-way battle follows.  The townspeople are organized to use dynamite strategically, along with the sharpshooting talents of aging marksman Ronald (Geoffry Rush).

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Marksman Ronald (Geoffrey Rush) takes aim.

The battle goes along formulaic lines, with the numerous outlaws being whittled down in picturesque fashion and also the Sad Flutes.  Several of the circus people are killed, too, including Eight-Ball as he tries to protect the baby.  Yang fights his way into the hotel, dispatching the Colonel’s remaining henchmen.  And when the Colonel threatens the baby he now holds,  Yang gets her back.  He otherwise leaves the Colonel to Lynne.  After an extended battle, she kills the unrepentant Colonel with his own sword.

The final part of the extended showdown is between Yang and his former master on a short hill outside of town.  Although Yang is the ultimate victor, his victory is not final in the sense that the remaining Sad Flutes are still hunting him.  He leaves the baby with Lynne and walks off into the glorious sunset with his sword.  In the movie’s final scene in the Arctic,  Yang finishes off yet another assassin with a frozen fish and goes off in search of another refuge.  The baby’s pacifier is a token on the guard of his sword.

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Yang rescues baby April from the Colonel (Danny Huston)

Lynne:  “Do we win?”
Yang:  “We survived.  Some of us.”

The movie is shot with a strong sense of style by first-time director Sngmoo Lee.  The movie is about action rather than plot, but there’s enough of each so that you’ll find it enjoyable if you have any taste for Asian martial arts films.  The body count is of course remarkably high, but as such things go, it is not unusually gory.  It is, for example, more restrained than Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.  It is rated R for violence and occasional other distasteful elements, so it is not for young people.  It may be the best movie of its kind, though; it may also be the only movie of its kind among westerns.  There is an undercurrent of humor beneath it all.

The cast is quite good.  Dong-gun Jang is excellent as the swordsman Yang, although he is not required to show a great acting range.  Kate Bosworth and Geoffrey Rush are good in their parts; Rush is also the narrator at the beginning and end of the film.  Danny Huston, son of legendary director-actor John Huston and half-brother to Anjelica Huston, is kind of over-the-top as the principal villain, but that seems intentional and part of the overall stylized effect.  Tony Cox (Bad Santa) as the dwarf in charge does well, too.

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Shot in color in New Zealand, at 100 minutes.  It did not do well at the box office, costing $42 million to make and bringing in only $5,664,000 in the U.S.  If you’d like to see Asian martial arts in other westerns, check out the Jackie Chan-Owen Wilson comedies Shanghai Noon (2000) and Shanghai Knights (2003).  But they’re really not the same thing.

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The Gunfight at Dodge City

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 11, 2014

The Gunfight at Dodge City—Joel McCrea, Julie Adams, John McIntire, Richard Anderson, Nancy Gates, Don Haggerty, Harry Lauter (1959; Dir: Joseph M. Newman)

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An aging Joel McCrea is Bat Masterson, out hunting buffalo when the movie begins.  He returns to Hays City, Kansas, to sell his hides and has a shootout with a sergeant who fancies a grievance over a girl.  Bat moves on to Dodge City, where his brother Ed (Harry Lauter) is the town marshal, but the Ford County sheriff Jim Regan (Don Haggerty) is corrupt.

Masterson is befriended by Doc Sam Tremaine (John McIntire, playing virtually the same role as he did in The Tin Star).  Ed introduces Pauline Howard (Julie Adams in an unusually sedate role), daughter of the local reverend, as his fiancée, and Bat buys into the Lady Gay (see Dodge City for a saloon of the same name in the same town), owned by young widow Lily (Nancy Gates), which is on the verge of being forced out of business by Regan.  After Ed is shot from ambush, Bat runs for sheriff and wins.  He hires sleazy Dave Rudabaugh (Richard Anderson) to deal faro, unaware that it was Rudabaugh who shot Ed.

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Bat Masterson (Joel McCrea) and saloon owner Lily (Nancy Gates).

As Bat cleans up the town, both Lily and Pauline become more interested in him, and it looks like he’s leaning toward Pauline.  When a friend from Hays City has a mentally-impaired brother who is sentenced to hang, Bat is asked to spring the kid so he can be dealt with in a more humane way.  He does it, but loses legitimacy in the eyes of his Dodge City constituency.  Regan comes back and they shoot it out.  Bat takes out Rudabaugh as well.  Bat is tired of Pauline’s judgmental attitude and ends up with Lily.

The plot doesn’t hang together terribly well.  Ed Masterson was killed in Dodge City, but not as depicted in this movie.  Note that in Wyatt Earp, when Earp meets Doc Holliday in Fort Griffin, Texas, he’s chasing Dave Rudabaugh, of whom Holliday has a very low opinion. In color.  This means that Joel McCrea played both Bat Masterson (here) and Wyatt Earp (in Wichita).

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Joel McCrea as Bat Masterson, and the real Bat Masterson in Dodge City in 1879.

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The Man From Colorado

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 8, 2014

The Man from Colorado—Glenn Ford, William Holden, Ellen Drew, Edgar Buchanan, James Millican, Ray Collins (1948; Dir: Henry Levin)

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In 1865, a unit of Union volunteer cavalry led by Col. Owen Devereaux (Glenn Ford), a former lawyer, has 100 Confederates trapped at the mouth of a canyon in Colorado.  The southerners try to surrender with a white flag; the only man on the Union side who can see it with binoculars is Devereaux, and he gives the order to his artillery to fire anyway, killing all of them.  Later that day, the cavalry gets the news of Lee’s surrender, meaning the war is over and that day’s killing was unnecessary twice over.  Devereaux confides to his diary that he likes killing and wonders about his own sanity.

