Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Last Challenge

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 28, 2014

The Last Challenge—Glenn Ford, Chad Everett, Angie Dickinson, Jack
Elam, Royal Dano (1967; Dir: Richard Thorpe)

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This is a late Glenn Ford variation on the old gunfighter-young gunfighter theme.  Ford is Marshal Dan Blaine, who has a nice life a small western town.  He is the live-in romantic interest of Lisa Denton (Angie Dickinson), local saloon proprietress and madam.  He is a former convict and has a justly earned reputation as being very good with a gun.

Lot McGuire (Chad Everett) is a young man good with a gun himself, and is seeking out Blaine to test their comparative skills.  He encounters Blaine fishing outside of town, and Blaine takes a liking to him, trying unsuccessfully to dissuade him from his plan.  Outside of town Blaine also rescues lowlife Ernie Scarnes (Jack Elam), whom he knew in prison.

Marshal Dan Blaine to Ernie Scarnes:  “Of all the people I know who ain’t worth saving, you’re the first one to come to my mind.”

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Marshal Blaine (Glenn Ford) likes young challenger Lot McGuire (Chad Everett).

Scarnes plans to blackmail Lisa with knowledge of Blaine’s past, but she already knows it.  She hires Scarnes to drygulch McGuire; he kills McGuire’s horse, but McGuire gets him.  Blaine finds out and ends up having to kill McGuire anyway.  As he rides out of town and out of Lisa’s life, he tosses his own gunbelt into McGuire’s grave.  This time the old gunfighter has won, but it gives him no satisfaction.

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Marshal Blaine (Glenn Ford) has it out with Lisa (Angie Dickinson).

Excellent character actor Royal Dano plays Pretty Horse, a local Indian leader of indeterminate tribe.  This was director Richard Thorpe’s last movie.  Not really bad, but a bit unsatisfying.  This was Glenn Ford’s twentieth western.  He’d been making them for 25 years (see The Desperadoes for one of his earliest efforts), and wore the same hat that he had adopted in the 1950s and wore to the end of his career if given his choice.  Chad Everett was an up-and-coming young star, cast as a young gun in this and Return of the Gunfighter with Robert Taylor, before he moved into television for good.  Compare the gun in the grave touch with Ford’s similar ending to The Fastest Gun Alive ten years earlier (1956), or with the end of High Noon, for that matter, in which Gary Cooper throws his badge in the dust.  In color, at 105 minutes.

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Journey to Shiloh

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 26, 2014

Journey to Shiloh—James Caan, Don Stroud, Paul Peterson, Harrison Ford, Michael Sarrazin, (Jan) Michael Vincent, Brenda Scott, John Doucette, Noah Beery Jr., James Gammon (1968; Dir: William Hale)

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As the title may suggest, this is a Civil War story.  Buck Burnett (James Caan in a bad wig, following El Dorado) is the leader of a band of seven rough-hewn young Texans from Concho County on their way to fight for the south in the Civil War.  It starts out as a road-trip movie for about two-thirds of its length, as the seven make their way from Texas toward the war.  Along the way, hot-tempered gunman J.C. Sutton (Paul Peterson, overplaying his role) is killed in a crooked gambling game.  They try to help a runaway slave make his escape in Louisiana, but he’s caught and hung.  Buck forms a relationship with charming prostitute Gabrielle DuPrey (Brenda Scott) in Vicksburg.

The “Concho Comanches” were originally headed to Richmond, the Confederate capital.  They end up under Gen. Braxton Bragg (John Doucette) at Shiloh, where the last part of the film becomes a “war is hell” story.  Five of the remaining six (Michael Sarrazin, Don Stroud, Harrison Ford, Jan-Michael Vincent, etc.) are killed in various ways, and Burnett loses an arm (although it is rather obviously tucked inside his jacket).  Pretty much everybody dies.  Presumably Burnett heads back to Texas, or to Gabrielle.

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The Concho Comanches, with leader Buck Burnett (James Caan) in the center. On the right end is Harrison Ford in long hair.

Noah Beery and a young James Gammon are Confederate regulars who survive the battle.  The film is based on a story by western writer Will Henry.  Director William Hale only made a couple of movies, spending the rest of his career in television; the same is true of Brenda Scott.  This features very early appearances by Harrison Ford and Jan-Michael Vincent.  Paul Peterson, from television’s Donna Reed Show, also showed up as a young soldier in another Civil War story, A Time for Killing, about this time; his career wouldn’t go much farther.  This features late 1960s pro-civil rights, anti-war themes, not terribly well executed.  In color.

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Ten Wanted Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 24, 2014

Ten Wanted Men—Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Jocelyn Brando, Skip Homeier, Dennis Weaver, Leo Gordon, Lee Van Cleef (1955; Dir: H. Bruce Humberstone)

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Adam Stewart [seeing Campbell standing over a dead Grinnel]:  “I thought Grinnel was your friend?”
Wick Campbell:  “That’s what makes it so sad.  I’ve known him for years.  First time I was ever forced to kill a man, and it had to be a friend of mine.”

In Ocatilla, Arizona Territory, saloon owner Wick Campbell (Richard Boone) has romantic/material interests in his young female ward Maria Segura (Donna Martell).  When she defects to the protection (and romantic attentions) of young Howie Stewart (Skip Homeier, playing a good guy for a change), Campbell hires ten outlaws (including Leo Gordon and Lee Van Cleef) to start a range war, take over the town and take care of both Howie Stewart and his uncle John (Randolph Scott).  The ten are clearly too much for young local sheriff Clyde Gibbons (Dennis Weaver).  Howie is goaded into a gunfight with one of Campbell’s men, and he surprisingly wins.  Despite the fact that he shot in self-defense, false testimony forces the sheriff to put Howie in jail, but he breaks out.  John Stewart’s brother, peaceable lawyer Adam Stewart (Howie’s father) is killed by Campbell when he refuses to divulge Howie and Maria’s secret location.  Howie blames John for his father’s death.

