Monthly Archives: January 2015

Paint Your Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 29, 2015

Paint Your Wagon—Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, Harve Presnell, Ray Walston (1969; Dir: Josh Logan)

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Of course Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood are naturals for westerns, but for musicals?  Not so much.  So the question for Paint Your Wagon is:  Is it more a western or more a musical?  Despite the fact that it has Broadway star Harve Presnell (as gambler Rotten Luck Willie) on hand to sing the major musical number “They Call the Wind Maria,” Presnell’s big-time voice simply emphasizes that Marvin, Eastwood and Jean Seberg (whose singing is dubbed but still not impressive) are not really singers themselves.  The musical numbers mostly aren’t terribly memorable or well sung, but this isn’t very satisfying as a western, either.

By 1960, Alan Jay Lerner (the lyricist) and Frederick Loewe (the composer) were the apparent successors to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as the pre-eminent team turning out musicals for the stage and movies (My Fair Lady, Gigi, Brigadoon, Camelot).  Josh Logan, as a director, was known principally for his work in big stage and movie plays and musicals.  By the end of the decade, though, large-scale movie musicals were becoming an endangered species despite the success of Funny Girl (1968), and Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly represented the last gasp of the genre.  This is perhaps the least memorable of all the movies made of Lerner and Loewe musicals.  And the American public seemed to be losing its taste for such things in any event.

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Pardner (Clint Eastwood) and Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) make a discovery.

In the gold country of northern California, statehood seems imminent, so it is about 1850.  A landslide kills a Michigan farmer making his way to the goldfields and injures his brother (Clint Eastwood).  As Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) and others prepare to bury the deceased brother, they discover gold in the grave.  A mining camp (No Name City) springs up on the site, and Rumson and the brother, known only as Pardner, become partners in a gold claim.

Jacob Woodling (John Mitchum), a Mormon with two wives, is passing through; they are enthralling to the exclusively male inhabitants of No Name City.  The wives don’t get along and the Woodlings need money, so Jacob is willing to auction off the younger wife, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg), with her consent.  An inebriated Ben Rumson buys her for $800, and she agrees to the arrangement if he’ll build her a permanent cabin.  He does.

Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, and Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon, 1969.

The newly married couple and their Pardner (Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg and Lee Marvin).

In order to divert unwanted attention from his wife, the only woman in the vicinity, Rumson leads an expedition to hijack a stage carrying six “French bawds.”  They set up an establishment in No Name City and the settlement grows like a weed.  While Rumson was gone, Pardner and Elizabeth formed a relationship, and Rumson, Pardner and Elizabeth become a more or less comfortable threesome.  But matters are complicated by the arrival of a preacher, and by the Fentys, a farming family recovering after a near-death experience while trapped in the mountains.  They are staying at the Rumson cabin and are religious people who would be horrified at the unorthodox relationships in the household.  So Ben moves (temporarily) to accommodations in town, while he corrupts the Fenty’s son Horton (Tom Ligon), who takes readily to liquor, gambling and loose women.

[Spoilers follow.]  Meanwhile, Ben and Mad Jack Duncan (Ray Walston) tunnel under the establishments in town in order to get the gold dust that falls through the floorboards.  With Rumson and Duncan having honeycombed the town with tunnels, those tunnels and the town itself begin to collapse during a large bull vs. bear sporting event.  Rather than rebuild, most of the inhabitants of No Name City decide to move on, including Ben Rumson.  Elizabeth has always been adamant that she wants to stay permanently with her cabin, but after the influence of the Fentys she is no longer comfortable with her former domestic arrangements.  But Pardner stays with her, and with the departure of Rumson her situation becomes more conventional.  His name turns out to be Sylvester Newel, although he is still addressed as Pardner.

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The cast and director behind the scenes during filming; Alan Jay Lerner chats with Clint Eastwood.

The play was first produced on Broadway in 1951 and took eighteen years to make its way to film.  It was not thought to represent Lerner and Loewe’s very best work.  The film is said to bear little relation to the original play, however.  After the success of several musical films in the 1960s, most notably My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), producers went looking for other projects to make, and the idea of Paint Your Wagon was revived for consideration.  The original plot, about an inter-ethnic love story, was discarded as being too dated.  The only elements retained from the original were the title, the Gold Rush setting and about half of the songs. In the play, Elizabeth has a very minor role, Pardner does not even appear, and Ben Rumson dies at the end.

