Category Archives: 55 Greatest Westerns

North to Alaska

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 10, 2013

North to Alaska—John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs, Fabian (1960; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

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This “northern” is fueled by sexual tension and fights, most of them of the rollicking variety complete with lots of mud and cartoon-like twittering noises when somebody gets punched.  That is, it has an overlay of comedy.  The story owes a lot to earlier movies about claim-jumping in Alaska, such as The Far Country and The Spoilers.

The plot has former Washington logger and now Alaska miner Sam McCord (John Wayne) heading south from Nome to buy heavy mining equipment and bring back for his partner George Pratt (Stewart Granger) the supposed Pratt “fiancée” Jenny, whom George hasn’t seen in three years.  Their mining claim is now producing gold richly enough to afford both.  In Seattle, McCord finds that Jenny is working as a domestic and is now married to a butler; but in a house of ill repute he also finds the elegant Michelle Bonet (Capucine) and decides to bring her back for George.  Michelle, also known as Angel (the backstory for the French actress in this film is that she’s from New Orleans, thus accounting for the accent), is more interested in McCord himself, who, although loudly anti-marriage, generally treats her like a lady.

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Partners Sam McCord (John Wayne) and George Pratt (Stewart Granger).

Meanwhile, sleazy gambler Frankie Cannon (Ernie Kovacs in a rare but very effective movie role) has gained control of the town’s largest saloon/hotel and has started an underhanded operation to take over other people’s claims, including the McCord-Pratt claim.  Cannon and Michelle also have a past relationship, which Cannon would like to resume.

On McCord’s return to Nome, the differing aims of McCord and Bonet eventually surface, while McCord and Pratt defend their claim against Cannon and fight between themselves.  Pratt’s younger brother Billy (played a bit broadly by the singer Fabian) is more a distraction than necessary to the plot.  One is tempted to attribute his presence in this movie to that of another teen idol, Ricky Nelson, in Rio Bravo a year earlier.  Neither conflict (McCord-Bonet and McCord/Pratt-Cannon) is all that serious, and the ending is fairly predictable.  The sub-conflicts (McCord-Pratt over Bonet and Bonet with her own past) also work themselves out well enough.  You can tell this movie was made in the early 1960s because the alleged prostitute Michelle never actually sleeps with McCord and thereby regains her long-lost status as a “good girl.”  It’s hard to imagine a current filmmaker playing the relationship that way.  

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Ernie Kovacs as sleazy gambler/claim jumper Freddie Cannon.

The movie, while not in the very top level of John Wayne westerns, takes its time developing the plot and is pleasantly watchable.  The commercial success of the movie was apparently attributed to the exuberant fight scenes.  This led to the making of the similar McLintock! a few years later, which had no discernable plot but good muddy fight scenes and a feisty romantic relationship.  The theme song here, as performed by Johnny Horton, was a popular hit in its time and might be second only to Tex Ritter’s High Noon theme among sung musical themes for westerns.  The experienced and versatile director Henry Hathaway had his roots in silent movies and was capable in a variety of genres, including westerns (Rawhide, Garden of Evil, How the West Was Won, True Grit).  He made 31 westerns in his lengthy career.  

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Pratt, McCord and Michelle argue things out.

Incidentally, one of the ways Hathaway held down the budget in this movie was to shoot most of it around Point Mugu in southern California, rather than on location in Alaska.

This film is part of a modest tradition of good westerns that were set in the Alaska gold rush days of the end of the 19th century.  They include The Spoilers, a much-remade film in the first half of 20th century, the 1942 version of which has a legendary fight scene featuring bad guy Randolph Scott and good guy John Wayne; The Far Country (Anthony Mann-James Stewart); and White Fang, based on the Jack London novel (featuring Klaus Maria Brandauer and a young Ethan Hawke).  Soapy Smith was an actual con man who, under a cover of respectability, for a time took control of the corrupt civic government and police in Skagway, Alaska, during the gold rush.  Several of these northerns feature a version of the real-life Smith character (Kovacs here, John McIntire in The Far Country, Randolph Scott in The Spoilers) and strong, sympathetic female saloon owners (Marlene Dietrich and Anne Baxter in different versions of The Spoilers and Ruth Roman in The Far Country).

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The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 9, 2013

The Magnificent Seven—Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Brad Dexter, James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholtz, Eli Wallach (1960; Dir:  John Sturges)

The exotic Yul Brynner seems an odd choice as the star of a western, but he’s become one of the iconic figures in the history of westerns because of his role as Chris Adams, leader of the seven in this relocated remake of Akira Kurosawa’s marvelous The Seven Samurai.  John Sturges’ talent for directing large-scale action was never in better form, and a number of elements combined to make this one of the most memorable westerns of the 1960s—a period that represents the apex of a certain kind of Hollywood western.

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The movie opens in a southwestern town with a dead Indian, whom prejudiced locals won’t allow to be buried in the local Boot Hill.  A newcomer, Chris Adams (Brynner) volunteers for the dangerous job of driving the hearse to the cemetery, and unemployed cowboy Vin (Steve McQueen) rides shotgun.  They make it up the hill, only to be faced at the cemetery by a small mob of armed and angry objectors, whom they handle with ease.

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Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) ride to Boot Hill.

Among those impressed are three town fathers of a Mexican village plagued by bandits.  They’re looking for help in ridding themselves of Calvera (Eli Wallach in his Mexican bandit chieftain mode) and his band of 30 or so banditos, who prey on the village regularly and kill any one there who shows signs of resisting.  Better employment is hard to come by, and Chris assembles a team of six, starting with himself and Vin.  They include Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), an old acquaintance of Chris’s who refers to him (not entirely convincingly) as “You old Cajun”; Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson); Lee (Robert Vaughan), a smooth but high-strung gunslinger now on the run himself; and Britt (James Coburn), a taciturn, knife-throwing cowboy.  The final member of the group is Chico (Horst Buchholz), a young Mexican would-be gunfighter initially rejected by Chris.  But as the band goes south into Mexico, Chico follows and is eventually accepted as one of them.

The villagers have considerable misgivings about their new defenders.  But as they prepare for the return of Calvera, Chris and his band teach the villagers some rudiments of self-defense and begin to form relationships.  Bernardo, for example, becomes a favorite of the village children, and there are a few romantic attachments that develop with female villagers, notably for Chico.  Cold gunfighter Lee has nightmares, and, after a drinking bout, confesses his fears to a couple of the villagers.

magsevenbrynnermagsevencalvera The adversaries.

