Category Archives: Directors and Actors

Shooting Stars, Part 3

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 14, 2015

Shooting Stars:  A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 3—Eleven Through Fifteen

Here we continue with our ranking of the top actors in westerns since 1939.  For the top ten such actors, see our posts Shooting Stars Part 1 and Shooting Stars Part 2.

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11.  James Garner [Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend, Hour of the Gun, Duel at Diablo, Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, Skin Game, A Man Called Sledge, The Castaway Cowboy, One Little Indian, Murphy’s Romance, Sunset, Maverick; on television, Maverick, Bret Maverick and The Streets of Laredo]

Oklahoma native James Garner is best known for his roles as an amiable western con-man, first demonstrated in the Maverick television series of the late 1950s.  He was better at that kind of role than anybody else (see Support Your Local Sheriff, Skin Game and Support Your Local Gunfighter).  He successfully played variants of that role in movies set in more modern times, including a couple of good ones set in World War II (The Great Escape [1963] and The Americanization of Emily [1964]) and a number of 1960s romantic comedies (Boys’ Night Out with Kim Novak, Cash McCall with Natalie Wood, The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling, both with Doris Day).  But that wasn’t the limit of his talents.  He could also do well at a kind of grim, humorless role, as he showed in Duel at Diablo (1966) and while playing Wyatt Earp in John Sturges’ Hour of the Gun (1967).  It was his misfortune that mainstream westerns were starting to decline in popularity when he was at his peak, and by the mid-1970s he was showing up in light, Disney-produced westerns with Vera Miles that haven’t been much seen (The Castaway Cowboy, One Little Indian).  More successful was his venture back into television as private detective Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files (for six seasons, starting in 1974).

In the later stages of his career, he was very good in a modern romantic western with Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance (1985), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.  He showed up in two more westerns, once again as an aging Wyatt Earp in Hollywood of the late 1920s in Sunset (1988), and in the Mel Gibson Maverick remake (1994).  He returned to television with a short-lived series reprising his original Maverick character in Bret Maverick (1981) and with a credible turn playing an aging Capt. Woodrow Call in the television miniseries The Streets of Laredo (1995), based on a sequel to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.  (One story has it that he had been offered the role of either Woodrow Call or Gus McCrae–his choice–in the original Lonesome Dove miniseries but was sidelined by health problems.  Lonesome Dove, of course, went on to become a classic with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall in those roles.)  An interesting sidelight of his late career was to see him together with fellow westerns star Clint Eastwood as aging astronauts in Space Cowboys (2000).

Like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, Garner was long interested in automobile racing.  He was a good enough driver that he did his own driving stunts in The Rockford Files because he was better at it than any stuntman they could find.   In a 1973 interview, John Wayne called James Garner the best American actor.  Of all his films, The Americanization of Emily, with Julie Andrews (1964), was said to be Garner’s favorite—an excellent movie, wonderfully written and superbly acted but unfortunately not a western.

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12.  Burt Lancaster [Vengeance Valley, The Kentuckian, Vera Cruz, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Unforgiven, The Hallelujah Trail, The Professionals, The Scalphunters, Valdez Is Coming, Lawman, Ulzana’s Raid]

Burt Lancaster was one of the biggest movie stars of his time, from the late 1940s well into the 1970s.  Known especially for a vigorous brand of physical athleticism (he had once been a circus acrobat), an equally vigorous growth of hair and a large grin showing off a full set of very white teeth, he was willing to take any role that interested him.  He won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in Elmer Gantry (1960).  For an early performance in a western, see him as the grinning unscrupulous quasi-outlaw Joe Erin in Vera Cruz (1954), playing with and against the more traditional and stolid Gary Cooper.  One of many to play Wyatt Earp, he did a credible version in John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), and he could also play a certain kind of comedy convincingly (The Hallelujah Trail [1965], The Scalphunters [1968]).  He was not afraid of taking a role secondary to lesser star Lee Marvin in The Professionals (1966), and his strong performance alongside Marvin made for an excellent western.

By the 1970s, as westerns faded in popularity as a cinematic genre, Lancaster was doing some of his strongest work in westerns as old scout Bob Valdez in Valdez Is Coming (1971) and as old scout Archie McIntosh in Ulzana’s Raid (1972), probably the last really good cavalry movie.  He’s even good as the central figure in the revisionist Lawman (1971) with Robert Ryan, which otherwise has some problems with its writing and direction.

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13.  Gregory Peck [Yellow Sky, Duel in the Sun, The Gunfighter, Only the Valiant, The Big Country, The Bravados, How the West Was Won, The Stalking Moon, Mackenna’s Gold, Shoot Out, Billy Two Hats, The Old Gringo]

Gregory Peck shared Joel McCrea’s ability to project a basic American style of decency, although his brand of that quality was a little flintier and less self-effacing than McCrea’s.  His ultimate cinematic expression of that quality is probably as southern lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  It made him convincing in playing reforming outlaws (Yellow Sky [1948], The Gunfighter [1950]), but less so in portraying bad guys (Duel in the Sun, 1947).  He was a big star, both comfortable and convincing at the center of a large-budget production (The Big Country [1958]).

He didn’t make many westerns in the 1960s, part of his period of greatest stardom—only appearing in How the West Was Won (1962), as one among many stars.  Toward the end of the decade he appeared in a fairly good western thriller (The Stalking Moon [1968]), but like others he didn’t fare well as the genre, and his career generally, moved into a twilight period.  He showed up in such turkeys as Mackenna’s Gold (1969) and Billy Two Hats (1974).  Shoot Out (1971), which is watchable but not remarkable, is probably his best western from this period.  In his last western, he starred as crusty writer Ambrose Bierce, the titular character in The Old Gringo, during the period of Mexican revolutions in the 1910s, with Jane Fonda (1989).  He is justly praised for The Gunfighter and The Big Country; Yellow Sky and The Bravados are probably the most underrated of the westerns in which Peck appeared.

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14.  William Holden [Arizona, Texas, The Man From Colorado, Rachel and the Stranger, Streets of Laredo, Escape from Fort Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, Alvarez Kelly, The Wild Bunch, The Wild Rovers, The Revengers]

Like Burt Lancaster and Gregory Peck, William Holden is not remembered first for his westerns.  He is remembered first for his roles as the young writer found floating face down in a swimming pool in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and for Wilder’s World War II drama Stalag 17, for which he won his Best Actor Oscar.  But his slightly acid modern-seeming persona translated well enough to westerns if the material and directing were right.  He starred in them from his earliest days in the movies, beginning before World War II with Arizona, with Jean Arthur and Edgar Buchanan (1940), and Texas, with Glenn Ford and Edgar Buchanan (1941).  After service in the war, he resumed his film career generally, and westerns specifically, with such good films as The Man from Colorado, again with Glenn Ford (1948) and with the colonial western Rachel and the Stranger, with Loretta Young and Robert Mitchum (1948).

Even with his success and elevation to stardom with Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, he made the occasional good western during the 1950s, working with director John Sturges in the underrated Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and with John Ford in the Civil War cavalry story The Horse Soldiers, playing an army doctor continually feuding with John Wayne (1959).  Even as Holden’s alcoholism took its toll on him, Holden’s work in the 1960s included the good Civil War story Alvarez Kelly, with Richard Widmark (1966), and the western for which he is best remembered now:  Sam Peckinpah’s landmark The Wild Bunch (1969), in which Holden very effectively plays Pike Bishop, leader of an aging outlaw gang trying to pull off a last job amid the Mexican revolutions of the 1910s.  His career in westerns ended on an ignominious note with The Wild Rovers (1971), although the seldom-seen The Revengers (1972) is slightly better.

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15.  Kirk Douglas [Along the Great Divide, The Big Sky, Man Without a Star, Last Train from Gun Hill, The Indian Fighter, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Lonely Are the Brave, The Last Sunset, The Way West, The War Wagon, There Was a Crooked Man, Posse, The Man from Snowy River]

One of the biggest stars of his time (the prime of which was the late 1940s into the early 1970s), Kirk Douglas appeared in a surprising number of westerns. But many of them weren’t all that good, and in some of them his persona seemed to be fighting with the traditional western ways of looking at things.  Like Burt Lancaster, he liked to not wear a hat, or to wear it only pushed back on his head.  He experimented with especially tight and unlikely wardrobes (The Last Sunset, The War Wagon) which emphasized his robust physique and athleticism.  He played a gunfighter who improbably only used a derringer (The Last Sunset).  He didn’t really need the theatrical gimmicks, though.  If you look only at his best work in westerns, you find one of the best mountain man movies (The Big Sky), his athleticism and physical strength (not to mention real acting ability) used to good effect without gimmicky costuming in Last Train from Gun Hill, the bitter edges of his personality being used effectively as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral, and as an isolated loner in the modern west in Lonely Are the Brave.

His ego was extraordinarily large (not unusual in Hollywood), but he managed to team well with Burt Lancaster (Gunfight at the OK Corral) and John Wayne (The War Wagon) when those two were in the dominant roles.  As the 1970s came in, he starred in less effective revisionist westerns (There Was a Crooked Man, Posse), which would probably not have been made without him.  In his last western, he chewed the scenery in dual roles in The Man from Snowy River.

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Shooting Stars, Part 2

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 16, 2015

Shooting Stars:  A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 2—Filling Out the Top Ten

For the top five, see our post Shooting Stars, Part 1.

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6.  Joel McCrea  [Barbary Coast, Wells Fargo, Union Pacific, Buffalo Bill, The Virginian (1946), Four Faces West, Ramrod, The Oklahoman, Colorado Territory, The Outriders, Frenchie, Stars in My Crown, Cattle Drive, Saddle Tramp, The San Francisco Story, The Lone Hand, Black Horse Canyon, Border River, Wichita, The Tall Stranger, Gunsight Ridge, The First Texan, Stranger on Horseback, Trooper Hook, Cattle Empire, Fort Massacre, The Gunfight at Dodge City, Ride the High Country, etc.]

For current audiences, McCrea can be the most underestimated actor on this list.  In the early stages of his career during the 1930s he made all kinds of movies.  By 1939, when he made Foreign Correspondent with Alfred Hitchcock and Union Pacific with Cecil B. DeMille, he was a significantly bigger star than John Wayne, and he was about to appear in brilliant comedies with such directors as Preston Sturges (Sullivan’s Travels, Palm Beach Story) and George Stevens (The More the Merrier).  He had always made some westerns, but by the late 1940s, like Randolph Scott he began to concentrate almost entirely on the genre.  His quiet demeanor projected a basic decency, even when he was playing an outlaw (Four Faces West, Colorado Territory).  Neither he nor Scott worked with the very greatest directors of westerns of their time until very late in their careers, but McCrea did have a productive relationship with director Jacques Tourneur (Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita).  He appeared in the first of Andre de Toth’s two best westerns (the underrated Ramrod) as well.

