Category Archives: 55 Greatest Westerns

Near-Great Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 3, 2013

Arguments can be made that any of these westerns should be listed among the greats, but they’re not (here, at least).  Still, one ought to see all of them, with perhaps one exception.  I can’t in good conscience recommend that anybody see Heaven’s Gate, even though some include it on their lists of the ten or fifteen best westerns ever.  And most, if not all, of these will have their own posts here in due course.  The lists are always open to revisions if there’s a good argument.

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Destry Rides Again—James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Donlevy (1939; Dir:  George Marshall)

This marks the first appearance of James Stewart in a western, but it’s an unusual appearance.  Young Destry appears to be a western variation of the character Stewart played in Harvey in 1950, except that here the peaceful character is deliberately thrown into situations and settings that traditionally call for violence.  Stewart carries the movie, but Dietrich as the local saloon girl steals it.  Not quite great but very good.  It has aged more than Stagecoach from the same year.

 

Dodge City—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Bruce Cabot, Alan Hale (1939; Dir:  Michael Curtiz)

One of the memorable screen pairings of Flynn and de Havilland, and director Michael Curtiz puts together a creditable western.  The first and perhaps the best of Flynn’s westerns and very worth watching.  Both this and Destry suffer slightly by comparison with Stagecoach the same year, though.

 

Northwest Passage—Spencer Tracy, Robert Young Walter Brennan (1940; dir:  King Vidor)

An excellent film adaptation of part of Kenneth Roberts’ superb novel of Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, with a terrific performance by Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers.  An eastern western (set in Maine, New Hampshire and eastern Canada), but with lots of Indians.  A planned sequel to finish the novel was never made.  Not seen as often as it should be because it was not available on DVD until Dec. 2011. 

 

Virginia City—Errol Flynn, Miriam Hopkins, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart (1940; Dir:  Michael Curtiz)

A follow-up but not exactly a sequel to Dodge City, this features a superb cast, although it’s strange to see Humphrey Bogart as a Mexican bandit leader.  Randolph Scott plays the sort of conflicted but ethical bad guy he did occasionally in his early career, and he could bring it off well.  This is a Civil War drama set in the west, focusing on Nevada gold and silver.

 

The Gunfighter—Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell (1950: Dir:  Henry King)

One of the best examples of the aging gunfighter saga, with an affirmation of the often-repeated adage that you can’t leave your past and reputation behind you because younger gunfighters won’t let you.  In this case, the aging gunfighter is Jimmy Ringo, played with due gravity by Gregory Peck in one of his best westerns.

 

Westward the Women—Robert Taylor, John McIntire, Denise Darcel, Hope Emerson (1951; Dir: William A. Wellman)

An excellent wagon train western, with Robert Taylor and John McIntire taking a bunch of eastern women to California.  A very good supporting cast.  Not much seen now, but a very good story well written, acted and directed.  The ensemble of female actors is very good.


Vera Cruz—Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero (1954; Dir:  Robert Aldrich)

Big and beautiful, with a couple of big stars at the peak of their form, this is an example of adventuring in Mexico (just after the Civil War).  The plot isn’t terribly coherent, but it’s fun to watch notwithstanding that.

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3:10 to Yuma (original)—Glenn Ford, Van Heflin (1957; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

So why is the 2007 remake on the list of great westerns while the original isn’t?  The short answer is that the performances of the two leads, especially that of Christian Bale, are slightly stronger in the remake, as is the beefed-up role of Charley Prince (played by Ben Foster).  That’s not to take anything away from the original, which has a bit different focus (it’s more psychological with less action) and ending and is very worth watching.  Philip French, The Observer’s long-time film critic, put it on his list of ten best westerns with these comments:  ‘As a student at Stanford University, [director Delmer] Daves worked in 1923 as a runner on The Covered Wagon and lived on a Navajo reservation.  During the 1950s he directed eight fine westerns.  The best is this adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story in which Van Heflin, reprising his role in Shane, plays a stolid farmer saving his family’s drought-stricken ranch by taking on the dangerous task of escorting a charismatic outlaw (Glenn Ford) on a hazardous journey to the Arizona state pen.  Aspects of the Grail legend are subtly integrated into the tale.’

 

Gunfight at the OK Corral—Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas (1957; Dir:  John Sturges)

Many prefer director John Sturges’ original venture into Wyatt Earp’s story in this film to his revisiting it a decade later in Hour of the Gun.  This version, with its big stars and budget, suffers a bit from the glitzy Hollywood treatment.  As Doc Holliday, Douglas seems about as tubercular as Victor Mature did in My Darling Clementine, but the storytelling here isn’t as stark.

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The Tall T—Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan (1957; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

It’s a toss-up among the four best Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns which is best.  Each has its advocates.  In addition to Scott, the strength here is the multi-dimensional villain played by Richard Boone.  Another excellent western based on a story by Elmore Leonard, like 3:10 to Yuma and HombreNot to be missed.

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The Big Country—Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker, Charlton Heston, Charles Bickford, Burl Ives, Chuck Connors (1958; Dir:  William Wyler)

A big movie with a big cast, and it works.  It’s a variation on one of the old themes in westerns, in which an easterner (or European) comes west and must come to terms with how things are different there, demonstrating his or her worthiness in the process.  In retrospect, this is perhaps a little overheated, but nothing like Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, another similarly large-scale and large-budget western saga with Gregory Peck.  New Englander and retired sea captain Gregory Peck comes out west to Texas to marry his fiancée and steps into the middle of several conflicts.  Very worth watching.

 

Ride Lonesome—Randolph Scott, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, Karen Steele, Lee Van Cleef (1959; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

As with the strongest of the Boetticher-Scott westerns, this revenge western has a strong bad guy for Scott to play off.  This may be Pernell Roberts’ best performance on film.  As with The Tall T, this is not to be missed.    

 

Warlock—Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone (1959; Dir:  Edward Dmytryk)

This adaptation of Oakley Hall’s novel is very watchable.  Fonda is Clay Blaisdell, a well-known gunman brought in by a threatened town.  It’s not just the two principals (Fonda and Widmark) that make this good, but the supporting performance of Anthony Quinn as Fonda’s manager is very good and brings a note of complexity to the proceedings.  One of the better efforts of blacklisted Canadian director Edward Dmytryk.    

    

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A Fistful of Dollars—Clint Eastwood (1964; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

For a Few Dollars More—Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef (1965; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach (1966; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

Once Upon a Time in the West—Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale (1968; Dir:  Sergio Leone)

These works by director Sergio Leone have to be seen if you love westerns, but how they individually rank in the scheme of things generally depends to some degree on how you feel about spaghetti westerns.  These are the best of them, and you can see Leone growing from movie to movie as a filmmaker.  And that’s part of the problem by the time you get to Once Upon a Time in the West:  Leone would rather be a “filmmaker” than tell his story (also a weakness of the more recent Django Unchained).  As a general matter, this body of work is better than any of its individual parts.  The two that tend to get selected for “best” lists are The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and, more often, Once Upon a Time in the West.  There are also those who would say that the best is For a Few Dollars More.

Philip French in The Observer named Once Upon a Time in the West as one of his ten best westerns.  “Following his Dollar trilogy, which made Clint Eastwood a world star, Leone’s expansive celebration of the genre is the Everest of the spaghetti western, a violent, elegiac poem, both romantic and Marxist, that links the personal story of a laconic Mexican (Charles Bronson) searching for his brother’s killer to the epic of railroad building, with water as the leitmotif. The cast is largely American (headed by Henry Fonda as a ruthless killer), Ennio Morricone’s haunting score was written before the movie was made, and the pre-credit sequence is the quintessence of cool.”  Interminable, but cool.    

       

Hombre—Paul Newman, Richard Boone, Diane Cilento, Fredric March (1967; Dir:  Martin Ritt)

A terrific performance by Paul Newman in a downbeat western that can leave you shaking your head at the futility of honor and sacrifice for those who don’t deserve it.  Nobody who survives in this movie is as good as one of those who doesn’t.  It has one of Richard Boone’s three best villainous performances.  It’s very good.

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Will Penny—Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasance (1968; Dir:  Tom Gries)

Monte Walsh—Lee Marvin, Jack Palance,  Jeanne Moreau (1970; Dir:  William A Fraker)

These two, made around the same time, are both excellent variations on the theme of aging cowboys in the passing of the Old West.  Both Charlton Heston and Lee Marvin give terrific performances as the leads.  Watch them both.

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McCabe and Mrs. Miller—Warren Beatty, Julie Christie (1971; Dir:  Robert Altman)

Robert Altman was never going to make a straight-up, old-fashioned Western, and McCabe & Mrs Miller subverts many of the genre conventions:  Warren Beatty’s McCabe is not a virtuous, salt-of-the-earth hero but a scheming gambler, while Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller is an opium-addicted prostitute – and one without a heart of gold.  Roger Ebert considered McCabe & Mrs Miller to be Altman’s best movie.  Others prefer M*A*S*H from early in his career and Gosford Park from late in his career, but neither of those is a western.  This one reeks of revisionist 1970s anti-authoritarianism and has other hallmarks of Altman’s episodic and noisy style of filmmaking.