There was a lot of talent at work on this film, with a big budget that unintentionally got bigger as production went along.  In addition to director Logan and the Lerner-Loewe team, the principal writer in adapting Lerner’s screenplay was Paddy Chayefsky.  Additional music is by André Previn, and Nelson Riddle and Roger Wagner conducted.  Incidental music is provided by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose members show up as extras and townspeople.  The movie was sumptuously shot by William A. Fraker near Baker, Oregon, and Big Bear Lake in California, and it’s long at 158 minutes (more than two and a half hours).  It often feels slow, with excessive drunken roistering by Rumson.  The collapsing tunnels and town sequence takes too long and is too elaborately staged.  (“Over-produced” is the term Roger Ebert used.)  The central conflict, with the evolution of Elizabeth’s domestic arrangements, does not feel all that organic or convincing.  For a fan of westerns, the principal interest in this is as a curiosity, to watch Eastwood and Marvin, both normally excellent actors, out of their element in a musical.  Although he appears much older in the film, Marvin was in fact only six years older than Eastwood at the time.  Marvin’s version of “Wand’rin’ Star” rose to No. 1 on the charts in the U.K., strangely enough.

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Relics of another era:  A poster by psychedelic master Peter Max; and a Swedish poster.

Lee Marvin was set to star in The Wild Bunch, but Paramount offered him $1 million plus a percentage to star in this one instead.  Apparently Josh Logan found Lee Marvin’s drunken roistering excessive as well, especially that not captured on film.  Unlike normal film practices, the liquids Marvin consumed on film were mostly actual liquor.  “Not since Attila the Hun swept across Europe, leaving five hundred years of total blackness, has there been a man like Lee Marvin,” according to Logan.

For another western comedy that starts with the discovery of gold in a grave, see Support Your Local Sheriff (also 1969).

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Current Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 26, 2015

Westerns Current and In Production (2014-2017)

It will be no news to fans of western movies that not many of them are made by the big studios these days.  Such big-budget mainstream westerns last enjoyed a minor vogue in the first half of the 1990s, when Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven won Best Picture Oscars.  But the occasional such western continues to be made, and we look forward with hope when we hear about a new western in production with major talent.  Those listed below were released, or at least seen at film festivals, in 2014, or are currently in production and scheduled for release in 2015 or 2016.  Of course, statistically speaking only one or two of these are likely to be any good, but until we see them we can hope they all will be. This list is probably incomplete, and we’ll update it from time to time as we hear of others; if you know of another such major western production not included, leave a comment.  In due course, each of these will probably have its own post, unless it turns out to be terrible—and maybe there’ll be a post for it even then.

Having said all that, a recent publication referred to 2016’s Outlaws and Angels as part of a “wave of revivalist Westerns including The Hateful Eight, Bone Tomahawk and The Revenant that demonstrate how the Western, like all genres, really works as a way of reflecting the times in which it is made.”  So something larger may be happening, too.

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A Million Ways to Die in the West (released in May 2014; DVD out in October 2014).  Seth MacFarlane writes, directs and stars in this coarse and bawdy western comedy, with Neil Patrick Harris, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Sarah Silverman, and Giovanni Ribisi.  It did not get good reviews generally.

The Keeping Room (September 2014).  As the Civil War winds to an end, three southern women (Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Muna Otaru) take up arms to defend themselves against two deserters (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) from the fast-approaching Union army in this feminist empowerment quasi-western.  Daniel Barber directed, and Julia Hart wrote the screenplay.

The Homesman (released in November 2014; with the DVD out in February 2015).  Directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, with Hilary Swank in the other key role.  Based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout (The Shootist, They Came to Cordura), it met with a mixed critical reception and played only in art cinema houses, so it was not much seen.  The story of a woman (Swank) taking several mentally deranged women east from Nebraska to receive care, she is accompanied by a seedy ne’er-do-well (Jones) and a relationship of sorts develops in the course of their adventures.

The Salvation (seen at film festivals in 2014, including Cannes; slated for release in the U.S. in theaters and video-on-demand in late Feb. 2015).  Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green star in this Danish production about a former Danish soldier in the American west who seeks revenge for the murders of his family.

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Echoes of War (said to be in theaters in May 2015).  A former Confederate soldier (James Badge Dale, one of the brighter spots in the recent The Lone Ranger) returns home to Texas after the Civil War to find that all is not right there.  He becomes involved in a conflict with a brutal neighboring cattle rancher (William Forsythe) who has been harassing his family in his absence.  Described as “a western-thriller,” directed and co-written by Australian Kane Senes.

Slow West (screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015 and released in May 2015).  Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as a 16-year-old Scottish boy who befriends a mysterious bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) on the Colorado frontier of 1870 while in search of the woman he loves (Caren Pistorius).  A coming-of-age and coming-of-death story filmed in New Zealand.

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Kurt Russell in costume (and whiskers) for Bone Tomahawk.

Bone Tomahawk (released in theaters and video-on-demand in October 2015).  In this western with supernatural/thriller overtones, Kurt Russell stars as a sheriff leading a small band to rescue captives from cannibalistic cave dwellers.  Also starring Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, David Arquette, Lili Simmons and Sean Young.

Jane Got a Gun (looking for a distributor in mid-2015; originally set for release in September 2015, now looks like it will be out in Jan. 2016 from The Weinstein Company.  Available on DVD and VOD in late April 2016).  Natalie Portman tries to get a former lover (Joel Edgerton) to help her in rescuing her husband (Noah Emmerich) from the Bishop Boys, outlaws led by Ewan McGregor.  After a sometimes-troubled production, the film (directed by Gavin O’Connor) is now finished.

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The Revenant (filming in early 2015 near Calgary, Alberta; currently scheduled for general release in January 2016.  Available on DVD and VOD in April 2016.)  Leonardo Di Caprio stars as mountain man Hugh Glass, mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his companions in 1823.  Glass struggled alone more than 200 miles back to civilization in that condition, to find the men who had abandoned him.  With Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter; by Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who did (and won the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for) Birdman in 2014.  Based on a novel by Michael Punke.

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Director Alejandro Inarritu, at work on The Revenant.

The Ridiculous 6 (Netflix -produced western comedy, to be released on Netflix in Dec. 2015).  This Adam Sandler-penned work is said to be a satire on westerns generally and on The Magnificent Seven in particular.  In addition to Sandler, it stars Will Forte, Taylor Lautner, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, Terry Crews, Luke Wilson, Nick Nolte, Rob Schneider and Jorge Garcia.  Western comedies in general are hard to pull off well, and Sandler’s recent cinematic work does not inspire confidence.

The Hateful Eight (released in December 2015; available on DVD and VOD in April 2016).  Quentin Tarantino directs Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson in this hard, gritty tale about eight individuals, including bounty hunter Russell and a murderous female captive being brought to justice, all trapped together during a Wyoming blizzard.  The eight also include Tim Roth, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins and Michael Madsen.  Available in some locations in a 70 mm. version, it’s almost three hours long.

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Quentin Tarantino directs Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tim Roth in The Hateful Eight.

Diablo (released in theaters and VOD in Jan. 2016).  In this first western for Scott Eastwood (son of legendary western star Clint), he is a Civil War veteran in 1872 Colorado Territory, tracking Mexicans who have abducted his wife.  Walton Goggins, Danny Glover and Adam Beach co-star.  Rated R for violence.

Forsaken (released in Feb. 2016, in theaters and VOD).  Actors Kiefer and Donald Sutherland star in this story of a reforming gunslinger trying to remake a relationship with his preacher father.  In 1872, Civil War veteran and gunslinger John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) returns to his Wyoming hometown to patch things up.  But a local gang led by Brian Cox won’t quit pushing the father and son.  Demi Moore plays a former romantic interest, now married.  Directed by Jon Cassar, best known for his work on Kiefer Sutherland’s television series 24.  Rated R for violence and Brian Cox’s mouth.

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Real-life father and son Sutherlands play father and son in Forsaken.

The Duel (in theaters and VOD in late June 2016).  Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth and Alice Braga star in this R-rated tale of a Texas ranger (Hemsworth) investigating a series of unexplained deaths in the town of Helena, and the secrets of the town’s leader (Harrelson).   Directed by Australian Kieran Darcy-Smith.

Outlaws and Angels (shown at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; scheduled for release in July 2016).  Another Eastwood offspring in the family business (see Diablo).  “A western-thriller hybrid starring Chad Michael Murray, Teri Polo, Luke Wilson and Francesca Eastwood.  For the Tilden family, a home invasion turns into an even more dangerous game.  J T Mollner wrote and directed.”  (NY Times)

In a Valley of Violence (scheduled for release in 2016).  Ti West wrote and directed this revenge western set in the 1890s, with John Travolta, Ethan Hawke and Taissa Formiga.

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The Magnificent Seven (scheduled for release in Sept. 2016).  Antoine Fuqua directs this remake of the 1960 classic with a more racially diverse cast for the seven, still defending a town against dozens of bandits.  With a cast headed now by Denzel Washington in the Yul Brynner role, with Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke among those joining him, this is now in production.  This big-budget version, with a director known for action movies, is nevertheless a considerable risk.

Brimstone (shown at Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival in 2016; still looking for a U.S. distributor in Sept. 2016; finally released in March 2017).  Kit Harington, Dakota Fanning and Guy Pearce in a dark story of revenge with horror overtones.  Martin Koolhoven directs from his own screenplay.

Far Bright Star (pre-production announced in Nov. 2015).  Casey Affleck directs brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix in this tale of an aging cavalrymen leading green troopers in the fruitless 1916 pursuit of Pancho Villa across northern Mexico.  Based on a novel by Robert Olmstead.  (Echoes of They Came to Cordura.)

Z (production to begin in fall 2016 at Pinewood Dominican Republic Studios).  Director-writer Jonas Cuaron heads this remake of the Zorro story set in the near future, to star Gael Garcia Bernal.

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Writer-director Thadd Turner is clearly at home with westerns, having portrayed Wyatt Earp in the documentary series Cowboys and Outlaws for the History Channel.

Palominas (supposedly scheduled for release in February 2017).  Wes Studi, Ryan Merriman and Michael Parks star in writer-director Thadd Turner’s story of a rancher and a down-trodden sheriff confronting outlaws on the Mexican border at the end of the 19th century.

The Hard Ride (said to be “in development” for a potential release in late 2017).  Like Palominas, this is also written and directed by Thadd Turner.  It is said to involve action around a “legendary gunfighter” and his friends in Deadwood in 1876.  Stars include Ryan Merriman and Buck Taylor.  At one time Val Kilmer (as Bill Hickok) and Elizabeth Shue were attached to the project, but apparently no longer.

 

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Colonial Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 22, 2015

Colonial Westerns

It’s a stretch to call these “westerns” in the usual sense, since geographically they mostly take place somewhere east of the Mississippi—or even in eastern Canada and Paraguay (South America) in the case of Black Robe and The Mission.  They take place earlier than 1800.  But they are all stories set on the frontiers of their times, involving contact with often-hostile Indians and the hardships of life on the frontier, in a largely untamed natural setting.  They take place in the “west” of their times, on the frontier where white settlers are few and the interface with Indians is critical to their survival.  To sum up, then, these all (1) take place during the colonial era of their respective nations’ history (before 1800, in the case of the U.S.); (2) are set on the frontier of their respective colonies at the time, usually a western frontier; and (3) almost invariably involve Indians, usually as the primary antagonists.

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Last of the Mohicans (1920 and 1936)  A story based in upstate New York during the French and Indian War, around the British surrender of Fort William Henry in 1757 to the French and its aftermath.  Based on the famous 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)  Takes place in upstate New York during the American Revolution (specifically, the Battle of Oriskany), showing the effects of Indian warfare on the settlers, including Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert.  Based on the 1936 bestseller by Walter Edmonds, directed by John Ford.

Allegheny Uprising (1939)  A story set in Pennsylvania, based on the uprising of James Smith (John Wayne) and his Black Boys in 1760.  They fight the British authorities more than they do Indians.

Northwest Passage (1940)  Set in the French and Indian War, this is mostly the story of Roberts’ Rangers (led by Spencer Tracy) and their raid on the Abenaki settlement of St. Francis in what is now eastern Canada.  Based on the 1936 bestseller by Kenneth Roberts.

Unconquered (1947)  Indian warfare in the area of Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) in western Pennsylvania in 1763, with Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard fighting Guyasuta’s Iroquois.  Based on Niel Swanson’s novel The Judas Tree.

Last of the Redmen (1947)  First color version of Last of the Mohicans, with Jon Hall as Major Duncan Heyward and Michael O’Shea as a chatty, Irish-accented Hawkeye.  Buster Crabbe is the villainous Magua.

Rachel and the Stranger (1948)  Takes place at an unspecified time either before or after the Revolution (probably after) in an unspecified Kentucky-Ohio frontier area; mostly a domestic melodrama but also with some fighting of Shawnees.

When the Redskins Rode (1951)  Jon Hall plays Delaware Prince Hannoc in 1753 colonial Virginia, mixing with Col. George Washington, Christopher Gist and French spies.

Battles of Chief Pontiac (1952)  Lex Barker leads the fight against the legendary Ottawa chief.

Many Rivers to Cross (1955)  On the Kentucky-Ohio frontier after the Revolution, with fur hunter Robert Taylor and liberated Eleanor Parker fighting Shawnees and each other.  Based on, but more comic in tone than, a novel by Steve Frazee.

The Last Tomahawk (1965)  German version of Last of the Mohicans.

Guns for San Sebastian (1967)  A Franco-Mexican production set in northern Mexico of 1746.  Murderer, thief and deserter Anthony Quinn impersonates a priest and defends the village of San Sebastian against hostile Yaquis and Charles Bronson.

The Mission (1986)  Written by English playwright Robert Bolt, this is the story of Spanish Jesuits in South America trying to prevent a remote Indian tribe in Paraguay from falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.  With Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons.

Black Robe (1991)  The story of a young Jesuit priest on a mission among the Hurons of eastern Canada in the early colonial period of the 1600s.  Based on a novel by Brian Moore.  Not a peaceful tale, although the principal white character is a priest.

Last of the Mohicans (1992)  An updated version of James Fenimore Cooper’s venerable 1826 tale of the French and Indian War, told this time with modern cinematic tools, standards and actors, including Daniel Day Lewis and Madeleine Stowe.

1492:  Conquest of Paradise (1992)  Director Ridley Scott’s version of the earliest of colonial stories, that of Christopher Columbus (Gerard Depardieu).  Also starring Armand Assante, with Sigourney Weaver as Queen Isabelle of Spain.

The New World (2005)  Terence Malick’s story of the settlement of Jamestown in the early 1600s by the English, and their relations with the Powhatan Indians of Virginia, including Pocahontas.  Stars Colin Farrell as Capt. John Smith and Christian Bale as John Rolfe.  Well-received by reviewers and cineastes, but slow going for regular audiences.

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The King and Four Queens

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 19, 2015

The King and Four Queens—Clark Gable, Eleanor Parker, Jo Van Fleet, Jean Willes, Barbara Nichols, Sara Shane (1956; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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In 1956, Clark Gable was 55 and his career was fading after 25 lustrous years in Hollywood.  MGM had not renewed his contract, and he was scrambling for work.  This was the second of three westerns he made with director Raoul Walsh, between The Tall Men and Band of Angels (a Civil War movie set in and around New Orleans).  He had long been known as the King in Hollywood, but that was becoming less true.

At the start of the movie, gambler Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable) is on the run from a posse and gets away only by riding down steep hills where they won’t go.  He finds himself in the town of Touchstone in the southwest, where he hears about the McDade family of outlaw brothers, based at a nearby ranch called Wagon Mound.  After pulling off a bank robbery for $100,000, the four brothers had been trapped in a barn.  In the following melée and fire, three of the brothers were burned to death, but one escaped with the loot.  Nobody knows who the surviving brother was.  Since then, the remaining inhabitants of Wagon Mound shoot anybody who approaches the ranch.

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Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet) lays down the law to a wounded Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable).

More than a bit of a con man, Kehoe smells a situation he can play to his advantage.  He rides up to Wagon Mound, ignoring the signs telling him to stay away, and is promptly shot by Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet)—just a shoulder wound, though.  He awakens in a ranch house, tended by Sabina McDade (Eleanor Parker), wife of Boone, and quickly meets Ruby (Jean Willes), wife of Roy, Oralie (Sara Shane), wife of Matt, and Birdie (Barbara Nichols), wife of Prince McDade. They’ve been at the ranch for two years, waiting to find out whose husband survives and to split up the loot when the survivor returns.  The local sheriff is keeping watch for the wanted survivor, too.  There’s a reward of $5000 for him, and $5,000 for the return of the stolen gold.

Strong-willed Ma wants to get rid of Kehoe as quickly as possible, but he helps them by backing off the sheriff and a posse when they come to Wagon Mound.  He tells the sheriff he’ll find the gold and ring a mission bell when the surviving McDade shows up.  Then he tells Ma what he’d told the sheriff, and she agrees to let him stay until the rains come, as they will shortly.  He spends the time getting to know all four of the daughters-in-law, who are intrigued/attracted by the new man in their midst.  The none-too-bright Birdie has a stage background in Chicago.  The dark Ruby (she wears red) has always used a sexual combustibility to control men. The prim and repressed Oralie has her own quieter attractions.  And the intelligent, red-haired Sabina is biding her time and is more careful with Kehoe.  They all want to get out of there and get on with their lives, and three of them do their best to seduce Kehoe.  Ma doesn’t trust him at all, nor does Sabina.

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The Queens: Birdie (Barbara Nicholls), Oralie (Sara Shane), Ruby (Jean Willes) and Sabina (Eleanor Parker).

[Spoilers follow]  Ma is right not to trust Kehoe.  He watches until he thinks he has identified where the gold is hidden in a grave.  As the rain comes and he must leave, Kehoe makes a run for it with Sabina and the gold in a wagon.  But before they’re out of sight of the ranch, Ma rings the bell, bringing the sheriff (unreasonably quickly, it seems).  Kehoe sends Sabina on with $5000 and stays behind to give the rest of the gold to the sheriff, telling them he’s keeping $5000 as the promised reward.

As Kehoe looks to meet Sabina at their rendezvous point, the priest who had been keeping Kehoe’s money says he gave it to Sabina, who had told him she was going south.  But her wagon went in another direction, and Kehoe follows that.  He finds Sabina waiting for him on the trail.  She tells him Boone was the surviving brother, and she met him (and did not marry him) the night before he was killed.  Pretending to be Boone’s wife, she’s been waiting for a split of the loot.  None of the outlaw McDade brothers survive.  She and Kehoe ride off together into the sunset.

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Sabina (Eleanor Parker) and Kehoe (Clark Gable) negotiate.

The King and Four Queens was the first (and last) project from Gable’s own production company, GABCO.  Gable has the kind of presence to pull off this role, even if he was getting long in the tooth and had to crash diet to get in shape for it.  Eleanor Parker was the biggest other name in the cast, and she’s good.  During a brief heyday of several years in the 1950s, she appeared in three westerns:  Escape from Fort Bravo with William Holden (1953, the best of them), Many Rivers to Cross with Robert Taylor (1955) and this one.  The other “queens” in the cast are not particularly memorable, although they do well enough.  Jo Van Fleet, who is persuasive as Ma McDade, was actually 14 years younger than Gable.  She also turned in a good performance the same year as Doc Holliday’s girl friend Kate Fisher in Gunfight at the OK Corral.  The film as a whole is watchable but not terribly memorable.

The principal writer was Margaret Fitts, who also wrote the very good Stars in My Crown (1950); unfortunately the writing is not strong here.  Excellent cinematography in color by Lucien Ballard; shot on location in southern Utah.  86 minutes long.

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The posters showing Gable in a gunfighter’s stance are inaccurate; he doesn’t use guns much in this movie.  A version of this story, with multiple parties trying to find the loot of three deceased outlaw brothers by following and otherwise harassing their attractive young widows was made in 2006 with more of a feminist twist as The Far Side of Jericho.  This original was better.

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Santa Fe Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 15, 2015

Santa Fe Trail—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Van Heflin, Guinn Williams, Alan Hale, Moroni Olsen, Ward Bond (1940; Dir: Michael Curtiz)

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Around 1940, the dashing Errol Flynn was the star of several good westerns:  Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940) and They Died With Their Boots On (1941) are the best known.  Two of these were directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz, the director most closely associated with with Flynn. Olivia de Havilland and Flynn formed one of the greatest romantic on-screen partnerships from the golden age of Hollywood, and this was the seventh of their nine movies together.  And Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (a frequent drinking partner of Flynn’s) had appeared in several movies with Flynn (Robin Hood, Dodge City, Virginia City), mostly as quasi-comic relief.  Clearly Warner Bros. was hoping a formula that had worked before would produce box office gold again.

This one has nothing to do with Santa Fe and little to do with the famous Santa Fe Trail.  It should have been titled “Chasing John Brown.”  In 1854, the arguments over slavery that had led to the new potential state being called “Bleeding Kansas” were also manifest among the cadets at West Point.  Rader (Van Heflin) is taken with the sentiments of the fiery abolitionist John Brown; he is opposed, both personally and politically, to J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) of Virginia.  Stuart is supported by several other cadets, including George Custer (Ronald Reagan), Phil Sheridan, George Pickett, John Bell Hood and James Longstreet (all names that will become famous as generals in the upcoming Civil War).  When Rader and Stuart are involved in a fight, West Point Superintendent Col. Robert E. Lee (character actor Moroni Olsen) banishes Rader for his divisive political activities.  Stuart and his friends are punished by being sent to the most dangerous duty in the army at that time:  the Second Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.  They don’t mind at all.

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Young lieutenants Stuart (Errol Flynn) and Custer (Ronald Reagan) make the acquaintance of Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland).

Leavenworth is the western terminus of the railroad, although stage magnate Cyrus Holliday hopes to build toward Santa Fe when it is safe enough.  It isn’t yet, partly because of Indians but mostly because of John Brown and his strikes against supporters of slavery, such as the notorious raid on Ossawatomie.  Part of the Second Cavalry’s mission is to disband any armed groups, like Brown or his opponents.  Stuart and Custer are both interested in Holliday’s daughter Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), and are detailed to join a detail protecting a Holliday freighting column bound for Santa Fe.  A couple of days out, they encounter a Mr. Smith, who wants to take delivery of eight crates of Bibles.  One of the crates is dropped and breaks open, revealing rifles instead of Bibles.  Mr. Smith is in fact John Brown, and one of his men is the disgraced Rader.  As Brown and his men make their getaway (with some of the rifles), Brown’s young son Jason (Gene Reynolds), driving a wagon, is shot by Rader in the melee.

Back in Leavenworth, Jason reveals the location of Brown’s base in Palmyra before dying.  As Stuart investigates out of uniform, he is captured in Palmyra by Brown’s men.  He is about to be hung by them, when he grabs a gun and ducks into the barn where Brown-liberated black former slaves (Negroes, as they were called in 1940) are housed.  Stuart is being blasted from all sides and a lantern is shot, spilling flames all over the barn.  (We can see that Brown apparently doesn’t care what happens to the innocent blacks in his anger at Stuart.)  Stuart is rescued by the appearance of the rest of his detail, led by Custer, and Brown decides his work in Kansas is done, riding off to the east with his men.

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Stuart (Errol Flynn) fights John Brown in a fiery barn; and a still of Custer (Reagan) and Stuart (Flynn) in uniform.

Back in Leavenworth, both Stuart and Custer press their suits with Kit, and Stuart is the winner.  An old Indian woman at the fort makes dark prophecies about the future of the six friends and divisions and battles among them.  Stuart and Custer are both promoted to captain and head off to an assignment in Maryland, where their new commanding officer is Col. Lee again.

In Maryland Rader comes to the army, disillusioned with Brown because he hasn’t been paid for his military expertise as Brown promised.  Rader warns of Brown’s plans to take over the weapons from the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.  Because of the warning, Lee and his men are able to arrive in time to capture Brown in the act.  During a battle in which the army uses artillery to knock holes in the arsenal building, Brown kills Rader as a traitor.  (We knew he was going to die, with his conflicted loyalties).  John Brown is captured and hung, Stuart and Kit are married, and even Custer has a new girl friend.  The army friends ride off to an uncertain future in the Civil War, fighting on opposite sides.

Flynn and De Havilland make their usual charming couple.  De Havilland’s lively attractiveness reminds us that this kind of role usually passes unnoticed, but she does it unusually well.  Ronald Reagan, a perennial best friend to the lead in movies, is adequate if a bit light-weight as a fictional Custer.  The excellent character actor Moroni Olsen brings an appropriate gravitas to his role as Robert E. Lee.  Van Heflin isn’t bad in an early role as a villain who reforms, in the sort of role often played by Arthur Kennedy.  Heflin would graduate to more sympathetic parts eventually.  Ward Bond has a scarcely noticeable role as one of Brown’s men.

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John Brown (Raymond Massey) gives his final speech about the coming apocalypse. He’s not wrong.

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The famous John Steuart Curry mural “Tragic Prelude” in the Kansas Statehouse, 1938-1940.

The most memorable role in the film is Raymond Massey as John Brown, with his appearance and manner reminding us of the famous painting by John Steuart Curry from about the same time.  It was a natural role for Massey, and he would star as John Brown again in Seven Angry Men (1955), the main story of which is also the trial and hanging of the abolitionist.  Kansas slavery politics sound muddled here, although it is clear that John Brown is a bad guy, even if his heart is in the right place about the abolition of slavery.  He’s just too willing to use the sword on anybody who believes differently or crosses him.  Stuart is not all that convincing in his view that all the South needs is time and it will get rid of slavery on its own.  As in William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming,
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

1941’s They Died With Their Boots On was wildly inaccurate historically but enjoyable to watch, with Flynn playing Custer and De Havilland as his wife Libby in their last movie appearance together.  This is even more inaccurate, and slightly less watchable.  Of the six army friends in this film, only Stuart was actually in the West Point class of 1854, although it did include Robert E. Lee’s son George Washington Custis Lee (an eventual Confederate general) and Oliver O. Howard (ultimately a Union general).  Of the six supposed West Point friends depicted in the film, only Stuart did not survive the Civil War, although Custer famously met his own ignominious end at the Little Bighorn in 1876.

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Filmed in black and white, at 110 minutes, although there is a cut of only 93 minutes.  Music is by Max Steiner.

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The Scalphunters

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 12, 2015

The Scalphunters—Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis, Telly Savalas, Shelley Winters, Armando Silvestre (1968; Dir: Sydney Pollack)

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This is one of two western comedies from the late 1960s-early 1970s that uses slavery as a critical element of its plot.  The other is Skin Game, and in both cases the slave in question is something of a con man who gets by in dicey circumstances by outsmarting everybody else.

Fur trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is making his way to sell his winter’s catch of pelts, when he encounters old acquaintance Kiowa chief Two Crows (Armando Silvestre).  Two Crows and his Kiowas make off with Bass’ furs, but not without making a trade of sorts.  They give him Joseph Winfield Lee (Ossie Davis), whom they have captured from the Comanches.  Lee turns out to be very well-educated, able to read, write, cipher and quote Latin; in fact, he is much better-educated than the Massachusetts-born Bass, who is illiterate.

As Lee explains matters to Bass, he has run off from Louisiana, hoping to reach Mexico, where there is no slavery.  He had fallen in with Comanches and keeps arguing that he is a Comanche, but had the misfortune to be captured by Kiowas, who have now traded him to Bass.  Bass has no use for a slave but figures he can recoup something by selling Lee in St. Louis.  Bass may not have much book learning, but he’s a masterful fighter and tactician, and he can live off the arid lands of the west.  Bass and Lee banter back and forth, while they follow the Kiowas.  Bass knows there’s a cask of whiskey in with his furs and figures to take back the furs as soon as the Indians incapacitate themselves with the whiskey.

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Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) and Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) look to recover Bass’ furs.

Joe Bass:  “You ever fight twelve drunk Indians?”
Joseph Lee:  “No, sir, but I’d like to see it done.”

It almost works, but just as Bass and Lee are about to make their move, the Kiowas are slaughtered by a group of scurrilous scalphunters led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas).  In addition to killing the Indians for the $25 bounties their scalps will bring, they make off with Bass’ furs.  Only Two Crows escapes.  Bass and Lee follow the scalphunters.  As they spy on them, trying to figure out how to get the furs, Lee falls down a steep escarpment and is captured by the scalphunters.

Jim Howie plans to sell Lee in Galveston on their way to Mexico.  Lee ingratiates himself with Howie’s woman Kate, hoping to make himself indispensable enough that they’ll take him to Mexico.  Bass ambushes the scalphunters and orders them to leave the mule with the furs behind while they move on; he kills the two scalphunters Howie orders to flank him.  But the mule runs off and is taken by the scalphunters again.  Bass orchestrates a landslide that takes out several of the scalphunters, but they manage to hang onto the furs.

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Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) thinks he finally has Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) where he wants him.

When the scalphunters are about to make a stop, Bass puts loco weed in the water their horses will drink.  He ridicules Lee for not being able or willing to fight, and Howie has set a trap for Bass.  As the Bass and Lee argue and brawl, Howie springs out of hiding with a gun.  Lee grapples with him and in the struggle it goes off; Lee is the survivor.  As Bass and Lee continue their interminable fight, Two Crows shows up and takes over the furs and Kate, killing the few remaining scalphunters. As Bass and Lee ride off on Bass’s horse, Lee points out that the scalphunter wagon has Howie’s drinking whiskey, and that by nightfall the Kiowas should be quite drunk.

Director Sydney Pollack only made two westerns.  This was the first; the second (and better) one was Jeremiah Johnson in 1972, with Robert Redford.  Lancaster and Ossie Davis are quite good.  The movie depends on their relationship, and it works well.  Telly Savalas had a modest career as a heavy in movies (McKenna’s Gold, for example) before moving on to become a cop as television’s Kojack.  Shelley Winters was excellent casting as as Howie’s blowzy companion, given to singing Mormon hymns on Sunday mornings.  One anachronism sticks out:  in the pre-Civil War period of this movie, Joe Bass sports a repeating rifle, which would not then have been available.  The fights become a little tiresome.

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Shot in color on location in Durango, Mexico.  At 102 minutes, it seems a slight film that doesn’t stick in the memory long.  Music is by prolific movie composer Elmer Bernstein.  The unusually literate script is by William Norton.  For another western featuring slavery, see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which has a few comic moments but is not generally a comedy.  To see Burt Lancaster in another comedic western role, check out The Hallelujah Trail (1965).

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