Tag Archives: Civil War

Red Mountain

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 9, 2015

Red Mountain—Alan Ladd, Lizabeth Scott, Arthur Kennedy, John Ireland, Jay Silverheels, Jeff Corey, Neville Brand (1951; Dir: William Dieterle, John Farrow [uncredited])

RedMountainPoster2RedMountainBelg2

This is one of Alan Ladd’s more elusive, seldom-seen westerns, a Civil War story with an excellent cast.  Ladd plays Brett Sherwood, a captain from Georgia who has gone west in April 1865 to Colorado Territory to meet up with “Gen.” William Quantrell.  (Reality note: Usually spelled “Quantrill,” he was a colonel at best, and he was long dead by this time, having been killed in Missouri.)  The opening scene shows the legs of a person in the town of Broken Branch dismounting and killing an assayer, hiding his identity.  Since a rare form of Confederate ammunition was used, the locals figure that former Confederate soldier Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), paroled after he was captured at Vicksburg, is responsible.

A lynch mob captures Waldron and is about to hang him when Sherwood shoots the rope (a la Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and helps him escape. When Waldron discovers his rescuer is also a Confederate, he figures Sherwood killed the assayer, and, with the help of his fiancée Chris (Lizabeth Scott), he ungratefully captures Sherwood to turn him in and exonerate himself.  Waldron has found a significant gold strike and wants to stay in the area to work it.

RedMountainMtgQuant

Sherwood (Alan Ladd) meets Gen. William Quantrell (John Ireland) in Colorado.

The upper hand shifts back and forth a couple of times until Waldron’s leg is broken in a scuffle. Sherwood flags down a passing Union patrol, which turns out to be a group of Confederates and their Ute sympathizers led by Gen. Quantrell (John ireland).  Chris, a Union sympathizer who had lived in Lawrence, Kansas, when Quantrell raided there, is horrified.  Sherwood works to keep the two prisoners alive, while Quantrell is pleased to have another military officer and kindred spirit.  Gradually Quantrell reveals plans to foment a larger Indian rebellion (involving Comanches, Cheyennes, Utes and others) in the wake of the Civil War.

Chris is allowed to retrieve a doctor for Waldron, who is in bad shape, but the doctor is killed when Sherwood helps him escape.  Against her better judgment, Chris is falling for Sherwood rather than Waldron, and Quantrell also becomes suspicious.  As Sherwood helps Waldron and Chris defend themselves against the Utes, a real Union patrol attacks Quantrell.  As Quantrell flees, Sherwood takes after him, and gets him in a final shootout.  Waldron is dead of wounds by this time, and, as Sherwood recovers from his own wound, he confesses to the marshal that he killed the assayer.  Sherwood had found a claim in Colorado Territory before the war, and the assayer had stolen it.   Apparently Sherwood and Chris end up together.  (We knew any character played by Arthur Kennedy was unlikely to get the girl.)  Chris knows where Waldron’s gold strike was.  And word reaches them that the Civil War has ended two days earlier.

RedMountain3Defending

Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), Sherwood (Alan Ladd) and Chris (Lizabeth Scott) make their last stand.

Lizabeth Scott, best known for her work in films noirs, is fine here in one of her two westerns (with Silver Lode [1954]).  Alan Ladd makes a sympathetic leading man, as usual, and is obviously becoming more comfortable in westerns than he was in Whispering Smith.  If you haven’t seen him in a western, you should start with Shane and maybe Branded, both from around the same time as this film; but this one isn’t bad aside from the obvious historical impossibilities.  Character actors Jeff Corey and Neville Brand show up in small parts as a couple of Quantrell’s troopers.  Jay Silverheels is Ute chief Little Crow.

William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame [the Charles Laughton version, 1939], Kismet [1944], Portrait of Jennie [1948]) was a mainstream director, not particularly known for westerns.  The uncredited John Farrow directed a few scenes when Dieterle was unavailable during filming.  Music is by Franz Waxman.  Shot in color by Charles Lang around Gallup, New Mexico, at 84 minutes.

RedMountainLaddScott3RedMountainLaddScott2

For another western that has Quantrell surviving the war and heading out west to continue his depredations, see Arizona Raiders (1965), with Audie Murphy.

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

Santa Fe Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 15, 2015

Santa Fe Trail—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Van Heflin, Guinn Williams, Alan Hale, Moroni Olsen, Ward Bond (1940; Dir: Michael Curtiz)

SantaFeTrailTallSantaFeTrailPoster

Around 1940, the dashing Errol Flynn was the star of several good westerns:  Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940) and They Died With Their Boots On (1941) are the best known.  Two of these were directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz, the director most closely associated with with Flynn. Olivia de Havilland and Flynn formed one of the greatest romantic on-screen partnerships from the golden age of Hollywood, and this was the seventh of their nine movies together.  And Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (a frequent drinking partner of Flynn’s) had appeared in several movies with Flynn (Robin Hood, Dodge City, Virginia City), mostly as quasi-comic relief.  Clearly Warner Bros. was hoping a formula that had worked before would produce box office gold again.

This one has nothing to do with Santa Fe and little to do with the famous Santa Fe Trail.  It should have been titled “Chasing John Brown.”  In 1854, the arguments over slavery that had led to the new potential state being called “Bleeding Kansas” were also manifest among the cadets at West Point.  Rader (Van Heflin) is taken with the sentiments of the fiery abolitionist John Brown; he is opposed, both personally and politically, to J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) of Virginia.  Stuart is supported by several other cadets, including George Custer (Ronald Reagan), Phil Sheridan, George Pickett, John Bell Hood and James Longstreet (all names that will become famous as generals in the upcoming Civil War).  When Rader and Stuart are involved in a fight, West Point Superintendent Col. Robert E. Lee (character actor Moroni Olsen) banishes Rader for his divisive political activities.  Stuart and his friends are punished by being sent to the most dangerous duty in the army at that time:  the Second Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.  They don’t mind at all.

SantaFeTrailMeetingKit

Young lieutenants Stuart (Errol Flynn) and Custer (Ronald Reagan) make the acquaintance of Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland).

Leavenworth is the western terminus of the railroad, although stage magnate Cyrus Holliday hopes to build toward Santa Fe when it is safe enough.  It isn’t yet, partly because of Indians but mostly because of John Brown and his strikes against supporters of slavery, such as the notorious raid on Ossawatomie.  Part of the Second Cavalry’s mission is to disband any armed groups, like Brown or his opponents.  Stuart and Custer are both interested in Holliday’s daughter Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), and are detailed to join a detail protecting a Holliday freighting column bound for Santa Fe.  A couple of days out, they encounter a Mr. Smith, who wants to take delivery of eight crates of Bibles.  One of the crates is dropped and breaks open, revealing rifles instead of Bibles.  Mr. Smith is in fact John Brown, and one of his men is the disgraced Rader.  As Brown and his men make their getaway (with some of the rifles), Brown’s young son Jason (Gene Reynolds), driving a wagon, is shot by Rader in the melee.

