Tag Archives: Cattle Drives

The Last Sunset

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 16, 2014

The Last Sunset—Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, Joseph Cotten, Carol Lynley, Jack Elam, Neville Brand  (1961; Dir:  Robert Aldrich)

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Gunman Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) arrives at the Breckenridge ranch in Mexico, to find that lady of the ranch is old flame Belle (Dorothy Malone) and that her weak alcoholic husband John (Joseph Cotten) is preparing for a cattle drive to Texas that they are unlikely to be able to accomplish.  Their nubile daughter Melissa (or Missy, played by Carol Lynley) is coming along, too.  O’Malley offers his help (for a price:  one-fifth of the herd plus Belle); now all they need is a trail boss who knows the way, and he promptly shows up in the form of Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), a Texas lawman who is hunting O’Malley for killing his no-good brother-in-law.  The two agree to put aside resolution of their differences until the herd gets to Texas.

As was often the case, Douglas made an unconventional protagonist for a western.  He wears tight-fitting black and uses a derringer instead of a larger gun.  He has been hunting Belle since the Civil War, when they had something going in Virginia.  This is a cattle drive western, with the usual incidents:  unreliable drovers (the nefarious Dobbs brothers, played by Neville Brand and Jack Elam); inclement weather (a dust storm), Indians (Yaquis), and a stampede.  As they head the herd north, Breckenridge encounters former Confederates in a bar; they were from his unit under Stonewall Jackson and confront Breckenridge with having run at Fredericksburg.  They’re forcing him to show them his wound (in his backside) when O’Malley and Stribling intervene.  As the three leave, one of the Confederates shoots Breckenridge in the back. 

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Now Belle is a widow, but Stribling shows romantic interest in her.  O’Malley rescues Stribling during a storm, and the Dobbs brothers make their move.  Belle shoots one, and O’Malley and Stribling recover the herd.  O’Malley gratuitously shoots a Yaqui (whose corpse is unusually cooperative in being moved to a horse), and Stribling gives the tribe a fifth of the herd to mollify them—O’Malley’s share.  As Belle develops feelings for Stribling, O’Malley and the much younger Missy also start to bond romantically.  On the night before the herd crosses the Rio Grande to Crazy Horse, Texas (presumably making this after 1876), Missy wears Belle’s yellow dress from a night long ago, and she and O’Malley make plans.

[Spoilers follow.]  Once the herd is in Texas, however, Belle discloses to O’Malley that Missy is his daughter.  Stribling and O’Malley (with his derringer) carry out their showdown, O’Malley characteristically without his hat.  When Stribling wins, he finds that O’Malley’s derringer wasn’t loaded. 

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The women are more central to what’s going on here than they are to most westerns, giving this sort of a melodramatic feel with several sudden revelations along the way.  Malone is very good.  Hudson is adequate but pales beside Douglas in the meatier role.  And he wears a strange hat.  Adapted by Dalton Trumbo from a novel by Howard Rigsby, Sundown at Crazy Horse. Not bad work from director Aldrich, who had directed Vera Cruz in 1954 and would yet do Ulzana’s Raid ten years later.  Shot in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

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Return to Snowy River

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 4, 2014

Return to Snowy River (The Man from Snowy River II)—Tom Burlinson, Sigrid Thornton, Brian Dennehy, Nicholas Eadie, Rhys McConnochie (1988; Dir: Geoff Burrowes)

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Young Jim Craig returns to the Snowy River highlands after a three-year absence, during which he has developed a herd of 100 horses so that he can marry Jessica Harrison without the young couple starting out in poverty.  Her father (Brian Dennehy, replacing Kirk Douglas from the original) would prefer that she marry young Alistair Patton (Nicholas Eadie), cavalryman and son of his banker.  Jessica has an unseemly and unladylike interest in horses, as well as a good way with them.  

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Meanwhile, Jim’s old equine adversary Stalker Brumby is defending his own herd in the wild as Alistair tries to hunt them down.  About midway through the film, Jessica decides to go with Jim against her father’s wishes, and Alistair and his henchmen steal Jim’s horses and try to kill him.  He survives and chases them by obtaining the cooperation of the old stallion Stalker Brumby, and when he wins he lets the stallion loose again.  There is an unspoken mystical relation between them.  And Jessica’s truculent father seems to come around.

