Tag Archives: Gregory Peck

Shooting Stars, Part 3

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 14, 2015

Shooting Stars:  A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 3—Eleven Through Fifteen

Here we continue with our ranking of the top actors in westerns since 1939.  For the top ten such actors, see our posts Shooting Stars Part 1 and Shooting Stars Part 2.

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11.  James Garner [Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend, Hour of the Gun, Duel at Diablo, Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, Skin Game, A Man Called Sledge, The Castaway Cowboy, One Little Indian, Murphy’s Romance, Sunset, Maverick; on television, Maverick, Bret Maverick and The Streets of Laredo]

Oklahoma native James Garner is best known for his roles as an amiable western con-man, first demonstrated in the Maverick television series of the late 1950s.  He was better at that kind of role than anybody else (see Support Your Local Sheriff, Skin Game and Support Your Local Gunfighter).  He successfully played variants of that role in movies set in more modern times, including a couple of good ones set in World War II (The Great Escape [1963] and The Americanization of Emily [1964]) and a number of 1960s romantic comedies (Boys’ Night Out with Kim Novak, Cash McCall with Natalie Wood, The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling, both with Doris Day).  But that wasn’t the limit of his talents.  He could also do well at a kind of grim, humorless role, as he showed in Duel at Diablo (1966) and while playing Wyatt Earp in John Sturges’ Hour of the Gun (1967).  It was his misfortune that mainstream westerns were starting to decline in popularity when he was at his peak, and by the mid-1970s he was showing up in light, Disney-produced westerns with Vera Miles that haven’t been much seen (The Castaway Cowboy, One Little Indian).  More successful was his venture back into television as private detective Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files (for six seasons, starting in 1974).

In the later stages of his career, he was very good in a modern romantic western with Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance (1985), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.  He showed up in two more westerns, once again as an aging Wyatt Earp in Hollywood of the late 1920s in Sunset (1988), and in the Mel Gibson Maverick remake (1994).  He returned to television with a short-lived series reprising his original Maverick character in Bret Maverick (1981) and with a credible turn playing an aging Capt. Woodrow Call in the television miniseries The Streets of Laredo (1995), based on a sequel to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.  (One story has it that he had been offered the role of either Woodrow Call or Gus McCrae–his choice–in the original Lonesome Dove miniseries but was sidelined by health problems.  Lonesome Dove, of course, went on to become a classic with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall in those roles.)  An interesting sidelight of his late career was to see him together with fellow westerns star Clint Eastwood as aging astronauts in Space Cowboys (2000).

Like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, Garner was long interested in automobile racing.  He was a good enough driver that he did his own driving stunts in The Rockford Files because he was better at it than any stuntman they could find.   In a 1973 interview, John Wayne called James Garner the best American actor.  Of all his films, The Americanization of Emily, with Julie Andrews (1964), was said to be Garner’s favorite—an excellent movie, wonderfully written and superbly acted but unfortunately not a western.

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12.  Burt Lancaster [Vengeance Valley, The Kentuckian, Vera Cruz, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Unforgiven, The Hallelujah Trail, The Professionals, The Scalphunters, Valdez Is Coming, Lawman, Ulzana’s Raid]

Burt Lancaster was one of the biggest movie stars of his time, from the late 1940s well into the 1970s.  Known especially for a vigorous brand of physical athleticism (he had once been a circus acrobat), an equally vigorous growth of hair and a large grin showing off a full set of very white teeth, he was willing to take any role that interested him.  He won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in Elmer Gantry (1960).  For an early performance in a western, see him as the grinning unscrupulous quasi-outlaw Joe Erin in Vera Cruz (1954), playing with and against the more traditional and stolid Gary Cooper.  One of many to play Wyatt Earp, he did a credible version in John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), and he could also play a certain kind of comedy convincingly (The Hallelujah Trail [1965], The Scalphunters [1968]).  He was not afraid of taking a role secondary to lesser star Lee Marvin in The Professionals (1966), and his strong performance alongside Marvin made for an excellent western.

By the 1970s, as westerns faded in popularity as a cinematic genre, Lancaster was doing some of his strongest work in westerns as old scout Bob Valdez in Valdez Is Coming (1971) and as old scout Archie McIntosh in Ulzana’s Raid (1972), probably the last really good cavalry movie.  He’s even good as the central figure in the revisionist Lawman (1971) with Robert Ryan, which otherwise has some problems with its writing and direction.

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13.  Gregory Peck [Yellow Sky, Duel in the Sun, The Gunfighter, Only the Valiant, The Big Country, The Bravados, How the West Was Won, The Stalking Moon, Mackenna’s Gold, Shoot Out, Billy Two Hats, The Old Gringo]

Gregory Peck shared Joel McCrea’s ability to project a basic American style of decency, although his brand of that quality was a little flintier and less self-effacing than McCrea’s.  His ultimate cinematic expression of that quality is probably as southern lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  It made him convincing in playing reforming outlaws (Yellow Sky [1948], The Gunfighter [1950]), but less so in portraying bad guys (Duel in the Sun, 1947).  He was a big star, both comfortable and convincing at the center of a large-budget production (The Big Country [1958]).