Back in Leavenworth, Jason reveals the location of Brown’s base in Palmyra before dying.  As Stuart investigates out of uniform, he is captured in Palmyra by Brown’s men.  He is about to be hung by them, when he grads a gun and ducks into the barn where Brown-liberated black former slaves (Negroes, as they were called in 1940) are housed.  Stuart is being blasted from all sides and a lantern is shot, spilling flames all over the barn.  (We can see that Brown apparently doesn’t care what happens to the innocent blacks in his anger at Stuart.)  Stuart is rescued by the appearance of the rest of his detail, led by Custer, and Brown decides his work in Kansas is done, riding off to the east with his men.

SantaFeTrailFlynnBarnSantaFeTrailReagFlynn

Stuart (Errol Flynn) fights John Brown in a fiery barn; and a still of Custer (Reagan) and Stuart (Flynn) in uniform.

Back in Leavenworth, both Stuart and Custer press their suits with Kit, and Stuart is the winner.  An old Indian woman at the fort makes dark prophecies about the future of the six friends and divisions and battles among them.  Stuart and Custer are both promoted to captain and head off to an assignment in Maryland, where their new commanding officer is Col. Lee again.

In Maryland Rader comes to the army, disillusioned with Brown because he hasn’t been paid for his military expertise as Brown promised.  Rader warns of Brown’s plans to take over the weapons from the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.  Because of the warning, Lee and his men are able to arrive in time to capture Brown in the act.  During a battle in which the army uses artillery to knock holes in the arsenal building, Brown kills Rader as a traitor.  (We knew he was going to die, with his conflicted loyalties).  John Brown is captured and hung, Stuart and Kit are married, and even Custer has a new girl friend.  The army friends ride off to an uncertain future in the Civil War, fighting on opposite sides.

Flynn and De Havilland make their usual charming couple.  De Havilland’s lively attractiveness reminds us that this kind of role usually passes unnoticed, but she does it unusually well.  Ronald Reagan, a perennial best friend to the lead in movies, is adequate if a bit light-weight as a fictional Custer.  The excellent character actor Moroni Olsen brings an appropriate gravitas to his role as Robert E. Lee.  Van Heflin isn’t bad in an early role as a villain who reforms, in the sort of role often played by Arthur Kennedy.  Heflin would graduate to more sympathetic parts eventually.  Ward Bond has a scarcely noticeable role as one of Brown’s men.

SantaFeTrailMasseyHanging

John Brown (Raymond Massey) gives his final speech about the coming apocalypse. He’s not wrong.

SantaFeTrailCurry

The famous John Steuart Curry mural “Tragic Prelude” in the Kansas Statehouse, 1938-1940.

The most memorable role in the film is Raymond Massey as John Brown, with his appearance and manner reminding us of the famous painting by John Steuart Curry from about the same time.  It was a natural role for Massey, and he would star as John Brown again in Seven Angry Men (1955), the main story of which is also the trial and hanging of the abolitionist.  Kansas slavery politics sound muddled here, although it is clear that John Brown is a bad guy, even if his heart is in the right place about the abolition of slavery.  He’s just too willing to use the sword on anybody who believes differently or crosses him.  Stuart is not all that convincing in his view that all the South needs is time and it will get rid of slavery on its own.  As in William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming,
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

1941’s They Died With Their Boots On was wildly inaccurate historically but enjoyable to watch, with Flynn playing Custer and De Havilland as his wife Libby in their last movie appearance together.  This is even more inaccurate, and slightly less watchable.  Of the six army friends in this film, only Stuart was actually in the West Point class of 1854, although it did include Robert E. Lee’s son George Washington Custis Lee (an eventual Confederate general) and Oliver O. Howard (ultimately a Union general).  Of the six supposed West Point friends depicted in the film, only Stuart did not survive the Civil War, although Custer famously met his own ignominious end at the Little Bighorn in 1876.

SantaFeTrailJapSantaFeTrailGerm

Filmed in black and white, at 110 minutes, although there is a cut of only 93 minutes.  Music is by Max Steiner.

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

Rocky Mountain

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 12, 2014

Rocky Mountain—Errol Flynn, Patrice Wymore, Scott Forbes, Guinn Williams, Chubby Johnson, Dickie Jones, Slim Pickens, Sheb Wooley (1950; Dir: William Keighley)

RockyMountPoster1RockyMountFren

This was the last of Errol Flynn’s eight westerns, and it is better than the previous one (Montana, his last film with Alexis Smith).  The Rocky Mountain of the title is not in Montana, or Utah or Colorado; it is on the borders of Nevada and California, and is also known as Ghost Mountain.

It is the waning days of the Civil War in March 1865.  A small group of men (eight, in total) led by Capt. Lafe Barstow (Errol Flynn) is sent out west by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a desperate move, to make contact with outlaw Cole Smith. (The premise is similar to that of Hangman’s Knot, two years later.)  Smith promises to provide 500 men to make a Confederate force out west and divert Union military resources from the war Lee is fighting in the east.

Narration by Capt. Lafe Barstow, describing his motley force:  “Six rattle-headed kids and an old man:  Kip Waterson, the baby-faced heir to a plantation; Pierre Duchesne, from French Louisiana; Pat Dennison [Guinn Williams], an old man, really, but a hard, reckless fighter who never gave ground while he lived; Kay Rawlins [Sheb Wooley] from the Mississippi steamboats, a rough, unfriendly man as the Indians now found out; Jimmy Wheat [Dickie Jones], a little redneck cropper who could fight like a wildcat with hydrophobia, who carried a useless little dog for 2,000 miles; Jonas Weatherby, the Texan, a seasoned plainsman at 18; and Plank [Slim Pickens], another real plainsman, hard and bitter, with chain gang scars on his legs at 22.”

RockyMountForbesWymoreFlynn

Lt. Rickey (Scott Forbes) and his patrol are captured by Barstow (Errol Flynn), while his fiance Johanna (Patrice Wymore) looks on.

As Barstow and his men finally arrive at the meeting point in the desert mountains, they find themselves in danger not only from Union cavalry but surrounded by hostile Shoshonis.  They are on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, where they can see the Humboldt River and Battle Mountain.  They find a crashed stage that had been pursued by the Shoshonis and drive off the Indians.  There are two survivors:  the driver Gil Craigie (Chubby Jones) and a passenger, Johanna Carter (Patrice Wymore, in only her second movie), on her way to meet her cavalry fiancé at Fort Churchill.  This complicates matters for Barstow, since he can’t just let them go and draw the cavalry to him, and he can’t leave them to the mercies of the Shoshonis.  Trapped on Rocky Mountain, they run low on water and food.

[Spoilers follow.]  Matters are further complicated when Barstow and his men capture a small cavalry patrol led by Lt. Rickey (Scott Forbes), Johanna’s fiancé, who is searching for her.  The patrol’s Indian scouts turn out to be Man Dog, head Shoshoni chief, and his sons.  The Shoshonis make an escape attempt at night.  Man Dog gets away to lead the Shoshoni uprising, but his sons are killed.  Barstow’s men have connected with the untrustworthy Smith, only to find his horse shortly after his departure, indicating that the Indians got him.  That means his promised semi-army won’t be coming to the rescue   Rickey makes a break for it, but the Confederates figure the Shoshonis got him, too, although matters won’t be much better for them if he got through.  There is some chemistry between Barstow and Johanna, but neither acts on the attraction in the desperate situation.