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John Stewart:  “You know, Campbell, you’re not thinking straight.  Since you became a big man, you have the idea that everything should be done the way you want it, and that’s dangerous.  Better straighten yourself out before someone does it for you.”
Wick Campbell:  “You, Stewart?”
John Stewart:  “Possibly.”

The malevolent Campbell succeeds to some degree in his war before losing control of his outlaws and being killed by John Stewart.  Then it’s up to Stewart to get rid of the ten.  Stewart discovers Frank Scavo, formerly Campbell’s chief thug, robbing the safe in Campbell’s burning saloon.  During a vicious fight between Stewart and Scavo, a wall falls on Scavo and kills him.  A double marriage follows–John Stewart and Corinne Michaels, and Howie and Maria.

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Corinne Michaels (Jocelyn Brando) and John Stewart (Randolph Scott), romantically inclined.

Jocelyn Brando (Marlon’s sister) plays Corinne Michaels, John Stewart’s love interest.  Neither Scott nor Boone shows a glimmer of humor here.  Although Richard Boone was an excellent actor and could be particularly effective at playing a villain (The Tall T, Hombre, Big Jake), this is not his best work.  Boone wears a gun in a shoulder holster under his vest, in an unconventional rig for a western (but see Tyrone Power in 1939’s Jesse James for another example).  Leo Gordon is good as Frank Scavo, the chief thug among the ten wanted men.  There’s a fighting-with-dynamite scene, as in Rio Bravo four years later.  There is some overheated dialogue, and an unnecessarily twisted plot.  Slightly better than average, maybe, but not quite as good as Scott’s best work.  In color, at 80 minutes.  Two years later, Randolph Scott, Richard Boone and Skip Homeier would all reunite in The Tall T, directed by Budd Boetticher.

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The Wrath of God

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 21, 2014

The Wrath of God—Robert Mitchum, Victor Buono, Frank Langella, Rita Hayworth, Ken Hutchison, Gregory Sierra (1972; Dir: Ralph Nelson)

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Directed by Ralph Nelson, like Duel at Diablo and Soldier Blue; some think this is a parody, but it probably isn’t.  In 1922 in an unnamed central American country (it might even be in Mexico), Tomas de la Plata (a young Frank Langella) and his personal army of gunmen (led by Gregory Sierra) have taken over a town and the surrounding area for the last couple of years.  De la Plata has a strong anti-clerical streak, and a record of killing priests.  The authorities coerce Jennings, a British gunrunner (Victor Buono), Emmet Keogh, an IRA gunman (Ken Hutchison), and Van Horne, a bank-robbing, corrupt priest (Robert Mitchum) into an assassination attempt on de la Plata.

There follows kind of a muddled plot as the three, especially Van Horne, help the townspeople and form a relationship with each other, while the IRA man becomes attached romantically to an unlikely mute Indian princess (Paula Pritchett).  Van Horne takes up priestly activities, but it’s unclear how real or strong his conversion is.  Jennings and maybe Van Horne are killed in the assassination attempt, as are De la Plata and most of his men.  This was 52-year-old Rita Hayworth’s last movie (she plays De la Plata’s mother), and she had trouble remembering her lines because she was already beginning to show evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.  Langella and Mitchum took to abducting her to get her to the set on time.  Written by Jack Higgins, filmed around Cuernavaca, Mexico, and the old silver-mining ghost town of La Luz.  In color, at 111 minutes.  Art on the posters is by Frank McCarthy.

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De la Plata (Frank Langella) has his suspicions about Father Van Horne (Robert Mitchum), as well as a hatred of all priests.

Father Oliver Van Horne: “We three faced the firing squad together. Everything else is just borrowed time.”
Jennings: “God protects fools and drunks, not idiots.”

There’s a certain amount of 1970s-style iconoclasm about the film, with more humor and action than was usual.  The plot leaves a number of unanswered questions, but film critic Roger Ebert found that they didn’t hurt the finished cinematic product.  Mitchum played questionable or corrupt priests with guns in several movies; see The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud in addition to this.  It’s not entirely clear here whether he is a priest good with guns and booze, or a bank-robber good at playing a priest.  Mitchum was good in westerns generally, but this isn’t one of his best.  Rita Hayworth only made a couple of westerns, but she was better (and almost fifteen years younger) in They Came to Cordura.  Despite being hailed by Ebert as the “American Sophia Loren,” this was Pritchett’s last movie and only one of any note.  It was for Ken Hutchison as well.

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Call Him… Ringo

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 19, 2014

A Gunman Named Ringo

The historical Johnny Ringo was an Arizona gunman associated with Ike Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius and the outlaws known as the Cowboys around 1880 in Cochise County.  He may have been the most feared gunman among them, but that’s not clear.  He was found dead in a remote spot with a bullet in his head in 1882 at the age of 32, and nobody knows how he got the bullet or who put it there.  Since he often shows up as a character in movies about Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, some have been tempted to show Wyatt or Doc Holliday as the responsible party.  (See Michael Biehn’s death in Tombstone, for example—Biehn gives what is probably the best representation on film of the historical Ringo, although he is embellished somewhat.)  But nobody really knows the circumstances of Ringo’s death.  The coroner ruled that he died by suicide.  His reputation may have been exaggerated, but he had a great name for a gunman.  For historical background on the real Johnny Ringo, the definitive biography so far is probably Jack Burrows’ Johnny Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was (1987).

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The Ringo KId (John Wayne) stops the stage in Stagecoach (1939).

The name Ringo itself, like “Cimarron,” is redolent of the legends of the American west, and it has been used many times in fictional situations.  The best known are the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939), and Jimmy Ringo, an aging gunfighter played by Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter (1950), both sympathetic characters.  The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) has just broken out of the territorial prison, but he was there for a crime he didn’t commit and most people except the Plummer brothers seem to like him.  Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) has led a life of violence, which apparently causes him to draw challengers like flies, but now he wants to leave that life behind and reconcile with his estranged wife, making a family life with a son who doesn’t know him.

