Tag Archives: Howard Hawks

Great Directors: Howard Hawks

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 23, 2014

Howard Hawks

Hawks

“I’m a storyteller – that’s the chief function of a director.  And they’re moving pictures.  Let’s make ‘em move!”

The Gray Fox (as Hawks is called in the subtitle of a biography by Todd McCarthy) was a contemporary of John Ford and rivals Ford’s record of brilliant films across a spectrum of movie genres.  He only made five westerns, but four of them are great or near-great, and he was much better at gangster movies and comedies than Ford.  His films continue to rank very high in re-watchability, and they are known for assertive female roles in a pre-feminist age.  Many of his films seem to examine a Hemingway-esque vision of what it means to be a man (Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not [based on a Hemingway story] and Rio Bravo, for example).  

Howard Hawks was born into a wealthy family in Indiana in 1896.  They settled in Pasadena, California, before 1910, but he attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Cornell, majoring in mechanical engineering.  Returning to California in 1916, he met fledgling director Victor Fleming while racing cars, and Fleming’s connections drew him into the movie business.   By the end of April 1917 Hawks was working on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American, where he met and befriended the then eighteen-year-old slate boy James Wong Howe.  Hawks next worked on the Mary Pickford film The Little Princess, directed by Marshall Neilan.  According to Hawks, Neilan did not show up to work one day and the resourceful Hawks offered to direct a scene himself, which Pickford agreed to allow.

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He began to direct more regularly, along with serving irregularly in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I.  He was discharged as a Second Lieutenant without having seen active duty.  Hawks used his family money to make a loan to Jack Warner, and that gave him an in at Warner Brothers as a producer.  But by 1923, he decided he wanted to direct, rather than produce.  He became a story editor for Jesse Lasky (later Paramount), based on a recommendation by Irving Thalberg, and had his first official screenplay credit in 1924 on Tiger Love.  He moved to MGM in 1925 based on a promise by Thalberg that he could direct.  He quickly moved on to Fox, where he directed eight films over the next three years, making the transition from silents to talkies.  He would be an active director for the next 45 years.  After the expiration of his contract with Fox in 1929, he remained an independent director for the rest of his career.

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Hawks’ first talkie, The Dawn Patrol, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Richard Barthelmess, was remade in 1938 with Errol Flynn and David Niven by a different director.  Barthelmess would show up again in a Hawks flying movie in 1939 (Only Angels Have Wings), a comeback role for him and one of his last.

In 1928, Hawks married Athole Shearer, Norma’s sister.  His brothers Kenneth and Bill married Mary Astor and Bessie Love, so the family became even better connected in the industry.  In all, Hawks would be married three times.  Kenneth, also an up-and-coming young director, died in a spectacular and much-publicized airplane collision over Santa Monica Bay in 1930 while filming Such Men Are Dangerous.

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As Hawks’ career as a director took off in the 1930s, he showed his versatility.  After his first talkie, The Dawn Patrol (1930), he made the first great gangster movie, Scarface (1932).  He proceeded to show a deft touch with screwball comedies, including Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940) and Ball of Fire (1941).  His best films of the period also include male action films like Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Sergeant York (1941, for which he received his only nomination for  the Best Director Oscar), To Have and Have Not (1944) and, edging into film noir, The Big Sleep (1946). 

He cast young model Lauren Bacall in her first role in To Have and Have Not, where she met Humphrey Bogart.  Her character is called Slim, like Hawks’ wife at the time, and her assertiveness and manner of speaking are characteristic of the typical Hawks female.  Among the writers he worked with on this project and others from the period were his favorites William Faulkner, Jules Furthmann and Leigh Brackett.  Hawks was a friend of author Ernest Hemingway, and apparently To Have and Have Not arose from a bet by Hawks that he could make a good movie out of Hemingway’s worst story.  He did.

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Hawks directing Red River, with John Wayne and Joanne Dru.