Johanna Carter:  “I never thought it would end this way.”
Capt. Lafe Barstow:  “There never was any other way.  We just put it off a while.”

RockyMountCharge

Barstow (Errol Flynn) leads his men in a final charge.

Finally, Barstow leads his men on an attempt to break through the surrounding Indians and draw them away from the driver and Johanna.  It works in the sense that the Shoshonis follow Barstow as he intended, but Barstow’s small group is vastly outnumbered and trapped in a box canyon.  As the Confederates turn to face their pursuers in a desperate last stand (similar to Flynn’s situation as Custer in They Died With Their Boots On), they battle gamely but fall one by one to vastly superior numbers.  Barstow apparently gets Man Dog, but falls with two arrows in his back.  Rickey’s cavalry shows up only in time to rescue Johanna and Craigie and offer Barstow and his men a respectful burial, raising a Confederate battle flag on the stones of Rocky Mountain.

Flynn could play both sides in the Civil War; he was both a Union officer (Virginia CityThey Died With Their Boots On, Silver River) and a Confederate or former Confederate (Dodge City, Rocky Mountain).  Sometimes he was even both, as in Santa Fe Trail, where he plays West Point graduate and future Confederate cavalry commander Jeb Stuart.  Here, a prematurely aging Flynn (at 41) is noble but more subdued than he sometimes played; it makes him seem appropriately war-weary.  His chemistry with co-star Wymore is real.  Three months after shooting wrapped, she became Flynn’s third wife in Monte Carlo.  This is not one of Flynn’s best westerns (Dodge City, Virginia City, They Died With Their Boots On), but it’s worth watching.  It’s better than Santa Fe Trail, San Antonio and Montana, and slightly better than the melodramatic but underrrated Silver River.

RockyMountBehindScenes

Patrice Wymore and Errol Flynn review the script on the set.

This was the first film for Slim Pickens and Sheb Wooley, both of whom had rodeo backgrounds.  Former child actor Dickie Jones, as the youngest of the Confederates, could ride well, too.  Chubby Johnson is particularly good as the stage driver, who is not overtly hostile to the Confederates. Flynn’s carousing friend Guinn Williams (Dodge City, Virginia City) has a small part as the oldest of the Confederates, and is more restrained than he sometimes played.  Scott Forbes is stiff as the Union cavalry officer fiancé, but he wouldn’t really have a chance against Flynn’s charisma.

This is based on a short story by Alan LeMay (author of the The Searchers), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Winston Miller.  The story goes that In 1949 Ronald Reagan complained to Warner Bros. about some of the films he was assigned to, and asked to do a western.  The studio agreed if he would bring them a good story.  Reagan brought them “Ghost Mountain” by LeMay.  Despite their promise to him, Warner Bros. cast Errol Flynn in the lead.  Shot in black and white by cinematographer Ted McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Hanging Tree) around Gallup, New Mexico.  The night scenes are quite dark.  Music is by Max Steiner.  Comparatively short, at 83 minutes.

 

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

Journey to Shiloh

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 26, 2014

Journey to Shiloh—James Caan, Don Stroud, Paul Peterson, Harrison Ford, Michael Sarrazin, (Jan) Michael Vincent, Brenda Scott, John Doucette, Noah Beery Jr., James Gammon (1968; Dir: William Hale)

JourneyShiloPosterJourneyShilohFren

As the title may suggest, this is a Civil War story.  Buck Burnett (James Caan in a bad wig, following El Dorado) is the leader of a band of seven rough-hewn young Texans from Concho County on their way to fight for the south in the Civil War.  It starts out as a road-trip movie for about two-thirds of its length, as the seven make their way from Texas toward the war.  Along the way, hot-tempered gunman J.C. Sutton (Paul Peterson, overplaying his role) is killed in a crooked gambling game.  They try to help a runaway slave make his escape in Louisiana, but he’s caught and hung.  Buck forms a relationship with charming prostitute Gabrielle DuPrey (Brenda Scott) in Vicksburg.

The “Concho Comanches” were originally headed to Richmond, the Confederate capital.  They end up under Gen. Braxton Bragg (John Doucette) at Shiloh, where the last part of the film becomes a “war is hell” story.  Five of the remaining six (Michael Sarrazin, Don Stroud, Harrison Ford, Jan-Michael Vincent, etc.) are killed in various ways, and Burnett loses an arm (although it is rather obviously tucked inside his jacket).  Pretty much everybody dies.  Presumably Burnett heads back to Texas, or to Gabrielle.

JourneyShiloh7

The Concho Comanches, with leader Buck Burnett (James Caan) in the center. On the right end is Harrison Ford in long hair.

Noah Beery and a young James Gammon are Confederate regulars who survive the battle.  The film is based on a story by western writer Will Henry.  Director William Hale only made a couple of movies, spending the rest of his career in television; the same is true of Brenda Scott.  This features very early appearances by Harrison Ford and Jan-Michael Vincent.  Paul Peterson, from television’s Donna Reed Show, also showed up as a young soldier in another Civil War story, A Time for Killing, about this time; his career wouldn’t go much farther.  This features late 1960s pro-civil rights, anti-war themes, not terribly well executed.  In color.

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

Friendly Persuasion

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 10, 2014

Friendly Persuasion—Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, Anthony Perkins, Robert Middleton, Phyllis Love (1956; Dir: William Wyler)

FriendlyPersuasPosterFriendlyPersBelg

Not much of a western, this slow-moving story of a family of Quakers during the Civil War is set in southern Indiana.  The father is Jess Birdwell (Gary Cooper, looking pretty old for the part at 55 but a good actor; even at his age he didn’t want to play the father of grown-up children as he does here).  The mother and authority figure is Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire, effective in an unusually sedate role for her), a frequent preacher in the local Quaker congregation.  The Quakers are determined pacifists in a world spinning toward conflict in the Civil War.

“I want you to know, sir, I honor your prejudices–um, uh, convictions.”

Most of the tension, such as there is, comes from the non-conflict between hyper-religious Eliza and slightly more worldly Jess, who likes fast horses and buys a showy (to Eliza) small home organ.  Any potential conflict is muted, since it is made clear that the two are united more by their affection for each other, even when arguing, than they are divided by their different interpretations of what their religion requires.  The implication is that the two occasionally even, well, you know ….  It is a given that their religion sets them apart from their neighbors and is not understood by others.

FriendlyPersCoopMcG

Parents Jess (Gary Cooper) and Eliza Birdwell (Dorothy McGuire) sort things out.

