Category Archives: More Westerns

The Lone Ranger (2013)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 13, 2014

The Lone Ranger—Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, James Badge Dale, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, Barry Pepper, Steven Root (2013; Dir: Gore Verbinski)

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The Lone Ranger has not done well in the movies.  First, he showed up in inexpensive serials.  Then, after a good career in radio and television, he was caught up in the nostalgia for television in the movie studios, resulting in The Legend of The Lone Ranger (1981), featuring the immortal Klinton Spilsbury in his only movie role.  Now, in 2013, the Ranger was again brought to the big screen, this time by director Gore Verbinski, and no expense was spared, with big stars (Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer), a big budget, lots of action and many expensive CGI effects.

The film does not feature a story so much as various vignettes and action pieces strung together for a lengthy 149 minutes.  It opens with an unnecessary framing story from San Francisco in 1933.  A small boy dressed as the Lone Ranger (complete with mask) steps into a Wild West tent at a carnival (the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island wasn’t until 1939, but that’s the sort of event it seems to be), where a tableau showing an aged Indian comes alive.  It is Tonto (Johnny Depp), who proceeds to regale the lad with the story of his adventures with the Lone Ranger.

Tonto and Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) are chained in a railroad freight car heading for Colby, Texas, in 1869 as the transcontinental railroad nears completion.  Some one has put a gun in the floorboards so Cavendish can escape when his gang robs the train.  John Reid (Armie Hammer), newly graduated from law school in the east and now appointed the Colby County prosecutor, ineffectively tries to stop the escape and robbery, but only ends up chained to Tonto himself.  The Cavendish gang has killed the engineers and set the locomotive to increase speed as it heads toward the end of the track.

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William Fichtner in heavy makeup as the wendigo Butch Cavendish.

Texas Ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) rides up with his five men and succeeds in disconnecting the locomotive from the passenger cars, but Tonto and John manage to survive flying off the train at full speed as the train crashes.  John puts Tonto in jail (accused of being an Indian, apparently) and renews an acquaintance with Dan’s wife Rebecca (English actress Ruth Wilson), and she appears to have a thing for him.

Dan and John and the other rangers head off after Butch Cavendish and are led into an ambush by the drunken Collins, who has known them both since childhood.  All are apparently killed and Cavendish eats Dan’s heart.  Tonto comes upon the scene and buries the Rangers, only to discover that John is not dead.  John is chosen by a white spirit horse to come back to life, against Tonto’s advice that the other brother would do better.  Indeed, he explains a bit later to John that “Kemo Sabe” means “wrong brother,” kind of a running joke.  John dons a mask made from Dan’s vest, with bullet holes where he was shot forming the eye holes.

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Experienced Ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) offers his brother John (Armie Hammer) a gun.

The two go to Red’s (a combination bar and wild whorehouse) in search of information on Cavendish or Collins, in a picaresque but unnecessary sequence.  Red (Helena Bonham Carter), a former dancer with an ivory artificial leg, seems inclined to help but gives no real information.  They make their escape and hear that Comanches are raiding ranches and farms, and they head for Dan Reid’s place.  The Comanches are actually Cavendish’s gang dressed as Indians (sort of); John kills the remaining two while supposedly firing a warning shot, and they follow one outlaw’s horse into the desert, where the horse keels over dead.

They are found by Comanches led by Big Bear (Saginaw Grant), and John tells what he knows of Cavendish and his plans.  But Tonto has no credibility among his own people, since he showed two white men where to find silver (“where the river begins”) twenty or thirty years ago, leading to the killing of most of his band.  The Comanches leave John and Tonto buried up to their heads, and the cavalry races over the top of them without bothering to stop.  The spirit horse pulls John out, and he in turn gets Tonto out to show him where the river begins.  There are a number of railroad cars laden with silver, and John and Tonto find Cavendish there.

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Tonto (Johnny Depp) consults the spirit horse, while a disheveled John Reid (Armie Hammer) looks on.

John is taken and about to be executed by a military firing squad, when a train comes between him and his executioners in one of the split-second maneuvers typical of this movie.  The cavalry, led by a long-haired Custer-like captain (Barry Pepper) slaughters the Comanches when they attack.  John and Tonto attempt to blow up a high railroad trestle, for no obvious reason.

Meanwhile, evil railroad baron Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) has kidnapped Rebecca and Danny, intending them to be his new family.  In the movie’s most egregious geographical misplacement, the transcontinental railroad is joined at Promontory Summit—in Texas, not Utah.  As part of the festivities, Cole is taking over control of the railroad; he and Cavendish are partners, and have been ever since the child Tonto led them to the silver decades ago.  A chase of two trains follows, with the Lone Ranger riding the spirit horse along the top of one of them, diving to a flat car just as a tunnel comes up.  Both trains wreck, Butch Cavendish and the long-haired captain are killed, and Cole rides the silver cars over the blown-up trestle to his doom.  The Lone Ranger and Tonto ride off to right other wrongs, instead of John Reid settling down with his brother’s family.

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The last Ranger heads into action.

If this summary sounds like kind of a hash, the movie’s plot is.  Johnny Depp’s performance is strongly reminiscent of his shtick as Captain Jack Sparrow in the four (so far) Pirates of the Caribbean movies, not coincidentally also directed by Gore Verbinski.  Depp’s makeup is obviously based on a famous painting by western artist James Bama.  John Reid, the Lone Ranger (played by Armie Hammer), is played as a doofus; by the end of the movie, he is simply a more experienced doofus.  Things seem to be set up for perhaps a sequel, but the movie was not a big hit.  In fact, by some accounts it forced Disney to take a $190 million write-down on its books.

