Tag Archives: Cavalry Movies

Major Dundee

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 6, 2013

Major Dundee—Charlton Heston, Richard Harris, Senta Berger, Jim Hutton, James Coburn, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates (1965; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

dundeePoster3DundeePoster2

Made between Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, this film is a commentary on the question:  What does it mean to be macho?  A study in male hubris, director Sam Peckinpah is giving free rein to certain of his proclivities:  a love for Mexico, drinking and roistering, and for fighting with studios over film budgets which he has wantonly disregarded.  Filmed on location in Durango, Peckinpah initially thought he could escape the scrutiny of studio overseers, but not for long.  He theoretically planned it as an epic, only to end up with a chopped-up and not terribly coherent version of his vision.

The plot doesn’t hang together very well, leading to the suspicion that Peckinpah was making this one up as he went along.  Late in 1864 in the waning days of the Civil War, Major Amos Dundee (Heston) is in disgrace, stationed out west (in Arizona Territory?  Texas?) with custody of uncooperative captured Confederate prisoners (led by Richard Harris as Capt. Benjamin Tyree[n]) who are continually trying to escape.  Dundee has some personal history with the Confederate leader, who was once an officer in the same pre-war regiment as Dundee. 

DundeeHestonBerger

Dundee is attacked–by Apaches, not by Senta Berger’s Austrian doctor.

Dundee takes a group of Union soldiers and unsavory volunteers, augmented by Confederate prisoners who hope to earn their freedom, into Mexico in pursuit of renegade Apaches who have abducted a pair of Hispanic children after killing their parents.  In the course of the movie, he has multiple fights not only with Indians but also with various groups of the French soldiers then occupying Mexico.  He has to deal with racial strife in his own ranks between his Buffalo soldiers and the Confederates.  In a Mexican village, Dundee encounters and develops a relationship with an improbable Austrian female doctor (Senta Berger, apparently just thrown in for a voluptuous romantic interest).  Along the way, he gets the children back, defeats the Apaches, is wounded and has a debauched and impatient recuperation under the noses of the French, deals with further rebellion among the Confederates and has to fight his way back into U.S. territory against vastly superior numbers.  And he loses a lot of men.

dundeeHarris

Dundee’s Confederates, led by Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris).

Early in his career, Harris routinely had trouble with other male leads and authority figures while working on movies, and this production was no exception.  It was also troubled in other ways, particularly by Peckinpah’s battles with the studio (in the person of producer Jerry Bresler) over funding and oversight.  Heston apparently believed in the production and Peckinpah enough to contribute his own salary during a financial battle, although Peckinpah was abusive to him and others on occasion.  In fact, Heston convinced the studio not to fire Peckinpah, although by Heston’s account he (Heston) took over the direction in the later part of the film when Peckinpah was incapacitated by various forms of debauchery.  It is said that the studio ended the shooting early, before some planned scenes were filmed.

dundeeBattle

One result of the troubles was that the studio took the final cut away from Peckinpah, and the theatrical release was supposedly truncated.  Erratic editing is more obvious in the second half of the film.  One reason for that is that the script was never more than two-thirds finished.  In 2005 a new cut of the movie was released in a longer 136-minute version and with some different music, apparently an attempt to reconstruct what Peckinpah had in mind before the studio took it away from him.  The twelve added minutes apparently include some drunken recuperation angst by Dundee and rounding out of other characters.  Billed as Peckinpah’s lost masterpiece, this cut may have been lost for 40 years, but it is still not a masterpiece.  It’s worth watching, though.  This movie will probably remain what it has been in legend:  a supposed masterpiece destroyed by a short-sighted studio with an eye only for profits.  Apparently 30 minutes of Peckinpah’s version of the film remain lost.

Harris’ histrionics (on screen and off) notwithstanding, Heston’s performance carries the movie.  Heston was unparalleled for portraying moral rectitude, certainty and strength on screen, even when the script in this case occasionally doesn’t have him doing very well in the rectitude department.  Berger didn’t have much of a career in American movies, and her role here seems thrown in, but she’s all right in it.  James Coburn plays a one-armed Indian scout with alarming eyebrows.  Slim Pickens is an alcoholic muleskinner.  Jim Hutton is a by-the-book artilleryman stuck in the cavalry who nevertheless finds ways to incorporate artillery in the action.  In addition, there are a number of Peckinpah regulars:  L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates are among the Confederates, and R.G. Armstrong is a Bible-bashing volunteer smiting the heathen.  Australian actor Michael Pate is again an Apache leader (Sierra Chariba), as he was in Hondo.

DundeePoster4

Producer Bresler wouldn’t allow Peckinpah to use Lucien Ballard as his cinematographer, and Sam Leavitt’s work is workmanlike.  Major Dundee bombed at the box office, and Sam Peckinpah became more or less unemployable.  He worked his way back via television (notably with a masterly adaptation of Noon Wine with Jason Robards and Per Oscarsson) and returned four years later with The Wild Bunch.

