Tag Archives: Burt Lancaster

Vengeance Valley

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2016

Vengeance Valley—Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Hugh O’Brian, Sally Forrest, Ted de Corsia, Ray Collins (1951; Dir:  Richard Thorpe)

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If you were making a western in the 1940s or 1950s, you could do worse than start with a story from western writer Luke Short, as was done here.  This was Burt Lancaster’s first western, and its brother-gone-bad story is fueled by the excellent actors Lancaster and Robert Walker, who was nearing the end of his career and short life.

Owen Daybright (Burt Lancaster) is the foster son of range baron Arch Strobie (Ray Collins).  In addition to being Strobie’s foreman, part of his responsibilities includes training Strobie’s real son Lee (Robert Walker).  Although relations are apparently good between the foster brothers, it’s unclear how much real tension might be there.  As the movie starts, the two are returning from an extended period caring for the herds during the winter.  In town, they hear that Lily Fasken (Sally Forrest), who formerly worked at a restaurant, has borne a baby out of wedlock.  Mostly shunned by the respectable people in town, Owen finds her being cared for by Lee’s new wife Jen (Joanne Dru).  He gives her some supplies and $500, leading her brother Dick (Hugh O’Brian) to suppose that Owen is the father and send for brother Hub (John Ireland, then married to Joanne Dru).

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Good brother Owen Daybright (Burt Lancaster) tries to talk bad brother Lee Strobie (Robert Walker) into doing the right thing.

We soon see that Lee is the real father of Lily’s child, and that Owen has feelings for Jen that he’s mostly hiding.  As the Fasken brothers try to take action against Owen, they are thrown in jail, and Owen and Lee head off to the spring roundup.  Lee is looking for a way out of his situation, and he tries to focus more of the blame for his own actions on Owen.  After Owen has a fight with a small-time rustler (Ted de Corsia), Lee arranges for the Faskens to be allowed into the roundup, where they can ambush Owen.

Meanwhile, Lee gets his father to make him a full partner in the ranch, and during the roundup he arranges to seel the Strobie stock for $40,000.  He hopes to make off with the money and use it to start anew in another location.  His marriage with Jen is falling apart because Jen has seen his selfish behavior for what it is.  But Owen crosses paths with Lee’s new buyer and confronts Lee, who then tries to lead him into the Fasken ambush.  Owen is wounded, but gets the Faskens, and Lee escapes.  Owen intercepts Lee, and there is a final confrontation between the two.

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The nefarious Fasken brothers Dick (Hugh O’Brian) and Hub (John Ireland) are convinced that Owen ruined their sister Lily.

Despite the good performances by Lancaster and Walker, and Dru’s usual attractiveness, this is somehow lacking a spark.  Dru is mostly underused.  The subplot involving Dru falling out with Lee and Owen falling for her is underplayed, although a still from the studio (below) would seem to make it more overt.  One is mostly inclined to attribute the lackluster results to journeyman director Richard Thorpe, who had been directing movies for almost thirty years.  Lancaster would go on to better westerns (Vera Cruz, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Professionals, Valdez Is Coming, Ulzana’s Raid) over his long career.  Walker would soon be dead of alcohol and a broken heart, with Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick having stolen his wife Jennifer Jones.  He could be an excellent actor in roles like the one he has here, as we have seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

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Lancaster, Dru and Walker in a studio still. Their situation never became this overt in the movie.

Shot in color in various Colorado location, at 83 minutes.  At a time when movies, including upscale westerns, were moving to widescreen forms of presentation, this is still in what is called “academy aspect,” the ratio in which movies had been shown for the previous decades.

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The Unforgiven

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 18, 2015

The Unforgiven—Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, Charles Bickford, Lilian Gish, John Saxon, Joseph Wiseman, Albert Salmi, Doug McClure (1960;  Dir:  John Huston)

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Audrey Hepburn was an elegant and accomplished actress, but seemingly not a natural in westerns—more a creature of the modern world, with a very slight and vaguely European accent.   This was her only western, and she has kind of a peripheral role, although a controversy about her is the central conflict of the movie.  In fact, she is not well cast here for what her character is supposed to be.  In addition to Hepburn, there is a lot of top talent involved here:  director John Huston, writer Alan LeMay (known for The Searchers), big star Burt Lancaster, and western star Audie Murphy.

The movie opens with an interesting shot of cattle grazing on the sod roof of the Zacharys’ ranch house in the Texas panhandle in the years immediately after the Civil War.  The family patriarch, Will Zachary, had been killed by Kiowas several years previously, and because of the long conflict with the Kiowas many whites, including middle brother Cash Zachary (Audie Murphy), hate Indians.  The Zacharys are partners of a sort in a ranching venture with the Rawlins family headed by Zeb Rawlins (crusty Charles Bickford), left crippled by Kiowa torture some years previously.

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Sister Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) and brother Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster) riding together.

The head of the Zachary family now is oldest brother Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster), first seen returning from Wichita with newly-hired hands to make the long drive back to Wichita with the combined Zachary-Rawlins herd.  The proceeds should make both families financially secure for the first time.  Brother Cash Zachary is good with a gun but hot-headed; youngest brother Andy Zachary is just inexperienced; and sister Rachel Zachary (Audrey Hepburn in dark makeup) is a foundling adopted by the family a couple of decades earlier.

Early in the movie, Rachel encounters a mysterious older figure dressed what appear to be parts of a Confederate uniform, carrying a saber.  He is Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman), who makes cryptic quasi-Biblical pronouncements and may be crazy.  Ma Zachary (Lilian Gish in her second Texas matriarch role, after Duel in the Sun more than ten years earlier) clearly feels threatened by him.  Ben and Cash give chase, and, although they do not catch Kelsey, they kill his horse.

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Abe Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman), who may be crazy, stirs up old wounds.