McCrea had his own ranch, and he always described himself in his tax returns as a rancher.  He and Scott were among the very best riders in westerns, and he always looked like he knew what he was doing on a horse.  (Watch him in Colorado Territory and Gunsight Ridge, for example.)  His very best western was also Randolph Scott’s best, and the last significant western for both of them:  Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country.  McCrea’s unbending Steve Judd is remembered for his resonant line in that film:  “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  He does, always playing it straight on.

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7.  Randolph Scott  [Heritage of the Destert (1932), Last of the Mohicans (1936), The Texans (1938), Frontier Marshal, Western Union, Jesse James, Virginia City, When the Daltons Rode, The Desperadoes, The Spoilers (1942), Belle Starr, Belle of the Yukon, Gunfighters, Abilene Town, Badman’s Territory, Trail Street, Albuquerque, Coroner Creek, Return of the Bad Men, The Doolins of Oklahoma, Fighting Man of the Plains, Santa Fe, The Walking Hills, Sugarfoot, The Cariboo Trail, The Stranger Wore a Gun, The Man Behind the Gun, Thunder Over the Plains, The Bounty Hunter, Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, Man in the Saddle, The Nevadan, Colt .45, Fort Worth, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Tall Man Riding, Rage at Dawn, 7th Cavalry, Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend, Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Westbound, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Ride the High Country, et al.]

At mid-century (1950), Randolph Scott was the top male movie star at U.S. box offices—not because he appeared in big blockbusters, but because his lower-budget and sometimes formulaic westerns played well in rural America.  Like Joel McCrea, he had always done some westerns (Last of the Mohicans [1936], Frontier Marshal, Jesse James) but in the 1930s he played a wide range of roles.  In larger-scale westerns (Western Union, Virginia City), he tended to play an unusually principled semi-bad guy who didn’t get the girl because he died before the end of the movie.

By the late 1940s, he had decided to concentrate almost exclusively on westerns, much like Joel McCrea.  Also like McCrea, he seldom worked with top-flight directors during this stage, although he worked frequently with Andre de Toth (The Bounty Hunter, Thunder Over the Plains, Carson City) and Lesley Selander (Tall Man Riding).  There were always some very good westerns (Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, The Bounty Hunter) among the more formulaic work.  He would not be nearly this high on the list except for an amazing burst of great work near the end of his career with two great directors—Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station) and Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, Scott’s last film).

With his courtly North Carolina accent, his riding ability, his weathered good looks as he aged and his ability to project stern rectitude, Scott just needed the right team to work with and was lucky enough to find it in the last seven years or so of his career.  In the 1950s and Ride the High Country, look for him wearing his trademark worn leather jacket, often riding his beautiful dark palomino horse Stardust, who always went uncredited.  In the sheer number of westerns he made, he’s remarkable, and most of them, even the formulaic ones, are pretty watchable.

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8.  Kevin Costner  [Silverado, Dances With Wolves, Open Range, Wyatt Earp]

Kevin Costner is the youngest actor on this list, and he hasn’t made that many westerns.  But of his four westerns, three of them are on the list of 55 Great Westerns and the fourth (Wyatt Earp) is a notable addition to the impressive list of westerns telling the Wyatt Earp story.  Like Robert Duvall, he has both been lucky and has chosen well when selecting his movie roles in westerns.  Like Clint Eastwood, he has been unusually successful in directing himself in westerns (Dances With Wolves, Open Range).

Costner has always connected well with the western sensibility.  His first large-scale film role was as the scapegrace younger brother Jake in Silverado, adept with two guns, physically restless and gymnastic but impulsive.  He next showed up as both director and principal actor in Dances With Wolves, with its extraordinarily long running time.  This was the first western in more than 60 years to win the Best Picture Oscar.  He went on to work with Lawrence Kasdan again in the interesting but not-entirely-successful Wyatt Earp, and finally to direct himself and Robert Duvall in Open Range.  In fact there are those who would say that many of his films are westerns regardless of their supposed settings: the futuristic Waterworld and The Postman, for example, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, with his abominably American accent in the title role.  On the down side of his career now, he may not make more westerns, but he has been extraordinarily successful in those he did make.

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9.  Henry Fonda  [Drums Along the Mohawk, Jesse James, The Return of Frank James, The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, The Tin Star, Warlock, A Big Hand for the Little Lady, How the West Was Won, The Rounders, Firecreek, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Cheyenne Social Club, There Was a Crooked Man, My Name is Nobody, Welcome to Hard Times]

With his All-American looks, demeanor and speaking voice, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that Henry Fonda was a superb actor.  Yes, he did seem to be playing a version of himself as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and in The Ox-Bow Incident, but those are carefully-edited versions.  After service in World War II, he played it more laissez-faire as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine (possibly the best Wyatt Earp on film) and much more tightly wound as the martinet Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache.  His version of outlaw Frank James, played in two films (Jesse James, The Return of Frank James), may also be definitive.

In the first half of his career, he worked with some great directors: Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James), John Ford (Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache), William Wellman (The Ox-Bow Incident), and Anthony Mann (The Tin Star).  After the excellent Warlock (1959), his career in westerns went into a long, slow fade, although he was usually worth watching.  The most notable of his westerns in the post-Warlock period is probably Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he plays (effectively) against type as a remorseless, blue-eyed killer.  After that, he took what he was offered, including the occasional spaghetti western, but the era of great westerns was fading along with his career.  Fonda’s career arc, normal for his time, demonstrates by comparison why John Wayne was so unusual in his ability to produce the occasional great western even at the end of his life.

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10.  Glenn Ford  [Go West, Young Lady, The Desperadoes, Texas, The Man from Colorado, Lust for Gold, The Redhead and the Cowboy, The Man from the Alamo, The Violent Men, 3:10 to Yuma, The Fastest Gun Alive, Jubal, Cowboy, The Sheepman, Cimarron (1960), The Rounders, The Last Challenge, Heaven with a Gun, A Time for Killing, Day of the Evil Gun, Santee]

Canadian-born actor Glenn Ford was a very durable and versatile leading man, beginning in the early 1940s.  Among his earliest westerns were Texas (1941), where he was paired with William Holden, and The Desperadoes (1943), with Randolph Scott, before he left for service in World War II.  Upon his return, he made his mark with several movies in the new film noir genre (see especially Gilda [1946], for one classic example).  But he also moved back into westerns (The Man from Colorado, Lust for Gold), showing that he was not afraid to play against his generally wholesome image.  Indeed, in one of his very best westerns (the original 3:10 to Yuma) he plays outlaw chieftain Ben Wade, making the unlikable more attractive, and being attracted to the code of good guy Van Heflin more than he expected.

Some of his best work during this middle period of his career was done with the excellent director Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, Cowboy), who obviously liked working with him.  He fought Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith (The Violent Men), and spent a whole movie trying not to fight Broderick Crawford (The Fastest Gun Alive).  As film noir faded in popularity, he was sometimes cast in romantic comedies (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) and military comedies (The Teahouse of the August Moon, Don’t Go Near the Water, Imitation General), and he brought some of that restrained comedic talent to the westerns The Sheepman and Advance to the Rear as well.  If given a choice, through the 1950s and 1960s, he always wore the same beat-up hat, which was looking pretty disgusting by the early 1960s.  The remake of the western epic Cimarron (1960) with director Anthony Mann and Ford in the lead didn’t really work well, but that wasn’t Ford’s fault.

His later career followed an arc similar to Henry Fonda’s, where the quality of the westerns he was offered declined.  As he played out his string (The Last Challenge, Heaven With a Gun, Santee), he often effectively played a kind of father-figure.  But the scripts weren’t as good, and the popularity of westerns as a genre was fading generally.

To continue the list, see Shooting Stars, Part 3.

 

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Shooting Stars, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 13, 2015

Shooting Stars: A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 1—The Top Five

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1.  John Wayne  [The Big Trail, Stagecoach, Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, Angel and the Badman, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, North to Alaska, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock!, The Sons of Katie Elder, The Comancheros, El Dorado, The War Wagon, Chisum, Cahill US Marshal, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, Big Jake, The Cowboys, The Shootist, et al.]

Wayne’s image is the first that comes to mind when we consider westerns between 1939 and the present.  He made many forgettable westerns while learning his craft during the 1930s in low-budget quickies, but beginning with Stagecoach in 1939 he made a surprising number of appearances in really good westerns.  While his career in westerns included a number of duds and clunkers, particularly toward the end (The Undefeated, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, etc.), for a long period he was consistently good—and often great.

Although, like most male stars, he sometimes seemed to show up in roles too young for him as he aged, he was more successful than most at playing age-appropriate roles as he grew older.  He successfully played older than he was in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and he moved into more mature roles naturally in The Searchers and Rio Bravo.  (He’s probably too old for Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, but somehow it works.)  He even made a couple of great westerns during the final stage of his career (The Cowboys, The Shootist).

Some of his position at the top of this list is due to his long-time relationship with John Ford, the greatest director of westerns, which helped both of them earn their pre-eminence in the field.  But he also made very good westerns with directors Howard Hawks, John Farrow, Don Siegel and others.

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2.  Clint Eastwood  [A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High, Paint Your Wagon, High Plains Drifter, The Beguiled, Joe Kidd, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy, Pale Rider, Unforgiven; Rawhide on television]

Eastwood is the greatest living star in westerns, although he is now in his 80s and is unlikely to make any more westerns either as a leading man or as a director.  Remarkably, he accomplished this mostly during a period when westerns were out of cinematic fashion; although he didn’t appear in nearly the number of westerns John Wayne did, his high position on the list results from the unusually high quality of the few westerns he did make.  Beginning with his central role in Sergio Leone’s influential Man With No Name Trilogy in the 1960s, he went on to appear in good westerns in the 1970s (Hang ‘Em High, for example) and to direct better ones with himself as the star (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven).  Director Eastwood benefited from having an iconic western star (actor Eastwood) at the center of his films, and he knew how to use him.

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3.  James Stewart  [Destry Rides Again, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, Night Passage, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Shenandoah, How the West Was Won, Firecreek, The Rare Breed, Bandolero!, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Shootist, et al.]