Meanwhile, their two older children Joshua (Anthony Perkins) and Mattie (Phyllis Love, a weak spot in the cast) are more affected by the Civil War than the parents are—Joshua by the necessity to fight when Confederate raiders under John Hunt Morgan approach, and Mattie because she is romantically attracted to a young local officer (Mark Richman, who seems too old for her even by 19th century standards).  Jess confronts violence when a Confederate raider kills his friend (Robert Middleton); he lets the soldier go.  Eliza confronts the raiders when they approach the family farm. Jess has to go off to the fighting in search of Joshua eventually.  They both come back.

The reticent but sly chemistry between Cooper and McGuire works.  The movie seems designed more to be heart-warming than anything else.  It was put together from stories by Jessamyn West, who also worked (uncredited) on the screenplay with the director’s brother Robert Wyler.  Music is by veteran composer Dimitri Tiomkin, the theme song sung by Pat Boone.  It is expertly directed by William Wyler, who would soon make the epics Ben Hur and The Big Country.  It also features the most effective cinematic use of a goose in the last 70 years.

FriendlyPersPerkins

Son Joshua Birdwell (Anthony Perkins) does not fare well in the war.

Modern audiences may have forgotten what an effective character actor Robert Middleton was.  He was always reliably good (see him in a small part in The Law and Jake Wade and in Big Hand for the Little Lady, for example), and he’s excellent here.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound Recording and Best Song Oscars.  This movie is still surprisingly effective at what it’s trying to do. It’s said to have been the favorite film of Ronald Reagan. In clear and beautiful color if you’re watching a good print or decent DVD transfer.  137 minutes long.

FriendlyPersGermFriendlyPersSpan

The marketing of this movie overseas clearly rested more on Cooper’s image from prior films than it did on the pacifist plot of the actual movie.  For another story about Quakers on the frontier, see them trying to convert John Wayne in 1947’s Angel and the Badman.

 

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

Two Flags West

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 31, 2014

Two Flags WestJoseph Cotten, Cornel Wilde, Jeff Chander, Linda Darnell, Arthur Hunnicutt, Noah Beery, Jr., Jay C. Flippen, Dale Robertson, Harry von Zell (1950; Dir: Robert Wise)

2FlagsWestPoster2FlagsWestSpan

This is a large-budget cavalry western with a good cast and a generic title.  The two flags referred to are north and south during the Civil War, as Col. Clay Tucker’s Confederate cavalrymen (they rode with Jeb Stuart) are recruited by Capt. Mark Bradford (Cornel Wilde) from a prison camp in Rockford, Illinois, to fight Indians out west as galvanized Yankees in autumn 1864.

2FlagsWestRecruiting

Col. Tucker (Joseph Cotten) and his men, in a Union prison in Rockford, Ill., are recruited to fight Indians.

They are headed for Fort Thorn in New Mexico Territory, to serve under Major Henry Kenniston (Jeff Chandler, the same year he played Cochise in Broken Arrow).  The ambitious Kenniston escaped from the famous Libby Prison in Richmond, and, in escaping, ruined his right leg so that he has been assigned out west instead of to duty in the main war.  His brother was killed at Chancellorsville, and he consequently hates Confederates.  The brother’s widow Elena Kenniston (Linda Darnell), a Spanish beauty returning home to Monterey, California, is temporarily staying with her brother-in-law at the post while she waits for a wagon train to California.  She becomes the center of romantic interest for the major, Capt. Bradford and even now-Lt. Tucker (Joseph Cotten). She seems to favor Bradford, and Tucker has other things on his mind dealing with all the conflicting loyalties, plots and counter-plots in this frontier post.

The primary source of tension in the film is whether the former Confederates will desert to Texas as soon as they get a chance, and it seems they will.  Major Kenniston assigns the southerners to carry out the execution of two men convicted of selling guns and booze to the Indians, only for the ex-Confedrates to discover after the two are dead that they were southern agents.  There are more southern agents, one of whom convinces Tucker to return to Fort Thorn until a later time when he can help carry out a larger plot.  After duty escorting a wagon train part of the way to California, Tucker brings back Mrs. Kenniston, who was escaping her brother-in-law’s domination, so that the major will trust the southerners.

[Spoilers follow.]  Finally, Tucker gets the signal to leave and does so with his men.  However, the angry, wrong-headed major (who refers to the Indians as rebels, so we know who he’s really thinking about) needlessly antagonizes the Kiowas by angrily and gratuitously killing Kiowa chief Satank’s son.  Given a choice by circumstances, Tucker and his men, instead of heading for Texas, return to the aid of the fort.  Beseiged by 1500 Indians, things look grim for the remaining troopers.

2FlagsWestChandSac

Major Kenniston (Jeff Chandler) decides to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

After one day of fighting, Bradford and many others are killed, and things look even more hopeless.  With the stockade in flames, Kenniston decides to give himself up to the overwhelming Indian force to save what’s left of the fort and its defenders, and Tucker is left in command.  It appears that Tucker and Elena may make a new life together, although things are left ambiguous between them as they learn that Sherman has split the south and the end of the war is imminent.

Director Robert Wise didn’t make many westerns (Blood on the Moon, Tribute to a Bad Man); he was more known for such large-budget productions as The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles and the first Star Trek movie.  However, there are signs here of movie-making intelligence at work.  Some of the shots are reminiscent of John Ford:  see the southern soldiers racing back to the fort, for example, with a low camera angle that captures them along a ridge against a luminescent black-and-white sky.  Later, as Major Kenniston marches (with a limp) out of the stockade gates to his certain doom, he is shot from behind with a low camera angle, making it look as though he is walking upward, although we’ve already seen that the gate is on level ground.

2FlagsWestDarnCotten

Linda Darnell and Joseph Cotten engage in some badinage between scenes.

Cotten and Darnell were at the peak of their careers, and Wilde and Chandler were first-rank movie stars at the time as well.  Darnell was allergic to horses, was not happy about her role in this western and reportedly didn’t get along well with either Wilde or Cotten, but she looks lovely and is fine in a better-than-average-female-in-a-western role.  She also wears one of the better hats seen on a woman in a western.  (Compare it, for example, with Donna Reed’s ineffective hat in Backlash.)  With her dark good looks, she was often cast as an Indian (Buffalo Bill) or Hispanic (The Mark of Zorro, My Darling Clementine) beauty.

This is Cotten’s best role in a western; he generally seems a modern, urban actor, and he didn’t make many westerns (Duel in the Sun, The Last Sunset and a few others).  Although he was born into a southern family in Virginia, his Georgia accent here is elusive and sporadic.  The supporting actors (Hunnicutt, Beery, Flippen) are excellent, too, particularly the horse-faced Arthur Hunnicutt as the Confederate Sgt. Pickens.  This is a good cavalry western, but not much seen these days.  Filmed on location in New Mexico in black and white, at 92 minutes.

2FlagsWestGerm2FlagsWestBelg

For other cavalry westerns featuring Yankees and Confederates fighting Indians together, see Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Major Dundee (1965).  For Chandler in another role as a not-so-admirable commander, catch him in 1959’s The Jayhawkers!