Several makers of spaghetti westerns were fond of the name Ringo, too.  Giuliano Gemma seemed to be the most frequent, or at least the best-known, Italian Ringo.  It just seems like a good, all-purpose name for a gunman or an outlaw.  Variations on it (Django, Rango) crop up in a variety of western films.  You never see it applied to a lawman, though.

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Above:  Gregory Peck as aging gunfighter Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter (1950); the studio hated Peck’s moustache and thought that it was why the movie didn’t do well at the box office, although the film is now regarded as a near-classic.  And Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo in Tombstone (1993), perhaps the best depiction on film of the actual Arizona gunman.  An educated man, he quotes the Bible and Latin aphorisms with seeming facility, although the real Johnny Ringo was unlikely to have had such an education.

The Oklahoma Kid (1937; Ringo, a sleazy lawyer)
Stagecoach (1939; The Ringo Kid)
The Gunfighter (1950; Jimmy Ringo)
Best of the Badmen (1951; Curley Ringo)
Montana Belle (1952; Ringo [Indian])
Gun Belt (1953; Billy Ringo)
City of Bad Men (1953, Johnny Ringo)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (1958; Johnny Ringo)
Toughest Gun in Tombstone (1958; Johnny Ringo)
Una Pistola per Ringo (1965)
Il Ritorno del Ringo (1965)
Stagecoach (1966; The Ringo Kid)
Django (1966; Ringo)
Stagecoach (1986; The Ringo Kid)
Tombstone (1993; Johnny Ringo)
Wyatt Earp (1994; Johnny Ringo)

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Unconquered

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 17, 2014

Unconquered—Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard, Howard Da Silva, Ward Bond, Boris Karloff, Mike Mazurki, Katherine DeMille, Cecil Kellaway (1947; Dir: Cecil B. DeMille)

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Gary Cooper had made a reputation in a variety of film genres in the 1920s and 1930s, including upscale westerns.  By the 1940s he was among the biggest stars in Hollywood, and he only made four westerns during the decade:  The Westerner and North West Mounted Police in 1940, Along Came Jones in 1945 and Unconquered in 1947.  North West Mounted Police and Unconquered were not the low-budget productions typical of the genre then.  They were directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and Unconquered was DeMille’s usual self-conscious epic, made with a large budget, in color and with a long playing time of 146 minutes.

Unconquered begins in 1763, the time of Pontiac’s Uprising in the northwest frontier of Britain’s American colonies, more than a decade before the Revolution.  Comely young English woman Abigail Hale (Paulette Goddard) is sentenced to death or transportation to the colonies in indentured servitude for helping her dying brother resist impressment into the Royal Navy.  She chooses transportation.  As the ship carrying her and other convicts nears the colonies, Abby attracts the interest of smooth but nefarious Indian trader Martin Garth (Howard Da Silva), who bullies the slave trader on the ship into auctioning her prematurely.  Unexpectedly, she is bought by Virginia militia Capt. Christopher Holden (Gary Cooper, not young at 46), who distrusts and wants to frustrate Garth.  Holden arranges for her to receive her freedom when he leaves the ship the next day, since he’s meeting his fiancée.

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Abby (Paulette Goddard) catches the eye of Indian trader Martin Garth (Howard Da Silva).

Holden’s plans go astray.  His fiancée Diana (Virginia Grey) reveals that she has married Holden’s brother, and Garth bullies the slave trader into giving him Abby’s freedom papers and reselling her to his henchman Bone (Mike Mazurki).  Holden ends up inland at the Peaketown Fair, where he meets his blacksmith friend John Fraser (Ward Bond), sees Abby again, meets with Col. George Washington (Richard Gaines) and Sir William Johnson, the King’s premier Indian agent.  They hear of Pontiac’s plans to inflame the northwestern tribes (western Senecas, Shawnees, Ottawas) in the western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan areas.  Holden agrees to carry wampum belts inviting the chiefs to a meeting, although he knows Garth’s Indian allies will be trying to kill him.  They do get his two scout comrades, but Holden makes it to Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania.

There he finds the garrison is both depleted and reluctant to believe him.  He also finds Abby working in Bone’s tavern, and he abducts her to use as bait for Garth.  At a ball, Holden manages to challenge Garth to a duel, but Garth and Bone make off with Abby to the camp of Guyasuta (Boris Karloff), chief of the western Senecas and Garth’s father-in-law.  They leave Abby with Guyasuta, but his warriors and women begin to torture her.  Holden finds her and uses apparent magic (gunpowder explosions, a compass) get her released.  Pursued by Guyasuta’s warriors, they head downriver in a canoe, shooting rapids and going over a waterfall where Holden arranges a wildly improbable grab of a conveniently overhanging tree branch just in time.

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Abby (Paulette Goddard) and Holden (Gary Cooper) head for the falls.

As they make their way to the fort at Venango, Holden and Abby find evidence of Indian raids and slaughtered settlers.  At Venango, evidence suggests that the fort surrendered when given promises of mercy but the inhabitants were slaughtered by the Indians anyway.  However, the garrison at Fort Pitt refuses to believe them, and Holden is court-martialed and imprisoned.  Abby promises Garth she’ll stay with him if he’ll arrange for Holden’s escape.  He does, but also arranges for sharpshooters to ambush Holden during the escape.  Garth’s spurned Seneca wife Hannah (Katherine DeMille, Cecil’s daughter) re-directs Holden but is shot herself.

Holden makes it to Col Henry Bouquet at Bushy Run looking for reinforcements for Fort Pitt, but finds Bouquet’s ranks depleted, too.  He arranges to borrow Bouquet’s drummers and pipers and a hundred dead men, using them to feign a relief column to chase off the Senecas now besieging Fort Pitt just as Fort Pitt is on the verge of surrendering as Venango did.  As Garth and Bone try to escape with Abby, Holden catches them in a stable and finally shoots it out with Garth.

