Tag Archives: Gunman and Religion

Angel and the Badman

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 1, 2014

Angel and the Badman—John Wayne, Gail Russell, Harry Carey, Bruce Cabot, John Halloran, Irene Rich, Tom Powers (1947; Dir:  James Edward Grant)


This was the first movie in which John Wayne, an increasingly big star at the time, had a production role.  It now looks like a relatively low-budget movie, with the film and sound quality not as good as one would like.  Compare it, for example, with My Darling Clementine and Red River, both from about the same time, which both have a lot more clarity in picture and sound.  Or maybe there are just a lot of bad prints and transfers of this film out there. 

The badman of the title is Quirt Evans, played by Wayne.  The names are a bit of a problem in this movie—they haven’t aged all that well.  Quirt Evans, Laredo Stevens, Marshal Wistful McClintock:  one has to chalk up those bits of clunkiness to writer-director James Edward Grant, a favorite of Wayne’s.  Notwithstanding some clunkiness in the writing and questions about technical quality, this movie works pretty well and is quite watchable.

“So that’s Quirt Evans.  He’s quite a man with the gals.  He’s closed the eyes of many a man….and opened the eyes of many a woman.”

As the titles roll, a lone horseman races across the desert landscape, pursued by other riders.  As soon as the opening credits are done, the horse stumbles, throwing the wounded rider in front of a wagon with a man and a young woman.  The people in the wagon are the Worths, Quakers originally from Pennsylvania, and they nurse Evans back to health after the local doctor removes a bullet from him.  He seems taken with Penelope Worth (Gail Russell), the young woman in the wagon, the daughter of the Worths (John Halloran and Irene Rich) and the angel of the title.  And she is even more obviously taken with him.


Territorial marshal Wistful McClintock (Harry Carey) arrives at the Worth ranch to ask about Evans’ comings and goings.  Bit by bit, Evans’ backstory emerges.  He was a deputy to Wyatt Earp in Tombstone but left when a gambler named Walt Ennis, his foster father, was killed by Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot).  He has been straddling the line between lawful citizen and outlaw ever since.  Stevens and two henchmen show up looking for Evans, too, and he bluffs them with an empty gun, selling Stevens a plot of land he has just filed filed on.

As he recovers, Evans helps out the Worths by persuading a cranky neighbor to release irrigation water to the surrounding farms.  He attends a Quaker meeting, at which he is given a Bible with his name on it.  He forgoes wearing a gun most of the time, although he is not comfortable without it.  He gets wind of a job Laredo Stevens is planning, stealing a herd of cattle.  Evans and a couple of old friends steal the stolen cattle from Stevens and celebrate in the old style—by gambling, drinking and fighting.


The marshal is skeptical: Harry Carey as Marshal Wistful McClintock.

Evans finds that he misses Penny, though, and he makes his way back to the Worth farm.  They go out riding in a wagon, only to be attacked by Laredo Stevens and his henchmen, who are sure that Evans must have a gun somewhere.  (He doesn’t, at least not this time.)  Their wagon goes over a cliff into a river, and Penny is gravely injured in some unspecified way.


Quirt (John Wayne) rescues Penny (Gail Russell) after Laredo forces them to crash their wagon.

That’s it for Evans.  Putting on his gun, he heads for town and calls out Stevens.  While Stevens and his pal Hondo Jeffries are dithering, Penny has made a miraculous recovery from her mysterious injuries/ailments, and her parents have brought her to town in a wagon to see if gazing into her soulful eyes (and her blue eyes are very soulful indeed) will deter Quirt from his vengeful wrath.  As Laredo and Hondo step out of the bar, Quirt turns to them without his gun, which he has reluctantly given to Penny.  Two shots ring out, and Stevens and Hondo fall.  It is Marshal McClintock, who was supposedly out of town.  He sadly notes that he will probably have to dispense with the pleasure of hanging Evans, since he has now shot Stevens himself.  It’s kind of a deus ex machina ending, with the marshal dropping in from nowhere.

There is a bit of clunky writing, but some interesting points, too, with the doctor’s speeches and the cranky neighbor as well.  Because of the strength of the three star performances (by Wayne, Russell and Carey) this all works.  Wayne is handsome, young-ish and charming in his shield-front shirts.  Russell is quite warm and convincing, both as a Quaker and in being in love with Evans.  And she’s gorgeous.  Carey, nearing 70 and in one of his last movies, doesn’t spend a lot of time on screen, but all the attention goes to him when he’s there, even if he’s just sitting on a horse.  A film actor since 1909 and an early western star in the 1910s, Carey had been a mentor to both John Ford and John Wayne when they were getting their starts in movies.  As with 3 Godfathers, made by Ford around the same time, there is a kind of nostalgic assumption of the value of religion and religious community surrounding Quirt Evans’ conversion, although it is difficult to see him as a Quaker even at the end of the movie.  The beautiful Gail Russell brings a believability to her immediate love for Evans; the potential conflict is in working out the terms between them, or even if Evans is willing to stay with one woman.  Supporting players John Halloran and Irene Rich are good as Penny’s parents.