Some performances stand out enough to recognize that a couple of good actors were wasted in what they were given to do here.  James Badge Dale is good as the Ranger brother Dan Reid, and his character is killed off early.  Ruth Wilson, so good as Jane Eyre in the much more coherent BBC production (2006), is here whipsawed back and forth without any consistent motivation.  The supposed John Reid-Rebecca Reid infatuation doesn’t work.  William Fichtner, who can be effective with more restraint and less makeup, is too over-the-top filthy and evil as the wendigo (kind of an Indian vampire creature) Butch Cavendish. Tom Wilkinson can play this clichéd corrupt railroad baron in his sleep, and does.

This could be much longer if we went into the various geographic and historical anomalies and anachronisms in which this film abounds.  There is lots of borrowing from other westerns, such as the cross-dressing outlaw in the Cavendish gang (see Dead Man for the first such example of that), the use of a cannibalistic wendigo (see Ravenous) and the long-haired blond bad-guy cavalry leader (see The Mask of Zorro).  Overall, it’s not quite as bad as either The Wild, Wild West or the Klinton Spilsbury version of the Lone Ranger story from thirty years ago, but it’s not very good.

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Was anything good?  There is excellent cinematography (see the overhead shots of the Rangers heading up a creek into the canyon) and some of the best use of Monument Valley since John Ford started using it as a setting, including for both Texas (The Searchers) and Tombstone, Arizona (My Darling Clementine). As a comedy, it doesn’t work terribly well, largely because of insonsistencies in tone and characterization, as well as lack of a story.  The stuntwork/CGI effects are over-the-top unbelievable from the start.  This film now holds the record for train crashes in a western with three, breaking the old record of two formerly held by Cecil B. DeMille for Union Pacific (1939).  You can do that more easily now that you can crash them on computers and not actually have to smash up equipment.

Director Gore Verbinski actually made one other western, and it’s better than this one:  the animated feature Rango (2011).  Johnny Depp is not a natural in westerns, but he too has made another one:  Jim Jarmusch’s surrealistic Dead Man (1995).  For a better fanciful western, see Cowboys & Aliens (2011).

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The Sea of Grass

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 1, 2014

The Sea of Grass—Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, Harry Carey, Robert Walker, Phyllis Thaxter, Edgar Buchanan, Ruth Nelson (1947; Dir: Elia Kazan)

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Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were one of the great pairs from Hollywood’s golden age, appearing in nine films together.  This one is based on a 1936 novel by Conrad Richter, reckoned a considerable literary light in his time.  The director, on only his second movie, was Elia Kazan, who turned out to be one of the greats.  There’s a terrific supporting cast, and an excellent screenwriter in Marguerite Roberts (Ambush, True Grit).  A superb cinematographer is on board in Harry Stradling.  Should have been a recipe for a classic, right?  Well, it’s probably one of the two least-watched of the Tracy-Hepburn collaborations, along with Keeper of the Flame.  This is a family saga-range war story, albeit one with more literary roots than is normal for such tales, and it’s also an easterner-comes-west-and-doesn’t-get-it melodrama.

In 1880, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn) of St. Louis decides to marry Col. James B. Brewton (Spencer Tracy) of Salt Fork, New Mexico Territory after a short courtship in St. Louis.  He’s the biggest rancher in the Salt Fork area, consisting of high (7,000 feet) plains he calls “the sea of grass.”  Brewton owns the water holes in the sea of grass, but he does not have title to the thousands upon thousands of acres he uses as grazing land for his many cattle.

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Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn) arrives in Salt Fork.

Brewton was unable to come to St. Louis for the wedding because he’s embroiled in a trial with Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) as opposing counsel.  A homesteader was shot and driven off his 160 acres, and Chamberlain’s representing him in suing the supposed assailants.  As Lutie arrives, she meets Chamberlain in the local hotel while looking for Brewton.  He is obviously taken with her.  As he returns to court, the jury finds that the homesteader was attacked by “parties unknown.”  Brewton reiterates his view that the high sea of grass won’t work for farming (much as John Wayne’s G.W. McClintock would put it in the comedy McLintock! twenty years later).

Lutie and Jim are married in town, and Jim takes her out to the ranch, where the nearest neighbor is fifteen miles away.  She doesn’t get Jim’s insistence on keeping the land as grassy range, but she wins over Jeff, the ranch’s crusty cook (Edgar Buchanan).  The Brewtons have a daughter, Sarah Beth, and Lutie talks Jim into allowing her friend Selina (Ruth Nelson) and husband Paul to homestead, although he says they will only last six months.  During a winter blizzard, the Brewton cattle knock down Paul’s fences; he shoots one and is beaten by Brewton riders.  Selina loses her baby and terminates her relationship with Lutie.  Chamberlain tries to talk Lutie into running away with him.

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Brewton (Spencer Tracy) and Lutie (Katharine Hepburn in white) argue; Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) tries to romance Lutie (Hepburn in black).

After a couple of years (one character or another frequently announces that it’s been two years since the previous scene), Lutie takes off to Denver to shop and perhaps to take an extended break.  While there, she encounters Chamberlain at the historic Brown Palace Hotel where she’s staying, and they indulge in a night of passion.  But Lutie discovers that she loves Brewton and goes back to Salt Fork, only to realize that she’s pregnant with Chamberlain’s child.  When she gives birth to a boy, she tells Doc (Harry Carey) and Jim the truth while she’s apparently out of her head.  Things are never the same between them again.  She goes back to St. Louis after another two years; Brewton keeps the children.

Chamberlain is appointed a federal judge and sees that the range is opened to homesteaders with the support of the cavalry.  At first they do all right, when there’s a lot of rain.  But after two or three years of drought, their farms blow away and there’s no longer grass to hold the soil down.  The Brewton children grow up; Sarah Beth (Phyllis Thaxter) goes east to school, and son Brock (Robert Walker) becomes a wild hand, good with a gun.

