Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Way West

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 30, 2015

The Way West—Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Lola Albright, Sally Field, Jack Elam, Michael Witney, Katherine Justice (1967; Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen)

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Kirk Douglas was a big star in the 1950s and 1960s, and he tended to indulge in flamboyant dress or other characteristics to emphasize his character in westerns.  (See his clothes in The War Wagon, for example, or the way his gunfighter character in The Last Sunset uses only a derringer.)  He’s the most prominent of the three big stars in this movie, and here the gimmick is the color red.  When we first see his character, he’s wearing a bright red cloak.  He drives a carriage with red wheels and undercarriage, and his Conestoga wagon is painted red.

This story is based on a novel by Montana author A.B. Guthrie, who also wrote The Big Sky and These Thousand Hills, both of which were turned into western movies.  This one tells the fictional story of the first wagon train of settlers going west from Missouri along the Oregon Trail to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1843.

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Senator William J. Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) in his red cloak.

The moving force behind the expedition is former senator William J. Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) of Illinois.  He recruits Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum), a mountain man character from The Big Sky, to serve as the scout and guide for the company.  The group includes the Evans family, headed by Lije Evans (Richard Widmark), who is afflicted with the need to constantly move toward the frontier, his longsuffering wife (Lola Albright), to whom the widowed Tadlock is attracted, and their teenaged son Brownie.  There are the McBees, a family from Georgia (headed by Harry Carey, Jr.), taking their nubile daughter Mercy (Sally Field), several young peach trees and a bevy of unconvincing accents to the new land.  Newlyweds Johnnie (Michael Witney) and Amanda Mack (Katherine Justice) are stymied because the attractive Amanda is emotionally unbalanced and unable to face the idea of sex.  There is a stowaway preacher (Jack Elam, previously always a bad guy but about to move into more general character roles), unpersuasive and unattractive in his person and his religion, the first of many such in westerns.  Lije Evans becomes a leader and spokesman for those who don’t like Tadlock’s high-handed, autocratic ways.

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The big three look ahead: Sen. William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas), scout Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) and Lije Evans (Richard Widmark).

They have the usual hardship episodes as they move west, with river crossings and Indian troubles.  Mercy McBee and Johnnie Mack fall together for a night, and as they finish Johnnie hears a sound and shoots at it, only to find that he has killed an Indian boy dressed in a wolf skin.  Although the wagons get away, the Sioux pursue, insisting on retribution for the killer.  Tadlock says the killer will receive white man’s justice—hanging—if they can identify him.  Eventually the discouraged Johnnie Mack gives himself up, and his fate further unhinges Amanda, not to mention leaving Mercy McBee pregnant.  As they cross some desert, the Tadlock carriage, driven by his young son Billy, overturns and kills the boy.  At Fort Hall, now in Idaho, they are welcomed to stay or to switch to a California destination until word gets around (falsely) that a sick member of their party has smallpox.  The local Hudson’s Bay factor can’t get rid of them fast enough then.

After a rebellion against Tadlock, the train arrives at a cliff about 30 miles from their destination.  When an attempt to lower a wagon and its driver goes badly wrong, the party accepts Tadlock’s iron-fisted direction again.  He’s the last to be lowered, but somebody cuts the rope and he falls to his death.  It’s the unhinged Amanda Mack, who holds him responsible for her husband’s death.  Brownie Evans marries Mercy McBee and takes responsibility for her child.  And Dick Summers, now losing his eyesight, heads back for Independence.

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Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) bringing up the rear.

This is a glossy and brightly-colored production, episodic in nature.  Except for Fort Hall, there’s no attempt to relate the episodes to actual points on the map.  The actors are fine, but their motivations seem arbitrary and sometimes inconsistent, as if it’s enough just to state them and not to show them developing.  Andrew McLaglen had been a successful television director (especially with Have Gun Will Travel) and had made it into movie directing with Gun the Man Down (1956) and McClintock! in 1963.  His father, Oscar-winning Irish actor Victor McLaglen (The Informer, Gunga Din, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, etc.), had been one of John Ford’s favorite actors, and Andrew had connections with John Wayne and his production company through that association.  But something of his direction stayed rooted in television, although he continued to direct the occasional western movie for decades.  Douglas, Mitchum and Widmark all produced better performances elsewhere.

Visually, you can see some of the difference by comparing the lowering of wagons down the cliff to a similar sequence in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail from more than 35 years earlier.  Although the Walsh film is in black and white, the visual effect is much more striking and memorable in the earlier film than in McLaglen’s large-scale color production.  The intention was obviously to produce an epic here, too, but it didn’t work out as well.  Reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote in the N.Y. Times:  “It is hard to believe that anybody could have made such a hackneyed hash of that fine A. B. Guthrie Jr. novel, The Way West, as [producer] Harold Hecht and Andrew V. McLaglen have in the Western movie of the [same] title…”  It’s watchable, but not terribly memorable.  Shot at various locations in Oregon (Bend, Eugene, Mt. Bachelor, Crooked River Gorge, and the actual Willamette Valley), at 122 minutes.