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

Hangman’s Knot

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 11, 2014

Hangman’s Knot—Randolph Scott, Donna Reed, Lee Marvin, Claude Jarman, Jr., Frank Faylen, Ray Teal, Guinn Williams, Jeanette Nolan, Richard Denning, Clem Bevans (1952; Dir: Roy Huggins)

HangmansKnotPoster2HangmansKnotFren

A Civil War Confederates-after-Yankee-gold film, and one of Randolph Scott’s best from his pre-Boetticher period.  (Note that the producers here are Scott and Harry Joe Brown—later the combined “Ranown” of the Boetticher-Scott films.  At this point they still needed to find a reliable director and writer for their team, although Roy Huggins does well in both those roles here.)

Eight Confederate soldiers from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia are in Nevada, led by Major Matt Stewart (Randolph Scott).  As the movie starts, they’re planning to steal a shipment of Union gold to save their all-but-defeated southern cause.  They waste no time in carrying out that plan, killing the Yankee soldiers and taking the $250,000 in gold the Yankees are transporting.  Unknown to them, however, the Civil War has ended a month before the attack, and they just hadn’t heard about it.  Now they’ve killed a bunch of Union Nevada volunteers, are in possession of a lot of gold in the middle of hostile territory, and are liable to be hung when they get caught.  The five survivors of the raid agree to try to get back south with the gold and perhaps split it up.  Stewart doesn’t want to become an outlaw, but Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin in one of his first significant movie roles) wouldn’t mind at all.

HangmansKnotGoldWagon

Capturing the gold wagon is only the start.

They can trust no one, and Rolph impulsively kills Capt. Peterson, their contact who he thinks has been holding out information on them and plans to take the gold for himself.  They take Peterson’s medicine wagon with Stewart driving.  When they encounter a posse, Stewart tells them the Confederates have already been captured in a town behind them, and they move on.

That’s fine until the wagon is ruined in an accident.  The Confederates flag down a stagecoach and take it over.  The two passengers inside are Molly Hull (Donna Reed), a former Union nurse, and her fiancé Lee Kemper (Richard Denning), a cattle trader who is not all he seems.  They all take refuge in a stage line way station in a rocky mountain pass and are trapped there by the posse of “deputies” (read: gold-hungry drifters) led by Quincey (Ray Teal).  It’s pretty clear that they intend to kill the remaining Confederates and anybody else in the station and take the gold for themselves.  They capture Cass Browne (Frank Faylen), one of Stewart’s men, and drag him nearly to death.

HangmansKnotStage

Stewart (Randolph Scott) drives the getaway stage.

Stewart’s men are now besieged in the way station, with the aging stationmaster Plunkett (Clem Bevans) and his middle-aged daughter Mrs. Margaret Harris (Jeanette Nolan), whose husband was killed at Gettysburg and whose son was in the Union patrol guarding the stolen gold; he’s now dead, obviously.  Molly helps care for a badly wounded Confederate while the others try to figure out how they’re going to escape.  Stewart, under the guise of trying to make a deal, plants the seed with the posse that the gold is back where they left the medicine wagon.

After taking their captives’ word not to yell out, the Confederates try to escape through the back door.  But Lee breaks his word, and Stewart’s men are forced back inside.  In exchange for two bars of gold, Lee gives Stewart a token that he says will enable them to get horses, supplies and passage from the local Paiute Indians.  Molly isn’t really his fiancée, but now she’s even more disgusted with him.  Both Stewart and Rolph have eyes for Molly, but Stewart is much more gentlemanly in his approach, as we would expect from Randolph Scott.

HangmansKnotSavMolly

Rolph (Lee Marvin) finds his brand of charm doesn’t work on Molly (Donna Reed), or on Stewart (Randolph Scott), either.

At one point, the “deputies” put a noose around Cass Browne’s neck, and Stewart uses dynamite for a distraction to rescue him. (Anachronism alert:  Dynamite wasn’t patented until 1867 and was not used during the Civil War.)  Some backstory emerges on young trooper Jamie Groves (Claude Jarman, Jr.):  he watched his family killed and their farm burned by Sherman’s men in Georgia, and, although he was in the raiding party after the Yankee gold, he’s never shot any one during his brief military service.  Rolph tries to seduce/attack Molly, until Stewart pulls him off. They fight, and Rolph, when he’s losing, tries to shoot an unarmed Stewart.  Jamie shoots Rolph—the first man he has ever shot.  Now they’ve lost one of their best (but most unscrupulous) fighters.

The “deputies” now try a short tunnel under the station’s floorboards, but that doesn’t work.  The second night they set fire to the station, just before a brief downpour cuts visibility.  The first out the door is Lee, who is shot down while trying to make a deal.  Taking what they can of the gold, the three remaining Confederates make a break for it.  Some of the deputies leave to hunt for the gold supposedly left by the medicine wagon; Quincey shoots Smitty (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) and is shot and then dragged himself.  Cass Browne is shot while trying to get to the posse’s horses, but he gets another posse member.

HangmansKnotBurning

The way station falls in flames.  From left to right:  Claude Jarman, Jr., Randolph Scott, Jeanette Nolan, Clem Bevans, Richard Denning, Donna Reed and Frank Faylen.

Finally, it’s only Stewart and Jamie left.  Now that they could actually get away with it, they choose to leave the gold at the station for Molly to turn in.  Plunkett and Margaret give them a couple of stagecoach horses for their escape and offer Jamie a place with them if he wants to come back.  Stewart and Molly make plans to reunite, too.

The film is very well-cast, and the writing (by director Roy Huggins) is very good.  Randolph Scott looks good in his dark clothing, light-colored neckerchief and worn leather jacket.  That leather jacket is one of the trademarks of Scott’s later career, like his dark palomino horse Stardust; look for him wearing it in many of his movies from this period, including Ten Wanted Men and Ride the High Country (his last film).  Marvin is very effective as a villain in an early screen role, and even Claude Jarman, Jr., known principally as a child actor in The Yearling, does well with his small part, in one of his last significant movies.  All the Confederates seem well-defined and distinct, with their own personalities, and some of the posse as well.  This is a small gem, one of the best of Randolph Scott’s pre-Boetticher years. This is rare for a movie from the early 1950s in that it allows Stewart and Jamie, at least, to get away without having to surrender to the authorities, if not with their loot intact.

HangmansKnotReedScott

Molly and Stewart, finally together, featuring Randolph Scott in his trademark jacket..

The action is good, since the stunts were overseen by second-unit director Yakima Canutt.  The stunt double for Scott during his fight scenes with Lee Marvin is a little too obvious.  Writer-director Roy Huggins never directed another movie but took his talents to television, with Maverick, Cheyenne, The Fugitive and eventually The Rockford Files.  Shot in the Alabama Hills at Lone Pine, in color, at just 81 minutes.