When Sarah Beth comes home, she finds that Brock is largely out of control.  His birth circumstances are an open secret in Salt Fork, and when another gambler brings it up during a card game, Brock shoots him.  He jumps bail despite Jim’s asking him not to, and a posse finally hunts him down about the time Lutie comes back to Salt Fork.  After fighting it out with the posse, Brock dies in Jim’s arms, and Jim and Lutie are finally reconciled.  Presumably the settlers did not survive the drought on the sea of grass.

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Brock Brewton (Robert Taylor) gets into a dangerous game.

For a couple whom we know to have been romantically involved for years, including while this movie was made, and who had superb chemistry in other films, the relationship of Tracy and Hepburn is curiously flat throughout this one.  We never see what brought the Brewtons together; they have few interests in common and disagree on a big one that affects Col. Brewton.  There are several occasions when it seems like these people could resolve matters between them if they would just talk to each other about them.  When they don’t, that tends to be frustrating in a movie.  Tracy, who was a superb actor, doesn’t show much range in this film.  Hepburn, as Lutie, is not terribly sympathetic, in part because the writing doesn’t play to her usual strengths and independence.  If you like melodrama, this may be your cup of tea, though.

This was director Elia Kazan’s only western.  In his autobiography, his comment on it was, “It’s the only picture I’ve ever made that I’m ashamed of.  Don’t see it.”  And in the 65 years since it was made, viewers have largely followed that advice.  It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t really come to life.  This is not the best work for either the fledgling director or the writer.  At the time this was made, Kazan was a talented stage director and nobody knew then that he would turn out to be a great screen director.  He didn’t really demonstrate that with this film, and he went back to the stage for a few years.

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Director Elia Kazan confers with Hepburn and Tracy behind the scenes.

During filming, director Kazan complained that Kate kept changing her character’s outfit in every scene.  Costume designer Walter Plunkett, who had been dressing Hepburn and her characters since 1933, explained, “It’s because of Spence.  He’s the love of her life, and she wants him to think she’s prettier than any other girl.”  Kazan explained, “I mean in the movie.”   Plunkett responded, “The movie!  I mean in real life.  That’s what matters.”  We don’t see that chemistry in this film, though.

For Harry Carey, this was the next-to-last of his movies, made just before Red River was released.  He carries kind of a folksy authenticity, as he always did, in playing Doc Reid.  A long-time giant of the screen, he had made 132 westerns, many of which from the silent era are now lost.  Melvyn Douglas is good in a role that calls for him to be both self-righteous (about the homesteaders) and a bit slimy in trying to make off with another man’s wife.  He’s hard to like, but it’s believable that there could be a character like that.  Edgar Buchanan is excellent as the cook-cum-nursemaid Jeff.  Both Ray Teal and Hank Worden have small, uncredited roles in this, too.  Robert Walker would play a similar role again in 1951’s Vengeance Valley, with Burt Lancaster as the good brother to Walker’s wild, amoral brother.

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Katharine Hepburn with costume designer Walter Plunkett, staying pristine between scenes.

Brice Chamberlain: “Why do women insist on loving men for what they want them to be instead of what they are?”  [Seems like this ought to be a line for Jim Brewton, but he never says anything this vulnerable, so Chamberlain says it for him.]

For Tracy in better westerns, check him out in Northwest Passage (1940, set during the French and Indian War of the 1750s) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, set in a modern west).  Hepburn made no other westerns for another 25 years until she made Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne, a sequel of sorts to True Gritor and/or a remake of The African Queen, depending on how you want to look at it.

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Watching this movie, the cinematography is occasionally dazzling, with small wagons against immense, brightly lit rock formations.  Even the shots of the sea of grass are persuasive.  This is one of those that, if made just a few years later, would have been shot in color and in widescreen format, which would have made it better.   Although Harry Spradling was a superb cinematographer, nominated thirteen times for Academy Awards, he’s known much more for shooting large scale musicals, including My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly and Funny Girl, as well as A Streetcar Named Desire and many others.

Music is by Hubert Stodhart.   Excellently shot in black and white, at 123 minutes.

For multi-generational ranch family melodramas from about the same time, see The Furies (with Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck) and Duel in the Sun (Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones).  For another spoiled son/brother gunman named Brock, see Forty Guns.

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Relentless

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 24, 2014

Relentless—Robert Young, Marguerite Chapman, Akim Tamaroff, Barton MacLane, Mike Mazurki, Clem Bevans, Willard Parker (1948; Dir: George Sherman)

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In the early 1940s, Robert Young was being groomed to be a major star.  He appeared in primary roles in two big-budget movies with western connections:  1940’s epic tale of the French and Indian War, Northwest Passage, with Spencer Tracy, and 1941’s tale of Manifest Destiny and technological expansion in Western Union, with Randolph Scott and Dean Jagger.  He was outshown by Tracy and by Scott in each of these.  After the war he didn’t make many westerns, but he made this one.

The title refers to Nick Buckley’s pursuit of the man who can clear his name.  Nick Buckley (Robert Young) is a drifter with a thoroughbred horse that has just foaled.  The horse is stolen and ridden to death; when Nick catches up with the thief, they shoot it out and Nick kills him.  A witness to the confrontation (Barton MacLane) says he’ll tell the sheriff about the shooting and that Buckley shot in self defense; instead he tells the sheriff Nick killed three miners for their claim, and Nick now has a price on his head.  The only way to clear his name is to find the witness, Tex Brandow (MacLane), and get him to tell authorities the truth.