Rachel Zachary:  “Ben, what did those Indians want?”
Ben Zachary:  “They offered to buy you for those five horses.”
Rachel Zachary:  “Well, did you sell me?”
Ben Zachary, grinning:  “Nope; held out for more horses.”  (In fact, he has just told the Kiowas that there are not enough horses to buy her.)

Meanwhile, young Charlie Rawlins (Albert Salmi, who tended to play thugs or clods—here he’s a clod) is interested in Rachel, although Ben doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about Charlie’s romantic attentions to his (non-genetic) sister.  Kiowas show up, claiming that Abe Kelsey has told them that Rachel is an abducted Kiowa and sister to the Kiowa leader.  As Ben rejects the Kiowa overtures, they respond by killing Charlie Rawlins.  A clearly distraught Ma Rawlins reacts by claiming to believe the Kiowa story, and the Rawlinses threaten to pull out of their partnership with the Zacharys if the story is true.  A combined force of Zachary and Rawlins men hunts down Abe Kelsey when he steals Rachel’s horse.  Under interrogation at the Rawlins ranch, he says that when his own son was captured by the Kiowas years before, he had wanted to trade young Rachel for his son and the Zacharys had refused.  As Kelsey sits on a horse with a noose around his neck, Ma Zachary kicks his horse and he hangs.

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Oldest brother Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster) negotiates with the Kiowas.

[Spoilers follow.]  Back at the Zachary ranch, Ma Zachary admits that when Will Zachary returned from a settler raid on a Kiowa village a couple of decades earlier, the only survivor was an infant girl, who was then adopted by the Zacharys in the place of their recently–deceased baby girl.  That was Rachel.  Cash is having none of it and leaves in a rage.  The Zacharys find themselves besieged by Kiowas and hold out for a day under the leadership of Ben.  Ma is shot and dies because she doesn’t tell anybody about her wound.  The next day, the Kiowas drive the Zachary cattle onto the top of their house, causing the roof to collapse.  Cash returns with ammunition just in time and kills several Kiowas but is wounded a couple of times himself.  Rachel, with only a few rounds in a pistol, is confronted by her Kiowa brother and has to choose between the only family she has known or her Indian heritage.  She shoots the Kiowa brother.  At the end, with their ranch in ruins, the latent romance between Ben and Rachel comes out, and they decide to get married.

This is a typical sort of John Huston movie, with dark secrets from the past influencing or controlling the present.   Burt Lancaster is a strong lead, seldom wearing a hat during the entire movie so his vigorous growth of hair is always on display.  Audie Murphy is perfectly adequate in one of his few A westerns (along with Night Passage).  Lilian Gish is good at being a frontier matriarch haunted by the dark past.  Audrey Hepburn doesn’t look much like an Indian despite her dark makeup, and she has an unusually refined persona for any kind of frontier woman.

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Preparing to receive the Kiowas: Rachel (Audrey Hepburn, in her dark makeup) with her frontier skills.

Huston saw this as a story about racial relations and bigotry; the studio wanted to make sure that it was primarily commercial, and the two concepts do not always make for a comfortable mix.  Some of the dialogue and references to Indians (they are continually referred to as “red-hide Indians” and worse) seems a bit virulent for modern tastes.  It has some themes in common with John Ford’s The Searchers, although in this case it’s an Indian child abducted by whites and not the other way around. Big budget or not, this is watchable but seems somewhat overheated. Music is by Dimitri Tiomkin and cinematography by Franz Planer.  Filmed in color in Durango, Mexico, at 125 minutes. Not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven.

Lancaster’s production company was behind the film, and he initially saw Kirk Douglas in the role of his brother Cash.  That idea was shot down because it was thought that Douglas would alter the balances between the brothers as written in the story.  When it was decided not to use Douglas, Tony Curtis and then Richard Burton were considered for the role before Audie Murphy was ultimately chosen.  Bette Davis turned down the Lilian Gish role because she didn’t want to play Burt Lancaster’s mother.

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The surviving Zacharys: Andy (Doug McClure), Ben (Burt Lancaster), Cash (Audie Murphy) and Rachel (Audrey Hepburn).

Before filming began, director Huston and Lancaster took Lillian Gish out to the desert to teach her how to shoot, which she would have to do in the film.  However, Huston was surprised to discover that Gish could shoot faster and more accurately than either he or Lancaster, who both thought themselves expert marksmen.  It turned out that early in her career during the silent movie era, Gish was taught how to shoot by Oklahoma outlaw Al Jennings, who had become an actor after his release from a long prison sentence for train robbery and was cast in one of her films.  She found that she liked shooting and over the years had developed into an expert shot.

Audrey Hepburn was seriously injured during production when she was thrown by a horse between scenes.  Hepburn, who was pregnant, spent six weeks in the hospital healing from a broken back and, when she returned to the set, was able to complete her role wearing a back brace, which her wardrobe had to be redesigned to hide.  Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage a few months later, which some blamed on her injury from this movie.  Indeed, John Huston blamed himself for the mishap, although Hepburn harbored no ill feelings toward the director.  While Hepburn was in the hospital, Huston filmed scenes using a double.  Of course, it didn’t help Hepburn’s health that her weight fell to 98 pounds during filming, and that she increased her smoking to three packs a day.

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In his autobiography, John Huston describes this film as the only one he ever made that he entirely disliked.  Film critic David Thomson, not usually a Huston admirer, called it his best film.  It pretty clearly is not:  The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen and The Man Who Would Be King all have stronger claims to that honor.

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Shooting Stars, Part 3

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Scalphunters

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 12, 2015

The Scalphunters—Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis, Telly Savalas, Shelley Winters, Armando Silvestre (1968; Dir: Sydney Pollack)

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This is one of two western comedies from the late 1960s-early 1970s that uses slavery as a critical element of its plot.  The other is Skin Game, and in both cases the slave in question is something of a con man who gets by in dicey circumstances by outsmarting everybody else.