For other Confederates-after-Yankee-gold westerns, see Virginia City (1940) with Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott, Westbound (1959), also with Randolph Scott, and The Black Dakotas (1954).  Even Rio Lobo (1970), Howard Hawks’ last movie, may fit into that category, although it’s not a very good film.  For more Lee Marvin as a bad guy, see him in Seven Men From Now (1956), again with Randolph Scott, in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), with Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan, and The Comancheros (1961), with John Wayne, before he gets to his ultimate villain role:  as Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

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

Selander’s Cavalry

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 9, 2014

Journeyman director Lesley Selander is said to have made more westerns than any other director, purely in terms of numbers–107 Westerns between his first directorial feature in 1936 and his last in 1968.  This requires a little explanation.  Allan Dwan, a well-known director between 1909 and 1961, directed 171 westerns.  But 157 of these were silent movies produced between 1911 and 1917, when movies were not yet generally at feature length.  (Cecil B. DeMille is thought to have made the first feature-length movie in 1914 with The Squaw Man.)  So Selander is considered to have made the most westerns in the modern era–since 1920 or so, let’s say.

In the hierarchy of directors, Selander was more prolific but less talented than, say, Andre de Toth.  He seldom had a large budget, well-known writers or a big star to work with; these were mostly B movies.  But leading actors in Selander movies occasionally included Randolph Scott (Tall Man Riding) or Rory Calhoun (The Yellow Tomahawk, below), and he often had good character actors (John Dehner, Robert Wilke, John Doucette, Noah Beery, Jr.).  Long-time character actor Harry Dean Stanton got his start on Selander westerns.  During the 1950s Selander was at the peak of his career when he made several cavalry movies, including these four.

SelanderWarPaintSelanderYellowTall

War Paint—Robert Stack, Joan Taylor, Keith Larsen, Peter Graves, Charles McGraw, John Doucette, Robert Wilke (1953; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Robert Stack is Lt. Billings, the commander of a small cavalry troop charged with delivering a treaty to an Indian chief.  If he doesn’t receive it within a week, the chief will go on the warpath.  The chief’s son Taslik (Keith Larsen) is guiding the soldiers to his father, but he secretly wants war to come and is undermining the mission.  His sister Wanima (Joan Taylor), a beautiful Indian princess, secretly follows the patrol, sabotaging their water and helping her brother in other ways.  Not a lot of action or much star power, but the cast is good aside from that.  Filmed in color in the vicinity of Death Valley.  Workmanlike directing, with occasionally clunky writing.  89 minutes.

The Yellow Tomahawk—Rory Calhoun, Peggie Castle, Noah Beery, Jr., Lee Van Cleef, Rita Moreno, Peter Graves (1954; Dir: Lesley Selander)

This was a B movie directed by Lesley Selander, so Rory Calhoun is a good guy in it.  In higher-grade movies, he tended to show up as a bad guy (The Spoilers, River of No Return), and he could be convincing as either good guys or bad.

Indian scout Adam Reed (Rory Calhoun) is a blood brother to the Cheyenne war leader Fireknife (Lee Van Cleef).  When the cavalry, led by Major Ives (Warner Anderson), insists on building a post in Wyoming Territory contrary to the treaty with Red Cloud, Fireknife warns Reed that there will be bloodshed, especially because Ives was one of the leaders at the Sand Creek Massacre of Black Kettle’s Cheyennes a few years previously.

While traveling to warn the cavalry detachment, Reed encounters Kate Bolden (Peggie Castle), who is looking for her betrothed lieutenant.  (Obligatory nude-bathing-in- the-wilderness scene.)  Ives refuses to leave and bit by bit all the soldiers are killed except Ives.  Reed guides the small party of survivors to Fort Ellis, where he hopes to turn Ives over to a court martial.  Finally, it comes down to Reed against Fireknife, one brother against another, and Reed wins.  Bolden has transferred her affections to Reed after her lieutenant is killed.  And it turns out Ives is part Cheyenne, which is the personal stain he was trying to wipe out at Sand Creek.

Filmed in Kanab, in southern Utah, this movie features some clunky acting and was seen in a very poor print.  It was theoretically shot in color, but the print I saw was black and white and grainy.  Castle wears anachronistic very tight blouse and pants.  Van Cleef doesn’t sound like an Indian, although his Indian looks are better than some whites in such parts.  Noah Beery is a Mexican scout, pursued by amorous Indian maiden Honey Bear (unconvincingly played by Rita Moreno).  Peter Graves is a cowardly prospector who kills his partner after they’ve discovered gold.  On the whole it’s watchable, but not really good.  82 minutes.

SelanderTomTrailWide

Tomahawk Trail—Chuck Connors, Susan Cummings, George Neise, Harry Dean Stanton (1957; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Clunky writing distinguishes this B western about a beleaguered cavalry patrol in Apache country.  The two conflicts:  (a) an inexperienced, incompetent (and out of his head) lieutenant (George Neise) with the patrol in danger among Mescalero Apaches; and (b) Apache chief Victorio’s daughter (Lisa Montell) captured by the patrol.  Experienced sergeant Wade McCoy (Chuck Connors) has to take over, although some members of the patrol question his authority and he has the spectre of a court martial hanging over him (a la The Caine Mutiny).  McCoy gets them back to the post without horses, only to find all the personnel there slaughtered and the well water salted.  At the post they have to hold off an attack by Victorio’s superior forces, until the fight is resolved when his daughter returns to the Apaches.  The lieutenant is killed in the defense.

Susan Cummings plays Ellen Carter from Philadelphia; when she dons a military uniform out of necessity, it looks suspiciously tailored to her form (much as Joanne Dru looked good in military garb in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon).  A young Harry Dean Stanton (billed as Dean Stanton) plays the disabled lieutenant’s orderly.  The movie uses an actual Indian actor (Eddie Little Sky) as Johnny Dogwood, the patrol’s Apache scout.  Filmed around Kanab in southern Utah, in black and white.  Short, at only 60 minutes.

SelanderRevoltPosterSelanderRevoltBelg

Revolt at Fort Laramie—John Dehner, Gregg Palmer, Frances Helm (1957; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Generally, this is a decent late black-and-white B western curiously lacking in star power.  The Civil War is starting back east, and the garrison at Fort Laramie is (a) facing its own problems with Red Cloud and (b) trying to sort out where the individual loyalties of the soldiers will lie in the conflict between the states.  Major Seth Bradner (John Dehner) is from Virginia, with southern sympathies.  Second-in-command Capt. James Tenslip (Gregg Palmer) is a northerner, in love with Bradner’s niece Melissa (Frances Helm).  The soldiers appear equally split between north and south, although historically southerners tended (and still tend) to take to a career in the military more than northerners.  A too-venal-seeming Jean Selignac (supposedly a half-Sioux, played by Don Gordon) is a scout whose own loyalties are in question for different reasons.  Dehner is fine; Palmer is fairly forgettable; Helm is okay.  Filmed in Kanab, Utah.  Look for an uncredited Harry Dean Stanton as a southern-leaning private.  Short, at 73 minutes.

Save

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

The Jayhawkers!

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 23, 2014

The Jayhawkers—Fess Parker, Jeff Chandler, Nicole Maurey, Henry Silva, Leo Gordon (1959; Dir: Melvin Frank)

JayhawkersTallJayhawkersPoster

Yes, this was initially one of those westerns with a title ending with an exclamation point (!).  No, it’s not a particularly good sign here, either.

