Tag Archives: Charlton Heston

Three Violent People

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 28, 2015

Three Violent People—Charlton Heston, Anne Baxter, Gilbert Roland, Tom Tryon, Forrest Tucker, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Elaine Stritch, Robert Blake (1956; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

3ViolentPoster23ViolentPoster

This combines a romantic melodrama with a brother-goes-bad story, all set in post-Civil War carpetbag Texas.  The central question is:  What will happen when a respectable man discovers his new wife’s sordid past?

Capt. Colt Saunders, a former Confederate cavalry officer, is returning to the family ranch in southern Texas after the war.  He sees the oppression by the carpetbaggers but is careful not to get involved himself, until he notes a well-dressed woman about to be manhandled when she tries to alight from a stagecoach.  The woman is Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter), and in the ensuing fight Saunders is knocked unconscious.  Lorna puts him in a hotel room and makes off with $900 she finds on his person, but on second thought she has it put in the hotel safe with a receipt made out to Saunders.  It turns out the hotel and its related saloon are run by her old (and shady) friend Ruby LaSalle (Elaine Stritch), who disapproves of whatever game Lorna’s playing with Saunders.

3ViolentBaxtHestDrink

Early Days: Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter) and Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) get to know each other.

When he wakes up, Saunders is taken enough with Lorna to marry her impulsively on the spur of the moment.  Arriviing at the Saunders Bar S ranch founded by Saunders’ grandfather, they find that (a) it has been kept running by foreman, gunman and resident sage Innocencio Ortega (Gilbert Roland) and his five sons, (b) the carpetbag government has taken virtually all the Saunders cattle, leaving them only a hidden horse herd, and (c) Saunders’ one-armed black sheep brother Beauregard “Cinch” Saunders (Tom Tryon) has returned to complicate everything else.

Saunders and Lorna go off to visit a neighbor, where instead they find the local carpetbag Tax Commissioner (Bruce Bennett) and his minions, including Cable (Forrest Tucker), a gunfighter.  One of the minions recognizes Lorna from St. Louis, where as a member of Gen. Benjamin “Beast” Butler’s staff he had once frolicked with her during the war.  It’s a bad way for Saunders to find out, and he doesn’t take it well.  Against Ortega’s advice, he orders her to leave while he’s off on an extended tour of the ranch.

3ViolentTucker

Carpetbagging gunslinger Cable (Forrest Tucker) gets what he wants.

Thinking better of it, especially when he learns that Lorna is pregnant, he heads back to ranch headquarters early, only to find that Cinch has persuaded Lorna to help him make off with the remaining Saunders horses, which they plan to sell for $30,000.  With the help of Ortega and his sons, Saunders recaptures the herd and takes the horses and Lorna back to the ranch, at least until the baby is born.  Ortega decides he must leave in the face of such stupidity.  Cinch Saunders has been banned from the ranch for his perfidy, but he schemes with the carpetbaggers to take over the Saunders ranch, even as Texas’ carpetbag government is falling apart.

3ViolentHeston

Hard-headed Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) negotiates with his brother Cinch, with his wife Lorna, and with carpetbaggers.

The baby is born, and Lorna prepares to leave as Saunders had demanded.  Cinch shows up to take over but is double-crossed by the Commissioner and Cable, who plan to leave no witnesses to their shady dealings.  He redeems himself by taking out Cable at the cost of getting shot himself, while Saunders, Ortega and the Ortega sons kill the Commissioner and drive off the other nefarious carpetbaggers.  Cinch dies nobly, and Lorna and Colt Saunders are apparently back together.  And Ortega and his sons (one of whom is played by Robert Blake) decide to stay.