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Holden (Gary Cooper) has it out with Garth (Howard Da Silva), as Bone (Mike Mazurki) and Abby (Paulette Goddard) look on.

Although this is watchable, it has a few elements that don’t work well with modern audiences.  The color cinematography by Ray Rennahan is excellent.  The heavy-handed introductory narration and the dialogue can be clunky, and the Indians are mostly evil stereotypes, as one might guess from the casting of Karloff.  Some critics at the time referred to this as “The Perils of Paulette,” because of the way she seems to move from crisis to crisis.  The production design is good; DeMille gets the uniforms, forts and firearms right.  Cooper and Goddard are both a little old for their roles, but they work well enough.  Goddard had several fights with DeMille during filming, and he would never cast her again in one of his movies.  Her accent in this film is decidedly not English.  This was also the last of Cooper’s four films with DeMille.  Howard Da Silva makes an excellent villain.  In his memoirs, DeMille said that he was not completely satisfied with the ending and thought it needed to be stronger.

By this time, Cecil B. DeMille had been making westerns for more than thirty years, since The Squaw Man in 1914, the first feature-length movie of any kind.  This was his last western, but not his best.  Both The Plainsman (1936) and Union Pacific (1941) are watched more than North West Mounted Police (1940) and this.  Unconquered was based on Neil Swanson’s novel The Judas Tree; he also wrote Allegheny Uprising, another colonial-period western starring John Wayne and Clair Trevor.  The river scenes were shot on the Snake River in Idaho, and look very good.  Iron Eyes Cody is both in the cast and listed as an Indian language consultant, but we now know that Cody, despite making a career as a cinematic, advertising and television Indian, was in fact the son of Sicilian immigrants.

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Guyasuta (Boris Karloff) with daughter Hannah (Katherine DeMIlle); and Cecil B. DeMille directs Paulette Goddard in her bath scene.

Although Pontiac never actually shows up in this film, the traditional historical work on his wars is Francis Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac, first published in 1851 but still readable.  Guyasuta was not the unrelievedly evil character depicted here although he consistently opposed the expansion of American settlement in the Ohio country.  For a recent biography see Brady Crytzer’s Guyasuta and the Fall of Indian America (2013), which not only describes his role in Braddock’s defeat, Pontiac’s uprising and the Battle of Bushy Run as mentioned in this film, but takes him all the way up through the American Revolution and the Battle of Oriskany (see Drums Along the Mohawk) to his participation in the Indian defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 by Mad Anthony Wayne.  For a description of the situation on the American frontier in 1763, see Colin Callaway’s The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (2006).

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Cattle King

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 14, 2014

Cattle King—Robert Taylor, Robert Middleton, William Windom, Ray Teal, Robert Loggia, Joan Caulfield, Malcolm Atterbury, Richard Devon (1963; Dir: Tay Garnett)

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An aging Robert Taylor plays the eponymous Cattle King:  Sam Brassfield, owner of the Teton Ranch in 1883 Wyoming Territory, presumably in Jackson Hole.  Early scenes set up depredations on the range, with masked men cutting fences, stampeding cattle and shooting a Teton Ranch hand in the back.

It turns out that Clay Matthews (a hefty Robert Middleton), another rancher based in Cheyenne is trying to foment a range war to clear the area so he can bring in cheap Texas cattle to flood the area.  Opposing Brassfield are flinty sheepman Abe Clevenger (Malcolm Atterbury) and weak-willed Harry Travers (William Windom), whose sister Sharleen (Joan Caulfield) agrees to marry Brassfield in the course of the movie.  Brassfield is supported by longtime foreman Ed Winters (Ray Teal) and Mexican cowboy/gunhand Johnny Quatro (a young Robert Loggia).

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The Cattle King of the title, Sam Brassfield (Robert Taylor).

The story is muddied by the passage of Pres. Chester Arthur (Larry Gates in lots of sidewhisker makeup and wig) through the state, from Cheyenne to Yellowstone Park.  Whenever he shows up, everything gets ponderous.  Eventually the Travers siblings are shot by Matthews’ gunman Vince Bodine (Richard Devon), and Sharleen is killed.  It brings on a final unconvincing showdown between Brassfield and Matthews, who doesn’t look like he’s any hand with a gun to rival Brassfield.

Clunky dialogue by writer Thomas Thompson (also an associate producer), arbitrary plot turns, too many unnecessary characters, relentless and unconvincing pacifism by Brassfield, meaningless presidential interludes, and little sense of Wyoming geography (Jackson Hole and Cheyenne are at opposite ends of a sizeable state) work against the film.  The settings look more like California (which they are) than Wyoming and the Tetons.  In color, at 90 minutes.

This doesn’t give Robert Taylor his best material to work with.  For better Taylor westerns, see Ambush, Devil’s Doorway, Westward the Women and The Last Hunt, among others.  Robert Middleton was an exceptional character actor, sometimes a bad guy as he is here, but often benevolent or a character of mixed motivations.  See him also in The Law and Jake Wade (again with Robert Taylor), Friendly Persuasion, and Big Hand for the Little Lady, among others.  Robert Loggia is young-ish here; see him as aging outlaw Frank Jarrett in Bad Girls thirty years later.

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Westerns and Religion

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 12, 2014

Westerns and Religion

From at least the 1910s, a common theme in western movies has been the outlaw or gunman whose life is turned around by religion and the love of a good woman (see William S. Hart in Hell’s Hinges, 1916, for example).  In the age of populist directors like Frank Capra and John Ford (the 1930s and 1940s), religion—specifically Protestant Christianity, but also Catholicism—was seen as a constructive and regular part of the American consensus.  A religious community was usually a civilizing influence, often with a significant dose of sentimentality.  Sometimes that religion and its role in American life was central to the story of a western, as in 3 Godfathers, Angel and the Badman and Stars in My Crown (all very good movies).  When Gregory Peck found that his quest for revenge had been misdirected in The Bravados, he sought and found solace by talking with a priest.