Bruce Cabot doesn’t look so bad as villain Laredo Stevens; he even wears a white hat.

The music is used in a heavy-handed way at times (ominous chords at the appearance of a rider, for example).  Although the technical quality of the film and the sound are not all that one might hope for in 1947, there are some interesting uses of light and dark in (a) the scene in which Evans persuades the local telegrapher to send a message after hours, and (b) the scene in which Evans blows out most of the lights in the ranch house and bluffs Stevens and his men with an empty gun.  At 100 minutes, it feels just about right, although the ending is a little abrupt.  Filmed in Sedona, Arizona, in black and white.

Many of the people in this production will appear again.  John Wayne by this time is well on his way to being the biggest western star of the next thirty years, of course.  Hank Worden has a bit part, Yakima Canutt is second unit director, and Richard Farnsworth (The Grey Fox) and Chuck Roberson are uncredited stuntmen.  This was the first time Wayne and Bruce Cabot worked together, and Wayne would find Cabot roles in his movies for the next thirty years, too.  Gail Russell had a short career and a tragically short life due to alcoholism.  Her other notable role in a western is in the Batjac-produced Seven Men from Now in 1956, with Randolph Scott—an opportunity given to her by Wayne’s company at a time she was having a lot of trouble in her life.  She’s good in that, too, but it would be one of her last movies.  She died at 36.


The entry of a gunman into a religious community is one of the older western stories.  It was the basis of Zane Grey’s 1912 best-seller Riders of the Purple Sage (in which Lassiter, the gunman, definitely does not reform), and William S. Hart becomes the classic reformed gunman due to the love of a good woman named Faith (sister of a preacher) in Hell’s Hinges (1916).  It still works here thirty years later in 1947.  Witness (1985), with Harrison Ford as a hard-boiled city cop among the Amish, is a non-western version of the story.  For a more recent western take on the story, see The Outsider (2002), which ends with the young woman leaving the religious community rather than the gunman joining her in it.  Angel and the Badman was also remade for television in 2009, with Lou Diamond Phillips as Quirt Evans and Luke Perry as Laredo Stevens.

Note:  Having now re-watched this on TCM, which makes an attempt to provide both the best prints and widescreen viewing when appropriate, I can now say that the technical shortcomings noted above are because there are a lot of bad prints of this out there, including the crummy one you’ll get if you rent this movie from Comcast as I originally did.  The print shown by TCM both looked and sounded fine for 1947 standards.


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The Outsider

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 27, 2014

The Outsider—Tim Daly, Naomi Watts, David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Thomas Curtis, John Noble (Made for Television, 2002; Dir:  Randa Haines)

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This slow-moving relationship drama is set in Montana, a variation on a theme of Angel and the Badman from 1947.  Good acting power is in evidence, though; Tim Daly is convincing as gunman Johnny Gault, and Naomi Watts (before she really became a big star) is even better as young widow Rebecca Yoder of the Plain People, who takes in the badly wounded Gault and nurses him back to health. 

Based on a romance novel by Penelope Williamson, this is one of the few westerns directed by a woman, and it’s better than you’d expect.  (The reduced expectations are because of the nature of the source material, not because the director is a woman.)  As usual, there are three conflicts going on in this plot:  the clash/attraction between Gault and Yoder as man and woman, the clash between the worldly Gault and the Mennonite-like Plain People, and the clash between Gault and those who’d oppress both him and the Plain People with violence.  In only one of these conflicts might Gault’s talents with violence prove helpful, and even then numbers favor the bad guys (although a relatively low budget may have kept down the number of them who appear on film).  


The gunman takes the young widow and her son to church.

Not only are the Plain People religiously separate, they raise sheep in cattle country.  Rebecca’s husband was killed by the real bad guys, who wanted (and still want) her land.  The real bad guys are the usual collection of local banker-cattle baron (John Noble) and his hired gunmen.  Keith Carradine is one of the Plain People, presumably romantically interested in Rebecca; his real brother David Carradine plays the sympathetic local doctor.  Thomas Curtis is good as Benjo Yoder, Rebecca’s young son.  An interesting touch is the music, based mostly on Norwegian folk songs, although the film sometimes seems self-consciously arty in its use of both music and images. It seems to take a long time getting to dealing with the conflicts.