In 1941, he had started directing The Outlaw, Howard Hughes’ Billy the Kid movie, but he didn’t finish it and was uncredited on the project—just as well, since it’s kind of a cinematic bomb.  In 1946 Hawks made his first western (if you don’t count Viva Villa!, the 1934 biopic about the Mexican revolutionary), the classic Red River, starring John Wayne and introducing Montgomery Clift.  It is the first great cattle drive western, and it finally convinced John Ford that John Wayne could really act.  Wayne went on to his long-term partnership with Ford, making the Cavalry Trilogy, The Searchers and others, but he also continued to work with Hawks, appearing in four of Hawks’ five westerns and in Hatari! (1962).  The release of Red River was delayed for a couple of years while Howard Hughes raised spurious legal claims against it, but upon its eventual release, it was a great box office and critical success.

The second of Hawks’ five westerns was 1952’s The Big Sky, with Kirk Douglas and Arthur Hunnicutt, a mountain man-fur trading story set in the 1830s and based on a best-selling novel by A.B. Guthrie.  It’s not often seen now, because (a) the film was mutilated in the cutting room by the studio to shorten it, and the footage that was removed has mostly been lost, and (b) it’s not available on DVD.  But it is an excellent western, the second-best mountain man movie yet made, after Jeremiah Johnson.

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Blocking out a fight scene with Kirk Douglas for The Big Sky, directing Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo.

Hawks’ third western was another classic, Rio Bravo in 1959, with John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson.  Hawks said he made it in part as his take on the High Noon situation.  In the Hawks version, the beleaguered sheriff John T. Chance does not go around asking for help from townspeople but puts together a team consisting of himself, a drunk former deputy (Dean Martin, effective in an early movie role), a gimpy jailer (veteran character actor Walter Brennan) and a young untested gunman (singer-television actor Ricky Nelson) to fight much greater numbers.  It was taken as a commercial sort of film and not given much critical attention on its release, but time has shown it to be one of the very best westerns and a film with high re-watchability.  Angie Dickinson’s female gambler-dance hall girl Feathers is quite similar in her assertiveness to Slim in To Have and Have Not.  With writers Jules Furthmann and Leigh Brackett the same on both projects, the dialogue even sounds quite similar.

Hawks liked Rio Bravo so well that he used the story twice more for the basis of his last two westerns, both times with John Wayne again.  El Dorado (1966) is mostly successful, although not a classic like Rio Bravo.  Starring Robert Mitchum as a drunken sheriff with Wayne’s ethical gunman, it’s quite worth watching.   He made the story again in his last movie and last western, Rio Lobo (1970), and it’s not a very good movie—his only western dud.  Hawks died in 1977.

HawksFaulkner Working with William Faulkner.

Among the themes to which Hawks returned in his movies is an examination of male bonding and what it means to be a man.  Those are strongly present in his first talkie, Dawn Patrol (1930, with obvious connections to his World War I flying experiences), and he comes back to it throughout his career.  Compare Only Angels Have Wings from 1939 and Rio Bravo from twenty years later in that regard.  He’s more persuasive than Sam Peckinpah in dealing with those themes, in part because he doesn’t take his eye off the story and doesn’t lose his footing in self-indulgence as Peckinpah sometimes could.

Hawks didn’t win the awards that John Ford did, but his best work in a variety of genres is still widely watched.  Some would say that it ages better than Ford’s work, not being hampered by Fordian nostalgia and sentimentality.  In general, his work does not have the visual sense of Ford’s best movies; although Hawks’ visuals are less obtrusive, he is fine visually without calling much attention to that aspect of his work.  He was known for the use of overlapping dialogue in his films (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday), including his westerns; see, for example, Red River and Rio Bravo., especially in male-female interchanges.  He is remembered now as one of the great directors of Hollywood’s golden age, into the 1960s.  Hawks’ own definition of what constitutes a good movie is revealing of his no-nonsense style:  “Three great scenes, no bad ones.”  Hawks also defined a good director as “someone who doesn’t annoy you.”  If what he made was art, he didn’t want to talk about it that way.  His reputation as a director is higher now than it was during his lifetime.