He didn’t make many westerns in the 1960s, part of his period of greatest stardom—only appearing in How the West Was Won (1962), as one among many stars.  Toward the end of the decade he appeared in a fairly good western thriller (The Stalking Moon [1968]), but like others he didn’t fare well as the genre, and his career generally, moved into a twilight period.  He showed up in such turkeys as Mackenna’s Gold (1969) and Billy Two Hats (1974).  Shoot Out (1971), which is watchable but not remarkable, is probably his best western from this period.  In his last western, he starred as crusty writer Ambrose Bierce, the titular character in The Old Gringo, during the period of Mexican revolutions in the 1910s, with Jane Fonda (1989).  He is justly praised for The Gunfighter and The Big Country; Yellow Sky and The Bravados are probably the most underrated of the westerns in which Peck appeared.

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14.  William Holden [Arizona, Texas, The Man From Colorado, Rachel and the Stranger, Streets of Laredo, Escape from Fort Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, Alvarez Kelly, The Wild Bunch, The Wild Rovers, The Revengers]

Like Burt Lancaster and Gregory Peck, William Holden is not remembered first for his westerns.  He is remembered first for his roles as the young writer found floating face down in a swimming pool in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and for Wilder’s World War II drama Stalag 17, for which he won his Best Actor Oscar.  But his slightly acid modern-seeming persona translated well enough to westerns if the material and directing were right.  He starred in them from his earliest days in the movies, beginning before World War II with Arizona, with Jean Arthur and Edgar Buchanan (1940), and Texas, with Glenn Ford and Edgar Buchanan (1941).  After service in the war, he resumed his film career generally, and westerns specifically, with such good films as The Man from Colorado, again with Glenn Ford (1948) and with the colonial western Rachel and the Stranger, with Loretta Young and Robert Mitchum (1948).

Even with his success and elevation to stardom with Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, he made the occasional good western during the 1950s, working with director John Sturges in the underrated Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and with John Ford in the Civil War cavalry story The Horse Soldiers, playing an army doctor continually feuding with John Wayne (1959).  Even as Holden’s alcoholism took its toll on him, Holden’s work in the 1960s included the good Civil War story Alvarez Kelly, with Richard Widmark (1966), and the western for which he is best remembered now:  Sam Peckinpah’s landmark The Wild Bunch (1969), in which Holden very effectively plays Pike Bishop, leader of an aging outlaw gang trying to pull off a last job amid the Mexican revolutions of the 1910s.  His career in westerns ended on an ignominious note with The Wild Rovers (1971), although the seldom-seen The Revengers (1972) is slightly better.

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15.  Kirk Douglas [Along the Great Divide, The Big Sky, Man Without a Star, Last Train from Gun Hill, The Indian Fighter, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Lonely Are the Brave, The Last Sunset, The Way West, The War Wagon, There Was a Crooked Man, Posse, The Man from Snowy River]

One of the biggest stars of his time (the prime of which was the late 1940s into the early 1970s), Kirk Douglas appeared in a surprising number of westerns. But many of them weren’t all that good, and in some of them his persona seemed to be fighting with the traditional western ways of looking at things.  Like Burt Lancaster, he liked to not wear a hat, or to wear it only pushed back on his head.  He experimented with especially tight and unlikely wardrobes (The Last Sunset, The War Wagon) which emphasized his robust physique and athleticism.  He played a gunfighter who improbably only used a derringer (The Last Sunset).  He didn’t really need the theatrical gimmicks, though.  If you look only at his best work in westerns, you find one of the best mountain man movies (The Big Sky), his athleticism and physical strength (not to mention real acting ability) used to good effect without gimmicky costuming in Last Train from Gun Hill, the bitter edges of his personality being used effectively as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral, and as an isolated loner in the modern west in Lonely Are the Brave.

His ego was extraordinarily large (not unusual in Hollywood), but he managed to team well with Burt Lancaster (Gunfight at the OK Corral) and John Wayne (The War Wagon) when those two were in the dominant roles.  As the 1970s came in, he starred in less effective revisionist westerns (There Was a Crooked Man, Posse), which would probably not have been made without him.  In his last western, he chewed the scenery in dual roles in The Man from Snowy River.

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Shoot Out

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 13, 2014

Shoot Out—Gregory Peck, Patricia Quinn, James Gregory, Jeff Corey, John Davis Chandler, Arthur Hunnicutt, Dawn Lyn, Paul Fix, Susan Tyrell (1971; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

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A revenge story, like Peck’s The Bravados more than ten years previously.  One of Henry Hathaway’s last movies, and a late western for Gregory Peck, who plays Clay Lomax, released from Colorado’s Canon City prison after seven years for bank robbery. 

During the robbery, Lomax’s partner Sam Foley (James Gregory), shot him in the back, left him for dead and made off with the loot.  He has since prospered in Gun Hill with his ill-gotten gains, but he’s worried about Lomax.  He sends three senseless young gunmen led by Bobby Jay Jones (Robert F. Lyons) to follow Lomax and let Foley know where he’s headed.  Initially, Lomax takes the train to Weed, where he was shot, to ask crippled local saloon keeper and whoremaster Trooper (Jeff Corey) where Foley is to be found.  Unable to restrain themselves from violence, the three gunmen following kill Trooper and take Alma (Susan Tyrell), one of his prostitutes, with them. 

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Lomax meets the train from Kansas City, expecting $200 from a “lady” there.  Instead, she’s dead and Lomax is handed her daughter Decky (Dawn Lyn), six or seven years old.  He tries to palm her off on anybody else, but there are no takers.  Finally they head off for Gun Hill, and Lomax discovers they’re being followed by the three ne’er-do-wells.  He takes their guns and rides on. 