Calvera and his bandits return, and initially they are easily driven away by the unexpected resistance.  But they return yet again and Calvera tries to understand what drives these Americans who are now leading the resistance to him.  His native humor and ruthlessness both show through.  And there is the final battle, which four of the seven do not survive.  The action sequences are extremely well directed and edited.

As Chris and Vin leave the village at the end, Chris mutters the bottom line on all the killing:  “The old man was right.  Only the farmers won.  We lost.  We always lose.”  But at least he isn’t dead.  The movie’s most memorable line might be Calvera’s:  “If God had not wanted them sheared, He would not have made them sheep.”  A few lines seem a little anachronistic, like Vin’s reference to a man falling off a ten-story building. 

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There are small touches that work very well, and some that raise questions.  When Vin is loading a shotgun and shakes each shell before popping it in the shotgun, and then tells Brynner, “Let ‘er buck,” that seems authentic.  In fact, McQueen and Brynner did not get along particularly well, and Vin’s sequence of mannerisms are McQueen’s way of stealing the scene against Brynner’s gravity.  The Mexican villagers seem unusually well-laundered, though—lots of bright whites in a very dusty setting.*  And one wonders why McQueen’s character Vin wears chaps so much in town, where they’re not necessary.  You’d think they’d be too hot and cumbersome in what seems to be a very warm climate.  Brynner and Buchholz as actors don’t exactly fit the backstories of their characters.  But it all works surprisingly well notwithstanding those quibbles.

No, The Magnificent Seven is not as good as Seven Samurai, and it’s not nearly as long, either—just over two hours in playing time, to more than three for Kurosawa’s masterpiece.  It has an epic feel without so much of the epic length, as well as less philosophical darkness.  However, it may be the most successful example in film history of transplanting a story from one cinematic genre to another.  Kurosawa was said to have given John Sturges a sword in appreciation after the release of the Sturges film.  (For another successful western based on a Kurosawa samurai film, see Sergio Leone‘s A Fistful of Dollars, based–without prior permission–on Yojimbo.)

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The seven defending the town from Calvera’s men.

Much of the brilliance of this film lies in the casting and character development of the seven, and of Calvera.  The enigmatic, bald Brynner, with his vaguely Asian background, would seem to be an unlikely fit for a western.  Even though he’s the leader of the seven and has more camera time than any of them, he remains enigmatic to the end of the movie.  His bearing and his all-black dress seem a little unusual, too, but it all makes for one of the iconic characters of the genre (reprised by Brynner in one sequel and in the science fiction thriller Westworld).  This was the breakthrough movie role for McQueen, who’d starred on television in Wanted:  Dead or Alive.  He would go on to have one of the greatest movie careers of the 1960s and 1970s, although that career did not include many more westerns.  Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughan, James Coburn—every single one of the seven would be a significant star by the end of the decade, with one exception:  Brad Dexter.  And as these characters are introduced and later developed, enough time is spent to insure that we are interested, but they remain not entirely explained.  Wallach is superb as Calvera, the greedy, human and philosophical bandit chieftain, and an interesting villain contributes significantly to the success of any western.  (See him again in a similar role in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.)

One of its elements may be the best of its kind in any western:  Elmer Bernstein’s score, especially the theme.  Bernstein was the quintessential movie composer of his time; he worked quickly, and in a broad variety of genres.  He scored hundreds of movies, and this may be his most memorable music.  The cinematography of Charles Lang, Jr. is excellent, too.  McQueen, Coburn and Bronson would work with Sturges again in The Great Escape, and this film would spawn three sequels—none remotely approaching this first in the series for quality and watchability.  Decades later (1998-2000) it would even be a short-lived television series.  And a new cinematic remake is currently in production and scheduled for release in late 2016, with Antoine Fuqua directing and Denzel Washington in the Yul Brynner role.

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*The well-laundered whites of the peasants were apparently one result of Mexican authorities not liking the depiction of Mexican nationals in 1954’s Vera Cruz, also filmed in Mexico.  For a period of several years thereafter, they were much more vigilant in policing the way Mexicans were shown in American films shot in Mexico.  So the villagers in The Magnificent Seven were never dirty in their white peasant clothing.

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Ride the High Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 6, 2013

Ride the High Country—Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, James Drury, R.G. Armstrong, John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, John Davis Chandler, Edgar Buchanan (1962; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

This was director Sam Peckinpah’s second movie, one of the two that are counted his very greatest, and one of the first notable passing-of-the-old-west movies.  As aging former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) rides into a town in California’s Sierra Nevada at the turn of the century, he hears cheers from the citizenry lining the streets.  He sees no one else and figures the cheers must be appreciation for him and his earlier career, and he tips his hat.  Then he is rudely shooed out of the way by a policeman, as a camel and horse race around a corner and toward a finish line.  The cheers were for the racers.

In fact, Judd and his career are largely forgotten.  He’s been getting menial work where he can to survive, but time and the west itself have passed him by.  He finds old friend and fellow former lawman Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) working a shooting booth at a carnival, billed as the Oregon Kid.  Judd has been lured here by the offer of a good-paying job escorting $250,000 in gold down from a remote mining camp to the bank in town.

It turns out that expectations are too high on both sides of the deal.  The father and son who run the bank (Percy Helton and Byron Foulger, very good in bit parts) were unaware of how old Judd now is; and in fact there’s only about $20,000 in gold.  Judd is to get $20 a day, plus another $20 to be split between Westrum and his headstrong and girl-crazy young partner Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).

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Contemplating the limited rewards of a life spent in law enforcement.

The dialogue between Judd and Westrum as they ride the high country toward the camp of Coarse Gold has several recurring themes:  lost loves and disappointments of the past, the way that a career in law was too dangerous and didn’t pay enough to get married and have a family, and an easy way with scripture.  They come to a farm, where they seek lodging for the night with Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong), a man even more given to spouting scripture than they are.  His daughter Elsa (the luminous young Mariette Hartley) is anxious to experience more of life than is available on her mountain farm with an oppressive father.  She goes so far as to encourage Heck’s attentions.  It turns out she fancies herself engaged to a miner in Coarse Gold, and she sneaks off to follow Judd’s small band when they leave the next day.  And it also turns out that the gold isn’t all that’s coarse in the mining camp.

