Tag Archives: Adventures in Mexico

The Wonderful Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 31, 2015

The Wonderful Country—Robert Mitchum, Julie London, Pedro Armendariz, Gary Merrill, Albert Dekker, Victor Mendoza, Satchel Paige (1959; Dir: Robert Parrish)

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In the 1950s, Julie London was known primarily as a sultry singer, but she also made three westerns:  Saddle the Wind (1958), with Robert Taylor; Man of the West (1958), with Gary Cooper; and this one with Robert Mitchum.  The story involves another of Robert Mitchum’s adventures in Mexico (e.g. Bandido and The Wrath of God), or rather back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., as he tries to sort out his loyalties.

Mitchum plays Martin Brady, an American who has long been working in Mexico as a pistolero for the Castro family—specifically for Cipriano Castro.  As the movie opens, he is delivering silver pesos to a German merchant named Sterner across the Rio Grande.  In a dusty border town on the U.S. side, his horse (a big black Andalusian stallion named Lágrimas—Spanish for “tears”) is spooked and throws him, breaking his leg.  As he is laid up for two months, he makes a number of acquaintances, most of whom have their own agendas for him.  And he begins to feel that he’d like to stay on the U.S. side.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) gets his broken leg set.

Brady initially fled Texas when his father was killed, and he in turn shot the killer.  But the local Texas Ranger authority (Albert Dekker), who would like to recruit him as a ranger, tells him that it was long ago now, and that most who know about it think he did a good thing.  The military commander at Fort Jefflin, Major Stark Colton (Gary Merrill), wants to form a joint venture with the Castros to hunt the Apaches who strike back and forth across the border.  Mrs. Helen Colton obviously hasn’t much attraction to her own husband, and Brady hears scuttlebutt about her affairs in Missouri.  As he thinks about staying, he attends a social gathering at the fort.  While he’s avoiding becoming involved with Mrs. Colton, a hardcase (played by Chuck Roberson, John Wayne’s favorite stand-in) picks a fight with a German friend of Brady’s and Brady is forced to kill him.

He then flees south of the border, where he finds that he is in trouble because the guns never made it back to the Castros while Brady was laid up.  Cipriano Castro (Pedro Armendariz) is now the governor in the capital city, but the Castro brothers no longer trust each other.  As Major Colton visits the capital and forms an alliance with Cipriano, Brady dallies with Mrs. Colton but is interrupted when Cipriano orders him to kill the other Castro brother—the general Marcos (Victor Mendoza).  Brady refuses and flees the city, but now neither Cipriano nor Marcos trusts him.  He flees north, with his pursuit being led astray by a friend.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) and the major’s wife (Julie London) try to come to terms with their mutual attraction.

The American force is now 100 miles deep in Mexico, but Marcos succeeds in assassinating his brother and repudiates the alliance.  Major Colton is mortally wounded in an encounter with Apaches, but Brady manages to retrieve the stolen wagon of rifles.  Colton dies, and Mrs. Colton tells Brady that if he wants her he’ll have to find her in the U.S.  Nearing the Rio Grande, Lágrimas is shot by a pursuer sent by Marcos Castro.  Brady kills the pursuer, but is forced to shoot Lágrimas as well, symbolic of killing his past life.  He leaves his sombrero and gun by the horse’s body and heads across the Rio Grande.

Some have referred to this as an “existential western,” as Brady tries to figure out where he belongs, if anywhere.  Based on a novel by Tom Lea (who has a cameo as a barber), the story is slow developing in its first half but picks up speed as Brady returns to Mexico.  At only 98 minutes, some of the characters and their competing agendas seem underdeveloped.  Mrs. Colton herself doesn’t really come alive as a character, as she might have with a little more development.  Without having read the novel, I’m guessing it probably works a little better than the movie in some respects.  Robert Mitchum, in his world-weary mode, is the primary reason to watch this movie, although it’s fun to see baseball pitcher Satchel Paige in his only movie role as a buffalo soldier sergeant.  Mitchum was also the executive producer.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) and a sergeant (Satchel Paige) find the stolen rifles.

Shot in color on location in Durango and Guanajuato, Mexico, the movie looks good, especially in a high definition print.  Director Parrish also did Saddle the Wind, but his career was nothing remarkable.  The “wonderful country” of the title is presumably Mexico—wonderful, perhaps, but dangerous.

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100 Rifles

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 6, 2015

100 Rifles—Jim Brown, Raquel Welch, Burt Reynolds, Fernando Lamas, Dan O’Herlihy, Aldo Sambrell (1969; Dir: Tom Gries)

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This is sometimes referred to as a spaghetti western, but it isn’t.  Although it was filmed in Spain like many spaghetti westerns and featured Italian actor Aldo Sambrell in the cast, it had an American director, writer, producer and most of the cast.  In fact, there was a lot of American talent involved here.  This was the second of director Tom Gries’ three westerns (along with Will Penny and Breakheart Pass).  He also co-wrote the script, along with experienced screenwriter Claire Huffaker (The Comancheros, Rio Conchos).  It has a very good musical score by Jerry Goldsmith.  And it featured three stars who were either on the rise (Burt Reynolds, Jim Brown) or near their peaks (Raquel Welch, known more for her physical attributes than for acting ability, but she still had box office appeal).  It gave Jim Brown, who had his start in movies with the western Rio Conchos five years earlier, a more substantial leading role than he had previously enjoyed in films.  And it also gave U.S. audiences the first bi-racial love scene in a mainstream movie.