The men of the newly-demobilized unit are received back home in Glory Hill as heroes, except for Sgt. Jericho Howard (James Millican), who’s under arrest for celebrating too much.  He escapes and becomes an outlaw.  Devereaux is asked by Big Ed Carter (Ray Collins), a big mine owner, to become the local federal judge; he asks his best friend, Capt. Del Stewart, to be the federal marshal.  Stewart, who is starting to see signs that Devereaux might not be completely balanced, accepts with the proviso that Devereaux must put down his own gun and stick to interpreting the law.  Meanwhile, Devereaux and Stewart are rivals for the affections of Caroline Emmet (Ellen Drew); she decides she’ll marry Devereaux.

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Stewart (William Holden) is sworn in as marshal by Devereaux (Glenn Ford).

Devereaux’s first big case concerns his own veterans.  Miners before volunteering, they have returned to their claims to find that Big Ed Carter and the Great Star Mining Co. say they own them now.  In court, it appears to be a matter of miner’s law (in effect before the war) against federal law, now that Colorado is a federal territory, which says that if a claim hasn’t been worked for three years then it is no longer good.  Over Stewart’s objections, Devereaux decides for Great Star and against his veterans, and most of them have no choice but to work for Carter and Great Star for $60 a month.

Meanwhile, outlaw Jericho Howard steals from Carter.  Stewart assembles a posse to give chase, and Devereaux joins it.  When Howard’s sidekick (one of Devereaux’s veterans) is captured, Devereaux gives him a trial on the spot and hangs him while Stewart is chasing Howard.  More men join Howard, and he robs Carter’s safe of $30,000, killing a mine employee in the process.

Dubious evidence implicates Jericho’s younger brother Johnny Howard and five others.  Stewart pursues Jericho and persuades him to come in to save his brother, but they arrive to find that Devereaux has summarily hanged Johnny and plans to hang the five others.  Even Caroline is horrified.  Carter reacts by firing all the Union veterans for fear they’ll help Jericho.  Stewart resigns as marshal.  Even Big Ed Carter worries about the near-civil war Devereaux’s decisions and behavior have created.

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Caroline (Ellen Drew) helps Stewart (William Holden) escape from Devereaux’s clutches.

As Devereaux proceeds with the hanging, Jericho Howard’s outlaws arrive and rescue the five, led by Del Stewart.  Devereaux lures Stewart into a trap by getting news to him that Caroline needs help.  But Caroline gets Devereaux’s diary and convinces Doc Merriam (Edgar Buchanan) that Devereaux is unbalanced and they need to get word to the governor in Denver.  Caroline and Doc are helping Stewart escape from jail, when Devereaux arrives, wounding Stewart and blockading the mining camp where the three flee.

The camp all sympathizes with Jericho, Stewart and the veterans.  Devereaux sets fire to the camp and as it burns he sees and goes after Stewart.  As he does, Jericho Howard grapples with him, and a burning building collapses onto Devereaux and Jericho, rendering Devereaux’s removal as judge moot.  He has been removed in a more final sense.

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The increasingly psychotic Devereaux in the flaming mining camp.

Glenn Ford, with longish hair and silver brushed into his sideburns, is convincing as the more-and-more unhinged Devereaux.  Stewart is more straightforward, except for his continuing affection for another man’s wife.  Ellen Drew is the weak point in the cast, kind of a low-rent Maureen O’Hara.  Her character’s motivation is not well-developed; initially she looks like she’s just going for the flashier character with higher social status.  A more modern look would probably present Devereaux’s psychosis more as a form of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), rather than irrational megalomania and an uncontrollable fondness for killing.  James Miilican is particularly good as the new outlaw Jericho Howard.

The title is a bit ambiguous, since both the protagonists are from Colorado, but presumably the title refers to Devereaux, who drives most of the action.  Shot at the Ray Corrigan ranch in Simi Valley in southern California. In color, at 100 minutes.

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Dick Powell visits with stars William Holden and Glenn Ford during filming of The Man From Colorado.

For another film involving a western commander unhinged by the Civil War, see Robert Preston as Col. Marston in Anthony Mann’s The Last Frontier (1955), with Victor Mature.  For another early Glenn Ford western, see him with Randolph Scott in The Desperadoes (1943).  He and Holden had previously starred in Texas, 1941.  Ford’s post-World War II career began taking off a couple of years earlier than this film with Gilda (1946) and other films noir, but his mix always seemed to include westerns, the best of which was probably the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957).  William Holden had been in movies for about ten years (see 1940’s Arizona, for example) and was a couple of years away from his big breakthroughs in Sunset Boulevard and Born Yesterday (both in 1950).  His Oscar as Best Actor came in Stalag 17 (1953).  But he continued to make westerns as well; he’s very good, for example, in Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), directed by John Sturges.  The casting of The Man From Colorado now looks very smart. These guys became big stars.

Historical note:  The only Confederates vs. Yankees battle out west during the Civil War took place at Glorieta Pass in northern New Mexico Territory in March 1862, early in the war.  The Sand Creek Massacre against Black Kettle’s Southern Cheyennes was perpetrated by Colorado volunteers under Col. John Chivington in Nov. 1864, about 40 miles from Fort Lyon in Colorado Territory.  So the action depicted at the start of the movie appears to be entirely fictional.

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