Tag Archives: Delmer Daves

Broken Arrow

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 18, 2014

Broken Arrow—James Stewart, Jeff Chandler, Debra Paget, Basil Ruysdael, Will Geer, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jay Silverheels (1950; Dir: Delmer Daves)

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In 1870, former Union soldier and scout Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is a prospector in Arizona Territory, where Cochise’s Apaches have been at war with the Americans for ten years.  Jeffords gives a wounded Apache boy medical attention, and is spared by Geronimo when he attacks another band of prospectors.  In Tucson, Jeffords is asked to scout for Col. Bernall against the Apaches and declines, tired of war and fighting.  He makes a bet that he can get five mail riders through Apache Territory and spends a month learning Apache language and culture.  He is supported by his friend Milt Duffield (Arthur Hunnicutt), who manages the mail and offers to be the first rider.

Juan, Jeffords’ teacher in Apache ways, speaking of Cochise:  “Remember this: if you see him, do not lie to him… not in the smallest thing.  His eyes will see into your heart.  He is greater than other men.”

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Not even Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is safe in Apache Country.

Jeffords makes a trip to Cochise’s stronghold to ask for the chief (Jeff Chandler, in one of his signature roles) to let the mail riders through, promising that they will carry no military information.   After getting to know Jeffords, he accedes to the request.  Meanwhile, Jeffords meets Apache maiden Sonseeahray (Debra Paget, everybody’s favorite 1950s Indian maiden).

One-armed Gen. Oliver O. Howard (Basil Ruysdael) comes west and joins Col. Bernall on a raid into Apache territory.  Bernall rushes into an Apache ambush and his column is all but wiped out by Cochise’s forces.

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Jeff Chandler as the wise and powerful Cochise.

Back in Tucson, Jeffords gets into fights with Indian haters, particularly with Ben Slade (Will Geer), whose ranch was burned by Apaches with his wife still in the ranch house.  As Jeffords is about to be lynched, he is rescued by Gen. Howard.  Although Jeffords is suspicious at first, Howard explains that, motivated by his Biblical beliefs, he wants to make peace with the Apaches, and he wants Jeffords to set up a meeting with Cochise.

Jeffords goes to Cochise, who calls in other Apache leaders for the conference with Howard. Meanwhile, Jeffords marries Sonseeahray. The Apache leaders vote for a provisional peace with a three-month trial period and Cochise symbolically breaks an arrow, but Geronimo (an uncredited Jay Silverheels) leads a dissenting Apache faction that will continue to raid. During the trial period, Geronimo attacks a stage, but Jeffords leads Cochise’s men in a rescue. Ben Slade’s son leads Jeffords and Cochise into a trap to kill him; Jeffords is wounded and Sonseeahray is killed, as are Slade and his son. Cochise remains committed to the peace, and it endures—for now.

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Jeffords (Stewart) and the young Apache maiden (Debra Paget).

Cochise to Jeffords: “As I bear the murder of my people, so you will bear the murder of your wife.”

Tom Jeffords (closing narration):  “His words meant very little to me then, but as time passed, I came to know that the death of Sonseeahray had put a seal upon the peace.  And from that day on wherever I went—in the cities, among the Apaches, in the mountains—I always remembered my wife was with me.”

The film was a breakthrough in its time because it depicted Indians in a sympathetic light.  Director Delmer Daves had a background as an anthropology student, and some scenes of Apache ceremonies and beliefs have an interesting anthropological bent.  In the 65 years since its release, however, it has sometimes been criticized because some of the Indian roles, including Cochise and Sonseeahray, are played by white actors.  Jeff Chandler as Cochise is the ultimate noble savage, depicted as a far-sighted civil leader and a great military mind.  He received an Oscar nomination for the Best Supporting Actor for his work here.  Daves went on to create several more excellent westerns during the 1950s.

This film was the forerunner of such Indian-sympathetic films as A Man Called Horse (1970), Little Big Man (1970) and Dances With Wolves (1990).  It’s not perfect; it can seem a little stiff and politically correct for modern times, but it still makes good watching.  And mostly it’s historically accurate, as it claims in the opening narration, describing a peace reached in 1872.  That peace lasted only until 1875, when the Apaches were forced onto a reservation. Cochise died in 1874, still friends with Jeffords.