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Hawks Western Essentials:  Red River, The Big Sky, Rio Bravo

Second-Rank Hawks:  El Dorado

Don’t Bother:  Rio Lobo

Hawks Non-Western Essentials:  Scarface, Twentieth Century, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Ball of Fire, Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Monkey Business, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

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

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

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

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

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Notable Directors of Westerns

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

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

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

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

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One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

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

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

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

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

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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The Big Sky

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 29, 2013

The Big Sky—Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Elizabeth Threatt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Henri Letondal, Steven Geray, Buddy Baer, Hank Worden, Jim Davis (1952; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

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Underrated and slow-developing story of the voyage of the keelboat Mandan up the Missouri River in 1832 to trade with the Blackfoot Indians.  In other words, it’s a mountain man movie–the second best of that kind, after Jeremiah Johnson.  The guide and hunter for the expedition is Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt); his nephew Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) and Boone’s friend Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) learn their way in the unopened west as they go along.  Frenchie (Steven Geray), the head of the expedition, intends to bypass the usual fur company trade channels and go directly to trade with the Blackfeet at the headwaters of the Missouri, a trip of 2000 miles from St. Louis.  He is taking along non-English-speaking Teal Eye (half-Cherokee actress Elizabeth Threatt), a Blackfoot princess captured by the Crows and sold down the Missouri River, hoping she will facilitate trade with the otherwise hostile Blackfeet.  The expedition also acquires Poordevil (Hank Worden), an alcoholic Blackfoot who ends up being quite useful. 

BigSkyKeelboat Heading up the Big Muddy.

On the way upriver the Mandan is attacked by fur company minions led by Streak (Jim Davis) and by Crow allies of the fur company.  On the way Deakins and Caudill both develop relationships with Teal Eye, notwithstanding her initial hostility to Caudill and lack of English skills.  Aside from the conflicts with the fur company and Crows, the other questions are whether it will be Deakins or Caudill that Teal Eye will choose, and whether the one she chooses will stay with her or go back down the river. 

BigSky3 Boone, Zeb and Deakins.

The best actor in this film is Hunnicutt as mountain man Zeb Calloway, and he also provides the voice-over narration.  This may be his best role ever, and he is utterly convincing with period dialogue that could well seem highly artificial from another actor.  Kirk Douglas is the best-known of the stars today, and he is fine, playing the whole film with his hat pushed back on his head.  There are several reasons the film isn’t better-known today despite its top-of-the-line director and excellent quality.  Two of the leads, Threatt and Martin, didn’t have notable movie careers, although they are good here.  This was Threatt’s only film, and Martin had only a modest few good roles in the early 1950s before drifting into television work. 

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Elizabeth Threatt as Blackfoot maiden Teal Eye.  Douglas and director Hawks block out a fight scene.

Another is that the movie was not shot in widescreen or color at a time when westerns with any scope or ambition (Shane, Bend of the River) were mostly shot that way.  It was not particularly successful on its initial release.  A little slow-paced at its original 141 minutes, it was later edited down to 122 minutes by the studio, and it is difficult to find a decent print of the extended version these days.  That is what TCM shows, however, and the re-inserted material is of noticeably worse quality visually and in its sound.  It is in need of restoration and is not available on DVD currently (2013). 

This was an expensive production shot on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming–like Shane and Jubal.  Hawks was both director and producer.  Based on a classic novel by Montana author A.B. Guthrie, the screenplay was written by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach et al.).  The music is by Dimitri Tiomkin.  The black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan and supporting actor Hunnicutt were both nominated for Academy Awards.  The novel is probably still stronger than this film.  If it had been made a few years earlier (at the time of Hawks’ Red River, say, when color and scale expections were smaller), the movie would probably be regarded as a classic.  It’s one of Hawks’ three best westerns.

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If you like Arthur Hunnicutt here, look for him in smaller roles in two other good westerns from 1950:  Broken Arrow and Two Flags West.  For other westerns based on novels by A.B. Guthrie, see The Way West, also with Kirk Douglas (1967), or the seldom-seen These Thousand Hills (1959).  This is better, though.