Charlton Heston was hitting the peak of his career, having just finished as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956, not yet released at the time this was filming) and coming up as Steve Leech in The Big Country (1958) and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur (1959).  He manages to convey the competence and implacability of Colt Saunders, although this is not on the scale of those three big productions.  Anne Baxter is good as a woman with a past (The Spoilers [1955], Cimarron [1960] and even The Ten Commandments).  And Gilbert Roland, who had been in movies since the silent era of the 1920s, played this kind of role—a polished Hispanic man of the world, good with a gun—better than anybody else, although here he verges on a stereotype.  On the whole, this feels a little overheated to current audiences, but melodramas are no longer fashionable in movies.  It’s quite watchable, although you wish the characters (except for Roland, who talks a lot) would talk to each other more, and that there was a little more subtlety in the relationship between Colt and Lorna Saunders.  Tom Tryon as bitter one-armed brother Cinch is too much a one-note character.  It would be good if glimmers of something other than the bitterness were shown.  Some of the names (Colt?  Cinch?  Beauregard?) are a bit of a problem.

3ViolentBelgWide

Rudolph Maté, who had started as a cinematographer in Europe in the early 1920s, was an experienced director of westerns (The Rawhide Years, The Far Horizons, The Violent Men).  The screenplay was by James Edward Grant, a favorite of John Ford and John Wayne.  Shot in color in and around Old Tucson, Arizona, by Loyal Griggs, at 100 minutes.

It’s not entirely clear who the three violent people are (there would seem to be more than three), but they’re probably Colt Saunders, Cinch Saunders and Innocencio Ortega.  Maybe including Lorna Saunders, since the title isn’t limited to men.  Not to be confused with Maté’s The Violent Men (1955), with Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck and Brian Keith.

For Charlton Heston in better westerns, see him in the sprawling The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck and Burl Ives and in the excellent character study Will Penny (1968).  Gilbert Roland shows up in Anthony Mann‘s The Furies (1950) with Barbara Stanwyck,  Bandido (1956) with Robert Mitchum and as a noble Cheyenne chief in John Ford‘s last film Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

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

The Avenging Angel

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 3, 2014

The Avenging Angel—Tom Berenger, James Coburn, Charlton Heston, Kevin Tighe, Jeffrey Jones, Fay Masterson, Leslie Hope, Andrew Prine (MfTV 1995; Dir: Craig R. Baxley)

AvengingAngelPosterAvengingAngelPoster2

“They trained him to shoot.  To ride.  To kill.  He was the hunter.  Now, he’s the hunted.”

Conspiracies and counterplots among the polygamous Mormons of Utah in 1872 drive this made-for-television (TNT) account of Mormon assassin/bodyguard/security agent Miles Utley (Tom Berenger).  Historical figures such as Brigham Young, Porter Rockwell and Bill Hickman are mixed with fictional ones like Utley in an environment that has some historicity but was probably not as overheated as depicted here.

Young Miles Utley is headed west with the Mormons in 1847 when his father dies.  Brigham Young (Charlton Heston, playing the American Moses) assigns Bill Hickman (Tom Bower) to care for young Utley and raise him.  Hickman and Utley are shown as members of the Mormon militia that slowed down Albert Johnston’s army invading Utah in 1857.  Fast forward to 1872: By this time Utley is a kind of security agent for the Church, reporting to Milton Long (Jeffrey Jones), its head of security.  He is shown dispatching dissident Jonathan Parker with a bowie knife to the throat, so he is not exactly a good guy.  He is also shown frolicking with Young’s daughter Miranda (Fay Masterson), so we know he takes political/spiritual chances, too.

AvengingAngelBeren

Miles Utley (Tom Berenger) takes aim. Not all his enemies are obvious.

Long assigns Utley to shadow a couple of suspicious newcomers in Salt Lake City, and he follows them to the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.  Elder Benjamin Rigby (Kevin Tighe, playing a fictional character) preaches fire and brimstone against outsiders.  Brigham Young arises to espouse more restraint and less violence against non-Mormons.  As he does so, a hooded figure approaches him and pulls a derringer; Utley intervenes and shoots the supposed assassin first and is himself attacked and rendered unconscious.  When he starts asking questions about the person he shot, he is again hit (he should be suffering from multiple concussions by now).  He awakens on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.  Apparently his assailants intended that he should drown, but he floated in the salty waters.