The Apache wedding words pronounced over Sonseeahray and Jeffords, often used since in many weddings of whites, are not authentic in the sense that they are not part of a traditional Apache ceremony.  They were written for this film.

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The movie was shot in 1949 but released in 1950, after Stewart’s first western with Anthony Mann, Winchester ’73.  Both were very successful.  Stewart at 41 is 26 years older than Debra Paget, who was 15 when filming began.  Based on Elliott Arnold’s novel Blood Brother, Albert Maltz wrote the screenplay but was blacklisted as one of the Hollywood 10, and the screenwriting credit is given to Michael Blankfort as a front for Maltz.  Music is by Hugo Friedhofer.  Shot in Technicolor (but not widescreen) in Sedona, Arizona.  93 minutes.

The movie’s world premiere was held in the Nusho Theater in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  Jeff Chandler and Jay Silverheels would reprise their roles as Cochise and Geronimo in The Battle of Apache Pass (1952), a sort of prequel to this film.  Another western classic depicting Cochise as a gifted military leader is John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948).

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Drum Beat

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 4, 2014

Drum Beat—Alan Ladd, Audrey Dalton, Marisa Pavan, Charles Bronson, Elisha Cook, Jr., Anthony Caruso, Rodolfo Acosta (1954; Dir: Delmer Daves)

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In the wake of the enormous success of Shane, Alan Ladd formed his own production company, Jaguar Productions, and this was its first film.

Here Alan Ladd is Johnny McKay, former Indian fighter and now peace commissioner to the Modocs by appointment from Pres. Ulysses Grant.  He has two romantic interests going on in the film:  Toby (Marisa Pavan), daughter of the peaceful former Modoc chief, and Nancy Meek, niece of a local rancher and family friend of the Grants.  Charles Bronson in an early role (his first under that name rather than as Charles Buchinsky, his real name) is a muscular Captain Jack, leader of the warlike portion of the Modoc tribe.

The story bears only a passing resemblance to the actual course of the Modoc War of 1872-1873 in northern California and southern Oregon, and these Modocs mostly look more like a cross between Apaches (colorful cloth headbands) and plains tribes (leather shirts, etc.).  The warlike Captain Jack kills most of the peace commissioners, including General Canby (Warner Anderson), and leaves McKay for dead.  The rest of the war isn’t shown much until McKay captures Jack, and Jack is sentenced to be hung.  Toby is killed in the course of all this, so McKay is left with just one romantic interest by the end.  Anthony Caruso is Toby’s brother, who also doesn’t trust Captain Jack; Elisha Cook, Jr., is Crackel, trading arms and information to the Modocs.  So it appears that both sides have two factions.

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McKay (Alan Ladd) and Captain Jack (Charles Bronson) fight it out in a river.

The New York Times noted “Charles Bronson is probably the most muscular Indian ever to have brandished a rifle before a camera,” and Peter Baker wrote in Films and Filming:  “[Alan Ladd’s] performance is dwarfed by that of Charles Bronson as Captain Jack.”  It wasn’t hard to dwarf Alan Ladd under most circumstances.  The relatively short Ladd (at 5 feet 4 inches) is carefully filmed here, but shouldn’t have had much of a chance against any decent fighter the size of Bronson (only 5 feet 8 inches himself, but quite muscular).  When Bronson worked as Charles Buchinsky, his agent worried that name would stunt his career during the blacklist era.  Legend has it they were discussing possible new names while driving on Bronson Avenue in Los Angeles, looked up at the “Bronson Gate” sign at Paramount Studios, and a future star was rechristened.  In the 1970’s, after Bronson had become a global superstar, Drum Beat was reissued in some countries under the title Captain Jack with Bronson’s name on top.

This was one in a series of fairly good westerns Ladd made in the 1950s after ShaneDrum Beat, Saskatchewan, The Badlanders.  And another in a series of decent westerns made by Delmer Daves during the late 1940s and the 1950s (3:10 to Yuma, The Last Wagon, Cowboy, Jubal, The Hanging Tree).  Writer and director Daves had spent much of his youth living on reservations with Hopi and Navajo Indians, and his westerns such as Broken Arrow (1950, directed by Daves) and White Feather (1955, written but not directed by Daves) were notable for their sympathetic portrayals of Indians.  The film was shot in northern Arizona’s Coconino National Forest.  In color.  This is not currently available on DVD in the United States, so it can be hard to find.

