Tag Archives: Civil War

The Outriders

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 13, 2014

The Outriders—Joel McCrea, Arlene Dahl, Barry Sullivan, James Whitmore, Ramon Navarro, Claude Jarman, Jr., Jeff Corey, Ted de Corsia (1950; Dir:  Roy Rowland)


A good cast in a better-than-average Civil War-era wagon train-with-gold western (e.g., Virginia City, Westbound).  Will Owen (Joel McCrea), Jesse Wallace (Barry Sullivan) and Clint Priest (James Whitmore) are the outriders of the title.  At the start, they are Confederates held as prisoners by Yankees in Missouri.  They escape, only to be caught by Keeley (Jeff Corey), a Quantrill affiliate whose dirty exterior and expressionist makeup advertise his moral dubiousness.  Keeley.forces the three, since Owen is the only one in the band who knows the Santa Fe Trail, to go to Santa Fe, where they are to join a wagon train to St. Louis laden with Yankee gold.  It is led by Don Antonio Chaves (silent film star Ramon Novarro), who politely refuses their offer to accompany his train.  He does have a stagecoach carrying war widow Jen Gort (Arlene Dahl) and her youthful brother-in-law Roy Gort (Claude Jarman, Jr.) to St. Louis. 

Keeping their distance initially, Owen, Wallace and Priest shadow the train until they are able to rescue it from attack by Apaches; then Chaves welcomes them.  Owen becomes the trail guide and honcho, all the while planning to leave the train to be attacked by Keeley once they reach Cow Creek in Missouri.  Aside from the usual wagon train complications (storms, horse stampedes, yet more Indians, fording a raging river, near mutiny by the drovers), Owen and Wallace both develop a romantic interest in Jen Gort; Owen’s misgivings about his deception deepen.  While fording a swollen river, young Roy Gort is drowned.


Widow Jen Gort (Arlene Dahl) and her young brother-in-law Roy (Claude Jarman, Jr.).

As they near the attack point in Missouri, Owen gets the news that the war is over.  Wallace doesn’t care, and presumably neither does Keeley.  They just want the gold whether the war is over or not.  Owen leads the defense against the now-outlaws, his former colleagues.  Wallace escapes the train to join the raiders, both Keeley and Chaves are killed in the early moments of the attack, and Owen’s military tactics start to turn things in favor of the train until his final confrontation with Wallace.  And he and Jen ride off into the sunset together.

This is a watchable film, although not much seen these days.  The print I saw (on Encore Westerns) was serviceable but not great.  At this point McCrea is in the final stage of his career, appearing solely in westerns.  But he’s good, if getting to be a little long in the tooth, here.  He’s been a star for almost twenty years but still has more than a decade to go in movies.

OutridersMcCreaFrancis OutridersGrp3

Still of Joel McCrea and Arlene Dahl; McCrea, James Whitmore and Barry Sullivan shadowing the wagon train.

With the possible exception of the beautiful Arlene Dahl, the cast is excellent, although Whitmore is mostly obscured by a wig and false beard.  Novarro, once one of the biggest stars in silent films, is very good, playing Chaves with depth and smoothness.  Perennial villain Ted de Corsia is one of Keeley’s henchmen.  In a career of minor supporting roles, Jeff Corey would show up eighteen years later in both Butch Cassidy (as a friendly sheriff) and the original True Grit (as Tom Cheney, the killer of Mattie Ross’s father).  Claude Jarman, Jr., now remembered exclusively (if at all) for The Yearling, managed about this time to appear with all three of the major western film stars:  with John Wayne (Rio Grande), Joel McCrea (The Outriders) and Randolph Scott (Hangman’s Knot, another good Confederates-at-the-end-of-the-Civil War western) before his career fizzled.  Of the three, Randolph Scott was the biggest box office star in 1950.  In fact, he was the biggest male box office star in Hollywood that year.  In color, just over 90 minutes.

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

Ride With the Devil

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 22, 2014

Ride with the Devil—Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jewel Kilcher, Jim Caviezel, Zach Grenier, Tom Wilkinson, Margo Martindale, Mark Ruffalo (1999; Dir:  Ang Lee)


“On the western frontier of Missouri, the American Civil War was fought not by armies, but by neighbors.  Informal gangs of local southern Bushwhackers fought a bloody and desperate guerrilla war against the occupying Union Army and pro-Union Jayhawkers.  Allegiance to either side was dangerous.  But it was more dangerous still to find oneself caught in the middle.”  [Title card]

Strictly speaking this is a Civil War movie, more than a western.  But it takes place on the frontiers of American civilization, on the Missouri-Kansas borders where the war took place less formally but perhaps more viciously than it did in the east.  This superb film has a large and excellent cast, and it plays on the humanity and diversity of the participants more than on doctrinal correctness of the Union or the moral corruption of the Confederacy and slavery.