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El Dorado

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 16, 2013

El Dorado—John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Charlene Holt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Ed Asner, R.G. Armstrong, Christopher George, Michele Carey (1966; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

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Seven years after Rio Bravo (1959), director Howard Hawks largely remade the same story with the same leading man:  John Wayne as gunman Cole Thornton in El Dorado.  Wayne is seven years longer in the tooth (now at age 58), and it shows.  Although he has a (much younger) romantic interest in Charlene Holt’s Maudie, the romance doesn’t really provide the audience with the same kind of interest that the (much younger) Angie Dickinson did in Rio Bravo.  El Dorado is still quite watchable, if not in the same classic category as Rio Bravo; i.e., it’s not as bad as the eventual third remake (and Hawks’ last film), Rio Lobo (1970).

Why isn’t it as good as Rio Bravo, aside from an older lead?  Two reasons:  the story is slightly more complicated and doesn’t hang together as well (i.e., the writing is not as good), and the cast by and large isn’t as differentiated and doesn’t have the same chemistry.  Robert Mitchum as alcoholic sheriff J.P. Harrah is older than Dean Martin and has a different chemistry with Wayne—more equal.  He’s good, though different.  Neither of the female characters has the same charisma as Dickinson, although the writing isn’t as good for them here, either.  Ed Asner as Bart Jason is in his unappealing glowering villain mode (e.g., Skin Game) without much variety in his small one-note part.  Christopher George as Jason’s hired gunman Nelse McLeod is snakily charming, and George apparently became a favorite of John Wayne’s (getting future parts in Chisum and The Train Robbers); too bad for him it was so late in Wayne’s career. 

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Cole Thornton (John Wayne), Nelse McLeod (Christopher George) and Mississippi (James Caan).

A young James Caan becomes slightly tiresome with his silly hat (we don’t care about it as much as the characters seem to), inability to shoot a gun, frequent quoting of the Poe poem of the title and especially with his unconvincing imitation of a Chinaman.  A significant part of his problems may be in the writing of his unnecessary character; cf. Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo and Stuart Whitman in The Comancheros, both better in similar parts as Wayne’s apprentice.  Caan was a better actor than Nelson, but the script doesn’t work in his favor.  At least there’s no singing here. 

R.G. Armstrong is Kevin MacDonald, head of the numerous MacDonald clan.  Thankfully, he’s not always spouting Bible passages, as he seems to in most Sam Peckinpah movies in which he appeared.  The ensemble never really comes together.  The one role that may be better than the original is Arthur Hunnicutt as bugle-playing Bull, in the Walter Brennan cantankerous old deputy part.  (For other Hunnicutt performances, look for him in The Tall T, The Big Sky, Two Flags West, Broken Arrow and even with a cameo as a too-old Butch Cassidy in Cat Ballou.)

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Wayne’s Cole Thornton is an aging gunman, not so convincing here with a pistol.  He sometimes seems to wear it around his butt; he’s better with a longarm as a favorite weapon (Hondo and Rio Bravo).  The story is in two parts.  In the first part, Thornton is offered a job in the town of El Dorado by Bart Jason, asked to use his gun skills to drive the largish MacDonald family off their ranch so Jason can get their water rights.  Thornton refuses but unintentionally kills one of the younger MacDonald sons, played here by Johnny Crawford of the television show The Rifleman.  Sister Joey MacDonald (Michele Carey, with big hair, a useless hat, tight pants and a supposedly feisty attitude) shoots Thornton in the back, giving him a continuing injury which results in occasional pain and paralysis in his right (shooting) hand.  (You can see the climax coming now, right?) 

In part two, several months later in another town Thornton encounters McLeod, hired by Jason for the job Thornton had refused.  McLeod is now headed to El Dorado with a band of gunmen.  Thornton helps out knife-throwing Mississippi (Caan) in a bar room dispute, acquires him as an unwanted partner, and hears that his old friend Harrah has become a drunk over a bad woman, although he’s still the sheriff.  Thornton gets to El Dorado barely before McLeod and tries to sober up Harrah.  After a little more development, the shooting of one MacDonald son and the kidnapping of another by the sleazy Jason minions, Thornton participates in a climactic shoot-out which would be unchivalrous except for Thornton’s impairment. 