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Charles Bronson as Captain Jack; the real Modoc leader Captain Jack (Kintpuash) in 1864.

Several books have been written about the Modoc War.  Dee Brown had a chapter on Captain Jack and the war in his 1972 best-seller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  For a longer account of the war, see Hell With the Fire Out:  A History of the Modoc War (1997) by Arthur Quinn.

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The Hanging Tree

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 14, 2014

The Hanging Tree—Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, Ben Piazza, Karl Swenson, John Dierkes, Virginia Gregg (1959; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Gary Cooper in one of his last roles plays wounded-in-spirit gunslinging frontier doctor Joseph Frail—apparently not the doctor’s real name.  He comes to the Montana gold camp of Skull Creek in 1873 and sets up his medical practice in a cabin overlooking the town.  It’s a rough place, plagued by outlaws, giving rise in turn to a vigilante movement.  We see quickly that this has resulted in a rough, quick and sometimes misdirected form of justice, represented by the hanging tree.

Doc Frail is known by several of the townspeople.  The town itself is full of undesirables; among them Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden), with whom the doc has some history.  We can tell from the beginning that Frenchy is an undesirable because of the ugly ear-flap hat he wears.  We first see him taking shots at a young man stealing gold out of his sluice boxes.  The doctor takes in the young man (Rune, played by Ben Piazza ) and removes the bullet; as payment he says Rune must be his bondservant for an undetermined period of time. 

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Doc deals with Frenchy (Karl Malden); Doc Frail and Elizabeth (Maria Schell)

The haunted doctor gambles (he seems to be good at it) and drinks some, and he’s not very good tempered.  Some of his backstory comes out, involving his dead wife and brother and a house on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi in southern Illinois, deliberately set on fire.  Meanwhile, a stage is robbed and crashes down a hill.  Passengers include Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), a young Swiss woman, and her father.  The father is killed and Elizabeth is left blind and otherwise in bad shape due to exposure by the time she is found. 

The doctor takes over her care in a cabin near his.  Aside from those consumed with lust (Frenchy), those envious (Society Red, played by John Dierkes, and George Grubb [George C. Scott in an early role], a faith healer and alchoholic who sees the doctor as competition and a tool of the devil), there is also a self-righteous wife, Edna Flaunce (Virginia Gregg), of an otherwise decent general store keeper, suspicious that there’s something improper going on.  After all, the doc was known to treat loose women, too. 

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When Elizabeth can finally see again, she and Rune are released by the doctor, who also, unknown to them, provides them with a grubstake.  They use it to set up a mining partnership with Frenchy.  Just as Frenchy is on the verge of quitting for good, they have a big strike.  In the partying afterward, Frenchy tries to rape Elizabeth and the doc shoots him.  Grubb leads a mob to hang the doc; he is rescued when Elizabeth and Rune give the mob their claim.  Presumably the doc and Elizabeth live happily ever after, even without the claim.

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Delmer Daves directs star Gary Cooper on location near Yakima, Washington.

The story is based on a novel by Montana author Dorothy M. Johnson.  Montana native Cooper seems old for the part, as he has for most of his western romantic leads during the 1950s (High Noon, Garden of Evil, Man of the West, etc.), but he’s still effective.  Although Cooper was ill with lung cancer, he’s ironically shown smoking in several scenes.  Maria Schell is very good as Elizabeth, and Ben Piazza is fine as Rune.  The community seems a little too deliberately loathsome and the doctor a little too unreasonably haunted. 

Not much seen these days, and the print I saw (on TCM, even, which makes an effort to show the best prints available) was not great.  Still, it’s a pretty decent western.  It’s also one of the last westerns directed by Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Cowboy, The Last Wagon, The Badlanders) in a very productive career as a director of westerns.   In color, filmed around Yakima, Washington.  Score by Max Steiner, with a theme sung by Marty Robbins (better than most such, and nominated for an Oscar).  Finally released on DVD in 2012.

