Tag Archives: Anthony Mann

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 musice by Franz Waxman, so the film looks and sounds good.  Long, at 147 minutes.

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Devil’s Doorway

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 17, 2014

Devil’s Doorway—Robert Taylor, Paula Raymond, Louis Calhern, Edgar Buchanan, Spring Byington (1950; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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An early and socially-conscious western by Anthony Mann (it was his first western, in fact); and a range war western with an interesting Indians vs. whites twist.  Civilized Shoshone Indian Lance Poole (or Broken Lance, played by blue-eyed Robert Taylor in dark makeup with his hair growing longer as the movie progresses) fought at Antietam in the Civil War and won the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, but he returns home to find that his people are in trouble.  His home town is Medicine Bow (the same Wyoming town that was the setting for The Virginian), and his family has long ranched at Sweet Meadows in the mountains.  The gap leading to their mountain valley is known as the Devil’s Doorway, and much of the action takes place around it. 

Long-time residents like Zeke Carmody (Edgar Buchanan) know Lance and treat him well enough.  However, a venal and bigoted eastern lawyer, Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), has lured sheep ranchers to the area with the promise of free land for the homesteading—Sweet Meadows.  Lance tries to follow the law, as directed by his young and attractive female attorney Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond, with Spring Byington playing her mother).  But Indians are not U.S. citizens (not until 1924, in fact), and can’t legally homestead themselves. 

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Lance (Robert Taylor) and Orrie (Paula Raymond) ponder the futility of it all.

Lance’s father dies, and a band from the reservation seeks refuge with Lance at Sweet Meadows.  Lance tries legal recourse, but Coolan forms a mob and attacks Sweet Meadows.  The Indians are successful in holding them off for a while (both sides use dynamite, which is probably anachronistic for the 1860s), and Lance kills Coolan.  But Masters calls in the cavalry from Fort Laramie to get the Indians back to the reservation.  By the time the Indians agree to go back to the reservation, there are only the women and children left alive.  Lance dies theatrically, wearing his soldier’s jacket and Medal of Honor. 

The film is not based on any historical incident involving Shoshones, but it’s not wrong about the implacability of racial attitudes at the time, either.  The reservation in question would have been the Wind River reservation, which wasn’t, and still isn’t, bad as reservations go.  In those days the Shoshones would have only felt the need to leave it to go buffalo hunting.  The great Washakie was the Eastern Shoshone chief in the 1860s, and he was an effective leader respected by both Indians and whites. 

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Beleagured Shoshones defend themselves against settlers, in a reversal of the usual situation..

Orrie and her mother, as sympathetic, even radical, as they are for their times, can’t bring Orrie to act on the attraction she feels for Lance.  One of Lance’s last comments to Orrie:  “Maybe in a hundred years we could have made it work.”  But he’s right; in the 1860s, the Indians couldn’t win in this fictional situation.  Even Custer’s demise was ten years in the future.  This plays well with modern social sensibilities 60 years after its release.  It’s a little heavy-handed, especially at the end, but watchable.  Taylor, Calhern and Raymond are all good.  It was released the same year as the more celebrated Broken Arrow.  Shot in black and white by cinematographer John Alton, with great mountain scenery in Grand Junction and Aspen, Colorado.  The aspens and mountain meadows look authentic.

Robert Taylor was in the middle of a pretty good run as he moved into making more westerns.  See him also in the excellent Ambush (1950) and Westward the Women (1951).  During the 1950s, he would also be good in The Last Hunt (1956), The Law and Jake Wade (1958) and Saddle the Wind (1958).

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Great Directors: Anthony Mann

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 19, 2014

Anthony Mann

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“He was less reckless than Sam Fuller, less passionate than Nicholas Ray, yet in the framework of the Western he hit on an almost perfect form with more consistency than either of his peers—and fueled it with pain.” – Tom Charity, The Rough Guide to Film, 2007.