Jacob Roedel (Tobey Maguire) is a German immigrant raised in Missouri.  The Germans are almost all Union sympathizers, and as war approaches Jacob’s father urges him to leave, principally for his own safety.  But when Jayhawkers (Kansas Union-sympathizing bushwhackers) attack the plantation farm of his best friend Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) and kill Jack’s father, Jacob, often called Dutchie, is driven to join Confederate-sympathizing bushwhackers under Black John (Jim Caviezel).  A year later, they have become long-haired, red-shirted bushwhackers themselves, along with planter George Clyde (Simon Baker), his freed slave Holt (Jeffrey Wright), and nasty-tempered Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). 


Bushwhackers:  Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), George Clyde (Simon Baker), Jacob Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright).

At one point they have captured four Union soldiers, including Alf Bowden (Mark Ruffalo), whom Jake knows.  He is instrumental in showing Alf mercy and getting him released to carry a message.  Pitt insists that Jake, who, unlike most of his compatriots is literate, read a captured Union letter, which turns out to be from a Wisconsin mother to her son in the army.  Most of the bushwhackers respond to the humanity of a mother’s concern for her son and the earthy issues related to farming in Wisconsin.  Jake is later told that Alf Bowden sought out Jake’s father and brutally killed him.

Mr. Evans (Zach Grenier), speaking of Lawrence, Kansas, and the abolitionists there :  “…My point is merely that they rounded every pup up into that schoolhouse because they fancied that everyone should think and talk the same free-thinkin’  way they do with no regard to station, custom, propriety.  And that is why they will win.  Because they believe everyone should live and think just like them.  And we shall lose because we don’t care one way or another how they live.  We just worry about ourselves.”

Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich):  “Are you sayin’, sir, that we fight for nothin’?”

Mr. Evans:  “Far from it, Mr. Chiles.  You fight for everything that we ever had, as did my son.  It’s just that… we don’t have it any more.”


A few of the bushwhackers hide out for the winter in a dugout near the Evans place, and Jack Bull strikes up a relationship with Sue Lee, an Evans daughter who was married for only three weeks before being widowed.  One night the Federals attack the Evans home and kill Mr. Evans (Zach Grenier); while riding to offer what help they can, Jack Bull is wounded in the arm.  Gangrene sets in, he dies, and Jake and Holt deliver Sue Lee to the sympathetic household of Orton Brown and his wife (Tom Wilkinson and Margo Martindale).

The next summer all of the Confederate bushwhacker bands are united by the charismatic William Quantrill (John Ales) to attack Lawrence, Kansas, a center of abolition and pro-Union sentiment.  In the notorious attack in August 1863, men are slaughtered indiscriminately, but Jake and Holt prevent Pitt from killing a family who is feeding them.  There are those (Pitt, Black John) who do not find Jake brutal enough; there are others, like George Clyde, who sympathize with him.  In the retreat, fending off Union soldiers, George Clyde is killed and Jake and Holt are wounded.  They make it to the Brown household to recuperate.


Pitt Mackeson (Jonathan Rhys Meyers):  “Why, you little Dutch son of a bitch. You do what I tell you or I’ll kill you.”

Jake (Tobey Maguire) [pulls his gun a few inches from Pitt’s face]:  “And when do you figure to do this mean thing to me, Mackeson?  Is this very moment convenient for you?  It is for me.”

As they recuperate, Jake and Holt become aware that the Browns and others think Sue Lee’s baby Grace is Jake’s, rather than the product of a one-night stand between Jack Bull and Sue Lee.  Jake, who is resistant to the idea of marriage, is nevertheless pushed into marrying Sue Lee as the end of the war approaches.  At the age of 19, he has killed fifteen men but never made love to a woman.  He cuts his long hair (“Goodbye, bushwhacker curls,” he says) and shaves off his beard, symbolic of leaving the old life behind and taking on new responsibilities.  He thinks of taking Sue Lee and Grace to California; Holt thinks of going to Texas to look for his mother, who was sold there before the war.  And they hear stories that Pitt Mackeson has formed a group of former-bushwhacker outlaws who rob from and kill Union and Confederate sympathizers alike.

MSDRIWI EC021 Impromptu wedding.