Fur trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is making his way to sell his winter’s catch of pelts, when he encounters old acquaintance Kiowa chief Two Crows (Armando Silvestre).  Two Crows and his Kiowas make off with Bass’ furs, but not without making a trade of sorts.  They give him Joseph Winfield Lee (Ossie Davis), whom they have captured from the Comanches.  Lee turns out to be very well-educated, able to read, write, cipher and quote Latin; in fact, he is much better-educated than the Massachusetts-born Bass, who is illiterate.

As Lee explains matters to Bass, he has run off from Louisiana, hoping to reach Mexico, where there is no slavery.  He had fallen in with Comanches and keeps arguing that he is a Comanche, but had the misfortune to be captured by Kiowas, who have now traded him to Bass.  Bass has no use for a slave but figures he can recoup something by selling Lee in St. Louis.  Bass may not have much book learning, but he’s a masterful fighter and tactician, and he can live off the arid lands of the west.  Bass and Lee banter back and forth, while they follow the Kiowas.  Bass knows there’s a cask of whiskey in with his furs and figures to take back the furs as soon as the Indians incapacitate themselves with the whiskey.

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Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) and Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) look to recover Bass’ furs.

Joe Bass:  “You ever fight twelve drunk Indians?”
Joseph Lee:  “No, sir, but I’d like to see it done.”

It almost works, but just as Bass and Lee are about to make their move, the Kiowas are slaughtered by a group of scurrilous scalphunters led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas).  In addition to killing the Indians for the $25 bounties their scalps will bring, they make off with Bass’ furs.  Only Two Crows escapes.  Bass and Lee follow the scalphunters.  As they spy on them, trying to figure out how to get the furs, Lee falls down a steep escarpment and is captured by the scalphunters.

Jim Howie plans to sell Lee in Galveston on their way to Mexico.  Lee ingratiates himself with Howie’s woman Kate, hoping to make himself indispensable enough that they’ll take him to Mexico.  Bass ambushes the scalphunters and orders them to leave the mule with the furs behind while they move on; he kills the two scalphunters Howie orders to flank him.  But the mule runs off and is taken by the scalphunters again.  Bass orchestrates a landslide that takes out several of the scalphunters, but they manage to hang onto the furs.

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Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) thinks he finally has Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) where he wants him.

When the scalphunters are about to make a stop, Bass puts loco weed in the water their horses will drink.  He ridicules Lee for not being able or willing to fight, and Howie has set a trap for Bass.  As the Bass and Lee argue and brawl, Howie springs out of hiding with a gun.  Lee grapples with him and in the struggle it goes off; Lee is the survivor.  As Bass and Lee continue their interminable fight, Two Crows shows up and takes over the furs and Kate, killing the few remaining scalphunters. As Bass and Lee ride off on Bass’s horse, Lee points out that the scalphunter wagon has Howie’s drinking whiskey, and that by nightfall the Kiowas should be quite drunk.

Director Sydney Pollack only made two westerns.  This was the first; the second (and better) one was Jeremiah Johnson in 1972, with Robert Redford.  Lancaster and Ossie Davis are quite good.  The movie depends on their relationship, and it works well.  Telly Savalas had a modest career as a heavy in movies (McKenna’s Gold, for example) before moving on to become a cop as television’s Kojack.  Shelley Winters was excellent casting as as Howie’s blowzy companion, given to singing Mormon hymns on Sunday mornings.  One anachronism sticks out:  in the pre-Civil War period of this movie, Joe Bass sports a repeating rifle, which would not then have been available.  The fights become a little tiresome.

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Shot in color on location in Durango, Mexico.  At 102 minutes, it seems a slight film that doesn’t stick in the memory long.  Music is by prolific movie composer Elmer Bernstein.  The unusually literate script is by William Norton.  For another western featuring slavery, see Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which has a few comic moments but is not generally a comedy.  To see Burt Lancaster in another comedic western role, check out The Hallelujah Trail (1965).

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Vera Cruz

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 15, 2014

Vera Cruz—Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Cesar Romero, Denise Darcel, Sara Montiel, Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Henry Brandon, George Macready (1954; Dir:  Robert Aldrich)

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After the American Civil War, rootless American soldiers of fortune are drawn southward into Mexico, where the Mexicans led by Benito Juarez are rebelling against the Austrian-French regime of the emperor Maximilian.  Among these mercenaries are the two protagonists of this film:  Joe Erin, a flashy, grinning gunfighter of dubious morality (Burt Lancaster) and an impoverished plantation owner from Louisiana who had fought for the Confederacy, Ben Trane (Gary Cooper).

At the beginning of the film, Trane’s horse breaks a leg.  As he tries to find a replacement he encounters Joe Erin, who sells him a horse for an exorbitant $100 in gold.  He has stolen the horse from a platoon of lancers, who show up and chase the two as they make their escape.  During the chase, Trane makes one of those shots so common in the 1950s, in which, shooting over one shoulder while his horse is rearing, he shoots a gun out of the hand of the captain of the lancers.  Wildly improbable, this establishes Trane’s skill with a gun, however.  Erin seems to have heard of him.  As Trane is knocked off his horse by a shot, Erin leaps to loot the body, but Trane re-awakens and takes Erin’s horse and saddle instead.

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Lancaster, flashing his pearly whites, as he does for much of the movie; and Cooper, with his unflinching rectitude.  The collaborations and collisions between these two provide most of the tension in the film.

In the next town, Trane encounters a rough band of Americans in a cantina, who assume that he has killed Erin to take his flashy horse and rig.  As they set upon him and are about to kill him, Erin shows up, demonstrates that he’s not dead, and they all head off to meet with the Juarista general to see how much he’ll pay them.  As they enter another town, they see another rough band of Americans tormenting young maidens.  Trane rescues one of them, the fiery Nina (Sarita Montiel), who kisses him and steals his wallet.  Erin takes over the new band of Americans, adding them to his own unsavory gang.

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Trane unconvincingly romances the fiery Nina (Sarita Montiel).