 

Lawman—Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb (1971; Dir:  Michael Winner)

Ulzana’s Raid—Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison (1972; Dir:  Robert Aldrich)

Burt Lancaster was in three westerns about this time, and the best of them was Valdez Is Coming.  But Ulzana’s Raid, with Lancaster in the Old Scout role again (hunting renegade Apaches this time) is almost as good.  Lawman has its proponents among those with a high tolerance (or even fondness) for 1970s moral relativism; Lancaster and Ryan give good performances, as inflexible lawman Lancaster destroys several people and perhaps a town in pursuit of what he sees as the law’s demands.

 

Heaven’s Gate—Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken (1980; Dir:  Michael Cimino) (?!) 

This movie single-handedly destroyed the career of director Michael Cimino, who had won the Best Picture Oscar for 1978’s The Deer Hunter just two years previously.  For some, it’s a bloated, unwatchable disaster.  For others, it’s a flawed masterpiece.  Philip French, writing in The Observer, is clearly in the latter camp when he puts this among the ten greatest westerns.  ‘This flawed masterpiece (now restored …) was vilified by American critics, cut by its producers and was never properly released.  It’s an epic treatment of the Johnson County war between impoverished settlers and rich land barons in 1892 Wyoming (the same setting as Shane), which Cimino turns into a forceful metaphor for the 19th-century American experience.  Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken play “class traitors”, one a Harvard graduate who sides with the underdogs, the other an immigrant’s son, a hired gun for the Cattlemen’s Association.  Visually stunning, memorably designed.’

*Only Wyoming was the same in Shane, and not even the same part of Wyoming.  Shane had nothing to do with the Johnson County war.

 

White Fang—Ethan Hawke, Klaus Maria Brandauer (1991; Dir:  Randal Kleiser)

Yes, technically Alaska and the Yukon are in western North America.  But it seems like a different kind of story (Adventure stories?  Animal stories?), even though some of the themes (man against nature, man against man unrestrained by civilization and its laws) are just like those in westerns.  The strengths of this adaptation of the Jack London story set in the Yukon gold rush are casting, with a young Ethan Hawke and the terrific Klaus Maria Brandauer, and good, clear story-telling.  Watch it and see where you think it fits.

 

Ravenous—Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle (1999; Dir:  Antonia Bird)

Definitely worth watching, but it’s not on the list of great westerns because it’s really a horror movie that happens to be set in the Old West.  Interesting music by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman.  And a female English director.

 

Ride with the Devil—Tobey McGuire, Skeet Ulrich (1999; Dir:  Ang Lee)

This is actually a Civil War story about Quantrill and his guerrilla raiders, set in Missouri and Kansas.  There are other Civil War stories (Escape from Fort Bravo, Alvarez Kelly and The Horse Soldiers come to mind) that seem like westerns maybe because they have William Holden in them.  For Philip French in The Observer, it’s one of the ten greatest westerns.  But then he thinks Brokeback Mountain is a great western, and it makes lists for reasons that have nothing to do with westerns.  ‘Set west of the Mississippi, where the Civil War was being conducted as a violent sideshow between irregular forces, this was the last great western of the 20th century.  The film traces the brutalising experiences and subsequent healing of a German immigrant’s teenage son (Tobey Maguire) who unwisely joins a brutal band of southern guerrillas.  Notable for superbly staged action sequences (especially the infamous raid on Lawrence, Kansas) and attention to period language.  Six years later, Ang Lee directed the most significant western of the new century, Brokeback Mountain.’

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard (2007; Dir:  Andrew Dominik)

This is a gorgeously-shot film, and it could be that Brad Pitt makes the most convincing Jesse James yet seen on film, in terms of charisma, psychosis and world-weariness at the end of his career.  But this is also a long movie that doesn’t move much and spends a lot of time with Casey Affleck as Robert Ford looking squirrelly and not giving much away.  If you love a good exercise in filmmaking, this may be for you.  Some say it requires multiple viewings to appreciate its virtues.

 

Bad Day at Black Rock—Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Anne Francis (1955; Dir:  John Sturges)

No Country for Old Men—Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson (2007; Dir:  Ethan and Joel Coen)

These two excellent movies made more than 50 years apart are both set in the modern west, and the question with such movies is how much they involve traditional western themes.  That’s the primary reason Lone Star (also set in modern Texas) is on the list of great westerns and these are not:  Lone Star is more of a western, with principal themes relating to the mythos of the Old West.  But some of the principal characters in all of them wear cowboy hats, and these three are all superb movies.  See them and decide for yourself.  The Coen brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) is also an excellent movie set in modern Texas, but it more clearly belongs to another genre:  neo-film noir.

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Stagecoach

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 2, 2013

Stagecoach—John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, John Carradine (1939; Dir:  John Ford)

In addition to being the first of the modern westerns, this was also director John Ford’s first use of Monument Valley, which became his favorite filming location for westerns, and his first association with John Wayne in a starring role.  It was Ford’s first sound western and his first western of any kind in 13 years.  When the film was made, Claire Trevor was the biggest star in the cast and was paid the highest salary.  Wayne had been in a number of low-budget westerns in the 1930s, but this was his first big lead in an upscale film since 1930’s The Big Trail with director Raoul Walsh almost a decade earlier.  That one had bombed on its theatrical release, although it’s been rediscovered by many in the DVD age.   Casting Wayne in Stagecoach was Ford’s idea; the studio preferred Gary Cooper, but ultimately went along with Ford’s recommendation.   This film put John Wayne on the track to being an even bigger star than Trevor, especially when he was teamed with Ford in future projects. 

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The movie is based on a 1937 short story by western writer Ernest Haycox, which is in turn said to be based on Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif,” which takes place in Normandy during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.  In this film, several strangers board the crowded Overland Stage in Tonto, Arizona, heading for Lordsburg, New Mexico.  One is Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute being run out of town by the respectable women.  Another is Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant army wife going to meet her husband, although her pregnancy is neither mentioned nor shown until it’s time for the baby’s birth.  The male passengers include alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), also being run out of town; Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), a timorous whiskey salesman; Hatfield (John Carradine), a professional gambler with a southern accent and an occasional chivalrous streak; and Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a bank president clutching his bag with suspicious tenacity.  Riding shotgun to stage driver Buck (Andy Devine) is Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), looking for the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has just busted out of jail.  All these stories would seem complicated enough, but these passengers aren’t on just any stage trip:  Geronimo’s Apaches are on the warpath in the area the stage will be traveling through.

stagecoachRingo The stage stops for Ringo.

As the stagecoach rounds a bend, there’s a figure waving it down, rifle in one hand and saddle in the other.  The camera zooms in on his face, and it’s Ringo, in one of the most memorable shots of this film.  He’s been in prison because he was framed by the Plummer brothers, who killed his father and brother and sent him to prison before he was 17.  Now that he has escaped from jail, he’s on his way to Lordsburg for a final confrontation with the Plummers.  Both Curley and Doc Boone know Ringo and like him, and Curley takes him prisoner, in part to keep him alive. 

There are two stage stations and a ferry between Tonto and Lordsburg.  At the first station, all is well.  The stage changes horses but loses its cavalry escort; the passengers eat, and Dallas is shunned by the more respectable passengers:  Hatfield, Mrs. Mallory and Gatewood.  Ringo and Doc Boone are friendlier, and Ringo suggests that he’s the one being shunned.  “I guess you can’t expect to break out of prison and into society in the same week.”   There’s amazingly quick character development, including one brief but revealing scene where a canteen is passed around the stage.

The cavalry detail that was to pick up the stage at the first station is out chasing Apaches instead, and after taking a vote among the passengers the stage moves on toward the second station.  Here matters develop more quickly.  Mrs. Mallory collapses, and as there are hurried instructions for hot water, we realize she’s about to give birth.  (At least two of the other passengers didn’t recognize that she was pregnant, either, with the reticence of a bygone era.)  Doc Boone sobers up and delivers a baby girl, with the help of Dallas.  Outside in the moonlight, Ringo proposes marriage to Dallas and with her help he almost escapes.  However, Chris, the Mexican station master, has an Apache wife, who leaves with several vaqueros and the station’s spare horses.

Ringo decides not to escape here because he sees Indian sign and holds up.  Curley takes him back into custody, and the stage heads warily for the ferry, after which they all figure they’ll be safe.  The ferry and its station are burned out, though.  Buck, Curley and Ringo rig supporting logs to help the stage float across the river, and they head for Lordsburg with a sigh of relief.  But we know the Apaches are somewhere around, and inevitably they show up and give chase.  After an extended chase (featuring some superb, state-of-the-art stuntwork by Yakima Canutt), the stage’s defenders run out of ammunition, with Hatfield saving his last bullet to spare Mrs. Mallory the indignities of capture by the savages.  And then ….

stagecoach-1939 Under attack by Geronimo.

Well, Ringo has to make it to Lordsburg, and he does.  He has it out with the nefarious Plummer brothers (three Plummers against one Ringo), and matters work out as they should, perhaps not with complete believability.  Doc Boone does not miraculously become a respected teetotaler, and Dallas is unable to leave her past completely behind, but things work out for them as they should, too.

It’s great storytelling, with bits of social commentary unobtrusively scattered along the way.  John Wayne captures the screen whenever he’s in the frame, and Claire Trevor is magnificent.  Wayne has the iconic western line:  “There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”  If Thomas Mitchell’s hard-drinking Doc Boone seems a bit stereotypical from our vantage point (almost identical to Edmond O’Brien’s hard-drinking newspaperman in Liberty Valance 25 years later, in fact), well, he was perhaps less so in 1939.  Donald Meek’s whiskey drummer, whom every one mistakes for a clergyman, is very effective.  And we despise the overbearing banker Gatewood as we are meant to do.  The Apaches actually look like Indians, which you can’t say of many western films of this era; Ford generally used Navajos instead of Apaches, though.

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In addition to being the first use of Monument Valley as a setting (and the first of seven Ford films to use it), there’s other good filmmaking going on here.  Ford doesn’t use a lot of close-ups, so we tend to pay attention when he does.  The interior ceilings are low, which must have presented problems for the lighting of the time.  That adds to the claustrophobic feeling as the movie progresses, and was imitated by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane two years later.  And the stunt work by Yakima Canutt was later imitated in such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Maverick.

Although there were a couple of other well-made westerns in 1939, it was largely this film that rejuvenated the genre, brought it an element of respectability and started the modern era for westerns.  (Many 1940s westerns would still show evidence of low budgets, singing cowboys and lots of stereotypes—the revolution didn’t happen overnight.)  But Stagecoach was a real accomplishment and remains highly watchable today.  In what is still thought of as Hollywood’s single greatest year, Stagecoach was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Interior Decoration, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone) and Best Score.  It won for the last two. 

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Dallas (Claire Trevor) and Ringo (John Wayne) in Lordsburg, about to confront reality.

In an interview for a 1971 article, Ford reminisced about casting Wayne.   ‘I got a call from [producer] Walter Wanger who had one more picture to make under his United Artists contract. So I sent him the short story and he said, “That’s a pretty good story. I’m thinking of Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich,” he said.

“I don’t think you can go that high on salary with a picture like this,” I said. “This is the kind of picture you have to make for peanuts.”

“Have you got anybody in mind?” Wanger asked me.

“Well, there’s a boy I know who used to be an assistant prop man and bit player for me,” I said. “His name was Michael Morrison, but he’s making five-day Westerns and calls himself John Wayne now.”

“Do you think he’s any good?” he asked.

“Yes, I think so,” I said. “And we can get him for peanuts.”‘  And John Wayne became a star.

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A production still of the cast, from Claire Trevor on the left to George Bancroft on the right.

As Ford recalled it, he had plenty of confidence in the film, but it wasn’t always obvious that it would be a hit.  ‘After I shot Stagecoach, I worked closely with the cutter.  But there wasn’t a helluva lot to do.  I cut with the camera.  When the picture was put together, Wanger invited a few top people – brilliant brains of the industry who proceed to say how they would have done Stagecoach.  Sam Goldwyn said, “Walter, you made one mistake:  You should have shot it in color.  You should start all over again and make it in color.”  Douglas Fairbanks Sr. said: “The chase is too long.”

‘Then it was shown to the great producers at RKO, who had turned the project down in the first place.  One of them said, “It’s just a B picture.”  Another said, “It’s all right, but it’s still a Western.”  Well, of course, the picture went out and hit the jackpot.  It started a flood of Westerns, and we’ve been suffering from them ever since.”‘

It was also made at a particularly productive period of John Ford’s career, the same year that he made Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln and just before he made The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley.  It was an amazing streak for a great director.

The 1966 remake of Stagecoach was pleasant enough, but a pale and much less charismatic imitation of the original.  A made-for-television version in 1986 seemed to be merely a vehicle for a number of aging country music stars (mostly without much acting ability) and didn’t work at all.  The best other variation on this theme (strangers on a stage under attack, complete with social prejudices and hypocrisy, the supposedly respectable but actually corrupt businessman) is the 1967 movie Hombre.

For the 1971 article with comments from various participants in the production (including John Wayne and Claire Trevor), see:  http://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1004-Winter-2010-11/Features-On-John-Fords-Stagecoach.aspx

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The Ox-Bow Incident

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 1, 2013

The Ox-Bow Incident—Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Harry Morgan, Anthony Quinn, Frank Conroy, William Eythe, Jane Darwell (1943; Dir:  William Wellman)

This is one of those movies that is more admired than watched these days, much like Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel on which it is based.  But it’s an excellent character study and a searing indictment of mob justice.  It’s all the more remarkable when one considers that it predates the McCarthy era by a decade.  It can be taken as one of the excellent examples of social commentary from its period, along with such films as The Grapes of Wrath and Sullivan’s Travels.  It probably gets less respect than those because it’s a western, and it is less watched by western fans because it’s heavy on the social commentary—lots of talk and not so much action.

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The film’s action, such as it is, takes place in Nevada in 1885.  Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and his partner Art Croft (an early appearance by Harry Morgan) are regular cowhands and small ranchers, making one of their infrequent stops in the small town of Bridger’s Wells one spring, when they with others hear of rustling and the murder of Larry Kincaid, a well-thought-of local rancher.  The sheriff isn’t readily available, so a posse is formed with his deputy under the leadership of Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), apparently a Confederate veteran of the Civil War.  Carter and Croft join the posse in part so they don’t become suspects themselves.  In pursuit of the supposed murderers, they encounter a stage carrying Carter’s less-than-faithful intended and her new San Francisco husband.

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In Ox-Bow Canyon, the posse catches fifty head of Kincaid’s cattle in the possession of three men, led by Donald Martin (a young Dana Andrews), who claims to be a new rancher from a nearby town.  Nobody knows him, though, and they don’t buy his story.  Martin says he bought the cattle from Kincaid but doesn’t have a bill of sale.  After hearing a little, the posse decides to string up the three of them.  There is an extended sequence while one of the three, a Mexican (a young Anthony Quinn), makes a break for it and is shot in the leg.  The third turns out to be a feeble-minded old man (Francis Ford, brother of the more famous director John Ford).  Seven of the posse, including Carter, Croft and Major Tetley’s cowardly son Gerald (William Eythe), have misgivings about the lynching and stand up against it, but to no effect.  Martin is given time to write a last letter to his wife, and the hanging is done. 

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Quinn, Andrews, Fonda, Conroy and Darwell:  A necktie party.

As the posse heads out, the sheriff unexpectedly turns up.  He says that Kincaid is not dead, and they caught the ones who shot him, meaning that those the posse lynched were innocent, just as they claimed.  From what the sheriff says, he intends to take action against those responsible for the hanging.  The chastened posse makes its way back to town, where Carter reads Martin’s last letter to them as they reflectively drink in a saloon.  The split between Tetley and his son has become irreparable, and the major shoots himself.  As the movie ends, Carter and Croft head off to deliver Martin’s letter to his widow.

That the film contains so many good performances must be attributed to William Wellman, the director.  Henry Fonda in particular is superb as Carter, and this performance ranks among his best.  But a number of new, young actors (Andrews, Morgan, Eythe, Quinn) are also very good in this film.  As Farnley, the hothead who continually incites the posse, screen villain Marc Lawrence is deliciously unlikable.  Henry Davenport, as Davies, the leader of opposition to hanging, is very good.  Jane Darwell as Ma Grier, the female member of the posse, has none of Ma Joad’s warmth.  Sparks (Leigh Whipper, uncredited) provides a bit of humanity as a black man tolerated on the posse who is one of the seven objectors and prays as the men are hanged.  His character later says that his brother was lynched, accounting for his sympathy with those hung.  

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Carter (Henry Fonda) in the aftermath of the hanging: Reading the letter to the wife.

One scene that stands out is Carter’s reading of the Martin letter to the other posse members in the bar, after they have returned to Bridger’s Wells.  As a dramatic moment, it ranks with Fonda’s Tom Joad soliloquy in The Grapes of Wrath, despite the fact that (a) the contents of the letter are never revealed in the novel, and (b) the letter doesn’t sound much like an 1880s rancher, but much more like a 1940s screenwriter (Lamar Trotti, in this case).  Fonda’s face is deliberately obscured by a hat brim for much of the reading, so his words are the focus.  This is one of Fonda’s best performances, although his character starts out fairly unlikable and is merely a witness for much of the movie.  In Fonda’s career, this film invites comparison not only with The Grapes of Wrath, but with the later 12 Angry Men.  Immediately after making this movie, Fonda enlisted in the U.S. Navy for the remainder of World War II.  Harry Morgan had a solid and long-lived career as a character actor, showing up as an unhelpful townsman in High Noon and as a quasi-comic mayor in Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter.

It’s a fairly short movie at less than 75 minutes.  Even so, it’s hard to know what to make of the early subplot with Carter’s supposed fiancée.  Made with a small budget and not a commercial success upon its release, the film was nevertheless a Best Picture nominee in that year’s Academy Awards.   It lost to Casablanca, as it should have.

For westerns featuring lynchings, see The Moonlighter, Johnny Guitar, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High and A Man Alone, among others.

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My Darling Clementine

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 30, 2013

My Darling Clementine—Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Cathy Downs, Tim Holt, Ward Bond (1946; Dir:  John Ford)

Of all the cinematic versions of the Wyatt Earp story, this is the least accurate historically.  (Well, with the exception of 1939’s Frontier Marshal, which is a pretty good movie, too.)  But this elegant black and white retelling, with Henry Fonda as a mythic Wyatt, has a visual spareness and beauty that remain unmatched more than sixty years later.  If you know much about the historical events in Tombstone, maybe the best way to watch this classic is to just enjoy the story John Ford tells here for what it is without weighing it against the actual history.  Bear in mind the line from another Ford western (Liberty Valance) about legends becoming fact.  Ford was helping that process along for the Earps.

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Filmed in Ford’s favorite western location (Monument Valley, where he made nine movies), there are images from this movie that linger long after it’s over:  Fonda sitting in a chair on the boardwalk, tipped back on the rear legs with his leg propped against a post as he watches the town’s comings and goings; Fonda and Downs at a church social, dancing outdoors on the newly-built floor of what will be the church; Fonda and his brothers finding the body of the youngest brother in the pouring rain; a hack actor getting help from Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday in finishing Hamlet’s soliloquy; a badly shot Mature calmly looking through the poles of a corral, his hand holding a white handkerchief near his head as he selects and shoots his next target.

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Bruce Willis in a visual Fonda reference (Last Man Standing, a gangster-era remake of Yojimbo directed by western aficionado Walter Hill).  Even the chair is the same.

The most eye-catching female role here is not the Clementine Carter of the title, played by Cathy Downs, but smoldering Linda Darnell as Chihuahua, a Mexican saloon girl and prostitute in love with Doc Holliday. 

At the movie’s start, Wyatt Earp (Fonda) and his three brothers, Morgan (Ward Bond), Virgil (Tim Holt) and James, are driving a herd of cattle to California when they arrive outside Tombstone in Arizona.  Leaving young James to watch the herd, they go into town for a shave and a drink.  They return in the driving rain to find the herd stolen and James dead.  It’s obvious to us that it’s the work of Old Man Clanton (an unusually malevolent Walter Brennan) and his four sons, who were coveting the herd earlier and tried to buy it.  The surviving brothers return to town, where Wyatt, already known as a peace officer from a stint in Dodge City, accepts a job as the town marshal with his brothers as deputies.

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Walter Brennan as a malevolent Old Man Clanton.

One of his first actions is to meet and establish some kind of relationship with Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), who owns the local saloon where Chihuahua sings.  Doc is volatile and used to having his way, but he and Wyatt arrive at a wary accommodation.  There is a sense of impending doom over Doc, due to bouts of wracking coughs that indicate he has consumption (tuberculosis).  The stage brings Clementine Carter to town, a figure from Doc’s past with whom Wyatt is immediately taken.  Doc is less thrilled to see her, and he tells Clementine to leave town or he will.  The jealous Chihuahua thinks Doc will now go to Mexico with her and marry her.  Meanwhile, Wyatt discovers Chihuahua with an elaborate silver cross that James had bought for his own girl, and she tells him she got it from Doc.  Wyatt chases down the stage for Tucson and retrieves Doc.  He doesn’t come easily; the two finally face off, and Wyatt wins.

On their return to Tombstone, they confront Chihuahua, since Doc knows he didn’t give her the cross.  She finally confesses that she got it from Billy Clanton (John Ireland), and Clanton, who has been lurking outside the window, shoots her and flees on horseback.  Wyatt takes three shots at Clanton to little apparent effect and Virgil pursues him toward the Clanton ranch.  At the ranch, Billy falls dead on the porch from wounds, and Old Man Clanton shoots Virgil in the back with a shotgun. 

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Wyatt delivers an ultimatum to the Clantons at the OK Corral.

Meanwhile, Doc Holliday exercises his now-quite-rusty surgical skills on the badly wounded Chihuahua, using saloon tables for the operation with the assistance of trained nurse Clementine.  It’s apparently successful, and for a time Doc is the skilled surgeon of old.  However, the Clantons return with Virgil’s body to Tombstone, setting up the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Chihuahua dies, and Holliday joins the Earps against the Clantons.  In the extended shootout, all four of the remaining Clantons are killed, with Old Man Clanton as the final member of the family to go down.  Wyatt and surviving brother Morgan (Ward Bond) head for California to tell their father what has happened, and Clementine becomes the schoolmarm in Tombstone.  Wyatt departs, leaving the sense that he’ll be back to resume the relationship.

Tim Holt and Cathy Downs in My Darling Clementine, 1946.

Wyatt and Clementine say goodbye for a while.

Fonda couldn’t be better as Wyatt Earp in his first movie role after returning from service in the navy during World War II.  As it is used in this movie, even Fonda’s hat almost becomes a character itself; both its shape and Fonda’s use of it seem authentic.  Victor Mature, whose most obvious characteristic was his physical size and robustness, is a strange choice to play the slight, tubercular Holliday, but it works well enough in the end.  Walter Brennan is excellent as Old Man Clanton, setting up a similar role for him in the parody Support Your Local Sheriff more than twenty years later.  The Clanton sons never become differentiated and don’t matter much.  There’s something of a Mexican stereotype in Darnell’s Chihuahua, but she doesn’t go so far as to attempt a Mexican accent and after enough fiery close-ups she’s effective.  Cathy Downs is beautiful as Clementine, and she doesn’t actually have to do much.  The character actors such as Alan Mowbray’s Shakespearean hack Granville Thorndyke, Jane Darwell’s townswoman Kate Nelson, and J. Farrell Macdonald as Mac the barman are excellent.  Wyatt to Mac:  “Mac, you ever been in love?”  Mac:  “No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.”

This was also John Ford’s first postwar movie, and it began another amazing run for him.  Over the next ten years, he’d make a string of some of the most remarkable westerns ever filmed.  Ford was said to have known Wyatt Earp as an old man (Earp died in 1929, spending a few of those last years in Hollywood), and this film was loosely based on Stuart Lake’s biography written soon after the old lawman’s death.  Ford claimed that the version of the famous gunfight that he shot was based what Earp personally told him, including a diagram and the passage of a dust-raising stagecoach during the shooting.  But as usual he was “printing the legend”–telling his story the way he thought it should be.  After Ford submitted his film, studio head Darryl Zanuck notoriously took some liberties with it, resulting in some new footage and a shorter cut.  (See Lost Masterpieces.)

The black-and-white cinematography by James MacDonald is remarkable, especially in low shots that bring in the sky; in rain at night; in its use of shadows and light in interior shots; and in long shots that end up in the distance on a feature of Monument Valley geography.  As the surviving Earps and Doc Holliday walk down the dirt street at dawn toward the OK Corral, they’re barely visible in long shots that emphasize the looming sky.  The movie in general has an almost palpable sense of bygone Americana.

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The mortally wounded Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) does not go gently.

If you want a more historical recounting of the Tombstone saga, and in particular the famous gunfight, try Tombstone or Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp.  So what’s incorrect in Clementine?  There was no Clementine historically, and Wyatt’s relations with women were less fastidious than this movie depicts.  James was the oldest of the Earp brothers, not the youngest, and the positions of Morgan and Virgil were switched in this film.  It was older brother Virgil, not Wyatt, who took on the job of marshal in Tombstone.  The Earps did not come to Tombstone driving cattle; they came to a booming mining town looking for gambling opportunities and maybe a quick mining strike.  The country around Tombstone isn’t much like Monument Valley.  Wyatt didn’t meet Doc Holliday in Tombstone; they’d previously met in Fort Griffin, Texas, and had been friends for some years.  Doc came to Tombstone after the Earps were already there.  Doc was a dentist, not a surgeon, and he was from Georgia, not Boston, although he was trained in Philadelphia.  He was not killed at the OK Corral, but died in a Colorado sanitarium six years later.  His mistress was not Mexican, but a Hungarian prostitute, Big Nose Kate Elder, and she outlived Doc by more than 50 years.  The Earps’ opponents at the shootout were not Old Man Clanton and three of his four sons—he had only three and he was dead months before the shootout.  Ike and Billy Clanton were in the fight; Ike ran and survived, and Billy was killed, along with the two McLaury brothers.  The gunfight itself was a more stand-up and shoot-it-out affair than depicted in the movie with less moving around, and it was over much quicker.  Some of the more interesting aspects of the real-life story happen during Wyatt’s vendetta ride after the shootout at the corral, and that aftermath is not depicted at all in this film.  And that’s for starters.

Some of these less-than-historical elements have their roots in earlier cinematic versions of the story.  For example, for a Clementine figure re-entering Doc’s life in Tombstone, Doc as a surgeon rather than a dentist, a dramatic operation on a saloon table and Doc being killed in Tombstone, see Frontier Marshal from 1939, with Randolph Scott as Earp and Cesar Romero as Doc.

Wyatt and Clementine dance--he clumsy but enthusiastic, and with great joy. "Make room for our new Marshall and his Lady Fair".

The marshal dances with Clementine, as Monument Valley looms in the background.

John Ford was indisputably a great director, but he could be nasty to work with.  Three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan would refuse to work with him again after this film.  And Henry Fonda, who had an extraordinarily successful history with Ford by the time this was made (Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath), would have his own falling-out with Ford about ten years later.

For historical reading on the actual Tombstone and the Earps, try Paula Marks’ To Live and Die in the West or recent biographies of Wyatt by Allen Barra or Casey Tefertiller. 

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On the set of My Darling Clementine, 1946.

Note:  As of Oct. 2014, this classic was released on a Criterion Collection DVD, complete with commentary, extras, a fully-restored version of the 97-minute theatrical release, and even a 103-minute pre-release cut.  It’s the best way to see the film.  However, the earlier 2004 DVD has an excellent commentary by film historian and Ford biographer Scott Eyman that is worth listening to.

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Fort Apache

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 28, 2013

Fort Apache—John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Shirley Temple, John Agar, Pedro Armendariz (1948; Dir:  John Ford)

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A Custer-esque poster, reminiscent of a print often seen in 19th century saloons.

This is the first of Ford’s cavalry trilogy from the late 1940s, a landmark series and an extraordinary achievement in the western genre.  This initial entry revolves around the conflict in leadership between Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda, with a streak of white in his hair), a by-the-book martinet with no experience in dealing with Indians, and the more reasonable, pragmatic and experienced Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne).  The Chiricahua Apaches under Cochise have left their reservation (the leadership of Cochise would place this in the early 1870s) and gone to Mexico.  It falls to Thursday’s command to deal with them.

fortapache2 Henry Fonda as Col. Owen Thursday

West Point graduate Thursday rose to be a general in the Civil War, but afterward he was reduced in rank as the military shrank to its peacetime size.  He feels that small-time Fort Apache in Arizona Territory isn’t worthy of him, and, Custer-like, he wants to reclaim supposed past military glories in his new posting.  He’s overly concerned with insignificant military niceties and too stubborn to accept advice from more experienced subordinates.  His highest-ranking subordinates are Captains York, who also saw service as a colonel in the Civil War but has since acquired considerable experience out west dealing with the Apaches, and Collingwood (silent film star George O’Brien, who played older officers in all three of Ford’s cavalry trilogy movies), older than York and with a longer and warmer acquaintance with Thursday.  Collingwood is on the verge of retirement, just waiting out the days or weeks in this remote outpost until his final retirement orders come through.  Unlike Thursday, York has enough experience to realize the outpost’s vulnerabilities.  As York sees it, not everything needs to come to a fight, including the current situation with Cochise.  To complicate matters, Thursday’s daughter Philadelphia (an almost grown-up ShirleyTemple) shows up at the post and develops a romantic interest in young West Point graduate Lt. Michael O’Rourke (John Agar).  O’Rourke is the son of the post’s Irish sergeant major (Ward Bond)—now a non-commissioned officer, although he was a Medal of Honor winner and a major in the Civil War.  To Thursday, that would be a highly unsuitable match.

fort_apache_wayne Wayne as Capt. Kirby York

Thursday shows some signs of being able to learn as he and York discover that the Apaches have left their reservation because they’ve been systematically cheated by a corrupt Indian agent, who’s also selling guns and alcohol to them on the side.  York is sent with Sgt. Beaufort (a Mexican and former Confederate major, played by Pedro Armendariz; the sergeant speaks Spanish as does Cochise) on a diplomatic mission to find Cochise and persuade him to come back.  In reliance on York’s word, Cochise and his people come far enough back to parley with Thursday.  However, Thursday is certain he knows best, and he is grossly and unnecessarily offensive to the Indians, precipitating a battle.  He is sure that savages with no training cannot have the military capability of defeating U.S. cavalry, no matter how outnumbered that cavalry might be.  Going against York’s advice, Thursday charges into an ambush, with York and young O’Rourke ordered to stay behind with the supply train.

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The result is the massacre of all Thursday’s men, including Collingwood and the elder O’Rourke.  In the final scene at the post some years after the event, York is now the commanding officer, and not-quite-so young O’Rourke is his second in command, now married to Philadelphia Thursday.  Members of the press are asking York about Thursday’s supposedly heroic last stand and a famous painting of “Thursday’s Charge,” and York confirms the glorious myth—“Correct in every detail,” he says of the overblown and obviously inaccurate painting.  It’s a foretaste of the Liberty Valance valedictory:  “When the legend become fact, print the legend.”

There are the usual Ford cavalry characters here:  Irish sergeants led by Michael O’Rourke (Ward Bond), Fergus Mulcahey (Victor McLaglen) and Quincannon (Dick Foran); young, mouthy lieutenants (John Agar); beautiful eastern young women (Temple) inexperienced with the west; savvy long-time military wives (Emily Collingwood and Mary O’Rourke, played by Anna Lee and Irene Rich); noble Indian leaders (Cochise, played here by Miguel Inclan); former Conferates now serving well out west (Armendariz); and scurrilous Indian agents (Silas Meacham, played by Grant Withers).  There are names that will recur in future parts of the cavalry trilogy:  Quincannon (a stereotypical Irish sergeant played by twice by McLaglen in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) and Kirby York (played again by Wayne in Rio Grande).  No Ben Johnson or Harry Carey, Jr., yet, though; they’ll have to wait for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  Young lovers Agar and Temple were in fact married at the time, although they’d be divorced in a couple more years.

fortapache1  Production still:  Wayne, Fonda, Agar and Temple

These three movies were not conceived as a trilogy, and, though they all have typical Ford weaknesses (nostalgia, sentimentality, broad stereotypes), they have his strengths as well, including his unparalleled visual sense.  This, like the others, was filmed at Utah’s Monument Valley (although the Fort Apache set was located in Simi Valley, California), and is in black and white.  In some ways, the plot of Fort Apache is the strongest of the three.  It’s based on a short story by James Bellah, “Massacre.”

In addition to Custer, an Arizona inspiration for the story might be Lt. Howard Cushing of the 3rd Cavalry.  Cushing led his troopers into an Apache ambush at Bear Spring northwest of Fort Huachuca in Arizona Territory and was killed.  He is sometimes referred to as “the Custer of Arizona.”

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Red River

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 27, 2013

Red River–John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Noah Beery, Jr. (1948; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

This is the first of the two brilliant westerns (1959’s Rio Bravo is the other) on which Hawks’ reputation as a director of westerns rests.  Hawks was not particularly known for westerns, although most everybody in Hollywood who had worked in the industry as long as Hawks had some kind of experience with westerns.

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What makes this one brilliant?  It marks the bringing of serious themes from other genres into westerns—the father-son conflict between Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), for example; the nature of leadership and its moral boundaries; competition between two young men with similar skills but different principles; and a complex relationship between a strong man and an assertive female.  It’s a great trail drive story, with overtones of obsession (Wayne’s character, foreshadowing the obsessiveness of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers).  The other relationships in the movie are not simple, especially when it seems the characters have to take sides between Dunson and Garth:  Loyal family retainer Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan), who loves them both; gunhand Cherry Valance (John Ireland), who competes with Garth but respects him nevertheless; and Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who is attracted to Garth romantically but like Groot has to mediate between Garth and the vengeful Dunson, while we try to figure out what kind of woman she is.

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Young Dunson (John Wayne) and his doomed love.

Dunson is a hard man from the start of the movie.  We first see him in 1851 with a wagon train heading from St. Louis toward California.  As Dunson and Groot leave the wagon train to head south into Texas across the Red River, Dunson’s girl in another wagon begs to go along.  He says he’ll send for her, and they part ways.  Comanches attack the train after Dunson leaves, and he sees the smoke from a distance.  Several attack Dunson and Groot, too; he fights them off, but they kill one of his two cattle.  They find the boy Matthew Garth wandering through the brush, a survivor of the attack who’d been chasing his cow when the Comanches came.   Dunson and Groot take him with them, farther south into Texas.  When Dunson finds the land he wants, it’s part of a huge Spanish land grant whose owner lives south of the Rio Grande.  Dunson figures he can take it, and he starts his ranch there with the brand Red River D.

Fast forward to the end of the Civil War, in 1865.  Garth returns from service in the war (presumably with the Confederacy), and Dunson has developed a huge herd for which there are no buyers in Texas.  Dunson wants to trail the herd a thousand miles north over the Chisholm Trail to the railroad in Missouri, something which has never been done successfully.  The rest of the movie is the epic story is of that first cattle drive north from Texas. 

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Cherry Valance (John Ireland) and Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) test each other.

It takes somebody as obsessive as Dunson to drive the herd (and his men).  They take off with the famous “Yee-haw” scene, and it’s not a smooth trip.  There is a night stampede, resulting in deaths both human and bovine.  Some of the men can’t take it and want to quit; Dunson becomes increasingly unreasonable, with his megalomania out of control.  When he plans to hang two deserters, Garth steps in and stops him.  Garth takes control of the herd, moving it north across the Red River and into Kansas, heading for Abilene rather than Sedalia, Missouri, as Dunson had insisted.  None of them know whether the railroad is really in Abilene, although with our modern point of view we have a pretty good idea that it is.

As they move into Kansas, they’re harassed by marauding Indians and wary of the pursuing Dunson.  The cowboys temporarily leave the herd to rescue a bunch of traveling gamblers and loose women from Indian attack, and Garth meets Tess Millay, who is wounded in the attack.  They are taken with each other, but Garth has his drive to finish and Dunson to deal with, and the herd moves on to the north.

redriverIndianAttack Tess attacked by Indians.

Dunson and his new men reach the gamblers’ camp and learn of the Indian attack and the herd’s movements.  Dunson wants to replace Garth as his son, and offers Tess half his ranch if she’ll bear him a son; she says she’ll do it if he gives up his plan to kill Garth¸ and she accompanies him toward Abilene.  Meanwhile, Garth and the herd make it there first, and Garth gets a top price for the herd, about $50,000.  This sets up the final scene, where all the characters sort out their loyalties and the means they’ll use to defend them.  The resolution of the father-son fight is abrupt and a little silly, but the rest of the movie is so good we can put up with that.

The movie was made in 1946 but sat on the shelf for two years before its release because of a dispute with Howard Hughes.  It features more adult and complex relationships than most previous westerns. It has a superb cast, and excellent direction.  This was Montgomery Clift’s first film, and he manages to be persuasive, if not entirely convincing, next to the overpowering physicality of John Wayne.  The women are unusually assertive for a western, both Joanne Dru (Mrs. John Ireland) and Coleen Gray, although Gray in her first film role gets just a couple of minutes of screen time.  The numerous supporting characters are well-written and well-acted, and they include, in addition to Dru, Ireland and Brennan, Noah Beery, Jr., Harry Carey (Sr. and Jr.), Chief Yowlachie as an Indian trail hand, Hank Worden, Coleen Gray and many others.  Appearing uncredited are Richard Farnsworth as a Dunson rider and Shelley Winters as a dance hall girl with the gamblers.

John_Wayne - red river The final confrontation.

Excellent management of all these supporting roles gives them each differentiation and development while not impeding the overall pacing of the movie.  It adds to the large-scale feel of the film.  There’s so much going on that it rewards re-watching.  It’s ambitious and long for the year it was released, especially for a western—about two and a quarter hours.  After more than 60 years, this remains the greatest of the trail drive movies except for Lonesome Dove, which was not really playing by the same rules. 

There are some excellent visual touches, like the shadow that passes over the sun during the funeral of the young cowboy killed during the stampede.  Russell Harlan was the cinematographer.  The music is by Oscar-winning movie composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who also did the music for Hawks’ Rio Bravo more than ten years later as well as numerous other movies.  The tune for “Settle Down,” the theme for Red River, gets recycled in Rio Bravo when sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin.

RedRiverDruHawksDru and Hawks light up behind the scenes.

Wayne considered this film his second breakthrough, after Stagecoach.  (Maybe his third, if you consider his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, which nobody saw.)  Playing much older than he really was, as the megalomaniacal Tom Dunson, gave him a chance to demonstrate his acting chops in a film that a lot of people did see.  Even John Ford, who had cast him in Stagecoach almost ten years previously, was rumored to have said after seeing Red River, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!”  And the most productive period of their collaboration was coming up, with the cavalry trilogy and The Searchers.  Both Wayne and Hawks wore their Red River D belt buckles from this film for many years when dressed in jeans.  You sometimes see it popping up on Wayne in other westerns–nine of them in total.

Director Howard Hawks had initially wanted Jack Beutel (who had played Billy the Kid in The Outlaw) for the role of Matthew Garth.  But he got lucky when Beutel was still under contract to Howard Hughes, who was nursing a grudge against Hawks for their falling-out over The Outlaw a few years earlier.  Clift turned out to be a much better actor.  Wayne had misgivings about the difference in their sizes during the climactic fight, but Hawks was known for his ability to block and stage fights convincingly on film.  Wayne ultimately conceded that Hawks knew what he was doing.  Clift had never been in a western before, and never would be again.  Hawks advised him to watch and imitate stuntman Richard Farnsworth.  “Montgomery, you walk along behind him and watch him carefully.  If he scratches his butt, you scratch yours.  He’s a real cowboy.”  Red River made Clift a star.  Meanwhile, Farnsworth worked in westerns as a stuntman and in bit parts and waited more than 35 years for his own breakthrough role in The Grey Fox.

As of May 2014, Red River is now available on an excellent DVD set from Criterion Collection.

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She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 26, 2013

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen, John Agar, Joanne Dru, Mildred Natwick (1949; Dir:  John Ford)

“… Wherever they rode, whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.”  Obviously, Ford’s own Rio Grande and Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee hadn’t been made yet, since they both involve cavalry expeditions into Mexico (still not part of the United States).  Maybe Ford would have said it anyway. 

Of Ford’s cavalry trilogy, this one gives the best feel for cavalry life.  John Wayne is Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, a widower at Fort Stark about to retire from the military in 1876 with some reluctance after 40 years’ service.  He’s good with his men—authoritarian enough but pragmatic when he has to be.  His repeated advice, including to a young woman:  “Never apologize.  It’s a sign of weakness.”  But he also means for those so instructed to take responsibility for what’s happened.  He’s experienced in dealing with Indians and has long-term relationships with some of them.  His unit’s job of keeping the peace will be a lot harder without his experience and judgment.   

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Contrary to what the Italian poster suggests, Joanne Dru does not wear pants with her military  costume.

To make matters worse, as the day for his retirement approaches there are new Indian hostilities to cope with.  The news of the Little Bighorn is fresh (placing this in 1876), and it makes the entire frontier military jumpy, as well as the Indians (Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Kiowas and Apaches are said to be among them here, an unlikely mix of tribes).  The local fort sutler might be running guns to the Indians.  (Sutlers and Indian agents are often venal, bad characters in John Ford and other westerns; see, for example, Fort Apache and They Died With Their Boots On.A beautiful visiting young lady from the East (Olivia Dandridge, played by Joanne Dru) has the young lieutenants at each other’s throats.  And Brittles is keeping a lid on it all in the face of his imminent retirement from the army and departure for California. 

Brittles is sent out on a last patrol, taking along two women against his objections so they can be delivered to a stagecoach stop.  On the way they encounter hostile Indians and have to take military action against much greater numbers.  We get a sense of how decisions had to be made with incomplete information, and what it was like to deal with long distances with only horseflesh to depend on for transportation and communication.  In the end, Brittles is not banished from his military family and is given appropriate honors. 

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Joanne Dru: Looking good in her military garb.

This has the usual John Ford characters:  the experienced, wise, and sometimes inspirational field leader in Brittles; the Irish sergeants (McLaglen in this case) who drink a lot; the immature lieutenants (John Agar and Harry Carey, Jr.) who embody the future of the cavalry; former Confederates who are respected for their military abilities (Sgt. Tyree, played by a young Ben Johnson); idealized young women who don’t understand the West or the military—yet (Joanne Dru); military wives as sage and experienced as their men (Mildred Natwick as the post commander’s wife).  Ford makes these familiar characters all work, even if we now feel like we’ve seen them before.  Ford’s work here is also marked by a certain sentimentality; sometimes heavy-handed manipulation with music, especially the title song; and the brilliant visuals and use of the desert locations that is one of Ford’s trademarks.  Unlike Fort Apache a year earlier and Rio Grande a year afterward, this one’s in color; it won Winton C. Hoch the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.  (Hoch also did 3 Godfathers with Ford the year before and The Searchers a few years later.)

This is the most striking visually of Ford’s cavalry trilogy.  Although Winton Hoch, the cinematographer, won an Academy Award for his work here, filming was not a smooth creative process because of Hoch’s conflicts with Ford.  One of the most iconic scenes from the film was created during a dispute.  As a line of cavalry rides through the desert, a real thunderstorm grows on the horizon.  Hoch began to pack up the cameras as the weather worsened, only to have Ford to order him to keep shooting.  Hoch argued that there was not enough natural light for the scene and, more importantly, the cameras could become potential lightning rods if the storm swept over them.  Ford ignored Hoch’s complaints, completing the scene as the thunderstorm rolled in, soaking the cast and crew with rain.  Hoch later had filed a letter of complaint against Ford with his trade union over the filming of this scene, but it’s a masterful sequence visually.  Hoch was still willing to work with Ford on The Searchers a few years later, however.

The dialogue is well-written and this film does an excellent job of depicting some of the logistics of cavalry life—what it was like to depend on horses and be out in all weather, and the need to walk periodically to rest the horses, for example.  There’s a real affection for the military and an elegiac feel.  However, the story seems a little like a bunch of incidents strung together, without a strong enough major story arc to it.  The parts may be greater than the whole, story-wise.

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Nathan Brittles negotiates with an old friend (John Big Bear) among the Cheyennes.

The performances are good.  As in Red River, Wayne in his prime (at age 42) is called upon to play much older than he is, and he can do it, complete with an occasional touch of world-weariness here and there.  Ben Johnson has one of his better early roles here, as an ex-confederate captain now a sergeant in the western U.S. cavalry, providing a competent counterpoint to Brittles.  He can really ride, having come to Hollywood as a stunt man fresh from ranch work.  Joanne Dru is well-cast and does an excellent job as the romantic distraction to the young officers, and she looks good in a military hat and cloak.  (She was also in the Hawks classic Red River about the same time, in a rather different and more demanding role.  Compare her here with the beautiful Linda Darnell wearing a cavalry hat in Two Flags West.)  Mildred Natwick is very good as well.  McLaglen as Sgt. Quincannon seems broadly stereotypical and over-the-top, and one can get tired of the romantic squabbles of the young lieutenants.  Both Johnson and McLaglen show up again as characters named Tyree and Quincannon in the following year’s Rio Grande, although Wayne’s character is back to being named York in that one, as he was in Fort Apache.  And the commanding officer at Fort Stark, Major Mac Allshard, is played well by silent film star George O’Brien.  This was one of his last movies, although he would show up again 15 years later as another major in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.  The bartender in a scene in which Sgt. Quincannon is arrested is Ford’s brother Francis, a long-time character actor who pops up in small roles in many Ford films.

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Production Still:  Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., Ben Johnson, John Agar and George O’Brien

The cavalry is idealized in the post-World War II period when this was made, and the soldiers look cleaner than they probably could have in real life.  But it’s still stirring stuff to watch.  In Ford’s cavalry trilogy, this one is not as dark as the preceding Fort Apache nor as sentimental as the subsequent Rio Grande.

Although Ford’s sentimentality can occasionally seem heavy-handed to a current audience, he has qualities that more than compensate if you watch (and listen) for them.  This is especially true in the framing of shots and other visual touches.  For example, look for the thunderstorm in the background while the troop is out on patrol (the subject of the Ford-Hoch dispute referred to above), in the days before such things could be conjured up by special effects.  But it also reaches the use of music as well.  As Wagner, the regiment’s blacksmith, is working at his forge and anvil, the music playing is the “Nibelung” motif from Richard Wagner’s famous opera “Siegfried.”   In the opera that motif is connected with the forging of Siegfried’s sword, appropriate in this military setting but easy to miss.  Richard Hagerman provided the score.