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Nick Buckley (Robert Young) and Luella Purdy (Marguerite Chapman) hunt for Tex Brandow, in order to clear Nick’s name.

While trying to escape a posse and keep the foal alive, Nick falls in with Luella Purdy (Marguerite Chapman), a young woman with a wagon who intends to return east now that her father is dead.  She helps Nick escape twice, and Nick finally tracks down Brandow at the disputed claim, only to see him shot down by gambler Joe Faringo (Akim Tamaroff) and his henchman Jake (Mike Mazurki), who want to kill Nick and take the claim.  Luckily the sheriff Jeff Moyer (Willard Parker), who hasn’t believed Nick up to this point, is a witness to Brandow’s dying confession, and Nick and Luella ride off together, presumably to quit drifting.  There’s a soulful burro named Sappho that fosters the foal.  Pleasant enough but unremarkable; not much seen these days.

Young didn’t catch on as a major star after the war, but in the television age he did become a significant star in that new medium.  He is remembered now principally for his roles as the ultra-competent father in Father Knows Best from the 1950s, and as the kindly and omniscient Dr. Welby from Marcus Welby, M.D., in the 1970s.  He’s not bad here, but the spunky Marguerite Chapman tends to be who you remember from this movie.  She was in Coroner Creek with Randolph Scott the same year as this film was released.

More than twenty years in the future, director George Sherman would still be making the occasional western, even some good ones like Dawn at Socorro and Big Jake, although many were B movies, especially in the 1950s.  This one was shot in color in Simi Valley, California, at 93 minutes.

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Five Card Stud

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 22, 2014

Five Card Stud (aka 5 Card Stud)—Dean Martin, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Yaphet Kotto, Inger Stevens, Katherine Justice, John Anderson, Denver Pyle, Ted de Corsia (1968; Dir: Henry Hathaway)

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With a great production team, good cast (except for one), and decent budget, this should have been better.  The weakness is probably in the story and other aspects of the writing.  Directed by Henry Hathaway shortly before True Grit (one of his last movies), produced by Hal Wallis, with music by Maurice Jarré.

March 1, 1880:  Gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is in a seven-man game of five card stud in Mama’s Place in Rincon, Colorado.  He takes a break and returns to the game minutes later, only to find that during his brief absence a stranger in the game was caught cheating and taken out to be lynched.  This is all driven by the local cattle baron’s son Nick Evers (a miscast Roddy McDowell).  When Morgan rides up to stop the hasty hanging, Nick pistol-whips him and he’s left in the street at Rincon.  Morgan leaves for Denver after paying a visit to the Evers ranch, where he says goodbye to Nick’s sister Nora (who’s clearly got a thing for him although he holds back) and punches Nick.

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The fatal game of the title.

The Rev. Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum in another of his skeevy preacher roles) shows up in town to rejuvenate the church.  He’s clearly good with a gun, too.  Those in the fatal card game start to die one by one, with various forms of smothering and strangulation.  The movie at this point becomes a whodunit–or a who’s doing it, and why.  Morgan returns to Rincon and meets Lily Langston (Inger Stevens), the new local madam at a tonsorial parlor.  The town’s nerves are on edge, and some miners start a shootout.  As matters work out, Jonathan Rudd is the brother of the card cheater, and Nick has been feeding him the names of the card players one by one.  There’s some tension as to how things will work out until Rudd goes too far by believing Nick and killing bartender George (Yaphet Kotto), who was not a participant in the game.  At least Rudd then kills Nick and has a final showdown with Morgan.  Morgan leaves town for good, but he seems to have chosen Lily over Nora.

A miscast Roddy McDowell doesn’t have enough of an edge for the role of Nick, and his accent doesn’t work.  Though this is a late western for Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, Bandolero!, Showdown) and Inger Stevens (Firecreek, Hang ‘Em High), they are sometimes shot so their ages show.  That shouldn’t be the case, particularly with Stevens.  There is a good supporting cast:  Kotto, John Anderson (the local marshal), Denver Pyle (Sig Evers, father of Nick and Nora), Ruth Springford (Mama Malone, saloon proprietor).  The script has a flavor of late 1960s anti-establishment feeling about it, and a lot of people get killed.  There are several occasions when people seem conveniently not to hear gunshots.

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Gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin), Madam Lily (Inger Stevens) and Rev. Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum).

Van Morgan:  “You’ve preached a lot of funerals around here lately.  You got something new for this one?”

The Rev. Jonathan Rudd:  “The funeral is for the living, Mr. Morgan.  I’ll say what his folks want to hear:  that Nick Evers was a good son, a good brother, a loyal friend and a respected citizen.”

Morgan:  “You think you won’t gag on all that?”

Robert Mitchum narrowly escaped being crushed by a falling camera during shooting on this film.  The theme song (written by Jarré) is sung by Martin.  Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts also did True Grit.  This is a possible remake of 1950’s noir-ish Dark City (Charlton Heston’s screen debut).  Shot in color in Durango, Mexico.  103 minutes long.

 

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Hannah’s Law

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2014

Hannah’s Law—Sarah Canning, John Pyper-Ferguson, Billy Zane, Danny Glover, Greyston Holt, Ryan Kennedy (MfTV, 2012; Dir.: Rachel Talalay)

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This made-for-television movie was produced for the Hallmark Channel and shows its awareness of its audience (largely female and older, but reaching for younger viewers, too) by embracing anachronistic attitudes toward feminism, killing, ethnic diversity and sex.  It is part of a line of female revenge fantasies going back at least to Hannie Caulder in the early 1970s and extending to the present through The Quick and the Dead (the one directed by Sam Raimi, not the one based on a Louis L’Amour novel) and 6 Guns (also made for television).  Although it attempts to introduce actual historical characters into its story, it takes some of them (Isom Dart, Stagecoach Mary) out of their actual times and locations.  This appears to be set in Dodge City when Wyatt Earp (Greyston Holt) was a deputy there, making it the late 1870s.  Doc Holiday (Ryan Kennedy) is also a character (relying heavily on Val Kilmer’s performance in Tombstone for inspiration), but Doc and Wyatt do not yet appear to be friends.