The first potential employer they encounter is not the Juarista general but Maximilian’s general, Marquis Henri de Labordere (played by the smilingly cosmopolitan Cesar Romero).  He recruits them for a mission for Maximilian and is willing to promise more than the Juaristas can pay.  However, all of them are trapped in the town square by the Juarista forces until Erin and Trane engineer a way out by using children as hostages.  The Juarista general mouths a number of honest-sounding revolutionary platitudes, so we know now which party has the moral high ground in this struggle.

Arriving in Mexico City, the crude-mannered Americans attend a magnificent soiree at Chapultepec Palace, where they meet Maximilian (George Macready), give a demonstration of marksmanship and weaponry, and negotiate a mission for $50,000.  They are to conduct the French countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz on the Mexican coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where she will catch a ship for France.  In an aside between Henri and Maximilian, it is clear they do not expect the Americans to survive to collect their fee.  From this point, everyone is trying to doublecross everyone else, with Joe Erin and increasingly Ben Trane frequently quoting Erin’s cynical mentor Ace Hanna, whom Erin killed.

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Joe Erin meets the Emperor Maximilian.

The countess sets off for Vera Cruz, accompanied by the Americans, Henri and a troop of lancers led by Capt. Danette (German actor Henry Brandon).  Various competitions are developing among the alpha males in the entourage.  There is constant tension between Erin and Trane about whether they are really on the same side.  They both want the countess, although they don’t trust her.  Danette despises the Americans, especially Erin.  Henri is playing them all.  And what about the Juaristas?

Erin and Trane discover the real reason for the mission:  the countess’ carriage is carrying $3 million in gold, to be used to hire more mercenaries for Maximilian.  She tells Erin and Trane, however, that she intends to steal the gold, and she’ll cut them in.  They run into a Juarista ambush in a small town, and fight their way out with some casualties.  Nina takes over a cart when the driver is shot, and joins the caravan.  The countess secretly meets with a sea captain who’ll help her get away, and she makes arrangements that exclude Erin and Trane.

[Spoilers follow.]  Henri really doesn’t trust the countess, either, and he takes her prisoner with the intent of executing her.  Erin and Trane follow the carriage, and it is attacked by Juaristas.  They find the gold is gone and join the Juaristas, for a promise of $100,000.  They provide covering fire for a Juarista attack on the town held by Henri and Danette, where the gold supposedly is.  At great cost, the attack is successful.  Erin kills Danette.  With Lancaster’s trademark acrobatic agility, Erin climbs up into a third-floor room to rescue the countess.

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“So if the gold isn’t in the wagon …”

And finally, the ultimate loyalties get sorted out.  Erin has demonstrated that he doesn’t have any except to himself.  Trane has now decided that he supports the Juaristas.  They shoot it out in classic fashion; Trane even throws away his rifle to do it with handguns.  (The final showdown is very well done, with due gravity given to the ceremony of the occasion.)  Trane rides off into the sunset with Nina, and apparently will get the $100,000 to rebuild his plantation, with all the rest of the unsavory Americans killed.  

This was produced by Lancaster’s company (with Henry Hecht), and it’s bursting with vibrant color cinematography, great locations in Mexico, a huge and talented cast, a complicated plot and ultimately even a good guy (Trane) to root for in all the doublecrossing.  That’s a lot to cram into 94 minutes.  As with most of his westerns during the 1950s, Cooper seems old for his role.  But Trane’s still Gary Cooper, so it works.  He doesn’t sound a bit like he’s from Louisiana, nor does Lancaster sound like he’s from Texas.  Next to Cooper’s understated acting style, Lancaster’s performance seems a bit manic here.  A more experienced director would probably have helped him tone it down, if he had the clout to do so.  Among the other Americans, Ernest Borgnine stands out as Donnegan, about the same time as he was playing effective bad guys in movies like Johnny Guitar and sort-of-good guys in films like The Badlanders.

This is the second of Denise Darcel’s two westerns.  She’s better in the other, Westward the Women.  She and Sarita Montiel, who is fine here but has no chemistry with the much older Cooper, did not appear to have much in the way of American film careers after this.  Cesar Romero, whose smilingly corrupt Marquis is sometimes referred to by the other characters as “Old Crocodile Teeth,” has his second most prominent role in a western after playing Doc Holliday in 1939’s Frontier Marshal.  It is a close contest whether his teeth or Lancaster’s are more in evidence in this film; Lancaster probably wins that one.  Henry Brandon, Capt. Danette here, shows up as Indians in other westerns:  Comanche chief Scar in The Searchers, and a Sioux in The Last Frontier and as Comanche Quanah Parker in Two Rode Together.  Charles Bronson, in the days when he was playing Indians and heavies at the start of his career, plays the crass Pittsburgh, under his real name, Charles Buchinsky.  Jack Elam’s here, too, although he doesn’t get to do much.  George Macready as Maximilian was 54, twenty years older than the real Maximilian was at the time of his death.

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Aside from the individual performances, the direction of the larger-scale action scenes is good.  The script isn’t great; in a short movie we hear way too many quotes about Ace Hanna, who’s dead long before it begins.  The music by Hugo Friedhofer is very good.  The story is by experienced western writer Borden Chase.  The use of not-completely-bad and not-entirely-good characters in westerns was innovative for its time.  It is said to have strongly influenced Sergio Leone and other makers of spaghetti westerns.  The camera work sometimes (as in the scene where Erin kills Danette) makes one wonder whether they thought this might be shown in early 1950s 3D.