It looks to be set in northern Mexico (specifically, in the state of Sonora) in the early 20th century, the era of continuous Mexican revolution, with trains, a few cars and a few modern armaments scattered around.  Gen. Verdugo (Fernando Lamas), the official governor of Sonora, leads regular troops against the Yaqui Indians and rebels under Gen. Romero.  One of the Yaquis is Sarita (Raquel Welch), as in the opening scene we see Verdugo hang her father.  Into town separately ride two Americans.  One is Yaqui Joe Herrera (Burt Reynolds), only half Yaqui, who has just robbed a bank in Phoenix, Arizona, of $6,000.  The other is Lyedecker (Jim Brown), a former buffalo soldier who has taken a temporary job as a peace officer and hopes to make it permanent by bringing in Joe.  Verdugo is not minded to let any of the three go, but they escape together with Verdugo and his men in hot pursuit.

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Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds) and Lyedecker (Jim Brown) make a break for it.

Joe has used the stolen money to buy the 100 rifles of the title for the desperate Yaquis.  They recover the rifles on mules outside of town, fighting a rearguard action against Verdugo.  Lyedecker develops a relationship (or at least a one-night stand) with Sarita.  As they arrive in the town where they expect to turn the rifles over to Gen. Romero, they find that he has been killed the day before, and Lyedecker is hailed as the new general.  He leads in the capture of an army train, although Verdugo wasn’t on it as they had hoped.  Taking the train into Nogales, on the northern border of Mexico, for an attack on Verdugo’s forces there,  Verdugo hears of their plan and is ready for the train.  Lyedecker, Joe, Sarita and most of the Yaquis and rebels jump off before the train crashes into Nogales, and a battle ensues, with the Yaquis using captured weapons.  Finally, Verdugo himself is clubbed to death with rifle butts, but Sarita is also killed.  Lyedecker appoints Joe his successor as Yaqui/rebel general and heads back to the U.S.

Jim Brown would become a bigger star in the blaxploitation films and a few more westerns of the 1970s, developing (like Robert Mitchum) a sub-specialty in westerns featuring adventures in Mexico (this, Rio Conchos, Take a Hard Ride, etc.).  He works well here, although Burt Reynolds does better.  Raquel Welch does what’s required of her, with flaring nostrils to indicate a fiery temperament and putting her physique on display (a bit quaint by current cinematic standards).  Welch is particularly effective in a scene that calls for her to distract a trainful of soldiers by taking a shower under a water tower.  Pretty smoky for a mainstream 1969 movie, but she’s wearing a white shirt while doing it; nevertheless it works as intended.  Reynolds and Welch did not get on well during the filming and would not work together again.

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A couple of publicity stills will give an idea of how this movie was marketed.  Burt Reynolds was said to have suggested as a tongue-in-cheek strategy, “Take her shirt off, take his shirt off, and give me all the lines.”

The Lyedecker-Sarita relationship was daring for its time, but it seems unremarkable now and it does slow down the plot of a movie obviously based on action.  The film seems like it could be tightened up to good effect.  Sarita’s death off-screen in the final battle scene feels arbitrary, although clearly such things happen in battles like the one in Nogales.  The movie’s not terrible, or even really bad, but the film’s present interest is more as a cinematic and cultural artifact of 1969 rather than because it’s a good western.  In color, at 110 minutes.  It was rated R on its release, because of all the violence and the steamy scenes with Raquel Welch.

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Somehow Jim Brown got lost on this Asian poster.

If you didn’t get enough Raquel Welch, see her in Bandolero! (adventuring in Mexico again, this time with James Stewart and Dean Martin) and in Hannie Caulder, a female revenge story.  Burt Reynolds had already done the spaghetti western Navajo Joe, and would go on to appear in Sam Whiskey and The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing as he became a bigger star in the early 1970s.

 

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Bandido

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 29, 2015

Bandido—Robert Mitchum, Gilbert Roland, Ursula Thiess, Zachary Scott, Henry Brandon, Roldolfo Acosta (1956; Dir: Richard Fleischer)

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Robert Mitchum had kind of a sub-specialty in westerns about adventurers south of the the border (The Wonderful Country, The Wrath of God, Villa Rides!), of which this is the earliest.  It is set in the revolution of 1916, when Black Jack Pershing and the American army were unsuccessfully pursuing Pancho Villa around northern Mexico in preparation for World War I.  Villa was not the only warlord in northern Mexico fighting the regular army at the time, as we all know from The Wild Bunch.

As this movie opens, an American arms dealer named Kennedy (Zachary Scott) is selling guns to the regulares, as they are known, using his wife Lisa (Ursula Theiss) to charm Mexican officials and high-ranking officers.  As Kennedy puts together a deal with them, some of their marital discord is witnessed by American opportunist Wilson (Robert Mitchum), who wants to highjack Kennedy’s arms and re-direct them to one of the under-supplied warlords, Col. José Escobar (Gilbert Roland).  Heading south from the border to where a battle between Escobar’s partisans and the regulares is taking place, Wilson intervenes with a few well-placed grenades, and Escobar wins.

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Opportunist Wilson (Robert Mitchum) adds a few granades to the battle below.

With Wilson’s help, Escobar captures the train carrying Kennedy and his wife.  Kennedy sets up a trap for Escobar in a fishing village with his intermediary Gunther (Henry Brandon).  Instead of Kennedy leading them there, Wilson takes Kennedy’s wife and develops a relationship there.  When the trap is discovered, Wilson escapes and Lisa is captured.  Wilson now persuades Kennedy to tell him where the arms really are, on two barges in another village.

Wilson and Kennedy escape Escobar’s men, but Kennedy takes a bullet in the back.  A sympathetic priest removes the bullet, and Lisa shows up, with the army not far behind.  As Kennedy takes aim at Wilson with Lisa’s purse pistol, he is shot by Escobar, and Escobar and Wilson go to see whether Kennedy was finally telling the truth.  They find the two barges, one with gasoline and dynamite (we can guess what will happen with that one), and the other with arms and ammunition.  But the army and Gunther are not far behind them, and there is a standoff.  As Escobar’s men arrive, they are about to be trapped, until Wilson and Escobar blow up the first barge to destroy the army’s position.  In the end, Escobar gets the arms and ammunition to continue his fight, and Wilson heads back to the U.S. border to look for Lisa.