He is retrieved by Eliza Rigby (Leslie Hope), who doctors his wounds.  She is an estranged polygamous wife of Elder Rigby, who she says was more interested in her sister Sarah.  As Utley heals, the two develop an interest in each other.  He is about to leave when Rigby himself shows up, with Alpheus Young (Daniel Quinn), Brigham’s son.  Young leaves and Rigby is heard hitting Eliza, with Utley restrained by the pleading of her young daughters.

Miles Utley:  “You know, Alpheus, the problem with polygamy is that when you’ve had 27 wives and 56 children [a reference to Brigham Young’s extensive family], one’s just bound to turn out as dirt-stupid and pig-ugly as you.”

AvengingAngelCoburn Beren

Utley (Tom Berenger) finds Porter Rockwell (a hairy James Coburn) in the canyons of southern Utah.

Still investigating the deceased assassin, Utley finds apparent grave robbers digging up her body.  Yes, it was a woman—Eliza Rigby’s sister Sarah, a disaffected former Mormon.  Put in jail, Utley is sprung by his boss Milton Long; both Long and Miranda Young smuggle him guns.  He warily heads south, looking for his long-time friend and mentor Porter Rockwell (James Coburn, with long hair and beard wigs).  He visits his sister’s family (with daughters played by two Berenger girls).  As Utley departs, he is attacked by and forced to kill Alpheus Young.  He stops to see his disaffected, alcoholic foster father Bill Hickman in Kanab and is given Jonathan Parker’s diary before heading into wild country. As he leaves, he is attacked again, and joined by Miranda Young, who is wounded.  He fights the attackers off and sends Miranda back with their remnants.  He reads Parker’s diary and finds that he was simply an honest dissident and was doing nothing for which he deserved killing.

Utley and Rockwell join forces to fight a conspiracy led by Elder Rigby to take over the Church and Utah.  Brigham Young is reported to have headed to his winter home in St. George, threatened by the conspirators.  Rockwell creates a diversion without killing any of Young’s faithful bodyguards and Utley enters the house, to find that Milton Long is part of the conspiracy and he is now captured.  Brigham Young slips him a gun, which he uses to take out Long.  He heads back to Salt Lake, to the Assembly Hall, where he finds an unhinged Rigby speaking to an imaginary audience, now that his conspiracy has fallen apart.  Eliza persuades Utley not to kill Rigby, and he hangs up his guns.

AvengingAngelHestonBeren

Brigham Young (Charlton Heston) is about to slip Miles Utley (Tom Berenger) yet another gun.

The title refers to the Danites, a supposedly historical group of thugs and assassins who did the Church’s dirty work, of which Utley is supposed to be one.  To the extent they were real, they existed principally in the 1830s; by 1872, they were long gone.  Porter Rockwell was the most prominent of those said to have been Danites, and he was an actual lawman and frontiersman well into the Utah period, dying about the same time as Brigham Young in 1877.

Elements of the cast are very good.  Berenger is sympathetic as Miles Utley, although he sometimes seems confused in his religious environment.  His character could have used a bit more subtlety in the writing of his motivations.  He made this between appearing as Gen. James Longstreet in Gettysburg and as Lewis Gates in Last of the Dogmen.  His production company played a role in getting this made.  Aging actors Heston and Coburn are fine in their roles.  The casting of Jeffrey Jones and especially Kevin Tighe telegraphs that their characters are not to be trusted, however.  The female parts are not strongly written.

BrighamYoung1970PorterRockwell

The sometimes autocratic Brigham Young, ca. 1870, about 69 years old; and the aging Mormon lawman and frontiersman Orrin Porter Rockwell.