Fess Parker spent the middle years of the 1950s as the most celebrated frontiersman in the American media:  Davy Crockett on a series of Disney television specials, some of which were also released as movies.  He inspired a craze for ersatz coonskin caps and other Crockett regalia and toys among children in the U.S.  In the 1960s he would go one to great success as Daniel Boone, also on television.  Handsome, silver-haired Jeff Chandler.spent most of the 1950s as a leading man in movies, including a number of westerns, either as the noble Apache chief Cochise (Broken Arrow, The Battle of Apache Pass), an Alaska gold miner (Roy Glennister in 1955’s The Spoilers), or a cavalry officer (The Great Sioux Uprising, Two Flags West, War Arrow, Drango).  Two years after the release of The Jayhawkers! Chandler would be dead at the age of 42.  Now it might seem strange to see Fess Parker as the good guy and Chandler as the villain, but Fess Parker was a big name in westerns in the 1950s.

Here Parker plays Cam Bleeker, a former Missouri raider who breaks out of a federal prison and makes his way back to his farm in Kansas.  It is just before the Civil War, when raids and counter-raids back and forth across the Missouri-Kansas border gave the area the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”  Bleeker finds his farm, but not his wife, who has died while he was imprisoned. Collapsing from wounds received during his escape, he is nursed back to health by Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey), a French (!) widow with two small children, who now owns the farm.  While recuperating, he bonds with the family and learns about how his deceased wife ran off with another guerilla leader, who then abandoned her.  Left to survive however she might, she took to alcohol and other forms of degradation and died of pneumonia.

JayhawkersMaurey

Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey) nurses an escaped convict back to health.

The military governor of Kansas recaptures Bleeker and makes him an offer.  Prominent among those with their own agendas for Kansas is Luke Darcy (Jeff Chandler), who has his own quasi-army of Jayhawkers and wants to set up his own republic of Kansas.  If Bleeker will go undercover, join Darcy and deliver him alive to the governor, Bleeker will have his own freedom.  Bleeker further learns that Darcy is the man who had debauched his dead wife.

Bleeker gains access to Darcy by saving Jake (Leo Gordon), one of Darcy’s men, from hanging.    Darcy is not a trusting man, and his gunslinger Lordan (Henry Silva) has suspicions, too.   Meanwhile, Bleeker works his way up in Darcy’s forces, reading from his small library and debating principles with Darcy.  Lordan goes back to Bleeker’s farm near Knight’s Crossing, meets Jeanne, attacks her and learns the some of the truth about Bleeker’s motivations.   He then makes arrangements for the local sheriff and a posse to find Bleeker during a brief visit there.

JayhawkersSilvaAssault

Lordan (Henry Silva) assaults Jeanne but doesn’t have time to finish.

Bleeker continues to have his ups and downs within Darcy’s organization; when Lordan presents his evidence, there is a shootout, ending with Jake dead and Lordan fleeing.  Darcy leads a raid on Knight’s Crossing, in which Jeanne’s daughter is trampled by a horse, and Bleeker insists on taking her to a doctor in Abilene.  While in Abilene, Bleeker learns that there will be an unusually large cattle sale there, with more than half a million dollars coming in on the train.  He organizes a raid and a trap for Darcy.

Now in favor again with Darcy, Bleeker is to plan and lead the raid on Abilene.  Jeanne, staying in Abilene with her daughter, goes to Topeka to coordinate the trap with the governor.  Lordan sees her there and is suspicious.  Bleeker smuggles guns into Abilene in hay wagons, and Darcy’s men enter the town by twos and threes.  As the train arrives, so does Lordan, and he exposes Bleeker’s plan to Darcy.  Bleeker and Darcy fight it out in a saloon while the trap closes.  Finally Bleeker takes down Darcy, who will be hung.  Rather than let him hang, Bleeker shoots Darcy and therefore can’t deliver him to the governor alive, as promised.  The governor nevertheless pardons him, and he goes back to the farm with Jeanne.

JayhawkersFinal

Bleeker (Fess Parker) and Darcy (Jeff Chandler) finally have it out in a bar in Abilene.

The story depends on the attractiveness of Darcy, and Chandler plays him well.  But Darcy is not written very consistently, and although Bleeker is sometimes taken with him and his big ideas, we are not so fond of him.  His views on women seem very unenlightened in our feminist age, and they must have been at least somewhat offensive in the 1950s.  There seems to be no reason for Jeanne to be French in frontier Kansas, and Nicole Maurey wasn’t well known enough to make her much of a draw.  She joins several more notable French women in westerns:  Denise Darcel in Westward the Women and Vera Cruz, Capucine in North to Alaska, and Jeanne Moreau in Monte Walsh.  This is watchable but not all that memorable, and the inconsistencies in tone and story can be frustrating.  The movie is not often seen these days.

Henry Silva had a good run as a persuasive villain in several good westerns in the 1950s.  Look for him in The Tall T with Randolph Scott and Richard Boone, The Law and Jake Wade with Robert Taylor and Richard Widmark, in The Bravados with Gregory Peck, and Ride a Crooked Trail with Audie Murphy.

JayhawkersSwedJayhawkersIt

Perhaps the best element of the movie is the score by Jerome Moross, who had also done the music for The Big Country.  If the theme sounds familiar, it was later reworked by Moross as the theme for the television program Wagon Train.  If the terrain doesn’t remind you much of Kansas, that’s because it was filmed in southern California.  The excellent color cinematography is by Loyal Griggs, who did Shane.  Available on DVD since 2012.

For more Fess Parker on film, see him in Disney’s Old Yeller (1957), with Dorothy McGuire.

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

The Horse Soldiers

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 30, 2014

The Horse Soldiers—John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers, Ken Curtis, Judson Pratt, Willis Bouchey, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Althea Gibson, Hank Worden, Hoot Gibson (1959; Dir:  John Ford)

HorseSoldPosterHorseSoldIt

Not exactly a western, since it takes place entirely in Mississippi during the Civil War.  But it stars John Wayne and William Holden riding horses and fighting battles, and it’s directed by John Ford.  So the western genre seems to be where it fits most comfortably—specifically, it’s a cavalry western.

Gen. U.S. Grant has besieged Vicksburg on the Mississippi River but not yet taken it, so that puts the time of this story in the first half of 1863.  Grant calls in cavalry Col. John Marlowe (John Wayne) and gives him the assignment of destroying supplies and railroads to the south in Newton Landing, between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge.  Marlowe’s officers include Col. Phil Secord (Willis Bouchey), an older man from Michigan with political ambitions, and Maj. Henry Kendall (William Holden), a surgeon who is almost instantly at odds with Marlowe.

HorseSoldGrp3HorseSoldCurtisWayne

Hannah Hunter, Marlowe and Kendall at Greenbriar; Marlowe with one of his scouts.

Heading south and trying to keep the Confederates in ignorance of their whereabouts and objectives, the cavalry stops at the plantation of Greenbriar, run by Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers).  She receives them hospitably, given that her sympathies are southern, and discovers that they plan to destroy the supplies at Newton Landing and then head for Baton Rouge.  Kendall finds Hannah and her slave Lukey (Althea Gibson) listening, and Marlowe is forced to take them along so his plans are not prematurely revealed.  Hannah’s attempts to escape and hostility to the Yankees provide another source of tension within the column.