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Escobar’s partisans and Wilson pursue the train carrying the Kennedys.

Silent screen star Gilbert Roland (Three Violent People, Cheyenne Autumn) makes a smoother and more elegant Mexican revolutionary than we usually see.  He is probably the best thing about the movie.   His relationship with Wilson evolves into a kind of Humphrey Bogart-Claude Rains friendship, as in Casablanca.  Robert Mitchum’s voice is excellent, and his performance in this convoluted plot is fine.  Zachary Scott is good as the ill-fated gun dealer.   German-born Ursula Thiess was beautiful, but this was her last movie after marrying Robert Taylor and largely retiring from the movies.  There is little on-screen chemistry between her and Mitchum.  German-born Henry Brandon was no stranger to westerns, having played both Germans in Mexico (Vera Cruz and here) and Indian chiefs (The Searchers, Two Rode Together, War Arrow).

Director Richard Fleischer did not make many westerns, although he made the revisionist The Spikes Gang.  However, he was a mainline director, known for Dr. Dolittle, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green and a couple of Conan movies, among many others.  The film was shot on location at several of the battle sites of the 1916 revolution, using as extras both old-timers who had fought for Villa and former army soldiers who had fought against them.  It marked Robert Mitchum’s first producing effort.  Music is by Max Steiner.  In color, and at 92 minutes it is reasonably enjoyable but not particularly memorable.  Most of it is spent in trying to figure out where Wilson’s loyalties lie, other than to himself.  Turns out he goes for Escobar’s cause and love, not making any money for himself.

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Wilson (Robert Mitchum) and Escobar (Gilbert Roland) hold off the regulares.

The title seems like maybe it once had an exclamation point after it (not usually a good sign, and some posters show the exclamation point), and it is not clear who the bandido of the title is.  There are lots of bandidos in this movie.  It does not appear to be available on DVD.  Not to be confused with Bandidas (2006), starring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz.

For other westerns set in Mexico during this revolutionary period, see Wings of the Hawk, They Came to Cordura, The Professionals, The Wild Bunch, The Old Gringo, or any of the westerns featuring Pancho Villa as a character (e.g., Villa Rides! with Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and Robert Mitchum).

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The Wrath of God

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 21, 2014

The Wrath of God—Robert Mitchum, Victor Buono, Frank Langella, Rita Hayworth, Ken Hutchison, Gregory Sierra (1972; Dir: Ralph Nelson)

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Directed by Ralph Nelson, like Duel at Diablo and Soldier Blue; some think this is a parody, but it probably isn’t.  In 1922 in an unnamed central American country (it might even be in Mexico), Tomas de la Plata (a young Frank Langella) and his personal army of gunmen (led by Gregory Sierra) have taken over a town and the surrounding area for the last couple of years.  De la Plata has a strong anti-clerical streak, and a record of killing priests.  The authorities coerce Jennings, a British gunrunner (Victor Buono), Emmet Keogh, an IRA gunman (Ken Hutchison), and Van Horne, a bank-robbing, corrupt priest (Robert Mitchum) into an assassination attempt on de la Plata.

There follows kind of a muddled plot as the three, especially Van Horne, help the townspeople and form a relationship with each other, while the IRA man becomes attached romantically to an unlikely mute Indian princess (Paula Pritchett).  Van Horne takes up priestly activities, but it’s unclear how real or strong his conversion is.  Jennings and maybe Van Horne are killed in the assassination attempt, as are De la Plata and most of his men.  This was 52-year-old Rita Hayworth’s last movie (she plays De la Plata’s mother), and she had trouble remembering her lines because she was already beginning to show evidence of Alzheimer’s disease.  Langella and Mitchum took to abducting her to get her to the set on time.  Written by Jack Higgins, filmed around Cuernavaca, Mexico, and the old silver-mining ghost town of La Luz.  In color, at 111 minutes.  Art on the posters is by Frank McCarthy.

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De la Plata (Frank Langella) has his suspicions about Father Van Horne (Robert Mitchum), as well as a hatred of all priests.

Father Oliver Van Horne: “We three faced the firing squad together. Everything else is just borrowed time.”
Jennings: “God protects fools and drunks, not idiots.”

There’s a certain amount of 1970s-style iconoclasm about the film, with more humor and action than was usual.  The plot leaves a number of unanswered questions, but film critic Roger Ebert found that they didn’t hurt the finished cinematic product.  Mitchum played questionable or corrupt priests with guns in several movies; see The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud in addition to this.  It’s not entirely clear here whether he is a priest good with guns and booze, or a bank-robber good at playing a priest.  Mitchum was good in westerns generally, but this isn’t one of his best.  Rita Hayworth only made a couple of westerns, but she was better (and almost fifteen years younger) in They Came to Cordura.  Despite being hailed by Ebert as the “American Sophia Loren,” this was Pritchett’s last movie and only one of any note.  It was for Ken Hutchison as well.

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Branded

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 6, 2014

Branded—Alan Ladd, Mona Freeman, Charles Bickford, Joseph Calleia, Robert Keith, Peter Hansen, Tom Tully (1950; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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Alan Ladd made this one just before he revived his career by playing Shane, perhaps his biggest role ever and certainly his best western.  He had been in movies for almost ten years at this point and was not quite as big a star as he had been after his breakthrough roles in This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946).  After Whispering Smith (1948), he moved more into westerns and made several good ones, including this.

“You got any friends?”
“My guns.”
“Kinfolk?”
“My horse.”

When we first see Choya (Ladd’s character), he is besieged by the men of a town where he has just killed someone who drew first on him.  He wears two guns in the kind of fancy rig often seen in the 1950s, which mark him as a gunman, and he escapes from his predicament resourcefully.  He is followed, however, by T. Jefferson Leffingwell (Robert Keith) and his partner Tattoo, who want to make him a business proposition.  Leffingwell knows of a south Texas ranching family whose son Richard was kidnapped 25 years previously.  The son had a birthmark on his left shoulder, and Leffingwell proposes that Tattoo give Choya the birthmark.  He will then pretend to be Richard Lavery to win over the ranching family and take over their ranch.  The story’s title refers to him after the tattoo.

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Choya (Alan Ladd) receives the tattoo that leads to the title.

Choya (Cholla?) is Spanish for a type of cactus, and Choya shares the plant’s prickliness.  That’s the only name he has, along with a spotted and murky past, and he agrees to Leffingwell’s plan, with certain provisos.  After receiving the tattoo, he heads for for the Laverys’ Bar O Ranch and starts by getting a job there.  Leffingwell, meanwhile, has killed Tattoo so as not to share the gains from this con, and has been told by Choya to lay low.

[Spoilers follow from this point.]  Choya gets a job on the ranch, despite suspicious foreman Ransome (Tom Tully), who doesn’t like him.  While fighting with the owner (Charles Bickford), his tattoo/supposed birthmark is spotted.  The family accepts him, including daughter Ruth (Mona Freeman), and he plays along, slowly and apparently reluctantly.  Leffingwell shows up to press the matter.  Choya/Richard is trusted to head a cattle drive to El Paso with Ruth, and he has second thoughts about this con.  Finally he sells the cattle for more than $180,000 and makes sure that it goes back to the family.  He has it out with Leffingwell, discovering that Leffingwell was the baby’s kidnapper and that Mexican bandit chieftain Mateo Rubriz (Joseph Calleia) has raised the child as his own son Antonio.

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Choya negotiates with the sleazy Leffingwell (Robert Keith) from a position of strength.

After warning Leffingwell not to set foot in Texas again, Choya heads south over the Rio Grande toward the mountain retreat of Rubriz.  Somehow he charms Rubriz and, while Rubriz is called away, manages to make off with Rubriz’s son Antonio (Peter Hansen), the Laverys’ real long-lost son, who doesn’t really want to go to Texas.  Life is fine for him where he is.

Rubriz was called away to see Leffingwell (we knew he’d show up again), who tells him what Choya’s up to, and Rubriz and his men give chase.  It’s a long way to the Rio Grande, and Choya doesn’t know the shortest paths.  Antonio was wounded in their getaway, and they are trapped in a cave while Rubriz’s men unknowingly camp below.  Choya has taken good enough care of Antonio, and told him enough stories of the Laverys, that Antonio is beginning to trust him and helps him steal horses to sprint for the river, stampeding the rest.  As Leffingwell takes a bead on Choya to shoot him down with a Winchester, the stampeding horses push him off a cliff.  Once on the other side of the river, Antonio faints from his wound and Choya passes out from exhaustion.  They are found there by Lavery and his foreman Ransome.

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Having barely made it back across the Rio Grande, Choya (Alan Ladd, with Peter Hansen) prepares to shoot it out.

As Antonio wakes in a bed on the Lavery ranch, Choya explains things to him.  But Rubriz and his bandit band have found him, and Rubriz plans to kill both Choya and Antonio, whom he views as a traitor.  Choya manages to talk him around, though, and it looks like Antonio will have a family on both sides of the border.  As Choya makes yet another escape, he is caught by Ruth, and it looks like this time he will not get away so easily.

Based on a story by Max Brand, the outline of this plot seems a bit contrived.  But it works in part because Ladd manages to be convincing (if short) as the irascible Choya.  The supporting cast is strong, too, especially Robert Keith as the delightfully loathsome and unprincipled Leffingwell, Joseph Calleia as the bandit chieftain and family man Rubriz, and Peter Hansen as Antonio. Calleia, who was of Maltese origin, often played heavies and Mexicans, but he was particularly good when the role called for some ambiguity, as his does here.  He could give his roles an enigmatic humanity, when in other hands they might just be stereotypes.  Charles Bickford, said to be as irascible as Choya and hard to work with on other film sets (see The Big Country, for example), is fine here, as he was in Four Faces West with Calleia a couple of years earlier.  Mona Freeman always played younger than she was in movies, and doesn’t have many nuances to her performance, but she’s fine here.

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This isn’t really what his two-gun rig looks like.

Shot on location in Arizona and southern Utah, with Charles Lang doing the cinematography in color in “academy aspect,” full-screen.  Not terribly long, at 104 minutes, it nevertheless moves at what sometimes seems a leisurely pace.  The movie was recently released on DVD by Warner Archive (Sept. 2013).

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Hard Ground

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 20, 2014

Hard Ground—Burt Reynolds, Bruce Dern, Amy Jo Johnson, Seth Peterson (MfTV, 2003; Dir:  Frank Q. Dobbs)

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A variation on a frequently-used theme:  two old-timers, a lawman and an outlaw, join forces to use their experience and old-time skills to deal with a gang of more modern (and nastier) bad guys.  In this case, John “Chill” McKay (Burt Reynolds) is a former bounty hunter serving twenty years in the Arizona territorial prison in Yuma.  He is released to the custody of his brother-in-law Nate Hutchinson (Bruce Dern) to track down psychotic bandit and prison escapee Billy Bucklin (David Figlioli), who has a new gang and is heading south toward the Mexican border to pull off some kind of nefarious job. 

The wrinkle is that Hutch’s deputy is McKay’s son Joshua (Seth Peterson); he’s tracking the bad guys out ahead of McKay and Hutch.  He rescues Liz Kennedy (Amy Jo Johnson) from a couple of the gang and leaves her at a remote trading post, for Hutch and McKay to send her back.  She won’t go back, predictably enough.  So now she’s following along with Hutch and McKay; she doesn’t have their survival and violence skills, but she gets by on spunk.  There’s an undercurrent of tension between McKay and his son.  Will there be some sort of rapprochement between the two, and, if so, how?  How many of them will survive the upcoming confrontation with Bucklin?

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Brothers-in-law, former antagonists and now partners:  Nate Hutchinson (Bruce Dern), lawman (for a change), and Chill McKay (Burt Reynolds), convict and bounty hunter.

Bucklin and gang hit a U.S. army gold shipment, slaughtering the soldiers escorting it.  Undeterred by the border, Hutch, McKay, Joshua and Liz head into Mexico after Bucklin, and there is a climactic shootout in a Mexican town.  It’s better than many of its made-for-television type, although Burt Reynolds’ facelift is distracting.  He’s actually not bad in the role, though.  The screenplay isn’t great.  One wonders it the director’s name, Frank Q. Dobbs, is a pseudonym.  He has apparently been involved in other television westerns and western minseries, mostly as a producer:  Streets of Laredo, Dead Man’s Walk, Rio Diablo, Johnson County War.

Burt Reynolds had a promising career in westerns beginning in the mid-1960s, when he became part of the cast in the late portions of the long-running show Gunsmoke on television.  He appeared as the protagonist in Navajo Joe (1966), a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Coliima.  (Reynolds supposedly signed on thinking the director would be another Sergio–legendary Sergio Leone.)  He did well enough in a couple of big budget westerns in the early 1970s:  the comedy Sam Whiskey and the more serious and underrated The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, based on a best-selling novel of the time.  He seemed like he might have had a robust career in westerns, especially those requiring a comedic touch but not too broad an edge–perhaps the sort of thing James Garner did well.  But the genre was dying out for the next couple of decades, and he drifted into such high-box-office-but-low-prestige good-ol’-boy fare as the Smoky and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies.  He’s pretty good here, in the twilight of his career.  He and fellow old pro Bruce Dern carry the film, although supporting players Amy Jo Johnson and Seth Peterson are fine in their roles, too..

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Take a Hard Ride

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 18, 2014

Take a Hard Ride—Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, Fred Williamson, Catherine Spaak, Jim Kelly, Harry Carey, Jr., Barry Sullivan, Dana Andrews (1975; Dir:  Antonio Margheriti)

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It may have had aspirations, but it’s not really in the league of the great westerns, despite the claims on the posters.

This features another of Jim Brown’s forays into Mexico (see, for example, 100 Rifles and Rio Conchos), this time in a merger of two genres from the early 1970s:  blaxploitation movies and spaghetti westerns.  Jim Brown plays Pike, trail boss for cattleman Morgan (Dana Andrews) in this late spaghetti western.  Pike is also a reformed wanted man in improbable red pants (they must have been a 1970s thing–see Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd).  He’s trying to take $86,000 into Mexico in fulfillment of a promise to Morgan, who dies early on. 

His unwilling accomplice in this task is Tyree (Fred Williamson), a black gambler and gunfighter, along with a tongueless black Indian named Kashtok (Jim Kelly of Enter the Dragon; he keeps being referred to as an Indian, although he looks completely black) with mysterious martial arts moves, and, for a while, Catherine Spaak as Catherine, a former New Orleans prostitute whose husband is killed by nasty outlaws before she is rescued by Pike and Tyree.  (Unaccountable accents in westerns are frequently attributed to New Orleans origins–see, for example, The Magnificent Seven [Yul Brynner] and North to Alaska [Capucine].)  There seems to be some sort of connection between Catherine and Kashtok, but we don’t know how or why. 

TakeHardRideBrown Jim Brown as Pike.

TakeHardRideWmsnFred Williamson as Tyree.

Pike, Tyree et al. are pursued by a legion of bounty hunters and robbers led (more or less) by harmonica-playing Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef).  They include Barry Sullivan as Vane, a former lawman, and Dumper (Harry Carey, Jr.), a corrupt Bible-thumper and his assistant with a gatling gun, a bunch of venal and untrustworthy robbers and a troop of conscienceless Mexican bandits. 

In the end, everything is blown up, Kiefer is shot in the back by Dumper before Dumper dies, and things don’t seem all that resolved.  It does appear that Kiefer is only wounded, and the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with him at the end.  After spending the entire movie setting up some kind of confrontation between Pike and Kiefer, it doesn’t happen.  But plot is not the movie’s strong point; this film is more interested in action than in making sense.  Characters seem to be dropped in and out fairly arbitrarily.  The movie is watchable but not remarkable.  Filmed in Spain and the Canary Islands.  Jerry Goldsmith does the music.  Director Antonio Margheriti is listed as Anthony M. Dawson in the credits.

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The previous year (1974) Brown, Williamson and Kelly had appeared together in Three the Hard Way, a modern-era blaxploitation action thriller.  This movie was apparently conceived as a genre-jumping follow-up project.  In the western genre, Brown and Van Cleef would reunite in 1977 for Kid Vengeance, which was also released as Take Another Hard Ride.

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Bandolero!

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 10, 2014

Bandolero!—James Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, George Kennedy, Andrew Prine, Will Geer, Jock Mahoney, Harry Carey, Jr., Dub Taylor (1968; Dir:  Andrew V. McLaglen)

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Director Andrew McLaglen was the son of actor Victor McLaglen, and through his father long had contacts with John Wayne and his Batjac production company.  He made his initial reputation as a television director on many Have Gun Will Travel episodes in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  By the mid-1960s he had graduated to movies, making a string of not-terribly-distinguished westerns.  This is one of two westerns directed by McLaglen with ! in the title, along with the John Wayne vehicle McLintock!  It’s kind of miscast and schizophrenic.  The first half, with James Stewart as Mace Bishop saving his outlaw brother Dee Bishop (Dean Martin) from hanging, has some humor.  The second half, with its chase into Mexico and desperate fight against bandidos, turns grim.  Apparently the word “bandolero” is another Spanish term for outlaw or bandit. 

The movie opens in Val Verde, Texas, in 1867.  James Stewart and Dean Martin don’t seem much like brothers; supposedly they were on opposite sides in the late Civil War, with Dee (Martin) riding with Quantrill in the nasty guerilla war on the Missouri borders, and Mace (Stewart) fighting for the Union with Sherman.  Raquel Welch has big 1968 hair (not to mention other attributes), and this is not her worst performance.  She is a former Mexican prostitute, now the trophy wife of wealthy rancher Stoner (Jock Mahoney), who gets killed when Dee’s gang tries to rob the local bank in Val Verde in an early sequence.  The robbery is botched, and the robbers are captured and sentenced to hang, necessitating their rescue by Mace. 

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Dee Bishop (Dean Martin), Maria Stoner (Raquel Welch) and Mace Bishop (James Stewart) during their escape, with Mace still dressed as a hangman.

Mace shows up disguised as the hangman.  In making their escape, the outlaws snatch Mrs. Stoner (Welch), for whom the sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy) has romantic intentions now that her husband is barely dead.  Johnson leads the posse in pursuit, with his deputy Roscoe (Andrew Prine).  In the chase, Maria Stoner falls in love with Dee Bishop, who is badly in need of redemption through the love of a good (even if formerly bad) woman with big hair.  Mace is increasingly ill at ease with Dee’s outlaw compatriots.  But Mace isn’t as clean as he might seem, either.  On the way out of town, he also robbed the local bank, largely because it seemed easy.

Dee Bishop [incredulous]:  “You robbed a bank?  You, Mace?”

Mace Bishop:  “Well, Dee, the bank was there… and I was there… and there wasn’t very much of anybody else there… and it just seemed like the thing to do.  Y’know, it’s not like you didn’t – something you never heard of.  Lots of people rob banks for all sorts of different reasons.”

Dee Bishop [now bemused]:  “You just walked into a bank and helped yourself to ten thousand dollars ’cause it seemed like the thing to do?”

Mace Bishop:  “That’s about the way it was, yeah, as, as well as I can remember, yeah.”

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Heading south into the northern Mexico deserts, the outlaws’ escape and, to be fair, the posse’s pursuit, is complicated by a swarm of Mexican bandidos.  Obviously they like Maria Stoner, too, and the lure of the bank money doesn’t hurt.  After the extended final shootout with the bandidos in the deserted Mexican town of Sabinas, hardly anybody is left alive, and the survivors aren’t who you’d expect according to the classic formulas. 

The movie’s not terrible, but not particularly memorable.  As a general principle, beware movies with “!” in the title.  Stewart made a string of not-so-good westerns beginning in the mid-1960s (Shenandoah, The Rare Breed, Firecreek); he obviously missed directors John Ford and Anthony Mann.  Dean Martin is better in this than he is in Rough Night in Jericho or in his movies with Frank Sinatra and other ratpackers, but he’s unusually dour for Martin.  Raquel Welch was at the peak of her fame (or notoriety), and she appeared during this window in a few westerns.  Look for her, for example, in 100 Rifles with Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds, and in the female revenge saga Hannie Caulder.  This may be the best of her westerns, but that’s not saying much.

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There’s good music by Jerry Goldsmith, and excellent cinematography by William Clothier.  Shot mostly in southern Utah and northern Arizona, with a couple of other stops, in color at 106 minutes.

Note:  Did Larry McMurtry have something to do with this film?  Note the character names that get used in the Lonesome Dove novel and mini-series in the mid-1980s:  a sheriff named July Johnson, with a deputy named Roscoe.  And a bad man named Dee, to be hanged.

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They Came to Cordura

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 17, 2014

They Came To Cordura—Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, Michael Callan, Dick York, Richard Conte (1959; Dir:  Robert Rossen)

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Gary Cooper is a little old (again) in his last western and one of his last roles of any kind, as Major Thomas Thorn, the Awards Officer of the 1916 Pershing expedition into northern Mexico against Pancho Villa after Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico.  Thorn had been at Columbus, and his conduct there he (and others) viewed as cowardly.  So a coward is in charge of selecting and writing up the heroes of the expeditionary force into Mexico. 

After Thorn’s first hero is killed in subsequent action, he obtains permission from Pershing to take any others he may select with him back to forward headquarters base at Cordura.  As Thorn observes a successful cavalry charge on a rancho at Ojos Azules (“blue eyes”) owned by Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth), the alcoholic daughter of a disgraced (and now deceased) former U.S. senator, he selects four or five soldiers for their conspicuous heroism during the charge (historically, the last cavalry charge made by the U.S. army).  But the movie is about role reversal and the transitory nature of both cowardice and heroism. 

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The group of awardees is comprised of Lt. Fowler (Tab Hunter), Sgt. Chawk (Van Heflin), Pvt. Hetherington (Michael Callan), Cpl. Trubee (Richard Conte), and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York).  As the six soldiers, now including Miss Geary in their group, move toward Cordura, they are attacked by the remnants of the Villa forces from Ojos Azules and lose their horses.  Under the stress of trying to make it across the Chihuahua desert, the potential awardees all show themselves to be despicable, mutinous and/or weak in various ways, while it is Thorn’s iron will supported only by Adelaide (who knows that she will be imprisoned for aiding the enemy once she is in army custody) that keeps them going.  Thorn asks them individually what led to their heroism in battle, and they don’t know.  They simply did it.  But whatever courage they briefly showed in battle, they don’t seem to have courage with stamina for the longer haul—for the desperate trip to Cordura, once they lose their horses.  The coward Thorn does have that kind of courage. 

In the end he is successful at getting them through despite themselves and presumably submits the miscreants for their original awards as he wrote them up.  But the exact ending is a bit unclear.  The movie, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote the novel “The Shootist”), is not as good as the novel, which was a best-seller in its time.  Neither the film nor the novel is much seen these days.  Rita Hayworth isn’t bad, but Gary Cooper is miscast; he’s a little long in the tooth at 58 to be playing an army officer in the field.  Tab Hunter is wooden.  Van Heflin, known for being stalwart in Shane and 3:10 to Yuma, is excellent here as the angry and mutinous Sgt. Chawk.   The benediction on all this is pronounced by Adelaide Geary:  “One act of cowardice doesn’t make a man a coward forever, just as one act of bravery doesn’t make a man a hero forever.”  

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Reportedly the film was taken out of director Rossen’s hands by the studio, which cut and re-cut it.  Rossen’s original, about half an hour longer, was said to be a significantly better film.  Even so, the shorter version is more than two hours long.  It’s hard to escape the feeling that it should have been better.  One viewer’s comment:  “There are definite moments of insight and interest in the film, but it tends to wear down the viewer with its nearly relentless cynicism and unpleasantness.”  Even so, it isn’t as downbeat as it could have been.  The studio insisted, for example, that Cooper’s character couldn’t die in the end.  Hayworth is good in this, receiving some of the best reviews in her career for her acting here.  The film was a flop at the box office, though.  This is in need of restoration to a director’s cut.  In color, filmed on location in Mexico, Las Vegas and St. George, Utah.

For other films about the same period, see Bandido, The Professionals, The Old Gringo and various movies about Pancho Villa.  Maybe The Wild Bunch.  The Mexican revolutions in the 1910s seemed to breed cynicism.  Toward the end of her career, Rita Hayworth was in two westerns, both of them set in 20th century Mexico or central America:  this, and The Wrath of God (1972), her last film.

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The Alamo (1960)

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 18, 2014

The Alamo—John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey, Richard Boone, Chill Wills, Frankie Avalon, Linda Cristal, Ken Curtis, Joseph Calleia, Denver Pyle, Hank Worden (1960; Dir:  John Wayne)

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This retelling of the Alamo story and the beginnings of Texas independence from Mexico is perhaps the most John Wayne film ever made:  Wayne was the star, producer, and director, and his company provided some of the financing.  Wayne as an actor was at his peak in the wake of The Searchers and Rio Bravo, and the movie was released to great hype.  From our vantage point more than 50 years later, one would expect that it would have done well at the box office but perhaps not been greeted with much enthusiasm by critics.  In fact, it was the opposite.  A hugely expensive production in its time ($12 million) with an enormous cast, it only made back $8 million domestically.   Wayne lost his personal investment.  The movie eventually went into the black, making lots of money in Europe and Japan, but Wayne no longer owned it by that time.  Critical reaction was mixed at best, but the movie was one of the few nominated for for the Best Picture Academy Award for 1960.

In 1836, Texans are declaring their independence from Mexico, and Mexican president/generalissimo Santa Anna is bringing his experienced army of more than 6000 north to bring them back into the fold.  There is not much of a Texas army to oppose him—only 600 men under Fannin at Goliad and 187 men commanded by William Barret Travis (English actor Laurence Harvey) at San Antonio, using the old mission at the Alamo as a fortress of sorts.  Sam Houston (Richard Boone in his curmudgeonly mode) is trying to put together a real army to oppose Santa Anna, but he desperately needs time to do that.

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In addition to Travis, “Colonel” Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), former Louisiana land speculator and knife fighter, commands some militia at the Alamo.  And a bunch of roistering Tennesseans nominally led by former congressman Davy Crockett (John Wayne) are in town with an uncertain destination.  Travis offends local Hispanics such as Juan Seguin (Joseph Calleia), who would otherwise support Texas independence, Travis and Bowie bicker constantly, and Travis ineffectively tries to recruit the Tennesseans. 

During the build-up, Crockett bonds with his men, gives the occasional speech about how the word “republic” chokes him up, and makes a play for a young and attractive Hispanic widow (the beautiful Linda Cristal).  She has no apparent dramatic purpose, since she doesn’t actually get together with Crockett and she doesn’t stick around after the first third of the movie.  In the midst of their drunkenness, Crockett manipulates the Tennesseans into joining the defenders of the Alamo.

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Laurence Harvey as Travis and Richard Widmark as Bowie (with his volley gun).

Santa Anna and his good-looking army show up and blast away at the Alamo.  Crockett and Bowie conduct a commando operation to destroy the biggest Mexican gun, and there are constant conflicts with Travis.  It can be no secret to us (or to audiences of 1960) that in the end the defenders are overwhelmed by Santa Anna’s forces and slaughtered to a man in an extended battle sequence, creating the first heroes of Texas independence.  Each of the three defending principals gets an appropriately heroic end.

The need to make this a John Wayne movie means this film disproportionately focuses on the supposed Crockett, who seems not very authentic historically.  He’s not too old for the part, since Crockett was almost 50 when he died at the battle.  There’s a lot of meandering in the first two-thirds of the movie with extraneous characters.  The Tennesseans (especially Chill Wills) quickly become tedious in their constant drunken revelry.  Apparently having learned from Rio Bravo that one should always have a teen-idol singer in the cast to appeal to the younger demographic, Frankie Avalon here is another in a series of unnecessary young brothers and compatriots (Fabian in North to Alaska, Bobbie Vinton in Big Jake and The Train Robbers) who can’t act well.