In the rain, he and Decky come to the ranch of widow Juliana Farrell (Pat Quinn) and her son.  They seem to hit it off very quickly, for no very good reason except that he’s basically decent and so is she.  The three bad guys burst in on them and terrorize them until finally Lomax gets the upper hand.  Bobby Jay’s two stupid confederates are dead after this confrontation, and he heads directly for Foley with Lomax in pursuit.  When Foley pays him off, he shoots Foley and takes the rest of his money just as Lomax gets there.  Lomax wins the extended shootout, as we knew he would, and heads back for the widow and Decky. 

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This has good character actors, such as Corey, Fix, Tyrell and Hunnicutt.  The child (Dawn Lyn) isn’t bad, though occasionally foul-mouthed.  Use of the child should make it a family film, but there’s violence, brief nudity and some foul language, so it doesn’t come together well.  The bad guys are stupid, loud and annoying, as well as bad.  This has a pretty meaningless title that could apply to almost any western.  Lomax’s use of the word “punk” seems anachronistic.  There are a couple of shots of Lomax and Bobby Jay supposedly riding, where it’s obvious they’re not really on horses.  Altogether, this is a mildly disappointing effort from the same director (Hathaway)-producer (Hal Wallis)-writer (Marguerite Roberts) team that had made True Grit a couple of years earlier.  It’s not as bad as Peck’s other late westerns McKenna’s Gold or Billy Two Hats, though.  For a better Gregory Peck revenge story, see The Bravados.  Excellent score by Dave Grusin.  Based on a story by Will James.  Filmed in Cerillos, New Mexico.  In color.

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The Bravados

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 28, 2014

The Bravados—Gregory Peck, Joan Collins, Stephen Boyd, Lee Van Cleef, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Andrew Duggan (1958; Dir:  Henry King)

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A revenge/manhunt story.  Gregory Peck is Arizona rancher Jim Douglass, who has spent the last six months tracking down four miscreants (as he puts it, “two white men, a half-breed and an Indian”).  Now they have been caught while robbing a bank in the small town of Rio Arriba and are to hang.  Douglass, who has been hunting them for raping and killing his young wife while robbing his isolated ranch, comes to witness the hanging. 

One of the two white men, the leader Bill Zachary (Stephen Boyd), admits to having a weakness for women; the other, Ed Taylor (Albert Salmi), is a backshooter with a fondness for cards.  The halfbreed is Alfonso Parral (played by Lee Van Cleef), and the Mexican Indian Lujan is played by Henry Silva.  They’re all good in these roles, playing bad guys. 

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In Rio Arriba, Douglass encounters Josefa Velarde (a young Joan Collins) whom he had earlier met in New Orleans and had asked to marry him.  She’d turned him down and now regrets that decision.  The hangman, Mr. Sims (future stooge—of the Three Stooges–Joe DeRita), turns out to be a fake and a confederate of the four outlaws.  He is killed in helping them to escape, and he almost kills the sheriff.  The escapees also take along as a hostage the daughter of Steinmetz, the Jewish general store owner. 

Douglass joins the posse, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s the best manhunter among them.  Initially, the outlaws leave behind one of their number to hold a pass and slow down the posse.  He rejoins them, and now that they’ve identified Douglass as a particular threat, they leave Parral behind to ambush Douglass.  It works the other way around and Douglas ruthlessly kills the halfbreed, although the death isn’t shown.  Next it’s Taylor who’s left behind to get Douglass, but that doesn’t work any better and Douglass captures and kills him, too.

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Douglass, reconstituting his family, but with Joan Collins’ Josefa Velarde this time.

Meanwhile Zachary and Lujan with their captive Emma Steinmetz (Kathleen Gallant) have arrived at the cabin of a prospector, John Butler (Gene Evans), only four miles from Douglass’ ranch.  While there, Zachary kills Butler, Lujan grabs a leather bag of money from him, and Zachary rapes Emma.  As the posse (now including Josefa) closes in, they find Butler’s body and the sobbing Emma in the cabin. 

Urged on by Josefa, Douglass’ determination is renewed.  The two remaining outlaws have stopped at Douglass’ ranch and taken the last fresh horses.  The posse comes to the Rio Grande and has to stop there, except for Douglass.  Crossing into Mexico, he finds Zachary at a cantina in San Cristóbal and shoots it out with him, killing him and just missing Lujan, who flees on horseback.  Douglass tracks Lujan to the remote cabin where he lives with his wife and sick son.  There Douglass sees the leather sack with the loot and recognizes it as what was robbed from his ranch months ago.  Since Lujan took it from Butler, it’s now obvious that Butler raped and killed Douglass’ wife, not the four outlaws he’s been tracking for months and has mostly killed.  Back in Rio Arriba, he’s hailed as a hero but he seeks comfort and perhaps absolution from the Catholic priest, played by Andrew Duggan.  And he finally gets together with Josefa.

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The plot has some similarities with John Ford’s The Searchers:  a relentless, even obsessive, hunt for killers, with the focus on the effects of the hunt for revenge on the hunter.  What will be left of him when the hunt is done?  The story is a grim one.  Peck is fine as Douglass, the outlaws are persuasively rotten and most of the townspeople of good in their roles.  Young British Joan Collins’ acting skills are limited, especially in her passionate speech when she finds the violated Emma and urges Douglas to kill them all, and her accent is slippery.  In color, highly watchable, with Leon Shamroy as cinematographer.  Shot on location in Mexico   Music by Alfred Newman.  Based on a story by Frank Rourke.

Henry King had been directing movies for a long time, since 1915 in the early silent era.  He’d already been an actor-director for ten years when he made The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), with Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky–and the first notable movie for bit player Gary Cooper.  And he’d directed Gregory Peck in one of his previous best westerns, The Gunfighter (1950).

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Mackenna’s Gold

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 12, 2014

Mackenna’s Gold—Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Camilla Sparv, Telly Savalas, Keenan Wynn, Julie Newmar, Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach, Edward.G. Robinson, Burgess Meredith, Ted Cassidy, Anthony Quayle, Raymond Massey (1969; Dir:  J. Lee Thompson)

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In this big-budget effort set in 1874, Mackenna (Gregory Peck), a former prospector in Apache country, is now the local marshal, with only iffy support in his community.  His primary supporter has been Judge Bergmann.  Bergmann is killed early in the movie by John Colorado (the miscast Omar Sharif, who might look sort of Mexican but doesn’t sound it, at the peak of his American film career after Dr. Zhivago and Funny Girl).  Colorado and his gang, after killing Bergmann, abduct his daughter Inga (Swedish actress Camilla Sparv, who sounds European). 

Mackenna is shot at in the desert by an old Indian, who has a treasure map to the lost Adams gold.  Mackenna looks at the map, doesn’t believe it and destroys it.  Turns out the old Indian was being tracked by Colorado, who is looking for the gold and now has Mackenna as a prisoner.  He stays to try to rescue Inga.  The group includes several Indians, including Hesh-Ke (Julie Newmar), with whom Mackenna has a past history but no current interest.  She does have current interest, though. 

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The large cast includes a number of actors at the ends of their careers in bit parts as townspeople also searching for the gold; they’re not managed well, and none of them matter much.  Telly Savalas is a corrupt cavalry sergeant who kills his own men and wants in on the gold. 

Of course, there does turn out to be gold in the fabled Canon del Oro, which is protected both by Indians and by mystical natural forces.  At the end, all the seekers are killed except for Mackenna and Inga in a cataclysm featuring skinny-dipping near the gold deposit, earthquake, toppling geological formations, battles with Indians and betrayals within the group.

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Apache warrior Hachita (Ted Cassidy) takes a knife to an unarmed Mackenna (Gregory Peck).

Shot in color in Utah and Arizona.  Narration is by Victor Jory.  A troubled production, with rambling story, and some technical problems in the filmmaking.  Kind of campy-seeming now.  Director J. Lee Thompson had a hot streak in the early 1960s with mainstream movies such as The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear and Taras Bulba but was fading by the time he made this.  The movie is said to have been intended for a running time of three hours, but was cut back by the studio to two.  Not much seen these days.  Compare the story with 1949’s Lust for Gold, featuring Glenn Ford.  In color, and with The Walking Hills, also from 1949, with Randolph Scott and John Ireland.  Score by Quincy Jones; theme song sung by Jose Feliciano.

Upon later reflection, star Gregory Peck said “Mackenna’s Gold was a terrible western.  Just wretched.”  He should have been in a good position to judge, having starred twenty years earlier in David O. Selznick’s overheated epic turkey Duel in the Sun, referred to by some critics as Lust in the Dust.  Perhaps by the time of his comment he wished that he had joined Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood in turning down the lead in Mackenna’s Gold.

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Mackenna’s Gold was not a box office success in the U.S. (where it returned only $3 million on its then-substantial production costs of $14 million ), but it did better overseas.  In India, strangely enough, it remained the top Hollywood grosser in history until blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Titanic came along.  Even worldwide hits such as Jaws and Star Wars would not make as much money in India as Mackenna’s Gold did.  The film went through countless re-runs until well into the 1980s and could be seen in cinema halls across India, including small venues in the medium-size towns of North India. [http://indianquarterly.com/old-is-not-just-gold-its-mackennas-gold/]

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The Big Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the set: the cast with director William Wyler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Duel in the Sun

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 7, 2014

Duel in the Sun—Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Butterfly McQueen (1947; Dir:  King Vidor)

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David O. Selznick’s sprawling and over-ripe western melodrama has not aged well in the more than sixty years since its release.  In some ways it seems even older than it is.  Social attitudes and movie tastes change, as this movie illustrates; and maybe the public just doesn’t have the taste for cinematic melodrama it once did.  Some of the fault lies in the overheated and clunky writing.  For a skilled director like King Vidor, the acting seems un-subtle, and there’s lots of old-fashioned violin music by Dimitri Tiomkin on the soundtrack.  Both Vidor and Tiomkin amply demonstrated elsewhere that they can do much better.  There are lightning and tempests in the background to emphasize how passions are out of control.  There’s opening narration in the weighty tones of Orson Welles.  The whole thing seems old-fashioned even for its time.  

At the movie’s heart are the two McCanles brothers, the heirs of the Spanish Bit Ranch, a huge Texas ranching empire owned by Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore).  The brothers are set against each other by mixed-race temptress Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones, who was in general more likely to play saints and nuns than half-Indian seductresses).  Lillian Gish is Laura Belle McCanles, the McCanles mother, who brings Pearl into the household initially.  For once, Gregory Peck plays the bad brother, the more macho but increasingly evil Lewt McCanles.  Senator McCanles is a more or less typical overbearing cattle baron who wants his own way, except that he never seems to have a very good grip on what he’s doing.  It’s not one of Barrymore’s better performances, although he could be an excellent character actor with better material and direction.