As Jake and his family and Holt move toward western Missouri, they encounter Pitt and one of his men, and there is a tense standoff.  But Pitt moves on to the town of Newport, where a Union force is stationed.  The parting between Jake and Holt is drawn out, mostly wordless and very touching.

Tobey Maguire, Jeffrey Wright and Simon Baker are particularly good in their roles as Jacob, Holt and George Clyde.  Skeet Ulrich, Jim Caviezel, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are also very good.  Zach Grenier, Tom Wilkinson and Margo Martindale are excellent in small parts.

In addition to the acting, the film is notable for (a) its superbly staged action sequences, including battle and raids, without resorting to slow motion; (b) attention to period detail in language and in production design, especially costumes and weaponry; and (c) brilliant and beautiful cinematography by Frederick Elmes.  The excellent screenplay is by John Schamus, a frequent Ang Lee collaborator, based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe to Live On.  Music is by Mychael Danna.  It was shot on location in Missouri and Kansas.

RideDevilRaid Raid on Lawrence.

It’s not a perfect film; it’s a bit long at 140 minutes.  (As of 2010, there is now a director’s cut that is ten minutes longer, available on a Criterion Collection DVD.)  While some find that it drags in places, others think the developing relationships when there is less overt action on the screen are fascinating.  The singer Jewel is adequate as Sue Lee, but a better actress could have turned in a stronger performance.  If you give it the time, the film communicates the pain of wounds treated under primitive conditions, for example, and the continuing discomforts of a life lived out of doors.  It’s rated R for graphic war violence. 

What makes this film unique in its story is not that it takes place among the Missouri bushwhackers, but that it carefully delineates their different personalities and motivations.  They don’t all believe the same way or in the same things, and they are not automatically despicable because they are Confederates.  Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), as a black man fighting for the south because of his devotion to the man who freed him, is fascinating, as is the relationship that develops between Jacob and Holt as the others they are close to are killed and each comes to understand and like some one who is very different from himself.  There are no scenes of men singing or whistling “Dixie” or praising Robert E. Lee or slavery.  There are those who find that it is insufficiently condemnatory of the South and slavery, but that’s not really the point of the movie.

RideDevilLee Director Ang Lee on location.

Hal Herring in Field & Stream particularly liked the accurate depiction of 1860s battle.  “The Missouri Border Wars were the historical highwater mark of handgun combat.  Rifles were single shots, shotguns could be fired at most twice, but a Colt 1851 carried six rounds, and with six Colts, carried in special holsters and configurations on the body, a man on a fast and steady war horse could inflict fantastic levels of damage on an enemy that planned to fight a conventional battle.  Ride with the Devil contains some of the best renditions of 1860’s era combat in any film.”

Philip French of The Guardian called this “a masterpiece that is also one of the finest films touching on the Civil War.”  He puts it as one of the ten best westerns ever made, but then he also includes Heaven’s Gate on that list.  It is likely one of the seven best Civil War movies (so far), along with:

  • The General (Buster Keaton’s semi-comic train chase silent movie from 1926);
  • Gone With the Wind (the war from the traditional southern point of view, 1939);
  • Glory (the war from the point of view of black Union soldiers and their commanders, 1989);
  • Gettysburg (one large-scale battle mostly from the point of view of the Union army, especially Joshua Chamberlain on Little Round Top, 1993);
  • Cold Mountain (the war on the North Carolina home front, 2003); and
  • Lincoln (the political war as it developed in Washington, D.C., toward the end of the war, 2012).

If you were a film historian, you’d want to include D.W. Griffiths’ 1915 silent classic Birth of a Nation (made when the war was still within living memory) on the list, but it isn’t actually watched much these days, and its southern point of view is repugnant to many.  Ronald Reagan would have included Friendly Persuasion (Quakers in Indiana during the war); it was said to be his favorIte movie.  It is easy for more than a whiff of self-righteousness to creep into even a good movie about the Civil War these days (see, for example, Glory and Lincoln), but this underrated gem is free of it.


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


Nicholas Chennault ~ January 20, 2014

Westbound—Randolph Scott, Karen Steele, Virginia Mayo, Andrew Duggan (1959; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)


Although this is usually reckoned about the least of the Boetticher-Scott westerns, it’s not terrible.  According to Boetticher, after the third of his pictures with Randolph Scott, he was told that Scott had an obligation to Warner Brothers to make one more picture, and this was it.  The Ranown movies were made for Columbia.  The best of the Ranown movies were written by Burt Kennedy; this was written by Bernie Giler.  The score is standard western movie music by Elmer Bernstein, though.