The polygamous Mormon church, with its secrets and undercurrents under Brigham Young and his successors, would make a fertile environment for mysteries and action films for a generation after the time depicted here, until the church gave up the practice in the early 20th century.  This is based on a novel by Gary Stewart, who apparently has a Mormon background, and, while enjoyable enough, it’s not particularly memorable.  Mormons may enjoy watching it for what strikes them as historical and what seems misplaced.  It was written by somebody who likes guns; when Utley is smuggled guns in jail, they are described in loving detail (a Smith & Wesson .44, said to be just like Jesse James used; a .36, said to be light but effective) as they are slipped to him.

The screenplay won the Western Writers of America 1996 Spur Award for Best Drama Script (Dennis Nemec).  Not to be confused with another made-for-television western, Avenging Angel, with Kevin Sorbo (2007).  For another western featuring Brigham Young, see Dean Jagger in 1940’s Brigham Young, with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell.  For historical background on Young, see Brigham Young, American Moses, by Leonard Arrington (1985) or John Turner’s Brigham Young:  Pioneer Prophet (2013).  The definitive biography of Porter Rockwell, an authentic western character, is probably still Harold Schindler’s Orrin Porter Rockwell, Man of God, Son of Thunder (first edition, 1966; go with the revised edition, which is easier to find).

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

The Big Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 25, 2014

The Big Country—Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons, Burl Ives, Carroll Baker, Charles Bickford, Chuck Connors, Alfonso Bedoya (1958; Dir:  William Wyler)

BigCountryPosterBigCountryJap

The Big Country is a self-consciously big movie, an epic sprawling family saga with a big, top-flight cast full of alpha males and a long running time, at 165 minutes.  William Wyler had inherited Cecil B. Demille’s spot as the master of the large-scale film, and this one was between The Friendly Persuasion (a Civil War movie, said to be Ronald Reagan’s favorite film) and the even more epic Ben-Hur.  Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston and Jean Simmons were at the peaks of their careers.  At the time of its release, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who was known to relax by reading pulp western novels) gave the movie four consecutive showings at the White House and called it “simply the best film ever made.  My number one favorite film.”

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the scion of a family with a seafaring empire and has himself been a successful sea captain.  His father was given to dueling, and was killed in a final duel ten years previously, leaving McKay with a distaste for meaningless violence.  He has met young Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker) in Baltimore, where she has been in school, and they became engaged.  He has come to the Terrill estate in Texas for the marriage.  So a familiar western plot emerges:  the easterner comes west, and the tenderfoot is educated in the ways of the west.  But in this case, the easterner is already competent in the world of men and does not automatically buy in to the supposed code of the west.

BigCountryBlessing

Major Terrill (the cranky Charles Bickford) gives the young couple his blessing.

In town, Jim is introduced to Pat’s friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), the local schoolmarm, granddaughter of one of the first ranchers in the area (now deceased), and owner of a neglected ranch with the best water source in the area, the Big Muddy.  Heading for the Terrill Ranch, McKay is hoorahed, roped and dragged by drunk cowboys led by Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors, clearly playing a bad guy).  When McKay is rescued by Terrill foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Pat is deeply humiliated that McKay didn’t stand up to the Hannasseys.  McKay has found himself in the middle of a long-term feud between Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford) and the patriarch of the lower-class Hannasseys, Rufus (Burl Ives), both of whom want the water of the Big Muddy.

Leech is the closest thing Terrill has as a son, and he clearly doesn’t think McKay is worthy of the Terrill daughter.  In one of the traditional tropes of a western like this, Leech has the cowboys saddle up Old Thunder, a beautiful but apparently unridable appaloosa, for the tenderfoot, but McKay declines the set-up.  Major Terrill leads a group of twenty of his riders in shooting up the Hannassey place in Blanco Canyon and beating up three of the riders involved in the McKay incident while Buck hides in a wagon.  While everybody is gone, McKay does in fact ride Old Thunder with only vaquero Ramon Guiteras (Alfonso Bedoya) to see.