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Moving into the 1960s, there was increasing disillusionment with many American institutions, such as the military, government and big business, and some of that rubbed off on churches as well.  Religion seemed less comfortable and less a significant part of regular life, and religious figures started to be more often fanatical than helpful or genuinely good.  Priests were more frequently depicted as ineffectual, fallen or corrupt.  By the revisionist 1970s, religion as a constructive force had disappeared almost entirely from westerns.  That trend in part makes the 1999 made-for-television Purgatory kind of a remarkable throwback in its use of religious themes.

Specific religious groups can play interesting roles in westerns.  An obvious example is Quaker pacifism pitted against conventional western violence and guns, as in Angel and the Badman, High Noon and Friendly Persuasion.  Mormons were a part of the history of the west, both in their migration westward and in the Salt Lake City-based empire they built in Utah and surrounding states.  Fictional Mormons in the west had been prominent as villains in A. Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet (published in 1887), and in Zane Grey’s first best-seller Riders of the Purple Sage (1912).  Beginning in the 1920s, Mormons were more likely to be seen as genuinely religious people and more part of the mainstream of history.  In California and the southwest, as well as in Mexico, the Catholic church and missions played a significant role historically and in many movies (see Colorado Territory and Strange Lady in Town, for example, not to mention such arguable non-westerns as Black Robe and The Mission).

Sometimes, as in Cowboys & Aliens, both the Christian and the overtly non-religious otherworldly co-exist in the same film.  For more outrageous directions in use of the supernatural in westerns, see our post on Supernatural Westerns.

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A Sentimental Christianity

Hell’s Hinges (1916):  When the corrupt town of Hell’s Hinges kills the new reverend, gunman Blaze Tracy (William S. Hart), under the influence of the reverend’s sister Faith, reforms the town with his guns.

Bad Bascomb (1946):  Outlaw Wallace Beery falls in with Mormons and turns over a new leaf under the influence of charming child Margaret O’Brien and her grandmother Marjorie Main.

Heaven Only Knows (1947):  Also released as Montana Mike, this is a religious fantasy in which an angel (Robert Cummings) comes to earth to save saloon owner Brian Donlevy.

Angel and the Badman (1947):  Gunman John Wayne is redeemed by his love for Quaker maiden Gail Russell.

3 Godfathers (1948):  Three outlaws in the desert rescue and sacrifice for a newborn baby. The survivor (John Wayne) is redeemed by that sacrifice on Christmas Day.

Four Faces West (1948):  A bank robber (Joel McCrea) trying to go straight saves a Mexican family with diphtheria and is himself saved by a good nurse and a sympathetic lawman.

Stars in My Crown (1950):  Preacher and Civil War veteran Joel McCrea preaches in a saloon and fights disease and bigotry in Tennessee.

Count Three and Pray (1955):  Reformed brawler and womanizer Van Heflin returns from the Civil War and struggles to find acceptance and his way as a preacher.

Strange Lady in Town (1955):  The saintly local Catholic priest (Walter Hampden) maintains a clinic for the poor, at which competing local doctors volunteer, until he is unintentionally killed near the end of the movie.

The Searchers (1956):  Texas ranger captain and Indian fighter Ward Bond is also the local reverend.

Friendly Persuasion (1956):  Husband and wife Quakers (Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire) pit their pacifist principles against the violence around them in Civil War Indiana.

Jubal (1956):  Glenn Ford’s Jubal is saved by a Quaker-like group of emigrants to whom he had been kind.

The Bravados (1958):  When he finds that his quest for revenge for the murder of his wife has been misdirected, Gregory Peck seeks spiritual advice from a Catholic priest and from Joan Collins.

Heaven with a Gun (1969):  Ex-con Jim Killian (Glenn Ford) maintains order in his church and defends the helpless with his guns.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970):  Prostitute Shirley MacLaine masquerades as a nun while working south of the border with Clint Eastwood.

Pale Rider (1985):  Preacher Clint Eastwood finds himself among beleaguered homesteaders battling mining interests, and reverts to his gunfighting past.

Purgatory (MfTV, 1999):  An outlaw gang finds itself in a curiously religious town which is reluctant to defend itself.

The Outsider (MfTV, 2002):  Wounded gunman Tim Daly is doctored by Quaker-ish widow Naomi Watts; this time the gunman convinces the woman to leave the religion.

The Missing (2003).  Traditional Christianity in the person of healer Cate Blanchett collides with the Indian animism espoused by her father Tommy Lee Jones, with ambiguous results.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011).  The local preacher doctors Daniel Craig’s wounded body and spirit before they both ride off to fight aliens.

Forsaken (2015).  Gunman John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland), long estranged from his father, Rev. John Clayton (Donald Sutherland), finally returns to his hometown in Wyoming to seek rapprochement after his mother’s death.  However, the railroad is coming to town, and Brian Cox is trying to take over all the land.  The now-reformed killer will have to choose his path ahead.

The Magnificent Seven (2016).  As Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington) and the rest of the seven defend a California mining town under assault by the forces of a mining baron, a subtext is the role of religion in the community and the rejection of/contempt for religion by the bad guy.

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Robert Mitchum as the Rev. Jonathan Rudd in Five Card Stud. Note the gun on top of the bible.