Heading west, and meeting the young couple.

Scott is Captain John Hayes, returning to Julesburg, Colorado Territory, during the Civil War to make sure that gold from California gets to the Union, where it’s going.  Near Julesburg, he drops off a young couple, the Millers; the husband is a one-armed Union veteran (Michael Dante) and the wife is played by the Jane-Russell-esque Karen Steele.  In town, Hayes finds the Overland Stage in disarray, with its station closed and its stock gone.  His former flame, Norma (Virginia Mayo), has married Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a long-time rival with Confederate sympathies.  Putnam and Mace (the swarthy Michael Pate, an Australian actor who frequently played Indians), a hired gun, are behind the depredations against the Overland Stage.

Hayes hires the young couple to run a stage station at their ranch.  There are raids on various stage stations and various murders before Hayes has it out with Putnam and Mace in Julesburg.  At the end of the movie, Putnam is dead (as is the young one-armed Miller), and there is a visual implication that Hayes and Norma may resume their relationship.  But then Hayes makes it clear that Norma is going back East, and he’s more interested in the young widow Jeanie Miller (as was Budd Boetticher; she became Mrs. Boetticher).


It’s short, about 75 minutes, and it’s not bad.  It just isn’t as good as most of the Ranown westerns Boetticher and Scott made.  Written by Berne Giler  This was one of the last Boetticher westerns to be released on DVD, in 2009.

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


Nicholas Chennault ~ December 30, 2013

Arizona—Jean Arthur, William Holden, Warren William, Edgar Buchanan (1940; Dir:  Wesley Ruggles)


Set in Tucson before and during the Civil War.  Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) is the quintessential strong western woman, running a pie business, starting freighting operations and building her dream ranch.  The movie revolves around her.  Pete Muncie (William Holden) is originally passing through on his way to California, but they catch each other’s eye.  When this movie was released, in a reversal of the usual pattern Jean Arthur was 40 and Holden only 22, but the difference isn’t very visible on screen.  This and Texas are among the earliest films for both Holden and Edgar Buchanan; this was Holden’s first western and first starring role. 

ArizonaArthurHoldenPhoebe and Muncie.

In Tucson the local bad guys are led by saloon owner Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall), until Ward is taken over by new arrival Jefferson Carteret (Warren William).  They sell guns to the Indians (Apaches) and organize other forms of theft and evildoing.  Muncie takes his time getting ready to settle down, and Titus’ freighting business allows her to build up the money she needs for her ranch.  The Ward-Carteret gang steals her money, and she borrows it back from Carteret.  Muncie takes it to Nebraska to buy a herd.  On his return, he is attacked by Apaches paid by Carteret, who shoots his own partner Ward in the back.  After his wedding the next day, Muncie shoots it out with Carteret, offscreen (as in Stagecoach).  The focus remains on the new bride Phoebe as she stands in the local store ordering supplies for her ranch, hearing gunshots outside and wondering whether she’s already a widow.  The camera stays on her face, and there is real acting going on there. 

ArizonaWilliam  William as Jefferson CarteretArizonaArthur

Phoebe Titus interrupts a poker game.

Arthur anachronistically wears pants for almost all of the movie, and the plot is kind of uneven, but it’s watchable and Arthur in particular is good.  Edgar Buchanan, a former dentist in real life, plays the first of his reprobate judge roles, in which he would specialize for the rest of his career.  Long for a western in 1940, at just over two hours, and some feel it has pacing problems.  In black and white.

Jean Arthur didn’t make a lot of westerns, but she’s in some good ones.  Look for her as Calamity Jane in The Plainsman, for example, with Gary Cooper.  Her final movie, for which she was enticed out of retirement in her 50s, was Shane.

One of the lasting legacies of this film was the creation of the set, the Old Tucson Studios, used as a setting for western towns in hundreds of movies and television shows since, including, for example, Rio Bravo and Tombstone.

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

They Died With Their Boots On

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 26, 2013

They Died With Their Boots On—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Arthur Kennedy, Sidney Greenstreet, Anthony Quinn, John Litel, George Grapewin, Hattie McDaniel, Jim Thorpe (1941; Dir: Raoul Walsh)


From the heyday of the Flynn-de Havilland partnership comes this old-fashioned, adulatory and not-very-factual biopic of George Armstrong Custer, depicting both his Civil War service and his demise at the Little Bighorn.  In fact, it was their eighth film in seven years and their last film together.  Errol Flynn in a mullet is Custer; De Havilland is his wife Libby.  This was clearly a big budget production for its time, and it has a longer-than-average running time, too—140 minutes.  Flynn and De Havilland are watchable, but the plot neither makes much sense nor does it follow history very well. 