If you’d like to read more from somebody who has researched the movie and its missing footage more than almost anybody, see Glenn Erickson’s consideration of the DVD.  He takes more the “lost masterpiece” view of the film.   His comments are at http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s1700dund.html

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Stagecoach

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 2, 2013

Stagecoach—John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, John Carradine (1939; Dir:  John Ford)

In addition to being the first of the modern westerns, this was also director John Ford’s first use of Monument Valley, which became his favorite filming location for westerns, and his first association with John Wayne in a starring role.  It was Ford’s first sound western and his first western of any kind in 13 years.  When the film was made, Claire Trevor was the biggest star in the cast and was paid the highest salary.  Wayne had been in a number of low-budget westerns in the 1930s, but this was his first big lead in an upscale film since 1930’s The Big Trail with director Raoul Walsh almost a decade earlier.  That one had bombed on its theatrical release, although it’s been rediscovered by many in the DVD age.   Casting Wayne in Stagecoach was Ford’s idea; the studio preferred Gary Cooper, but ultimately went along with Ford’s recommendation.   This film put John Wayne on the track to being an even bigger star than Trevor, especially when he was teamed with Ford in future projects. 

stagecoach posterStagecoach_movieposter

The movie is based on a 1937 short story by western writer Ernest Haycox, which is in turn said to be based on Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif,” which takes place in Normandy during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.  In this film, several strangers board the crowded Overland Stage in Tonto, Arizona, heading for Lordsburg, New Mexico.  One is Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute being run out of town by the respectable women.  Another is Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant army wife going to meet her husband, although her pregnancy is neither mentioned nor shown until it’s time for the baby’s birth.  The male passengers include alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), also being run out of town; Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), a timorous whiskey salesman; Hatfield (John Carradine), a professional gambler with a southern accent and an occasional chivalrous streak; and Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a bank president clutching his bag with suspicious tenacity.  Riding shotgun to stage driver Buck (Andy Devine) is Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), looking for the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has just busted out of jail.  All these stories would seem complicated enough, but these passengers aren’t on just any stage trip:  Geronimo’s Apaches are on the warpath in the area the stage will be traveling through.

stagecoachRingo The stage stops for Ringo.

As the stagecoach rounds a bend, there’s a figure waving it down, rifle in one hand and saddle in the other.  The camera zooms in on his face, and it’s Ringo, in one of the most memorable shots of this film.  He’s been in prison because he was framed by the Plummer brothers, who killed his father and brother and sent him to prison before he was 17.  Now that he has escaped from jail, he’s on his way to Lordsburg for a final confrontation with the Plummers.  Both Curley and Doc Boone know Ringo and like him, and Curley takes him prisoner, in part to keep him alive. 

There are two stage stations and a ferry between Tonto and Lordsburg.  At the first station, all is well.  The stage changes horses but loses its cavalry escort; the passengers eat, and Dallas is shunned by the more respectable passengers:  Hatfield, Mrs. Mallory and Gatewood.  Ringo and Doc Boone are friendlier, and Ringo suggests that he’s the one being shunned.  “I guess you can’t expect to break out of prison and into society in the same week.”   There’s amazingly quick character development, including one brief but revealing scene where a canteen is passed around the stage.

The cavalry detail that was to pick up the stage at the first station is out chasing Apaches instead, and after taking a vote among the passengers the stage moves on toward the second station.  Here matters develop more quickly.  Mrs. Mallory collapses, and as there are hurried instructions for hot water, we realize she’s about to give birth.  (At least two of the other passengers didn’t recognize that she was pregnant, either, with the reticence of a bygone era.)  Doc Boone sobers up and delivers a baby girl, with the help of Dallas.  Outside in the moonlight, Ringo proposes marriage to Dallas and with her help he almost escapes.  However, Chris, the Mexican station master, has an Apache wife, who leaves with several vaqueros and the station’s spare horses.

Ringo decides not to escape here because he sees Indian sign and holds up.  Curley takes him back into custody, and the stage heads warily for the ferry, after which they all figure they’ll be safe.  The ferry and its station are burned out, though.  Buck, Curley and Ringo rig supporting logs to help the stage float across the river, and they head for Lordsburg with a sigh of relief.  But we know the Apaches are somewhere around, and inevitably they show up and give chase.  After an extended chase (featuring some superb, state-of-the-art stuntwork by Yakima Canutt), the stage’s defenders run out of ammunition, with Hatfield saving his last bullet to spare Mrs. Mallory the indignities of capture by the savages.  And then ….

stagecoach-1939 Under attack by Geronimo.

Well, Ringo has to make it to Lordsburg, and he does.  He has it out with the nefarious Plummer brothers (three Plummers against one Ringo), and matters work out as they should, perhaps not with complete believability.  Doc Boone does not miraculously become a respected teetotaler, and Dallas is unable to leave her past completely behind, but things work out for them as they should, too.