Her miner is Billy Hammond (James Drury in his pre-Virginian days), the most presentable of the five despicable Hammond brothers (John Anderson, Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones and John Chandler Davis are the others).  Longtree deposits Elsa with the Hammonds with considerable misgivings, while Judd and Westrum conduct their business in the camp, where the people are as coarse as what they mine.  That night Elsa, Billy and the Hammonds go to Kate’s Place for her to be wed to Billy by the inebriated Judge Tolliver (Edgar Buchanan).  Immediately after the wedding, she discovers that marriage with a Hammond is not at all what she was expecting.  Judd rescues her, and the small band retreats from Coarse Gold amid threats from the Hammonds.

highcountryhartley Mariette Hartley in her first movie.

Indeed, they are bushwhacked by the Hammonds on the trail while Judd is discovering that Westrum plans to make off with the gold himself.  Heck and Judd fight off the Hammonds, killing two of them (Sylvus, played by L.Q. Jones, and Jimmy, played by John Chandler Davis).  As they approach the Knudsen farm, they find that the three remaining Hammonds have made it there before them and killed Joshua.  Heck and Judd both take bullets, and, after a standoff, Judd and Westrum decide to take on the Hammonds “straight on, just like always.”  It’s a powerful ending. 

This movie contains one of the great lines in a western, a line that a surprising number of people know.  As the aging Steve Judd and Gil Westrum talk about what they’ve learned and where to go from here in their lives, Steve says, “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  He doesn’t explain more than that, but it resonates.  It’s what gets him to the end of movie, and we know that he does indeed enter his house justified—whatever that means.  (See Luke 18:14 in the New Testament, where the line comes at the end of a parable on the difference between conventional righteousness and the real thing.  The line was apparently added by director Peckinpah from something he’d heard his father say.)

This was not a pretentious or large-budget film when it was made.  Peckinpah was known mostly for directing television westerns (Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman and his own brief series, The Westerner).  But he makes the elements come together here superbly to form one of the great westerns.  First is the casting:  Joel McCrea at 57 and Randolph Scott at 64 were near or even past retirement, but one can’t imagine any one else in their roles.  Scott has much more dialogue than we’re used to hearing from him, and he handles it with considerable dry humor.  The supporting characters are well-written and well differentiated.  The screenplay was written by N.B. Stone Jr., known mostly for television writing but also for the excellent Man With a Gun.  Its Old Testament flavor and dry humor play very well with the two principal characters.  Stone even has the drunk Judge Tolliver stand in a whorehouse and give a rather touching speech on marriage. 

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“Straight on, just like always.”

Elsa:  “My father says there’s only right and wrong–good and evil.  Nothing in between.  It isn’t that simple, is it?

Steve Judd:  “No, it isn’t.  It should be, but it isn’t.”

Lucien Ballard was the cinematographer, and his work was remarkable, as usual.  Note the use of the actual Sierras in the Inyo National Forest, and the way that bits of the story are told by means other than dialogue or the faces of the actors, as when Westrum makes a move for the gold and Judd catches him at it.  That part of the story is told with the camera just showing legs and feet, and it works very well.  And in the final shot, the dying Judd is shown from a very low angle against the looming mountains, almost as if he were one of them.  He slowly rolls over and out of the frame, and the camera doesn’t follow him.  It’s like watching a mountain crumble.

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Steve Judd enters his house justified.

This was Randolph Scott’s last film and Mariette Hartley’s first; it was also Joel McCrea’s last film of any consequence.  In some ways, this is a throwback to the kinds of roles Scott played in the early 1940s, when his character was often trying to decide whether to be a good guy or an unusually ethical bad guy (Western Union, Virginia City).  Gil Westrum and his choices are central to the movie.  The one cast member who is less than optimal is Ron Starr as Heck Longtree.  He’s irritating for the first half of the movie, but he is convincing enough in making his character’s changes as the movie progresses.  It’s just that he’s working here with giants (Scott and McCrea) in the principal roles and with extraordinary character actors.  Hartley outclasses him, too.

The high country of the title, in the end, is not just the magnificent mountain scenery in which this film takes place.  It’s also the moral ground on which the unyielding Steve Judd makes his stand.  And perhaps it’s the place he’ll meet Gil Westrum in a while.  Westrum’s last line, spoken to Judd, is “I’ll see you later,” which seems to bear much more meaning than it usually would.  Hartley said that after the last scene with McCrea, she turned to Scott to find him with tears streaming down his face.  For many, this and not The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah’s masterpiece.

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Ride the High Country was shot in just 26 days; Peckinpah was not yet as self-indulgent as he would quickly become.  As with Shane, the studio had no great confidence in this mid-budget western and did not promote it heavily.  Screenwriter William Goldman said he spoke to an MGM executive at the time who said the film had tested strongly, but they felt the film “didn’t cost enough to be that good.”  According to MGM records, the film made a loss of $160,000.  Notwithstanding the lack of promotion, the film was named by Newsweek and Film Quarterly as the best film of 1962; it won first prize at the Venice Film Festival; and it received the grand prize at the Brussels Film Festival (beating Fellini’s 8 ½).  Europeans loved it before American film audiences recognized what a classic this is.

A word of warning:  This has been shown on Encore’s Westerns channel, but the print they’re showing is a bad one that gives no no sense of how magnificent the cinematography of Lucien Ballard is or of the clear beauty of the panoramic vistas in the mountains.  Nor do they show it in widescreen, which is how it was shot and how it looks best.  It’s amazing how much these problems reduce the enjoyment of watching a great movie.  Look for a good DVD or Netflix instead.  This is one classic that is crying out for a Criterion Collection blu-ray treatment.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 5, 2013

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Woody Strode, Andy Devine (1962; Dir:  John Ford)

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Director Ford with his two principal stars on set.

Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) return to Shinbone, the western town where he initially made his reputation decades earlier.  As matters slowly develop, they are there for the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphan (John Wayne).  And the movie goes into an extended flashback, to when Stoddard initially arrived, only to be robbed and badly beaten by a band of stage robbers.  The gang is led by the Liberty Valance of the title, so there is no suspense on the fate that awaits Valance in the course of the film.  The remaining question is who will take care of Valance, since the younger Stoddard doesn’t really seem up to the task.