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Southwest Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 26, 2015

Southwest Passage—John Ireland, Joanne Dru, Rod Cameron, John Dehner, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Darryl Hickman (1954; Dir: Ray Nazarro) SWPassagePosterSWPassageTall

Joanne Dru (the former Joanne Letitia LaCock) was unusually effective in westerns in a time when the casting of most female roles was usually a secondary consideration at best.  Even now, her performances shine in such classics as Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Wagon Master.  Like Claire Trevor in Stagecoach, she was excellent at portraying a bad girl who showed signs of turning out well if given half a chance (Red River, Wagon Master).  This particular expertise resulted in her being somewhat typecast in westerns, which was fine when they were at their peak but stalled out her career as they lost popularity by 1960.  She married John Ireland in 1947, and one result was their collaboration in this cavalry and camels vs. Apaches story.

Gunman Clint McDonald (John Ireland), Jeb (Darryl Hickman, a child star of the 1940s) and Jeb’s sister Lilly (Joanne Dru) are escaping with $20,000 taken in a bank robbery, pursued by a posse.  Jeb is shot, and Lilly returns to town looking for a doctor.  The one she finds turns out to be a veterinarian on his way to join a cavalry patrol heading into the desert with camels to survey a new route to California.  McDonald pays the vet for his kit and takes his place, claiming to be the doctor.

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Fake doctor Clint McDonald (John Ireland) patches up suspicious muleskinner Matt Carroll (John Dehner).

The head of the patrol is Edward Fitzpatrick Beale (Rod Cameron), experimenting with the camels and mapping the Arizona desert.  He is accompanied by three Arab camel drivers led by High Jolly (Hadji Ali, played by Mark Hanna), nasty-tempered head mule teamster Matt Carroll (John Dehner), colorful scout Tall Tale (Guinn Williams) and several cavalrymen, led by Lt. Owens.  Lilly joins them, claiming to have gotten lost from a wagon train; Jeb didn’t survive his wound. Clint is unusually good with a gun for a doctor, and Matt Carroll distrusts Clint, dislikes the Arabs and lusts after Lilly.  Lilly is coming to admire the ambitious but seemingly selfless Beale.

The party is followed by Apaches, who believe the camels are gods, until one of the beasts breaks a leg and has to be shot.  Lilly tries to persuade Clint to go straight, but the lure of $20,000 is too great.  When Tall Tale is bitten by a gila monster, Clint treats the wound but it gets infected.  Although he’s not qualified to do so, he prepares to amputate Tall Tale’s arm, until Lilly speaks up and Clint’s real identity becomes known.  After a fight with Beale, he is exiled from the group, looking for a town 80 miles south, and is joined by Carroll, who wants half the loot.  They find a water hole in the rocks, and Carroll gets the jump on Clint, intending to take both canteens, both horses and all the loot.  But Clint’s non-medical skill with a gun comes in handy, and Carroll ends up face down in the pool.

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Lilly (Joanne Dru), Beale (Rod Cameron) and Tall Tale (Guinn Williams) fight off Apaches.

Clint rides back to the patrol with news of water only 30 miles distant, but the Apaches now know that the camels are mortal and attack the party from the rocks around the water.  Clint redeems himself by drawing off the Indians with the remaining camel so the rest of the patrol can make a dash for the water and the protection of the rocks.  When it’s over, he’s wounded but asks Beale to give back the loot to the bank, and he and Lilly are together again.

Although Rod Cameron seems to get top billing, Joanne Dru is the best thing in the movie.  Ultimately Lilly finds Cameron’s character Beale more interesting than we do.  John Ireland was an intriguing mix of hard-edged tough guy with an ability to learn, but he’s never very convincing as the doctor.  John Dehner makes an excellent villain as dastardly muleskinner Matt Carroll..

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Lilly (Joanne Dru) can defend herself if she needs to.

This was made in the 3-D fad of the early 1950s (like Hondo, Gun Fury, The Stranger Wore a Gun and The Moonlighter), which faded out almost as soon as it began.  There are a couple of things that show a lack of careful direction.  As the patrol drives its wagons along the side of some dunes, Clint and Lilly are riding downhill from them, where they’ll be crushed if the wagons tip over, as it seems they might.  And as Clint rides back to the patrol from the water hole, he leaves Carroll’s body in the water.  With the desert heat and decomposition of the corpse, that will leave the water hole fouled and unusable by the time the patrol gets there. Filmed on location in southern Utah, near Kanab.  The direction is by journeyman Ray Nazarro.  The unexceptional screenplay by Harry Essex has some clunky dialogue, especially Lilly’s lines to Clint about going straight.  In color, at only 75 minutes.

SWPassageBelgKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Dru was good in westerns, but she didn’t always enjoy them.  “I simply hated horses,” she said in a 1957 interview with Hedda Hopper.  “And those long gingham dresses with boned bodices are miserable things to wear.”  By the end of the 1950s she had drifted almost entirely into television work, and she and Ireland were divorced in 1957.

Edward Fitzpatrick Beale and his involvement with camels in the American southwest are based on actual history.  In 1857, Lt. Beale, with the support of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, used 25 camels to survey a route for a wagon road from Fort Defiance in Arizona to the Colorado River, then took the camels on to California.  The Santa Fe Railroad and U. S. Highway 66 subsequently followed this route.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, the Camel Corps was largely forgotten, although there were reports of feral camels in the southwest well into the 1900s—even as late as 1975 in Baja California.  Hadji Ali, an Ottoman citizen, was the lead camel driver of the Camel Corps beginning around 1856 and lived in this country until his death in 1902 in Arizona.  There was even a folk song about him, recorded by the New Christy Minstrels in the 1960s.

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The Oklahoma Kid

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 23, 2015

The Oklahoma Kid—James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Rosemary Lane, Donald Crisp, Harvey Stephens, Hugh Sothern, Ward Bond (1937; Lloyd Bacon)

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The most obvious feature of this western from 1937 is that the two best-known actors in it have the most urban personas of any from the 20th century.  That’s perhaps one reason why James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart didn’t make many westerns.  They don’t sound all that authentic in a western, either.

The Oklahoma Kid:  “Listen, I learned this about human nature when I was but so high, and that is: that the strong take away from the weak, and the smart take it away from the strong.”

Cagney plays the outlaw of the title, the Oklahoma Kid.  It is 1893, the eve of the famous Oklahoma land rush into the Cherokee Strip (the largest land run in U.S. history).  There were several Oklahoma land rushes, the most famous in 1889 and 1893, featured in Tumbleweeds (1925, William S. Hart’s last film), Cimarron (both 1931 and 1960 versions) and Far and Away (1992), among other movies.  The land to be opened to settlers this time has been bought from the Indians for a pittance, but even that pittance is robbed from a stagecoach by the evil Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) and his gang.  However, it is also stolen from them by… the Oklahoma Kid.  McCord sees to it that the original crime is attributed to the Kid, instead of to his own gang.

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Wes Handley (Ward Bond) is inclined to take on the Oklahoma Kid (James Cagney) over his choice of music.

Meanwhile, law-abiding folk are planning to set up the town that will become Tulsa.  The Kincaids, father John (Hugh Sothern) and son Ned (Harvey Stephens), will ride their fastest horses and claim the site.  Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) and daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane) will come along shortly after, with law and civilization.  However, McCord and his men are Sooners, sneaking across to the land the night before the gun goes off, and they claim the Kincaid’s site first.  The Kincaids strike a deal:  they get the town site they want, but have to agree that McCord gets exclusive rights to saloons, booze and gambling.  That sets up a conflict between the forces of law (regular folks) and chaos (McCord).

When there’s talk of setting up a vigilance committee, McCord frames John Kincaid for a murder.  It turns out that the Oklahoma Kid is Jim Kincaid, John’s wild son, and he comes back to help the old man.  He brings back Judge Harwick to hear the case, but he’s too late, and a venal hack judge has sentenced John to hang.  John refuses to be busted out of jail, though, and, as Ned, now the local sheriff, pursues the Kid, McCord whips a mob into a fury.  By the time Ned and the Kid get back to town, their father is dead.

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Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) and the Kid (James Cagney) come to an impasse.

The Kid starts to hunt down the four of McCord’s men who led the mob:  Indian Joe, Wes Handley (Ward Bond), Curley and Ace Doolin.  The last is Doolin, whom he wounds, and Doolin testifies to McCord’s involvement.  Ned goes to arrest McCord, but McCord gets the drop on him and shoots him.  The Kid comes up the back way, and McCord looks like he will get him, too.  But the dying Ned shoots McCord, the Kid’s name is cleared of the original robbery charges, and he gets Jane Hardwick, who had previously been engaged to Ned.  (Ned was apparently unaware that guys named Ned never get the girl in movies.)

This had a bigger budget than most 1930s westerns, as we can tell from the top-flight stars and main-line director.  Cagney’s particular form of screen energy dominates the movie, making the Kid seem kind of a pre-gangster of the plains.  Cagney was a bigger star than Bogart at this stage of Bogart’s career.  Cagney and Bogart didn’t get along well on the set, much as their characters didn’t, although they went on to make Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939) together—gangster movies, for which they seem much better suited.  Cagney made two more westerns in the 1950s as his career was coming to a close:  Run for Cover (1955), and Tribute to a Bad Man (1956).  Bogart made at least one more; he shows up as a Mexican bandit chieftain in Virginia City (1940).  This film is surprisingly watchable, considering the apparent unsuitability of the casting and the fact that it’s from an era when westerns were generally made very cheaply and had little cinematic prestige.  Director Lloyd Bacon was versatile (his work includes 42nd Street and other musicals with Busby Berkeley as choreographer and Knute Rockne, All American), but he didn’t make many westerns.  According to Cagney, Bacon wasn’t the director originally slated to direct.

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Cagney wasn’t entirely happy with the way the project turned out.  In his 1976 autobiography Cagney by Cagney, he described how the project started:  “The picture was an idea of [writer] Ted Paramore’s, who conceived of doing the story of the mountain men, particularly of their paragon, Kit Carson.  We researched it and I came up with some things I wanted to do, pretty exciting things, I thought.  Warner’s, without warning pulled Paramore off the script and without a word to me, changed directors.  When I got the final script it had as much to do with history as the Katzenjammer Kids.  It had become typical horse opera, just another programmer.”  Bogart, profiled in the New York Times just before the film’s release, seemed not all that wild about it.  “I speak the same lines and do the same things as I do in any other Warner picture.  The only difference is that I snarl at the Injuns from under a ten-gallon hat.”  Actually, Cagney’s hat is significantly larger than Bogart’s.  Bogart seemed preoccupied by the hats; he was famously quoted as saying that “Cagney looked like a mushroom under [his] huge western hat.”

Music is by Max Steiner; cinematography is by the legendary James Wong Howe.  Shot on the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California.  In black and white, at 81 minutes.

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Saddle Tramp

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 20, 2015

Saddle Tramp—Joel McCrea, John McIntire, Wanda Hendrix, Jeannette Nolan, John Russell, Ed Begley (1950: Dir: Hugo Fregonese)

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Chuck Conner (Joel McCrea) is the titular saddle tramp, an experienced cowhand heading through Nevada on his way to California.  He stops to see Slim Stevens, an old friend with four small boys. Their mother has been dead a year, and while Chuck is there Slim falls off a horse and breaks his neck.

Chuck heads toward California with the four boys in tow.  He finds a job at the Higgins ranch, but owner Jess Higgins (John McIntire) doesn’t like kids [a plot contrivance that isn’t terribly persuasive, especially since he’s married to Jeannette Nolan, one of the quintessential mother figures in westerns].  So the kids camp out in the hills, and Chuck takes them food.  They are joined by Della (Wanda Hendrix), a runaway whose uncle (Ed Begley) has improper ideas about her.

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Meanwhile, Higgins is at war with the neighboring Martinez ranch over rustling, and Higgins’ foreman Rocky (John Russell) is developing suspicions about Chuck.  It turns out, however, that Rocky and the Martinez segundo are behind the rustling.  Chuck catches them at it, and they catch him.  The kids and Della manage to bring both Higgins and Martinez factions to Chuck’s rescue.  At the end, Chuck appears to have married Della (despite an age difference of some significance) and taken the boys back to Slim’s ranch to try to make a go of it.

Pleasant enough fare, if unremarkable.  Some plot elements don’t really come together.  In color, although there appear to be different cuts of it.  One version is 90 minutes long; the version shown on the Encore Westerns channel seems to be only 74 minutes.  For Wanda Hendrix in another western, see her in The Last Posse.

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The Salvation

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 17, 2015

The Salvation—Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Mikael Persbrandt, Jonathan Pryce, Douglas Henshall (2014; Dir: Kristian Levring)

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This is a bleak Danish Euro-western with a vengeance-driven plot.  Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) are Danish veterans of an unsuccessful 1864 war with Birmarck’s Germany, as Germany grabbed the traditionally Danish province of Schleswig-Holstein.  In the wake of the war they came to settle on the American frontier, and after seven years Jon’s wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and 10-year-old son Kresten are finally able to join them.  As Jon and his family take a stagecoach from the town of Black Creek, they are joined at the last minute by two men who have been drinking.  In the course of the journey, the men show interest in Jon’s wife and knock him out of the coach.  He follows and finds first his dead son and then his wife’s body.  Implacable, he kills the two men responsible.

It develops that the more offensive of the two was the brother of Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a Union army veteran, former Indian fighter and now local outlaw chieftain.  Delarue has terrorized the town, led by mayor-undertaker Keane (English actor Jonathan Pryce) and sheriff-priest Mallick (Scottish actor Douglas Henshall), but now he ups the ante.  He demands that in two hours the town surrender the killer (obviously impossible), or two people for him to kill.  When he doesn’t like the two chosen, he gratuitously shoots a third.

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Col. Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) takes his head tax.

[Spoilers follow.  If you plan to see this in the near future, you may wish not to read this and the following paragraph.]  Delarue is not operating alone.  He is chasing people off so that a railroad can take over the town and all the country around because it has oil—hence the name Black Creek.  Keane buys up farms for a pittance and delivers the deeds to Delarue.  When Jon and Peter come back to town to sell their farm, Jon is captured and Peter thrown in jail.  Peter escapes and releases the beaten Jon.  As they flee, they split up, and Peter is killed. Jon finds a rifle and heads back to town.

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Brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), not a man to underestimate.

Delarue has raped his brother’s widow Madelaine (Eva Greene), who has a scar across her mouth and is mute from having her tongue cut out by Indians.  She tries to leave but is restrained by Delarue’s men, and he gives her to them.  Having made it back to Black Creek, Jon kills Keane and puts him in one of his own coffins.  Jon starts picking off Delarue’s men one by one, and a larger-scale battle breaks out.  Jon is hit twice, and it looks like Delarue, the last survivor of his band, will win.  But voiceless Madelaine kills him with a rifle blast to the back.  As Sheriff Mallick and his posse come back to town, Jon orders them to leave, and then he and Madelaine leave together.

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Former soldier Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is not a man to run.

Mads Mikkelsen, with the sharp planes of his face, plays implacable very well, but he seems mostly to have only one expression.  Eva Green, with no dialogue but only her ferocious eyes for communication, is very effective.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes an adequate villain, but one that is written without much subtlety; the story would work better if there were more dimension to him.  Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt as Jon’s brother Peter may be the best character in the movie, but he is killed off too early.  French-English former soccer star Eric Cantona plays one of the most prominent of Delarue’s henchmen (the Corsican).  This is an unusual take on the immigrant experience in the American west.

The combining of town positions like mayor and sheriff with undertaker and priest make clear the town’s connivance with Delarue and its responsibility for what comes of that.  The sheriff-priest has chosen to protect his flock by acceding to the presence and dominance of evil.  This kind of collective guilt is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s town of Lago in High Plains Drifter (1973), although The Salvation has none of its surrealism.  The necessity and ultimate futility of violence remind us more of Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven (1992).  There is little dialogue and less exposition.  Although the movie is not long at 92 minutes, it feels quite leisurely, even slow, in its pacing.  As a western, it works; although it is violent, it nevertheless does not exactly revel in the violence.  This may be the best Danish western you’ll ever see.

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Madelaine (Eva Green), recent widow who doesn’t say much, is not a woman to take lightly.

The film was co-written and directed by Kristian Levring.  The excellent cinematography, much of it in tones of brown, is by Jens Schlosser.  It was shot in South Africa, with the occasional butte or other geographical feature to remind us, perhaps by means of CGI, of the American west.  The music, mostly quiet guitar, is played by Javier Mas.  Rated R for violence.  Seen at several film festivals (including Cannes) in 2014, it was released in the U.S. in art houses and video-on-demand in late February 2015 and is scheduled for release in the UK in April 2015.

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European Women in Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 14, 2015

European Women in Westerns

In the days of silent movies, it was common to see European actors playing American (or any other) parts, because moviegoers obviously couldn’t hear the accents.  Silent movies transplanted well from country to country, with film kind of a universal language.  With the coming of sound, however, an actor’s accent usually had to be explained.  As a land of immigrants, there were always people with foreign origins on the American frontier, although those immigrants were not often the leads in westerns as Mads Mikkelsen is in the recent Danish western The Salvation.  As one of the most American of film genres, Americans felt proprietary about these stories in particular, and they had to appeal to American audiences first, at least until the coming of spaghetti westerns, when most voices were dubbed.

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Lili Damita (a French actress married consecutively to Errol Flynn and to director Michael Curtiz) and Gary Cooper in Fighting Caravans; and Sophia Loren, Italian, in her only western, Heller in Pink Tights, about a troupe of actors in the west.

With the popularity of Italian actresses Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida (among others) in the 1950s, and with Americans becoming more aware of foreign cinema during that period, there began to be increasing interest in Hollywood in using exotic actresses in westerns, too.  Although there had been a few showing up since the early days of sound (see Lily Damita in 1931’s Fighting Caravans, for example), it was usually thought to be necessary to have some explanation of the accent.  Sometimes that was dealt with by having the actress speak a rudimentary version of English, and not very much of it, because she was an Indian; see Elsa Martinelli as Red Cloud’s daughter in The Indian Fighter, for example.  More often, they were said to be Mexican (Claudia Cardinale in The Professionals, Luciana Paluzzi in Chuka) or were encountered in Mexico (Denise Darcel in Vera Cruz, Senta Berger in Major Dundee).  Sometimes the character was said to have originated in Louisiana with Creole roots, where French was still spoken (Hedy Lamarr in Copper Canyon, Capucine in North to Alaska, Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West).  Most inventively, the actress may have had no lines of dialogue at all because her character’s tongue had been cut out by Indians (Eva Green in The Salvation).  And sometimes no reason at all was given for the character’s accent, as with Bibi Andersson in Duel at Diablo.  The peak of this fashion of using European actresses appears to have been in the second half of the 1960s, from 1965 to 1970.

There are probably other actresses of European origin who don’t appear on this list.  Please leave a comment if you know of one such.  As a general matter, this list does not include English or Irish actresses, such as Maureen O’Hara, who appeared in several westerns, usually playing a character of American origins (Buffalo Bill, Rio Grande, War Arrow, The Deadly Companions, McLintock!) rather than English or Irish (The Rare Breed), Maureen O’Sullivan (The Tall T) or Jean Simmons (The Big Country, Rough Night in Jericho).  Nor does it generally include actresses in spaghetti westerns, whose voices were almost always dubbed along with those of most actors.

For more information on women in westerns generally, see the posts on Women in Westerns and Great Women’s Performances in Westerns.

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Denise Darcel and Robert Taylor in Westward the Women; and Capucine and John Wayne in North to Alaska.

Lily Damita [French] in Fighting Caravans (1931, with Gary Cooper)

Hedy Lamarr [Austrian] in Copper Canyon (1950, with Ray Milland)

Denise Darcel [French] in Westward the Women (1951, with Robert Taylor)

Denise Darcel [French] in Vera Cruz (1954, with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster)

Corinne Calvet [French] in The Far Country (1954, with James Stewart) and Apache Uprising (1965, with Rory Calhoun)

Anna Maria Alberghetti [Italian] in The Last Command (1955, with Sterling Hayden at the Alamo)

Elsa Martinelli [Italian] in The Indian Fighter (1955, with Kirk Douglas)

Ursula Thiess [German] in Bandido (1956, with Robert Mitchum)

Anna Maria Alberghetti [Italian] in Duel at Apache Wells (1957)

Nicole Maurey [French] in The Jayhawkers (1959, with Fess Parker and Jeff Chandler)

Maria Schell [Austrian] in The Hanging Tree (1959, with Gary Cooper) and Cimmaron (1960, with Glenn Ford)

Audrey Hepburn [Dutch-English] in The Unforgiven (1960, with Burt Lancaster and Audie Murphy)

Capucine [French] in North to Alaska (1960, with John Wayne and Stewart Granger)

Sophia Loren [Italian] in Heller in Pink Tights (1960, with Anthony Quinn)

Anita Ekberg (Swedish) and Ursula Andress (Swiss) in 4 for Texas (1963, with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin)

Elke Sommer [German] in Frontier Hellcat (1964, with Stewart Granger)

Senta Berger [Austrian] in The Glory Guys (1965, with Tom Tryon)

Senta Berger [Austrian] in Major Dundee (1965, with Charlton Heston)

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Senta Berger enjoys the river in Major Dundee; and Bridget Bardot, unlike Berger, is overdressed in Shalako.

Bridget Bardot [French] and Jeanne Moreau [French] in Viva Maria (1965)  Not really a western, it takes place in Central America in the era of early 20th century revolutions, like The Wrath of God.

Claudia Cardinale [Italian] in The Professionals (1966, with Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster)

Bibi Andersson [Swedish] in Duel at Diablo (1966, with James Garner)

Luciana Paluzzi [Italian] in Chuka (1967, with Rod Taylor)

Bridget Bardot [French] in Shalako (1968, with Sean Connery)

Elsa Martinelli [Italian] in Il Mio Corpo Per un Poker (1968, as Belle Starr)

Camilla Sparv [Swedish] in McKenna’s Gold (1969, with Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif)

Claudia Cardinale [Italian] in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, with Charles Bronson and Jason Robards)

Jeanne Moreau [French] in Monte Walsh (1970, with Lee Marvin)

Gina Lollobrigida [Italian] in Bad Man’s River (1971, with Lee Van Cleef)

Ursula Andress (Swiss) in Red Sun (1972, with Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune and Alain Delon)

Liv Ullman [Swedish] in The Emigrants (1971, with Max von Sydow). More a Midwestern than a western; a tale of emigration from Sweden.

Liv Ullman [Swedish] in Zandy’s Bride (1974, with Gene Hackman)

Catherine Spaak [French] in Take a Hard Ride (1975, with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson)

Isabella Rossellini [Swedish-Italian] in Monte Walsh (Made for television, 2003, with Tom Selleck)

Penelope Cruz [Spanish] in Bandidas (2006, with Salma Hayek)

Eva Green [French] in The Salvation (2014, with Mads Mikkelsen)

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Claudia Cardinale being Mexican in The Professionals; and Camilla Sparv messing around behind the scenes in McKenna’s Gold.
European Women Directors of Westerns

Lina Wertmuller [German], co director of Il Mio Corpo Per un Poker (1968)

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Chuka

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 12, 2015

Chuka—Rod Taylor, John Mills, Ernest Borgnine, Louis Hayward, Luciana Paluzzi, James Whitmore, Victoria Ventri (1967; Dir: Gordon Douglas)

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A doomed fort in Arapaho country manned by the dregs of the U.S. cavalry, with corrupt leadership, a rootless gunman and two beautiful Mexican women—it’s a Fort Zinderneuf situation (see Beau Geste, a 1939 French foreign legion movie, for the reference) transplanted to the U.S. frontier.

Helena Chavez:  “Tell me, Señor, are you as bad as they say?”
Chuka:  “No man is as bad as they say, Señorita.”

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Chuka (Rod Taylor) looks for Trent while scouting.

In late 1876, the film starts with a panning shot of burnt-out Fort Clendennon, still smoldering in its ruins.  A cavalry patrol is trying to figure out how it all happened.  Cut to a single rider under the opening credits; it is Chuka (Rod Taylor).  He rides into an Arapaho camp, speaking Arapaho with the young chief Hanu (Marco Lopez) and seeing that they’re burying some one who died of hunger.  He leaves a hunk of jerky “for the children” and rides on, encountering a stage with a lost wheel and two female Mexican passengers, the older of whom recognizes Chuka (pronounced with a short “u” sound, as if it were spelled Chucka, supposedly because as a young man he spent a lot of time around a chuckwagon).  She is Veronica Kleitz (Luciana Paluzzi), a wealthy young-ish Mexican widow who had a romantic history with Chuka and is traveling with her niece Helena Chavez (Victoria Ventri).  As the men work on the stage, they are quietly surrounded by Arapahoes, who recognize Chuka and melt back into the dust storm without taking any action.

The stage makes it into Fort Clendennon, where Col. Stuart Valois (John Mills) refuses to let them leave because a three-man patrol is overdue.  Chuka tells him about the Arapahoes and suggests they leave the fort and its supplies to the Indians.  Valois, an Englishman, is unwilling to do that and sends out chief scout Lou Trent (James Whitmore).  His horse comes back, but Trent does not.  Such order as there is, is maintained by Sgt. Otto Hahnsbach (Ernest Borgnine).

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At the fort: Sgt. Otto Hahnsbach (Ernest Borgnine), Col. Stuart Valois (John Mills) and chief scout Lou Trent (James Whitmore).

[Spoilers follow.]  At a formal dinner with his officers, Chuka and the women, a drunken Valois sneers at each of his officers in turn.  Major Benson (Louis Hayward), second in command, is a cheating gambler who forces a captive Arapaho woman to sleep with him.  The doctor was accused of cowardice, a lieutenant of treason.  They were all formally acquitted, but their careers were blighted, and they ended up at Fort Clendennon.  Valois drinks way too much, and he was cashiered from the British army for cowardice because of his drunkenness.  The dinner ends when the doctor is shot through the open window with an arrow apparently intended for Valois.  Chuka gets the two Arapahoes who shot it.

Chuka agrees to go on a scouting expedition for $200.  He kills four Aparahoes, rescues Trent and sees the missing three-man patrol dead.  Back in the fort, a mutiny is brewing, with a plan to replace Valois with Major Benson and get out of Fort Clendennon.  It is becoming increasingly obvious that it’s too late to get out.  It is revealed that Valois, as a captain in the British army, covered for a Hahnsbach mistake in the Sudan and was captured, tortured and emasculated by natives as a result.  That’s presumably why he drinks so heavily.  As a young hand on her father’s ranch, Chuka and Veronica fell in love; he was banished, and she married a man selected by her father from her own class.

Trent:  “Wake me up when it’s time to die.”
Buck:  “Are you scared of dyin’, Lou?”
Trent:  “Not particularly.  It just comes an inconvenient time.”

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Chuka (Rod Taylor) and Helena Chavez (Victoria Ventri) prepare for the end.

The Arapahoes attack, and one by one Fort Clendennon’s defenders fall.  Chuka takes a spear to the side; Victoria an arrow to the back.  As the Indians enter the fort led by Hanu, Chuka is defending Helena under a stairway.  The Indians take the supplies they want, and Hanu looks at Chuka and leaves.  When the cavalry patrol finds the burnt-out fort, Chuka’s gun is left, along with a small grave near the stairway.  No bodies of Chuka and Helena are found, and the implication is that they got away.

Australian actor Rod Taylor was a big star in the 1960s (The Birds, The Time Machine, The Glass-Bottom Boat), and this was a bit of a vanity project for him.  He was the co-producer.  Taylor plays Chuka in a heavy-handed way, and John Mills was a good actor but doesn’t seem to be paying a lot of attention here.  This wasn’t a box office success, and it was Taylor’s only producing credit.  The director was journeyman Gordon Douglas, who had made a number of westerns (The Nevadan, The Iron Mistress, Fort Dobbs, Rio Conchos, Yellowstone Kelly, Barquero), several of which were good.  The screenplay was written by Richard Jessup, based on his 1961 novel.  The music, by Leith Stevens, has a very late-1960s feel to it.  At 105 minutes, the film is watchable but not as good as it could have been.  Beau Geste did it significantly better.

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It is not entirely clear where the doomed Fort Clendennon is supposed to be.  There were two branches of the Arapahoes, Northern and Southern.  Chuka is said to be riding to Montana, but there are suggestions that Mexico is much closer.  The two women are from Mexico as well.  The southern Arapahoes ranged from southern Colorado, Oklahoma, northern Texas and perhaps occasionally into northern New Mexico.  This looks like perhaps Arizona, so maybe, to the extent it is concerned about actual historicity at all, it takes place in New Mexico.  Unlike in most cavalry movies, these Indians also attack at night.

This was another of those 1960s westerns with a seemingly-misplaced European actress as the romantic interest (see, for example, Senta Berger in Major Dundee, Claudia Cardinale in The Professionals, Bibi Andersson in Duel at Diablo, Bridget Bardot in Shalako, and Camilla Sparv in McKenna’s Gold, not to mention any number of spaghetti westerns).  Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi is not particularly memorable here as Chuka’s former lover, nor does she seem particularly Mexican.  For Rod Taylor in other westerns as his career was fading, see the not-terribly-memorable John Wayne vehicle The Train Robbers (1973) and the even less memorable The Deadly Trackers (1973).  For a better doomed-fort cavalry western, see Two Flags West (1950).

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Whispering Smith

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 9, 2015

Whispering Smith—Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, Brenda Marshall, William Demarest, Donald Crisp (1948; Dir: Leslie Fenton)

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A frequently-told western railroading story with Alan Ladd in the title role of the railroad detective.  It was at least the sixth filmed story featuring the character Whispering Smith.  It’s melodramatic, with Ladd looking not entirely comfortable in his first western role and his first color film as a major star.  He was more convincing by the time he did Shane four years later.