It’s great storytelling, with bits of social commentary unobtrusively scattered along the way.  John Wayne captures the screen whenever he’s in the frame, and Claire Trevor is magnificent.  Wayne has the iconic western line:  “There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”  If Thomas Mitchell’s hard-drinking Doc Boone seems a bit stereotypical from our vantage point (almost identical to Edmond O’Brien’s hard-drinking newspaperman in Liberty Valance 25 years later, in fact), well, he was perhaps less so in 1939.  Donald Meek’s whiskey drummer, whom every one mistakes for a clergyman, is very effective.  And we despise the overbearing banker Gatewood as we are meant to do.  The Apaches actually look like Indians, which you can’t say of many western films of this era; Ford generally used Navajos instead of Apaches, though.

stagecoach2

In addition to being the first use of Monument Valley as a setting (and the first of seven Ford films to use it), there’s other good filmmaking going on here.  Ford doesn’t use a lot of close-ups, so we tend to pay attention when he does.  The interior ceilings are low, which must have presented problems for the lighting of the time.  That adds to the claustrophobic feeling as the movie progresses, and was imitated by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane two years later.  And the stunt work by Yakima Canutt was later imitated in such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Maverick.

Although there were a couple of other well-made westerns in 1939, it was largely this film that rejuvenated the genre, brought it an element of respectability and started the modern era for westerns.  (Many 1940s westerns would still show evidence of low budgets, singing cowboys and lots of stereotypes—the revolution didn’t happen overnight.)  But Stagecoach was a real accomplishment and remains highly watchable today.  In what is still thought of as Hollywood’s single greatest year, Stagecoach was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Interior Decoration, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone) and Best Score.  It won for the last two. 

stagecoach-RingoDallas

Dallas (Claire Trevor) and Ringo (John Wayne) in Lordsburg, about to confront reality.

In an interview for a 1971 article, Ford reminisced about casting Wayne.   ‘I got a call from [producer] Walter Wanger who had one more picture to make under his United Artists contract. So I sent him the short story and he said, “That’s a pretty good story. I’m thinking of Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich,” he said.

“I don’t think you can go that high on salary with a picture like this,” I said. “This is the kind of picture you have to make for peanuts.”

“Have you got anybody in mind?” Wanger asked me.

“Well, there’s a boy I know who used to be an assistant prop man and bit player for me,” I said. “His name was Michael Morrison, but he’s making five-day Westerns and calls himself John Wayne now.”

“Do you think he’s any good?” he asked.

“Yes, I think so,” I said. “And we can get him for peanuts.”‘  And John Wayne became a star.

-Stagecoach-Cast Still

A production still of the cast, from Claire Trevor on the left to George Bancroft on the right.

As Ford recalled it, he had plenty of confidence in the film, but it wasn’t always obvious that it would be a hit.  ‘After I shot Stagecoach, I worked closely with the cutter.  But there wasn’t a helluva lot to do.  I cut with the camera.  When the picture was put together, Wanger invited a few top people – brilliant brains of the industry who proceed to say how they would have done Stagecoach.  Sam Goldwyn said, “Walter, you made one mistake:  You should have shot it in color.  You should start all over again and make it in color.”  Douglas Fairbanks Sr. said: “The chase is too long.”

‘Then it was shown to the great producers at RKO, who had turned the project down in the first place.  One of them said, “It’s just a B picture.”  Another said, “It’s all right, but it’s still a Western.”  Well, of course, the picture went out and hit the jackpot.  It started a flood of Westerns, and we’ve been suffering from them ever since.”‘

It was also made at a particularly productive period of John Ford’s career, the same year that he made Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln and just before he made The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley.  It was an amazing streak for a great director.

The 1966 remake of Stagecoach was pleasant enough, but a pale and much less charismatic imitation of the original.  A made-for-television version in 1986 seemed to be merely a vehicle for a number of aging country music stars (mostly without much acting ability) and didn’t work at all.  The best other variation on this theme (strangers on a stage under attack, complete with social prejudices and hypocrisy, the supposedly respectable but actually corrupt businessman) is the 1967 movie Hombre.

For the 1971 article with comments from various participants in the production (including John Wayne and Claire Trevor), see:  http://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1004-Winter-2010-11/Features-On-John-Fords-Stagecoach.aspx

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Fort Apache

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 28, 2013

Fort Apache—John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Shirley Temple, John Agar, Pedro Armendariz (1948; Dir:  John Ford)

fortapache9

A Custer-esque poster, reminiscent of a print often seen in 19th century saloons.