Anthony Mann was born in 1906 in San Diego with the name Emil Anton Bundesmann, to an Austrian Catholic father and a Jewish Bavarian mother.  He was only 60 when he died of a heart attack in Berlin in 1967 while filming A Dandy in Aspic.

He started out as an actor, appearing in plays off Broadway in New York City, moving into directing.  Among many others he worked with the young James Stewart during the 1930s.  In 1938 he moved to Hollywood and joined the Selznick organization as a casting director and talent scout.  In 1942 he became an assistant director and moved into directing low-budget crime films for RKO and Republic.  During the 1940s he was known principally as a director of films noirs.

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Paula Raymond and Robert Taylor in Devil’s Doorway, 1950.

His first western was Devil’s Doorway in 1950, which showed both the social concerns and the interest in the psychological roots of action and violence that had marked his earlier work.  The noir sensibility had already been evident in such westerns by other directors as Yellow Sky and Blood on the Moon from the late 1940s, but it was strongly present in Mann’s work in westerns as well.  The same year he directed the family saga-range melodrama The Furies as well.  For Mann, westerns were his opening to becoming a front-rank director.  His westerns were commercially successful, and he became known as the father of the psychological western.  And James Stewart re-invigorated his career through his work with Mann and with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s.

His first major production was Winchester ’73 in 1950; he was recommended as a director by James Stewart, with whom he had worked in the 1930s.  The partnership was very successful.  In addition to the five westerns they made together in the early 1950s, they also made The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command.  Mann and Stewart are linked together in cinematic history as much as John Ford and John Wayne.  The two had a falling-out over Night Passage in 1957, Mann left the production, and the two never worked together again.  Mann was the initial director of Spartacus but left after disagreements with the star-producer Kirk Douglas, to be replaced by the more amenable Stanley Kubrick.

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Mann directing Walter Brennan and James Stewart in The Far Country, 1954.

Even without the collaboration with Stewart, Mann continued to make good westerns in the 1950s:  The Last Frontier with Victor Mature, The Tin Star with Anthony Perkins and Henry Fonda, and Man of the West with Gary Cooper.  About 1960, he increasingly moved toward historical epics, such as the remake of Cimarron, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire—a long way from the films noirs in which he made his initial reputation and the westerns with a psychological edge that made him a front-rank director.

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Mann directing Charlton Heston in El Cid, 1961.

In retrospect, his directorial career seems to divide neatly into three parts. “Though he incidentally directed films in various genres (the musical, the war movie, the spy drama), Anthony Mann’s career falls into three clearly marked phases:  the early period of low-budget, B-feature films noir; the central, most celebrated period of westerns, mostly with James Stewart; and his involvement in the epic (with Samuel Bronston as producer).   All three periods produced distinguished work, but it is the body of work from the middle period in which Mann’s achievement is most consistent and on which his reputation largely depends.” – Robin Wood, International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 1991.

The best comprehensive look at Mann’s work is probably film historian Jeanine Basinger’s  Anthony Mann, initially written in the 1970s but updated and expanded in recent years (2007).

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Shooting Julie London and Gary Cooper in Man of the West, 1958.

Mann Essentials:  Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, The Tin Star, Man of the West.

Second-Rank Mann:  Devil’s Doorway, The Furies, The Last Frontier, Cimarron.

Mann Non-Western Essentials:  T-Men, Raw Deal, The Glenn Miller Story, Strategic Air Command, El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

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The Last Frontier

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 11, 2014

The Last Frontier—Victor Mature, Guy Madison, Robert Preston, Anne Bancroft, James Whitmore, Pat Hogan (1955; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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Since this is an Anthony Mann western (albeit without James Stewart), there are not one but two psychologically tortured characters.  The first is Jed Cooper, an almost feral man-child played by Victor Mature, a trapper who has apparently been raised in the wilderness by Gus (James Whitmore).  The other is Col. Frank Marston (Robert Preston), who got 1500 men killed in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and is now referred to as “the Butcher of Shiloh.”  He seems both unbalanced by that experience and surprisingly confident in himself. 