There are the usual scenes of the wary gunman trying with very limited success to mesh with the religious community for the sake of the young widow.  There is the sizing up by others in her community who are trying to assess both Gault and the nature of the relationship that’s apparently in formation.  There is the developing relationship between the gunman and the traumatized young son of the beautiful widow.  And there is the resistance by both the gunman and the widow to the attraction they’re feeling to each other, along with questions about how much each will have to accommodate the other’s beliefs and ways of life if they do go ahead.


This version of the story isn’t as sympathetic to religion and the strength of community as Angel and the Badman, and it ends with Rebecca leaving the Plain People when she marries Gault, although Gault appears to make some accommodations, too.  Of course, the religious community here projects a little more paranoia and pressure toward conformity, and fewer warm fuzzies than the Quakers in the John Wayne movie.  Although music isn’t allowed outside of church, Rebecca hears “the music of the earth,” signaling that maybe the Plain People aren’t her real destination anyway. 

The story of a gunman entering a religious community with very different values is one of the oldest western stories, a variation on the Mysterious Stranger theme.  It was the basis of Zane Grey’s 1912 best-seller Riders of the Purple Sage, for example, where the violence wins because of the inherent dishonesty of the religious community.  (Check here for one of the more recent film versions of Purple Sage.)  This is much more like the 1947 John Wayne movie, where the validity of the religious community seems to be recognized, except that (a) the violence from the gunman is still necessary to resolve matters, and (b) the widow ultimately leaves the religious community instead of the gunman joining it.  Presumably there is still some kind of uneasy affiliation remaining there, rather than a shunning from the community, though.  At least the bad guys have been dealt with.  A non-western version of the story is 1985’s Witness, with Harrison Ford as a hard-boiled cop among the Amish in Pennsylvania.


Leaving their respective religions: Rebecca Yoder (Naomi Watts) leaves the Plain People, and Johnny Gault (Timothy Daly) renounces his guns.

There are echoes of other westerns in this.  The gunman coming to know and appreciate both the widow and her son is much like the main story arc of Hondo.  And the cattle baron and his men trampling a gathering of the Plain People (while Gault rescues the young son of the widow) reminds us of a similar scene with the homesteaders in Shane.  The culminating shoot-out with the bad guys (and they are undeniably bad) is satisfying, except that Rebecca Yoder is accidentally shot and appears to be dying.  Gault symbolically places his pistol in the blacksmith forge, in a scene that reminds us of other gunmen’s similar renunciations:  Gary Cooper tossing his badge in the dirt in High Noon; Glenn Ford burying his guns at the end of The Fastest Gun Alive and The Last Challenge; and Randolph Scott giving up his guns at the end of A Lawless Street, for example.  And, most of all, John Wayne giving up his guns at an inopportune moment at the end of Angel and the Badman.

Timothy Daly is good enough in this that one regrets he had no other chances to make westerns.  In addition to a revolver, Gault also uses something that looks like a cut-down rifle, like the mare’s leg used by television’s ethical bounty hunter Josh Randall (played by Steve McQueen) in Wanted:  Dead or Alive in the late 1950s.  If the vegetation doesn’t entirely look like Montana, that’s because this was filmed in northeastern Australia.  They’re careful to keep eucalyptus trees out of it, though, and it’s not distracting.

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Riders of the Purple Sage

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 13, 2014

Riders Of The Purple Sage—Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Henry Thomas, Robin Tunney, Norbert Weisser, G.D. Spradlin (Made for television, 1996; Dir:  Charles Haid)


This is the fifth and most recent film version of Zane Grey’s 1912 bestselling novel, which is perhaps as some call it “the most popular western novel of all time.”  Having said that, it should also be noted that this, as some other oft-retold western stories dating from near the turn of the 19th century, does not wear its age lightly.   The film’s strengths:  very good cast, attempt to be true to the language of the novel, beautiful locations (Moab, Utah).  Weaknesses:  poor direction and editing, failure to use the scenery well.

This is a Shane story, from before Shane—the Mysterious Stranger.  An unknown gunman rides alone into a tense situation and turns things around by siding with the underdogs.  In this case, the underdog is Jane Withersteen (Amy Madigan), spinster-rancher in a religious community in southern Utah (presumably, by the looks of the terrain).  Without much help, she is facing (a) rustlers, (b) Deacon Tull (Norbert Weisser) of her own church, who wants her to marry him and is trying to force her hand, and (c) Pastor Dyer (G.D. Spradlin), who also wants her to marry Tull.  When Tull and his men are attempting to hang Bern Venters (Henry Thomas), one of her hands, she prays for help, and into this mess rides Lassiter (Ed Harris, balding with otherwise long hair), who backs them off and they ride away without completing the hanging. 


Lassiter (Ed Harris) and Jane Withersteen (Amy Madigan).