This is the first of Ford’s cavalry trilogy from the late 1940s, a landmark series and an extraordinary achievement in the western genre.  This initial entry revolves around the conflict in leadership between Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda, with a streak of white in his hair), a by-the-book martinet with no experience in dealing with Indians, and the more reasonable, pragmatic and experienced Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne).  The Chiricahua Apaches under Cochise have left their reservation (the leadership of Cochise would place this in the early 1870s) and gone to Mexico.  It falls to Thursday’s command to deal with them.

fortapache2 Henry Fonda as Col. Owen Thursday

West Point graduate Thursday rose to be a general in the Civil War, but afterward he was reduced in rank as the military shrank to its peacetime size.  He feels that small-time Fort Apache in Arizona Territory isn’t worthy of him, and, Custer-like, he wants to reclaim supposed past military glories in his new posting.  He’s overly concerned with insignificant military niceties and too stubborn to accept advice from more experienced subordinates.  His highest-ranking subordinates are Captains York, who also saw service as a colonel in the Civil War but has since acquired considerable experience out west dealing with the Apaches, and Collingwood (silent film star George O’Brien, who played older officers in all three of Ford’s cavalry trilogy movies), older than York and with a longer and warmer acquaintance with Thursday.  Collingwood is on the verge of retirement, just waiting out the days or weeks in this remote outpost until his final retirement orders come through.  Unlike Thursday, York has enough experience to realize the outpost’s vulnerabilities.  As York sees it, not everything needs to come to a fight, including the current situation with Cochise.  To complicate matters, Thursday’s daughter Philadelphia (an almost grown-up ShirleyTemple) shows up at the post and develops a romantic interest in young West Point graduate Lt. Michael O’Rourke (John Agar).  O’Rourke is the son of the post’s Irish sergeant major (Ward Bond)—now a non-commissioned officer, although he was a Medal of Honor winner and a major in the Civil War.  To Thursday, that would be a highly unsuitable match.

fort_apache_wayne Wayne as Capt. Kirby York

Thursday shows some signs of being able to learn as he and York discover that the Apaches have left their reservation because they’ve been systematically cheated by a corrupt Indian agent, who’s also selling guns and alcohol to them on the side.  York is sent with Sgt. Beaufort (a Mexican and former Confederate major, played by Pedro Armendariz; the sergeant speaks Spanish as does Cochise) on a diplomatic mission to find Cochise and persuade him to come back.  In reliance on York’s word, Cochise and his people come far enough back to parley with Thursday.  However, Thursday is certain he knows best, and he is grossly and unnecessarily offensive to the Indians, precipitating a battle.  He is sure that savages with no training cannot have the military capability of defeating U.S. cavalry, no matter how outnumbered that cavalry might be.  Going against York’s advice, Thursday charges into an ambush, with York and young O’Rourke ordered to stay behind with the supply train.

fort-apache-laststand

The result is the massacre of all Thursday’s men, including Collingwood and the elder O’Rourke.  In the final scene at the post some years after the event, York is now the commanding officer, and not-quite-so young O’Rourke is his second in command, now married to Philadelphia Thursday.  Members of the press are asking York about Thursday’s supposedly heroic last stand and a famous painting of “Thursday’s Charge,” and York confirms the glorious myth—“Correct in every detail,” he says of the overblown and obviously inaccurate painting.  It’s a foretaste of the Liberty Valance valedictory:  “When the legend become fact, print the legend.”

There are the usual Ford cavalry characters here:  Irish sergeants led by Michael O’Rourke (Ward Bond), Fergus Mulcahey (Victor McLaglen) and Quincannon (Dick Foran); young, mouthy lieutenants (John Agar); beautiful eastern young women (Temple) inexperienced with the west; savvy long-time military wives (Emily Collingwood and Mary O’Rourke, played by Anna Lee and Irene Rich); noble Indian leaders (Cochise, played here by Miguel Inclan); former Conferates now serving well out west (Armendariz); and scurrilous Indian agents (Silas Meacham, played by Grant Withers).  There are names that will recur in future parts of the cavalry trilogy:  Quincannon (a stereotypical Irish sergeant played by twice by McLaglen in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) and Kirby York (played again by Wayne in Rio Grande).  No Ben Johnson or Harry Carey, Jr., yet, though; they’ll have to wait for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  Young lovers Agar and Temple were in fact married at the time, although they’d be divorced in a couple more years.

fortapache1  Production still:  Wayne, Fonda, Agar and Temple

These three movies were not conceived as a trilogy, and, though they all have typical Ford weaknesses (nostalgia, sentimentality, broad stereotypes), they have his strengths as well, including his unparalleled visual sense.  This, like the others, was filmed at Utah’s Monument Valley (although the Fort Apache set was located in Simi Valley, California), and is in black and white.  In some ways, the plot of Fort Apache is the strongest of the three.  It’s based on a short story by James Bellah, “Massacre.”

In addition to Custer, an Arizona inspiration for the story might be Lt. Howard Cushing of the 3rd Cavalry.  Cushing led his troopers into an Apache ambush at Bear Spring northwest of Fort Huachuca in Arizona Territory and was killed.  He is sometimes referred to as “the Custer of Arizona.”