It’s 1864 in the mountains of northern Wyoming and southern Montana, the land roamed primarily by the Sioux.  Three mountain men-fur trappers (Gus, Jed and Mungo, an Indian of unspecified tribe) are taking the results of their annual labors to sell, when they are stopped by Indians who are painted for war.  It turns out they are led by Red Cloud, who takes their guns, horses and furs and tells them they are no longer welcome in his lands because of the new fort built by white men.

The three decide to head for newly-built Fort Shallan (fictional, apparently), which is understaffed because of the Civil War still raging in the east.  Capt. Glenn Riordan (Guy Madison) is in charge, since his commanding officer was killed by Indians.  He takes on the three as civilian scouts.  Jed is fascinated by the military and civilization and its trappings, although he’s never been around white people much.  Riordan won’t let him enlist in the military, judging correctly that he’s temperamentally and developmentally unsuited to such a regimented life.  Jed is also taken with Corinna Marston (a blond Anne Bancroft), wife of the missing Col. Marston.  She’s having none of his roughness, though.  For now.

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Jed (Victor Mature) and Mrs. Marston (Anne Bancroft).

Marston has been commanding Fort Medford (also fictional), from which his forces have been driven off and which has been burned to the ground by Indians.  He arrives with a few soldiers and by virtue of his higher rank assumes command at Fort Shallan.  Marston is obsessed with getting back at the Indians in battle, whereas Riordan thinks the only hope for survival in hostile territory is to wait out the approaching winter in the fort, after which the Civil War may end and allow for more troops to be sent out to this remote wilderness.  Fort Shallan’s troops are both untrained and too few to attack the Indians with any chance of success. 

It also becomes clear that there are tensions between the Marstons in their marriage.  And Jed and Corinna become more attracted to each other; that is, Corinna allows Jed to get closer.  He never had much restraint about his attraction to her.

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Col. Marston (Robert Preston) trapped in a bear pit.

Marston insists on accompanying a patrol stocking up on water near Red Cloud’s camp.  He and Jed scout the camp and Marston falls into a bear trap pit.  Jed refuses to help him out of it unless he agrees to give up his foolhardy plans to attack the Indians.  Back at the the fort, Gus and Corinna talk him into rescuing Marston anyway.  Marston gloats, “She wouldn’t let you do it, would she?”

Far from giving up his plans for attack, Marston proceeds with them.  He encourages a sadistic sergeant to attack Jed and when the fight results in the sergeant’s death, Marston calls for Jed’s execution.  Jed escapes into the forest and observes as Marston leads out a force guided by Gus.  The force is ambushed by Sioux, and Jed joins in the fighting, leading as many of the soldiers as can disengage back to Fort Shallan.  Both Gus and Marston are killed.  In the final scene, Jed is shown as a sergeant in a blue uniform at Fort Shellan in the winter.  Corrina Marston is still there.   Mungo (Pat Hogan) has gone back to the mountains.

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Jed scouts during the foolhardy battle with the Sioux.

Somehow that seems an unsatisfying ending for a spirit as independent as Jed’s.  Mann said that the ending was forced on him by the studio.  Victor Mature seems a little old to be as wild as Jed acts sometimes, but he’s fine.  Mature was actually eight years older than James Whitmore, who plays his father-figure Gus and is said in the film to have raised him.  The best performance in this film is given by Robert Preston as the snakily out-of-kilter Col. Marston (reminiscent perhaps of the Captain Queeg character who provokes a mutiny in the the World War II story The Caine Mutiny).  Madison is good as Riordan, and Anne Bancroft is fine as Corinna. 

This is a watchable western, but not among Mann’s best.  Based on the novel “The Gilded Rooster” by Richard Emery Roberts.  In color, 98 minutes.  Not to be confused with a 1986 television movie with the same title, set in Australia and directed by Simon Wincer.   On television, this has sometimes been shown with the title Savage Wilderness.  Although the story is set in the Northern Rockies, filming was done on location in Mexico.  That snow-capped mountain looming above the fort and the forests is Mt. Popocatapetl.