Priests, Fallen and Otherwise

Heaven Only Knows (John Litel, 1947)
Stars in My Crown (Joel McCrea, 1950)
Count Three and Pray (Van Heflin, 1955)
Strange Lady in Town (Walter Hampden, 1955)
The Searchers (Ward Bond, 1956)
Stranger at My Door (Macdonald Carey, 1956)
The Ride Back (Victor Millan, 1957)
The Bravados (Andrew Duggan, 1958)
The Outrage (William Shatner, 1964)
Major Dundee (R.G. Armstong, 1965)
The Way West (Jack Elam, 1967)
Guns for San Sebastian (Sam Jaffe and Anthony Quinn, 1968)
Will Penny (Donald Pleasance, 1968)
Five Card Stud (Robert Mitchum, 1968)
Heaven with a Gun (Glenn Ford, 1969)
The Desperados (Jack Palance, 1969)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (David Warner, 1970)
Buck and the Preacher (Harry Belafonte, 1972)
The Wrath of God (Robert Mitchum, 1972)
God’s Gun (Lee Van Cleef, 1976)
The Frisco Kid (Rabbi Gene Wilder, 1979)
Pale Rider (Clint Eastwood, 1985)
Red Headed Stranger (Willie Nelson, 1986)
The Quick and the Dead (Russell Crowe, 1995)
Riders of the Purple Sage (G.D. Spradlin, MfTV, 1996)
The Outsider (Keith Carradine, MfTV, 2002)
Cowboys & Aliens (Clancy Brown, 2011)
Klondike (Sam Shepard, MfTV, 2014)

Forsaken (Donald Sutherland, 2016)

The Duel (Woody Harrelson, 2016)

The Magnificent Seven (Mark Ashworth, 2016)

In a Valley of Violence (Burn Gorman, 2016)

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Gary Cooper with two Quaker wives:  with Grace Kelly in High Noon, and with Dorothy McGuire in Friendly Persuasion.

Quakers (and Quaker-like Groups) in the West

Angel and the Badman (Gail Russell, 1947)
High Noon (Grace Kelly, 1952)
The Iron Mistress (George Voskovec as Audubon, 1952)
Friendly Persuasion (Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire, 1956)
Jubal (Felicia Farr et al., 1956)
Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (Randolph Scott and James Garner as fake Quakers, 1957)
The Proud Rebel (Cecil Kellaway, 1958)
Cheyenne Autumn (Carroll Baker, 1964)
The Outsider (Naomi Watts et al., MfTV 2002)

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Charlton Heston as Brigham Young instructs Tom Berenger in The Avenging Angel.

Mormons and Brigham Young:

Riders of the Purple Sage: Most versions before the 1996 made-for-television film featured Mormons as the bad guys, as in Zane Grey’s 1912 novel. The 1996 re-telling is carefully non-denominational.
Brigham Young–Dean Jagger, Vincent Price, Tyrone Power (1940; Dir: Henry Hathaway)
Bad Bascomb—Wallace Beery, Margaret O’Brien (1946)
Wagon Master—Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr., Joanne Dru, Ward Bond, Jane Darwell (1950; Dir: John Ford)
The Big Gundown—Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian (1966; Dir: Sergio Soliima)
Brigham—Maurice Grandmaison, Richard Moll (1977; Dir: Tom McGowen)
Savage Journey—Maurice Grandmaison, Richard Moll (MfTV, 1983; Dir: Tom McGowen)
The Avenging Angel—Tom Berenger, Charlton Heston, Kevin Tighe, James Coburn (MfTV 1995; Dir: Craig R. Baxley)
September Dawn—Terence Stamp, Trent Ford, Lolita Davidovitch, John Voight, Dean Cain (2007; Dir: Christopher Cain)

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The vengeful Rev. Dahlstrom (R.G. Armstrong) meets his end in Major Dundee.

Religious Fanatics

Santa Fe Trail (Raymond Massey as John Brown, 1940)
Dawn at Socorro (Forrest Taylor, 1954)
The Hanging Tree (George C. Scott, 1959)
Ride the High Country (R.G. Armstrong, 1962)
Major Dundee (R.G. Armstrong, 1965)
Will Penny (Donald Pleasance, 1968)
Sweetwater (Jason Isaacs, 2013)

The Duel (Woody Harrelson, 2016)

Nuns in the West

Two Mules for Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine, 1970)
Madron (Leslie Caron, 1970)

September Gun (Patty Duke Astin, 1983)

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Clint Eastwood as The Preacher in Pale Rider.

Preachers with Guns

Stars in My Crown (Joel McCrea, 1950)
Count Three and Pray (Van Heflin, 1955)
The Searchers (Ward Bond, 1956)
Guns for San Sebastian (Anthony Quinn, 1968)
Five Card Stud (Robert Mitchum, 1968)
Heaven with a Gun (Glenn Ford, 1969)
Buck and the Preacher (Harry Belafonte, 1972)
The Wrath of God (Robert Mitchum, 1972)
God’s Gun (Lee Van Cleef, 1976)
Pale Rider (Clint Eastwood, 1985)

The Quick and the Dead (Russell Crowe, 1995)
Cowboys & Aliens (Clancy Brown, 2011)

In a Valley of Violence (Burn Gorman, 2016)

 

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Robert Mitchum as Father Van Horne in The Wrath of God. The Thompson submachine gun is not a typical armament for a western. Poster art by Frank McCarthy.

Guns in Bibles

Santa Fe Trail (1940)
Cat Ballou (1965)
Five Card Stud (1968)
Buck and the Preacher (1972)

Sermons in Saloons

Stars in My Crown (1950)
The Deadly Companions (1961)

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Blaze Tracy (William S. Hart) romances the Reverends’s sister Faith Henley (Clara Williams) in Hell’s Hinges.

Symbolic Women Named Faith

Hell’s Hinges (Clara Williams, 1916)
Stars in My Crown (Amanda Blake, 1950)

 

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The Virginian (2000)

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 10, 2014

The Virginian—Bill Pullman, Diane Lane, Harris Yulin, John Savage, Colm Feore, Dennis Weaver, Gary Farmer (Made for television, 2000; Dir: Bill Pullman)

The fact that The Virginian is one of the oldest of western stories reminds us of how recent the history of the west is.  Owen Wister’s 1902 novel was the first western bestseller, and it has been made as a movie several times, most recently in 2014.  The best one is generally thought to be the 1929 early sound version with Gary Cooper as the Virginian, which can be very difficult to find now, since it has never been made available on DVD.  This 2000 made-for-television version is at least the second best on film; it may be the best.