Many see Vera Cruz as one of the great westerns, but the parts don’t work together well enough for that.  It is one of those rare cases where maybe the film should have been longer to help us cope with the spectacle and plot twists.  It is fun to watch, however, and more than once, to try to figure out what the various characters’ real motivations and allegiances are.  Dave Kehr refers to it as “Robert Aldrich’s hugely influential comic western … This cynical and exuberant film [is] the direct precursor to the disillusioned 1960s westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.”  It’s probably only comic in the limited sense that there are some elements that can’t be taken quite seriously, rather than in the sense that it’s played for laughs.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 3

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 5, 2013

Burt Lancaster as Bill Dolworth in The Professionals

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As one of the leading actors of the 1950s and 1960s (and one of the most versatile), it’s a little unusual to find Burt Lancaster as something other than the lead, but he was willing to do whatever interested him.  Here, he’s a supporting actor, although an important one.  Bill Dolworth is a former participant in a Mexican civil war, a dynamiter and demolitions expert, a womanizer, and a man of action.   A garrulous counterpart to Lee Marvin’s taciturn leader, he pushes the action forward with his trademark athleticism and big smile.  Some would claim that Lancaster’s leading performances in Lawman and Valdez Is Coming belong on this list, too, and maybe the old scout in Ulzana’s Raid.  Along with perhaps his charismatic mostly-bad guy in Vera Cruz, and his Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the OK Corral, although this last is eclipsed by Henry Fonda and Kurt Russell in the same role.

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Joel McCrea as Steve Judd in Ride the High Country , Rev. Josiah Dozier Gray in Stars in My Crown, and Jeff Butler in Union Pacific

Excellent in westerns generally, his greatest western role was one of his last.  However, McCrea was good in any number of smaller movies, such as Ramrod, Colorado Territory, Four Faces West, Stars in My Crown and Trooper Hook, which are not so well remembered today.

  • As aging lawman-turned-bank guard Steve Judd, McCrea was the heart of Sam Peckinpah’s classic Ride the High Country.  Playing with another retired legend of the western screen, Randolph Scott, Judd never wavers in his view of right and wrong and where he stands in that spectrum, come what may.  His signature line in this role:  “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  And he does, against significant odds. 

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  • Shortly after the Civil War, the former soldier Rev. Josiah Dozier Gray shows up in the small town of Walesburg, Tennessee, preaching his first sermon in a saloon with his guns drawn in Stars in My Crown (1950).  He builds a church, marries, adopts a son and becomes part of the life of the town, fighting typhoid and racist nightriders as he can.  He also must fight his way through his own crises of faith and conquer other issues that don’t yield to conventional weapons.  McCrea usually projected a quality of moral decency, even when playing an outlaw (Four Faces West, Colorado Territory).  This role is the epitome of that decency, and it’s a measure of his performance here that we not only believe him, we understand why the rest of the town believes him, too, in their various ways.  McCrea said that this was his favorite of all his movies.  He played variations on this role as the town doctor in The Oklahoman and as a circuit-riding judge in Stranger on Horseback.

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  • 1939’s epic Union Pacific provides a defining role for the younger McCrea, who was a bigger star than John Wayne at the time.  Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, it has DeMille’s signature scope and train crashes (two of them).  McCrea as railroad troubleshooter Jeff Butler fends off bad guys, romances an Irish Barbara Stanwyck, deals with a best friend gone bad (Robert Preston) and fights both Indians and the elements to get the trains through.  It’s still a highly watchable movie.

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Randolph Scott as Gil Westrum in Ride the High Country

At mid-century (1950), Randolph Scott was the biggest male box office star in the country, appearing almost exclusively in westerns by then.  The westerns he was making at that time are now mostly forgotten, and his very best work was still ahead of him.  In his last movie, he was very memorably partnered with Joel McCrea as a couple of underappreciated old timers taking a job guarding a bank’s gold, just to finish out their string.  Scott’s Gil Westrum is a little more elusive than McCrea’s Steve Judd, but in the end they stand together.  Scott was usually thought to be a more inexpressive actor than McCrea, perhaps more in the stone-faced William S. Hart mold, but they were both perfect here.  In fact, Scott could be on this list with his best performances for director Budd Boetticher in the late 1950s:  Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, a remarkable string.  He was also very good as a conflicted good-guy/bad-guy in the early 1940s in Virginia City and Western Union.

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William Holden as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch and as Capt. Roper in Escape from Fort Bravo

An excellent actor with a bit of an urban edge, Holden found a way to be effective in westerns, usually with some form of a hard-bitten personality and his ability to project unquestioned competence.  In addition to these two performances, he’s also very good as the doctor in The Horse Soldiers and the horse trader-cattleman in Alvarez Kelly, two Civil War epics.  In two of his earliest movie roles, see him with Jean Arthur in Arizona and with Glenn Ford in Texas.

  • Pike Bishop, the leader of the aging Wild Bunch, is a signature role for Holden, along with the screenwriter-gigolo he played in Sunset Boulevard.  Bishop’s the one who articulates, as far as it can be articulated, the reason the outlaw band is still together:  “We’re not gonna get rid of anybody!  We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be!  When you side with a man, you stay with him!  And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal.  You’re finished!  We’re finished!  All of us!”  They all know it’s not like it used to be, and none more than Bishop himself.  And that’s why he gives the fatalistic words “Let’s go,” as they suit up and head into what they know will be their final battle.  The honor he espouses rings a bit hollow, and it’s not worth as much as they’d like to think.  But in the end it’s all they have, and Bishop is its embodiment.  The way he plays it makes the movie convincingly like a Greek tragedy.

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  • Almost twenty years earlier in his career, Holden was excellent as the relentless Captain Roper, a Union cavalry officer in charge of holding John Forsyth’s Confederates in an Arizona stockade in a desert teeming with hostile Apaches.  Holden keeps the relentless edge and humanizes Roper over the course of the film as he gets to know Eleanor Parker’s Confederate spy, although the end needs a bit more exposition than it gets.

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Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter

Peck was like Joel McCrea in naturally projecting a basic decency that usually made him the moral center of his films.  Usually, but not always, as he showed in Duel in the Sun and Billy Two Hats, in both of which he was less decent and also less convincing.  As Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter, he wears a peculiar short-brimmed black hat as he tries to retire from the gunfighter life and reclaim a family long lost to him.  This film is probably the definitive statement of the proposition (later expressed by Burt Lancaster in Lawman) that you can’t walk away from your past.  You are what you’ve made yourself.  Peck also projects a wary, dangerous edge as he tries to fend off the inevitable challengers drawn by his reputation.  For a more obviously decent good guy, see his performances in the epic The Big Country and in The Bravados.  For an even earlier western with noir-ish elements, see him in Yellow Sky.