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Jubal

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 12, 2014

Jubal—Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Valerie French, Felicia Farr, Noah Beery, Jr., Rod Steiger, Charles Bronson, John Dierkes, Basil Ruysdael, Jack Elam (1956; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) is a hard-luck cowboy whose horse dies while carrying him over Glacier Pass from Montana into Wyoming.  He is found unconscious by Shep Horgan, a big rancher in Jackson Hole, who offers him a job.  The situation is not without obvious complications:  one of the resident cowhands at Horgan’s ranch, Pinky Pinkum (Rod Steiger), resents any authority and the newcomer.  Even trickier is Mae (Valerie French), Horgan’s young wife from Calgary.  They’ve been married for 16 months, and she’s unhappy.  She’s previously had some kind of relationship with Pinky and now is coming on to Jubal, who’s having none of it.

Pinky:  “If you’re a cowhand, how come you stink of sheep dip?”

Jubal Troop:  “I hired out to a sheep ranch ’cause it was the only job I could get.”

Pinky:  “Most cowhands would die before they’d herd sheep.”

Jubal Troop:  “Show me one.”

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Glenn Ford as Jubal Troop, trying to figure things out.

Horgan soon appoints Jubal his foreman, and Jubal accepts with misgivings.  The prickly situation with Pinky becomes more difficult, and he has more interaction with Mae.  A group of ten “rawhider” wagons on their way to Idaho camps on Horgan’s land while some of their members recuperate from illness.  Pinky and several Bar 8 riders try to run them off, but Jubal overrules him and lets them stay, incurring the gratitude of their religious leader Shem Hoktor (Basil Ruysdael) and the admiration of his daughter Naomi (Felicia Farr).  Naomi is promised to Jake, another member of the group who is jealous, and Jubal hires Reb Haislipp (Charles Bronson), a good-natured cowboy who’s been riding along with the rawhiders.

Tensions on the Horgan ranch get higher with mountain lions raiding their stock and with Jubal developing a romantic interest in Naomi, which she reciprocates.  While the men are camped far from the ranch house on roundup, Mae lures Jubal back to the ranch and tries to get him into bed.  He doesn’t go for it and heads into town and starts drinking.  Reb goes looking for him when he doesn’t return promptly.  Pinky is filling Shep’s mind with imprecations of a relationship between Mae and Jubal.  When Shep gets back to the ranch, Mae lies and says it’s true.  Shep bursts into the saloon and starts shooting at Jubal, who’s not armed.  He doesn’t want to shoot back, but when Reb tosses him a gun he uses it in self-defense.  Wounded, Jubal makes it back to the rawhider wagons.  They take him in, with Shem Hoktor’s wagon heading east to hide him, and the rest heading west for Pocatello.

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Valerie French as the faithless Mae, coming on to Jubal (Glenn Ford).

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Pinky arrives at the ranch after the killing and intends to renew his former relationship with Mae, who doesn’t want him now.  He beats her badly and recruits a posse of his Bar 8 friends to hunt down Jubal.  It takes a couple of days, and by the time they find Hoktor’s wagon (with the help of jealousy-crazed Jake), Jubal is heading back for the ranch so Mae can tell the posse the truth when they get to him.

Mae is in bad shape when Jubal finds her, but she manages to tell the doctor the truth about her and Jubal and about who beat her before she dies.  As the posse fingers their rope while looking at Pinky, Jubal and Naomi ride off into the sunset, or maybe just to Idaho.

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This is one of director Delmer Daves’ bigger movies, shot in color on location in Jackson Hole (like The Big Sky and Shane) and with lots of low camera angles that emphasize the sky and the magnificent Tetons.  The movie is well-paced at 100 minutes.  Cinematography is by Charles Lawton, Jr., who worked on many westerns (including 3:10 to Yuma and Comanche Station).  The very good screenplay is by Robert S. Hughes and Daves.  The music by David Raksin (Laura, Big Hand for the Little Lady, Will Penny) is also excellent.

The cast is very good, especially Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine, whose performances are well-calibrated.  Ford made the original 3:10 to Yuma with Daves the next year, and he was excellent in that, too.  See Ernest Borgnine in bad-guy roles from the same period in Johnny Guitar and Bad Day at Black Rock, and as a semi-good guy in The Badlanders.  Charles Bronson has a good-guy role, rare for the pre-Magnificent Seven stage of his career, and Jack Elam is one of the Bar 8 riders.  Rod Steiger is effective in another of his nasty bully roles from the 1950s.  Steiger had played the title role in the 1953 telecast of Marty, and Borgnine had just won an Oscar for the same role in the movie version (1955).  This was Felicia Farr’s movie debut, and Daves clearly liked her; she shows up again in 3:10 to Yuma and The Last Wagon.