Whispering Luke Smith is a railroad troubleshooter, and his old friend Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston) has started a ranch of his own and married Marian (Brenda Marshall), whom they both loved.  This is one of Preston’s patented old-friend-goes-bad roles, in which he seemed to specialize in the 1940s (see Union Pacific, North West Mounted Police and Blood on the Moon, for example).  Donald Crisp, instead of playing the personification of occasionally misguided rectitude as he usually did in westerns (The Man From Laramie, Saddle the Wind, Ramrod), is here not terribly persuasive as Barney Rebstock, a bandit chief and rustler.

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Alan Ladd as Whispering Smith; and production still of Brenda Marshall and Alan Ladd.  Having Ladd sit down disguises his short stature, always a visual problem when he wasn’t sitting on a horse.

In addition to running his ranch, Murray still works for the railroad, leading crews that clean up when a train is wrecked.  But he is edging more into wrecking trains for his own profit, after feeling disregarded by the bureaucracy of the company.  His relationship with Marian is becoming more strained as well, and he becomes more obsessed with the idea she might leave him for Smith.  This ends as it usually did for Preston in such roles.  Smith spends the movie balancing the duties of his job against his friendship with Murray, as well as his continuing regard and affection for Marian, while Murray gets deeper into anti-railroad crime.  Smith grapples with multiple bad guys, including the train-robbing Barton boys, Rebstock and his gunslinger Whitey, and it’s not clear until the end how his long-time friendship with Murray will turn out.

Brenda Marshall, then married to William Holden, made only one more film before retiring from the movie business.  Ladd and Preston were good friends, and this was the last of five movies in which they appeared together (This Gun For Hire, Variety Girl, Wild Harvest, etc.).  Ladd later became more comfortable and persuasive in westerns.  Not only did he go on to make the iconic Shane, for example, but he made a string of westerns in the 1950s, such as Branded, Drum Beat, Saskatchewan, Red Mountain and The Badlanders.  In color, at 88 minutes.

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Frank H. Spearman wrote the 1906 novel first using this character; at least one edition was illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.  The first Whispering Smith film was made in 1916, with the character said to be based at least in part on Joe LeFors, an actual western lawman (and sometime Union Pacific detective) based in Denver and Cheyenne who had chased Butch Cassidy and caught Tom Horn at the turn of the century.  Whispering Smith was played by silent star George O’Brien when he drifted into the lower-prestige genre of westerns during the 1930s.  After this 1948 film, the character was used once more in Whispering Smith Hits London (1952), after which he was retired from the movies, apparently for good.  He showed up on television for twenty episodes beginning in 1961, played by Audie Murphy.

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Whispering Smith (J.P. McGowan) in a scene from the 1916 movie of that name.

 

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There Was a Crooked Man

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 5, 2015

There Was a Crooked Man—Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Hume Cronyn, Warren Oates, Burgess Meredith, John Randolph, Lee Grant, Alan Hale, Jr. (1970; Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

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A cynical revisionist western prison movie, featuring Kirk Douglas in red hair as Paris Pitman, Jr., a convict wanting to get out to retrieve his stash of loot—half a million dollars he put in a rattlesnake pit in the barren mountains.  Although the title refers to one crooked man, its point of view is that everybody is at least a little crooked.  Pitman spends the movie conniving with everybody in sight (including the warden) and alternatively trying to orchestrate a break-out with a number of his imprisoned compatriots.

Eventually a new warden comes in, former sheriff Woodward Lopeman, played by Henry Fonda as the embodiment of Christian rectitude with a commitment to rehabilitation and fair treatment of the prisoners.  Pitman continues to foster havoc and confusion at the prison until, finally, he is successful at breaking out, tracked by Warden Lopeman.

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Paris Pitman (Kirk Douglas) spars verbally with new warden Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda).

Nobody is very admirable here, although the Fonda character tries until the end, when he succumbs to the lure of the loot.  There are a couple of shots of Douglas’ butt (in great shape at age 53), with other gratuitous nudity.  Although it seems to have been trying for humor, the movie has a pretty thoroughly amoral feel to it.  The comedy here is black, sometimes overly obvious, and it now seems dated.  Hume Cronyn and John Randolph play an obviously gay pair of con men, probably an innovation in movies at the time.  It’s from about the same time as Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and there are some similarities in tone.  Not as good as it should have been, with inconsistencies of tone.  Seen in a pretty dingy, beat-up print, but if you watch it on TCM, for example, the print they use is bright and clear.  Rated R.

Douglas himself, in his memoir The Ragman’s Son, noted that “The picture was very cynical and did not do well–everybody was crooked, nobody to root for.”  Douglas seems to place at least some of the blame on director Joseph Mankiewicz, who had directed All About Eve and Cleopatra, among others.  “He was much more at home with a scene in a library.”  Douglas did have high praise for the script, though, which would seem to be at least as much at fault.  This was one of the last films made by Mankiewicz, and his only western.  The screenplay is by David Newman and Robert Benton, not long after their first effort, Bonnie and Clyde.  For another cynical revisionist western from the early 1970s with Kirk Douglas, see Posse.

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