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Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine and as Clay Blaisdell in Warlock

For his ability to play the decent mid-American—the guy who rises to the occasion as we’d all like to think we would—Fonda was the definitive Wyatt Earp.  But he also liked to play against that decency, and he was remarkably good in many of those those performances, too. 

  • The story told in My Darling Clementine bears little resemblance to the actual historical events it is supposedly based on, but there’s never been a better Wyatt Earp, either in terms of unbending but not necessarily confrontational straight-ahead decency, or the western images with Fonda as their focus.  As you think of this film, it’s almost impossible to do it without seeing Fonda tipping back in a chair on the wooden sidewalk with his foot propped against a post, or dancing with Clementine on an outdoor floor, with the Monument Valley sky above them.  For a similar role, see Fonda as the cowhand with moral questions about a posse’s conduct in The Ox-Bow Incident.  Incident was his last film before leaving for World War II, and Clementine was his first after returning.

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  • Fonda always had a taste (and a talent) for playing against his natural mid-American type and decent image.  One very good expression of that is Clay Blaisdell in Warlock.  Blaisdell is a gunman with some remaining decency in him, which he disclaims and tries to suppress, mostly successfully.  But that tension fuels the movie.  And the movie has excellent supporting roles played by Richard Widmark and Anthony Quinn as well.  For variations on Fonda as western blackguard, see The Tin Star, in which he returns to his basic decency by the end of the movie, and Once Upon a Time in the West, where as the gunman Frank he may never have had any decency in those chillingly-blue eyes in a darkly made-up face.  He’s also very good as the unlikeable martinet commanding Fort Apache.

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James Garner as Jason McCullough in Support Your Local Sheriff

Nobody’s ever been better than Garner at projecting easy-going good humor in a western, as he showed beginning with his television role as Bret Maverick.  However, the ultimate expression of this ability found a perfect vehicle and team in Support Your Local Sheriff, where he carries the movie lightly and very successfully without the slightest crack in that façade.  It’s hard to envision anybody else playing that role.  Both Mel Gibson (Maverick) and John Wayne (North to Alaska) tried variations on the role.  They’re good actors but not as good at this kind of role.  Not that the good-humored façade couldn’t crack; Garner was also superb in some of his grimmer performances, such as haunted scout Jess Remburg in Duel at Diablo or a dark and relentless Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun.  For more light Garner, see Support Your Local Gunfighter, Skin Game, and, late in his career, Sunset and Maverick.

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Jack Elam as Jake in Support Your Local Sheriff

Yes, it was a supporting performance.  With those crazy eyes, Elam was a lifelong character actor, spending a couple of decades as movie villains both modern and western.  And he was brilliant as Jake, the town “character” turned reluctant deputy, a riff on the Dean Martin role in Rio Bravo.  He went on, as he says, to become “one of the most beloved figures in western history.”  Or at least the history of western films.  This performance moved him from the bad-guy henchman roles he’d had for twenty years (look for him in Rawhide, Ride, Vaquero!, The Man from Laramie, The Comancheros and The Last Sunset, for example) into higher-profile and more varied characters.  For a similar role, see Support Your Local Gunfighter, where most of the team from the first movie was re-assembled, with slightly less success.  And of course he spends 20 memorable minutes waiting on a railway platform, often in close-up, in the prologue of Once Upon a Time in the WestNot bad for the one-time studio accountant.

 

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Lawman

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 30, 2013

Lawman—Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Sheree North, Robert Duvall (1971; Dir:  Michael Winner)

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This features an implacable and almost superhuman Lancaster as Jared Maddox, the titular lawman from Bannock, which looks to be in the southwest, despite the name.  (The Bannocks were an Indian tribe that ranged mostly in Idaho.)  The movie was shot in Durango, Mexico.  Cowboys in the employ of Vince Bronson (Lee J. Cobb), returning from a cattle drive, shoot up Bannock and an old man is accidentally killed.  (The suggestion is that his life was less valuable because he was old.) 

Months later (in 1887), Maddox comes to their town Sabbath with a list of people he wants to take back to Bannock for trial.  Vince Bronson offers Maddox restitution and a deal to leave them alone, and Maddox refuses to talk about it.  The inference is that Maddox is harder on Bronson and his boys than any Bannock court will be.  While Maddox isn’t wrong in his interpretation of the law, he’s not entirely right, either.  His nature is indicated by an always-buttoned black leather vest he wears.  His character plays a flute alone in his hotel room to indicate a hidden sensitivity in his nature. 

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Robert Ryan in one of his last movies is Cotton Ryan, the over-the-hill lawman in Sabbath; he basically works for Bronson.  Much is made about how Cotton has been backed down before in several locations, but he seems to have more balance than Maddox, if not the same strong moral purpose.  This also has an early western role for Robert Duvall (in the same general time frame as True Grit, Joe Kidd) as Adams, a small rancher involved in the drive.  And an early role for Richard Jordan, who also appeared with Lancaster in Valdez Is Coming the same year. 

Running through this film is a sense of problems with traditional authority and values, very common in the early 1970s.  There is a good setup of moral quandaries, especially with the Cobb character.  The resolution, to the extent things get resolved, is less convincing.  There are questions on the climactic shootout, but this is better than average.  It was a good year for westerns starring Lancaster, with this, Ulzana’s Raid and Valdez is Coming.  