Stoddard represents the forces of civilization that, as we all know, will ultimately be successful in taming even the West, although the question is in doubt in Shinbone at the start of the movie.  The traditional tools of civilization, law and courts, seem powerless to deal with the brutal, relentless violence of Liberty Valance.  The badly beaten Stoddard is brought to town by Doniphan and his hired hand/servant Pompey (Woody Strode), and given to the care of a family of Swedish immigrants who run a restaurant.  Their daughter is Doniphan’s girlfriend, although he seems slow to do anything to move the relationship along.  Doniphan is comfortable and capable in the west in a way that easterner Stoddard is not.  Having been robbed, Stoddard earns his keep washing dishes in the restaurant, and he starts a school for adults and children and hangs out his shingle at the office of the newspaper (the Shinbone Star) run by Dutton Peabody (Edmund O’Brien). 

valance-atthebar The confrontation builds.

It’s clear that there will have to be a reckoning with Valance, described by Doniphan as “the toughest man south of the Picketwire, except for me.”  (Use of the name of the Picketwire [or Purgatoire] River would seem to place this in southeastern Colorado Territory.  And the talk of impending statehood would put it before 1876, when the Centennial State joined the Union.)  We look forward to seeing Doniphan and Valance shoot it out.  But Stoddard won’t leave town, despite his demonstrated ineptitude with a gun, and, worse, his determination not to use violence but the largely ineffective tools of the law.

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“The next one is right between the eyes.”

That Insistence on staying in Shinbone results in a shootout that leaves Valance dead and makes Stoddard’s reputation.  But in the wrangling over statehood that follows, Stoddard learns that events the night of the shootout were not quite what they seemed, even to him as a participant.  His own career takes off; he marries Hallie and becomes governor and then senator; Tom Doniphan, who seemed much better suited to life in the west at the start of the movie, goes in a different direction–downhill.

The central conflict in this movie is among three, not two, characters:  Valance obviously shouldn’t and doesn’t win; the realist Doniphan deserves to win but doesn’t, entirely.  Stoddard, the face of American populist idealism, comes out on top, as we know from the beginning of the movie.

There’s a fair amount of Capra-esque Grapes-of-Wrath-style frontier populism in this movie, which wouldn’t be palatable without a strong underlying story, excellent main characters and the violence of the confrontations with Valance.  This populist quality is emphasized by the presence of Stewart from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.   The faith in the common man as citizen and voter and the 1940s New Deal-ish black-and-white politics seem naïve now, and maybe they were even in the early 1960s.  It all seems simplistic, with undue reverence for freedom of the press even when that press is in the hands of an alcoholic editor, the scenery-chewing Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien)—a character very reminiscent of the alcoholic Doc Boone, played by Thomas Mitchell in Stagecoach more than twenty years earlier. 

valance-stewart Stoddard contemplates the non-legal way.

Speaking of black and white, it was an interesting choice to film the movie that way in 1962 when color movies had taken over pretty thoroughly.  Half a decade earlier, even the relatively low-budget Boetticher-Scott westerns had been filmed in color, and Ford had been using it since the late 1940s.  It adds to the retro feel—not back to the open west, exactly, but to the 1940s.  Ford still has his visual style with a western, although this one is not set in Monument Valley.  It’s shot largely on a studio back lot at Paramount.  The opening stage robbery and beating takes place on an obvious sound stage, but other times there is great use of expansive western vistas, even with medium shots.

A twist at the end of the movie seems similar in many ways to the ending of an earlier John Ford movie, Fort Apache.  In both, the film ends with the main character (Stewart here, Wayne in Fort Apache) affirming or allowing his support for an erroneous public version of a major historical event, when he knows the truth is different.  As Stoddard recounts the actual truth of long-past events to the current editor of the Shinbone Star, he asks in surprise, “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?”  Scott replies with the signature line for this movie, and perhaps for many other Ford westerns: “No, sir.  This is the West, sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  By this, director Ford seems to be encouraging a skepticism toward conventional history.

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The closing paradoxes and strongly-developed characters give this film its lasting impact.  John Wayne is at his best, even with his continual use of the word “pilgrim”—more than in any other movie he made.  He smokes frequently on screen, ironic when we know that John Wayne will be dead within two more decades from lung cancer.  In one shot, his exhaled cloud of smoke is used to dissolve to a past scene, a technique that seemed old-fashioned even in 1962.  Stewart is good with his character’s ups and downs, although he sometimes seems a little too hysterical and his halting Stewart-ish mannerisms, especially in speech, can be slightly annoying.  Wayne and Stewart are a little old for the age their characters are supposed to be for most of the movie, and Stewart plays much older than he actually is for the framing story.  O’Brien is over the top as the loquacious newspaper editor, and we see too much of Andy Devine as the ineffectual but supposedly loveable town marshal Link Appleyard; he’s supposed to be the comic relief.  Vera Miles is lovely and plays well in her minor part.

This movie has an all-star cast of villains, too:  Lee Marvin is at his nastiest and most brutish as Liberty Valance, supported by the weaselly and perhaps mentally unstable Floyd (Strother Martin) and that personification of slit-eyed menace, Lee Van Cleef, as Reese.  Valance’s sheer evil, with him always seemingly on the edge of losing control, and a psychotic tendency to try to kill people with his silver-handled whip, make this trio of evildoers more intimidating than their modest numbers would suggest.

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Belgian poster for Liberty Valance, with pictures of Wayne and Stewart clearly taken from other movies.

The title song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung by Gene Pitney, was a hit in the early 1960s, although the hit version does not appear in the film.  Apparently Gene Pitney was not asked to record it until after the film was released.  However, it ranks with Tex Ritter’s “Do Not Forsake Me” in High Noon and Johnny Horton’s theme for North to Alaska.  They’re among the very best western film theme songs with actual singers.

Liberty Valance is John Ford’s last great western, although Ford continued making movies.  It’s a good bookend for the second half of his career, since there are three actors in this who appeared in Stagecoach, the movie that kicked off that career segment:  John Wayne, obviously, Andy Devine and John Carradine (as anti-statehood orator Cassius Starbuckle)—all of them Ford favorites.  This was Wayne’s last film with Ford, although Stewart shows up again as a too-old Wyatt Earp in a strange lnterlude in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn a couple of years later.

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The Hallelujah Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 4, 2013

The Hallelujah Trail—Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick, Jim Hutton, Donald Pleasance, Brian Keith, John Anderson, Pamela Tiffin, Robert WIlke, Martin Landau (1965; Dir:  John Sturges)

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Director John Sturges was good with large-scale action material in 1960s films like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.  Although lighter in emotional content than those epics, The Hallelujah Trail was a similarly large-scale production under Sturges’ capable direction.  He had also demonstrated a high degree of skill with smaller-scale 1950s westerns like Escape from Fort Bravo, The Law and Jake Wade, Last Train from Gun Hill and Gunfight at the OK Corral.