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Lewt gets worse and worse through the movie, refusing to marry Pearl or let the decent Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford) marry her, either, after Lewt heartlessly has his way with her.  He causes a nasty and colorful train wreck worthy of Cecil B. DeMille (DeMille loved to film trains crashing).  The Senator chases good son Jesse McCanles (Joseph Cotten, never entirely comfortable in westerns) away to Austin, where he gets engaged to a railroad heiress.  Finally, Lewt shoots Jesse down in cold blood, and, when it looks like Jesse will survive, Pearl decides she has to shoot Lewt or he’ll eventually be successful in his attempts to kill his good brother.  They (Pearl and Lewt) shoot each other in the desert and die in each other’s arms. 

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Both Jones and Peck seem miscast in this epic, although Jones was nominated for an Oscar as best actress for her performance here.  And there are some social attitudes that don’t play so well these days.  For example, Butterfly McQueen is a stereotypical black domestic named Vashti, painful to watch now.  An underlying assumption seems to be that one of the reasons for Pearl’s sexual voracity is her mixed racial heritage.  It might be acceptable if it came from her lack of education, perhaps, but not from her half-Indian ancestry.  Her devotion to Lewt seems to be born out of his rape of her, a concept modern feminists are bound to find offensive.  These may have been common attitudes in the 1870s, when this movie is set, or in the 1920s, when Vidor was already a major director of silent movies and Gish and Barrymore major stars.  Or maybe they come from Niven Busch’s novel on which this steamy epic was based.  But they make the movie seem old and uncomfortable now.

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It had a very big budget for its time, and it looks good.  The movie is very much the creature of its producer, David O. Selznick, Jones’s future husband and the Svengali of her career.  Although it made some money eventually, it marked the end of this kind of extravaganza for Selznick.  Reportedly, Selznick’s constant interference is responsible for the overwrought nature of the many of the movie’s elements.  It had worked for Gone With the Wind eight years earlier, but not here.  The affair between Jones and Selznick, both married to other spouses at the time, was one of the worst-kept secrets since the movie industry moved to California, giving an edge to the film’s notoriety with the public.

Nicknamed “Lust in the Dust,” it’s kind of a clunky movie despite all the talent involved.  The word most often associated with it today is “campy.”  Watch out for the screen awash not only with vivid Technicolor, but with strong undercurrents of sexual obsession.  At 144 minutes, it’s long for a western in the 1940s.  But maybe not for a Selznick epic.

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At the time of its release, it was the most expensive movie ever made.  Selznick spent two years making it, at a then-astronomic cost of $6 million.  Although King Vidor is named as the director, Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, Josef von Sternberg, and even Selznick himself sat in the director’s chair at one point or another during production.  Martin Scorsese claims this was the first movie he ever saw and one of the reasons he became a director.  Maybe it’s also the reason he’s never made any westerns.  Still, it’s something you have to see if you have ambitions to be the next Scorsese.  Gregory Peck was in lots more westerns, including, ten years later, another large-scale family epic like this one:  The Big Country.  It’s much better.

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Yellow Sky

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 20, 2013

Yellow Sky—Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, Anne Baxter, John Russell, James Barton, Charles Kemper (1948; Dir:  William Wellman)

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Talky, noir-ish western with a small cast.  James “Stretch” Dawson (Gregory Peck) is the leader and perhaps the toughest of a gang of seven outlaws.  In 1867, the gang robs a bank in northern Arizona or New Mexico and is pursued by a posse into the desert.  One of them is killed, and they set out across the waterless waste.  (An outlaw gang pursued by a posse is a traditional set-up for a desert/isolation story, used, for example, in 3 Godfathers, Quantez and Purgatory, among a number of others.)  The survivors include Dude (Richard Widmark), a gambler with a gold fixation; Lengthy (John Russell), who likes both gold and women; Bull Run (Robert Arthur), a young man; Walrus (Charles Kemper), a hefty guy with a drinking problem: and Half Pint (Harry Morgan), the least developed character of the six.  

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On their last legs, they arrive at Yellow Sky, a ghost town, where they find water, an old prospector (James Barton) and his tomboyish granddaughter Mike (real name:  Constance Mae, played by Anne Baxter).  Trouble starts almost immediately, with various lusts coming into play.  And then Dude discovers that the prospector and Mike have gold.  With numbers on their side, Stretch makes a deal to split the gold 50-50.  Lengthy and Stretch are developing interests in Mike, and some backstory develops with Stretch.  It turns out he’s a Yankee veteran of the war on the border fighting Quantrill, and his intentions toward Mike may be more or less honorable, in contrast to Lengthy’s. 

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Mike (Baxter) meets Stretch (Peck).  Dude considers his chances for the gold.

As matters develop, eventually the gang with Dude as the dominant personality rejects Stretch’s leadership, and Stretch joins the prospector and Mike as they shoot it out.  Bull Run is killed, and Dude turns on Lengthy.  Stretch gets Walrus and Half Pint to join him, and in the end has to shoot it out with Dude and Lengthy in an old saloon.  None of the saloon shootout is shown—just the bodies on the floor afterward.  Stretch returns the stolen bank money, presumably to settle down to a permanent relationship with Mike.  This is one of the first westerns where an outlaw gets to return his ill-gotten gains and walk away (unlike, say, Joel McCrea in Four Faces West, Fred MacMurray in The Moonlighter or John Wayne in 3 Godfathers, all of whom have to serve some jail time as part of their rehabilitiation). 

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The story relies on believing Peck’s basic decency, even when he seems to be a bad guy.  Peck was initially reluctant to play an outlaw, feeling that he was miscast.  Hank Worden and Jay Silverheels have uncredited tiny parts.  Watchable but a bit talky, with an excellent cast.  This may have been one of John Russell’s best roles.  Charles Kemper is largely forgotten now, but in the late 1940s and very early 1950s he was an excellent character actor in such westerns as this, Wagon Master and Stars in My Crown before his early death in an automobile accident.  Harry Morgan shows up in a surprising number of good westerns, from The Ox-Bow Incident to this to High Noon to Support Your Local Sheriff, to mention just a few. 

This was an early entry in the series of “adult” or psychological westerns of the 1950s.  The setup has some similarities with The Law and Jake Wade, made a few years later.  Some say this is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but if so it’s not a very close one.  Director William Wellman said in the book “The Men Who Made the Movies” that he had no idea of the connection.  Wellman also made such excellent westerns as The Ox-Bow Incident and Westward the Women.  Produced by Lamar Trotti, who wrote The Ox-Bow Incident, among many other films.  Shot in Death Valley and the Alabama Hills in Owens Valley in black and white.  Music by Alfred Newman.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 3

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 5, 2013

Burt Lancaster as Bill Dolworth in The Professionals

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As one of the leading actors of the 1950s and 1960s (and one of the most versatile), it’s a little unusual to find Burt Lancaster as something other than the lead, but he was willing to do whatever interested him.  Here, he’s a supporting actor, although an important one.  Bill Dolworth is a former participant in a Mexican civil war, a dynamiter and demolitions expert, a womanizer, and a man of action.   A garrulous counterpart to Lee Marvin’s taciturn leader, he pushes the action forward with his trademark athleticism and big smile.  Some would claim that Lancaster’s leading performances in Lawman and Valdez Is Coming belong on this list, too, and maybe the old scout in Ulzana’s Raid.  Along with perhaps his charismatic mostly-bad guy in Vera Cruz, and his Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the OK Corral, although this last is eclipsed by Henry Fonda and Kurt Russell in the same role.

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Joel McCrea as Steve Judd in Ride the High Country , Rev. Josiah Dozier Gray in Stars in My Crown, and Jeff Butler in Union Pacific

Excellent in westerns generally, his greatest western role was one of his last.  However, McCrea was good in any number of smaller movies, such as Ramrod, Colorado Territory, Four Faces West, Stars in My Crown and Trooper Hook, which are not so well remembered today.

  • As aging lawman-turned-bank guard Steve Judd, McCrea was the heart of Sam Peckinpah’s classic Ride the High Country.  Playing with another retired legend of the western screen, Randolph Scott, Judd never wavers in his view of right and wrong and where he stands in that spectrum, come what may.  His signature line in this role:  “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  And he does, against significant odds. 

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  • Shortly after the Civil War, the former soldier Rev. Josiah Dozier Gray shows up in the small town of Walesburg, Tennessee, preaching his first sermon in a saloon with his guns drawn in Stars in My Crown (1950).  He builds a church, marries, adopts a son and becomes part of the life of the town, fighting typhoid and racist nightriders as he can.  He also must fight his way through his own crises of faith and conquer other issues that don’t yield to conventional weapons.  McCrea usually projected a quality of moral decency, even when playing an outlaw (Four Faces West, Colorado Territory).  This role is the epitome of that decency, and it’s a measure of his performance here that we not only believe him, we understand why the rest of the town believes him, too, in their various ways.  McCrea said that this was his favorite of all his movies.  He played variations on this role as the town doctor in The Oklahoman and as a circuit-riding judge in Stranger on Horseback.

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  • 1939’s epic Union Pacific provides a defining role for the younger McCrea, who was a bigger star than John Wayne at the time.  Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, it has DeMille’s signature scope and train crashes (two of them).  McCrea as railroad troubleshooter Jeff Butler fends off bad guys, romances an Irish Barbara Stanwyck, deals with a best friend gone bad (Robert Preston) and fights both Indians and the elements to get the trains through.  It’s still a highly watchable movie.

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Randolph Scott as Gil Westrum in Ride the High Country

At mid-century (1950), Randolph Scott was the biggest male box office star in the country, appearing almost exclusively in westerns by then.  The westerns he was making at that time are now mostly forgotten, and his very best work was still ahead of him.  In his last movie, he was very memorably partnered with Joel McCrea as a couple of underappreciated old timers taking a job guarding a bank’s gold, just to finish out their string.  Scott’s Gil Westrum is a little more elusive than McCrea’s Steve Judd, but in the end they stand together.  Scott was usually thought to be a more inexpressive actor than McCrea, perhaps more in the stone-faced William S. Hart mold, but they were both perfect here.  In fact, Scott could be on this list with his best performances for director Budd Boetticher in the late 1950s:  Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station, a remarkable string.  He was also very good as a conflicted good-guy/bad-guy in the early 1940s in Virginia City and Western Union.