Hannah Beaumont’s family was killed by ruthless post-Civil War outlaws twelve years ago.  She (Sarah Canning) was raised in the orphanage in Dodge City and tutored in bounty hunting by Isom Dart (Danny Glover).  Now, one by one, she’s bringing in members of the gang that killed her family, without killing any of them.  Physically, she’s attractive but fairly small.  Wyatt would like to advance his relationship with her, but she’s not paying attention.  At least once, she sleeps recreationally with Doc.  She has carefully interracial relationships with Dart and with Stagecoach Mary.

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Danny Glover as Isom Dart, Hannah’s bounty hunting mentor.

Frank McMurphy (John Pyper-Ferguson), head of the outlaw gang, finally figures out his men are disappearing and decides to get Hannah before she gets any more of them.  Isom Dart, now wanted himself, has returned to Kansas, and McMurphy thinks Hannah will be looking for him.  (She’s actually plenty easy to find herself in Dodge, so this subterfuge isn’t necessary.)

As McMurphy and his gang come to town, everybody appears to desert her at the instigation of the town boss (Billy Zane), even her friends Earp, Isom, Holliday and Mary.  Predictably, they haven’t really deserted her, but she (not terribly believably) bears the brunt of the fight.  As Wyatt is forced to shoot McMurphy, the bad guy has just revealed to Hannah that her brother is still alive but did not say where he is or what name he is using, clearly setting up a potential sequel.

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Sarah Canning as Hannah in her bounty hunting attire, and looking more traditionally female with the young Doc Holliday (Ryan Kennedy) and Wyatt Earp (Greyston Holt).

Stagecoach Mary (real name:  Mary Fields) was actually significantly older than Isom Dart.  She would have been around 45 at the time of this story, a former slave living in Florida.  Around 1883 she moved to Montana, where she became known by her nickname.  Isom Dart would have been about 25-30 years old at the time of this story, not the 60-ish shown.  A rustler, he was killed around the turn of the century by Tom Horn in Brown’s Hole, where Wyoming, Utah and Colorado come together.

Uses of minorities in westerns are welcome, but one would like to see them used more authentically and less anachronistically than this.  Similarly, it would be good to see more female directors of westerns like Rachel Talalay–especially of good westerns.  This was kind of a low-budget production ($5,000,000), and it’s short at 88 minutes.  Shot in Alberta, Canada.

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The Legend of Zorro (2005)

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 8, 2014

The Legend of Zorro—Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rufus Sewell, Nick Chinlund, Adrian Alonso, Shuler Hensley, Michael Emerson, Julio Oscar Mechoso (2005; Dir: Martin Campbell)

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The 1998 recasting of the Zorro story (Two Zorros! The passing of the mask and sword!) in The Mask of Zorro was a hit with audiences, so a sequel was inevitable.  Anthony Hopkins’ Diego de la Vega died at the end of Mask, so he doesn’t return for the sequel.  But the attractive Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas return as Diego’s daughter and the replacement Zorro Diego trained before his death.

Now it’s 1850, and Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) has taken the De la Vega name (you’ll recall his original name was Murrieta).  He and Elena have been married for almost ten years, with a son named Joaquin (after Alejandro’s long-deceased outlaw brother).  Spanish California is American territory in the wake of the Mexican War and is now voting on statehood.  Although the Zorro story is traditionally set in southern California around Los Angeles, this one seems to be set in San Mateo, not far from San Francisco in northern California.  The De la Vega marriage is stressed; Elena wants Alejandro to throw in the cape and retire from the business of righting wrongs and fighting evil, while Alejandro thinks there is still a need for Zorro and resists retirement.

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Scarred villain Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund).

There are still villains, almost more than the viewer can keep track of.  The initial one is Jacob McGivens (Nick Chinlund), a nasty, scarred American religious fanatic trying to steal the statehood elections until Zorro leads him and his men on a merry chase.  During the chase, Zorro’s identity is momentarily revealed to a couple of other Americans (Shuler Hensley and Michael Emerson).  After this exploit, Alejandro and Elena argue and separate.  Alejandro seeks solace in strong drink.

Elena takes up with a French count Armand (Rufus Sewell) she had known in school back in Spain.  He seems charming enough, but the De la Vegas don’t agree about him.  Elena serves Alejandro with divorce papers, despite the fact that they are both presumably Catholic.

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The De la Vegas are still attracted to each other (Catherine Zeta-Jones and Antonio Banderas).

As matters develop, during his brief unmasking Alejandro was identied by the two Americans, who turn out to be Pinkerton agents.  They use that knowledge to blackmail Elena into doing some spying on Armand for them, and that’s why she has broken with Alejandro.  However, they would view her demise as unfortunate but perhaps necessary to their enterprise.  The De la Vega son Joaquin thinks his father is a coward, unlike Zorro, so he’s clearly not in on the secret, and he constantly gets in trouble at school.  The nasty McGivens is working for Armand, who in turn is part of an international conspiracy (the Knights of Aragon, whose Latin motto is “Orbis Unum”—One World) which plans to weaken the U.S. before it can attain international prominence.  They plan to do that with strategic use of nitroglycerin made from soap.