At a Terrill party to celebrate the engagement of McKay and Patricia, Rufus Hannassey invades the festivities to issue a challenge to the Major.  McKay takes off on a multi-day ride around the country, and everybody assumes he is lost in the vastness of the ranch and its surroundings.  In fact, he can navigate fine with the help of his compass, and he encounters Julie again at her ranch.  She says she’d like to get rid of it, and McKay buys it from her, adding the promise that both Terrills and Hannasseys can use the water of the Big Muddy.

BigCountryBigMuddy

McKay (Gregory Peck) and Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) at the Big Muddy.

Terrill riders led by Leech finally encounter McKay, and tempers are at the boiling point.  McKay declines to fight Leech, and again Pat is humiliated.  McKay decides he has to leave, but before he does he visits Leech privately and they batter each other inconclusively at length.  Major Terrill and Rufus Hannassey come to the conclusion they have to decide matters between them as well.  Terrill gathers a force of riders, and Hannassey arranges his defenses in Blanco Canyon and sends Buck to bring back Julie Maragon.

Patricia Terrill:  “But if he loved me, why would he let me think he was a coward?”

Julie Maragon:  “If you love him, why would you think it?  How many times does a man have to win you?”

BigCountryHeston

Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) at the battle of Blanco Canyon.

The abduction of Julie is ostensibly the reason for Terrill to ride against the Hannasseys.  Rufus sees that Julie despises Buck, and she tells him that she’s sold the Big Muddy to McKay.  Buck attacks Julie until he is pulled off by his disgusted father.  McKay also hears of the abduction and takes off for Blanco Canyon with Ramon.  He arrives and doesn’t believe Julie when she says she’s there of her own choice.  Rufus figures the matter should be decided in gentlemanly fashion, using McKay’s father’s pistols in an old-fashioned duel.  As they pace off and turn, Buck fires prematurely, demonstrating his cowardice again.  McKay fires into the ground.  As McKay turns away, Buck grabs a gun from a cowboy, takes aim at McKay’s back and is shot down by Rufus, who can’t countenance such dishonor.

Meanwhile, Leech has tried to talk Terrill out of the attack on Hannassey.  Terrill doesn’t listen, and the Terrill riders are trapped in the canyon.  As McKay and Julie ride out of Blanco Canyon with Ramon and Rufus, the Terrill and Hannassey patriarchs face off.  We don’t see exactly the results, but the suggestion is that both are killed.  Presumably McKay and Julie live happily ever after at the Big Muddy, and Leech marries the spoiled Pat and continues to run the Terrill spread.

BigCountryDuel

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) faces off against the scurrilous Buck Hannassey (not shown).

The dominant performances are by Peck, who had a producing role, and Burl Ives, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for chewing the scenery while wearing huge false eyebrows.  Those characters are the most interesting in the film, and they make it move.  Charlton Heston was at his epic peak, between his roles as Moses in The Ten Commandments and Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur, as well as starring in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.  But he accepted a supporting role and fourth billing in order to work with director Wyler.  It turned out to be a good career move, since Wyler directed him in Ben-Hur, too.  He was big and in great shape, as we can see from a couple of scenes in which he’s shirtless.  (Gregory Peck has no similarly shirtless scenes.)

BigCountryHannasseys

Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives) and rotten son Buck (Chuck Connors).

The weakest point in the cast is Carroll Baker, a hot screen commodity since her performance in Baby Doll, but she’s a little light here.  There is no screen chemistry between her and Peck from the start: it is immediately obvious that Jean Simmons would be a better match.  Charles Bickford is fine, if a little stiff, as he’s supposed to be.  This was the last film for Alfonso Bedoya, who is surprisingly effective as Ramon the vaquero.

The elements of this film are top-flight as well.  The cinematography by Franz Planer conveys that it is, in fact, a big country, although most of it was shot in California, not Texas.  Several writers are credited, including Jessamyn West (well-known in her time, with whom Wyler had worked on The Friendly Persuasion) and Robert Wyler, the director’s older brother.  The memorable music is by Jerome Moross, who received his only Oscar nomination for this film score.