Plebe Custer doesn’t get along with Ned Sharp at West Point.

The first half of the movie shows Custer at West Point, doing badly, making it into the Union army during the Civil War as a cavalry commander, wooing and marrying his wife Elizabeth Bacon, developing a headlong and heedless attacking style and then becoming an Indian fighter after the war.  In the later portion of his career, it shows him fighting on behalf of the Indians against those dishonest whites who would sell them alcohol, not slaughtering them in search of further military acclaim.  And, of course, in the end he dies with his entire Seventh Cavalry at the Little Bighorn.


Taking a final leave of Libby before heading for the Little Bighorn.  And Custer still doesn’t get along with Ned Sharp.

The historical Custer was a relentless glory hound without much scruple.  This film captures his headstrong quality but makes him out to be much more admirable and somewhat smarter than he actually was.  Flynn was always watchable at this stage of his career, and de Havilland makes an admirable Libby.  A young Arthur Kennedy is Ned Sharp, an unscrupulous Civil War nemesis of Custer and a later an unscrupulous sutler whom Custer tricks into dying with the Seventh Cavalry.  A young Anthony Quinn is Crazy Horse, who was never captured by Custer as this movie depicts.  The plot points about Custer cleaning up Fort Lincoln and fighting a corrupt Indian agent-supply system are fiction.  Here Custer fights supposedly fictional reports of gold in the Black Hills; actually, Custer led the expedition that first found gold there, and he abetted the influx of whites to the area instead of resisting it.  The movie omits the massacre of peaceful Cheyennes that Custer carried out on the Washita.

DiedBootsLastStand2 At his last stand.

DiedBootsRealCusters The real Custers.

Worth watching for Flynn and de Havilland, and to get a sense of how Custer used to be seen 70 years ago after his widow had spent the 50 years after his death publicly tending the flame of his heroic memory.  (The real Libby died in 1933.)  The action is good.  Well made for its time.  Hattie McDaniel is what she usually was, a mammy-type domestic to young Libby—a stereotype that doesn’t play so well now.  George Grapewin is California Joe, a crusty and colorful civilian scout for Custer.  Sidney Greenstreet is Gen. Winfield Scott, who initially advances Custer’s career (although it seems unlikely the two ever really met and the elderly Scott played no active role in the Civil War).  An aging Jim Thorpe was said to have been an uncredited extra on this movie, and he claimed to have decked a belligerent (and typically drunk) Flynn.  Custer was as bad a student at West Point as this movie depicts, however.  The depiction of Indians is fairly sympathetic for 1941.  In colorful black and white.  Music by Max Steiner.

DiedBoots2StarsWalsh Walsh with his stars.

Raoul Walsh was a main-line director from 1913 into the 1960s, today remembered more for gangster movies (The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, White Heat) than for westerns, although he made a number of those, too.  This one goes with his The Big Trail (1931, starring John Wayne in his first leading role) and Colorado Territory (1949, a remake of his High Sierra in an older western setting with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo) as eminently watchable examples of his work in westerns.  One of his earliest films was a quasi-documentary The Life of General Villa (1912 and 1914, both now lost), starring Villa himself.  Walsh, who did some directing with Christy Cabanne, had a bit part playing Villa as a young man, although his career as an actor was largely over by 1915.  The Villa film was made when Walsh was only 19 and Villa was still regularly in the U.S. news in a positive way, two years before his attack on Columbus, New Mexico, provoked a punitive (and largely futile) expedition under Gen. Pershing.  The film has apparently been lost, and its making became the subject of a 2003 HBO film And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself.

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

Alvarez Kelly

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 21, 2013

Alvarez Kelly—William Holden, Richard Widmark, Janice Rule, Patrick O’Neal, Harry Carey, Jr., Victoria Shaw (1966; Dir:  Edward Dmytryk)


Mexican national Alvarez Kelly (William Holden) has brought a large herd of cattle to Alabama in 1864 at the request of the Union army.  Now that they’ve arrived, Col. Stedman (Patrick O’Neal), a Massachusetts lawyer in civilian life, insists they go by train to a location outside of Richmond, Virginia.  Kelly grudgingly complies and is paid at the Warwick farm.  Mrs. Warwick (Victoria Shaw), a southern belle, has arranged for Virginia cavalry (the so-called Comanches, led by one-eyed Col. Tom Rossiter [Richard Widmark]), to steal both Kelly and his cattle, on the theory that the Confederates are a lot hungrier than the Yankees, in part because their money isn’t any good. 