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In production design, there are a few concessions to 1836 this time, especially in the hats and firearms.  Bowie’s seven-barrel flintlock volley gun (called a Nock gun, after its British maker) looks impressive; such a gun was developed by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars for naval warfare but was not widely used because of its horrific recoil.  Crockett’s coonskin cap looks hot and foolish; thankfully, he often wears more regular hats.

In Rio Bravo the year before, one of the prominent musical features was the constant playing of the Deguello, Mexican-flavored trumpet and guitar music that was said to have been played by Santa Anna’s men at the Alamo, signifying that no quarter was to be given.  It was a romantic story, but, In fact, the tune was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin for that film.  Here the theme music is a combination of the Tiomkin Deguello and the melancholy “Green Leaves of Summer” by Tiomkin, which would be nominated for an Oscar and become a big hit for the folk group The Brothers Four.  The overture and musical intermission are usually omitted for television broadcasts.

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Cinematography was by the excellent William Clothier.  The screenplay was by James Edward Grant (Angel and the Badman), long a favorite (and often clunky) writer-friend of Wayne’s.  The two or three patriotic speeches dropped in, especially those for Wayne, stop the action and don’t work very well.  Producer/director Wayne wanted to express his patriotic sentiments and he got his way, but that aspect doesn’t play well now.  The final battle scene has some curious editing, showing Mexican soldiers lunging at one or another of the notable defenders, cutting away, and seconds later returning to the defender, now skewered with a bayonet or sword and falling over.

The Alamo received seven Academy Award nominations.  It won the Oscar for Best Sound (Gordon E. Sawyer, Fred Hynes) and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Chill Wills), Best Cinematography (William Clothier), Best Film Editing (Stuart Gilmore), Best Musical Score (Dimitri Tiomkin), Best Music (Song) (Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster for The Green Leaves of Summer) and Best Picture.  Chill Wills placed a tasteless ad in Variety, soliciting votes and referring to those who voted for him as his “Alamo cousins.”  Groucho Marx responded in a small ad of his own:  “Dear Mr. Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo” (nominated for Exodus).

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Wayne directing, apparently in the same hat he wore from Stagecoach (1939) through Rio Bravo (1959).  The hat does not appear on-screen in The Alamo, though.

This film is a relic of John Wayne in the 1960s at the height of his career, and that is the reason to watch it.  John Wayne learned that he didn’t want to direct, although he took over that role again (uncredited, at his insistence) on 1962’s The Comancheros when Michael Curtiz was dying of cancer.  As in the making of other films (see The Cowboys, for example), Wayne’s right-wing politics sometimes conflicted with those of others in the production.  In this case, Widmark didn’t get along with him well.  Widmark repeatedly challenged Wayne’s direction and once they almost came to blows; thereafter the two remained professional but distant. The movie is long, at 167 minutes, and there is a director’s cut at 203 minutes (1993, obviously done without Wayne’s participation) if you want even more and if you can find it.  The movie was re-released in 1967 at 140 minutes, so there are lots of choices.  Some of these cuts are in need of restoration.

So how accurate is it?  Not very.  For example, Bowie did not brandish a seven-barrel volley gun, nor was he wounded in the leg during the final assault, nor did his wife die during the time of the siege. He fell ill due to typhoid fever and was barely awake during the final attack, and Bowie’s wife had died a year before the battle was fought.  Fannin was not ambushed and slaughtered during the siege of the Alamo.  He and his men were murdered in Goliad on Palm Sunday three weeks after the Alamo fell.  Bowie and Crockett never made the decision to leave the Alamo as shown in the movie.  Though Bowie and Travis disliked each other intensely, they agreed that the Alamo should be defended.  And the time frame for the battle is wrong.  The movie shows the final battle taking place during the day; in reality, the final Mexican attack was pre-dawn, while most of the Alamo defenders were sleeping.  The individual deaths of Travis, Bowie and Crockett are fictional, for dramatic effect.  They were killed, but, especially for Crockett, the individual circumstances are not generally known and are still a matter of debate.

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Billboard art by Reynold Brown, emphasizing the film’s epic scale and the final battle.

In a bit part as an aide to Santa Anna, look for famed Mexican bullfighter Carlos Arruza; well-known director Budd Boetticher would fizzle away his career in Mexico during the 1960s trying to make his magnum opus, a documentary on Arruza, before Arruza’s early death in 1966.  If Arruza’s presence in the film was intended to make it appeal to Mexicans, it didn’t work; the film was banned in Mexico.  There are various Canutts (related to Yakima, legendary stuntman and second unit director), Patrick Wayne, even an uncredited Pilar and Toni Wayne.

The first movie about the battle at the Alamo was the silent The Immortal Alamo (1911), now thought to be lost.  There have been at least eight films portraying it, and three television productions, including Disney’s “Davy Crockett at the Alamo” episode on Disneyland.  This is not the best film ever made about the Alamo, but it might be the most prominent.  For a better, more historical Crockett performance, see Billy Bob Thornton in The Alamo (2004)The 2004 movie, which tries for greater historical accuracy, is not among the greatest westerns, but it’s better than this version and Thornton’s performance is terrific.  The definitive Alamo movie has yet to be made.

For more actual history of the Alamo and its defense, focusing on the three protagonists (Crockett, Bowie and Travis) and doing a good job of separating the legends from what is actually known, see the books Three Roads to the Alamo (1999), by William C. Davis and The Blood of Heroes (2012), by James Donovan.

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