One difficulty was in the script; seven writers were involved, including novelist Leon Uris (Exodus, Battle Cry), but shooting began without all the bugs ironed out.  According to Gregory Peck, “After seven writers, I don’t think either of us [Peck or Wyler] was completely satisfied with the script.  But by this time, we had made expensive commitments with an all-star cast and a cameraman.  We had financing from United Artists.  So we got ourselves painted into a corner, where we were obliged to go ahead with a script that neither of us were fully satisfied with.”

BigCountryCast

On the set: the cast with director William Wyler.

Shooting the movie was not without its problems.  Tempers flared on the set between numerous individuals, particularly between director Wyler and Charles Bickford, who had fought on the set of Hell’s Heroes (1930) decades earlier and were continuing their antagonism.  Wyler liked to shoot numerous retakes and Bickford was very cranky, often refusing to say a line he didn’t like or to vary his performance no matter how many takes he was forced to deliver.  According to Charlton Heston, “Charlie Bickford was a fairly cantankerous old son of a bitch.”  Jean Simmons was so traumatized by the experience that she refused to talk about it for years until an interview in the late 1980s when she revealed, “We’d have our lines learned, then receive a rewrite, stay up all night learning the new version, then receive yet another rewrite the following morning.  It made the acting damned near impossible.”  The experience also also touched off bad feelings between Gregory Peck and Wyler, who made up a couple of years later.

Burl Ives in effect reprises his Rufus Hannassey character in the much smaller Day of the Outlaw, made about the same time with Robert Ryan.  Ives got on well with Wyler, unlike some of the others.  That year he was also getting rave reviews for his work as Big Daddy in the film version of Tennesse Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin RoofGregory Peck and Charlton Heston are good in several other westerns.  And Jean Simmons shows up ten years later in Rough Night in Jericho.

BigCountrySpanBigCountryGerm

Director William Wyler was perhaps the most respected in the business by this time, or at least up there with John Ford.  Unlike Ford, Wyler didn’t make many westerns at this stage of his career, although he had started as a director making two-reel westerns in the 1920s.  During the 1930s and 1940s he had gone on to make such classics as Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives.  He had made The Westerner with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan in 1940.  He had done well with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday earlier in the 1950s and would go on to do other successful large-scale movies like Ben-Hur and Funny Girl.  He was nominated for the Best Director Academy Award twelve times (the most ever–he was the Meryl Streep of directors), and he won three times.  He directed more Oscar-nominated performances than any other director (36), of which fourteen won.  No wonder actors wanted to work with him, even if he required so many takes.

The film was a modest, but not a universal, success in its time.  An expensive production, it barely made it into the black financially.  It was 11th at the box office for 1958.  As Gregory Peck put it:  “I suppose that any movie that grosses $9,500,000 can’t be classed as a failure. The exhibitors made money, the grips made money.  Everybody on the picture made money but me — the producer and star.”

If you were a film critic with a Marxist bent (Philip French of The Observer, say), you might see this sprawling film as an allegory of the cold war era, with the inconclusive fight between Peck and Heston demonstrating the futility of the macho ethos and the arms build-up of the 1950s and 1960s.

Make sure you have allotted enough time to watch this.  Wyler later admitted he should have cut the film more.  “Would I cut it today?  Yes, I would cut it.  I would probably cut 10 to 15 minutes out which would make you feel as though you cut half an hour out.”  The story occasionally seems to be developing at a leisurely pace, but it doesn’t drag.  At the end you may wonder if there’s really enough story here for all that time, but it works if you let it.  This is good enough that many consider it one of the great westerns, and it’s probably the best of its kind—the epic western family saga.  But for us, it’s on the line between great and near-great.  See what you think.  