The plot involves the coming together of several parties with disparate aims in the fall of 1867.  Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) leads a wagon train of liquor bound from Julesburg to Denver, trying to make it before the anticipated long, harsh Rocky Mountain winter sets in.  Oracle Jones (Donald Pleasance), an alcoholic seer, advises the Denver Citizens’ Militia, a group of miners who want to make sure that the booze gets through.  Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) shepherds a group of temperance women who want to see that the liquor doesn’t arrive.  Chiefs Five Barrels (Robert J. Wilke) and Walks-Stooped-Over (Martin Landau) head a band of Indians who are after the liquor, rifles or anything else they can get.  And Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) commands the cavalry protecting the liquor caravan from Indians and the temperance women from who knows what.

hallelujah-oracle Oracle Jones has a vision.

The indications are that it will be a long, severe winter in Denver, and through a series of oversights and mishaps, the town is almost dry just before winter sets in.  During the first half of the movie, the motivations and undertakings of the various parties are set up, with some character development, including a bit of interesting sexual tension between Col. Gearhart and Mrs. Massingale (a widow).  At the start of the second half the parties converge in the middle of a large sandstorm where none of them can tell what’s going on.  The “battle” in the sandstorm is expertly staged and edited, and entertainingly presented.  A truce is eventually arranged, at which all parties (including aggrieved and activist Irish teamsters), agree to the deal brokered by Gearhart and then start out to subvert the agreement immediately.  In the end, nobody really gets what he wants, and everybody sabotages everybody else.  The liquor sinks into a bog, Mrs. Massingale hooks up with Gearhart, and the winter in Denver proves to be one of the mildest ever.

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Mrs. Massingale invades the colonel’s personal space.

The cast is excellent, especially Lancaster and Remick in the central roles.  Brian Keith’s Republican booze merchant gets a little tiresome, but that’s the way his role is written.  Donald Pleasance is memorable as Oracle Jones, whose visions are fueled by alcohol.  The Indians (clearly played by non-Indians) are very politically incorrect these days.  And Jim Hutton and Pamela Tiffin are duly attractive as the young lovers with competing loyalties.  Veteran character actor John Anderson has one of his best roles ever as Gearhart’s gruff, long-suffering sergeant.  Character actor John Dehner provides excellent straight-faced voice-over narration from time to time, although he’s uncredited.

Some will be put off by the comic alcoholic Indian stereotypes, played by white character actors (Robert Wilke, Martin Landau).  But everybody in this movie is a stereotype:  the stiff authoritarian cavalry commander, the clueless sergeant, the heedless and hormonally-driven young lovers, the alcoholic miners, the Irish teamsters, the humorless temperance women, the Republican businessman.  The humor comes from the collision of all these stereotypes and their respective agendas, with no really serious casualties.  Most of them (including the Indians) have to bend their agendas in some way, and the working out of those agendas provides the entertainment.

hallelujah-injuns Supervising ersatz Indians.

Although the movie is a long one (it was shown with an intermission during its theatrical release), in the end it doesn’t have much substance.  It’s just enjoyable light entertainment, with an excellent cast.  It could have been more tightly edited, and it would have been just as enjoyable.  The fine musical score is provided by Elmer Bernstein.  Sturges himself didn’t think this was among his best work. It was shot in 70mm widescreen format, and looks good on large modern televisions.

For Burt Lancaster in another comedic western role, see him as mountain man Joe Bass in The Scalphunters (1968), with Ossie Davis.

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Cat Ballou

Nicholas Chennault ~

Cat Ballou—Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, Darryl Hickman, John Marley, Tom Nardini, Reginald Denny, Bruce Cabot, Arthur Hunnicutt (1965; Dir:  Elliot Silverstein)

The movie is schizophrenic, mostly a comedy but with some very serious elements.  Musical narration is provided by troubadors Nat King Cole and Stubby Kay as Professor Sam the Shade and The Sunrise Kid, kind of a western Greek chorus.  Although the Cat Ballou of the title is Catherine Ballou, a recently-graduated schoolteacher played by Jane Fonda, this is actually an ensemble comedy dominated in some ways by Lee Marvin, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance(s) in this film. 

Cat Ballou 2 Jane Fonda as Cat Ballou

After an education in the east, Cat Ballou is returning by train to her father’s ranch in in Wolf City, Wyoming, in 1894.  On the train she meets Clay Boone (Michael Callan) in the custody of a sheriff, and Clay’s religious-minded uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman), a couple of charming small-time criminal ne’er-do-wells who make an escape from the train.  Once home, she finds her father under threat by the Wolf City Development Company, owned by Sir Harry Percival (Reginald Denny), which wants his water rights for a large planned slaughterhouse.  He’s holding up all right, but she sees him threatened by silver-nosed gunman Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin).

All her father has for protection is Clay and Jed, neither of whom has ever shot at any one, and Jackson Two Bears (Tom Nardini), a good-natured but not very intimidating Sioux ranch hand.  So Cat sends for dime-novel gunman Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin again), only to find upon his arrival that he is now a useless drunken sot.  Strawn easily kills Frankie Ballou (John Marley), and when Cat tries to get the sherriff’s help, she finds that Sheriff Ed Cardigan (Jay C. Flippen) is one of those providing Strawn with an alibi.  The community wants the slaughterhouse built.

cat-ballou-cast Planning a robbery.

Evicted from the ranch and filled with frustration, Cat and her gang retreat to Hole in the Wall, where a very over-the-hill Butch Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicutt) is a bartender.  They carry out a train robbery which nets them $50,000, much more than they expected.  Kid Shelleen has a moment of soberness, in which he returns to his former gunfighting self, dresses in his old gear, seeks out Strawn in a bordello and shoots it out with him.  As Shelleen describes it later to the gang, they are surprised to hear that Strawn was his brother.  We are less surprised, since both characters are played by Lee Marvin.

Determined to get Percival to sign a confession, Cat dresses as a lady of the evening and meets him on his special train car.  They struggle for her gun, Percival is shot, and Cat is sentenced to hang by the disappointed citizens of Wolf City, whose dreams of slaughterhouses and jobs are now gone.  Needless to say, the movie doesn’t end with Cat’s hanging.