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Historically, the events in this seem a little premature.  Red Cloud’s War is usually dated from 1866 to 1868, when it was ended by the Treaty of Fort Laramie and the U.S. army gave up Fort Phil Kearney, which was burned to the ground by the Sioux as soon as it was vacated.  It’s still generally considered the only white-Indian war in U.S. history which the Indians won.  The effects of that victory lasted only eight years, however, until the next Sioux war, in which Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was wiped out but the Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahoes were forced onto reservations and lost these lands in Wyoming and Montana.   Some summaries place the events of this film in Oregon, perhaps because of the reference to Fort Medford and the beautiful mountain scenery, but Red Cloud’s war never got anywhere close to Oregon.  It was concentrated along the Bozeman Trail from central Wyoming to the gold mines of western Montana.

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Man of the West

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 1, 2014

Man of the West—Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Royal Dano, John Dehner, Jack Lord, Arthur O’Connell, Robert Wilke (1958; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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Link Jones (Gary Cooper) to his cousin Claude (John Dehner):  “Don’t you talk anymore, Claude?  We used to talk, you and me, when we were kids.  What happened?  Things have kind of gone to hell, haven’t they?  And you’re still at it – stealing and killing and running.”

This psychological western has a pretty meaningless generic title, and it’s not as good a film as the westerns director Mann made with James Stewart.  Except for the 1960 remake of Cimarron, this was Anthony Mann’s last western and the third of his post-James Stewart period (after The Last Frontier and The Tin Star and before Cimarron). 

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Publicity stills of Gary Cooper and Julie London from Man of the West.

Gary Cooper was always watchable in a western, but he seems too old for the role he’s playing in this one.  He’s Link Jones, a reformed outlaw in west Texas in 1874 on his way to Fort Worth to hire a schoolmarm for the new school in his town.  An unsuccessful train robbery leaves Jones, saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) and talkative gambler Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) stranded a hundred miles from anywhere.  Jones used to know the territory, and they hike to an apparently abandoned ranch.  It’s not abandoned but is being used for the moment by the Dock Tobin gang with which Jones used to run and which pulled the botched train robbery. 

In fact, Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) is Jones’s uncle, and the two most effective members of the gang are Jones’s cousins Coaley (Jack Lord) and Claude (John Dehner).  The others are the mute Trout (Royal Dano) and Ponch (Robert Wilke). 

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Jones, who’d abandoned the gang a decade earlier, makes like he intends to rejoin them and tells them that Ellis is his woman (although he actually has a wife and two kids back home in Good Hope).  Tobin wants Jones back, but he’s just barely in control of this gang of brutal scumbags, and the rest of them aren’t at all sure of Jones.  The two most disturbing scenes are when Coaley makes Ellis strip while holding a knife at Jones’ neck, and later when Jones beats the crap out of Coaley and rips Coaley’s clothes off in retaliation.  Tobin seems to see Link as a more capable successor than either of his own sons, and they both resent it and don’t trust him as much as Tobin is inclined to.

Jones joins the gang for a bank robbery in what turns out to be a ghost town now, and he kills Trout, Ponch and Claude, one by one.  Returning to the wagons, he finds that Ellis has apparently been raped by Dock, and Jones and Dock have it out.  At the end, Link and Ellis set off for civilization, Link with his town’s money back and the gang all dead (and Link’s unsavory past with them), and Ellis in love with Link but knowing there’s no future in it. 

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Link (Gary Cooper) and Dock (Lee J. Cobb) talk about the past.

Some would draw parallels between Link Jones and Clint Eastwood’s character William Munny in Unforgiven.  Both have a past filled with outlawry and violence, from which they have moved on to a life of law-abiding peace.  Both are called back to their old skills early in the movie and must use them to accomplish what needs to be done.  But Link goes back to his peaceful life when he’s done; William Munny never can.