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 26, 2013

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—John Wayne, Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen, John Agar, Joanne Dru, Mildred Natwick (1949; Dir:  John Ford)

“… Wherever they rode, whatever they fought for, that place became the United States.”  Obviously, Ford’s own Rio Grande and Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee hadn’t been made yet, since they both involve cavalry expeditions into Mexico (still not part of the United States).  Maybe Ford would have said it anyway. 

Of Ford’s cavalry trilogy, this one gives the best feel for cavalry life.  John Wayne is Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, a widower at Fort Stark about to retire from the military in 1876 with some reluctance after 40 years’ service.  He’s good with his men—authoritarian enough but pragmatic when he has to be.  His repeated advice, including to a young woman:  “Never apologize.  It’s a sign of weakness.”  But he also means for those so instructed to take responsibility for what’s happened.  He’s experienced in dealing with Indians and has long-term relationships with some of them.  His unit’s job of keeping the peace will be a lot harder without his experience and judgment.   

yellowRibbonPosteryellowribbonposter3

Contrary to what the Italian poster suggests, Joanne Dru does not wear pants with her military  costume.

To make matters worse, as the day for his retirement approaches there are new Indian hostilities to cope with.  The news of the Little Bighorn is fresh (placing this in 1876), and it makes the entire frontier military jumpy, as well as the Indians (Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Kiowas and Apaches are said to be among them here, an unlikely mix of tribes).  The local fort sutler might be running guns to the Indians.  (Sutlers and Indian agents are often venal, bad characters in John Ford and other westerns; see, for example, Fort Apache and They Died With Their Boots On.A beautiful visiting young lady from the East (Olivia Dandridge, played by Joanne Dru) has the young lieutenants at each other’s throats.  And Brittles is keeping a lid on it all in the face of his imminent retirement from the army and departure for California. 

Brittles is sent out on a last patrol, taking along two women against his objections so they can be delivered to a stagecoach stop.  On the way they encounter hostile Indians and have to take military action against much greater numbers.  We get a sense of how decisions had to be made with incomplete information, and what it was like to deal with long distances with only horseflesh to depend on for transportation and communication.  In the end, Brittles is not banished from his military family and is given appropriate honors. 

yellowribbonWayneDru

Joanne Dru: Looking good in her military garb.

This has the usual John Ford characters:  the experienced, wise, and sometimes inspirational field leader in Brittles; the Irish sergeants (McLaglen in this case) who drink a lot; the immature lieutenants (John Agar and Harry Carey, Jr.) who embody the future of the cavalry; former Confederates who are respected for their military abilities (Sgt. Tyree, played by a young Ben Johnson); idealized young women who don’t understand the West or the military—yet (Joanne Dru); military wives as sage and experienced as their men (Mildred Natwick as the post commander’s wife).  Ford makes these familiar characters all work, even if we now feel like we’ve seen them before.  Ford’s work here is also marked by a certain sentimentality; sometimes heavy-handed manipulation with music, especially the title song; and the brilliant visuals and use of the desert locations that is one of Ford’s trademarks.  Unlike Fort Apache a year earlier and Rio Grande a year afterward, this one’s in color; it won Winton C. Hoch the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.  (Hoch also did 3 Godfathers with Ford the year before and The Searchers a few years later.)

This is the most striking visually of Ford’s cavalry trilogy.  Although Winton Hoch, the cinematographer, won an Academy Award for his work here, filming was not a smooth creative process because of Hoch’s conflicts with Ford.  One of the most iconic scenes from the film was created during a dispute.  As a line of cavalry rides through the desert, a real thunderstorm grows on the horizon.  Hoch began to pack up the cameras as the weather worsened, only to have Ford to order him to keep shooting.  Hoch argued that there was not enough natural light for the scene and, more importantly, the cameras could become potential lightning rods if the storm swept over them.  Ford ignored Hoch’s complaints, completing the scene as the thunderstorm rolled in, soaking the cast and crew with rain.  Hoch later had filed a letter of complaint against Ford with his trade union over the filming of this scene, but it’s a masterful sequence visually.  Hoch was still willing to work with Ford on The Searchers a few years later, however.

The dialogue is well-written and this film does an excellent job of depicting some of the logistics of cavalry life—what it was like to depend on horses and be out in all weather, and the need to walk periodically to rest the horses, for example.  There’s a real affection for the military and an elegiac feel.  However, the story seems a little like a bunch of incidents strung together, without a strong enough major story arc to it.  The parts may be greater than the whole, story-wise.

yellowribbonWayneBigTree

Nathan Brittles negotiates with an old friend (John Big Bear) among the Cheyennes.