Rossiter (Richard Widmark) and Kelly (William Holden) negotiate.

The relentlessly non-affiliated Kelly is hard to persuade until Rossiter shoots off a finger and threatens to shoot off the others unless Kelly agrees to go along.  Meanwhile, in part for revenge because of his mutilated hand, Kelly arranges to help Rossiter’s fiancée Liz Pickering (Janice Rule) escape Richmond aboard a Scottish ship bound for New York.  There is a not-terribly-convincing sequence where Kelly demonstrates that regular cavalry men don’t possess the skills to drive catlle.  Rossiter instructs Kelly’s watchdog Hatcher to kill Kelly if anything happens to Rossiter. 

Stedman figures out where Rossiter is heading with the herd and positions his men and a few artillery pieces to stop them at a bridge.  Kelly stampedes the cattle over the bridge and into the Black Swamp and on to Richmond.  At the end there is a not-terribly-convincing rapprochement between Kelly and Rossiter, and Rossiter even shoots Hatcher to keep him from killing Kelly at the bridge.


Rossiter and the Confederates aren’t so good at herding cattle.

The story is based on an actual event from the Civil War—Gen. Wade Hampton’s “Beefsteak” raid of September 1864.  Holden is good, but was said to be suffering through a particularly bad bout with his alcoholism.  Production was held up for six months when Holden contracted salmonella.  The stars, Holden and Widmark, as well as director Dmytryk, were said to have reservations about the film’s script, which isn’t all that strong.  It’s hard to rehabilitate a character like Rossiter after the shooting-off-the finger incident; usually somebody who’d do that is an irredeemable bad guy, as in The Man from Laramie.  Whether the movie works at all depends on the two leads playing off each other, and they’re both excellent actors.  Holden and Widmark remained lifelong friends after the filming.  In color, filmed near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Steve McQueen was filming parts of Nevada Smith at the same time.    

alvarezkellyPoster2 French poster.

Ukrainian/Canadian/Californian Edward Dmytryk, who had been directing movies since 1935 and became known for his films noirs by the end of the 1940s, was one of the “Hollywood Ten” in 1948 and was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress.  Consequently he was among those blacklisted in the 1950s, but he was making his way back by the middle of the decade.  He made only five westerns, the best of which was probably 1959’s Warlock, with Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark and Anthony Quinn.  Second would be Broken Lance (1954), with Spencer Tracy and Richard Widmark.  But this might be the third best from a good director.  It would make a good double feature with John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959), another Civil War movie, also with William Holden as one of the leads and also with good battle scenes.

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

Escape from Fort Bravo

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 10, 2013

Escape from Fort Bravo—William Holden, Eleanor Parker, John Forsyth, Richard Anderson, William Demarest, Polly Bergen (1953; Dir:  John Sturges)


One of the best of the early John Sturges westerns.  Filmed in Death Valley and New Mexico, Sturges is obviously playing visually with the stunning desert landscapes throughout the movie.  The movie makes good use of color, if you’re watching a clear print.  Apparently there are problems with some DVDs.  Cinematography is by Robert Surtees. 

Fort Bravo is supposedly located in Arizona Territory during the Civil War (1863), when the war is not yet decided.  Confederate soldiers are held there under loose conditions; they may even outnumber their captors.  The fort is surrounded by hostile Mescalero Apaches in league with Cochise’s Chiricauhuas.  The main character is the implacable Captain Roper, convincingly played by William Holden.  He’s the one who deals with Confederates who escape, chasing them down in hostile territory and bringing them back.  John Forsyth is the leader of the Confederates, including a small group that is planning an escape.  (Echoes of the future Sturges WWII movie The Great Escape, to be made a decade later.)


The sullen Confederate captives are led by John Forsyth (center).

Eleanor Parker shows up as Carla Forester, an elegant Texas friend of the post commandant’s daughter (Polly Bergen) who’s getting married, and also the film’s principal romantic interest.  In fact, she’s there to set up the Confederate escape.  While doing so, she plays the hardened Roper, who falls in love with her.  She is more a Howard Hawksian female than a John Ford one—one who comes close to the edges of propriety in her relationship with Roper while she’s playing him.  The escape takes place, and Carla joins the escapees.  Roper is ordered to go after them, and the Apaches are after them all.  Roper does capture them, and they start to fight their way back to the fort.  The fight back is desperate; this is one of those cavalry movies (like, for example, Fort Apache) that depicts the Indians as good tacticians. 