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There are some serious themes, like hanging, the death of a major character, and the futility of dealing with a corrupt justice system.  The film tries mostly to slip by those, and the cast is quite charming.  It’s Lee Marvin who steals the picture in his dual role; he provides the most memorable images.  The scene in which the now-sober Kid Shelleen bathes and dresses in his gunfighting gear (complete with corset) aided by Jackson Two Bears and accompanied by toreador music is a gem.  As Cat and the gang make a getaway, the drunken Shelleen on a horse that appears equally inebriated covers the escape through what seems to be sheer ineptitude.  On accepting his Oscar the next year, Marvin was willing to share credit:  “I think half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in the Valley.”

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Marvin and co-star, holding up a wall.  It took them an hour to get this still.

Young Jane Fonda is good, and the rest of the supporting cast (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman and Tom Nardini) are engaging as well.  There are some good lines and a fair amount of sexual innuendo, but the movie doesn’t really seem to care much about the romance element.

Occasionally the music telegraphs a little too strongly what we’re supposed to be feeling:  The immediately rollicking music when a fight starts tells us a little too quickly and heavy-handedly that we’re not supposed to take it seriously, for example, and the rattlesnake-like sounds when Strawn appears don’t really afford us the opportunity to make our own assessment of him.  He’s scary enough with just the silver nose.

Director Elliott Silverstein also directed A Man Called Horse a few years later.  Mostly his career was spent in television.  Maybe that accounts for the heavy-handed use of music, the charming but lightweight supporting characters and the easy but incomplete resolution.  Still, it’s fun to watch.

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Duel at Diablo

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 2, 2013

Duel at Diablo—James Garner, Sidney Poitier, Bill Travers, Bibi Andersson, Dennis Weaver (1966; Dir:  Ralph Nelson)

This is a cavalry movie, almost the last good one in a sub-genre that has since become even less fashionable than westerns are generally.  (But see Ulzana’s Raid, about five years later—that’s probably the last good cavalry movie.)

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In the opening scene, army scout Jess Remsburg (James Garner) is hidden on horseback amid the rocks, looking through binoculars at an apparently dead colleague strung up Indian-torture-style.  As he watches, another white man rides slowly into the same desert bowl of sand and rocks.  The white man’s horse collapses, and the man staggers to his feet.  Remsburg sees, as the horseman apparently does not, that two armed Apaches are quickly approaching on foot.  He rides out of the rocks, knocks the horseman out of harm’s way and shoots one of the Indians.  He helps the horseman to double up on his own buckskin horse, discovering that he is in fact a she—Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson).

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Remsburg (Garner) at Diablo Canyon.

Taking her back to Fort Creel, Remsburg meets her husband Willard (Dennis Weaver), who is not all that thrilled to have her back.  Ellen spent a year in captivity among the Apaches earlier in her life and was subsequently rescued by cavalry.   This time Ellen was trying to escape white society and go back to the Indians.  Remsburg is enlisted by Lt. McAllister (Bill Travers), recently promoted up from the ranks, to guide a troop of 24 very green cavalrymen to Fort Concho along with ammunition wagons.  Willard Grange gets the fort’s commanding officer to force McAllister to allow him to go along with the patrol despite the danger from the marauding Apaches.  Forced to go along as well is former buffalo soldier Sergeant Toller (Sidney Poitier), who has to go in order to receive payment for horses already captured and delivered to the army.  It will be dangerous, since Chata’s hostile band of Apaches has jumped the reservation and is in the vicinity.

Meanwhile, McAllister acquaints Remsburg with some details of the death of Remsburg’s Comanche wife, handing over her scalp.  He says he got it from the gunman-marshal Clay Dean (John Crawford) at Fort Concho, giving Remsburg some incentive to guide McAllister’s cavalry there.  As the patrol makes its way to Fort Concho, Chata, who has more than twice as many warriors as McAllister has inexperienced soldiers, finds its trail and attacks.  McAllister is hit twice with arrows, but the survivors of his patrol manage to fight their way into Diablo Canyon, which has water—water, but no way out.  They have to fortify themselves in the box canyon and hope for relief from Fort Concho.

Meanwhile, Ellen Grange has managed to find her way back to Chata’s band, where her motivation for doing so is revealed:  she has an infant son by Chata’s now-deceased son.  However, the Indians don’t like her any better than the whites do, and plan to kill her as soon as it’s convenient.  Until Remsburg rescues her again, this time with the baby, too.

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Toller (Poitier) and McAllister (Travers) set out for Fort Concho.

Hope is disappearing for the remnants of the patrol in Diablo Canyon.  Toller has taken over effective command for the badly wounded McAllister.  After leaving Ellen Grange with her husband again along with the remnants of the besieged patrol, Remsburg makes his way to Fort Concho for reinforcements, but it’s doubtful those reinforcements will arrive at the canyon in time to save McAllister’s men.  Meanwhile, in Fort Concho Remsburg finds out who killed his wife and deals with the nasty gunman-marshal. 

It’s a good movie, but a grim one.  Some find it violent, but most of the violence is shown indirectly, except for soldiers being hit with arrows.  There are references to Indian tortures and a real sense of the dwindling numbers of the patrol and its reduced chances for survival as the movie goes on.  This is a socially-conscious western in which the lines between Indian and white make a lot of difference in various ways to the characters.  The Indians are accorded a certain dignity without minimizing their tendency to torture captives and enemies.

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James Garner is also excellent in his grim mode here, as in Hour of the Gun.  His haunted but capable scout character is central to the movie, but the movie is largely an ensemble effort.  Bill Travers is excellent as the openly Scottish Lt. McAllister, the ambitious soldier promoted from the ranks.  Sidney Poitier was at the peak of his career when this movie was released, and he projects both authority and a don’t-mess-with-me dangerousness.  He is too urban to be a natural in westerns, as Garner is, but he’s effective as the ex-buffalo soldier.  (Note some of the film editing when he’s supposedly breaking horses, for example; he obviously hadn’t much experience riding.)  It’s not clear why Ellen Grange has a Swedish accent, but nobody seems to worry about it.

When the relief column from Fort Concho takes off, Col. Foster, the commanding officer, is played by Ralph Nelson, the movie’s director, who is listed as Alf Elson in the acting credits.  A television director in the 1950s and a director of mainstream movies in the 1960s, Duel at Diablo was the first of his two westerns, both cavalry movies.  (The other was 1970’s Soldier Blue, about the Sand Creek massacre—a stronger anti-military statement but less effective movie.)  Some find the music dated by now, and it does seem identifiably of the 1960s, unlike the more enduring music of, say, Elmer Bernstein or Ennio Morricone.  