The performances are good.  As in Red River, Wayne in his prime (at age 42) is called upon to play much older than he is, and he can do it, complete with an occasional touch of world-weariness here and there.  Ben Johnson has one of his better early roles here, as an ex-confederate captain now a sergeant in the western U.S. cavalry, providing a competent counterpoint to Brittles.  He can really ride, having come to Hollywood as a stunt man fresh from ranch work.  Joanne Dru is well-cast and does an excellent job as the romantic distraction to the young officers, and she looks good in a military hat and cloak.  (She was also in the Hawks classic Red River about the same time, in a rather different and more demanding role.  Compare her here with the beautiful Linda Darnell wearing a cavalry hat in Two Flags West.)  Mildred Natwick is very good as well.  McLaglen as Sgt. Quincannon seems broadly stereotypical and over-the-top, and one can get tired of the romantic squabbles of the young lieutenants.  Both Johnson and McLaglen show up again as characters named Tyree and Quincannon in the following year’s Rio Grande, although Wayne’s character is back to being named York in that one, as he was in Fort Apache.  And the commanding officer at Fort Stark, Major Mac Allshard, is played well by silent film star George O’Brien.  This was one of his last movies, although he would show up again 15 years later as another major in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.  The bartender in a scene in which Sgt. Quincannon is arrested is Ford’s brother Francis, a long-time character actor who pops up in small roles in many Ford films.

YellowRibbonStill

Production Still:  Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., Ben Johnson, John Agar and George O’Brien

The cavalry is idealized in the post-World War II period when this was made, and the soldiers look cleaner than they probably could have in real life.  But it’s still stirring stuff to watch.  In Ford’s cavalry trilogy, this one is not as dark as the preceding Fort Apache nor as sentimental as the subsequent Rio Grande.

Although Ford’s sentimentality can occasionally seem heavy-handed to a current audience, he has qualities that more than compensate if you watch (and listen) for them.  This is especially true in the framing of shots and other visual touches.  For example, look for the thunderstorm in the background while the troop is out on patrol (the subject of the Ford-Hoch dispute referred to above), in the days before such things could be conjured up by special effects.  But it also reaches the use of music as well.  As Wagner, the regiment’s blacksmith, is working at his forge and anvil, the music playing is the “Nibelung” motif from Richard Wagner’s famous opera “Siegfried.”   In the opera that motif is connected with the forging of Siegfried’s sword, appropriate in this military setting but easy to miss.  Richard Hagerman provided the score.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Rio Grande

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 25, 2013

Rio Grande—John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman, Jr., Harry Carey, Jr., Chill Wills, J. Carroll Naish (1950; Dir:  John Ford) 

This is the last and the least critically-regarded of the John Ford cavalry trilogy.  The story goes that Ford didn’t intend to make this film and only did so when the RKO studio head Herbert K. Yates told him they’d let him make The Quiet Man on location in Ireland if he made another cavalry picture with John Wayne first.  It had only half the budget of Fort Apache, the first in the trilogy, and according to Harry Carey, Jr., Ford and the rest of the crew treated the shooting as something of a vacation, although Ford was always responsible enough to get the film done if he wasn’t drinking too heavily.

riograndePosterriograndePoster2

It’s also the first of five movies (with The Quiet Man, The Wings of Eagles, McLintock!, and Big Jake) pairing Wayne and Maureen O’Hara as romantic partners, an enduring screen couple.  The story for this film seems more hastily put together than those for its two predecessors in the series.  There is some confusion surrounding the individual movies in the trilogy, since names recur and the same actors show up in each film without any explicit connection.  Even Wayne here has the same name as his character in Fort Apache, Kirby York, although it’s spelled York in Fort Apache and Yorke here.  As in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ben Johnson is a trooper named Tyree, although apparently not the same one.  Victor McLaglen is Sergeant Quincannon again, and he may or may not be the same one.  Harry Carey, Jr., is again a young soldier, although this time he’s an enlisted man from Texas named Daniel Boone.  In any event, he’s never the one that gets the girl if there is one to get.  It all leads to a sense of elements and names from the previous two movies by the same director being thrown into a hastily-crafted story here, with more overt sentimentality and the Sons of the Pioneers.

riogrande1 Still of the Yorke family.