Sultry Confederate spy Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker) plays Lt. Roper (William Holden) as he falls for her.

Escape from Fort Bravo belongs to that small category of  cavalry westerns, along with Two Flags West and Major Dundee, that has Yankees and Rebs fighting side by side against the Indians.  The supporting cast is good, especially crusty William Demarest as the oldest Confederate.  Richard Anderson is decent as Lt. Beecher, a young Union junior officer.  John Forsyth is elusive as the Confederate commander, who has his own romantic interest in Carla. 


Lt. Roper (William Holden) faces a hopeless situation, vastly outnumbered by Apaches while trapped in the desert.

The film is not without weaknesses:  Eleanor Parker seems way too glitzy in dress and makeup for (a) the 19th century and especially for (b) a frontier post.   She also doesn’t seem very Texan.  The ending is abrupt and not entirely convincing, with the Apaches taking care of some of the difficult decisions.  It would be good to see at least a little of how Roper and Carla work things out instead of just watching them ride into the sunset with Carla’s betrayal unresolved.  Maybe a little more backstory on Carla would be interesting.  But this is a good, watchable western.

William Holden is the center of the movie and his flinty personality and determination make it work.  The film came out the same year that Holden won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17.  He’s equally good here.  Eleanor Parker didn’t show up in westerns much.  If you’d care for another look at her, this time in a colonial-period western, she plays an aw-shucks-type backwoods female who is after mountain man Robert Taylor in Many Rivers to Cross (1955).

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

Western Union

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 8, 2013

Western Union—Randolph Scott, Robert Young, Dean Jagger, Barton MacLane, Virginia Gilmore, Chill Wills (1941; Dir:  Fritz Lang)


Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott; note that he also played a character named Vance in the previous year’s Virginia City) is introduced as he’s apparently trying to get away from a posse.  In doing so, he saves a Western Union surveyor/chief engineer Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger, with a hairpiece), then escapes.  Shaw seems decent and more than normally competent, but he has an undefined relationship with Jack Slade (Barton MacLane) and his outlaw gang. 


When the telegraph line gets serious about building between Omaha and Salt Lake (1861, apparently), Creighton gives Shaw a job as his chief scout.  The Oglala Sioux, through whose territory the line must go, present a problem, and Slade’s gang seems involved with them, too.  Shaw develops a romantic interest in Creighton’s sister (Virginia Gilmore), although Harvard-educated engineer Richard Blake (Robert Young) is also interested.  For a tenderfoot, Blake does pretty well, and Shaw’s situation becomes more complicated as Slade’s depredations against Western Union increase.  Slade, from Missouri, fancies himself helping the Confederate cause by stopping the transcontinental telegraph line.  Shaw loses Creighton’s trust.

Finally, Shaw goes to town to have it out with Slade, who turns out to be his brother.  Although his hands are burned, he gets several of Slade’s henchmen and wounds Slade, but Slade gets him.  Blake finishes off Slade, although wounded himself.  Shaw was so compromised he probably had to die to resolve matters, but it’s a bittersweet and vaguely unsatisfying ending. 


Meeting the Harvard man.

Scott seems to have more dramatic heft than Young, who is featured more prominently on many of the posters.  John Carradine plays the company doctor; Chill Wills is a lineman; there’s broad comic relief in minor characters (e.g., Herman the cook, played by Slim Summerville) which doesn’t wear all that well.  In color (meaning a big budget for 1941); directed by Fritz Lang; based on a story by Zane Grey.  Compare it with another technological western, Cecil DeMille’s Union Pacific, released two years earlier.  In all, this is much better than average for its time, and better than much of Scott’s work in westerns during the late 1940s and 1950s up until his collaboration with Budd Boetticher.  This is more straightforward than Rancho Notorious (1952), the last western directed by Fritz Lang.  The producer was Harry Joe Brown; fifteen years later he and Scott would form the Ranown production company for the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns.


Shaw, Creighton and Blake head out to negotiate with Spotted Horse and the Oglalla Sioux.

There was a real western gunman Jack Slade, involved in a famous gunfight at Julesburg, eventually killed by Montana vigilantes in the early 1860s and mentioned in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.  But this character doesn’t bear much resemblance to the historical Slade and is much more obviously an outlaw.


Lang (center) directs stars Robert Blake and Randolph Scott.