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There are attempts to depict moral shades of gray among various characters.  Cobb’s Bronson isn’t that bad a person; he’s not trying to avoid reasonable consequences, and he’d make restitution if Maddox would let him.  Crowe Wheelwright (Jordan) is a young Bronson gunslinger who comes to see some of Maddox’s view.  Ryan can see both Bronson’s and Maddox’s view; he tries to broker a deal between them, which Maddox refuses.  Ryan is the foil to whom Maddox makes the comments most revealing of him. [Note that Ryan uses the word “gunsel,” normally associated with Dashiell Hammett’s work from a later time period, especially The Maltese Falcon.]

The townspeople seem actually to like Bronson (as opposed to being oppressed by him), and some take up arms against Maddox.  Some of the cowboys are as inflexible in their way as Maddox (e.g., Harvey Stenbaugh, played by Albert Salmi), and they’re the first ones to push things to violence; some are cowards or backshooters.   In some ways there may be too many characters.  There’s not enough explanation about Lucas (Joseph Wiseman), the crippled local saloon-bordello owner who has some history with Maddox.  He’s an interesting character, and a counterpoint to Ryan in some ways—some one who has not lost his edge despite reason to have done so.

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Such moral complexity is unusual in a western.  Maddox is world-weary and sees the fruitlessness of it all:  “It’s always the same.  If you post a man, he has to come into town to prove he’s a man.  Or you kill a man, he’s got a friend or kin — he just has to come against you… and for no reason… no reason that makes any sense.  And it don’t mean a damn to the man already in the ground.  Nobody wins.”  But he does it anyway because it’s his job.  As he goes out for the final shootout, he fatalistically says to Ryan:  “A man gets caught in his own doing.  You can’t change what you are.  And if you try, something always calls you back.”    

At the end, there seem to be some cracks in the implacable Maddox façade, but he’s forced into a shootout where there’s no room for hesitation.  It pushes him back into his black-and-white role and outlook.  After dealing with action forced by several others, Maddox shoots down the fleeing J.D. Cannon when he doesn’t really have to.  It certainly de-glamorizes the showdown.  Although Maddox comes out alive, nobody wins.  A rigid adherence to the letter of the law doesn’t make things turn out right.  In some ways, this is a story of obsession, like The Searchers, as well as a variation on the High Noon theme. And it’s said to be a remake of 1955’s Man With the Gun.  (All those are better movies, though.)

The print sometimes seen on the Encore Westerns channel isn’t in good shape, grainy and with washed-out colors.  British director Winner was better known for the Death Wish movies with Charles Bronson, and also made the western Chato’s Land with the same star; he’s said to be overly fond of camera zooms.  Sometimes this one is viewed as a violent relic of the early 1970s overly influenced by spaghetti westerns (unnecessarily violent, for example, as emphasized by the poster); others see it as a gem of moral complexity with excellent performances.  Ryan is said to have preferred this movie to The Wild Bunch.  Not many others would make that claim, but this is worth watching even though there is a residual feeling of director Winner wanting to make a statement more than tell a story that was real to him.

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Ulzana’s Raid

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 29, 2013

Ulzana’s Raid—Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke, Richard Jaeckel, Richard Farnsworth (1972; Dir:  Robert Aldrich)

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“Adult Entertainment” in the sense that it deals with violence by both sides.

Burt Lancaster’s last significant western (he later appeared in supporting roles as Ned Buntline in Buffalo Bill and the Indians and as Bill Doolin in Cattle Annie and Little Britches), and one of the last good cavalry movies.  Lancaster’s Archie McIntosh the old scout has a certain amount in common with Bob Valdez from Valdez Is Coming the previous year, but in this one he is still scouting and is more tired.  This is also a “teaching the young lieutenant” movie. 

The young lieutenant is Lt. Garnett DeBuin (well-played by Bruce Davison), recent West Point graduate and son of a Philadelphia minister.  He is sent out from his fort in Arizona with a patrol in pursuit when Chiricahua Apache leader Ulzana jumps the White Mountain Reservation with several braves.  Going along as advisers and guides are old scout McIntosh and Apache Ke-Ni-Tay, Ulzana’s brother-in-law (Jorge Luke, also excellent).  These three central characters (the old scout, the Indian scout with questionable loyalties and the young lieutenant) could be clichés, but they’re all well-played here.

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The old scout (Lancaster) and the young lieutenant (Davison).

The lieutenant learns, but it has its costs.  He has a hard time reconciling brutal Apache behavior with what he understands of the Bible, and also has to learn to judge men older and more experienced than he.  Initially Ulzana has the upper hand, raiding a couple of ranches ahead of the troopers.  But McIntosh succeeds in killing Ulzana’s horses during the execution of an Apache stratagem, also killing Ulzana’s young son in the process.  To draw the Apaches out of rough country, McIntosh and DeBuin set up their own stratagem, using a wagon, a small patrol, a deranged woman and McIntosh as bait for Ulzana.  It works, but again at a cost. 

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The last shot is a stop motion of the dying McIntosh, like the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so we don’t actually see his death although we understand that it’s inevitable.  Ke-Ni-Tay gets Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez, with no lines in English and few in Apache) but allows him a certain amount of dignity, in the end establishing his loyalty as a scout.  A downer of an ending to a good western, like Hombre.  And DeBuin learns and will likely be a better officer than most. 

Not a powerhouse cast at a time when westerns, and particularly cavalry westerns, were fading from public consciousness; this had a small budget and short shooting schedule.  It depends on the performances of Lancaster and Davison, in particular.  We know that Lancaster is good, but so is the young Davison.  Richard Jaeckel is the quintessential sergeant (as in The Dirty Dozen), and he does not survive Ulzana’s final ambush, either.  Richard Farnsworth, longtime stuntman and still a decade away from meatier roles, is one of the troopers.  Not much seen these days, this is worth watching; it would make a good double feature with Valdez Is Coming. 

ulzana Joaquin Martinez as Ulzana

McIntosh’s Apache wife is billed as played by Aimee Eccles (see more of her as Dustin Hoffman’s young Cheyenne wife in Little Big Man), yet she has no lines and is scarcely seen even as a shadow.  Something seems to be missing, perhaps.  Some see a Vietnam allegory in this unsentimental western, although Aldrich didn’t seem to view it that way.  The brutality of the Apaches is not downplayed, nor the occasional similar impulse of the white troopers.  The UK DVD release has been re-edited to remove all instances of horses being trip-wired.  According to the British Board of Film Classification, such a tactic contravenes the 1937 Cinematograph Act which forbids the ill-treatment of any animal in the making of a film (although some stuntmen claim that the method can be performed without harming any horses).