The Wayne-O’Hara relationship forms the dramatic core of the story, to the extent that the story hangs together at all.  They’re the long-separated (15 years after the Civil War battles in the Shenandoah, making it 1879) and frequently hostile parents of young Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman, Jr., from The Yearling), a West Point dropout who has recently signed on as a new private and been posted to Yorke’s command out west in Texas.  Kathleen Yorke (O’Hara) is not without influence herself, as the daughter of a powerful southern family from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.  That family has never forgiven Yorke for burning their home Bridesdale (among others) during Phil Sheridan’s Shenandoah campaign, when Yorke was a Union officer in the late unpleasantness between the states.  Will Col. Yorke be able to rebuild his family, repair his relationship with his estranged wife and get to know the son long absent from his life while he’s been out on the frontier?  And what will young Trooper Yorke decide about his military future now that his mother is presenting him an opportunity to get out and pressing him to take it?  The answers to those questions are fairly predictable, but it plays out well

Meanwhile, the soldiers’ principal military problem is the raiding Apaches, who who strike in the U.S. and then retreat into Mexico across the Rio Grande where Yorke and his men can’t follow them.  A crisis comes when the Apaches capture a group of women and children from the military post and take them across the river.  With the complicity of the visiting Phil Sheridan (J. Carroll Naish), Yorke risks his career to cross the river and rescue the captives, leading to a final battle in an Indian-held town with the prisoners being held in a church.

riograndeCharge Taking the church.

There is excellent chemistry between Wayne and O’Hara, leading to their pairing in four subsequent films.  (The most sucessful of these pairings was probably The Quiet Man, a non-western.)  A significant element of this chemistry is the sparks that fly from their disagreements, which may be why they frequently seem to play married but estranged partners.  It works better here than it does in, for example, McLintock!  O’Hara at 30 seems young to be the mother of a (more or less) adult soldier.  The supporting cast is good, although it contains many of John Ford’s usual suspects in their usual roles:  McLaglen as the grizzled, alcoholic Irish sergeant who provides occasional comic relief that doesn’t work all that well for current audiences; Ben Johnson as the former Confederate trooper; and Harry Carey, Jr., as a green trooper or young officer.  Chill Wills is good as the regimental surgeon.  Even if the story doesn’t hang together as well as the previous two in the trilogy, the movie is nevertheless quite watchable.

riograndeWayne2 Col. Yorke busts down the door.

Most of Ford’s films have a streak of populist sentimentality, and this has more than most.  Some of that sentimental tone comes from the music, including traditional tunes and ballads provided by the Sons of the Pioneers (with one song even written by Dale Evans).  The source material is also a common thread with the others in the cavalry trilogy, since they’re all based on short stories by James Warner Bellah.  It was filmed in black and white, although a colorized version exists.  Bert Glennon, who did Ford’s Stagecoach more than a decade earlier, was in charge of the cinematography, and you can see some of the technical and artistic advances in the decade between the two films.  This one was filmed in the desert locations around Moab, Utah, not Ford’s usual Monument Valley in the Four Corners area to the south.

Save

Save

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Hondo

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 21, 2013

Hondo—John Wayne, Geraldine Page, Ward Bond, James Arness, Lee Aaker, Leo Gordon (1953; Dir:  John Farrow)

John Wayne plays Hondo Lane, an ill-tempered part-Indian army scout in Arizona territory in 1870.  This movie doesn’t have as high a profile as some of the Wayne westerns of the late 1940s and early 1950s (Red River, The Searchers), but Hondo Lane is a quintessential Wayne character.

So why doesn’t it have a higher profile?  There are at least three major reasons:  (1)  The story isn’t as epic in nature as some others.  (2)  The rights are owned by Wayne’s production company, Batjac, and Batjac kept it largely out of circulation for a few decades.  (3)  It was made during the brief 3D fad of the early 1950s and bears some of the hallmarks of that specialized kind of moviemaking.  Along with Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, it might be the best 3D movie made during that period.  It is certainly the best movie made from a story by the best-selling western author Louis L’Amour, although it doesn’t have much good competition for that title.

John_Wayne - hondo

A stranger from the desert, accompanied by a feral dog.

As the movie opens, army scout and dispatch rider Hondo Lane walks up to an isolated Arizona ranch, looking somewhat the worse for wear, carrying saddlebags and a rifle and followed by a scruffy-looking feral dog, Sam.  Lane’s horse was killed when he was attacked by Apaches a few days earlier, and he’s been on foot ever since.  At the ranch he finds Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her son Johnny (Lee Aaker).  She says her husband Ed is up in the hills rounding up strays, but the place doesn’t show much sign of a man’s upkeep for the past several months.  Lane buys a wild horse from her, tames it and does some other tasks to earn his keep.  He develops the beginnings of a relationship with Angie and Johnny, and reveals that he once lived among the Mescalero Apaches and was married to one of them.  Lane tries to talk Angie into coming back to the military post and safety, but her family has lived for a long time at the ranch originally built by her father.  They have always had decent relations with the Chiricauhua Apaches in the area, now led by Vittorio (Michael Pate), and Angie insists on staying.

Lane returns to the army post with the tattered pennant of C Troop that he has recovered from an Apache.  He has a couple of run-ins with an unpleasant loudmouth who turns out to be named Lowe (Leo Gordon, who was just getting started in a career as a bad guy and thug).  Yes, he’s Angie’s husband, who has abandoned his family on the isolated ranch in Apache country.  As Lane leads a pack horse back toward the Lowe ranch, Lowe and a confederate follow at a distance, planning to attack and rob Lane when they find him in a convenient spot.  When they do attack, a band of Apache warriors attacks the three white men.  They get Lowe’s friend; Lane is forced to shoot Lowe and then tries to outrun the Apaches.  He’s not successful and is captured by Silva (Rodolfo Acosta), one of Vittorio’s nastier subchiefs. 

hondo2

Hondo (John Wayne) and Mrs. Lowe (Geraldine Page) survey the situation.