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This melodramatic range saga has overtones of Shakespeare (Othello), although in this case the wife is young and faithless, and of Biblical stories (Joseph and Potiphar’s wife; and Jake is referred to as a Judas).  It’s often referred to as an “adult” western because of the all the sexual tension.  It was adapted from a novel by Paul I. Wellman.  For another big melodramatic range story, see Tribute to a Bad Man from the same year, one of James Cagney’s few westerns (he was not a natural in them).  But this one is better.  For other westerns from this stage of Daves’ career, in addition to 3:10 to Yuma, see Cowboy with Glenn Ford and The Last Wagon with Richard Widmark.

As of May 2013, Jubal is available on a Criterion Collection DVD, which refers to it as “an overlooked Hollywood treasure from genre master Delmer Daves.”

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The Last Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 15, 2014

The Last Wagon—Richard Widmark, Felicia Farr, Nick Adams, Susan Kohner, Tommy Rettig, Stephanie Griffin (1956; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Sheriff Bull Harper:  “Don’t be fooled by the color of his eyes and his skin.  He may be white, but inside he’s all Comanche.”

As the movie opens, Comanche Todd (Richard Widmark) is on the run on foot from what appears to be a posse.  He gets two of them before the leader, the brutal Sheriff Bull Harper (George Matthews), captures him.  While Harper’s taking him back for trial, they encounter a wagon train of devout Christian emigrants in Apache territory and band together with them, at least for protection from the Indians.  We’ve seen Todd kill others in the posse already, but Bull Harper doesn’t seem all that trustworthy either.

[After capturing Todd, Sheriff Harper offers to join Colonel Normand’s wagon train.]  Col. William Normand (Douglas Kennedy):  “He’s safe in your custody, I suppose. It’s just that we got women and children with us.”

Sheriff Bull Harper:  “He’ll be safe. The first time he don’t look safe, he’ll get dead.”

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The next night several young people are off swimming and, when they return to the wagons, they find them burned and everyone killed by the Apaches.  Todd, who was manacled to a wagon wheel, went over a cliff with the wagon, but he’s still alive.  And he’s the only hope of the young people to get out of the desert and wilderness alive.  Only he has the survival skills and the wilderness knowledge they’ll need.  Jenny (Felicia Farr) and her young brother Billy (Tommy Rettig) are inclined to trust Todd, but two others (including Nick Adams) don’t and the remaining one (half-Indian, played by Susan Kohler) is undecided. 

Comanche Todd:  “We’ve got six bullets, and that idiot uses up three of them on a stinkin’ rattler you could kill with a stick.”

The relationships develop while Todd guides them toward safety, with death lurking constantly around every corner.  Eventually Todd saves a patrol of soldiers, who then take him into custody.  The final scene is Todd’s trial before General Oliver O. Howard, where it comes out that the sheriff and his three rotten brothers had raped and killed Todd’s Comanche wife and son and had left him for dead.  He’d been hunting them ever since. 

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Delmer Daves, like John Sturges, is one of those directors from the 1950s whose westerns are usually worth watching.  So is this.  Although it’s quite watchable, however, it’s not smoothly plotted.  The ending doesn’t have the same edge that the rest of the film does.  Widmark is excellent as Todd, keeping us unsure how bad or good Comanche Todd is, and Felicia Farr is also very good.  At this stage of his career, Widmark was playing both bad guys (The Law and Jake Wade) and good guys (Sturges’ Backlash and this) in westerns, although he had made his initial reputation ten years earlier playing psychotic killers in films noir.  To see Farr in another western, she plays the girl who catches Glenn Ford’s interest in a barroom and delays him long enough that he gets captured in the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957), also directed by Delmer Daves.  She’s also in Daves’ JubalThis film is better looking than much of Daves’ work.  Shot in color (Cinemascope and Technicolor) in Sedona, Arizona.  98 minutes.  Music is by Lionel Newman, younger brother of Alfred Newman.

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Cowboy

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 21, 2014

Cowboy—Glenn Ford, Jack Lemmon, Brian Donlevy, Victor Manuel Mendoza, Richard Jaeckel, Strother Martin (1958; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Tom Reese:  “And all that hogwash about horses!  The loyalty of the horse!  The intelligence of the horse!  The intelligence?  You know a horse has a brain just about the size of a walnut.  They’re mean, they’re treacherous and they’re stupid.  There isn’t a horse born that had enough sense to move away from a hot fire.  No sensible man loves a horse.  He tolerates the filthy animal only because riding is better than walking.”

This is a standard tenderfoot-and-cattle drive story with a good cast.  Hard-bitten Tom Reese (Glenn Ford, at the peak of his career as a leading man) is a cattleman who buys his cattle in Mexico (Guadalupe, on the trip in this movie), drives them north to Wichita to the railroad and then sells them in Chicago. 

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As the movie opens, Reese and his men are arriving at a luxurious Chicago hotel to spend a week or more enjoying the cash from the most recent sale.  Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon, just entering his period as a major leading man) is a night clerk at the hotel and harbors romantic notions of the cowboy life, in addition to an infatuation with the daughter of the major Mexican cattleman in Guadalupe.  In a hard night of gambling, Reese loses more money than he expected to and borrows Harris’ bankroll of $3800, agreeing to make Harris his partner in the next cattle drive.  The next morning when Reese tries to return the money, Harris is adamant that he wants to stick with the deal for partnership and has quit his job at the hotel.

There are the usual cattle drive episodes:  the stampede, snakes, raiding Comanches (meaning this had to be before 1876 or so, when Comanches were put on a reservation in Oklahoma), fights in bars, tenderfoot riding the wild bronc and such.  Harris is the tenderfoot in question, and he grows in both trail skills and responsibility, as he and Reese have a falling-out over how to handle the men, and Reese is badly wounded by the Comanches.  It turns out the young Mexican woman is now the wife in a marriage arranged by her parents, devastating Harris.  By the time they return to Chicago with the cattle, Reese and Harris have established a mutual respect and perhaps a continuing partnership. 

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The supporting actors here are good, particularly Brian Donlevy in one of his last screen roles.  Donlevy plays Doc Bender, an aging former marshal of Wichita and gunhand trying to figure out where he fits into the increasingly civilized west and what his connections are while he makes a few bucks as a cowboy.  Strother Martin and Richard Jaeckel are also good as trail hands, and Victor Manuel Mendoza as Mendoza, the segundo to Reese.  While Ford is a natural in westerns, Lemmon isn’t, although he’s fine in the tenderfoot role.

This film looks good, bigger than most of Daves’ work.  It seems short, at around 90 minutes, with the wrapup and re-establishment of the relationship between Reese and Harris particularly abrupt.  Worth watching but not as memorable as it may seem at first.  In color, shot in New Mexico.

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

Grey_Fox_posterThousandPiecesPoster

·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
EastwoodDrifter

Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

DeTothAndre de Toth

Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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3:10 to Yuma (the Original)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 15, 2013

3:10 to Yuma—Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, Leora Dana, Felicia Farr, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Emhardt (1957; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

Dan Evans:  What’s the matter?
Mrs. Alice Evans:  Nothing. It seems terrible that something bad can happen and all anybody can do is stand by and watch.
Dan Evans:  Lots of things happen where all you can do is stand by and watch.

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There’s an undercurrent of fatalistic courage in the Dan Evans character played by Van Heflin.  Dan struggles with his obligations the whole movie, but when it counts he doesn’t just stand by and watch.  The inevitable comparison is with the 2007 remake.  Well, this unpretentious 1957 original from a story by Elmore Leonard has much less action than the remake; it’s more a psychological study, with Glenn Ford’s excellent performance as ruthless but charming outlaw boss Ben Wade at its heart.  The plot holds together a little better, and the ending is simpler and makes a bit more sense, although there have always been those who don’t find this original ending believable, either.  For a western, there’s a lot of talk in this movie.

Van Heflin as Dan Evans is good, but he’s doing a version of his solid rancher character from Shane, the sort of role for which he is now mostly remembered.  This one is deeper and more complex, with more camera time for his character.  Evans is an Arizona rancher about to go under financially.  When a reward is offered to get captured outlaw chieftain and gunman Ben Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma, where the infamous territorial prison is located, Evans takes the job as a way to address at least some of his difficulties.  Unexpectedly, a relationship of sorts develops.  Heflin’s stolid and beleagured Evans gives Ford’s Wade a worthy opponent to play against, as Evans’ courage develops while he’s faced with temptation.  Evans’ ambivalence is obvious the entire movie as he is forced to hear Wade’s Mephistophelean blandishments during a lengthy stretch in an upper hotel room (the bridal suite, in fact) in Contention.  As things turn out, Wade also has more ambivalence than he has showed most of the time. 