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The film as shown in the U.S. is a little short on resolution.  A wedding scene was shot but not included in the final cut of the film, so it’s unclear whether Jim and Jessica actually get married.  The movie doesn’t really wrap up the fate of the nefarious Alistair Patton, either, leaving it to one’s assumptions.  It seems a little too short.  It’s a bit more formulaic than the first Snowy River film, with the class conflicts, the Australian underdog attitude, the need to go horse-hunting in the highland forests, the lingering photography marked by flying water, aerial photography and plunges down near-vertical terrain.  Like the original, it does give a sense of the sheer joy of riding a horse going full out.  But the editing isn’t as careful as it might be, lingering too long on some of the lyrical shots and taking away momentum from the action.  Brian Dennehy is an excellent character actor, but he is lacking a bit of the star presence of Douglas.  The young lovers don’t seem quite so young; it’s been six years since the first movie, which was released in 1982. 

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Australia

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 31, 2013

Australia—Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Bryan Brown, David Wenham, Brandon Walters (2008; Dir:  Baz Luhrman)

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As the title suggests, this is one of those westerns that does not take place in the American west.  But it involves two traditional western themes:  the European coming to the frontier (see The Big Country, Cowboy, even Last of the Mohicans) and learning to appreciate it, and the cattle drive against great odds (e.g., Red River, Cowboy and Broken Trail).

The first half or more of this lengthy epic involves a cattle drive across northern Australia to Darwin.  It takes place in 1939, but this part is a typical cattle drive story.  Nicole Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, an English aristocrat whose husband has been developing Faraway Downs as a cattle operation in the deserts of the northern Australian outback.  The ranch has been hemorrhaging money—Lady Sarah’s family money.  Lady Sarah determines to sell the operation and heads for Australia. 

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Jackman emphasizing western themes.

Her husband Maitland is killed just as she arrives; she fires his treacherous foreman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) and hires the Drover (Hugh Jackman) to get what cattle she has to Darwin to sell to the military (virtually the same story as Wrangler, but a different war).  She develops an affection for the child Nullah (Brandon Walters), Fletcher’s half-aborigine son who’s also the grandson of aborigine shaman King George.  After a successful drive against great odds, Lady Sarah and Drover shack up together.  His first wife was an aborigine, and he maintains close ties with them, for which he is ostracized by many whites.  Cattle baron King Carney (Bryan Brown) keeps trying to subvert Lady Sarah’s efforts and buy Faraway Downs (also much like the plot of Wrangler). 

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Nullah and his grandfather King George.

In the last part of the movie, Fletcher connives to get Nullah taken away until Lady Sarah sells Faraway Downs to him (Carney now being dead and Fletcher being married to his daughter).  The Japanese attack both Darwin and the mission island where the children are kept.  The Drover, thinking Lady Sarah has been killed in the attack, gets a small sailboat to the mission island and rescues the surviving children, including Nullah, just as the Japanese overrun the place. 

Back in Darwin, Fletcher’s wife has been killed and he’s consequently lost his control of the Carney empire.  In a rage he tries to shoot Nullah but is himself killed by King George.  The Drover, Lady Sarah and Nullah are all reunited happily in the fiery ruins of Darwin. 

The film is overblown, poorly edited and too long, with a story that doesn’t hang together all that well.  There are lots of lingering shots of passionate characters with swelling music, telling us how we’re supposed to be feeling rather than trusting the story and acting to get us there.  It’s very politically correct (in current terms) about looking down on former racial attitudes, and contains a fair amount of ill-defined aborigine mysticism.  It’s not that former racial attitudes were correct–one cannot deny that blacks, Indians and Australian aborigines were treated badly in ways that would not be countenanced today.  But it feels anachronistic to adopt completely the modern views on such matters.  There are lots of obvious CGI effects, especially in the harbor at Darwin. 

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For those who are wondering if there was an island near Darwin filled with children attacked by the Japanese, there wasn’t.  But one of the first Australians to spot the incoming Japanese planes in the attack on Darwin in Feb. 1942 was a priest stationed on a lonely island off Darwin’s shore.  “An unusually large air formation bearing down on us from the northwest,” he radioed into Darwin’s operators on the morning of the attack.  The operators shrugged off the warning.  Twenty minutes later, the town was attacked.  (This, according to Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois.)

Along with the title, this is an almost entirely Australian production, funded in part by Australian government sources.  The director, Baz Luhrman, is Australian, as are the leads (Jackman and Kidman) and most of the other actors.  The multi-talented Hugh Jackman obviously needs to find a good script for a western and do a real one.