Before leaving for World War II, he made his reputation in modern films by Frank Capra and The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor.  His only western in that period was 1939’s Destry Rides Again.  Upon returning from the war, he revived his film career once again with Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and by working with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann.  His high position on this list is due to the five films he made with Mann, in which he usually played a character on the psychological edge in some way.  Between them, Mann and Stewart re-defined in many ways the world of western movies and the stories they told.  The quality of westerns he made in the 1960s after his relationship with Mann fell apart tails off noticeably, although he made three late westerns with John Ford, one of which is particularly memorable (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).

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4.  Gary Cooper  [The Virginian (1930),The Spoilers (1930), Fighting Caravans, The Plainsman, The Westerner, Along Came Jones, Dallas, High Noon, Garden of Evil, Springfield Rifle, Vera Cruz, Man of the West, The Hanging Tree, They Came to Cordura, etc.]

Dave Kehr sees him as John Wayne’s principal rival.  “Cooper, for whom the words lanky and laconic seem to have been invented, was identified by the Department of the Treasury as the nation’s highest paid wage earner in 1939….the mildly satiric Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) already finds Cooper playing an inflated archetype — the Man of the West — rather than a character, much as he would in his most overrated film, Fred Zinnemann’s didactic political fable High Noon (1952).”

In his biography of Gary Cooper, Gary Cooper, American Hero (Robert Hale, London, 2001), Jeffrey Myers quotes Robert Warshow’s essay on westerns:  “The romantic image of the cowboy as the embodiment of male freedom, courage and honor was created by men who had lived a rugged life in the West:  in words by Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister, in art by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and in film, preeminently, by Gary Cooper.”  Cooper was an authentic westerner from Montana, and he had a natural way with western roles.  Cooper would challenge John Wayne for the top spot on this list, except that he didn’t make many westerns during the 1940s when his career was at its peak.  His reputation in westerns was substantially made by movies released before 1939, until he revived his career in the 1950s beginning with High Noon.  One consequence of this career arc is that in several of his best westerns from the 1950s he seems too old for the roles in which he’s cast.  He’s good enough that we mostly look past that, though.

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5.  Robert Duvall  [True Grit, Lawman, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Joe Kidd, Tender Mercies, Lonesome Dove, Geronimo: An American Legend, Broken Trail, Open Range]

His position on this list comes from what Duvall refers to as his Trail Boss Trilogy (Lonesome Dove, Broken Trail, Open Range).  In all of them he plays a trail boss moving his herd somewhere against considerable obstacles.  These three are of surprisingly high quality, despite the fact that two of them were not movies but were made-for-television miniseries.  Like Wayne, Eastwood and Stewart, Duvall has benefited from working with unusually capable directors of westerns, John Sturges, Simon Wincer, Walter Hill and Kevin Costner among them.  His Augustus McCrae (Lonesome Dove) is one of the most indelible characters in the history of westerns.

At an age similar to Eastwood’s, his career also took place largely during a period when not many westerns were made.  His Best Actor Oscar comes from a modern western of sorts; he played country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983).  If you like him in more traditional westerns, give Tender Mercies a try.  He is one of the pre-eminent movie actors of his time generally, not just in westerns.  Unlike the others this high on the list, he has seldom played a conventional romantic lead.

To continue the list of top stars in westerns, see Shooting Stars, Part 2 and Shooting Stars, Part 3.

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Lost Masterpieces

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 1, 2014

Lost Masterpieces:  Westerns That Never Were

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Charlton Heston points the way as Maj. Amos Dundee.

In 1964 young director Sam Peckinpah was beginning to make a splash in Hollywood after the release of his modestly-budgeted second western, Ride the High Country.  He was given a larger budget and an A-list cast for his third western, Major Dundee, to be filmed on location in Mexico.  However, Peckinpah always had issues with authority and impatience with restraints of any kind on his creativity.  When Peckinpah gave in to his self-destructive impulses in Mexico (booze, drugs, wild women) during the filming of Major Dundee, the studio (in the person of producer Jerry Bresler) was understandably alarmed at the wild budget overruns.

The out-of-control production was on the verge of being shut down until it was saved by star Charlton Heston, who rashly offered to contribute his own salary if the production were allowed to continue.  The studio quickly took him up on it, and, according to Heston’s memoirs, he even did some directing while Peckinpah was incapacitated by various forms of debauchery.  But the studio did keep a close eye on the film after that, and a tight rein on its anti-authoritarian director.  It took the final cut of the film away from him, and the theatrical release was 123 minutes long, just over two hours.  In 2005, a 136-minute version was released on DVD twenty years after Peckinpah’s death, so we could see at least a part of what we’d been missing.  Supposedly Peckinpah’s own unreleased cut was 152 minutes long.  The episode all but destroyed Peckinpah’s career as a Hollywood director for a time, although some of his best work (The Wild Bunch) was yet to come.  Major Dundee thus became the textbook case study of how a supposed masterpiece came to be ruined by the petty financial concerns of bureaucratic accountants at the studio.

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Director Sam Peckinpah with Senta Berger on the set of Major Dundee; and Peckinpah is clearly troubled at the thought of studio interference.

Ruthless studio cutting invariably gives rise to such rumors that the uncut director’s version was a masterpiece, fueled in part by the director’s unhappiness with the studio’s businesslike approach to his work.  Such tensions between the creative impulses of directors and the business instincts of their studios have existed almost as long as movies have been made.  During the silent era, for example, even such legendary directors as D.W. Griffith (Intolerance) and Eric von Stroheim (Greed) had grandly-conceived multi-hour epics curtailed for release in theaters, and almost nobody has seen them as the director originally intended even when it has been possible to restore them to that vision.  In 1954, Judy Garland’s version of A Star is Born was intended by director George Cukor for a three-hour running time.  But the outcry of exhibitors, claiming that they’d lose money because they couldn’t fit as many showings in a day, led to the studio insisting on a cut closer to two hours.  The shorter film reportedly did not give full rein to Garland’s dazzling comeback performance, cheating her out of a chance for an Oscar as Best Actress and virtually ending her career as a major movie star.

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D.W. Griffith at work directing Intolerance.

As Major Dundee illustrates, this studio ruthlessness has also applied to westerns.  Major Dundee joins a list of several other good westerns which supposedly existed in longer, better versions before studios either insisted on cuts or made the cuts without the director’s participation.  In legend, the uncut versions were always supposedly masterpieces, and it would be good to see the longer versions to make up our own minds.  But in most cases at least some of the extended footage appears to be lost, so that it would be very difficult, if not impossible to restore the film to what the director originally intended.

One thing that made Dances With Wolves (1990) so remarkable at the time of its release was that, even with westerns out of fashion for almost two decades, it was released to theaters in a highly unusual 181-minute cut—a three-hour running time.  Even that wasn’t enough for some:  in the DVD age it has shown up in an extended cut (224 minutes), a director’s cut (236 minutes) and a special edition (also 236 minutes).  The longer versions are not discernibly better films than the original theatrical release, although it can be interesting to watch the director’s creative processes by comparing versions.  Longer is not always better.

Silent Movies.  Most of the movies made during the silent era (before 1929) have been lost, simply because they were shot and distributed on volatile film stock and not stored well because the studios who owned them did not value them after their initial runs in theaters.  John Ford started as a director in 1917, but 60 of his 70 silent films have been lost.  Luckily such Ford silent masterpieces as The Iron Horse (1924) and Three Bad Men (1929) have survived, but without being able to see the rest of his work, we don’t know what else may have been of similar quality.  Ford was not alone; much of the work of such silent western stars as William S. Hart, Harry Carey and Tom Mix has disappeared as well.  Occasionally even now, decades later, a movie thought to be lost is re-discovered in some distant location, like Argentina, New Zealand or Russia, so we can still hope for similar future finds.

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The Big Trail (1930).  This is one masterpiece that is no longer so completely lost as it once was.  Director Raoul Walsh’s early experiment in 70 mm. moviemaking didn’t make much money on its initial release, because theaters didn’t have the equipment to show it that way.  But we can see from a 122-minute restored DVD that it was visually splendid for its time, and it introduced a young John Wayne in his first role as a leading man.  Some say that the original cut was 156 minutes long, and many would like to see that version with the additional half-hour.  It was originally thought to be a flop, but has been reassessed in the last 25 years with the ready availability of the restored 122-minute version.  In retrospect, it’s a significant achievement and a milestone in the history of movies, particularly in the history of westerns.  And maybe it would be even more monumental in the lost 156-minute version.

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Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in an iconic image from My Darling Clementine; and director John Ford at John Ford Point in Monument Valley.

My Darling Clementine (1946).  Yes, it’s a masterpiece as it exists, one of the 55 Great Westerns, with one of Henry Fonda’s very greatest performances as Wyatt Earp.  Director John Ford always claimed that he “cut in the camera,” shooting only the footage he wanted to use in the film, reducing the chances for anybody at the studio to tinker with his work.  But in this instance, Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck thought Ford’s movie was too long as he submitted it to the studio.  He infamously ordered director Lloyd Bacon (known more for musicals than for westerns) to shoot additional footage, and then Zanuck re-edited the film himself.  Some of Ford’s cut footage has been found, but we don’t have Ford’s complete version as he submitted it to Zanuck.  It goes to show that (a) Ford was right in his paranoia about what studio people might do to his work if given the chance, and (b) even the very greatest director of westerns was not immune to studio interference with his work.  Was this masterpiece even greater in Ford’s original and longer cut?  As of Oct. 2014, there is a Criterion Collection DVD of this available.  In addition to a fully-restored version of the 97-minute theatrical release, it also contains a 103-minute pre-release version, which is not the full John Ford original cut.

 

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Across the Wide Missouri (1951).  Clark Gable didn’t make a lot of westerns, but he wasn’t bad in them (see The Tall Men, for example).  He reportedly insisted on William Wellman as the director of this mountain man story.  For whatever reason, MGM executives didn’t like the version submitted to them, subjecting it to drastic cutting and adding voice-over narration by Howard Keel.  The shortened result (78 minutes) seems to be not terribly coherent and was disowned by Wellman, who washed his hands of the whole project and went off to film Westward the Women.  Asked about it in an interview, Wellman responded, “I’ve not seen it, and I never will.”  The extended cut may not have been a masterpiece, but most viewers agree with Wellman that the theatrical release certainly isn’t.

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Howard Hawks blocks out a fight scene with Kirk Douglas for The Big Sky.

The Big Sky (1952).  This was another mountain man epic, made by Howard Hawks, who had an excellent track record as a director going back twenty years, including the cattle drive classic Red River.  Filmed on location in Jackson Hole, this black-and-white theatrical release was 122 minutes long; Hawks had intended it to be a cut of 140 minutes.  The cable movie channel TCM has shown an extended cut, but the re-inserted footage is clearly inferior in visual quality to the rest of the movie.  This is the second best mountain man movie ever made (after Jeremiah Johnson), and one of Hawks’ three best westerns, and it would seem to be a prime candidate for a full restoration.

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Director Robert Rossen with Rita Hayworth on the set of They Came to Cordura.

They Came to Cordura (1959).  This late film for Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Glendon Swarthout (author of The Shootist and The Homesman).  Set during the Mexican revolutions of the early 20th century and the U.S. army’s fruitless pursuit of Pancho Villa, director Robert Rossen’s original cut was about two and a half hours long; the theatrical release was only 123 minutes long.  The studio also insisted that Gary Cooper’s character couldn’t die at the end.  At the time of his own death in 1966, Rossen was in the process of buying back the film from the studio so he could restore it to its intended length, but so far that restoration hasn’t happened in the fifty years since.  As it exists, the film is watchable but dour and cynical; one hopes it would be better in an extended cut as the director intended.

Major Dundee (1965). The course of Major Dundee and its reputed mutilation is described above and in its own post.  Although we have not yet seen, and may never see, Peckinpah’s own unreleased 152-minute cut, the preliminary verdict is that this is watchable but not a masterpiece. The studio may have been right about Peckinpah’s self-indulgence.

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Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy visits the set of McKenna’s Gold, chatting with the politically-sympathetic star Gregory Peck.  And Peck talks with writer-producer Carl Foreman during filming.

Mackenna’s Gold (1969).  It would be quite a stretch to call this potboiler a masterpiece in its current form, unless perhaps you’re in India, where it was unusually and unaccountably popular for years after it failed at U.S. box offices.  (In the U.S. it returned only $3 million on its then-substantial production costs of $14 million.)  [http://indianquarterly.com/old-is-not-just-gold-its-mackennas-gold/]  It included a huge cast and multiple subplots.  Conceived as a sprawling epic and submitted to the studio in a three-hour cut, the studio nevertheless insisted on cutting it down to a two-hour running length for theatrical release.  Director J. Lee Thompson and writer-producer Carl Foreman would no doubt say the ruthless cutting is what prevented it from being a masterpiece; others would point to such missteps as casting Omar Sharif as a Mexican bandit chieftain and principal villain, or the cheesy (even for 1969) special effects at the end involving earthquakes and landslides while the heroes barely and unconvincingly escape.  Western author and movie aficionado Brian Garfield referred to it as “the most expensive star-studded two-hour B movie ever made, a gargantuan dud of absolutely stunning dreadfulness.”  Even star Gregory Peck said “Mackenna’s Gold was a terrible western.  Just wretched.”  There is a strong likelihood that the longer cut would simply provide more wretchedness.

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Executive producer Steve McQueen shouts instructions to the cast on the set of Tom Horn.

Tom Horn (1980).  The 50-year-old Steve McQueen was already dying of cancer in 1979 during the filming of this, his next-to-last film.  It was a troubled production with multiple (at least five) directors; McQueen himself, as the executive producer, seems to have been its guiding intelligence.  Originally intended as a three-hour epic, it was released at only 98 minutes.  From the evidence we have so far, it is more “troubled” than masterpiece.

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Heaven’s Gate (1980).  Young writer-director Michael Cimino hit the peak of his profession with a Best Picture Oscar for 1978’s The Deer Hunter, only his second movie.  And his career crashed with his next film: Heaven’s Gate, based on Wyoming’s Johnson County war.  Characterized by some as “a bleak anti-western,” it polarizes viewers, but most agree that the 149-minute theatrical cut is not very good.  Audiences stayed away in droves.  Some claim the 216-minute director’s cut is a masterpiece, but to others it still seems like bloated evidence of self-indulgence.  If you’re going to watch it, the extended cut is the one to see.  Cimino himself said of the film, “It took me a long time before I was able to say, ‘I’m proud of that movie.’ And I am proud of it. I could not have made it any better than I made it.  No excuses, and no regrets.”  But the movie is not universally held in high regard, and Cimino hasn’t worked much since.  Alone among the movies on this list, Heaven’s Gate exists and is available in its fullest version; the question is whether it merits the description of “masterpiece.”

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Michael Mann directing Steven Waddington (as Maj. Duncan Heyward) and Daniel Day-Lewis (as Hawkeye).

The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Although this traditional tale from the French and Indian War did well at the box office, the second half seemed too short.  Director Michael Mann had originally submitted to the studio a cut about three hours in length.  The studio insisted on a shorter version, releasing it at 112 minutes.  When he got another shot at it, however, the Mann director’s cut was released on DVD in 2001, but it was not the full three-hour version.  Some things had been changed but not much was added.  There have now been three versions with three different running times:  the original 1992 theatrical release at 112 minutes (used for the VHS release); the 2001 117-minute director’s expanded version; and a 2010 director’s definitive cut at only 114 minutes.  The director’s cuts are all that are available on DVD now, although many prefer the original theatrical release.  This may be a rare instance of the director’s cut being worse than the original (perhaps like the results of George Lucas’ constant fiddling with his original Star Wars movies); it’s not even much longer than the original.  This film is recent enough that one can perhaps still hope for a more extended and better-balanced director’s cut, although longer is not always better.  Or maybe just the original three-hour version Mann submitted to the studio.  Or maybe a better extended cut by somebody who’s not the director.  Even with the original theatrical cut, this is one of the great westerns.

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Selander’s Cavalry

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 9, 2014

Journeyman director Lesley Selander is said to have made more westerns than any other director, purely in terms of numbers–107 Westerns between his first directorial feature in 1936 and his last in 1968.  This requires a little explanation.  Allan Dwan, a well-known director between 1909 and 1961, directed 171 westerns.  But 157 of these were silent movies produced between 1911 and 1917, when movies were not yet generally at feature length.  (Cecil B. DeMille is thought to have made the first feature-length movie in 1914 with The Squaw Man.)  So Selander is considered to have made the most westerns in the modern era–since 1920 or so, let’s say.

In the hierarchy of directors, Selander was more prolific but less talented than, say, Andre de Toth.  He seldom had a large budget, well-known writers or a big star to work with; these were mostly B movies.  But leading actors in Selander movies occasionally included Randolph Scott (Tall Man Riding) or Rory Calhoun (The Yellow Tomahawk, below), and he often had good character actors (John Dehner, Robert Wilke, John Doucette, Noah Beery, Jr.).  Long-time character actor Harry Dean Stanton got his start on Selander westerns.  During the 1950s Selander was at the peak of his career when he made several cavalry movies, including these four.

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War Paint—Robert Stack, Joan Taylor, Keith Larsen, Peter Graves, Charles McGraw, John Doucette, Robert Wilke (1953; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Robert Stack is Lt. Billings, the commander of a small cavalry troop charged with delivering a treaty to an Indian chief.  If he doesn’t receive it within a week, the chief will go on the warpath.  The chief’s son Taslik (Keith Larsen) is guiding the soldiers to his father, but he secretly wants war to come and is undermining the mission.  His sister Wanima (Joan Taylor), a beautiful Indian princess, secretly follows the patrol, sabotaging their water and helping her brother in other ways.  Not a lot of action or much star power, but the cast is good aside from that.  Filmed in color in the vicinity of Death Valley.  Workmanlike directing, with occasionally clunky writing.  89 minutes.

The Yellow Tomahawk—Rory Calhoun, Peggie Castle, Noah Beery, Jr., Lee Van Cleef, Rita Moreno, Peter Graves (1954; Dir: Lesley Selander)

This was a B movie directed by Lesley Selander, so Rory Calhoun is a good guy in it.  In higher-grade movies, he tended to show up as a bad guy (The Spoilers, River of No Return), and he could be convincing as either good guys or bad.

Indian scout Adam Reed (Rory Calhoun) is a blood brother to the Cheyenne war leader Fireknife (Lee Van Cleef).  When the cavalry, led by Major Ives (Warner Anderson), insists on building a post in Wyoming Territory contrary to the treaty with Red Cloud, Fireknife warns Reed that there will be bloodshed, especially because Ives was one of the leaders at the Sand Creek Massacre of Black Kettle’s Cheyennes a few years previously.

While traveling to warn the cavalry detachment, Reed encounters Kate Bolden (Peggie Castle), who is looking for her betrothed lieutenant.  (Obligatory nude-bathing-in- the-wilderness scene.)  Ives refuses to leave and bit by bit all the soldiers are killed except Ives.  Reed guides the small party of survivors to Fort Ellis, where he hopes to turn Ives over to a court martial.  Finally, it comes down to Reed against Fireknife, one brother against another, and Reed wins.  Bolden has transferred her affections to Reed after her lieutenant is killed.  And it turns out Ives is part Cheyenne, which is the personal stain he was trying to wipe out at Sand Creek.

Filmed in Kanab, in southern Utah, this movie features some clunky acting and was seen in a very poor print.  It was theoretically shot in color, but the print I saw was black and white and grainy.  Castle wears anachronistic very tight blouse and pants.  Van Cleef doesn’t sound like an Indian, although his Indian looks are better than some whites in such parts.  Noah Beery is a Mexican scout, pursued by amorous Indian maiden Honey Bear (unconvincingly played by Rita Moreno).  Peter Graves is a cowardly prospector who kills his partner after they’ve discovered gold.  On the whole it’s watchable, but not really good.  82 minutes.

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Tomahawk Trail—Chuck Connors, Susan Cummings, George Neise, Harry Dean Stanton (1957; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Clunky writing distinguishes this B western about a beleaguered cavalry patrol in Apache country.  The two conflicts:  (a) an inexperienced, incompetent (and out of his head) lieutenant (George Neise) with the patrol in danger among Mescalero Apaches; and (b) Apache chief Victorio’s daughter (Lisa Montell) captured by the patrol.  Experienced sergeant Wade McCoy (Chuck Connors) has to take over, although some members of the patrol question his authority and he has the spectre of a court martial hanging over him (a la The Caine Mutiny).  McCoy gets them back to the post without horses, only to find all the personnel there slaughtered and the well water salted.  At the post they have to hold off an attack by Victorio’s superior forces, until the fight is resolved when his daughter returns to the Apaches.  The lieutenant is killed in the defense.

Susan Cummings plays Ellen Carter from Philadelphia; when she dons a military uniform out of necessity, it looks suspiciously tailored to her form (much as Joanne Dru looked good in military garb in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon).  A young Harry Dean Stanton (billed as Dean Stanton) plays the disabled lieutenant’s orderly.  The movie uses an actual Indian actor (Eddie Little Sky) as Johnny Dogwood, the patrol’s Apache scout.  Filmed around Kanab in southern Utah, in black and white.  Short, at only 60 minutes.

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Revolt at Fort Laramie—John Dehner, Gregg Palmer, Frances Helm (1957; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Generally, this is a decent late black-and-white B western curiously lacking in star power.  The Civil War is starting back east, and the garrison at Fort Laramie is (a) facing its own problems with Red Cloud and (b) trying to sort out where the individual loyalties of the soldiers will lie in the conflict between the states.  Major Seth Bradner (John Dehner) is from Virginia, with southern sympathies.  Second-in-command Capt. James Tenslip (Gregg Palmer) is a northerner, in love with Bradner’s niece Melissa (Frances Helm).  The soldiers appear equally split between north and south, although historically southerners tended (and still tend) to take to a career in the military more than northerners.  A too-venal-seeming Jean Selignac (supposedly a half-Sioux, played by Don Gordon) is a scout whose own loyalties are in question for different reasons.  Dehner is fine; Palmer is fairly forgettable; Helm is okay.  Filmed in Kanab, Utah.  Look for an uncredited Harry Dean Stanton as a southern-leaning private.  Short, at 73 minutes.

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Randolph Scott in the Early 1950s

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 27, 2014

Randolph Scott, Western Hero

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By 1946, Randolph Scott had begun to concentrate his acting career almost entirely on westerns.  He’d always done some good ones (Last of the Mohicans [1936], Frontier Marshal [1939], Virginia City [1940] and Western Union [1941], for example).  In those last two, he seemed to specialize in playing an uncommonly good bad guy, wrestling with moral dilemmas but eventually losing the girl to a less conflicted good guy.  As the decade developed he made only westerns, and seemed very at home in them, with his stern rectitude, his natural riding ability and his courtly North Carolina accent.  By 1950 Scott was the leading box office movie star in the country, ahead even of John Wayne.  Although his movies always made money, they tended to be formulaic and not terribly well written.  They are still engaging to watch for fans of westerns, but they are not really as good as some of the westerns of Joel McCrea during the same period or as good as the last westerns of Scott’s career that he made with Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah.

Boetticher referred to the early 1950s Scott movies as “the old Randolph Scott pictures,” and to the movies he made with Scott beginning in 1956 as “the real Scott pictures.”  One reason the old Randolph Scott pictures began to seem formulaic was Warner Brothers’ approach.  Ed Gorman describes Scott’s position in the industry and the production of Scott movies:

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“Scott was the constant current running beneath ‘A’ westerns flourishing after the war.  He’d gone over completely to cowboy parts, profited handsomely on many he produced, and passed shooting breaks conferring with stockbrokers.  There were ongoing deals with Warners and Columbia, permitting Randy to knock off four and sometimes five a year while bigger names like Wayne, Stewart, and Cooper limited western output and spent themselves as heavily hammering out percentage memos and negative ownership.  Scott was on and off jobs within three or so weeks and traveled no further than Lone Pine to finish yearly quotas.  He was unstoppable in small towns and all his shows met payroll.  His southern accent was apple butter to kinsmen here in North Carolina where Scott grew up, and no frontiersman came more credibly of the times and places his westerns depicted ….

“[Studio head Jack] Warner had gathered his line producers and lower execs to map out the year’s program.  We’ll make the usual number of Randolph Scott westerns at seven hundred and fifty thousand apiece.  We can always count on rentals of a million and a quarter, he said.  Could I make a suggestion?, asked a young man in the room.  Why not spend a million dollars on the Scott westerns?  With improved quality, maybe they could bring back two million, he said hopefully.  Kid, you’re fired, replied Warner.  I’ll tell you why you were fired.  Those westerns are a dying market.  The public is getting all the shit-kickers they need on our TV shows.  Now, if you had said, “Why don’t we make Randy Scott westerns for half a million?”, I would have made you my assistant.

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“This, unfortunately, was the backdrop against which Seven Men From Now was produced, for by then Scott grosses were declining.  Warner’s most recent with him, Tall Man Riding (1955), barely cracked a million in domestic rentals, while across-town Columbia saw just $777,000 from 1956’s 7th Cavalry.  [Warner Brothers] did try economizing to the extent of shooting in-house Shootout At Medicine Bend in black-and-white the following year, an act punishable in this instance with domestic rentals lowest of any so far–$655,000.  Budgets and profits both fell as tele-cowboys rose, with WB enthusiastically competing with itself.  Cheyenne was breaking big on ABC by 1956-57, having gone to new episodes every other week after an initial season among revolving wheels on the failed Warner Brothers Presents, and Maverick [of which Budd Boetticher directed the first three episodes] was in preparation for a 1957 premiere.”

For Gorman’s comments, see newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-randolph-scott-budd-boetticher.html

With this trend of declining revenues on his movies and competition from television, one might be forgiven for considering Randolph Scott over the hill.  Batjac, John Wayne’s production company, commissioned a script from Burt Kennedy, giving him only the title Seven Men From Now to work with.  Wayne liked the script but decided against starring in the film himself, since he had a bigger project with John Ford in the works (The Searchers).   Budd Boetticher, slated to direct, recalled a conversation with Wayne.  “I said, ‘Who do you want to play the lead, Duke?’ and he said, ‘Well, let’s use Randolph Scott, he’s through.'”

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Maybe Scott was not as through as Wayne thought.  The project meant that the now-aging Scott (58 years old in 1956) began his productive partnership with producer Harry Joe Brown, director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy, resulting in a series of excellent westerns now considered classics of the genre, including Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, and Decision at Sundown, among others.  These did not have big budgets and were filmed at Lone PIne, but they were better in quality than Scott’s projects for Warner Brothers and Columbia had recently been.  Seven Men From Now, for example, was made for $719,000, which could not have happened if John Wayne had starred in it according to the original plan.  It made a modest $989,000 and was not initially recognized by the public as a gem, but it led to the Boetticher-Scott partnership and a series of western classics over the next five years.

The movies below are examples of Scott’s solid cinematic output during the early 1950s.  For other good (perhaps better) Randolph Scott movies from the early 1950s, see also Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men, The Cariboo Trail, Thunder Over the Plains and The Bounty HunterIt may be that upon re-viewing, one or more of the titles briefly described below may seem worthy of its own post.  If you like Randolph Scott, these are still worth watching.  With Scott movies from the 1950s, look for a frequent, although uncredited, co-star:  his beautiful dark palomino horse, Stardust (Tall Man Riding, Seven Men From Now).  Another Scott trademark from this period is his worn leather jacket, seen in such films as Hangman’s Knot, Ten Wanted Men and his last, Ride the High Country.

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Fighting Man of the Plains—Randolph Scott, Dale Robertson, Victor Jory (1949; Dir.  Edwin L. Marin)

The most notable feature of this film is that the James gang, led by an improbably well-dressed Jesse (Dale Robertson), shows up at the very end to save the life of Marshal Jim Dancer (Randolph Scott), who is otherwise about to be lynched by Jimmy Tancred for his outlaw past.  He rode with Quantrill in the raid on Lawrence, Kansas, a plot quirk that is also used in another Scott western of the period, The Stranger Wore a Gun.  Victor Jory is Dancer’s friend, rather than a villain.

The Nevadan—Randolph Scott, Dorothy Malone, Forrest Tucker, George Macready (1950; Dir:  George Douglas)

A dark-haired Dorothy Malone as Karen Galt may do the best acting in this.  Scott plays Andrew Barclay, a federal marshal, who tracks and befriends escaped outlaw Tom Tanner to find where he’s hidden his loot.   Also after the loot is local boss Ed Galt, father of Karen.  In color.

Colt .45—Randolph Scott, Zachary Scott, Lloyd Bridges, Ruth Roman, Alan Hale (1950; Dir:  Edwin L. Marin)

Clunky western full of anachronisms, supposedly set in 1851.  Randolph Scott is Steve Farrell, a firearms salesman trying to get back a couple of new .45s stolen by Zachary Scott, head of an outlaw gang.  Bridges is a miner working with the outlaws, married to Roman.  Hale is a corrupt sheriff, also working with the outlaws.

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Fort Worth—Randolph Scott, Phyllis Thaxter (1950; Dir.  Edward L. Marin)

The railroad comes to Fort Worth; Randolph Scott is a fighting newspaperman exposing outlaw gangs and greedy real estate operators cheating local folks out of their rights to land the railroad wants.  In color.

Riding Shotgun—Randolph Scott, James Millican, Joan Weldon (1954; Dir:  Andre De Toth)

One of those 1950s stories in which a town doesn’t support those who are trying to defend it.  It features an early appearance by Charles Bronson, as bad guy Pinto under the name of Charles Buchinsky.  Larry Delong (Randolph Scott) rides shotgun on the stage.  When he survives a stage robbery, he is figured by the town to be either a coward or in cahoots with bandits.  So he has to go after the Maraday (James Millican) gang himself, while the town is trying to lynch him.  Delong’s romantic interest is the daughter (Joan Weldon) of Col. Flynn, the proprietor of the town’s Bank Club, which the gang is trying to rob while all the competent men in town are out in the posse chasing them.  Improbably, Delong wins.  Lots of voice-over narration by Scott.  One of several westerns that find Randolph Scott besieged (e.g., Decision at Sundown).  A better-than-average Scott movie of his pre-Boetticher period—a workmanlike job by director DeToth.  In color.

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Rage at Dawn—Randolph Scott, Forrest Tucker, Mala Powers, J. Carroll Naish, Edgar Buchanan, Ray Teal (1955; Dir:  Tim Whelan)

Not much of a western, since it takes place just after the Civil War (1866) in Indiana and Missouri.  James Barlow (Scott) is an undercover agent and former Confederate spy working for a Pinkerton-type agency to infiltrate a gang of bank and train robbers led by the Reno brothers.  He develops feelings for Laura (Powers), the Reno sister.  He sets them up for capture during a train robbery, but is too late to save them from an early-morning lynching while they’re in jail.  Based on a story by Frank Gruber; the Reno brothers were actual historical characters (the first train robbers in American history), as was their sister Laura.  Barlow is fictional.  In color.

 

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Great Directors: Sergio Leone

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 15, 2014

Sergio Leone

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From The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:  Tuco (Eli Wallach) is in a bubble bath. The One Armed Man enters the room.
One Armed Man:  “I’ve been looking for you for eight months.  Whenever I should have had a gun in my right hand, I thought of you.  Now I find you in exactly the position that suits me.  I had lots of time to learn to shoot with my left.”
[Tuco kills him with the gun he has hidden in the foam.]
Tuco:  “When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don’t talk.”

“When I was young, I believed in three things:  Marxism, the redemptive power of cinema, and dynamite.  Now I just believe in dynamite.”—Sergio Leone

Sergio Leone was born in Rome in 1929 into a cinematic family.  His parents were the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone (known as director Roberto Roberti or Leone Roberto Roberti) and the silent film actress Edvige Valcarenghi (Bice Waleran).  During his school days, one of his friends was Ennio Morricone, his future musical collaborator on films.  Leone’s parents did not sympathize with the Fascists in power in Italy before and during World War II, and they were effectively exiled to Naples until the war was over.

LeoneMorricone Leone and Morricone.

Working in cinematography, Leone began as an assistant to director Vittorio di Sica on the classic The Bicycle Thief in 1948.  During the 1950s he started writing on screenplays for the historical “sword and sandal” epics popular at the time, including work on some large-scale films at the famous Cinecittá studios in Rome, such as Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959).  His big break came in 1959, when director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the filming of The Last Days of Pompeii, with Steve Reeves, and Leone was asked to step in and complete the film.

When historical epics fell out of favor with the public, Leone turned his attention to inexpensive westerns, with largely Italian casts, filmed mostly in Spain—the so-called spaghetti westerns.  He first brought them to international prominence in 1964 with the release of A Fistful of Dollars, starring American television actor Clint Eastwood and based on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo.  It wasn’t the first spaghetti western, but it was far and away the most successful to date.  With progressively larger budgets, it was followed by For a Few Dollars More, with Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in 1965, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with Eastwood, Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in 1966, completing what came to be referred to as his “Man With No Name” trilogy.  There is no continuity of story or character between the three, and sometimes the Eastwood character actually does have a name.

LeoneEastwood Directing the Man With No Name.

By the conclusion of the trilogy, Leone had started a revolution.  He had developed an international market for inexpensively-made Italian westerns and had introduced a vogue for them that lasted a decade.  He had made Clint Eastwood a major star, and created another in Lee Van Cleef.  He had introduced a different kind of moral universe in westerns, one less aligned with easily-identifiable good guys and bad guys but with even more violence.  There are those who would say he introduced sweat and dust to westerns, but those had long been there (see Hondo, for example)—just not so prominently and consistently, nor so lovingly captured on film.  He prolonged the careers of such actors as Jack Palance and Henry Fonda, who found prominent roles in spaghetti westerns when such roles became scarcer for them in Hollywood.  And he was godfather to an entire generation of Italian filmmakers, often while simultaneously fighting with them:  Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, Tonino Valerii, Sergio Corbucci and many others.

In terms of cinematic style, Leone was revolutionary as well.  The music for his films, composed by his friend Morricone, brought a new way of thinking about music in films, and not just in westerns, much different from more traditional studio composers like Elmer Bernstein and Dimitri Tiomkin.  Morricone said that Leone asked him to compose a film’s music before the start of principal photography, contrary to the normal practice.  He would then play the music to the actors during takes to enhance their performances.  His film-making style was noted for juxtaposing extreme close-ups (often focusing on the eyes, especially if they were blue), with extreme long shots.  He was always willing to sacrifice story for effect or mood.  His work has been much imitated since.

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Once Upon a Time ,,, Leone with stars Fonda, Cardinale, Bronson and Robards.

Leone’s success with the Man With No Name films enabled him to make what many consider his masterpiece:  Once Upon a Time in the West (C’Era una Volta il West), released in 1968.  The film, starring Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards and Claudia Cardinale, was shot mostly in Almería, Spain, and Cinecittá in Rome, with some shooting in Monument Valley, Utah.  A bigger budget gave Leone the scope for a long meditation on the mythology of the American west, with many references to previous iconic westerns and with Leone giving his cinematic impulses free rein.  The resulting three-hour epic was ruthlessly edited by Paramount and was not a box office success in the U.S., though the full movie was a huge hit in Europe, especially in France.  

During the 1970s, Leone went on to direct Duck, You Sucker!, set in the Mexican revolution, although he had intended only to produce it, and he produced the spaghetti western comedy, My Name is Nobody.  He turned down an opportunity to direct The Godfather to focus on his own gangster pet project, a four-hour gangster movie titled Once Upon a Time in America, with Robert De Niro (1984).  Warner Bros. recut it drastically to two hours for the American market, where it was a flop.  It was his last significant work.  When the four-hour film was restored and made available, some hailed it as a masterpiece as well.  Leone died in 1989 of a heart attack at the age of 60.

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Experimenting with the tools of the trade:  Playing guns with Jason Robards, and using the basic form of transportation.

“Ever since I was a small boy I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood Westerns where, if you cut the woman’s role out of the film in a version which is going on in your own head, the film becomes far better.”–Sergio Leone.  That explains a lot about the Man With No Name trilogy.

“The [John] Ford film I like most of all…is also the least sentimental, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance  Ford finally, at the age of almost sixty-five, finally understood what pessimism is all about.  In fact, with that film Ford succeeded in eating up all his previous words about the West… because Liberty Valance shows the conflict between political forces and the single, solitary hero of the West…  He loved the West and with that film at last he understood it.”—Sergio Leone, in a very European view.

“I can’t see America any other way than with a European’s eyes.  It fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time.”—Sergio Leone

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The opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West:  Waiting for the stranger.

Leone Essentials:  A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West

Second-Rank Leone:  Duck, You Sucker!

Leone Non-Western Essentials:  Once Upon a Time in America

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Great Directors: Sam Peckinpah

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 19, 2014

Sam Peckinpah

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“Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle.”–Pauline Kael.

“I want to be able to make westerns like Akira Kurosawa makes westerns.”–Sam Peckinpah

David Samuel Peckinpah was born in 1925 and grew up in Fresno, California.  The strongest influence on him during his youth was said to be his maternal grandfather Denver Church, a judge, congressman and one of the best shots in the Sierra Nevadas.  Sam enlisted as a Marine in 1943 during World War II but did not see combat.  On his return from the war, he graduated from Fresno State in 1948 with a degree in drama.  He and his new wife moved on to USC, where he received a masters degree in performing arts in 1952.

Eventually he got a job working as an assistant to director Don Siegel in several films, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which he also appeared briefly as a meter reader.  He became a scriptwriter for such television programs as Gunsmoke (1955) and The Rifleman (1958).  Eventually he created his own short-lived television series The Westerner (1960, only 13 episodes), starring Brian Keith.  Keith had a box office success with Maureen O’Hara in The Parent Trap, and when O’Hara sought out Keith for a western production in which they would again co-star, he suggested Peckinpah as a director.

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The Deadly Companions was not a success.  The only reason it is remembered today is because it was the first movie Peckinpah directed.  It was a very low-budget film, on which O’Hara’s producer brother Charles Fitzsimmons would not allow Peckinpah to re-write or participate in its editing.  Fitzsimmons also forgot to copyright the film, so it was in the public domain and for decades was seen, if at all, only in very poor quality prints and transfers.  But it was a directing credit and got Peckinpah started in film directing.

His second effort was one of his two masterpieces:  Ride the High Country, the last movie for aging western star Randolph Scott and the last significant movie for Joel McCrea.  It was also his first project with his favorite cinematographer, Lucien Ballard.  Since it was made economically with a relatively low budget in just 26 days, it did not get much attention in the U.S. on its release.  It was not promoted heavily; an MGM executive was heard to comment that “it didn’t cost enough to be that good,” and on MGM’s books it lost $160,000 domestically.  But it was taken more seriously in Europe, where 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).  Even in the U.S., and notwithstanding its lack of studio promotion, the film was named by Newsweek and Film Quarterly as the best film of 1962.  Peckinpah was on his way ….

Until he crashed and burned on his next film, Major Dundee (1965), during the making and post-production of which he demonstrated not only some of his brilliance as a filmmaker but his inability to control his use of alcohol and pot or to get along with other egos among his stars and, especially, his producers.  On location in Mexico, his abrasive manner, compounded by heat, excessive drinking and marijuana use, caused star Charlton Heston to threaten to run him through with a saber.  The movie ran significantly over budget and way behind schedule.  However, when the studio, in the person of producer Jerry Bresler, threatened to shut the production down, Heston impulsively offered his own salary to offset the budgetary overages, and Bresler accepted.  Heston essentially made the movie for free. 

PeckinpahDundeeHeston Directing Charlton Heston in Major Dundee.

The conflicts with the producers and Columbia continued in post-production, and the movie was taken away from Peckinpah, resulting in a disjointed cut and disappointment at the box office.  Legends continue that Dundee is a lost masterpiece, and an extended cut was released on DVD in 2005, long after Peckinpah’s death.  However, even the extended cut appears to be evidence that Peckinpah’s overindulgences prevented him from finishing his script or telling a very coherent story.

Peckinpah:  “Any script that’s written changes at least thirty percent from the time you begin preproduction:  ten percent while you fit your script to what you discover about your locations, ten percent while your ideas are growing as you rehearse your actors who must grow into their parts because the words mean nothing alone, and ten percent while the film is finally being edited.  It may change more than this but rarely less.” 

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Peckinpah’s directing career hit the skids in the wake of this debacle and he was replaced as director on his next film, The Cincinnati Kid (1965), with Steve McQueen.  He began to rehabilitate his reputation through a strong television production of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine (1966), which he adapted for the small screen.  It was enough to get him direction of his second masterpiece, this time for Warner Brothers:  The Wild Bunch (1969).  It is the film for which he is best remembered, although there are those who still prefer Ride the High Country.

The Wild Bunch, with its dazzling cinematography (again with Lucien Ballard) and visual compositions, its nihilistic outlook and stepped-up violence, follows a band of aging outlaws who have outlived their time, as they take on one last job in Mexico.  They go out in an explosion of gore and show-motion violence, in a final battle that is sometimes called “the Battle of Bloody Porch.” The film is brilliant, and it resulted in Peckinpah’s nickname “Bloody Sam.”  It rejuvenated his career and sent him into the ups and downs of the 1970s.  And the action and violence in westerns have looked different ever since.

PeckinpahWildBunch On the set of The Wild Bunch.

During the 1970s he directed The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970, a kind of flower-child western that was said to be one of Peckinpah’s own favorites among his work), Straw Dogs (1971), Junior Bonner (1972, a modern rodeo-based western with Steve McQueen), The Getaway (1972, a crime drama on which Peckinpah introduced Steve McQueen to Ali McGraw), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973, his last western, with James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson as the title characters and non-actor Bob Dylan), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), The Killer Elite (1975), Cross of Iron (1977) and Convoy (1978).  He continued to be the subject of controversy because of his use of graphic, some would say excessive, violence.  He also continued to fight with studios, producers and his own demons (to which he had added cocaine).  His last solid effort was the World War II anti-war epic Cross of Iron, about a German unit fighting on the Russian front, with Maximilian Schell, James Mason and James Coburn.  Peckinpah actually brought the picture in successfully despite severe financial problems.  His last film was The Osterman Weekend (1983), a less-than-notable adaptation of a Robert Ludlum thriller.