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Like some of the older western stories that have been remade multiple times from the early days of movies, the story in many of the versions of The Virginian has not aged well.  Modern viewers may have trouble understanding the motivations of the characters and sometimes even the dialogue.  This effort, directed by its star, Bill Pullman, is a mostly successful attempt to update the characters in terms of making them intelligible to modern viewers while retaining the flavor of a bygone era in the dialogue and interactions of the characters.  It is one of the classic western tales: an easterner goes west, leaves civilization and must learn new ways.  In this case, the easterner is schoolmarm Molly Stark (Diane Lane) from Bennington, Vermont, who comes to Medicine Bow in Wyoming Territory in 1885.

Arriving in Medicine Bow, Molly is taken to the remote ranch of Judge Henry (Harris Yulin in long hair).  When the wagon she’s riding in has problems, she’s rescued by the Virginian (Bill Pullman), one of Judge Henry’s riders.  He appears to be taken with her and is more direct about his interest than a well-brought-up easterner would be.  Judge Henry and other ranchers are having trouble with rustlers who seem to have some connection with rancher Sam Balaam (Dennis Weaver).  When the Judge promotes the Virginian to be his foreman, Trampas (Colm Feore) quits rather than work for the Virginian, and the Virginian’s good friend Steve (John Savage) unexpectedly leaves as well.  While rounding up horses, the badly outnumbered Virginian has to shoot it out with several rustlers and is gravely wounded.  He lies bleeding on the ground, where Molly eventually finds him by following his horse Monty, and she nurses him back to health.  They grow closer in the process.

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As soon as the Virginian can ride, he is called upon to lead a band of riders against the rustlers.  They capture two of them, one of whom is the Virginian’s friend Steve and, according to the code of their time and place, must hang the two.  Molly is horrified to learn of the Virginian’s role in this, but they talk it out and continue with their plans to marry.  On the day of the wedding, a rider (James Drury, who played the Virginian in the 1960s television series) delivers a message that Trampas has killed two federal officers who were trying to deal with the rustlers and is now waiting for the Virginian in the Medicine Bow saloon.  Molly insists that the Virginian not go, but a man’s gotta do … well, you know.  As later stories would put it (John Wayne in Stagecoach, Randolph Scott in The Tall T), some things a man can’t ride around.

The Virginian rides into Medicine Bow, and we can see men, presumably with guns, on top of two or three buildings.  Leaving his own men outside, he walks straight in, leaving it up to Trampas.  Facing off, they agree to have the piano player play the Battle Hymn of the Republic and both draw when he comes to the phrase “His truth is marching on.”  The result should surprise no one, but it’s effective.  The Virginian grabs Sam Balaam, who’s behind it all, and forces him to call off the men stationed on the buildings.  The Judge’s wife tells the Virginian that Molly has gone back to Vermont, not on to Oregon as she has threatened for most of the movie.  In the closing scene, the Virginian, hat and all, appears in Bennington, Vermont, and there is an appropriate, if belated, rapprochement between him and Molly.  Presumably they live happily ever after.  In Wyoming Territory.  (Note that in the final scene, just before the credits, Molly appears to be riding the Virginian’s horse Monty, while he rides another horse, and we know how he feels about Monty.  So his commitment to Molly must be pretty high, too.)

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Bill Pullman is good with the Virginian’s little hesitances in speech and old-fashioned dialogue.  Unlike other versions of the story, he is not already Judge Henry’s foreman, previously having come to be held in high regard, and his experiences with a gun are limited.  Diane Lane is decent, if occasionally a little stiff, as Molly Stark; but she’s better than the wooden Barbara Britton, who played Molly in the 1946 version with Joel McCrea.  Colm Feore makes a little more intelligible Trampas’ antipathy for the Virginian.  Partly it’s pride and personal dislike of the Virginian, and partly it’s goading from Sam Balaam.  John Savage is not as warm and friendly as Steve is usually portrayed. Harris Yulin is remote and not terribly avuncular as Judge Henry.  Dennis Weaver does well as the weaselly Sam Balaam.

The production design is good, particularly Molly Stark’s riding hat.  While the film does not always flow entirely smoothly, there are a lot of good small touches, too.  The saloon in Medicine Bow has a bobcat and a peregrine falcon as live parts of the decor.  As the Virginian strides toward the saloon with his life in turmoil, his future in doubt and his relationship with Molly perhaps gone forever, he nevertheless notes Balaam’s men with rifles on the roofs of surrounding buildings.  When he gets closer, he thinks he sees Steve around one corner nod and smile in approval for what he’s doing, although he knows Steve is dead.  The use of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the device for timing the draw works well.

As has become common for westerns over the last couple of decades, this was filmed in Alberta, with good cinematography and frequent shots from above, giving a flavor of the remoteness and wildness of the land.  Since Molly Stark’s school house and cabin are remote even from from Judge Henry’s ranch, it’s surprising that she might not have found herself to be in danger in such a wild and lawless country.  In all, this is worth watching, a worthy update of a western story that some might consider old-fashioned.  It even has a high degree of re-watchability.  Perhaps we can hope for equally worthy updates of Whispering Smith or The Spoilers.  In color, at 95 minutes.

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After dealing with Trampas, the Virginian (Bill Pullman) negotiates with Sam Balaam (Dennis Weaver).

For Bill Pullman in another western, he has a brief role as Ed Masterson (Bat’s brother) in Wyatt Earp.  Diane Lane, of course, had a prominent role in Lonesome Dove.  Gary Farmer, who plays the heavy cowboy Buster, was Johnny Depp’s Indian guide Nobody in Dead Man.  For another decent TNT production of an older western story, see Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in Zane Grey’s story Riders of the Purple Sage.