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Dodge City

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 7, 2013

Dodge City—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Alan Hale, Bruce Cabot, Ann Sheridan, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Victor Jory (1939; Dir: Michael Curtiz)

Movie stars didn’t get much bigger than the team of Flynn and De Havilland in 1939.  Although this was the fifth of nine Warner Brothers movies they made together, it was also their first and perhaps best western.  It obviously had a big budget, being filmed in Technicolor at a time when most movies, and certainly most westerns, weren’t.  (For purposes of comparison, the other big color movies that year were Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz—pretty heady company.)  The director, the Hungarian Michael Curtiz, had been responsible for Flynn and De Havilland’s most successful movies, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (also in color the previous year) and, of course, Flynn’s earlier breakthrough, Captain Blood.

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Flynn is Wade Hatton, and the movie explains his accent by saying that he’s an Irishman with wanderlust and a background in the English military in India.  He fought in the Civil War for the South, and as the movie starts he and pals Rusty Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn Williams) are finishing a stint as buffalo hunters for the railroad that has just been completed to Dodge City.  After a run-in with Jeff Surrett (a young Bruce Cabot), they return to Texas while Dodge City itself falls into chaos and lawlessness, under the corrupt domination of saloon owner Surrett.  (His saloon is called The Gay Lady, and features Ann Sheridan in a modest role as his presumably eponymous headliner.)  Interestingly enough, the bad guys are Yankees, and the good guys are southerners, a reversal of the usual situation in westernsalthough there have always been some exceptions.

dodgecityFacingDown Facing down bad guys.

A bit later, Hatton is the honcho for a trail herd coming up from Texas to Dodge City along the Chisholm Trail.  Coming along are Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) and her neer-do-well brother, whose parents have died.  The brother is a drunk who is killed when his constant careless shooting causes a stampede, and Abbie blames Hatton for his death.  Obviously, that relationship will be repaired by the end of the movie.  After (a) Surrett is clearly responsible for the death of a competing buyer for Hatton’s cattle, and (b) out-of-control gunfire results in the death of a boy on a Sunday School outing, Hatton agrees to clean up the town and make it safe for decent people, women and the Pure Prairie League.  Abbie goes to work for Joe Clemens (the name an obvious homage to Mark Twain); Clemens is the crusading anti-Surrett newspaper editor of the Dodge City Star (Frank McHugh), the sort of part you can easily see Thomas Mitchell playing if he hadn’t been busy getting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for being Doc Boone in Stagecoach that year.  McHugh is fine, though, until he is whipped and then killed by vile Surrett henchman Yancey (the reptilian Victor Jory).  Ward Bond shows up in an early (and brief) role as Yancey’s unconvincing alibi.  (See him also in a fleeting role in the same year’s Frontier Marshal.) 

When Hatton and Abbie get the goods on Yancey and Surrett for Clemens’ death, the climax of the movie is a shootout on a burning train.  Ultimately, of course, Hatton, Rusty and Tex kill Surrett and his minions in the shootout, saving everybody a lengthy and uncertain trial.  The end of this movie sets up the next western for Flynn and De Havilland, with Col. Grenville Dodge asking Hatton to spend his honeymoon cleaning up the mining town Virginia City which is, if anything, in worse shape than Dodge City had been.

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De Havilland with Flynn as sheriff (smaller hat, baby blue tie).

Hatton’s initial wide-brimmed hat in this movie is unusual.  Note how he changes hats to one with a smaller brim (along with changing all his other attire) when he becomes sheriff.  The baby-blue string tie is a stretch; it probably should have been black.  Flynn, especially the younger Flynn, is always watchable, but some don’t find him very convincing in westerns.  De Havilland makes a lively western female lead and has her usual good chemistry with Flynn on screen.  The accounts say that she had a miserable time making the movie, and would have preferred the Ann Sheridan dance hall floozy role, even though Sheridan didn’t actually have much to do.  Of course, this film hasn’t much to do with the real history of cleaning up Dodge City. 

Written by the young Robert Buckner, who also wrote Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail (both Flynn western vehicles), as well as Jezebel, The Oklahoma Kid, Knute Rockne, All-American, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Desert SongVirginia City, the follow-on, when it gets made, is not an actual sequel and has Miriam Hopkins instead of Olivia de Havilland as Flynn’s romantic interest.

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Red River

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 27, 2013

Red River–John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Noah Beery, Jr. (1948; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

This is the first of the two brilliant westerns (1959’s Rio Bravo is the other) on which Hawks’ reputation as a director of westerns rests.  Hawks was not particularly known for westerns, although most everybody in Hollywood who had worked in the industry as long as Hawks had some kind of experience with westerns.