Elena’s spying is discovered (she’s not very subtle about it), and she and Joaquin are taken prisoner on Armand’s train carrying the nitroglycerin to a rendezvous.  Alejandro rides as Zorro, both to stop the train and to rescue his loved ones.  He starts by defeating and killing McGivens and his minions.  He finds himself and his horse atop Armand’s train but manages not to get killed when it goes through a tunnel.  (The mounted rider atop a moving train is a sign the things are out of hand with the movie, as in 2013’s The Lone Ranger.)   Alejandro as Zorro manages to get Joaquin off the train, and he plays an active role in the rescue.  Eventually, Alejandro and Elena escape the train as it barrels toward the end of the track with Armand on the cowcatcher at the front and a car-load of nitroglycerin in bottles.  The De la Vegas are reconciled and remarried.

As with most sequels, this is not as good as the original—in this case, significantly worse.  The plot is incoherent and, with all the squabbling between Elena and Alejandro, uninteresting.  In the improbably prominent role for child Joaquin (Adrian Alonso) in the last part of the movie, he proves to be irritating, too.  There are too many villains, and consequently too many loose ends.  With a greater role for Elena than in the first movie, we can hear that Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Spanish accent is inconsistent and unpersuasive.

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Zorro (Antonio Banderas) and Armand (Rufus Sewell) duel atop a train.

The story of Zorro is rooted in a particular historical place and time, and this film moves it farther from that place and time.  It seems to take place in northern California rather than in southern California.  It is quite cavalier about anachronisms:  The Pinkertons as an agency (or any agency like them) did not exist until the Civil War, about fifteen years later than 1850.  Nitroglycerin was not invented until the end of the 1860s, at least twenty years later than this film takes place.  It is unlikely that American bad guys in California in 1850 carried swords at all, let alone carrying them rather than repeating pistols.  That would place Zorro at a considerable weapons disadvantage, since he is primarily a swordsman.

On top of all that, there are many movie-making problems with the film, starting with a poor story and bad writing.  Although Zorro is acrobatic, much of the stunt work (and the editing related to the stunts) seems over the top and completely unrealistic.  This may not be quite as epically bad as, say, The Wild Wild West, but it belongs in the same category.  It had a budget of $75 million, but only made back just over $45 million, so apparently the movie-going public agreed in 2005.  It’s in color, and at 129 minutes it seems much longer than that.

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Cimarron (1960)

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 1, 2014

Cimarron—Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Anne Baxter, Harry Morgan, Arthur O’Connell, Mercedes McCambridge, Robert Keith, Russ Tamblyn, David Opatoshu, Edgar Buchanan (1960; Dir: Anthony Mann)

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As a word, “Cimarron” is very evocative of the west.  Cimarron County, Oklahoma, is at the very tip of Oklahoma’s panhandle, neighboring New Mexico, southern Colorado, southwestern Kansas and the Texas panhandle.  It was named for the Cimarron River, which flows through the area and was crossed by the Cimarron Cutoff on the legendary Santa Fe Trail.  It was a remote area, late to be settled and brought under regular law—the area where Comanches killed mountain man Jedediah Smith in 1831 and not far from where the gunman Clay Allison had a ranch in the 1880s.  It is farther west than the area dealt with in this movie.

Edna Ferber’s large-scale 1929 best-seller was made into a 1931 movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the first and, for 60 years, the only western to win that accolade.  Add to this previously successful mix Anthony Mann, one of the best directors of westerns from the 1950s, and a good cast for a modern update, and you should have a winner.  But it didn’t turn out quite that way.

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Sooners in 1889. Yancey Cravat is among them.

The improbably-named Yancey Cravat (Glenn Ford) gets married at the start of the film in 1889. A lawyer at the time of his marriage, he has a bit of a backstory, some pieces of which emerge bit by bit. He has been a gunman and a cowboy, for example; he seems well acquainted with outlaws and prostitutes who refer to him as “Cim,” short for Cimarron. He insists that his new wife Sabra (Austrian actress Maria Schell) join him in the Oklahoma land rush. As they come to the starting line, they meet a string of Cravat acquaintances, notably Sam Pegler (Robert Keith); an itinerant newspaper editor and publisher; and his printer Jesse (Harry Morgan); the large but poor Wyatt family from Missouri (Arthur O’Connell and Mercedes McCambridge); a few outlaws, including the Cherokee Kid (Russ Tamblyn); a wagon of soiled doves, especially Dixie Lee (Anne Baxter); and Jewish tinker Sol Levy (David Opatoshu).

In the race Yancey loses the piece of property he wanted to Dixie, who seems to be trying to get it to spite him.  When he finds the Pegler wagon overturned and Sam dead in the wreck, he decides to try being a newspaperman instead of a rancher.  As the town of Osage develops, Yancey reveals that he has strong sympathies with underdogs (Indians and other minorities, the Cherokee Kid) and a tendency to take on responsibility in stressful situations.  When an innocent Indian is lynched, Yancey takes in the widow and daughter after taking out the ringleader Bob Yountis.  He has a son, whom he insists on naming Cimarron.  When the Cherokee Kid and his gang come to rob the local bank and take refuge in the local school, it’s Yancey who rescues the kids, if not the Kid.  He urges Tom Wyatt to drill for oil on his property, which Wyatt eventually discovers.

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Yancey (Glenn Ford) is too late to stop a lynching.

Yancey is also a man who is always looking beyond his current horizon.  When Sabra refuses to join him in the rush to the Cherokee Strip farther to the west in 1893, Yancey nevertheless goes and disappears for five years.  He doesn’t write, but Sabra hears hints that he is in Alaska and then has joined the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.  At the conclusion of the war, he shows up in Osage again and is taken back by his family.  The newspaper prospers modestly, and in 1904 Yancey is offered the post of territorial governor, which he turns down because he’d be indebted to the oil interests led by Tom Wyatt.  (Presumably he would have been the last territorial governor; Oklahoma became a state in 1907.)