It’s kind of a bleak western.  Cobb wears an unconvincing hairpiece and seems distracted and half-crazed for much of the movie.  Dano, being mute, has no lines, and Ponch very few.  Dano and London were in Saddle the Wind the same year.  This movie was not a critical or commercial success, blamed in part on Cooper being too old for the part.  (Cobb, playing his supposed uncle, was in fact ten years younger than Cooper.)  The fight with Coaley is not entirely convincing, partly because of Cooper’s age and physical limitations.  French critics liked the film, though.  Adapted from Will C. Brown’s novel The Border JumpersIn color.

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

DeTothAndre de Toth

Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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Bend of the River

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 25, 2013

Bend of the River—James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Julia Adams, Jay C. Flippen, Stepin Fetchit, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano (1952; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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The second and perhaps the weakest of the five Anthony Mann-James Stewart westerns from the early 1950s.  However, even a weak Mann-Stewart western is still highly watchable.  Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) is a former Missouri border raider and gunman leading a wagon train to the Mount Hood area of Oregon (in 1847?) and trying to live down his past. 

On the way, he rescues horse thief Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from hanging, only to discover that Cole is a former Kansas border raider and gunman.  Together they fight off a small band of Shoshone renegades and the train arrives in Portland, where the settlers buy supplies to be delivered to them and head up the river toward Mount Hood.

BendRiverAdamsKennedy Laura chooses badly.

When the supplies don’t arrive on schedule in September, McLyntock and head settler Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen) head for Portland to find out why.  They discover Portland is now a mining boom town, and the miners have driven prices for food and supplies through the roof.  With the help of Cole and his young gambler friend Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson), McLyntock takes the supplies, closely pursued by saloon owner and slippery merchant Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie). 

They eventually fight off Hendricks’ men, killing Hendricks.  But Cole has come to realize miners will pay a lot more for the supplies, and he hijacks the entire wagon train, leaving McLyntock behind on foot.  McLyntock follows, picking off various of the drivers and taking their weapons.  Eventually he succeeds in taking back the wagons, only to have to fight off an attack by miners led by Cole. 

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Jeremy’s daughter Laura (Julia Adams) is the romantic interest, initially attracted to Cole but eventually repulsed by his obvious sleaziness.  The plot doesn’t hang together terribly well, and Jeremy Baile is kind of a tiresome character.  There’s rather a lot of killing, mostly not of Indians.  Set in an earlier period than other Mann westerns (presumably no later than the 1850s, with Oregon immigration and former Missouri-Kansas border raiders), but there are no concessions to that time in the look and weapons.  It looks just the same as all other Mann westerns, including The Far Country which is set in 1898. 

James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (1952). Courtesy Photofest. P

Former bushwacker, now trail scout.

Stewart and Kennedy are fine; Hudson seems a little out of place; and the lovely Julia Adams is given little to do.  This is supposedly the last film in which Stewart appeared with his real hair.  He’s wearing his usual westerns hat and presumably riding his horse Pie, though.  Stepin Fetchit plays kind of a jarring character to modern eyes—an old-fashioned black stereotype with near-unintelligible dialogue sometimes.  Based on the novel “Bend of the Snake” by Bill Gulick and filmed on location near Mount Hood.  In color.  The DVD is unfortunately only in full frame, like The Far Country, not in widescreen.

Note:  Reader Simón Cherpitel notes that Bend of the River was made when many movies and studios were still making the transition to widescreen formats.  This one was originally filmed in “academy ratio,” and therefore the DVD shows all there is to see (unlike, say, the later Mann-Stewart The Far Country, which was shot with a more widescreen aspect ratio).

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Winchester ’73

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 24, 2013

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

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

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

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MacAdam (James Stewart) at the shooting contest.

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

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

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

winchester73_shootout Shootout in the rocks.

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

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

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Production still of James Stewart.

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

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

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

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The Naked Spur

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 19, 2013

The Naked Spur—James Stewart, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell (1953; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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Every one of the characters in this movie is deeply wounded or flawed in some significant way.  As the film develops, it’s not clear who’s the best one, but it is clear who’s the worst:  Ben Vandergroat, played by Robert Ryan in one of his best roles, an outlaw wanted for murder in Abilene, Kansas.  He’s always smiling and utterly without conscience, traveling in the company of Lina Patch (a dirty-faced Janet Leigh), the young daughter of a now-deceased outlaw colleague.