Peckinpah’s own views on the violence of his films?   “Well, killing a man isn’t clean and quick and simple.  It’s bloody and awful.  And maybe if enough people come to realize that shooting somebody isn’t just fun and games, maybe we’ll get somewhere.”

He lived another six years without significant career achievements.  He died of a heart attack at 59 in 1984, his body worn out by his overindulgences over the years.  Actor Robert Culp may have been right when he said that the surprising thing about Peckinpah was not that he only made fourteen pictures, but that he managed to make any at all.  In terms of awards, Peckinpah received only one Academy Award nomination in his career, for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Wild Bunch.

PeckinpahGetawayMcQueen With Steve McQueen.

Peckinpah:  “The end of a picture is always an end of a life.”.

Thirty years after his death, his best-remembered films are his westerns.  The two very best of them feature old-timers finishing out a string as best they can, according to a code that may be obsolete.  Peckinpah himself may have been born out of what he felt to be his time.  His legacy as a director is both brilliant and disappointing.  Current directors who show his influence include Walter Hill and Quentin Tarantino.

“Sam Peckinpah’s life, like many of his movies, ended in a kind of apocalyptic debacle.  Too many arguments with producers, too much alcohol-fueled misbehavior and (always the real problem) too many disappointments at the box office had rendered the director of The Wild Bunch (1969) effectively unemployable by the time he died in 1984, at 59.”–Dave Kehr

“The Western is a universal frame within which it’s possible to comment on today.”–Sam Peckinpah

The most comprehensive biography of Peckinpah currently is If They Move …Kill ‘Em!  The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, by David Weddle (2000).  There is an interesting documentary on Peckinpah and his films, especially his westerns:  Sam Peckinpah’s West (1994).

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Peckinpah Essentials:  Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch

Second-Rank Peckinpah:  The Deadly Companions, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Junior Bonner, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Peckinpah Non-Western Essentials:  The Getaway, Straw Dogs, The Killer Elite, Cross of Iron

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Blue-Eyed Apaches: Whites in Indian Roles

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 11, 2014

Casting of Whites in Indian Roles

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Debra Paget as a Cheyenne princess in White Feather; Donna Reed in dark makeup as Lemhi Shoshone guide Sacajawea in The Far Horizons.  Both from 1955.

There have been real Indians in the movies since their earliest days.  John Big Tree, a Seneca from New York state, began in movies in 1915 and worked with both John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille (Drums Along the Mohawk, Western Union, North West Mounted Police, Unconquered, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, etc.).  He appeared in John Ford’s The Iron Horse in 1924 as an uncredited Cheyenne chief, and Ford also used many Navajos as extras in that film.  Ford tended to use Navajos for the Indians in his movies whenever he was filming in Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border, whether they were supposed to be Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahoes or Apaches.  Charles Stevens, a Mexican-Apache grandson of Geronimo, was used as a character actor in Indian parts in the 1930s and 1940s (Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine, etc.).

Nevertheless, it was more common for decades to cast whites in dark makeup in Indian roles from the start of the movies through the 1960s.  Wallace Beery, for example, played the evil Huron Magua in the 1920 version of Last of the Mohicans, and Bruce Cabot played the same role in the 1936 remake.  Even John Ford could take authenticity only so far; he used the German actor Henry Brandon as the Comanche chief Scar in The Searchers (1956), and a trio of Mexican actors (Ricardo Montalban, Gilbert Roland and Dolores Del Rio, along with New Yorker Sal Mineo) as the Cheyenne leads in his last major movie, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

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By 1970, westerns, like other movies, were moving more toward more ethnic authenticity in the casting of Indian parts.  Chief Dan George from the Burrard Band of North Vancouver, was terrific in Little Big Man (1970) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).  The trend had become even more notable by the time of the release of Dances With Wolves in 1991, with its large cast of Native American actors from various tribes playing Lakota Sioux and speaking real Lakota.

Still, for most of the history of the movies, whites most often played the prominent Native American roles.  Below is an incomplete list of some of the best-known examples of whites in Indian parts; if you’d like to add to the list, leave a comment, and we’ll be updating it from time to time.  There were a few movies with blue-eyed actors unapologetically playing Apaches, Cheyennes or other Indians, of which special note is made.  (Contact lenses had been available to change blue eyes to brown at least since 1950, when Debra Paget–everybody’s favorite Indian princess of the 1950s–wore them as an Apache maiden in Broken Arrow.)

Indians weren’t the only ethnic group to receive this treatment—actually, most ethnic groups have mostly had white actors of other ethnicities playing them in Hollywood.  For example, see the list of whites playing Mexicans of various sorts, even though there have been major actors of Mexican ancestry in Hollywood since at least the 1920s (Ramon Novarro, Dolores Del Rio, Gilbert Roland). 

There will be more on actual Indian (Native American) actors in westerns in a future post.

BlueEyedEdwardsVince Edwards as Hiawatha, 1952.

Bruce Cabot and Robert Barratt (Huron Magua and Mohican Chingackgook, in Last of the Mohicans, 1936)

Anthony Quinn (with his half-Mexican ancestry, Quinn played a lot of ethnic roles, including several as Indians and Mexicans [Ride, Vaquero!  Yellow Hand in Buffalo Bill, Crazy Horse in They Died With Their Boots On, The Plainsman])

Anthony Quinn (Cheyenne warrior in The Plainsman, 1936)

Anthony Quinn (Oglala Sioux Crazy Horse in They Died With Their Boots On, 1941)

Anthony Quinn (Cheyenne Yellow Hand in Buffalo Bill, 1944)

Linda Darnell (Cheyenne Dawn Starlight, in Buffalo Bill, 1944)

Boris Karloff and Katherine DeMille (western Seneca chief Guyasuta and his daughter Hannah, in Unconquered, 1947)

Robert Taylor (Shoshone Broken Lance, in Devil’s Doorway, 1950)

Jeff Chandler (Chiricahua Apache Cochise, in Broken Arrow, 1950, and The Battle at Apache Pass, 1952)

Debra Paget (an Apache woman in Broken Arrow, 1950)

Ricardo Montalban and Jack Holt (Blackfeet Ironshirt and Bear Ghost in Across the Wide Missouri, 1951)

Rock Hudson (Young Bull, in Winchester ’73, 1952)

Vince Edwards (Onondaga or Mohawk Hiawatha, 1952)

Hank Worden (Blackfoot Poordevil, in The Big Sky, 1952)

Cyd Charisse (a Chippewa maiden, in The Wild North, 1952)

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Dennis Weaver (Navajo Menguito, in Column South, 1953)

Jack Palance (Apache Toriano in Arrowhead, 1953)

Michael Pate (Apache chief Vittorio in Hondo,1953)

Keith Larsen and Joan Taylor (Taslik and Wanima in War Paint, 1953)

Henry Brandon and Dennis Weaver (Seminoles Waygro and Pino in War Arrow, 1953)

Charles Bronson (Modoc Captain Jack in Drum Beat, 1954)

Marisa Pavan [Italian] (Modoc maiden Toby in Drum Beat, 1954)

Burt Lancaster, Jean Peters and Charles Bronson (Massai, an Apache, and two others in Apache, 1954)

Lee Van Cleef (Cheyenne chief Fireknife in The Yellow Tomahawk, 1954)

Rita Moreno (Cheyenne maiden Honey Bear in The Yellow Tomahawk, 1954)

Donna Reed (Lemhi Shoshone Sacagawea, in The Far Horizons, 1955)

Victor Mature (Oglala Sioux Crazy Horse in Chief Crazy Horse, 1955)

Debra Paget, Jeffrey Hunter and Hugh O’Brian (Cheyennes Appearing Day, Little Dog and American Horse in White Feather, 1955)

Elsa Martinelli (Sioux maiden Ohnati, daughter of Red Cloud, in The Indian Fighter, 1955)

Debra Paget (Indian maiden—presumably Sioux—in The Last Hunt, 1956)

BlueEyedPaget Debra Paget in The Last Hunt.

Russ Tamblyn (red-headed half-breed in The Last Hunt, 1956)

Neville Brand (Rokhawah, a Mohawk, in Mohawk, 1956)

Mae Clark (Minikah, a Mohawk chief’s wife, in Mohawk, 1956)

Henry Brandon (Comanche chief Scar in The Searchers, 1956, Comanche Black Cloud in Comanche, 1956, and Comanche chief Quanah Parker in Two Rode Together, 1961)

Lex Barker, Apache chief Mangas Coloradas, in War Drums, 1957)

Vince Edwards (Chief Little Wolf, in Ride Out for Revenge, 1957)

Joanne Gilbert (Pretty Willow, in Ride Out for Revenge, 1957)

Michael Ansara (Apache Delgadito in Quantez, 1957)

Lisa Montell (Tula, daughter of Apache chief Victorio, in Tomahawk Trail, 1957)

Bert Convy and Kathryn Grant (half Sioux in Gunman’s Walk, 1958)

Henry Silva (Lujan in The Bravados, 1958)

John Russell, Ray Danton and Andra Martin (Sioux chief Gall and his nephew, and an Arapaho Maiden in Yellowstone Kelly, 1959)

Audrey Hepburn (Kiowa, in The Unforgiven, 1960; but to be honest, part of the point for most of the movie is guessing whether she’s Indian or not)

Chuck Connors (Apache Geronimo, in Geronimo, 1962)

Wende Wagner (Apache girl Sally in Rio Conchos, 1964)

Pierre Brice (Winnetou in Frontier Hellcat, 1964, and others)

Ricardo Montalban, Dolores Del Rio, Gilbert Roland, Sal Mineo (Cheyennes Little Wolf, Spanish Woman, Dull Knife and Red Shirt in Cheyenne Autumn, 1964)

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Martin Landau and Robert Wilke (Sioux Walks-Stooped-Over and Five Barrels in The Hallelujah Trail, 1965)

Michael Pate (Apache leader Sierra Charriba in Major Dundee, 1965)

Janet Margolin (Kiowa in Nevada Smith, 1966)

Howard Keel (Levi [Kiowa] in The War Wagon, 1967)

Royal Dano (Pretty Horse in The Last Challenge, 1967)

Warren Oates (Walter Charlie in Smith!, 1969)

Julie Newmar (vengeful Apache maiden Hesh-Ke in McKenna’s Gold, 1969)

Ted Cassidy (giant Apache Hachito in McKenna’s Gold, 1969)

Judith Anderson (Sioux Buffalo Cow Head, in A Man Called Horse, 1970)

Henry Silva (Chatto in Five Savage Men, aka The Animals, 1970)

Bruce Cabot (Sam Sharpnose in Big Jake, 1971)

Charles Bronson (Chato in Chato’s Land, 1972)

Paula Pritchett (a Central American Indian princess in The Wrath of God, 1972)

Desi Arnaz, Jr. (Billy in Billy Two Hats, 1974)

Trevor Howard (Cheyenne Windwalker, in Windwalker, 1981)

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The quintessential blue-eyed Apache:  Six-foot five-inch Chuck Connors as Geronimo, 1962

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Robert Taylor as Lance Poole (Broken Lance, Shoshone) in Devil’s Doorway

Jeffrey Hunter as Little Dog (Cheyenne) in White Feather

Burt Lancaster as Massai in Apache

Chuck Connors as Geronimo in Geronimo

Paul Newman as John Russell in Hombre (authentically blue-eyed because he is playing a white man raised among the Apaches)

BlueEyedBogart Mexican bandido chieftain Bogart in Virginia City.

Anglos Playing Mexicans     

Humphrey Bogart as John Murrell in Virginia City (1940)

Linda Darnell as Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine (1946)

Linda Darnell as Elena Kenniston in Two Flags West (1950)

Natalie Wood as Maria-Christina Colton in The Burning Hills (1956)

Joan Collins as Josefa Velarde  in The Bravados (1958)

Horst Buchholtz (German)  in The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Eli Wallach as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and as Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

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Eli Wallach as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven (1960): “If God had not wanted them sheared, He would not have made them sheep.”

Robert Loggia as Johnny Quatro in Cattle King (1963)

Tony Franciosa as Rodriguez in Rio Conchos (1964)

Jack Palance as Jesus Raza in The Professionals (1966)

John Saxon as Chuy in The Appaloosa (1966)

Omar Sharif (Egyptian) as John Colorado in McKenna’s Gold (1969)

BlueEyedSharif

John Saxon as Luis Chama in Joe Kidd (1972)

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Great Directors: Budd Boetticher

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 6, 2014

Budd Boetticher

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“Boetticher is one of the most fascinating unrecognized talents in the American cinema…Constructed partly as allegorical Odysseys and partly as floating poker games where every character took turns at bluffing about his hand until the final showdown, Boetticher’s Westerns expressed a weary serenity and moral certitude that was contrary to the more neurotic approaches of other directors on this neglected level of the cinema.” Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, 1968.  This was written long before the second wave of recognition for Boetticher’s work, at a time when he could accurately be called an “unrecognized talent.”

In 1950 Randolph Scott was exclusively appearing in western movies, and he was quite successful at it:  he was the biggest box-office star in the country.  Already in his 50s with his investments doing well, he was looking at the downhill side of his career.  By the mid-1950s the domestic grosses on his westerns were falling.  What he didn’t know was that his very best work in westerns was still ahead of him, thanks to Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah.

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Oscar Boetticher, Jr., was born in 1916 and grew up in Evansville, Indiana.  A star athlete at Ohio State, he traveled to Mexico after graduation.  There he developed an interest in bullfighting and a lifelong affection for the country.  A chance encounter with director Rouben Mamoulian led to a job as a technical adviser (on bullfighting) in the 1941 movie Blood and Sand.  He got his directing break ten years later when John Wayne’s production company Batjac asked him to direct The Bullfighter and the Lady, which he did using the name Budd Boetticher.  It earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story.

Soon after, he moved to Universal, where he made The Man from the Alamo, the 3-D western Wings of the Hawk and the World War II movie Red Ball Express.  In 1955 he made another bullfighting movie, The Magnificent Matador, beginning a frequent collaboration with cinematographer Lucien Ballard.  And he directed the first three episodes of the television series Maverick.

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Julie Adams watches Budd Boetticher direct a punch at a stuntman while filming The Man from the Alamo (1953).

Around that time Batjac had been developing a script by Burt Kennedy as a vehicle for John Wayne.  But when Wayne opted for The Searchers instead, the property was passed on to Boetticher.  He directed Seven Men from Now in 1956 with Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin and Gail Russell, and it began one of the most productive collaborations in the history of westerns:  the seven films of the Ranown cycle.  Ranown was the production company formed by Scott and his producing partner Harry Joe Brown; since Seven Men from Now was produced by Batjac, it is not actually part of that cycle, although it is often lumped together with them because all the other major elements of the team (director, star, writer) are the same.

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Boetticher with a couple of actors (John Wayne and Randolph Scott).

The Ranown productions were not large-budget movies, but they are tightly constructed, mostly filmed at Lone Pine and work well in terms of storytelling  In addition to being produced by Ranown and directed by Boetticher, they all star Randolph Scott, who was 58 when Seven Men was filmed, and the best of them were written by Burt Young.  Shot between 1956 and 1960, the four best of them are Decision at Sundown, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station.  They also include Buchanan Rides Alone and Westbound.  Viewed as modest successes in the U.S. at the time they were released, they were accorded more cinematic respect in Europe, particularly in France.

In 1960 Boetticher made a gambler-gangster movie The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond and then disappeared south of the border into Mexico for much of the 1960s, trying to make a documentary on bullfighter Carlos Arruza.  The productive part of his directing career was over.  His last movie was A Time for Dying, also Audie Murphy’s last film.  Boetticher provided the story for Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sara.  

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Boetticher directing Michael Dante and Randolph Scott on Westbound, 1959.

His best work was not widely seen in the U.S. after its initial release.  Batjac owned the rights to Seven Men from Now, and, like Hondo, kept it largely off television.  But with the coming of the DVD age, both Seven Men and the Ranown cycle of movies became more widely available and Boetticher, who had always been the center of a cult among western aficionados, became more widely known.  His teaming with Randolph Scott ranks with the John Ford-John Wayne and Anthony Mann-James Stewart pairings for the excellent westerns that resulted from it.  His career was shorter than others of the great directors, but it resulted in a remarkably compact and consistent body of work.  He died in 2001.

Visually, Boetticher’s best films were shot at Lone Pine, a desolate semi-desert landscape near the Owens Valley in southern California where many westerns had been shot going back to Roscoe Arbuckle and The Round-Up in 1920.  They are spare and clean, just as the stories are, without many close-ups or long shots, using mostly medium shots.  However, both Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station begin with a long shot of a single rider in the rocks–the sort of thing Sergio Leone would borrow for the initial shot of For A Few Dollars More.

Decades after his amazingly productive period in the late 1950s, Boetticher was asked about his working methods, particularly with screenwriter Burt Young.  “With the real Scott pictures [the Ranown westerns], Burt [Young] and Randy [Scott] and Harry Joe [Brown] and I had complete control and we all thought alike.  It was a pleasure because I had the best cameramen, who were my friends, and I had a producer I really liked because he didn’t bother me, Harry Joe Brown, and I don’t think there was ever a finer gentleman in the picture business than Randolph Scott.  And where John Wayne had a completely different attitude with young actors who were in his pictures, Randy would say ‘I sure like that young fellow,’ like James Coburn, ‘let’s give him more lyrics.’  In every picture I made with him, with the exception of Westbound [where they didn’t have control over the script], we made a star because Randy and Burt and I wanted to make a star.  And look at the list:  Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Craig Stevens, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, Claude Akins.”  It becomes clearer from his comments that he worked with a remarkably talented and congenial small team.  What he’s describing only works if the team has control, everybody is very capable and everybody trusts everybody else.  That elusive kind of lightning struck for him, Scott, Young and Brown for five years, and then it was gone.

BoetticherTallTRandolph Scott in The Tall T.

“I would read his [Burt Young’s] scripts and die laughing and be excited and call him and say, ‘Jesus Christ, this is really wonderful.’  That’s our preparation.  I got a great script and I shot it and I added to it.  That’s what a director is supposed to do.  If you take a good script and you can’t make it better, you’re not a very good director.  The writer has done everything he possibly can do to make it a good script.  Now, he delivers it to you, it should be to the best of his ability.  You’ve got weeks after that even before you’ve got to shoot, supposedly, where you can take a good piece of work and say, ‘Gee, I can improve it a little bit here, a little bit here, a little bit there,’ but that’s what directors should do.  We didn’t all get together like they do today and have meetings and say, ‘What do you think we ought to do next?’  We knew what we were going to do.  We made those Scott pictures in 18 days.  Three weeks, six days a week.  

“There are too many people today involved in making a motion picture.  Everybody has a different contribution, and you can’t do it that way.  A fellow might have a great idea for a sequence but the sequence may not fit the movie.  And his lovely couple of days shooting that look great on film in the rushes, they don’t fit in the picture.  Today I’ve been on sets of top directors and they say cut and they all have a meeting.  And they say, ‘What do you think we ought to do?’  And they say, ‘I don’t know, what do you think we ought to do?’  And they discuss it and then they decide.  Jesus, how can you make pictures like that?”

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Film historian and critic David Thomson wrote of the Boetticher-Scott westerns in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, calling them “…a remarkable series of Westerns, all made cheaply and quickly in desert or barren locations.  They have a consistent and bleak preoccupation with life and death, sun and shade, and encompass treachery, cruelty, courage, and bluff with barely a trace of sentimentality or portentousness.”

Bruce Ricker directed an excellent documentary on Boetticher in 2005, called Budd Boetticher:  A Man Can Do That, taken from a Burt Young-written line used more than once by Randolph Scott in the Ranown movies.  It’s 87 minutes long, and the executive producer was Clint Eastwood.  It’s part of the 2008 boxed set of the Ranown movies–minus Seven Men from Now and Westbound.

For more of Sean Axmaker’s interviews with Budd Boetticher, see  http://parallax-view.org/2008/11/02/budd-boetticher-and-the-ranown-films/

And for an extended biographical treatment of Boetticher by Axmaker, see http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/feature-articles/boetticher/

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Randolph Scott, Gail Russell and Lee Marvin in Seven Men from Now.

Boetticher Essentials:  The Man from the Alamo, Seven Men from Now, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station.

Second-Rank Boetticher:  The Cimarron Kid, Horizons West, Seminole, Wings of the Hawk, Buchanan Rides Alone, Westbound, A Time for Dying.

Boetticher Non-Western Essentials:  None.

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