 

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

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

Will Penny

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 26, 2013

Will Penny—Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Ben Johnson, Donald Pleasance, Bruce Dern, Lee Majors, Anthony Zerbe, Jon Greis (1968; Dir:  Tom Gries)

will-penny-Poster2WillPennyPoster

This is an end-of-the-cowboy era western, like (and released two years earlier than) the excellent Monte Walsh.   It features great performances by Charlton Heston and Joan Hackett, as well as by supporting actors.  Bruce Dern is another loathsome villain in this film, but Donald Pleasance as his deranged preacher-rawhider-father holds the screen even better.  Director Gries also wrote the screenplay, and his son Jon played the boy.  This was apparently based on an episode (“Line Camp”) of Sam Peckinpah’s short-lived television series The Westerner, also written and directed by Tom Gries.  Cinematography is by Lucien Ballard, a favorite of Peckinpah. 

will-penny1 Charlton Heston in the title role.

Will Penny is an aging illiterate cowboy, almost 50 years old.  As a trail drive from Texas finishes, he looks for and finds a job as a line rider on the large Flatiron Ranch for the winter.  At his distant line cabin he encounters Catherine Allen, a woman with a son (Horace, played by Jon Gries) heading for Oregon, now abandoned by their guide in a remote location.  In their isolation Penny and Catherine encounter a bunch of “rawhiders,” a loathsome family led by a deranged preacher-father (Preacher Quint, played by Donald Pleasance), who provide much of the conflict.  In the end, Penny has a choice to make now that he’s developed a relationship with Catherine.  Heartbreakingly, however, he can’t take the offered family and love because he feels he’s too old; he doesn’t think he has enough time left to provide and build for them. 

WillPennyhackett-heston An impromptu family.

Ironically, the actor (Heston) playing the much older cowboy survived the young actress playing the romantic interest by 25 years.  This is a very good western that doesn’t take easy ways out.   Heston considered the film a personal favorite in his body of work.  It depends on his performance, and he was right to be proud of it.  This is one of two excellent performances by Joan Hackett in westerns, before she drifted into television work and a premature death at 53.  The other is the satire Support Your Local Sheriff.

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

Tombstone

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 2, 2013

Tombstone—Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Stephen Lang, Bill Paxton, Dana Delany, Billy Zane, John Tenney, Harry Carey, Jr., Charlton Heston, Billy Bob Thornton, Thomas Haden Church, Jason Priestly (1993; Dir:  George P. Cosmatos)

There have been a lot of movies made about Wyatt Earp and the famous gunfight at the OK Corral.  Kurt Russell is a superb cinematic Wyatt Earp, in part because physically he looks so much like a well-known photograph of the lawman, down to the moustache, the hair and the blue eyes.  But he’s also an excellent and sometimes under-appreciated actor.  Of course, the really meaty role in any retelling of the Wyatt Earp story is that of tubercular gambler-dentist-gunfighter Doc Holliday, wonderfully played in this case by Val Kilmer.

russell-earp Wyatt Earp

Earps cinematic and historical:  Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, and the real Wyatt.

The story is so well known that there are always questions about the historical accuracy of a movie telling it yet again.  This is one of the more accurate, along with Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, which was made about the same time and which is much less enjoyable.  Some events are telescoped close together in time, when they actually happened months apart, and there’s frequently a very theatrical signaling of impending events.  The supporting roles here are very strong, including, in addition to Kilmer’s Holliday, Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocius, Stephen Lang as Ike Clanton, Michael Biehn as a psychotic Johnny Ringo, and Jon Tenney as the slippery Cochise County sheriff John Behan.  Sam Elliot’s presence as older brother Virgil Earp is good, too, and Bill Paxton has a quieter role as younger brother Morgan.  Dana Delany as Wyatt’s romantic interest, the actress Josephine Marcus, is not as strong as one might wish to match with Earp, but even this bit of casting works.  One does appreciate the fleeting staging of the famous supposed Marcus photograph, even if throwing it into the middle of the gunfight seems kind of gratuitous.  Charlton Heston has a cameo as rancher Henry Hooker.  Tombstone town marshal Fred White here is played by aging western movie veteran Harry Carey, Jr., despite the fact that the real Fred White was only 31 years old.