After Lane’s departure from the Lowe ranch, Vittorio shows up with his warriors in a less than friendly mood.  However, Vittorio is taken with Johnny’s spirit in his youthful attempts to defend his mother, and he adopts the boy as a blood brother.  Now that Lane is a captive of the Apaches, they begin to torture him until they discover in his possession a tintype of Johnny that Lane had taken from Lowe’s body.  He is given the right to single combat against Silva.  He wins after being wounded, but declines to kill Silva.  Vittorio deposits him at the Lowe ranch, where Angie lies and confirms to the chief that Lane is her husband.  This saves her from having to take an Apache husband.  And she’s starting to wish that the lie were true.

Lane gives Angie the tintype and tells her that he got it from Lowe’s body.  There follows an interlude in which Lane bonds with the boy and his mother.  Vittorio shows up unexpectedly to extract from Lane a promise that he won’t help the soldiers and will mislead them about Vittorio’s whereabouts.  Lane refuses to lie to the soldiers, knowing that the Indians hate lies.

hondowayne1

When they do show up, the soldiers are led by Lt. McKay, a recent West Point graduate who won’t listen to the voice of experience, as represented by Lane and his fellow scout Buffalo Baker (Ward Bond).  In a subsequent altercation with the Apaches, McKay is badly wounded and Vittorio is killed.  With Vittorio dead, Lane knows he and his new family are now in greater danger from the Apaches, and from white men who know that Lane killed Lowe.  There is a stirring resolution with a cavalry-Apache battle on the run.  Observing the departing Indians at the end, Lane notes, “End of a way of life.  Too bad.  It was a good way.”

Hondo may not be all that different from other John Wayne western characters, but he’s not identical, either.  For one thing, there’s Hondo’s irascibility:  “No wonder the Apaches call him Enverrado.  It means bad-tempered.”  He’s given to saying “A man oughta do what he thinks is best” just when somebody’s about to do something blatantly wrong or stupid.  Note the battered hat worn by Hondo throughout the movie; it’s the same one worn by the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Capt. Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Sheriff John T. Chance in Rio Bravo.  It was honorably retired after Rio Bravo in 1959 after 20 years of hard use.

Hondo_1953

The cast is excellent, and aside from the central role of Hondo Lane, the young Geraldine Page really makes the movie as slightly prissy pioneer woman Angie Lowe.  Previously known only for her work on the New York stage, she got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work here.  (A political liberal, she was reportedly horrified at the right-wing views of Wayne, Bond, Arness and director Farrow.)  Ward Bond, one of the usual John Wayne-John Ford suspects, is also superb as a slightly rougher than usual variation of the rough-hewn frontier character he normally played.  Australian actor Michael Pate is credible as Vittorio, more than you’d expect, and he shows up in other movies (McLintock!, for example) as an Indian.  The young and blond James Arness plays yet another scout, this one of a morally dubious nature.  The overconfident recent West Point graduate, Lt. McKay (Tom Irish), might have stepped out of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy.  And Paul Fix as the post commander is good in a small part.  Sam, Hondo’s dog, is a good character, very similar to “Dog” in Big Jake.

There are some remaining traces of the movie’s 3D origins, but they’re not too distracting.  They include the garish titles, a few lunges at the camera during the knife fight and the battle sequences and a couple of strange camera angles.  There is an Intermission card, needed for this relatively short movie so that film could be changed in both projection cameras at the same time. 

hondotitles Garish 3D titles

The movie is directed in a thoroughly professional manner by John Farrow, although there are stories that Farrow was restrained some by Wayne.  The movie’s final sequences (including the cavalry-Apache battle) were directed by John Ford when Farrow had to leave before the film was quite finished.  The screenplay is by James Edward Grant, whose brand of terse dialogue was particularly congenial to Wayne.  It was filmed on location in the Mexican desert, in Camargo, Chihuahua, during the summer months, which no doubt accounts for the authentic-looking dust and sweat.  At less than 90 minutes, it’s pretty tight story-telling.

By the time the film was released in late 1953, the 3D fad had already passed, and Hondo was mostly seen in a more normal format.  But it was a hit.  Based the short story “A Gift of Cochise,” author L’Amour reworked it into a novel that sold 3,000,000 copies, the first with his real name attached.  It started him on the road to best-sellerdom, although that mostly arrived in the 1970s and 1980s.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

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)

HallelujahPosterhallelujahSpan

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.

hallelujah-gearhartbath

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone