Tag Archives: Ernest Borgnine

Chuka

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 12, 2015

Chuka—Rod Taylor, John Mills, Ernest Borgnine, Louis Hayward, Luciana Paluzzi, James Whitmore, Victoria Ventri (1967; Dir: Gordon Douglas)

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A doomed fort in Arapaho country manned by the dregs of the U.S. cavalry, with corrupt leadership, a rootless gunman and two beautiful Mexican women—it’s a Fort Zinderneuf situation (see Beau Geste, a 1939 French foreign legion movie, for the reference) transplanted to the U.S. frontier.

Helena Chavez:  “Tell me, Señor, are you as bad as they say?”
Chuka:  “No man is as bad as they say, Señorita.”

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Chuka (Rod Taylor) looks for Trent while scouting.

In late 1876, the film starts with a panning shot of burnt-out Fort Clendennon, still smoldering in its ruins.  A cavalry patrol is trying to figure out how it all happened.  Cut to a single rider under the opening credits; it is Chuka (Rod Taylor).  He rides into an Arapaho camp, speaking Arapaho with the young chief Hanu (Marco Lopez) and seeing that they’re burying some one who died of hunger.  He leaves a hunk of jerky “for the children” and rides on, encountering a stage with a lost wheel and two female Mexican passengers, the older of whom recognizes Chuka (pronounced with a short “u” sound, as if it were spelled Chucka, supposedly because as a young man he spent a lot of time around a chuckwagon).  She is Veronica Kleitz (Luciana Paluzzi), a wealthy young-ish Mexican widow who had a romantic history with Chuka and is traveling with her niece Helena Chavez (Victoria Ventri).  As the men work on the stage, they are quietly surrounded by Arapahoes, who recognize Chuka and melt back into the dust storm without taking any action.

The stage makes it into Fort Clendennon, where Col. Stuart Valois (John Mills) refuses to let them leave because a three-man patrol is overdue.  Chuka tells him about the Arapahoes and suggests they leave the fort and its supplies to the Indians.  Valois, an Englishman, is unwilling to do that and sends out chief scout Lou Trent (James Whitmore).  His horse comes back, but Trent does not.  Such order as there is, is maintained by Sgt. Otto Hahnsbach (Ernest Borgnine).

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At the fort: Sgt. Otto Hahnsbach (Ernest Borgnine), Col. Stuart Valois (John Mills) and chief scout Lou Trent (James Whitmore).

[Spoilers follow.]  At a formal dinner with his officers, Chuka and the women, a drunken Valois sneers at each of his officers in turn.  Major Benson (Louis Hayward), second in command, is a cheating gambler who forces a captive Arapaho woman to sleep with him.  The doctor was accused of cowardice, a lieutenant of treason.  They were all formally acquitted, but their careers were blighted, and they ended up at Fort Clendennon.  Valois drinks way too much, and he was cashiered from the British army for cowardice because of his drunkenness.  The dinner ends when the doctor is shot through the open window with an arrow apparently intended for Valois.  Chuka gets the two Arapahoes who shot it.

Chuka agrees to go on a scouting expedition for $200.  He kills four Aparahoes, rescues Trent and sees the missing three-man patrol dead.  Back in the fort, a mutiny is brewing, with a plan to replace Valois with Major Benson and get out of Fort Clendennon.  It is becoming increasingly obvious that it’s too late to get out.  It is revealed that Valois, as a captain in the British army, covered for a Hahnsbach mistake in the Sudan and was captured, tortured and emasculated by natives as a result.  That’s presumably why he drinks so heavily.  As a young hand on her father’s ranch, Chuka and Veronica fell in love; he was banished, and she married a man selected by her father from her own class.

Trent:  “Wake me up when it’s time to die.”
Buck:  “Are you scared of dyin’, Lou?”
Trent:  “Not particularly.  It just comes an inconvenient time.”

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Chuka (Rod Taylor) and Helena Chavez (Victoria Ventri) prepare for the end.

The Arapahoes attack, and one by one Fort Clendennon’s defenders fall.  Chuka takes a spear to the side; Victoria an arrow to the back.  As the Indians enter the fort led by Hanu, Chuka is defending Helena under a stairway.  The Indians take the supplies they want, and Hanu looks at Chuka and leaves.  When the cavalry patrol finds the burnt-out fort, Chuka’s gun is left, along with a small grave near the stairway.  No bodies of Chuka and Helena are found, and the implication is that they got away.

Australian actor Rod Taylor was a big star in the 1960s (The Birds, The Time Machine, The Glass-Bottom Boat), and this was a bit of a vanity project for him.  He was the co-producer.  Taylor plays Chuka in a heavy-handed way, and John Mills was a good actor but doesn’t seem to be paying a lot of attention here.  This wasn’t a box office success, and it was Taylor’s only producing credit.  The director was journeyman Gordon Douglas, who had made a number of westerns (The Nevadan, The Iron Mistress, Fort Dobbs, Rio Conchos, Yellowstone Kelly, Barquero), several of which were good.  The screenplay was written by Richard Jessup, based on his 1961 novel.  The music, by Leith Stevens, has a very late-1960s feel to it.  At 105 minutes, the film is watchable but not as good as it could have been.  Beau Geste did it significantly better.

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It is not entirely clear where the doomed Fort Clendennon is supposed to be.  There were two branches of the Arapahoes, Northern and Southern.  Chuka is said to be riding to Montana, but there are suggestions that Mexico is much closer.  The two women are from Mexico as well.  The southern Arapahoes ranged from southern Colorado, Oklahoma, northern Texas and perhaps occasionally into northern New Mexico.  This looks like perhaps Arizona, so maybe, to the extent it is concerned about actual historicity at all, it takes place in New Mexico.  Unlike in most cavalry movies, these Indians also attack at night.

This was another of those 1960s westerns with a seemingly-misplaced European actress as the romantic interest (see, for example, Senta Berger in Major Dundee, Claudia Cardinale in The Professionals, Bibi Andersson in Duel at Diablo, Bridget Bardot in Shalako, and Camilla Sparv in McKenna’s Gold, not to mention any number of spaghetti westerns).  Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi is not particularly memorable here as Chuka’s former lover, nor does she seem particularly Mexican.  For Rod Taylor in other westerns as his career was fading, see the not-terribly-memorable John Wayne vehicle The Train Robbers (1973) and the even less memorable The Deadly Trackers (1973).  For a better doomed-fort cavalry western, see Two Flags West (1950).

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The Stranger Wore A Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 5, 2015

The Stranger Wore a Gun—Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor; George Macready, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Joan Weldon, Alfonso Bedoya, Clem Bevans (1953; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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One-eyed Hungarian director André de Toth had gotten off to a good start in westerns, with the sultry Ramrod (1947), followed by writing on The Gunfighter (1950) directed by Henry King.  He then followed with six westerns with Randolph Scott, of which this is one.  With a cast also including Claire Trevor and early bad guy roles for Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, this could have been great, and it isn’t.  The story and writing (by Kenneth Gamet) just aren’t strong enough.  But if you like De Toth’s work, Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor and Lee Marvin, you nevertheless have to see it.

The title could be attached to almost any western, a genre where all the strangers wear guns.  During the Civil War, Lt. Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott) spies for Quantrill in Lawrence, Kansas, in preparation for the notorious guerilla raid on that abolitionist-sympathizing town.  Disgusted by the indiscriminate slaughter and Quantrill’s callous indifference to the infliction of death and devastation, he drops out, but his reputation follows him.  After the war, Travis is a gambler on a riverboat when he is recognized and attacked.  A mysterious figure saves him with a thrown knife to the back of an attacker.  Sympathetic fellow gambler Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) sends him to Prescott, Arizona Territory, to Jules Mourret.

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Jules Mourret (George Macready) meets Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott).

Prescott is a lawless mining town, where two rival gangs raid the Conroy stage line and commit other depredations.  As Travis arrives (he’s the titular stranger with a gun), the territorial capital is being moved to Phoenix in reaction to Prescott’s lawlessness.  Mourret (George Macready), another former Quantrill man, turns out to be the leader of one of the two gangs and Travis’s knife-wielding rescuer from the riverboat.  Using the name of “Matt Stone,” Travis tells the Conroys that he’s a Pinkerton agent sent to help them.  The attractive Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon), daughter of the line’s owner, is obviously drawn to him.  And Travis finds himself once again working for the bad guys and deceiving decent people, just as he did for Quantrill.

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Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) and Travis (Randolph Scott) renew their acquaintance.  And Dan Kurth (Lee Marvin) displays his skills and determination.

Josie Sullivan shows up in Prescott to ply her trade as a gambler and to see how Travis is doing.  She tells him he’s wanted in Louisiana for the riverboat killing.  Conroy is fairly successful at hiding the gold on his stages, but when Mourret’s men Dan Kurth and Bull Slager (played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine) kill a friend while trying to beat out of him information he doesn’t have, Travis’s allegiances shift again.  He tries to set the two gangs against each other, with some success.  Nevertheless, he has to shoot it out with Kurth; Lee Marvin traditionally doesn’t have much luck against Randolph Scott (see Hangman’s Knot and especially Seven Men From Now).  Mourret and Travis ultimately fight it out in a burning building (see Scott in burning buildings in Hangman’s Knot, Riding Shotgun, and Ten Wanted Men), and Travis wins.  Shelby Conroy is crushed at Travis’ deceit and betrayal, but it turns out Travis really wants Josie anyway.  And she lied about him being wanted in Louisiana.

There’s a lot of plot stuffed into only 83 minutes; it doesn’t develop organically, it feels at the end as if there are a number of loose ends, and there are a number of elements we’ve seen before. Neither the Travis nor the Sullivan characters is entirely admirable, with their shifty allegiances and casual deceit of friends and innocent people.  But it is a good cast and the film is ultimately worth watching.  Produced by Harry Joe Brown, with Randolph Scott as associate producer, in color; shot at Lone Pine.  It was also shot in 3-D, like Hondo and Gun Fury, during the brief period in the early 1950s when studios were experimenting with that new presentation.  That accounts for the occasional lunge toward the camera with a burning torch, gun or spear.

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A gleefully evil Bull Slager (Ernest Borgnine) enjoys the movie’s 3-D effects.

Claire Trevor (Stagecoach, Allegheny Uprising, The Desperadoes, Best of the Badmen) was coming to the end of an excellent Hollywood career.  Her performances in Stagecoach, Dead End, and Key Largo (an Oscar winner for her) are great ones.  Here she seems to be better than her material.  Joan Weldon never really balances her as a competing romantic interest in this film, although Trevor plays the sort of character who normally shouldn’t win in the end.  Weldon will show up to better effect in 1957’s Gunsight Ridge, with Joel McCrea.  Lee Marvin was starting his memorable career as a heavy (Hangman’s Knot, Seven Men From Now, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and Ernest Borgnine regularly showed up as a bad guy as well (Johnny Guitar, The Bounty Hunter, Vera Cruz).  Two years later they both turn up as bad guys working for Robert Ryan in John Sturges’ excellent Bad Day at Black Rock.   Alfonso Bedoya’s performance as the Mexican head of the gang rivaling Mourret’s bad guys seems fairly broad and stereotypical now.  If you’re a Scott fan, you’ll be delighted by the appearance of his beautiful dark palomino Stardust and his worn leather jacket, both of which show up here.  Although the directing in this film is nothing dazzling, De Toth went on from this to make the quintessential early 3-D horror movie:  House of Wax.

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The Bounty Hunter

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 9, 2014

The Bounty Hunter—Randolph Scott, Dolores Dorn, Ernest Borgnine, Marie Windsor, Dub Taylor (1954; Dir:  Andre de Toth)

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A formulaic western with an improbable plot, which is nevertheless engaging on a minor level.  Randolph Scott is the titular merciless bounty hunter Jim Kipp, engaged by the Pinkerton agency to find three unknown train robbers responsible for several deaths near Dodge City a year previously.  After a shoot-out with a posse killed four of the seven robbers, the three survivors had escaped with the loot into somewhere in the New Mexico-Texas-Colorado area. 

Scott tracks the three off into the badlands with a cowboy’s minimal baggage, figuring how far they could have gone with the water available to them.  Yet when he arrives in the remote and unfriendly town of Two Forks, over the course of a couple of days he demonstrates that he’s brought with him at least three hats and several changes of clothes.  The local Doc Spencer (Harry Antrim) lies to Kipp about having treated a wounded man shot in the leg; Kipp is intrigued both by the lie and by the Doc’s comely blonde daughter Julie Spencer (Dolores Dorn).  Nobody seems to like Kipp much.  (“Well, you know what they say about you:  you’d turn in your grandmother on her birthday if there was a reward on her.”).  But that doesn’t get to him. 

BountyHunterWindScott Getting the drop on Kipp.

Kipp demonstrates his humanity by letting a young prison escapee go and revealing how his storekeeper father’s killing set him on his present course.  He acts as an agent provocateur to get the bad guys to reveal themselves, and, surprisingly, Ernest Borgnine (as antagonistic, limping hotel clerk Bill Rachin) ultimately isn’t one of them.  The three improbably turn out to be the local postmaster (Dub Taylor), the sheriff (Howard Petrie), and a resourceful and not unsympathetic saloon girl Alice Williams (frequent movie bad girl Marie Windsor).  The movie ends with two of them having been killed by others of the three.  In the end, Kipp gets the girl and converts to being a lawman in Two Forks, much like Henry Fonda’s redemption in the more convincing The Tin Star.

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The doc’s prim daughter (Dorn) takes on the saloon girl (Windsor).

The editing’s not great, with a few jerky cuts.  You can also see too clearly where doubles are used (for Scott while riding bareback, and for stocky character actor Dub Taylor jumping off a roof), for example—sloppy directing where the camera’s too close.  The movie is well paced, however, and modestly engaging, with Scott mostly in his cheerfully confident mode.  Romantic interest Julie Spencer is played by Dolores Dorn, 36 years younger than Scott and married to Franchot Tone.  She’s eclipsed by Marie Windsor, though.  Vance Edwards has a bit part as Tyler MacDuff, and at the end look for a young Fess Parker as one of three wild cowboys who ride into Two Forks and quickly back out again.  One of several westerns made by De Toth in the late 1940s and early 1950s, mostly with Randolph Scott.  The low-wattage cast and sloppy editing seem like evidence of a low budget and quick production, but the movie’s not bad.  The color wasn’t good on the print I saw.  Even on TCM, which makes a point of using the best prints available, the print looked dingy and in need of restoration.  Not available on DVD. 

Not to be confused with the terrible 2010 movie of the same name with Jennifer Anniston and Gerard Butler.

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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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Vera Cruz

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 15, 2014

Vera Cruz—Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Cesar Romero, Denise Darcel, Sara Montiel, Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Henry Brandon, George Macready (1954; Dir:  Robert Aldrich)

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After the American Civil War, rootless American soldiers of fortune are drawn southward into Mexico, where the Mexicans led by Benito Juarez are rebelling against the Austrian-French regime of the emperor Maximilian.  Among these mercenaries are the two protagonists of this film:  Joe Erin, a flashy, grinning gunfighter of dubious morality (Burt Lancaster) and an impoverished plantation owner from Louisiana who had fought for the Confederacy, Ben Trane (Gary Cooper).

At the beginning of the film, Trane’s horse breaks a leg.  As he tries to find a replacement he encounters Joe Erin, who sells him a horse for an exorbitant $100 in gold.  He has stolen the horse from a platoon of lancers, who show up and chase the two as they make their escape.  During the chase, Trane makes one of those shots so common in the 1950s, in which, shooting over one shoulder while his horse is rearing, he shoots a gun out of the hand of the captain of the lancers.  Wildly improbable, this establishes Trane’s skill with a gun, however.  Erin seems to have heard of him.  As Trane is knocked off his horse by a shot, Erin leaps to loot the body, but Trane re-awakens and takes Erin’s horse and saddle instead.

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Lancaster, flashing his pearly whites, as he does for much of the movie; and Cooper, with his unflinching rectitude.  The collaborations and collisions between these two provide most of the tension in the film.

In the next town, Trane encounters a rough band of Americans in a cantina, who assume that he has killed Erin to take his flashy horse and rig.  As they set upon him and are about to kill him, Erin shows up, demonstrates that he’s not dead, and they all head off to meet with the Juarista general to see how much he’ll pay them.  As they enter another town, they see another rough band of Americans tormenting young maidens.  Trane rescues one of them, the fiery Nina (Sarita Montiel), who kisses him and steals his wallet.  Erin takes over the new band of Americans, adding them to his own unsavory gang.

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Trane unconvincingly romances the fiery Nina (Sarita Montiel).

The first potential employer they encounter is not the Juarista general but Maximilian’s general, Marquis Henri de Labordere (played by the smilingly cosmopolitan Cesar Romero).  He recruits them for a mission for Maximilian and is willing to promise more than the Juaristas can pay.  However, all of them are trapped in the town square by the Juarista forces until Erin and Trane engineer a way out by using children as hostages.  The Juarista general mouths a number of honest-sounding revolutionary platitudes, so we know now which party has the moral high ground in this struggle.

Arriving in Mexico City, the crude-mannered Americans attend a magnificent soiree at Chapultepec Palace, where they meet Maximilian (George Macready), give a demonstration of marksmanship and weaponry, and negotiate a mission for $50,000.  They are to conduct the French countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz on the Mexican coast of the Gulf of Mexico, where she will catch a ship for France.  In an aside between Henri and Maximilian, it is clear they do not expect the Americans to survive to collect their fee.  From this point, everyone is trying to doublecross everyone else, with Joe Erin and increasingly Ben Trane frequently quoting Erin’s cynical mentor Ace Hanna, whom Erin killed.

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Joe Erin meets the Emperor Maximilian.

The countess sets off for Vera Cruz, accompanied by the Americans, Henri and a troop of lancers led by Capt. Danette (German actor Henry Brandon).  Various competitions are developing among the alpha males in the entourage.  There is constant tension between Erin and Trane about whether they are really on the same side.  They both want the countess, although they don’t trust her.  Danette despises the Americans, especially Erin.  Henri is playing them all.  And what about the Juaristas?

Erin and Trane discover the real reason for the mission:  the countess’ carriage is carrying $3 million in gold, to be used to hire more mercenaries for Maximilian.  She tells Erin and Trane, however, that she intends to steal the gold, and she’ll cut them in.  They run into a Juarista ambush in a small town, and fight their way out with some casualties.  Nina takes over a cart when the driver is shot, and joins the caravan.  The countess secretly meets with a sea captain who’ll help her get away, and she makes arrangements that exclude Erin and Trane.

[Spoilers follow.]  Henri really doesn’t trust the countess, either, and he takes her prisoner with the intent of executing her.  Erin and Trane follow the carriage, and it is attacked by Juaristas.  They find the gold is gone and join the Juaristas, for a promise of $100,000.  They provide covering fire for a Juarista attack on the town held by Henri and Danette, where the gold supposedly is.  At great cost, the attack is successful.  Erin kills Danette.  With Lancaster’s trademark acrobatic agility, Erin climbs up into a third-floor room to rescue the countess.

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“So if the gold isn’t in the wagon …”

And finally, the ultimate loyalties get sorted out.  Erin has demonstrated that he doesn’t have any except to himself.  Trane has now decided that he supports the Juaristas.  They shoot it out in classic fashion; Trane even throws away his rifle to do it with handguns.  (The final showdown is very well done, with due gravity given to the ceremony of the occasion.)  Trane rides off into the sunset with Nina, and apparently will get the $100,000 to rebuild his plantation, with all the rest of the unsavory Americans killed.  

This was produced by Lancaster’s company (with Henry Hecht), and it’s bursting with vibrant color cinematography, great locations in Mexico, a huge and talented cast, a complicated plot and ultimately even a good guy (Trane) to root for in all the doublecrossing.  That’s a lot to cram into 94 minutes.  As with most of his westerns during the 1950s, Cooper seems old for his role.  But Trane’s still Gary Cooper, so it works.  He doesn’t sound a bit like he’s from Louisiana, nor does Lancaster sound like he’s from Texas.  Next to Cooper’s understated acting style, Lancaster’s performance seems a bit manic here.  A more experienced director would probably have helped him tone it down, if he had the clout to do so.  Among the other Americans, Ernest Borgnine stands out as Donnegan, about the same time as he was playing effective bad guys in movies like Johnny Guitar and sort-of-good guys in films like The Badlanders.

This is the second of Denise Darcel’s two westerns.  She’s better in the other, Westward the Women.  She and Sarita Montiel, who is fine here but has no chemistry with the much older Cooper, did not appear to have much in the way of American film careers after this.  Cesar Romero, whose smilingly corrupt Marquis is sometimes referred to by the other characters as “Old Crocodile Teeth,” has his second most prominent role in a western after playing Doc Holliday in 1939’s Frontier Marshal.  It is a close contest whether his teeth or Lancaster’s are more in evidence in this film; Lancaster probably wins that one.  Henry Brandon, Capt. Danette here, shows up as Indians in other westerns:  Comanche chief Scar in The Searchers, and a Sioux in The Last Frontier and as Comanche Quanah Parker in Two Rode Together.  Charles Bronson, in the days when he was playing Indians and heavies at the start of his career, plays the crass Pittsburgh, under his real name, Charles Buchinsky.  Jack Elam’s here, too, although he doesn’t get to do much.  George Macready as Maximilian was 54, twenty years older than the real Maximilian was at the time of his death.

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Aside from the individual performances, the direction of the larger-scale action scenes is good.  The script isn’t great; in a short movie we hear way too many quotes about Ace Hanna, who’s dead long before it begins.  The music by Hugo Friedhofer is very good.  The story is by experienced western writer Borden Chase.  The use of not-completely-bad and not-entirely-good characters in westerns was innovative for its time.  It is said to have strongly influenced Sergio Leone and other makers of spaghetti westerns.  The camera work sometimes (as in the scene where Erin kills Danette) makes one wonder whether they thought this might be shown in early 1950s 3D.

Many see Vera Cruz as one of the great westerns, but the parts don’t work together well enough for that.  It is one of those rare cases where maybe the film should have been longer to help us cope with the spectacle and plot twists.  It is fun to watch, however, and more than once, to try to figure out what the various characters’ real motivations and allegiances are.  Dave Kehr refers to it as “Robert Aldrich’s hugely influential comic western … This cynical and exuberant film [is] the direct precursor to the disillusioned 1960s westerns of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.”  It’s probably only comic in the limited sense that there are some elements that can’t be taken quite seriously, rather than in the sense that it’s played for laughs.

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Johnny Guitar

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 13, 2013

Johnny Guitar—Joan Crawford, Sterlling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Ward Bond, Scott Brady, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Cooper, Royal Dano, John Carradine, Paul Fix, Frank Ferguson  (1954; Dir:  Nicholas Ray)

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An unusual cult favorite with a large cast, noir influences and bright colors; similar to Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious in having a big female star from Hollywood’s golden age in the lead and in the melodramatic noir sensibility, among other things.  More obviously an artifact from the time it was made than any attempt to re-create the 19th century west for its story, it’s nevertheless an interesting artifact.

Former saloon girl Vienna (Joan Crawford in her hard-edged mode, a veteran of 30 years in the movies at this point) has finally built up her own saloon in the wilds of Arizona, although local ranchers (Ward Bond as baron John McIvers) and business people (Mercedes McCambridge as banker-rancher Emma Small) see her place as a haven for outlaws and rustlers.  The railroad is coming through, which they think will bring in hordes of new settlers to take their land, and Vienna stands to make a lot of money then. 

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Things come to a head when the local stage is robbed, Emma’s brother is killed in the holdup, and a tall, guitar-playing blond guy from Albuquerque shows up, apparently responding to a call from Vienna.  This is the titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who initially spends his time fending off hostility both from McIvers and his group and from four apparent outlaw-miners, especially Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine).  McIvers gives Vienna and the four 24 hours to clear out; Vienna makes it clear she’s not going.  Johnny Guitar fights with Bart, and wins.  As he’s leaving, young gunman Turkey Ralston (Ben Cooper) shows off and Johnny Guitar grabs a gun and bests him.  It turns out his real name is Johnny Logan, and he and Vienna have a lot of history, although they haven’t seen each other in five years.  She instructs him to leave his guns in his saddlebag.

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The four outlaw-miners include Bart, tubercular Corey (Royal Dano), Turkey and their leader the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), a former paramour who now fancies Vienna more than she fancies him.  There are clearly a number of conflicts coming up.  The four aren’t yet real outlaws and didn’t rob the stage; they have a silver mine, but it’s played out now.  They decide that if they’re being chased out, they might as well rob the local bank (owned by Emma) before they go.

Vienna goes to the bank the next morning and withdraws all her money.  While she’s there, the four rob the bank, while Vienna tries unsuccessfully to talk them out of it.  McIver and Emma lead a vengeful posse in pursuit of the four, but Emma’s also convinced that Vienna had something to do with the robbery.  During the chase, the passes on the escape route are dynamited by railroad crews, and the four retreat to the Lair, their large house in a hidden, defensible position.  Turkey is hurt when his horse falls, and even more when his horse runs under a low-hanging branch and knocks him off.

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Having lost the four, the posse comes to Vienna’s, which is closed.  Vienna is playing the piano in a white dress; Johnny Guitar is out of sight.  The posse finds the wounded Turkey hidden under a table, and McIvers and Emma promise him he won’t hang if he gives up Vienna as an accomplice.  Turkey cracks (Vienna tells him to save himself, so she’s kind of acquiescing although not taking responsibility for the lie), and he does it.  The posse proceeds to hang them both from a bridge anyway despite their promises.  At the last second Johnny Guitar cuts Vienna down, and they make a break for the Lair.  Vienna’s saloon is in flames.

Johnny-Guitar-HangingVienna Hanging Vienna.

The posse follows Turkey’s horse to the entrance to the Lair, and Emma convinces lookout Bart to turn on his compatriots.  He knifes Corey and Johnny shoots him as he’s trying to shoot the Kid in the back.  Emma wounds Vienna and the posse kills the Kid but refuses to go farther with Vienna.  The furious and implacable Emma then pushes Vienna into a shootout, which Vienna wins, and the posse slowly leaves.  Presumably Vienna and Johnny get back together on a long-term basis.  Maybe Vienna rebuilds her hard-won saloon.

Joan Crawford dominates the film with her character Vienna, who’s always working out what her various relationships will be.  Sterling Hayden is slightly flaky as her gunless gunman in a supporting role, although the movie is named after him.  He apparently didn’t get along well with Crawford during the filming.  Ward Bond’s McIvers has some scruples, but not enough.  Emma is said to be a one-time rival of Vienna for the Kid’s affections, but McCambridge is an implacably anti-Vienna wild woman for most of the movie, somewhat over the top in her performance.  Crawford and McCambridge did not get along well, either, and maybe that fueled some of the hostility.  McCambridge later admitted that she was battling alcoholism at the time as well.  Frank Ferguson as Marshal Williams, the voice of reason and restraint in the mob, John Carradine as Vienna’s caretaker, and Royal Dano as the consumptive, book-reading Corey are all particularly good.

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Director Nicholas Ray was known for his noir work (In a Lonely Place and others) in the early 1950s, and that sensibility is present in this melodrama, along with bright Technicolor touches and Crawford’s fierce eyebrows and crimson lipstick.  Some see this as an allegory for the political McCarthyism then dominating Congress, with the posse’s mob mentality and its leaders’ mistaken judgment and misplaced hostilities.  Taken as a whole, this is enjoyable to watch, if a bit overwrought.  It seems torn between its desire to have the Vienna character be a strong, self-sufficient woman (she wears pants for most of the film) and the occasional nod to 1950s social mores.  The all-female shootout between Vienna and Emma is a hallmark in the history of westerns.  Peggy Lee wrote and sings the title song.

[Other films with a 1940s-50s take on lynching include The Ox-Bow Incident (obviously), The Moonlighter, Three Hours to Kill and this.  The first two even have a black peripheral character present at the lynching to make the point that they really want us to be thinking about the problem of lynching of blacks in the south.]

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Bad Day at Black Rock

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 2, 2013

Bad Day at Black Rock—Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Walter Brennan, Lee Marvin, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger (1955; Dir:  John Sturges)

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Perhaps the best movie set in the modern west (but see Lone Star and No Country for Old Men), a claustrophobic noir-inflected story that takes place in a tiny town in the Arizona desert. 

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First Train Conductor:  [Looking at Black Rock] “Man, they look woebegone and far away.”

John J. Macreedy:  “Oh, I’ll only be here twenty-four hours.”

First Train Conductor:  “In a place like this, it could be a lifetime.”

The movie begins with an interesting opening shot of a train crossing the desert.  One-armed John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off the train in Black Rock in 1945 in a dark suit, the first time the train’s actually stopped there in four years.  World War II is just over, but rationing and other strictures persist.  None of the town’s suspicious residents want him there, as he tries to locate a local Japanese farmer, Mr. Komoko. 

blackrockjj-macready The mysterious stranger arrives in town.

A couple of local cowboy-thugs, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and Hector David (Lee Marvin), try to intimidate Macreedy, who bears them with patience and an even temper.  Local rancher-boss Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) suggests that Komoko was sent off to an internment camp shortly after Pearl Harbor, and only three months after he arrived at Black Rock.  Macreedy visits Adobe Flats, where the Komoko farm was; he finds a burned house, a deep well and what may be a grave. 

Mr. Hastings, Telegrapher:  “Sure you don’t want some lemonade? It don’t have the muzzle velocity of some other drinks drunk around here, but it’s good for what ails you.”

On the way back, Coley tries to drive him off the road, but Macreedy makes it back to Black Rock.  Coley then tries to pick a fight in a diner, only to find that Macreedy knows judo and takes him out using only one arm.  It becomes clearer that Smith and his people killed Komoko, and they’re probably going to kill Macreedy, too.  Macreedy is a veteran who lost his arm in Italy; Komoko’s son was killed saving his life, and he wants to give the old man his son’s medal. 

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Reno Smith:  “She must have strained every muscle in her head to get so stupid.”

The drunken sheriff Tim Horn (Dean Jagger) and undertaker Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) try ineffectively to help him.  Finally, young local hotel clerk Pete Wirth (a James Dean-esque John Ericson), plagued with guilt over his minor role in Komoko’s death, recruits his sister Liz (Anne Francis) to take Macreedy out of town in her jeep.  She betrays Macreedy to Smith, who kills her anyway.  In a shootout with no gun, Macreedy improvises a Molotov cocktail and sets Smith afire.  Having brought in the state police to Black Rock, he then catches the train out of town. 

[last linesSecond Train Conductor:  “What’s all the excitement? What happened”

John J. Macreedy:  “A shooting”

Second Train Conductor:  “Thought it was something.  First time the Streamliner’s stopped here in four years.”

John J. Macreedy:  “Second time.”

A superb cast cast, although Tracy seems old for a recent veteran, and some excellent writing in the screenplay by Millard Kaufman.  Tightly directed, the film comes in at 81 minutes.  Tracy was nominated for Best Actor.  This was part of a good run for director Sturges in the 1950s, along with Escape from Fort Bravo, Last Train from Gun Hill and Gunfight at the OK Corral, before he got into his larger-scale action films of the 1960s.  Music was by a young Andre Previn.

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The Wild Bunch

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 26, 2013

The Wild Bunch—William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien, Bo Hopkins (1969; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

In Peckinpah’s earlier Ride the High Country, two former lawmen were playing out their string in a corrupt turn-of-the-century west.  In The Wild Bunch, there’s no hiding the fact that the protagonists are a gang of bandits and savage killers coming to the end of their time in an even more corrupt revolutionary Mexico.  Eventually they find unexpected humanity, even heroism, in that end.  “I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times.  The Wild Bunch is simply what happens when killers go to Mexico.  The strange thing is you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line.”  That’s what director Peckinpah says he was trying to do, but it’s more than that.

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The title notwithstanding, this doesn’t deal with the outlaw group historically known as the Wild Bunch—that was Butch Cassidy’s gang of bank and train robbers.  Like Butch Cassidy and, to some extent, True Grit in the same year, this is an end-of-an-era western.  The outlaw gang has reached the end of its time and knows it.

It is 1913, just before World War I—an era of multiple revolutions in Mexico.  The fictional outlaws in question are led by Pike Bishop (William Holden, in one of his last good roles).  Other members of the gang are played by Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien and Jaime Sanchez.  Robert Ryan is Deke Thornton, a former member of the gang captured and forced by the authorities to help track down his onetime comrades.  The movie opens with a memorable image of several children torturing a large scorpion with ants as the gang rides into a town, and the analogy of the scorpion to the gang will become obvious.  In the town, the gang botches a train station robbery, is shot up and then looks for a last big score.  They find it south of the border, agreeing to steal U.S. military weapons from a train for the benefit of Mexican revolutionaries.  However, there is a falling out with their employers on this job, and the climax of the movie involves a long shoot-out between the outlaws and the corrupt revolutionaries, which the outlaws cannot possibly win. 

wildbunchletsgo “Let’s go.”

The shoot-out scene is reminiscent of the final scene of Butch Cassidy, released the same year.  Both involve outlaws in a final fight against overwhelming odds south of the border.  A major cinematic difference, however, is that Butch Cassidy ends with a freeze frame of Butch and Sundance emerging from their cover and firing at the Bolivian army.  In a sense, they never really die because we don’t see the effects on them of the hail of bullets we hear.  The famous end of the fight in The Wild Bunch features extended slow-motion violence as each member of the gang is cut down while slaughtering as many Mexicans as possible.  In that slow-motion violence, it also has much in common with the end of Bonnie and Clyde from two years earlier.  Some felt that The Wild Bunch glorified violence too much, and it certainly influenced the way violence has been shown in westerns ever since.  That’s why most of the good westerns in the last two or three decades have R ratings.  Butch was lighter and more enjoyable; The Wild Bunch was more influential among cineastes. 

Playing Pike Bishop is one of William Holden’s best performances ever.  The role was originally slated to go to Lee Marvin, but he dropped out to make Paint Your Wagon (bad career move).  Holden made this at a time when drinking and hard living were taking their toll on his appearance and acting skills, but here he was still very good.  As with central characters Charlton Heston in Major Dundee, and Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country (earlier Peckinpah movies), the movie depends on Holden’s ability to keep our interest and sympathies.  He does it well.  Ernest Borgnine is excellent as Dutch Engstrom, Bishop’s principal support in the outlaw band. 

This is also one of the last roles for Robert Ryan, who plays Deke Thornton, conflicted as he leads a group of despicable bounty hunters in tracking down his former friends (much like the John Vernon role in The Outlaw Josey Wales).  Few actors in westerns played conflicted as well as Ryan (see Day of the Outlaw and Lawman, for example).  As edited for the film’s theatrical release, Thornton’s principal function is as audience surrogate, telling us what to think about what are actually repulsive-seeming outlaws, but are in many ways more admirable than the other characters with whom they come in contact:  railroad executives and detectives, bounty hunters theoretically on the right side of the law, corrupt Mexican revolutionaries, even German militarists.  Everybody’s corrupt, it seems to say; you just get to choose the direction and the degree of your corruption. 

wild-bunch-machine-gun Pike Bishop goes big.

The film also has good supporting performances from Peckinpah regulars Ben Johnson and Warren Oates (as the outlaw Gorch brothers), Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as sleazy bounty hunters, and Bo Hopkins in his first role as a feeble-minded gang member abandoned and killed in the early railroad office holdup.  Edmond O’Brien is the old horse wrangler for the gang.  There are no significant female roles in the film, but even those few females are less admirable in their way than the outlaws who are their customers.

The depiction of many of the Mexicans now seems a little dated, but it’s still powerful.  They’re mostly caricatures and prostitutes.  Jaime Sanchez as Angel, the Mexican member of the outlaw band, may have deserved better.  Much of the movie was filmed in Mexico, a favorite Peckinpah location as well as the actual setting for this movie’s action.

Most would see The Wild Bunch as Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece.  Others prefer the earlier Ride the High Country, as a purer story.  The Wild Bunch certainly has a lot more moral ambiguity; there are no purely admirable characters, just strong ones and weaker ones.  There are some themes of honor and loyalty, but it’s not certain what they mean or exactly how they apply.  The Wild Bunch shows some development in cinematic abilities from High Country (the memorable scorpion image, for example) and it’s near the peak of Peckinpah’s depiction of male bonding and love of violence.  Even in this great movie, however, there are signs of the self-indulgence that marred much of the director’s career.  Decades later, the violence still seems savage and excessively gory.  The glorification of drunken roistering as central to male bonding seems somewhat misplaced, although it fits with Peckinpah’s own views and life.  As with some earlier Peckinpah movies (notably Major Dundee), and almost all later ones, Peckinpah had continual battles with the studio over his inability or unwillingness to control the film’s budget and shooting schedule.  This one is a great western and a strong one, but it’s also one of those, like Unforgiven and even The Searchers, which can be easier to admire than to watch again, mostly because of their emotional roughness.

The cinematography by Lucien Ballard is marvelous.  There’s a brilliant shot, for example, of an exploding bridge dumping a dozen horsemen into the Rio Grande, and another of horses and their riders tumbling down sand dunes where you can taste the sand and dust.  The movie has many memorable images, but not a lot of memorable lines.  The lines you do remember seem unremarkable by themselves; it’s the situations which cause you to remember them.  When Bishop says to his gang, “Let’s go,” for example, you know then (and you sense that they know) they won’t survive, and you remember that feeling.  Bishop’s ethos is expressed in his rationale for not breaking up the gang:  “We’re not gonna get rid of anybody!  We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be!  When you side with a man, you stay with him!  And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished!  We’re finished!  All of us!”  But it isn’t like it used to be, and the suggestion is that it probably never was.  They are finished, and they’re just trying to find a way to play it out.  The screenplay and Jerry Fielding’s score were nominated for Oscars; they didn’t win.

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In the DVD age, there is a director’s cut of the film (144 minutes), released in 1994, although Peckinpah was long dead by then.  It includes more of the relationship between Pike Bishop and Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton, giving the Thornton character more weight than he had in the theatrical release.

This movie did not spring fully-grown from nowhere.  It owes something to The Professionals three years earlier, to the sensibility and look of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and to Bonnie and Clyde two years before.  But it is clearly its own Sam Peckinpah movie, too, and has itself become very influential far beyond westerns.  As a western, its limitations may be that it lies on the fringes of western themes and leaves a feeling of nihilism and discomfort for reasons that can be hard to define.  Roger Ebert referred to it on its release as “possibly the most violent film ever made,” and more than 40 years later that violence has not lost its impact or its controversiality.  And it has influenced just about every western (and many movies in other genres) made since.

This was not just an “end-of-an-era” western; it was also one of several “end of the western” films, supposedly tolling the death of an entire genre of movies.  It was the end of its era in westerns, certainly, and the beginning of another one.  The lover of westerns can find quite a few great westerns in the 40-plus years since this one, including such other “end of the western” movies as The Shootist and Unforgiven.  According to Roger Ebert, one of the film’s stronger proponents, “It represents its set of sad, empty values with real poetry.”  He recommended the restored 144-minute cut.  The Wild Bunch is one of the five westerns listed by the AFI on its list of the 100 greatest American movies, along with High Noon, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. and Unforgiven.  (See http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx.)

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