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William Holden as Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch and as Capt. Roper in Escape from Fort Bravo

An excellent actor with a bit of an urban edge, Holden found a way to be effective in westerns, usually with some form of a hard-bitten personality and his ability to project unquestioned competence.  In addition to these two performances, he’s also very good as the doctor in The Horse Soldiers and the horse trader-cattleman in Alvarez Kelly, two Civil War epics.  In two of his earliest movie roles, see him with Jean Arthur in Arizona and with Glenn Ford in Texas.

  • Pike Bishop, the leader of the aging Wild Bunch, is a signature role for Holden, along with the screenwriter-gigolo he played in Sunset Boulevard.  Bishop’s the one who articulates, as far as it can be articulated, the reason the outlaw band is still together:  “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!”  They all know it’s not like it used to be, and none more than Bishop himself.  And that’s why he gives the fatalistic words “Let’s go,” as they suit up and head into what they know will be their final battle.  The honor he espouses rings a bit hollow, and it’s not worth as much as they’d like to think.  But in the end it’s all they have, and Bishop is its embodiment.  The way he plays it makes the movie convincingly like a Greek tragedy.

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  • Almost twenty years earlier in his career, Holden was excellent as the relentless Captain Roper, a Union cavalry officer in charge of holding John Forsyth’s Confederates in an Arizona stockade in a desert teeming with hostile Apaches.  Holden keeps the relentless edge and humanizes Roper over the course of the film as he gets to know Eleanor Parker’s Confederate spy, although the end needs a bit more exposition than it gets.

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Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter

Peck was like Joel McCrea in naturally projecting a basic decency that usually made him the moral center of his films.  Usually, but not always, as he showed in Duel in the Sun and Billy Two Hats, in both of which he was less decent and also less convincing.  As Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter, he wears a peculiar short-brimmed black hat as he tries to retire from the gunfighter life and reclaim a family long lost to him.  This film is probably the definitive statement of the proposition (later expressed by Burt Lancaster in Lawman) that you can’t walk away from your past.  You are what you’ve made yourself.  Peck also projects a wary, dangerous edge as he tries to fend off the inevitable challengers drawn by his reputation.  For a more obviously decent good guy, see his performances in the epic The Big Country and in The Bravados.  For an even earlier western with noir-ish elements, see him in Yellow Sky.

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Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine and as Clay Blaisdell in Warlock

For his ability to play the decent mid-American—the guy who rises to the occasion as we’d all like to think we would—Fonda was the definitive Wyatt Earp.  But he also liked to play against that decency, and he was remarkably good in many of those those performances, too. 

  • The story told in My Darling Clementine bears little resemblance to the actual historical events it is supposedly based on, but there’s never been a better Wyatt Earp, either in terms of unbending but not necessarily confrontational straight-ahead decency, or the western images with Fonda as their focus.  As you think of this film, it’s almost impossible to do it without seeing Fonda tipping back in a chair on the wooden sidewalk with his foot propped against a post, or dancing with Clementine on an outdoor floor, with the Monument Valley sky above them.  For a similar role, see Fonda as the cowhand with moral questions about a posse’s conduct in The Ox-Bow Incident.  Incident was his last film before leaving for World War II, and Clementine was his first after returning.

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  • Fonda always had a taste (and a talent) for playing against his natural mid-American type and decent image.  One very good expression of that is Clay Blaisdell in Warlock.  Blaisdell is a gunman with some remaining decency in him, which he disclaims and tries to suppress, mostly successfully.  But that tension fuels the movie.  And the movie has excellent supporting roles played by Richard Widmark and Anthony Quinn as well.  For variations on Fonda as western blackguard, see The Tin Star, in which he returns to his basic decency by the end of the movie, and Once Upon a Time in the West, where as the gunman Frank he may never have had any decency in those chillingly-blue eyes in a darkly made-up face.  He’s also very good as the unlikeable martinet commanding Fort Apache.

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James Garner as Jason McCullough in Support Your Local Sheriff

Nobody’s ever been better than Garner at projecting easy-going good humor in a western, as he showed beginning with his television role as Bret Maverick.  However, the ultimate expression of this ability found a perfect vehicle and team in Support Your Local Sheriff, where he carries the movie lightly and very successfully without the slightest crack in that façade.  It’s hard to envision anybody else playing that role.  Both Mel Gibson (Maverick) and John Wayne (North to Alaska) tried variations on the role.  They’re good actors but not as good at this kind of role.  Not that the good-humored façade couldn’t crack; Garner was also superb in some of his grimmer performances, such as haunted scout Jess Remburg in Duel at Diablo or a dark and relentless Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun.  For more light Garner, see Support Your Local Gunfighter, Skin Game, and, late in his career, Sunset and Maverick.

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Jack Elam as Jake in Support Your Local Sheriff

Yes, it was a supporting performance.  With those crazy eyes, Elam was a lifelong character actor, spending a couple of decades as movie villains both modern and western.  And he was brilliant as Jake, the town “character” turned reluctant deputy, a riff on the Dean Martin role in Rio Bravo.  He went on, as he says, to become “one of the most beloved figures in western history.”  Or at least the history of western films.  This performance moved him from the bad-guy henchman roles he’d had for twenty years (look for him in Rawhide, Ride, Vaquero!, The Man from Laramie, The Comancheros and The Last Sunset, for example) into higher-profile and more varied characters.  For a similar role, see Support Your Local Gunfighter, where most of the team from the first movie was re-assembled, with slightly less success.  And of course he spends 20 memorable minutes waiting on a railway platform, often in close-up, in the prologue of Once Upon a Time in the WestNot bad for the one-time studio accountant.