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Rio Grande

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 25, 2013

Rio Grande—John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman, Jr., Harry Carey, Jr., Chill Wills, J. Carroll Naish (1950; Dir:  John Ford) 

This is the last and the least critically-regarded of the John Ford cavalry trilogy.  The story goes that Ford didn’t intend to make this film and only did so when the RKO studio head Herbert K. Yates told him they’d let him make The Quiet Man on location in Ireland if he made another cavalry picture with John Wayne first.  It had only half the budget of Fort Apache, the first in the trilogy, and according to Harry Carey, Jr., Ford and the rest of the crew treated the shooting as something of a vacation, although Ford was always responsible enough to get the film done if he wasn’t drinking too heavily.

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It’s also the first of five movies (with The Quiet Man, The Wings of Eagles, McLintock!, and Big Jake) pairing Wayne and Maureen O’Hara as romantic partners, an enduring screen couple.  The story for this film seems more hastily put together than those for its two predecessors in the series.  There is some confusion surrounding the individual movies in the trilogy, since names recur and the same actors show up in each film without any explicit connection.  Even Wayne here has the same name as his character in Fort Apache, Kirby York, although it’s spelled York in Fort Apache and Yorke here.  As in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ben Johnson is a trooper named Tyree, although apparently not the same one.  Victor McLaglen is Sergeant Quincannon again, and he may or may not be the same one.  Harry Carey, Jr., is again a young soldier, although this time he’s an enlisted man from Texas named Daniel Boone.  In any event, he’s never the one that gets the girl if there is one to get.  It all leads to a sense of elements and names from the previous two movies by the same director being thrown into a hastily-crafted story here, with more overt sentimentality and the Sons of the Pioneers.

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The Wayne-O’Hara relationship forms the dramatic core of the story, to the extent that the story hangs together at all.  They’re the long-separated (15 years after the Civil War battles in the Shenandoah, making it 1879) and frequently hostile parents of young Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman, Jr., from The Yearling), a West Point dropout who has recently signed on as a new private and been posted to Yorke’s command out west in Texas.  Kathleen Yorke (O’Hara) is not without influence herself, as the daughter of a powerful southern family from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  That family has never forgiven Yorke for burning their home Bridesdale (among others) during Phil Sheridan’s Shenandoah campaign, when Yorke was a Union officer in the late unpleasantness between the states.  Will Col. Yorke be able to rebuild his family, repair his relationship with his estranged wife and get to know the son long absent from his life while he’s been out on the frontier?  And what will young Trooper Yorke decide about his military future now that his mother is presenting him an opportunity to get out and pressing him to take it?  The answers to those questions are fairly predictable, but it plays out well

Meanwhile, the soldiers’ principal military problem is the raiding Apaches, who who strike in the U.S. and then retreat into Mexico across the Rio Grande where Yorke and his men can’t follow them.  A crisis comes when the Apaches capture a group of women and children from the military post and take them across the river.  With the complicity of the visiting Phil Sheridan (J. Carroll Naish), Yorke risks his career to cross the river and rescue the captives, leading to a final battle in an Indian-held town with the prisoners being held in a church.

riograndeCharge Taking the church.

There is excellent chemistry between Wayne and O’Hara, leading to their pairing in four subsequent films.  (The most sucessful of these pairings was probably The Quiet Man, a non-western.)  A significant element of this chemistry is the sparks that fly from their disagreements, which may be why they frequently seem to play married but estranged partners.  It works better here than it does in, for example, McLintock!  O’Hara at 30 seems young to be the mother of a (more or less) adult soldier.  The supporting cast is good, although it contains many of John Ford’s usual suspects in their usual roles:  McLaglen as the grizzled, alcoholic Irish sergeant who provides occasional comic relief that doesn’t work all that well for current audiences; Ben Johnson as the former Confederate trooper; and Harry Carey, Jr., as a green trooper or young officer.  Chill Wills is good as the regimental surgeon.  Even if the story doesn’t hang together as well as the previous two in the trilogy, the movie is nevertheless quite watchable.

riograndeWayne2 Col. Yorke busts down the door.

Most of Ford’s films have a streak of populist sentimentality, and this has more than most.  Some of that sentimental tone comes from the music, including traditional tunes and ballads provided by the Sons of the Pioneers (with one song even written by Dale Evans).  The source material is also a common thread with the others in the cavalry trilogy, since they’re all based on short stories by James Warner Bellah.  It was filmed in black and white, although a colorized version exists.  Bert Glennon, who did Ford’s Stagecoach more than a decade earlier, was in charge of the cinematography, and you can see some of the technical and artistic advances in the decade between the two films.  This one was filmed in the desert locations around Moab, Utah, not Ford’s usual Monument Valley in the Four Corners area to the south.

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Winchester ’73

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 24, 2013

Winchester ’73—James Stewart, Millard Mitchell, Dan Duryea, Shelly Winters, Stephen McNally  (1950; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

This movie marks the first cinematic pairing of director Anthony Mann with actor James Stewart, who teamed for five memorable westerns in the 1950s before falling out over Night Passage.  As a notable actor-director pair in westerns, they rank with the John Ford-John Wayne and Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott teams.  For Stewart, it was his first western since 1939’s Destry Rides Again, and it marks the real beginning of his career as a significant western star.

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The title refers to a new model rifle, the One-of-a-Thousand Model 1873 Winchester, of which only 133 were made.  It is won by Lin MacAdam (Stewart) in a hard-fought marksmanship contest in Dodge City in 1876, where the contestants include Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), who, not coincidentally, turns out to be MacAdam’s brother.  MacAdam went off to the Civil War on the Confederate side with his sidekick High Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell), and Brown followed the outlaw trail.  (Dutch Henry Brown is the actual name of at least two real outlaws of the post-Civil War period in the west.)

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MacAdam (James Stewart) at the shooting contest.

MacAdam is tracking down Dutch Henry for reasons of his own.  Dutch Henry steals the rifle (among other things) and leaves Dodge abruptly.  The rifle is coveted by everybody who sees it and seems to take on a life of its own, interweaving its own story with MacAdam’s chase of Dutch Henry.  MacAdam and High Spade also cross paths with Steve Miller (Charles Drake) and his girl Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), and a cavalry troop besieged by Indians.  The rifle goes from Dutch Henry to Joe Lamont (John McIntire), who trades guns to the Indians, including, unwillingly, this rifle.  After the cavalry battle the rifle goes to Steve, although he doesn’t seem to deserve it.  Near-psychotic gunman-outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea, in a bravura performance) takes it—and Lola—from Steve and heads for Tascosa, Texas, where he is to meet Dutch Henry for a bank robbery.   There he loses the rifle to Dutch Henry.  

Winchester-73-tacklingDean Losing it with Waco Johnny Dean.

As Dean and Lola wait in a saloon in Tascosa for a signal from Dutch Henry, MacAdam and High Spade catch up and recognize Lola from their previous encounter.  MacAdam (showing some incidental instability himself) takes care of Dean, breaks up the robbery and sets out in hot pursuit of Dutch Henry again.  He catches him, and they have it out in a final shootout in the rocks.  (The shootout in the rocks has some similarities with the final showdown in The Naked Spur.)  In the end, Lola (who has been wounded while trying to save a child) and MacAdam appear to end up together.

winchester73_shootout Shootout in the rocks.

The cast is remarkable, and not just the leads.  Stewart is terrific, demonstrating his usual decency but with a touch of dangerousness, obsession and a little instability.  The young Shelley Winters gives one of the best performances of her career as Lola, a blowzier Claire Trevor-esque role.  Millard Mitchell is fine as High Spade; he shows up as a sheriff in The Gunfighter released the same year and later with Mann and Stewart again as a prospector in the small cast of The Naked Spur.  Duryea as Waco Johnny Dean outshines Stephen McNally as Dutch Henry Brown when it comes to villains.  If you look at the supporting cast, you’ll find Will Geer as Wyatt Earp (although older and in a more senior position than he would have been in 1876) in the opening sequences; Jay C. Flippen as hard-bitten cavalry Sergeant Wilkes, in over his head in defending against a large force of hostile Indians; John McIntire as a sleazy gun-runner; Ray Teal; and Charles Drake as Lola’s unheroic fiancé Steve.  Among the young Hollywood newcomers are Rock Hudson as the Indian chief Young Bull and Tony Curtis as the cavalryman who finds the rifle after the battle and gives it to Sgt. Wilkes.

Fritz Lang was originally slated to direct this one, and when he pulled out Stewart recommended Anthony Mann, with whom he had done some stage work in the 1930s.  It gave Mann his opportunity to move up from low-budget movies into A westerns, and he made the most of it.  Much of Mann’s previous work had been in the noir genre, and it shows with the psychological elements of this and future Mann westerns—a new kind of mental claustrophobia in the wide-open spaces of the west.  The film also gave a new twist to Stewart’s traditional persona; this one is decent, too, but also obsessed with vengeance and troubled by his own personal demons.  These characters led to perhaps the most productive decade of his career, in such films as The Naked Spur (also with Mann) and Vertigo (with Alfred Hitchcock).  Elegantly filmed in Arizona in black and white.

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Production still of James Stewart.

The DVD issued in 2003 has an unusual, fascinating and rambling commentary by James Stewart, originally recorded in 1989 for the laser disc version of the film.  One wishes that John Wayne and Henry Fonda, or John Ford and Anthony Mann, had done a few such commentaries.