There are a lot of characters here, and they’re handled well.  Some movie retellings of the Earp story culminate in the famous gunfight at the OK Corral.  It’s a high point here, with an unforgettable image of the Earps and Holliday striding toward the confrontation in their long black coats.  As cinematic renditions of the legendary gunfight go, this is more accurate than most.  But the gunfight is just the start of a series of strike and counter-strike moves, leading to Wyatt’s months-long vendetta ride against the Cowboys gang.  There are a lot of small historical touches that are accurate if you know to look for them.  For example, the use of then-current vernacular, as Doc Holliday responds to challenges with “I’m your huckleberry” and “You’re a daisy if you do.”  And Wyatt pushes Johnny Tyler (Billy Bob Thornton) with “No need to go heeled to get the bulge on a tub like you” and “Go ahead, skin it!  Skin that smoke wagon and see what happens!”

tombstone4

Holliday (Val Kilmer) and three Earps (Sam Elliot, Bill Paxman and Kurt Russell), heading for the OK Corral.

This was Cosmatos’ only western, and he made the most of it, although there was a certain amount of directorial coming and going on this movie and it’s not entirely clear that all the credit goes to him.  According to some, Kurt Russell took over not too far in and finished the shooting.  If that’s true, Russell should do more directing.  Cosmatos is rumored to have said, “I do slick American movies with a European sensitivity,” and that describes Tombstone.  There’s a florid theatrical sensibility at work here, but it doesn’t get in the way.  Cosmatos supposedly claimed that all the lightning and moustaches in the movie are real.  The battles and gunfights are well-staged, especially the famous OK Corral fight (surprisingly accurate historically), the battle at the river with Brocius and the other Cowboys (also quite accurate) and the final showdown between Holliday and Ringo (could have happened, but this version is made up because nobody knows what actually took place when Ringo died).  There’s so much going on in this movie, with lots of excellent supporting performances, that it has a lot of re-watchability.  One has the sense that there are a lot of small things (e.g., the part of Billy Breckinridge, played by Jason Priestley) that remain underdeveloped to limit the playing time of the movie.

In addition to the good casting and excellent acting, the music is by Bruce Broughton (Silverado).  And the narration is in the recognizable tones of Robert Mitchum’s voice.

According to Hall Herring in Field & Stream (May 2012), this is the definitive retelling (among many by now) of the Earp saga.  “The story is ancient:  strong newcomers run up against entrenched economic interests that are a part of the legal and extra-legal power structure of the new place.  The enforcers of the entrenched order resist the newcomers.  Violence results.  The arc of the story in Tombstone follows that model almost perfectly.  But any American watching this movie brings to it a wealth of assumptions, and knowledge about mythical figures like the Earps, Holliday, or to a lesser extent, the adversaries like Ike Clanton and Curly Bill [Brocius].  The power of Tombstone is that it does not challenge, ever, what we think we know….  By the time the fight actually comes, we know everybody so well that we are utterly invested in the outcome–every shot, every misstep, is of grave concern.  Tombstone is actually not too far from accurate in a historical sense.  But if it were not, the movie is so powerful that we wouldn’t care one whit what the real history was.”

TombstoneKilmer2 Kilmer as Holliday.

The film is rated R for violence, of which there is a fair amount.  The body count during Wyatt’s Vendetta Ride is much higher than it was in real life.  For a ranking and comparison of various movies about the Earps (of which there are five good ones), see below.  The other Earp movies that made the list of great westerns here are John Ford’s My Darling Clementine from 50 years earlier and John Sturges’ Hour of the Gun from the 1960s.  At least two others (Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp and John Sturges’ first Earp movie, Gunfight at the OK Corral) are very worth watching.

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