This was decently directed by the experienced Robert Aldrich (Vera Cruz, The Last Sunset), who was said not to be entirely happy with the results.  Apparently there is no definitive cut in existence, but five or six different versions on video/DVD; a wide-screen definitive restoration would be welcome.  It has a good script by Scottish screenwriter Alan Sharp.  In color, shot in Arizona (near Nogales) and Nevada.  Rated R, presumably because of violence and brutality, but today it would likely be PG-13.  Emanuel Levy in 2008 called the film “one of the best Westerns of the 1970s, … also one of the most underestimated pictures of vet director Robert Aldrich, better known for his sci-fi and horror flicks, such as Kiss Me Deadly and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.”  It was not a success at the box office, however.

UlzanaThe historical Ulzana.

Historically, there actually was an Ulzana.  In 1885 he jumped the reservation for three weeks of raiding with ten warriors.  They may have covered 1200 miles or more of rugged territory during the course of their raid.  The real Ulzana died at Fort Sill, Oklahoma (like Geronimo) in 1909.  If you’re interested, read more about it here:  http://www.desertexposure.com/200606/200606_ulzana.html

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Gunfight at the OK Corral

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 16, 2013

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral—Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, DeForest Kelly, Dennis Hopper, Jack Elam, Earl Holliman, John Hudson, Martin Milner, Lee Van Cleef (1957; Dir:  John Sturges)

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This is the first and bigger-budgeted (and not necessarily the better) of two effective retellings of the story of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone directed by John Sturges.  A decade later he’d do it again with a lower-wattage cast in a version that told the story better.  This version owes something to My Darling Clementine, and it’s not much closer to the facts than John Ford’s classic was.   The gunfight itself is the end, rather than the middle, of the story as shown here. 

Two Hollywood giants of their day, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, play Wyatt and Doc Holliday—the second of seven films the two made together.  Douglas, although an excellent actor here, is obviously from the Victor Mature school of robust tuberculars, very different physically from the spindly homicidal dentist of history.  Rhonda Fleming is lady gambler Laura Denbow, a romantic interest for Earp in Dodge City, although she refuses to follow him to Tombstone and actually isn’t very necessary to the proceedings.  Jo Van Fleet is Kate Fisher, Doc’s not-very-faithful prostitute girlfriend, obviously based on Big Nose Kate Elder.  Dennis Hopper is good as a conflicted young Billy Clanton, but Lyle Bettger isn’t terribly memorable as Ike. 

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Doc (Kirk Douglas) and Wyatt (Burt Lancaster) join forces against Shanghai Pierce and Ringo in Dodge City.

The gunfight, like that in Clementine, is nothing like what actually happened.  In addition to all the choreography, it shows Ike and Finn Clanton getting killed, and ultimately Billy, too.  In fact, Ike ran away from the fight and survived intact, and Finn wasn’t there.  Doc shoots down Ringo (well-played by John Ireland), but Ringo wasn’t there either.  As with Clementine, the action is precipitated by a Clanton killing of the youngest Earp brother, James (Martin Milner).  In fact, James was the oldest Earp brother and was not involved in the events in Arizona at all.  The actual gunfight lasted a mere 30 seconds, resulting in three dead men after an exchange of 34 bullets.  In this adaptation, the movie gunfight took four days to film and produced an on-screen bloodbath that lasted five minutes.  And there’s nothing about the subsequent murder of Morgan or the maiming of Virgil Earp, or Wyatt’s vendetta ride.  Like most versions from this era, the story steers clear of Wyatt’s irregularities in his relationships with women. This movie works by itself as a story, as long as you’re not remembering the real story too much.  This also makes Earp’s role as a Dodge City lawman more important than it was.  As a cinematic matter, a nice touch is the montage of shots of concerned women just before the gunfight:  Ma Clanton, worrying about her errant sons, especially young Billy; Allie Earp, Virgil’s wife; and the faithless Kate Elder. 

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Heading for the corral with a low camera angle–clearly not a social call.

An interesting comparison is with Sturges’ second version, Hour of the Gun, which features James Garner in his grim mode as Wyatt and Jason Robards as a sardonic Doc—not as lustrous a cast, but it works better. Much of this film was shot at the famous Old Tucson facility, not far from the real Tombstone.  However, its “town street” set was used surprisingly as Fort Griffin, Texas, in the opening reels, while later Tombstone street scenes were shot in southern California, on the same Paramount Ranch set that was later used as Virginia City, Nevada, on TV’s “Bonanza” (1959).  The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine, who had a voice made for western themes.  Excellent score by Dimitri Tiomkin; cinematography by Charles Lang.  The co-writer on this was apparently Leon Uris, author of the best-selling novels Exodus and Battle Cry. 

Dennis Hopper, interestingly enough, was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, where the first half or more of this movie takes place.  Billy Clanton: “I don’t know why I get into gunfights. I guess sometimes I just get lonely.”  This was also the second time John Ireland was gunned down in Tombstone; here he plays Ringo and in Clementine he was Billy Clanton.  Wyatt’s last word on the subject:  “All gunfighters are lonely.  They live in fear.  They die without a dime, a woman or a friend.”

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The Hallelujah Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 4, 2013

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

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

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

hallelujah-oracle Oracle Jones has a vision.

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

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Mrs. Massingale invades the colonel’s personal space.

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

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

hallelujah-injuns Supervising ersatz Indians.

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

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

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