Lassiter, who spends most of the film without a first name, tells Jane he is looking for the grave of Millie Erne and wants to know how she came there.  Jane seems to have harbored friendly feelings for the late Millie and is willing to show him the grave, but does not give him any of the other information he seeks.  He agrees to stay and work for her until she does tell him.  Meanwhile, Bern rides out looking for rustled cattle and finds Oldring’s rustlers, including a strange masked rider.  When they come after him, he shoots them.  The masked rider turns out to be Bess (Robin Tunney), a female.  Bern hides her in an Indian cave dwelling and nurses her back to health.

Back at the ranch, Pastor Dyer shows up to lecture Jane and pulls a gun on Lassiter, who wounds him.  Jane’s one remaining hand, Judkins, is killed and her two best riding horses (Black Star and Night) are stolen.  Bern crosses paths with the thieves, recognizes Jane’s horses, and exchanges shots with them.  He gets several of them, including Oldring, but is captured by Tull, who is riding with the rustlers and takes Bern off to be hung (again) for stealing the horses and killing Judkins, which he obviously did not do.

At this point, Jane tells Lassiter that Pastor Dyer was the one who stole Millie Erne from her husband and family and gave her to Jane’s own father.  When her father tried to force Millie, she shot him and then herself.  Meanwhile, her father had given away Millie’s infant daughter.  Lassiter straps on his guns and heads to the church, where he blasts all the bad guys except Tull, including Dyer.  Taking Black Star and Night, Lassiter and Bern pick up Jane and head for the cave where Bess is waiting.  It develops that Bern and Bess are in love, that Bess is in fact Millie’s missing baby (although she thought she was Oldring’s daughter), and that Lassiter is Millie’s brother and has been following her trail for thirteen years.


The masked rider is (gasp!) a girl!  It’s Bess (Robin Tunney).

They see Tull and his riders heading for them, and Bern and Bess take off on Black Star and Night, leading the pursuit away and heading for a new future together.  Lassiter and Jane have only one horse for the two of them and head up the canyon to where Bern was hiding Bess.  As Tull eventually realizes his mistake in being led away and returns to follow Lassiter and Jane, they tip over a huge rock and cause a landslide on to him.  And presumably they live happily ever after.

As with Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet,” the 1912 Zane Grey novel makes Jane’s religious group specifically Mormons, following cultural conventions current when the book was written, what with Mormon reclusiveness, their practice of polygamy and supposed related woman-stealing.  This film makes the bad guys a non-specific religious cult, now that Mormons are more mainstream.  The action takes place in 1871, so Lassiter has been following the evildoers since before the Civil War, apparently.  This is only about 90 minutes long without commercials, and it does not flow well.  The Oldring thread of the story is not very developed.  The direction (by Charles Haid, once an actor on television’s Hill Street Blues in the early 1980s) seems like television direction, not using the spectacular canyon landscapes as well as it might.  The red rock shots seem like postcards, not related well to the surrounding terrain or to the story.  John Ford would have done it better; even Gore Verbinski did it better (in the otherwise forgettable The Lone Ranger), but they both probably had much bigger budgets.  There is good use of light and dark, which gives an appropriate 19th-century feeling and perhaps an occasional sense of the moral confusion Jane Withersteen is feeling.


Deacon Tull and his henchmen, in hot pursuit of Lassiter and Jane.

All in all, not great but worth watching—perhaps the best version on film of this antique story.  The previous most recent film version was made almost 60 years before this, in 1941.  This and several other often-retold western stories from its era (The Virginian, Whispering Smith) can seem kind of clunky and dated to modern viewers.  This story has a great title–good enough to be adopted by a country-rock group in the late 1960s and by three separate country-western groups.  But it’s unclear what riders are referred to in this story.  Everybody rides the purple sage:  rustlers, religious zealots, ranchers, spunky spinsters and mysterious gunmen.  Zane Grey is not read nearly so much as he was a hundred years ago, and his cultural assumptions and floridly romantic sensibility have not worn well.  His writing style is not much to modern tastes, either.  But he still tells a good story if one takes the trouble to read him.

Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, the leads, were married when this was made, and they were also executive producers.  All four of the leads here give good performances, and it’s a shame the film doesn’t have a good flow to make better use of them.  Apparently Ed Harris liked westerns enough after this experience to direct and star in his own several years later:  Appaloosa in 2008.

This was made for television’s TNT network which, in the late 1990s and early 2000s was one of the best places to see new westerns and remakes of old western stories, often with Tom Selleck or Sam Elliot.  Another classic western story from this period of TNT’s sponsorship is the 2000 version of The Virginian, directed by Bill Pullman and starring Pullman and Diane Lane.

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