 

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The Gunfighter

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 10, 2013

The Gunfighter—Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell, Karl Malden, Skip Homeier, Richard Jaeckel (1950; Dir:  Henry King)

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Right after the opening credits:  “In the Southwest of the 1880’s the difference between death and glory was often but a fraction of a second. This was the speed that made champions of Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok. But the fastest man with a gun who ever lived, by many contemporary accounts, was a long, lean Texan named Ringo.”  Despite this invoking of historical figures, Jimmy Ringo is a fictional character, with the name apparently adapted from John Ringo, the Arizona gunman.  It has been popular as a name for cinematic gunfighters and outlaws, used in Stagecoach, innumerable Spaghetti westerns and many others.  Although this Ringo is said to be very fast with a gun, with expert film editing we never actually see him draw during the movie.

Heading for Cayenne, New Mexico, Jimmy Ringo’s reputation as a gunfighter catches up with him yet again in a Santa Fe saloon.  A kid named Eddie (Richard Jaeckel in one of his shortest roles) won’t leave him alone until he forces Ringo (Gregory Peck) to draw, and Ringo kills him easily but not happily.  Eddie has three brothers who take out after Ringo.   He waylays them and sets them afoot on the trail.

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Ringo (Gregory Peck) spends much of the movie in saloons, this time facing off against Richard Jaeckel.

In Cayenne, Ringo sets up in the Palace, where he encounters the local marshal, Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell).  Strett once rode with Ringo, knows Ringo’s past and the fact that Ringo’s estranged wife Peggy (Helen Westcott) is in Cayenne.  Living under another name, she’s the local schoolteacher and wants nothing to do with Ringo and his notoriety.  All the boys in town skip school to catch a glimpse of the infamous gunfighter, including Ringo’s own son Jimmy, now nine years old.

Ringo encounters the usual problems in Cayenne.  Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), a young local who fancies himself fast with a gun, prods Ringo.  An older man thinks Ringo was responsible for the death of his son and is determined to ambush him from an upstairs hotel room.  Eddie’s three brothers make it to Cayenne.  And the local female forces of righteousness want Marshal Strett to lock him up or hang him.

Ringo copes with these one by one, hoping that his wife Peggy will just talk with him before he leaves town.  Molly, an aging saloon girl and old friend of both Jimmy and Peggy, finally talks Peggy into seeing him.  Ringo describes how he plans to leave his gunfighting life and says he’ll be back in a year for her.  He talks with his son without revealing their relationship.  And Strett gets antsier for him to leave town before something happens.

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Finally Ringo leaves out the back of the Palace, where the camera shows Eddie’s brothers lurking in wait for him.  Strett’s deputy backs them off just when it looks like their ambush will succeed.  Jimmy gets on his horse and is about to leave town, when Hunt Bromley shoots him in the back.  As he lies dying, Jimmy tells Strett that he drew first on Bromley, and Bromley thinks Ringo’s trying to keep him from being arrested.  Ringo’s actually dooming Bromley to a short life of the kind he’s had, with a reputation that draws challengers like flies.  Peggy reveals her connection with Ringo at the funeral.

Gregory Peck wears a mustache in this film, unusual for him.  The studio hated the mustache and, after the film didn’t do well at the box office, figured that it was the mustache’s fault.  Peck was a natural at conveying decency and rectitude (he and Joel McCrea come to mind first in that regard), and this is one of his best westerns notwithstanding the mustache.  Maybe it was the unattractive hat.  In any event, these qualities lend him credibility in persuading us that Ringo at the advanced age of 35 does want to change his life.  Ringo could have killed the old man waiting for him with a Winchester but doesn’t.  Asking about the man’s son, it becomes clear that Ringo had nothing to do with the kid’s death and has been blamed for all kinds of things he didn’t do.  In one of the best scenes, Ringo is alone in the marshal’s office when the decent women come looking for the marshal.  They don’t know who Ringo is, and he kind of explains himself to them without telling them of his identity.  The ending is strong and really makes the movie.  The entire film depends on Peck carrying it, and he does that well.

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Millard Mitchell was in three good westerns in the early 1950s:  Winchester ’73 and this one in 1950, and The Naked Spur in 1953.  He looks like a regular person (rather than an actor), but he’s good in all of these.  Helen Westcott is adequate but nothing special.  Skip Homeier is good as Hunt Bromley; he could always play a mouthy kid with a gun (see Dawn at Socorro, Ten Wanted Men, The Tall T and Comanche Station, for example).

Henry King was an experienced workmanlike director, and this is one of the better efforts late in his career.  It’s in black and white and feels like it was shot with a limited budget.  Nevertheless, it tells one of the quintessential western stories (the aging gunfighter who can’t escape his past) well.  King directed Peck again in The Bravados (1958), a pretty good revenge-manhunt western.  The original story was by William Bowers and B-movie director Andre de Toth, and the screenplay was by Bowers and William Sellers.

In the late 1990s Richard Jaeckel was dying of cancer and his wife was suffering from Alzheimer’s; they had lost their home in Brentwood, California, and were more than a million dollars in debt.  Gregory Peck was one of those instrumental in getting Jaeckel admitted to the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, where he died in June 1997.

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