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What makes this one brilliant?  It marks the bringing of serious themes from other genres into westerns—the father-son conflict between Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), for example; the nature of leadership and its moral boundaries; competition between two young men with similar skills but different principles; and a complex relationship between a strong man and an assertive female.  It’s a great trail drive story, with overtones of obsession (Wayne’s character, foreshadowing the obsessiveness of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers).  The other relationships in the movie are not simple, especially when it seems the characters have to take sides between Dunson and Garth:  Loyal family retainer Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan), who loves them both; gunhand Cherry Valance (John Ireland), who competes with Garth but respects him nevertheless; and Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who is attracted to Garth romantically but like Groot has to mediate between Garth and the vengeful Dunson, while we try to figure out what kind of woman she is.

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Young Dunson (John Wayne) and his doomed love.

Dunson is a hard man from the start of the movie.  We first see him in 1851 with a wagon train heading from St. Louis toward California.  As Dunson and Groot leave the wagon train to head south into Texas across the Red River, Dunson’s girl in another wagon begs to go along.  He says he’ll send for her, and they part ways.  Comanches attack the train after Dunson leaves, and he sees the smoke from a distance.  Several attack Dunson and Groot, too; he fights them off, but they kill one of his two cattle.  They find the boy Matthew Garth wandering through the brush, a survivor of the attack who’d been chasing his cow when the Comanches came.   Dunson and Groot take him with them, farther south into Texas.  When Dunson finds the land he wants, it’s part of a huge Spanish land grant whose owner lives south of the Rio Grande.  Dunson figures he can take it, and he starts his ranch there with the brand Red River D.

Fast forward to the end of the Civil War, in 1865.  Garth returns from service in the war (presumably with the Confederacy), and Dunson has developed a huge herd for which there are no buyers in Texas.  Dunson wants to trail the herd a thousand miles north over the Chisholm Trail to the railroad in Missouri, something which has never been done successfully.  The rest of the movie is the epic story is of that first cattle drive north from Texas. 

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Cherry Valance (John Ireland) and Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) test each other.

It takes somebody as obsessive as Dunson to drive the herd (and his men).  They take off with the famous “Yee-haw” scene, and it’s not a smooth trip.  There is a night stampede, resulting in deaths both human and bovine.  Some of the men can’t take it and want to quit; Dunson becomes increasingly unreasonable, with his megalomania out of control.  When he plans to hang two deserters, Garth steps in and stops him.  Garth takes control of the herd, moving it north across the Red River and into Kansas, heading for Abilene rather than Sedalia, Missouri, as Dunson had insisted.  None of them know whether the railroad is really in Abilene, although with our modern point of view we have a pretty good idea that it is.

As they move into Kansas, they’re harassed by marauding Indians and wary of the pursuing Dunson.  The cowboys temporarily leave the herd to rescue a bunch of traveling gamblers and loose women from Indian attack, and Garth meets Tess Millay, who is wounded in the attack.  They are taken with each other, but Garth has his drive to finish and Dunson to deal with, and the herd moves on to the north.

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Dunson and his new men reach the gamblers’ camp and learn of the Indian attack and the herd’s movements.  Dunson wants to replace Garth as his son, and offers Tess half his ranch if she’ll bear him a son; she says she’ll do it if he gives up his plan to kill Garth¸ and she accompanies him toward Abilene.  Meanwhile, Garth and the herd make it there first, and Garth gets a top price for the herd, about $50,000.  This sets up the final scene, where all the characters sort out their loyalties and the means they’ll use to defend them.  The resolution of the father-son fight is abrupt and a little silly, but the rest of the movie is so good we can put up with that.

The movie was made in 1946 but sat on the shelf for two years before its release because of a dispute with Howard Hughes.  It features more adult and complex relationships than most previous westerns. It has a superb cast, and excellent direction.  This was Montgomery Clift’s first film, and he manages to be persuasive, if not entirely convincing, next to the overpowering physicality of John Wayne.  The women are unusually assertive for a western, both Joanne Dru (Mrs. John Ireland) and Coleen Gray, although Gray in her first film role gets just a couple of minutes of screen time.  The numerous supporting characters are well-written and well-acted, and they include, in addition to Dru, Ireland and Brennan, Noah Beery, Jr., Harry Carey (Sr. and Jr.), Chief Yowlachie as an Indian trail hand, Hank Worden, Coleen Gray and many others.  Appearing uncredited are Richard Farnsworth as a Dunson rider and Shelley Winters as a dance hall girl with the gamblers.