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Shooting on location near Kanab, Utah; photograph taken by director Ralph Nelson.  Click on picture for a higher resolution image.

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The Professionals

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 31, 2013

The Professionals—Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale, Jack Palance, Ralph Bellamy (1966; Dir:  Richard Brooks)

This one takes place in the late western period just before World War I, when the American west was closing down and the action was in northern Mexico.  The professionals of the title are Marvin, Lancaster, Ryan and Strode, playing a band of mercenaries in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.  Marvin is an ex-military weapons expert and tactician, and Lancaster does explosives.  Ryan’s skill is with horses, and Strode is a tracker and bowman.  They’re not young, but they are very good at what they do, and for $10,000 each they take on a dangerous mission from which they are unlikely all to return. 

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They are sent into Mexico to retrieve the beautiful young Mexican wife (Claudia Cardinale) of J.W. Grant, an older mining baron (Ralph Bellamy).  She has been kidnapped for ransom by Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), whom Marvin and Lancaster know well from their days supporting Mexican revolutionaries.  Grant selects the Marvin, Ryan and Strode characters for the team; Marvin brings in Lancaster.  It still seems like a small group for the task, given the rough terrain and the odds against them.  But they are, after all, professionals.  And that’s a large part of the enjoyment provided by this film—watching them accomplish their task.  The question is what kind of transformation will take place, and the tension is not only in the action but in the frequent balancing of one code of behavior against another.

Marvin plays Rico Fardan, a version of the hard-bitten, ultra-competent military man he has done in other films (see, for example, The Dirty Dozen from about the same period).   In his period campaign hat with the flat brim and four creases in the crown, he organizes and directs the team, and he’s very good at it.  Note his use of a pump shotgun (a Model 1897 Winchester trench gun?).  Burt Lancaster was probably a bigger star than Marvin at the time, although Marvin was fresh off his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Cat Ballou.  Lancaster had won his own Best Actor award for the lead in 1960’s Elmer Gantry, working with director Richard Brooks there, too.  Here, Lancaster plays Bill Dolworth, the womanizing explosives expert and Fardan’s closest friend on the team.  They have a lot of history together in revolutionary Mexico.  More inclined to think about what it all means than Fardan is, Dolworth has some of the movie’s best lines and Lancaster’s effervescent performance is the best in the movie.  Robert Ryan, always an excellent actor but seldom a lead at this stage of his career, is Hans Ehrengard, the horse wrangler and packmaster for the team.  He is the least physically robust of the group and often seems to care more about horses than about people.  His part also seems underwritten, especially for an actor as good as Ryan.  Jacob Sharp, the tracker and bowman, is the smallest role of the four, well-played by the quiet Woody Strode.  Jack Palance is good, but not entirely authentic, as the leader of this particular band of Mexican revolutionaries.  And sultry Italian actress Claudia Cardinale does what is required of her, looking beautiful and voluptuous.

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The four professionals, plus Cardinale.

Since their employer is (a) a wealthy mining baron, and (b) played by Ralph Bellamy, he is inherently an unsympathetic character, and you know he’s not going to win in the end even if the team is successful.  When Fardan spells out the final terms of the deal, Bellamy spits out, “You bastard.”  In the movie’s final line, Fardan returns with:  “Yes, sir.  In my case an accident of birth.  But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.”  And he walks off into his personal sunset, having kept to his code with his mercenary’s integrity intact.

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Cross-cultural appeal.

Producer and director Brooks wrote the excellent script.  The roles are well differentiated, and there are many memorable lines with engaging notes of fatalism and philosophy, especially in the interplay between old friends Fardan and Dolworth.  Dolworth, upon being surprised:  “Well, I’ll be damned.”  Fardan responds:  “Most of us are.”  (Maybe it’s all in the timing, or maybe it’s just Marvin’s way with a line.)  The central question of the film is voiced by Dolworth, as he considers his current fight against former comrades:  “Maybe there’s only been one revolution since the beginning—the good guys versus the bad guys. The question is, who are the good guys?”  It was true of the Mexican revolution, and it’s an apt observation on the immediate situation in this movie, too.

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Lancaster as Dolworth negotiates from a position of dubious strength.

Having said that, it must also be admitted that there are moments when this movie is a little too fond of the sound of its own script and could have used some tighter editing.  At times there is just too much talking, especially where Dolworth is involved.  Look, for example, at the final duel between Dolworth and Raza in the canyon.

There’s violence of the pre-Wild Bunch cinematic sort, but this is rated PG-13.  This is another western beautifully shot by cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and many other movies).  It was shot largely in Nevada’s Valley of Fire north of Las Vegas and in California’s Death Valley, making excellent use of the desolate landscapes there.  The movie got Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Screenplay (both for Brooks) and Best Cinematography for Hall.  The score is by prominent 1960s movie composer Maurice Jarré.

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Hour of the Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 30, 2013

Hour of the Gun—James Garner, Jason Robards, Robert Ryan, John Voight (1967; Dir:  John Sturges)

This underrated retelling of the Wyatt Earp story features the grim James Garner (see also Duel at Diablo and A Man Called Sledge), not the comic one with the easygoing charm.  Garner plays Wyatt, paired with Jason Robards as an excellent Doc Holliday—more believable as the tubercular gunfighter than the physically robust Kirk Douglas and Victor Mature in previous film versions of the story.  

hourofthegunGarner Garner as Wyatt Earp.

The Earp story has been more successfully retold in movies than any other from actual western history, with varying levels of accuracy.  The best cinematic version of the Earp story may be Tombstone, although My Darling Clementine, one of the older and least historically accurate versions, has its proponents.  Hour of the Gun belongs in this more than respectable company.  In fact, gritty thriller writer George Pelecanos, who says that westerns are his favorite film genre, claims Hour of the Gun as his favorite western, as the upright lawman Earp becomes a colder and more implacable killer in hunting his brothers’ murderers (interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, October 9, 2009).  Pelecanos points to the excellent Jerry Goldsmith score as one of the movie’s overlooked strengths.  The cinematography by Lucien Ballard is also terrific.  Edward Anhalt wrote the screenplay; he shows up briefly in the film as Doc Holliday’s doctor.