You can see the rifle from the movie, with the names of the actors engraved on the stock (“Jimmie Stewart”), at the Cody Historical Center in Wyoming.

This film made movie history in another way, too.  Stewart’s salary was a bit steep for this movie’s budget, so he agreed to lower it and accept a percentage of the film’s gross as part of his compensation.  When the film was a hit, Stewart did significantly better financially than he would have in just taking his usual salary.  Instead of the $200,000 Stewart was requesting for the movie, he is said to have ended up with $600,000 because of the new deal structure.  This led to many more such arrangements for stars in movie financing, as well as to much creative accounting about what the “gross” or “net” take of a movie might be.

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High Noon

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 23, 2013

High Noon—Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Thomas Mitchell, Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney, Jr., Ian Macdonald, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Morgan, Sheb Wooley, Jack Elam (1952; Dir:  Fred Zinnemann)

A perennial fixture on the list of greatest westerns, High Noon is a creature of its time, an apparent Hollywood reaction to the era of McCarthyism.  For all of that, it’s also excellent story-telling with terrific actors and a claustrophobic feel as the designated hour approaches.

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Part of the tension is caused by the action of the film taking place almost in real time.  Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the aging town marshal of Hadleyville, who is now retiring from those responsibilities as the movie opens.  The primary reason for that well-deserved retirement is his brand new wife, the young anti-violence Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly, looking elegant and cool in her first starring role).  However, Kane’s past threatens to catch up with him   He arrested Frank Miller some years ago and sent him to prison.  Now Miller’s getting out, and he wants to have it out with Kane.  Miller has henchmen who’ve remained attached to him during his incarceration; the citizenry of Kane’s town, who have benefited from his service and past courage, have little similar faithfulness.

The title High Noon refers to Miller’s impending arrival on a train.  We know we are in good hands from the opening shot, as Jack Colby (Lee Van Cleef in his movie debut) sits smoking on a rock.  The Oscar-winning theme song “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’” starts at the same time, its rhythms evoking the sound of a railroad locomotive.  The song Tex Ritter’s singing provides a plot synopsis as the titles and credits roll, and Colby watches as Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley) rides toward him. They are then joined by veteran screen heavy Robert Wilke as Jim Pierce, and the three ride off together toward Hadleyville.  They are Frank Miller’s hard-eyed henchmen.  They ride into town past the church, and a Mexican woman crosses herself as she watches them.

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Miller’s henchmen: Lee Van Cleef, Robert Willke and Sheb Wooley.

Meanwhile, Will Kane and Amy Fowler are being married on this Sunday morning.  As the ceremony ends, Kane turns in his star and hangs up his gun, since he has now married a Quaker.  He is then given a telegram telling him that Frank Miller has been pardoned and is heading his way.  Will the marriage hold up under the collision of principles that is about to take place, not to mention the apparent 30-year age difference between Kane and Fowler?   

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Just married, and already they have a troubled relationship.

Will Kane tries to leave town, but decides he has to come back when he realizes his replacement as marshal won’t be in town until the next day.  “I’m the same man whether I wear this [star] or not.”  He can’t walk away from what he sees as his responsibility, which is not limited by formalities.  And if he stays in town, he figures he can get backup from his long-time friends there.  Amy’s not so sure of any of this; she argues for Will to leave with her, partly because of her pacifist religious principles and hatred of violence and guns.  She declines to wait in the hotel for the next hour or so to see whether she’s going to be a widow before she’s even had a chance at marriage.  She buys a ticket for St. Louis, planning to leave on the same train on which Miller will arrive.

Kane’s hopes for support fade by the minute.  Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger) who originally sentenced Miller to hang can’t leave town fast enough.  Young Deputy Marshal Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) is angry at being passed over for promotion to the top job, and tosses in his badge.  He figures Kane won’t support him in wanting to be the marshal because of Pell’s current relationship with Helen Ramirez, Kane’s former mistress and the most prominent business person in town (played by the darkly beautiful Katy Jurado, excellent in her first U.S. movie).  Ramirez sells her businesses to leave town; she has history with both Kane and Miller, in addition to her current relationship with Pell.  She understands Kane better than his new wife does in some ways; Amy mistakenly thinks a lingering affection for Ramirez is the reason Kane won’t leave.

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An iconic image with a lot of resonance in different circumstances.

Some in town figure that business was better when Frank Miller was around.  Some just don’t like Kane.  Some, like Selectman Sam Fuller (Harry Morgan) hide from him.  Kane approaches the people in church, many of whom have their own reasons not to take a role in the impending clash.  Kane hasn’t been much of a churchgoer himself.  Mayor Jonas Henderson (played by Stagecoach’s Thomas Mitchell) wants him to leave town.  The former marshal, Kane’s mentor, is too tired and too crippled with arthritis to help.  Harvey Pell, tired of Ramirez and everybody else thinking he isn’t up to Kane’s standards, picks a last-minute fight with Kane in the livery stable.   In the end, Kane has only a one-eyed drunk and a 14-year-old boy who’re willing to stand with him.  It’s really just Kane against the four gunmen.

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Kane (Gary Cooper) is on his own against Frank Miller and three of his gang.

During the shootout, Kane does get some help from an unexpected quarter.  In the famous last shot, he tosses his marshal’s badge into the dirt at the feet of those who’ve come to congratulate him after his success in the shootout, and he rides out of town forever in a two-set carriage.

The cast is brilliant, although some of these actors were quite early in what became distinguished careers.  50-year-old Gary Cooper was thought to be past his prime when the film was made, and this performance reinvigorated his career.  Grace Kelly doesn’t quite balance him, but she’s fine in her first starring role.  (She was only 21 at the time.)  Katy Jurado gives a smolderingly good performance, and her part is not written as bloodlessly as Kelly’s.  The many small roles (including Howland Chamberlain as the hotel clerk who doesn’t like Kane) are excellently played.  Ian Macdonald might be less effective as Frank Miller, but he isn’t actually on screen much, and he’s fine.  Lon Chaney, who plays Kane’s retired mentor, was actually five years younger than Cooper.  Jack Elam appears uncredited in a couple of shots as the locked-up town drunk.  Cooper might have been on the downhill slope of his career, but a number of good acting careers were just getting started in this movie.

The film was nominated for seven Oscars and won four.  It lost the Best Picture Oscar to The Greatest Show on Earth, generally regarded as one of the weakest winners ever of that award.  Cooper won his second Best Actor Oscar for this performance.  (The first was for 1941’s Sergeant York.)  He remained a bankable star throughout the decade, making several more notable westerns (Vera Cruz, Man of the West, The Hanging Tree, They Came to Cordura).  The other Oscars this movie received were for Best Editing, Best Original Song (the first such Oscar winner from a non-musical) and Best Score for Dimitri Tiomkin’s music.  Indeed, the Oscar-winning theme song started a new fashion for sung themes in westerns, frequently used badly and intrusively (see, for example, Rancho Notorious, Trooper Hook and the original 3:10 to Yuma).   

Visually, the movie is quite effective, although it was shot mostly on the Columbia back lot in Burbank.  The editing is superb, with frequent images of clocks and pendulums, and low-angle shots of railroad tracks stretching off to the horizon.  The editing heightens tension without becoming too repetitive, a delicate line.  The film is intentionally shot in black and white, not color, and it doesn’t feature the huge western skies and landscapes so effectively used by John Ford, George Stevens, Howard Hawks and others.

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Cooper has fun with wardrobe tests during filming.

Fred Zinnemann, an Austrian of Jewish descent who had grown up on the stories of German author Karl May, was an unusual choice to direct a western.  He and producer Stanley Kramer did not particularly intend to make an allegory for the McCarthy hearings then at their height, but screenwriter Carl Foreman and cinematographer Floyd Crosby did.  Foreman was blacklisted and fled to England before the film was finished.

Somehow High Noon manages to transcend the trap of being stuck in its time.  To the extent it could be said to have underlying political themes, it’s never so overbearing with them that it can’t be seen in a variety of ways.  Right-wing John Wayne and the Soviet news agency Pravda were equally offended by it.  Regardless of what Foreman, Kramer and Zinnemann may have been thinking at the time (and they weren’t thinking the same thing), it represents the most effective presentation of a theme common in 1950s and 1960s westerns:  the role of ordinary citizens in defending civilization and their uneasy relationships with those who use violence and run risks in upholding the law for them.  (See, for example, such movies as The Tin Star, Warlock, The Fastest Gun Alive, A Man Alone, Lawman, etc.—even the parody Support Your Local Sheriff.)  Not everyone agreed with High Noon’s take on this issue, either.  Howard Hawks said that he made 1959’s Rio Bravo partly as a counter-statement to High Noon, and it works marvelously, too.  Dave Kehr refers to “Cooper playing an inflated archetype — the Man of the West — rather than a character” in this, “his most overrated film, Fred Zinnemann’s didactic political fable High Noon (1952).”  For more background on the film, see Glenn Frankel’s High Noon:  The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic (2017).  

Another character who throws his badge in the dirt after having saved his community:  Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry twenty years later, making a very different statement than writer Foreman, at least, intended for this movie.

William Faulkner, a great American writer who had a substantial history in writing for the movies, said that High Noon was one of his favorite films. “There’s all you need for a good story:  a man doin’ something he has to do, against himself and against his environment.  Not courage, necessarily.”

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