Hannah Hunter:  “They’ll catch up to you and cut you to pieces, you nameless, fatherless scum.  I just wish I could be there to see it!”

Col. John Marlowe:  “If it happens, Miss Hunter, you will be.”

HorseSoldHoldenWayne

Trying to figure out why the Confederates aren’t putting up more resistance.

As they move toward Newton Landing, Marlowe’s men discover a couple of Confederate deserters (Denver Pyle and Strother Martin), whom Marlowe lures into giving information on Confederate units in the area before he turns them over to the southern sheriff.  At Newton Landing, there are a few Confederate soldiers led by a one-armed Col. Jonathan Miles (Carleton Young), known to Kendall from their days fighting Indians out west.  It turns out Miles has telegraphed for reinforcements, and when those additional men arrive on a train, Marlowe’s men are reluctantly forced to fight a battle. The Yankees win handily before destroying the supplies and railroad, which pains the one-time railroad worker Marlowe.  When the Confederate army asks a local military school to send its young men into battle, led by their reluctant headmaster/minister (Basil Ruysdael), Marlowe and his men are forced to leave the field rather than shooting them down, once more demonstrating Marlowe’s comparative humanity.  The political Col. Secord continually gives poor and self-aggrandizing advice, and when Marlowe takes to referring to Kendall as “Croaker,” Kendall responds by calling Marlowe “Section Hand.”

Col. John Marlowe [during firefight]:  “I didn’t want this. I tried to avoid a fight!”

Maj. Henry Kendall:  “That’s why I took up medicine.  

With Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry on their heels, they move south toward Baton Rouge, only to find their way blocked by another Confederate unit at a bridge about 40 miles from their destination.  Hannah’s slave Lukey is killed by the initial Confederate attack.  Meanwhile, Marlowe and Hannah get to know each other better as Hannah nurses Marlowe’s wounded men with Kendall and sees that Marlowe cares about his young wounded soldiers.  His hostility to doctors is rooted in the period before the war, when he was a young railroad section hand and his wife was killed by a medical mistake.  Marlow’s cavalry finds a way to ford the river and flank the blocking Confederates while their attention is fixed on a direct charge across the bridge.  Marlowe takes a leg wound, which Kendall binds up.

HorsSoldBridge

The Colonel lights the fuse and dashes across the bridge.

Marlowe has to blow up the bridge so Forrest can’t follow him so closely.  He is the last across the bridge and tells Hannah he loves her, taking her bandanna for a neckerchief.  He barely makes it across the bridge, leaving Kendall and Hannah tending the wounded and Kendall presumably bound for captivity in Andersonville prison in Georgia.  Marlowe and Kendall are to some degree reconciled, with some mutual respect at the end.

Director Ford does well in managing his large cast and the action in this film.  There are typical Fordian touches, such as the opening shots of a column of cavalry riding along railroad tracks against the sky and supposedly singing a Civil War song over the initial credits.  There are the low-angle shots of cavalry riders as they charge across the bridge.  The story is based on an actual historical incident from the Civil War:  Grierson’s Raid, from Legrange, Tennessee, in April 1863, led by Col. Benjamin Grierson.  Grierson was a music teacher who was afraid of horses because one kicked him in the head as a child.  Joining the Union army to fight slavery (he was a staunch abolitionist) he wanted infantry duty but was assigned to the cavalry by mistake.  He turned out to be good at it and stayed in the cavalry after the war, becoming the first Colonel of the 10th Cavalry (buffalo soldiers).  It’s unclear why the names are changed, but presumably it was to give the writers and director greater freedom to deviate from the real historical events.  There probably wasn’t much of a love story involved in the real raid, nor such animosity with the regimental doctor.

John_Wayne - the horse soldiers - & Constance Towers, John Ford

John Ford directs Wayne and Towers in an intimate scene.

Overall, the film seems to take an anti-war stance.  The movie takes an interesting attitude toward southerners and their slaves.  It does not condone slavery, but it shows close relationships between owners and slaves, as with Hannah and Lukey.  It seems sympathetic to the Union side generally, but it does not shy away from showing nobility in southerners in a way that now seems slightly old-fashioned (the sheriff to whom Marlowe turns over the deserters, the military school headmaster and his charges, the courtliness of Forrest in offering medical assistance to Kendall at the end, for example).  In modern times, when there can be no cinematic tolerance at all for slavery, it could probably not be done this way, although arguments could be made that Ford’s approach is historically accurate or defensible.  The incident with the two Confederate deserters is reminiscent of several situations in Cold Mountain (2003).

This is one of Ford’s last movies and not, perhaps, among his very best, although it is still a very good western.  There are a host of Ford’s usual character actors, such as Strother Martin, Hank Worden and his son-in-law Ken Curtis in one of his better performances, but there is no Ben Johnson or Harry Carey, Jr.  1920s cowboy star Hoot Gibson shows up in a small role as a Union sergeant in his penultimate movie.  (His last appearance was as an uncredited deputy in Ocean’s Eleven.)  1950s African-American tennis star Althea Gibson appears as Lukey.  Judson Pratt is good as Marlowe’s hard-drinking Sergeant-Major Kirby, the sort of role in which Ford once would have cast Victor McLaglen.  This is one of three Civil War cavalry movies for William Holden, along with Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Alvarez Kelly (1966).  He was drinking heavily at the time and during production broke his arm falling off a bridge.

Strother Martin on working with John Ford:  “I did a tiny bit in The Horse Soldiers (1959) first, and that’s when I met him; and he liked me, I guess.  Ford said to somebody I knew, ‘I’ve got to get something else for that Stuffer.. Smucker… Stoofer… whatever the hell his name is,’ and he put me in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).”

HorseSoldWayneGibson

John Wayne and Hoot Gibson trading stories behind the scenes.

Constance Towers, who otherwise didn’t have much of a movie career, appears in one of her two Ford movies (along with Sergeant Rutledge), with her curiously 1920s-style looks.  Gen. U.S. Grant, appearing briefly at the start of the movie, is played by songwriter Stan Jones, who composed the movie’s featured song “I’ve Left My Love” which plays over the opening credits and elsewhere in the film and three years earlier had written “The Song Of The Searchers,” sung by the Sons Of The Pioneers over the titles of the The Searchers (1956).

Cinematography is in color by William Clothier.  The film was shot on location in Mississippi and Louisiana, giving it an authentic look.  Screenwriters were John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin, based on a novel by Harold Sinclair.  The score is by David Buttolph, with the title song by Stan Jones.

HorseSoldWide2

The film marked the beginning of mega-deals for Hollywood stars.  John Wayne and William Holden received $775,000 each, plus 20% of the overall profits, an unheard-of sum for that time.  The final contract involved six companies and numbered twice the pages of the movie’s script.  The movie was a financial failure, however, with no profits to be shared in the end.

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