John_Wayne - red river The final confrontation.

Excellent management of all these supporting roles gives them each differentiation and development while not impeding the overall pacing of the movie.  It adds to the large-scale feel of the film.  There’s so much going on that it rewards re-watching.  It’s ambitious and long for the year it was released, especially for a western—about two and a quarter hours.  After more than 60 years, this remains the greatest of the trail drive movies except for Lonesome Dove, which was not really playing by the same rules. 

There are some excellent visual touches, like the shadow that passes over the sun during the funeral of the young cowboy killed during the stampede.  Russell Harlan was the cinematographer.  The music is by Oscar-winning movie composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who also did the music for Hawks’ Rio Bravo more than ten years later as well as numerous other movies.  The tune for “Settle Down,” the theme for Red River, gets recycled in Rio Bravo when sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin.

RedRiverDruHawksDru and Hawks light up behind the scenes.

Wayne considered this film his second breakthrough, after Stagecoach.  (Maybe his third, if you consider his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, which nobody saw.)  Playing much older than he really was, as the megalomaniacal Tom Dunson, gave him a chance to demonstrate his acting chops in a film that a lot of people did see.  Even John Ford, who had cast him in Stagecoach almost ten years previously, was rumored to have said after seeing Red River, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!”  And the most productive period of their collaboration was coming up, with the cavalry trilogy and The Searchers.  Both Wayne and Hawks wore their Red River D belt buckles from this film for many years when dressed in jeans.  You sometimes see it popping up on Wayne in other westerns–nine of them in total.

Director Howard Hawks had initially wanted Jack Beutel (who had played Billy the Kid in The Outlaw) for the role of Matthew Garth.  But he got lucky when Beutel was still under contract to Howard Hughes, who was nursing a grudge against Hawks for their falling-out over The Outlaw a few years earlier.  Clift turned out to be a much better actor.  Wayne had misgivings about the difference in their sizes during the climactic fight, but Hawks was known for his ability to block and stage fights convincingly on film.  Wayne ultimately conceded that Hawks knew what he was doing.  Clift had never been in a western before, and never would be again.  Hawks advised him to watch and imitate stuntman Richard Farnsworth.  “Montgomery, you walk along behind him and watch him carefully.  If he scratches his butt, you scratch yours.  He’s a real cowboy.”  Red River made Clift a star.  Meanwhile, Farnsworth worked in westerns as a stuntman and in bit parts and waited more than 35 years for his own breakthrough role in The Grey Fox.

As of May 2014, Red River is now available on an excellent DVD set from Criterion Collection.

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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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The Cowboys

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 22, 2013

The Cowboys—John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Sarah Cunningham, Slim Pickens, Colleen Dewhurst, A Martinez, Robert Carradine (1972; Dir:  Mark Rydell)

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Wil Anderson: [repeated line]  “We’re burnin’ daylight.”

This is one of the two great cattle drive westerns starring John Wayne.  The other is Red River, which admittedly is better and was more ground-breaking in its day.  But this is excellent in its way and has aged fairly well in the more than 40 years since its release.  John Wayne carries this movie pretty much on his own; although the supporting roles are well-played, they are significantly smaller than Wayne’s.

cowboys1 Andersen and his recruits (click on the picture for better focus).

The emphasis in the title is on the “boys” part, although the cows are certainly present as well.  Aging Montana rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne) finds himself without his usual help when it’s time to drive his cattle 400 miles east to market in Belle Fourche.  In desperation, he is forced to take on eleven young boys as his drovers, and it is a coming-of-age exercise for them.  They encounter Colleen Dewhurst and her bevy of soiled doves, as well as rough men of questionable motives, as they do their growing and learn their trade.  Like many other westerns (The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Shootist, for example), this one is also about the search for family and belonging.  Andersen can offer them knowledge and opportunities they don’t yet have and becomes their hard-edged father figure; they become the replacements for his own dead sons.  It all works.

It was no secret when this movie was released that a John Wayne character would get killed for the first time ever in a western, or at least for the first time since he had become a major star (with the exception of The Alamo, of course).  That provided part of the punch of the film on its initial release.  The rest of the impact was in the way it was done, by the near-psychotic villainy of Bruce Dern as Long Hair/Asa Watts.  Wayne told Dern that everybody would hate him for the role; Dern said he responded, “Maybe, but they’ll love me in Berkeley,” a reference to distaste among some on the left for Wayne’s right-wing politics. 

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When the movie was released in 1972, the country was still in the midst of a strong wave of anti-Vietnam war sentiment, and many thought that the way the rest of the movie played out after Anderson’s death glorified too much violence by boys too young.  But that seems less of a worry on re-watching; a greater problem lies with incomplete believability in that sequence.

Jebediah Nightlinger[praying to God as he’s about to hanged by Asa Watts and his gang]  “I regret trifling with married women.  I’m thoroughly ashamed of cheating at cards.  I deplore my occasional departures from the truth.  Forgive me for taking your name in vain, my Saturday drunkenness, my Sunday sloth.  Above all, forgive me for the men I’ve killed in anger [eyes shifting to Asa Watts] … and those I am about to.”

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Still, it’s a good movie, and an excellent western.  Young director Mark Rydell (The Rievers, On Golden Pond) said he wanted George C. Scott for the lead role at first but was persuaded by the studio to go for Wayne’s surer box office clout instead, despite Rydell’s personal distaste for Wayne’s politics.  It was a smart move.  Although Scott was an excellent actor, he didn’t carry the same authority in westerns that Wayne did.  It’s a fairly simple plot, and the film takes its time getting things set up before the cattle drive actually takes off.  But overall the movie’s pacing works well.  It was shot in New Mexico with a lot of dust, textures, long vistas and beautiful mountains.  The John Williams score is excellent, with a touch of some guy named Vivaldi.

In addition to Dern’s wonderfully loathsome badness, Roscoe Lee Browne gives a strong performance as Jebediah Nightlinger, the drive’s cook and the first black man these young men have seen.  Browne plays Nightlinger with perhaps the most perfect diction and Shakespearean delivery ever heard in a western.  Colleen Dewhurst is great in her brief role as the madam of a traveling group of soiled doves, and Sarah Cunningham shows a lot of character as Anderson’s wife.  Richard Farnsworth is a member of Long Hair’s gang, a decade before he started getting meatier roles.  Among the boys, A Martinez as Cimarron, the outsider (and the oldest), and the young Robert Carradine as Slim are particularly memorable.  But the boys all make an effective ensemble.  Five of them had experience acting, and the rest were from ranching and rodeo backgrounds.  They work together well.

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John Wayne had some strong performances in the last part of his career, from True Grit to The Shootist.  Along with those two, The Cowboys and Big Jake are memorable.  Of course, he was in some duds as well, such as The Train Robbers and Rio Lobo.  But that’s not a bad batting average.

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The Man from Snowy River

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 14, 2013

The Man from Snowy River—Tom Burlinson, Kirk Douglas, Sigrid Thornton, Jack Thompson (1982; Dir:  George Miller)

Based on an Australian epic poem by Banjo Paterson, this is a young-man-triumphing-over-adversity-and-making-his-way-through-perseverance-and-force-of-character movie, set in the highlands of Australia.  It’s also a movie for horse lovers.  Tom Burlinson plays young Jim Craig, who’s trying to put together a respectable highland spread for himself after his father is killed in the movie’s opening scene.  While working for the local ranching baron Harrison (Kirk Douglas), he meets, falls in love with and tries to win the baron’s daughter Jessica (Sigrid Thornton).  Burlinson and Thornton are appealing as the young lovers.  Douglas plays a dual role as both the baron and his estranged one-legged prospector brother Spur; he occasionally gives in to a temptation to chew the scenery, especially in the prospector role.  Jack Thompson is good in a supporting role as Clancy, the legendary highlands horse and cattle man.

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Craig captures and domesticates brumbies (wild horses) in the Australian highlands, and he’s good at it.  Based in more beautiful upland country than some Australian westerns, the cinematography is stunning, as are the chase scenes.  The most memorable images are of Craig hurtling down almost vertical slopes in pursuit of the brumbies, barely under control and only a slight misstep away from breaking legs and necks.  No other film has so successfully conveyed the joy of riding a horse full out, with the sense of speed, power and partnership.   There’s a very Australian feel about the movie, with class conflicts and the underdog-makes-good story.  There are incidental conflicts between Craig and a couple of ill-meaning other riders, and with the over-proud Harrison.

When Craig is sent to the highlands in pursuit of straggling cattle from the roundup, Jessica follows, only to be thrown by her horse and trapped on a cliff.  Reading the physical signs of what happened, Craig finds and rescues her, and they fall more deeply in love.  He completes the task and delivers the stragglers and Jessica back home; but he also encounters Harrison’s hostility to their relationship.

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Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) rescues the heiress (Sigrid Thornton).

A fiery stallion (the first “foal of Old Regret”) released into the wild years earlier by an angry Harrison is now the leader and protector of the highland brumbies.  Now Harrison has purchased the last colt of Old Regret for £1000.  Jim Craig tames it, but when he leaves it is allowed by troublemakers to run off with the brumbies.  An enraged Harrison convenes all the riders in the vicinity; Clancy brings along Craig, who would otherwise not be welcome.  In the chase, the brumbies take off down slopes so steep riders can’t follow—except for Craig and his mountain-bred mount.  He brings them in and Harrison gets his colt back.  Craig claims twelve brood mares and says he’ll be back for them “and whatever else is mine,” looking at Jessica.  And that’s where the movie ends, without showing explicitly what happens to the young lovers or to the untamable leader of the brumbies.

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Hurtling down the hills, with no stunt rider.

The basic plot is fairly ordinary, but here it’s done well.  The movie’s beautiful setting in the wooded Australian highlands, decent acting, excellent cinematography and a good romantic musical score by Bruce Rowland make it quite enjoyable.  The sight of riders in their Australian hats and flying coattails, with their drover whips cracking like gunshots, evokes a longing to be with them.  Without much violence or harsh language, it has been characterized as a “family film,” but that is too limiting.  The director is the Australian George Miller, but not the more famous Australian director of the same name who made the Mad Max movies and Babe.  There is a passable sequel, Return to Snowy River (1988), which is a bit more formulaic but still watchable.  Jim Craig’s highland homestead, built for the movie, became a kind of Australian national historical site until it was destroyed by wildfires more than twenty years later.

There was a 1920 Australian silent movie with the same title based on the Banjo Paterson poem, but that is now considered lost.

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Lonesome Dove

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 9, 2013

Lonesome Dove—Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Danny Glover, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, D.B. Sweeney, Glenne Headley, Frederick Forrest, Steve Buscemi (miniseries made for television, 1989; Dir:  Simon Wincer)

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Finally, in 2008, a DVD with a worthy version of this modern classic novel was released.  Although Lonesome Dove was made for television in the late 1980s, it was apparently filmed with a large budget in a widescreen format, as now shown on the 2008 DVD.  And the new transfer was of a significantly better, clearer quality than earlier releases.  One result is that this version gives a greater sense of the visual sweep and power of the American west than its more limited predecessors.

The spine of Lonesome Dove is the story of a cattle drive from Texas border country on the Rio Grande north to Montana, but it includes so much more:  Indians and renegades, scurrilous buffalo hunters and rough cowhands, romances current and past, outlaws and old friends gone wrong, Texas rangers and Mexican rustlers, battles against evildoers, miscreants, Indians and the elements.  Based on one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, it takes the time to do justice to its rich source material.

How can the greatest western be something made for television?  It was the coming together of so many elements, including the rich and sprawling story, terrific cinematography, excellent music (by Basil Pouledoris), masterful direction, superb casting, and, perhaps most of all, the time to tell the story fully at its own pace and develop the characters.

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Capt. Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Capt. Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones).

And the cast!  The casting is magnificent.  Some of the excellent cast members (Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane) are known best for their work in non-western films.  Others (Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper) are icons well known from other westerns on this list.  Duvall is so good as romantic former Texas Ranger Gus McCrae that it is now impossible to think of anybody else in the role, although a younger McCrae has been played by others since.  Originally, James Garner was to have played Gus, but had to drop out for health reasons; he played Woodrow Call very creditably in the sequel Streets of Laredo miniseries.  Tommy Lee Jones, who is actually younger than Duvall, nevertheless matches him well as the unyielding, steel-spined Captain Woodrow Call.  Anjelica Huston as McCrae’s lifelong love Clara has one of the most memorable roles of her career, as does Diane Lane as the prostitute Lorena.  Danny Glover as the scout Deets is terrific.  It’s still strange to think of Frederick Forrest as the enigmatic but thoroughly evil Comanche Blue Duck, but even that bit of casting works.  Chris Cooper, in one of his first major roles, is oddly and quietly impressive as July Johnson, drawn out of a quiet life in Arkansas and thrust into the epic struggles around McCrae and Call.

There are vivid scenes that come to mind, and everyone has his favorites:  the death of a drover in a river filled with snakes, McCrae’s relentless pursuit of the elusive Blue Duck (who appears mysteriously and memorably in a flash of lightning), the hanging of an old friend gone wrong, Call decisively taking on the U.S. cavalry without hesitation (“I can’t abide rude behavior in a man”), McCrae and Clara trying to work out an old love, July Johnson coping with death and with the continuation of life, and Call’s inability to claim an important relationship, are only some.  Some things get resolved, and some seem not to; that’s life, and sometimes death.  It has an air of authenticity.  It stays with you.

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McCrae looks for a lost love with Clara (Anjelica Huston).

The McCrae-Call partnership around which this story revolves was loosely based on the Oliver Loving-Charlie Goodnight relationship from the 1860s; they’re the Texas pair who blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail.  This version of the story was so powerful that it generated three more long novels (one sequel and two prequels) with the same characters from author Larry McMurtry.  None of those matches the novel on which this was based.  The others tend to get more sidetracked in the dark, the quirky and the wildly idiosyncratic, losing their grip on the themes and story that give the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove its powerful narrative thrust.  Some of them have been made into watchable miniseries themselves (Streets of Laredo, Comanche Moon), but none of them works as well as this original on the page or on screen.  The story of Lonesome Dove seems complete in itself, despite McMurtry’s insistence on giving more of it less compellingly in other novels.  As for made-for-television sequels not based on McMurtry novels, such as Return to Lonesome Dove, watch them at your own peril.

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This was the first large-scale directing effort by Australian Simon Wincer, who has gone on to make both theatrical releases (Quigley Down Under) and excellent made-for-television westerns (Last Stand at Sabre River, Monte Walsh), including the Lonesome Dove prequel Comanche Moon.  He got it right the first time.

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Blue Duck (Frederick Forrest), the worst of the bad guys, although there are a number to choose from.

Lonesome Dove and one other are often cited as the best miniseries ever, and their proponents tend to divide along gender lines.  The other is the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version), and you can guess who likes which.  They’re both great, but only one of them is a western.

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Open Range

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 27, 2013

Open Range—Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, James Russo (2003; Dir:  Kevin Costner)

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Kevin Costner isn’t in great critical favor as a director these days, but he also seems to be one of the three or four best current directors of westerns (see the discussion of directors below).  He’s probably underrated as an actor as well, since he’s turned in some strong work at this stage of his career in such non-westerns as The Upside of Anger.  He directed and starred in Open Range, and he did very well in both those capacities.

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Boss Spearman and Charley Waite heading for the showdown.

The story is a pretty typical cattle drive/range war sort of thing, in which Robert Duvall is Boss Spearman, a rancher moving his herd to market in 1882 with the help of Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) and a couple of others.  At Harmonville, they run afoul of the entrenched local land baron Denton Baxter (played by the British actor Michael Gambon) and his minions, including a corrupt marshal (played by James Russo).  These sorts of conflicts are never settled easily in a western.  “Man’s got a right to protect his property and his life, and we ain’t lettin’ no rancher or his lawman take either.”  Duvall is superb as usual, and Costner has enough heft and strength to play off him well.  The Costner character seems a bit dour under the harsh circumstances (although less so than in Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp), but he looks and plays as authentic.

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Even so, this might be ordinary enough were it not for two elements.  The first is an excellent mature romance between Waite and Sue Barlow, the local doctor’s sister (Annette Bening)—mature because it’s between realistic people of a certain age, not because a lot of flesh or overt passion is shown.  It is convincing, charming and seems true to the period.  The second takes a while to develop, but the culminating shoot-out actually manages to seem more believable and real than most others in westerns.  Note, however, Waite fanning his gun.  It looks impressive and conveys a sense of familiarity with a gun, and perhaps expertise, but it was a notoriously inaccurate and often wasteful way of discharging a weapon, especially if you needed to save ammunition during an extended fight.  Still, westerns have always been reluctant to show gunfighters reloading, since it slows down the action.  The sound of guns firing in this film is loud enough to carry a shock with it (as with the punched-up sound of gunshots in Shane 50 years earlier), and that seems realistic, too.

In the extreme situations that develop, Spearman and Waite each discover new things about the other.  There seem to be real relationships here.

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Annette Bening as the doctor’s spinster sister Sue.

Michael Gambon’s sheer malevolence as the land baron can seem a little over-the-top, and there’s a fair amount of scenery-chewing on his part.  However, there is the gorgeous scenery of the Canadian Rockies as captured by cinematographer James Muro.  This was the last movie made by veteran character actor Michael Jeter, who died soon after its release.   Because of the violence, the movie is rated R.

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