When he turns down the governorship, Sabra blows up at him and Yancey disappears again, for good this time.  When their son marries an Indian, Sabra drives the young couple away.  They go to Oregon and she never sees them.  Obviously, she doesn’t share Yancey’s sensitivity to minorities.  In the ten years after Yancey’s departure, the newspaper prospers with financial help from Sol Levy, who would like to marry Sabra.  In 1914, Sabra hears that Yancey has joined the British army during World War I.  The movie ends the next year when Sabra gets word from the British army that Yancey has been killed in France.

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Yancey (Glenn Ford) tells Sabra (Maria Schell) he’s turning down the governor’s post.

In the earlier film version, Yancey survives the war, only to die in the 1920s in an oilfield accident.  Sabra becomes a Congresswoman.  But this film is already two and a half hours long and forgoes that extended ending.  In the first version, Yancey comes and goes inexplicably.  This version focuses more on the personalities and relationship of Yancey and Sabra, and finally it’s an unsuccessful relationship.  In the 25 years covered by the movie, Yancey and Sabra are together maybe ten of those years, and little of the second five-year period is shown.  Sabra spends most of her time being unhappy with Yancey even when they are together.  We don’t really get Yancey, either.  It makes for kind of a glum film, especially in the long second half, when Yancey has disappeared much of the time.  And Glenn Ford often has distractingly bad hair.  Maria Schell is a decent actress, but she’s not as good as Sabra as Irene Dunne had been in 1931.  She seems excessively weepy, especially in the second half as the film moves into more melodramatic territory and just camps there.  All in all, it’s just not all that compelling.  And it did not do well at the box office upon its release.

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Anthony Mann directing, with Maria Schell and Glenn Ford; still of Glenn Ford going after the Cherokee Kid’s gang.

Maria Schell had appeared in one other western, Delbert Daves’ The Hanging Tree.  After this her career moved back into mostly European movies.  Anne Baxter is very good although underused here.  The land rush sequence is good, featuring several crashes and other mishaps.

This was Director Anthony Mann’s last western, and not among his better ones.  Mann was moving from westerns into the final stage of his career, when he focused more on epics like El Cid.  This had been a troubled production, with Mann being fired toward the end.  Reportedly producer Edmund Grainger filled in the editing of the last part without Mann’s participation or consent, which may account for why that part seems dull.  This version was written by Arnold Shulman and shot in color by the excellent cinematographer Robert Surtees.  There is good music by Franz Waxman, so the film looks and sounds good.  Long, at 147 minutes.

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Dawn Rider

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 29, 2014

Dawn Rider—Christian Slater, Donald Sutherland, Jill Hennessy, Lochlyn Munro, Ben Cotton, Ken Yanko (2012; Dir: Terry Miles)

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By the time of this movie’s release in 2012, Christian Slater was getting a bit long in the tooth and lower in the Hollywood pecking order than he had been twenty years earlier. Looking at the cast here, one concludes that this the modern equivalent of a B movie, which is only appropriate, considering that it is a remake of 1935’s The Dawn Rider with John Wayne, made at a period when Wayne was not yet a star and was only making B westerns.  Except for Slater, this appears to be a largely Canadian production.

John Mason (Christian Slater) is in Gray Falls, Montana, in 1883, when he rescues Ben McClure (Ben Cotton) in a card game that turns bad.  We hear that Mason is referred to as Cincinnati John Mason, although he has a recurring line about never having been in Cincinnati.  However, he has been the sheriff in Dodge City, a Texas Ranger, a Pinkerton man, and a prisoner in a Mexican jail.  He is hunted by bounty hunters from Missouri, led by U.S. Marshal Cochrane (a white-bearded Donald Sutherland in a brief but talkative role).  McClure works in the express office in Promise, Wyoming, with Mason’s father Dad Mason (Ken Yanko).  Father and son are not on great terms, but when a gang of hooded outlaws robs the express office and kills Dad, John wants revenge.

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John Mason (Christian Slater) renews a relationship with Alice Gordon (Jill Hennessy).

Also wounded in the attack on the express office, Mason is nursed back to health by his old girlfriend Alice Gordon (Jill Hennessy), who lives on the XX (Doublecross) Ranch with her brother Rudd Gordon (Lochlyn Munro), John’s childhood best friend.  Cochrane catches up to Mason and agrees to give him a couple more days to hunt for his father’s killers if he will surrender peaceably and without further resistance at the end of that time.  (This seems unlikely, given how hard a time Cochrane has had finding and capturing Mason.)  McClure wants Alice to marry him, but Alice and Mason have resumed an intimate relationship.

We see early on that the hooded outlaws are led by Rudd Gordon, who is about to lose the XX unless he can come up with $5000 in cash.  Gordon’s gang ambushes Cochrane and his men, leaving them for dead and planting hoods on them.  Mason is not persuaded.  He sets a trap for the gang, and they take the bait, killing the local sheriff as the trap is sprung.   As a final showdown looms, McClure takes the bullets out of Mason’s guns out of jealousy.  But when Mason meets Rudd and the surviving gang members, he notes that guns without bullets feel lighter, and he has reloaded them.  Rudd reveals his low character by his willingness to kill his own sister.

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Armed and hooded bad guys.

Finally, Cochrane shows up, revealing that Mason saved him after he was ambushed, and he takes Rudd into custody.  He also produces documents exonerating Mason and rides off into the sunset.  Mason, who blew up the express office money during the showdown, reveals that somehow $5000 of it has ended up at the XX Ranch, where he and Alice will presumably retire.