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)


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 23, 2013

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly—Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach, Aldo Sambrell (1966; Dir:  Sergio Leone)


There are different versions of this floating around.  The one I saw most recently said it was the “extended English language version,” about three hours long.  That leaves Sergio Leone to take half an hour introducing the three principal characters, which he does in reverse order:  the ugly (Wallach’s Tuco), the bad (Van Cleef’s Sentenza-Angel Eyes) and then the good (Eastwood’s Blondie).  In particular, the sequence introducing Tuco is very reminiscent of the early part of Once Upon a Time in the West, with anonymous gunmen waiting without dialogue on a dusty and wind-swept western street and the camera frequently cutting to 2/3-face closeups.  The production values are higher than the first two in Leone’s “Dollar” or “Man With No Name” trilogy, and he clearly has a larger budget and more time to spend with his directorial tropes and mannerisms.  As in other Leone films, the dubbing is sometimes a distraction to American viewers.  Aside from the three leads, the cast was almost entirely composed of non-English speakers.

After the introductions, it is clear that Tuco and Blondie are running a scam by which Blondie turns in Tuco for the reward on his head (either $2000 or $3000).  As Tuco is being hung on horseback, Blondie springs him by severing the rope with a well-placed bullet and making the authorities duck for cover.  They move on to another town and repeat the scam.  (There’s no suggestion about what would happen if the hanging were from a gallows, rather than from horseback.)  Tuco wants a larger share than half, and he and Blondie take turns betraying each other. 


Meanwhile, Angel Eyes is in pursuit of $200,000 in gold.  Tuco and Blondie get wind of the same pot of gold from a dying Confederate soldier who tells Tuco the general location and Blondie the specific spot, so they then need each other to find the gold.  Disguised as Confederates, Tuco and Blondie are captured by Union soldiers and taken to a prison camp, where the sadistic sergeant turns out to be Angel Eyes.  Ultimately the three end up at a cemetery where the loot is buried and have a three-way shootout, in which Angel Eyes is killed by Blondie and Tuco finds out he has no ammunition in his gun.


Not much time was spent trying to come up with a story that would hang together well; it’s all about atmosphere, mood and composition.  Theoretically it takes place in the west during the Civil War.  There are references to Glorieta, and that presumably means New Mexico, where the only Civil War battle in the west took place at Glorieta Pass.  It wasn’t as big a clash as depicted in this movie.  There are also troops using trains, and there were no trains in New Mexico until about a decade after the war.  Some say this is Leone’s masterpiece; others would claim that honor for Once Upon a Time in the West.  Still others would say that For a Few Dollars More is a better movie than either.  This is brilliantly directed and beautifully filmed but short on story and cohesiveness considering its length.

The Eastwood and Van Cleef characters look just the same as they did in For a Few Dollars More, but there’s really no continuity with them from movie to movie.  Each film stands alone.  At the end of the movie, Eastwood is wearing the same sheepskin vest and serape that he wore in the other two movies.  In terms of time, this should be the last, but it’s probably the earliest, taking place during the Civil War.  In particular, Van Cleef turned out to be a sort of a good guy in For a Few Dollars More; here, he’s the Bad, and he has little of the gentlemanly quality from the prior movie.  The two movies made him a star of sorts, though, and he had a lucrative career in spaghetti westerns at this late stage.


Three-Way Shootout.

The music by Ennio Morricone is brilliant, but during the movie it’s kind of intrusive and loud.  The theme is perhaps the most familiar of any of the music from the Leone-Morricone collaboration over the years.  The direction by Sergio Leone was influential, particularly for Eastwood.  Although it’s better done (and has better production values) than most spaghetti westerns, it still has the subgenre’s weaknesses:  the interminable tight close-ups where nothing seems to be happening except sweating, the long shots of desolate landscape and a very small rider or person, the taste for the over-the-top violent and the surreal, the wildly improbable marksmanship.  Eastwood’s character is seldom without a slender cigar in his teeth, but those teeth are very white for a constant smoker.  Between playing Tuco Ramirez in this movie and Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, Eli Wallach made himself the quintessential cinematic Mexican bandit chieftain, but there’s a fair amount of the stereotype in his portrayal, too, emphasized by the frequent lingering close-ups and lots of braying laughter. 

There are lots of shots of drawn-out slow movement around almost abstract landscapes.  There is also a brilliantly edited shot where Tuco is about to shoot Eastwood. who has a noose around his neck; cut to cannon shooting, cut back to destroyed building where Tuco has fallen through a floor or two and the now empty noose where Eastwood was.  Filmed in Spain.

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