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Outlaw chieftain Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) chats up barroom girl Emmy (Felicia Farr).

Leora Dana, as Evans’ wife Alice, seems realer than Gretchen Mol does in the remake, but she’s also given a meatier role than Mol.  It’s a little surprising how much of Wade’s interlude with a saloon girl Emmy (Felicia Farr) was in the original; it seems a little frank in its implications for a 1950s western.  Richard Jaeckel as Wade’s second in command Charley Price doesn’t have Ben Foster’s psychotic edge, but the role wasn’t written that way the first time around.  Missing from the remake is Henry Jones’s role as Alex Potter, the town drunk cum outlaw guard, replaced by Alan Tudyk as Doc Potter in a different kind of role.  Also not in this original:  the nastiness of the lender and his repulsive henchmen; the father-son developments between Dan and his oldest son; Dan’s disability and Civil War background; the morally-blinkered Pinkerton man killed by Wade on the trip to Contention; and the Indians and the railroad men who try to the keep the party from making it there.  In fact, the arduous segment from Evans’ ranch to Contention is not in the original.  Wade’s gang in Contention seems a little more human and less invincible, although Dan Evans still seems very overmatched. 

3-10Wade&Prince

Wade (Glenn Ford) and his lieutenant Charley Prince (Richard Jaeckel).

In the end, Alice shows up in Contention to try (unsuccessfully) to talk Dan out of walking Wade to the train; and as Dan and Wade get to the train under attack from Wade’s gang, they just roll into an empty boxcar on the moving train.  Dan has earned Wade’s respect, and it’s Wade who suggests getting onto the train to get Dan out of an otherwise untenable situation.  He ends by saying that he’s broken out of Yuma before, and the feeling is that he’ll do it again.  That’s probably okay with Dan, who just sees his job as getting Wade to Yuma and is not concerned with what may happen after that.  He’s developed a little affection for Wade, too, if not any admiration for his moral character.

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Wade (Glenn Ford) and Evans (Van Heflin) look to make a run for the 3:10 train to Yuma.

You can see this as another of those 1950s meditations on the uneasy relationship between the law enforcer and the town he protects, as with High Noon, The Tin Star, and Warlock, although the emphasis here is on the developing relationship between Evans and Wade.  Dan is one of those ordinary citizens who steps up, not a professional gunman or career law enforcement man.  There are obvious noir influences here.  This original version of the story is highly watchable and ought to be seen by any fan of the remake.  This could legitimately be placed on a list of great westerns, and probably would be if it weren’t eclipsed by the showier remake.  At 92 minutes, it’s also considerably shorter than the remake.  This is more about psychology (in a good way); the remake is more about action.  Glenn Ford dazzles in the juicier Ben Wade role.

In general Delmer Daves seems a workmanlike director who made some good westerns in the 1950s.  His work is usually worth seeking out.  But he has his champions as something more.  Bertrand Tavernier pointed out in Film Comment, “What first impresses the viewer is Daves’ attention to landscape, to nature, expressed in shots that intimately and sometimes inextricably mingle lyricism and realism.

“He actually insisted on personally supervising the kind of material many Hollywood filmmakers would leave to second-unit directors–extreme long shots, transitional moments filmed at dawn or twilight.”

In black and white; cinematographer Charles Lawton (not Laughton), Jr., also worked with Budd Boetticher during this period.  This would get some votes as the most beautifully shot black-and-white western ever made, if you watch it in high definition (either the Criterion Collection DVD or somewhere like TCM).  The Contention-Bisbee railroad connection figured again in Leonard’s story for Hombre.  The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine:  “Though you’ve got no reason to go there, and there ain’t a soul that you know there, when the 3:10 to Yuma whistles its sad refrain, take that train . . . . . .”

Note:  The hat Glenn Ford wears in this movie he wore for most of his westerns in the 1950s and 1960s, long past when it should have been retired.  He joins John Wayne and James Stewart as western stars with recurring hats.

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