This isn’t absolutely terrible, but it’s not really good, either.  Slater is not a strong choice as the leading man.  The best performance here is probably by Jill Hennessy as Alice Gordon; she seems lively and a bit like a younger Charlotte Rampling.  The original movie was only 53 minutes long, and this is 40 minutes longer; the plot feels like it meanders a fair amount.  The film looks good, shot with a lot of gray and brown tones.  Everybody wears dusters, which look nicely western.  Although cowboys and others did wear dusters occasionally, if you look at old photographs of the west from that period, you don’t see them as often as they are worn in westerns since, say, The Long Riders made them cinematically fashionable in 1980.  They look great flying out behind a rider racing along, but they probably weren’t actually worn as much as movies like to show (e.g., The Lone Ranger, 2013).

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Donald Sutherland as loquacious, bounty-hunting Marshal Cochrane.

Shot in color in Vancouver, British Columbia, at 94 minutes.  It’s rated R for violence and a lot of unnecessarily bad language, which gets in the way.

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Gunman’s Walk

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 25, 2014

Gunman’s Walk—Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, James Darren, Ray Teal, Kathryn Grant (1958; Dir: Phil Karlson)

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This is a son-goes-bad movie, a big-budget western, with Van Heflin (Shane, 3:10 to Yuma) as Lee Hackett, a prosperous and much-respected rancher with the largest spread in the state.  Sons Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren) are starting to differentiate themselves, but there are signs that one of them is going bad.

Ed, the blond older son and his father’s favorite, rides a half-breed wrangler (an uncredited Bert Convy) off a cliff while chasing a white mare on a horse drive.  Things look bad for Ed, who chafes under his father’s shadow.  But Ed is surprisingly exonerated at a hearing based on perjured testimony by itinerant horse trader Jensen Sieverts (Ray Teal).  Sieverts hopes to get some form of payoff from Lee Hackett in exchange for testifying.  Ed increasingly listens to neither his brother nor his father, nor even the local sheriff.  Younger brother Davy, who is dark and is said to look like his deceased mother, tries to strike up a relationship with Clee Chouard (Kathryn Grant), the half-Sioux sister of the dead wrangler.  Lee Hackett, who spent his younger years fighting the Sioux, finds the relationship highly unsuitable and expresses those feelings in intemperate words.

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Good brother Davy (James Darren) with Clee Chouard (Kathryn Grant).

Meanwhile, brother Ed becomes less and less controllable and more apt to rely on his skill with a gun. He rejects the attempts of both his father and his brother to reason with him.  Finally, Ed shoots the horse trader Sieverts and is thrown in jail.  The trader lives, and Lee buys him off yet again.  Ed escapes from the jail, killing an unarmed deputy, and his father tries to find him before a posse does.  There is the inevitable confrontation and shoot-out.  In the wake of Ed’s death, Lee is reconciled with his only remaining son and with the mixed-race young lady.

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Brother Ed (Tab Hunter) blasts the lying horse trader.

James Darren has the thankless role of the the underappreciated good brother, who is romantically interested in the half-breed’s sister.  Heflin is good as the father.  Ray Teal is very good as the sleazy horse trader who perjures himself to get Ed off the hook and to get himself a payoff from Lee.  However, this is a clunky story, fairly predictable.  Even worse, there is clunky acting by Hunter and Darren, who don’t look at all like they might be brothers.  Saddle the Wind, from about the same time, does this story better.  Written by Frank Nugent.  Song “I’m a Runaway” is sung by Tab Hunter.  In color, at 97 minutes.

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The Big Gundown

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 22, 2014

The Big Gundown—Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, Walter Barnes (1966; Dir: Sergio Sollima)

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An early non-Leone spaghetti western featuring Lee Van Cleef in his new role as leading man, dressed in trademark black and smoking a pipe.  He’s Jonathan Corbett, a Texas lawman/bounty hunter with few challenges left.  He meets Broxton (Walter Barnes), a railroad baron who suggests Corbett run for the U.S. Senate.

Broxton then sets Corbett on the trail of Cuchillo Sanchez (Tomas Milian), a scapegrace Mexican very good with a knife who supposedly raped and murdered a 12-year-old girl.  After several scrapes with Mormons, an isolated female ranch owner and a Mexican whorehouse, Corbett finds Broxton (with his German bodyguard) in Mexico; he also discovers that Broxton’s son-in-law Chet committed the crimes of which Cuchillo is accused.

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In the manhunt, starting in a cane field and moving to rocky, mountainous terrain, Corbett sets up a showdown between Cuchillo with a knife and the Broxton son-in-law with a gun.  Then comes the big showdown between Corbett and everybody, including the German.  (Chennault’s Variation on a famous dictum of Chekhov:  “If a German gunman shows up in the first act, he will be firing before the end.”  See Vera Cruz and The Wild Bunch, for example.)  And Corbett and Cuchillo ride off into the sunset, one (Corbett) to the north and the other to the south.

Among aficionados of spaghetti westerns, Sergio Soliima enjoys a reputation as one of the three Sergios, behind only the great Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci as a director.  The Big Gundown is often reckoned one of the top ten spaghetti westerns.  Of course, it still has the limitations of its subgenre, and it’s not as good as Leone’s best work.  Cuchillo reappears, again played by Tomas Milian, in Sollima’s Run, Man, Run in 1968; it’s probably better, although this isn’t bad, as spaghetti westerns go.  The score by Ennio Morricone features kind of a shrieking theme song as well as “Chorus of the Mormons.”  This was released the year after Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and the same year as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  The version usually seen in the U.S. is a poorly-cut 84-minutes long.  Supposedly a 114-minute version exists.

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