This was director Sturges’s second telling of the Earp story, a decade after his earlier Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  In the meantime, he’d made The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Hallelujah Trail, and he was at the peak of his game.  He was one of the best directors of his time in dealing with large-scale stories and action, but this is a more modest effort in terms of scope and budget.  While Gunfight goes with its title and builds up to the legendary battle, Hour of the Gun starts with the gunfight and focuses on Earp’s subsequent vendetta ride, as he hunts down those he holds responsible for gunning down his brothers.  In telling this story, it keeps more to the historical facts than the older film did, but only to a point.  Much of the dialogue in the courtroom scenes, for example, is taken from actual transcripts.  Text on screen after the initial credits says, “This picture is based on fact.  This is the way it happened.”  Well, not quite, but it’s closer than previously filmed versions of the story.

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The Earps and Holliday at the OK Corral.

In his 1967 review of the film, Roger Ebert called this one of Garner’s best performances.  The casting is one of the film’s strong points, especially in the three primary roles:  Garner as Earp, Robards as Holliday and Robert Ryan as an older and more cerebral Ike Clanton than we usually see.  Robards is good as Doc, although he’s significantly older than the actual historical character.  He mentions having killed during the Civil War, but the real Doc Holliday was much too young to have fought in the war.  The Earp brothers (Virgil and Morgan) are not terribly memorable in this version of the story.  Look for a young John Voight as Curly Bill Brocius in an early role.  Interestingly, there’s no Johnny Ringo in this version of the story.   And basically there are no women in this story, either.

Because of its focus on Earp’s search for revenge, the movie becomes more melancholy as Doc tries to keep Earp balanced.  Doc:  “I know you.  You can’t live like me.”  “Those aren’t warrants you have there.  Those are hunting licenses.”  Earp comes to realize the ultimate futility of revenge past a certain point.  The vendetta itself is not celebrated as much as in Tombstone.  The film’s climax shows Wyatt shooting it out with Ike Clanton in Mexico, which is not at all the way Clanton died.  The end of the movie, with Doc dying in a Colorado sanitarium, is heart-wrenching.  Wyatt says he’s going back to Tombstone as the U.S. marshal, so Doc will think he’s regained his idealism and respect for the law; in fact, he intends never to be a lawman again.  The irascible dentist-gunman forces Wyatt to leave and sits playing cards with an orderly on an outdoor veranda as Wyatt drives off in a buggy.  

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The poster emphasizes the revisionist elements of the film.

Since the movie presented a revisionist view for its time of a famous western lawman, audiences weren’t sure what to make of it when it was released.  But it stands up pretty well more than 40 years later.  Garner would play Wyatt Earp again in Blake Edwards’ 1988 comedy-thriller Sunset.   In Sunset, Garner is an aging Earp during the period of the late 1920s when the former lawman was in Hollywood advising on westerns, paired with Bruce Willis as Tom Mix.

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Support Your Local Sheriff

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 29, 2013

Support Your Local Sheriff—James Garner, Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Harry Morgan, Walter Brennan, Bruce Dern (1969; Dir:  Burt Kennedy)

This is probably the best western satire ever made.  Yes, that includes Mel Brooks’ broader Blazing Saddles.   The plot seems to follow Rio Bravo from ten years earlier, but that’s not an uncommon plot for westerns.  (See 2008’s Appaloosa for a later, but more serious, example.)  The title comes from a law-and-order bumper sticker popular with some in the late 1960s.

In a small western town, settlers and prospectors discover gold in Boot Hill while burying one of their own.  That sets off a gold rush and overnight the town develops aspirations to respectability—except for the many rowdies attracted by the gold strike.  Among those with newfound wealth are Mayor Ollie Perkins (played by Harry Morgan) and his daughter Prudence (Joan Hackett), along with others on the town council.  The prosperity brings a fair amount of disorder with it, however, and the town council is unable to keep a live sheriff for long until they happen on Jason McCullough (James Garner, in his good-natured mode).  McCullough is just passing through “on my way to Australia” when he decides to check out the gold rush.  He seems handy enough with a gun, and he’ll actually take the job, however temporarily.  So he’s hired.

supportlocal1 Basically on his way to Australia.

His first act is to imprison Joe Danby (Bruce Dern), whom he sees kill a man in a saloon.  Danby is part of an important Clanton-esque family of quasi-outlaws; the Clanton connection is strengthened because Pa Danby, head of the clan, is played by veteran character actor Walter Brennan in a role reminiscent of his Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine twenty years earlier.  The Danbys can muster legions of relatives and gunmen, while McCullough’s support is mostly the town “character” (or drunk) Jake (Jack Elam) who becomes McCullough’s unwilling deputy, along with Prudy, to whom McCullough is attracted romantically.

support2 Romancing the mayor’s daughter.

The writing is sprightly enough, but the genius of the film lies in the casting.  This is the sort of role James Garner played better than anybody else; he’s basically reprising his Maverick character from the television series.  If you want to see what a good job Joan Hackett does as Prudence, compare her with Suzanne Pleshette in the sequel Support Your Local Gunfighter.  Pleshette is fine; she just doesn’t have the comic intensity and daffiness that Hackett does.  Elam is marvelous.  He demonstrates here that he has made the transition from playing criminals, villains and evildoers to full-blown character parts.  As Elam’s Jake says while striking a pose at the end of the movie, he “goes on to become one of the most beloved characters in western folklore.”  And we believe him, mostly.

Harry Morgan’s appearance as the town’s mayor and Prudence’s father is particularly interesting when compared with another role from earlier in his career.  He played one of the townspeople who wouldn’t help Marshal Will Kane in 1952’s High Noon.  When it comes to the showdown here, he doesn’t help Jason McCullough, either, although he is much more charming about it.  And McCullough never seems all that threatened, anyway.  Jack Elam’s “town character” also echoes his town drunk role from High Noon, but he comes through better here in a much meatier role.

support3 The town character takes a hand.

Director Burt Kennedy has done a fair number of workmanlike westerns spread over several decades.  He’s also known as the writer for the best of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns of the late 1950s.  This movie represents the best of his work as a director.  The script by writer-producer William Bowers is terrific.  Too bad Bowers didn’t write the sequel.  The Gunfighter sequel, with the same director, Garner, Elam and Morgan, is enjoyable, too, but not as perfect as this film.  For more of Garner in his amiable con-man mode, see Skin Game, with Louis Gossett and Susan Clark.

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