At the start of the movie, Ben is captured in the mountains by Howard Kemp (James Stewart), with the incidental help of cashiered cavalry lieutenant Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and down-at-the-heels prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell).  Ben knows Howard from the Abilene area, and lets the others know that (a) Howard (whom he irritatingly calls Howie throughout the movie) is not a peace officer but only wants to bring him in for the $5000 reward, and (b) Howard went off to fight for the Union in the recent Civil War and deeded his ranch to his fiancée so she could work it properly in his absence.  When he returned from the war, she’d sold the ranch and left with another man.  Betrayed and unsure of himself now, Howard wants the reward to buy back his ranch and start over.

NakedSpurStewart Capturing Ben

When Roy and Jesse hear this, they want equal shares of the reward and Howard is forced to accept that arrangement.  As the group heads east toward Abilene, Ben starts to work on the three taking him back, exploiting personal weaknesses and setting them against each other.  He also uses Lina to appeal to their baser instincts.  (“They’re men, honey, and you ain’t.  Remember that.”)  Ben’s creepily physical relationship with Lina sets their teeth on edge.  (“My back’s bothering me again, honey.  Can you do me?”)  Howard’s emotional stability starts to show some cracks.  It turns out that the sleazy Roy was dishonorably discharged from the army for being “morally unstable.”  The group is followed by a dozen Indians (Blackfeet, Howard says), and it’s Roy they’re after.  Apparently he demonstrated his moral instability by raping a young Indian woman, and they want revenge.  Ben plays on Jesse’s lifetime of unsuccessful prospecting by slyly suggesting he knows the secret location of gold in the mountains.

naked-spur-trio Ben, Lina and Jesse

Howard expels Roy from the group when he discovers why the Blackfeet are following, but Roy gets the group ambushed for his own protection.  They kill the Indians, but Howard is shot in the leg.  Lina tends Howard while he is delirious and seems to be developing some sympathy for him; Howard may reciprocate, on his way to becoming more human.  Ben uses that attraction between them to try repeatedly to escape.  He’s never quite successful, but he never gives up

Finally the lure of a potential strike becomes too much for Jesse, who cuts Ben loose to lead him to the supposed gold.  Jesse, Ben and Lina escape, but Jesse by himself is no match for Ben, who shoots him and prepares an ambush for Roy and Howard.  The final showdown takes place in mountain rocks (much like in Mann’s Winchester ’73), which Howard climbs with the help of a spur used as a piton.  In the end, both Howard and Lina have to decide what they really want—the reward for Ben and a life in the shadow of the past, or a new beginning somewhere else.

Nakedspur2 Fighting things out.

There’s always action, either psychological or physical or both, in this tautly-paced movie.  In a genre previously known for black-and-white values, this one has all shades.  With all those loose psychological threads, the end can seem abrupt.  Nobody’s entirely admirable.  With only five characters, it’s a small cast, but every performance is excellent.  Stewart was in the middle of his association with director Anthony Mann, and gives perhaps his most tortured performance for Mann.  Meeker would not be recognized by most audiences now; he had a brief career in the movies, with his greatest success as Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly.  He is very good as the sleazy Roy, who wears his uniform throughout the movie despite having been cashiered.  Millard Mitchell (who also appears in Winchester ’73 with Stewart and in The Gunfighter with Gregory Peck) is fine as Jesse, the failed prospector.  Janet Leigh’s role is the smallest, but she does well. 

Mann and Stewart made several westerns in the 1950s, and Mann is now considered the father of the psychological western.  Many think this is his best movie, although The Man from Laramie and Winchester ’73 also get votes.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Script, and William Mellor’s color cinematography makes good use of the high country of Colorado where it was shot.  It’s gorgeous if you’re watching this on a good print or DVD transfer.

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The Far Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 18, 2013

The Far Country—James Stewart, Walter Brennan, Ruth Roman, John McIntire, Corinne Calvet, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Robert Wilke, Royal Dano, Jack Elam, Kathleen Freeman (1954; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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In another of Mann’s stories about an alienated loner, Jeff Webster (James Stewart) has driven a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Seattle, where they are loaded on a steamboat for Skagway, Alaska Territory.  It is 1898, so the Alaskan gold rush is on.  Webster and his garrulous partner Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) plan to drive the herd even farther north to Dawson, where there isn’t a lot of beef and they can get top dollar for their cattle.  Then, as Ben tells anyone who will listen, they’ll buy a ranch in Utah, where they’ll spend the rest of their days.

Jeff isn’t just a loner; he’s a loner who’s good with a gun and killed two men on the drive to Seattle.  When the boat’s authorities try to arrest him, he is hidden by saloon owner Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), who’s taken a romantic interest in him.  As he’s driving his cattle off the boat, Jeff inadvertently disrupts a public hanging conducted by Gannon (John McIntire), the local authority who is a law unto himself with a band of thugs (Jack Elam, Robert Wilke) to back him up.  He confiscates Jeff’s cattle, and Jeff takes a job leading Ronda Castle’s wagons to Dawson, up over the Chilkoot Pass.  When he get the wagons over the pass, he goes back to Skagway in the middle of the night, steals his cattle back and drives them over the pass toward Dawson.

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Jeff Webster (James Stewart) makes a new acquaintance (Ruth Roman) while escaping the law on the way to Alaska.

Once in Dawson, Ben makes connections with the regular folk, including Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), a young girl they had met in Skagway.  With the gold has come a rougher element and some crime, and the process is sped up by Ronda’s Dawson Castle saloon.  Jeff sells his cattle at a high price and buys a local gold claim.  Meanwhile, the Mounties haven’t yet figured out how to extend their authority over the unruly area.  Jeff finds himself with several conflicts:  two potential romantic interests; the salt-of-the-earth regular residents and claimholders against the glitzier newcomers out for a fast buck; and regular law and order against Gannon’s variety of law.

Yes, Gannon has shown up in Dawson, with an even larger gang of thugs than he had in Skagway.  Claim-jumping becomes a regular feature of life in Dawson, as do murder and robbery.  Jeff resists taking a hand until he’s robbed and left for dead, and Ben is killed.  Renee nurses him back to health, and although his arm is still in a sling, he has a final shootout with Gannon and his minions.

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Jeff Webster (James Stewart) confronts a gleefully corrupt Gannon (John McIntire, with henchman Jack Elam on his left).

This is one of the best of the “northerns” set during the Alaska gold rush (see also North to Alaska, White Fang and The Spoilers), and like many of them, it features a character based on the real-life conman Soapy Smith, who took over Skagway for a time.  This has a larger cast than some of Anthony Mann’s westerns, and they’re quite good.  Both Ruth Roman and Corinne Calvet are believable romantic interests, so that the final choice is not a foregone conclusion.  John McIntire is excellent as Gannon, the Soapy Smith character.  Walter Brennan’s talkative Ben makes personal connections much more easily than Jeff, but he tends to let information slip when he shouldn’t.  Jay C. Flippen and Kathleen Freeman are both part of the good Dawson crowd.  Stewart is edgy as he usually was in a Mann western; he wears his usual hat and rides Pie, the horse he rode through seventeen westerns.  One key plot point relates to a bell Jeff hangs from his saddle horn.

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James Stewart demonstrates that Randolph Scott wasn’t the only star of western movies who could have a romantic triangle going, first with saloon owner Ruth Roman and then with mining lass Corinne Calvet.

The script was by Borden Chase, who provided the scripts for previous Mann films Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River, as well as for Red River and Night Passage.  The film was shot on location at Jasper in Alberta.  Cinematography was by William H. Daniels.  The DVD version in general circulation (2010) is unfortunately only a full-screen, pan-and-scan version.

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