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Bad Girls

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 7, 2014

Bad Girls—Madeleine Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Drew Barrymore, Andie MacDowell, Dermot Mulroney, James Russo, James LeGros, Robert Loggia, Nick Chinlund (1994; Dir: Jonathan Kaplan)

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This is a modern feminist fantasy set in the southwest in 1891, with a few anachronistic touches.  Despite what one might expect from that description, it is (a) directed by a male and (b) fairly successful as a western.

The four women of the title are “bad” because they meet while working as prostitutes in a saloon in Echo City, Colorado.  When a socially-prominent customer referred to as “the Colonel” becomes abusive to Anita Crown (Mary Stuart Masterson), Cody Zamora (Madeleine Stowe, who may have been the most beautiful woman in the movies in the early 1990s) gives him a warning, and, when he pulls a gun and starts shooting, she coolly shoots him.  She is about to be lynched for the shooting, when her three compatriots, Anita, Lilly Laronette (Drew Barrymore) and Eileen Spenser (Andie MacDowell), rescue her and they all ride out of town.  The Colonel’s widow hires Pinkertons to go after them.

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The girls: Mary Stuart Masterson, Drew Barrymore, Andie MacDowell and Madeleine Stowe.

Anita, who is a young widow, still has her husband’s homestead claim in Oregon, where she proposes to start a sawmill.  Cody has more than $12,000 in savings to help start the venture.  They head for Agua Dulce, a town not far from the Rio Grande in south Texas, where Cody’s money is in a local bank.  While trying to withdraw her money, Cody encounters a bank robbery being conducted by Kid Jarrett (James Russo) and his gang, with whom she has history.  The Kid makes off with her money, too, which she takes as an invitation to visit.  Eileen, who is not good with horses, is captured.  While in jail, she strikes up a conversation with modest rancher William Tucker (James LeGros), who eventually allows her to escape.

Cody heads south of the border to the Jarrett gang’s retreat.  The Kid’s father Frank (Robert Loggia), once head of the gang, had taken Cody in when she was fourteen.  Although he says he’ll give her back her money, the Kid beats her badly for leaving them years ago.  She is found barely able to ride by Joshua McCoy (Dermot Mulroney), who smuggles her back into Agua Dulce and gets her injuries tended.  He has been hunting the Jarrett gang because Frank Jarrett killed his father, stole their claim and caused his mother to fall into prostitution and an early death.

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James Russo as outlaw chieftain Kid Jarrett.

Cody knows that Kid Jarrett plans to hit a train to get gold and a gatling gun.  She, the three other girls and McCoy and Tucker, using dynamite, instead interrupt the robbery and take the gun and Frank Jarrett, while the Kid makes off with Lily.  Although they plan to trade Frank for Lily, Frank taunts McCoy into killing him, and Cody forces McCoy to leave.  He goes back to the Jarretts’ retreat and kills several of them, helping Lilly escape.

When Cody, Anita, Lilly and Eileen bring the gatling gun to trade for Cody’s money, the Kid agrees but kills McCoy, precipitating a general gunfight.  The girls are surprisingly good with guns.  Finally it comes down to the Kid against Cody, and she wins.  They bury McCoy, Eileen stays with William, and Cody, Anita and Lilly head off for the Klondike.  They ride off into the sunset as the now-bumbling Pinkertons question a rancher in the foreground.

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Eileen (Andie MacDowell), Lilly (Drew Barrymore) and Cody (Madeleine Stowe) shoot it out with Jarrett’s gang.

With a large cast like this, and only 99 minutes, some elements of character and plot are bound to be underdeveloped.  Lilly, in particular, although there is the implication of a lesbian relationship with Eileen, seems not fleshed out enough.  Andie MacDowell never is very convincing with guns.  The real women of the west, obviously, were not this glamorous.  The four female leads are good in their roles generally, and, surprisingly enough, so are three of the male characters:  Dermot Mulroney as McCoy, James LeGros as the low-key William Tucker, and James Russo as Kid Jarrett, who nevertheless seems a bit over the top in his loathsomeness.  (Apparently being a bad guy in westerns was a good fit.  See him also as a talkative white slaver in Broken Trail, and as a corrupt marshal in Open Range.)  The excellent music is by Jerry Goldsmith and occasionally elegant cinematography by Ralf Bode.  The “extended cut” of the movie available on DVD is not much longer than the theatrical release version (100-104 minutes), but is said to include an additional nude shot or two.  Both versions are rated R.

Tamra Davis started as director of this film, with a script written by Yolande Turner and Becky Johnston.  A few weeks into filming, the production company became unhappy with the direction the film was taking.  They shut down production, replaced Davis with Jonathan Kaplan, had the script completely rewritten and sent the four main actresses off to “cowboy camp” to learn how to shoot, rope and ride.  Drew Barrymore, in particular, was unhappy with the sacking of Davis.  The new writing is nothing remarkable.  The set used for Kid Jarrett’s hideout was built for Alamo: The Price of Freedom (1988).  Kid Jarrett’s room is the Alamo set interior, designed by Roger Ragland.  The town is on location in Alamo Village, Bracketville, Texas, designed by Alfred Ybarra for John Wayne’s production of The Alamo (1960).

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Three of the stars (Masterson, Barrymore and MacDowell) with director Kaplan.

So what’s anachronistic here?  The women often wear pants and attire of other sorts that weren’t worn in the 1890s, at least by women in public.  The use of “Cody” as a first name is fairly recent, and even then is almost always male.  The Klondike references are about seven years too early in 1891.  The women’s social attitudes are obviously more 1990s than 1890s.  For earlier westerns focusing on women, see William Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951) and George Marshall’s Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957), both of which feature Hope Emerson.  For Madeleine Stowe in another western, see her in Last of the Mohicans (1992).  For another variation on the female buddy western, see Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz in Bandidas (2003).

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