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Sometimes the gun hand works.

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Sometimes it doesn’t.

Taken directly from Rio Bravo is a scene in which Thornton and Harrah pursue an assassin into a bar and the boozy Harrah gets the evildoer while facing down a crowd that treats him contemptuously.  This time the scene is not as good as the original, although Mitchum does kill a piano.  (If the bartender seems sort of familiar, he is played by Jim Mitchum, Robert’s brother, and there’s a physical resemblance.)  In the end, it seems that Thornton gets Maudie (or she finally gets him), but the movie doesn’t really care much about that. 

There are some noticeable continuity problems.  Consider the wounded characters (Thornton and Harrah) constantly switching the arms their crutches are under, or Joey MacDonald’s wet and not wet butt in the scene where she shoots Thornton.  This wouldn’t seem to be careful direction from the normally masterful Hawks.  Other elements (lighting, camera angles, composition, etc.) are what you’d expect from a master.

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Production still of stars John Wayne, Charlene Holt and Robert Mitchum. One of them seems to be underdressed.

Robert Mitchum said later that when Howard Hawks asked him to be in the film, Mitchum asked about the story of the film.  Hawks reportedly replied that the story didn’t matter because the film had some “great characters.”  That attitude toward the story is the cause of the movie’s weaknesses.  There are too many characters and the story never entirely comes together, despite the fact that the screenwriter is Leigh Brackett, an excellent writer who worked on Rio Bravo and a number of other Hawks classics.  Of course, she also worked on Rio Lobo, which was to be even worse than this one.  The script here has some good lines.  Thornton:  “Either one of you know a fast way to sober a man up?”  Bull:  “A bunch of howlin’ Indians out for hair’ll do it quicker’n anything I know.”  But the whole is somehow less than its parts.  This, The War Wagon and Big Jake are similarly watchable, but not great, westerns from the same late period in Wayne’s career—not as bad as either Rio Lobo or The Train Robbers.  And better than Chisum and Cahill U.S. Marshal, even.  Even if he was John Wayne, he needed a good premise, good writing, and roles that took his age into account.

This didn’t mean that Wayne’s career was basically done or stuck in endless repeats, though.  He would yet play one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit the next year (1968), for which he won his only Oscar, aging rancher Wil Andersen in The Cowboys (1972), and J.B. Books in The Shootist (1976).  He was at the top of his game in all those, and they are better movies than El Dorado.

Shooting on the film started in late 1965. The movie was trade-screened to exhibitors on 15 November 1966 but not released until June 1967—about the same time as The War Wagon.  Both did well enough at the box office.

eldoradoPosterJapElDoradoPolish

Howard Hawks didn’t really make many westerns–only five–although he did have a long and illustrious career as a director of movies.  If you throw out his last movie and worst western (Rio Lobo), the remaining four (Red River, The Big Sky, Rio Bravo, and El Dorado) stand up pretty well.

Trivia:  A belt buckle that John Wayne sports in many scenes features the Red River D brand, an homage to his first collaboration with Howard Hawks twenty years earlier in Red River (1948).  The opening credits feature a montage of original paintings that depict various scenes of cowboy life in the Old West.  The artist was Olaf Wieghorst, who appears in the film as the gunsmith Swede Larsen and provides Mississippi with his sawed-off shotgun sidearm.

More trivia:  El Dorado is not only the name of the town where the Robert Mitchum character is sheriff and where much of the action takes place.  It is also the name of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, quoted more than once by Mississippi.  Name another western in which the Poe poem is quoted by a character.  For the answer, click here.

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Red River

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 27, 2013

Red River–John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Noah Beery, Jr. (1948; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

This is the first of the two brilliant westerns (1959’s Rio Bravo is the other) on which Hawks’ reputation as a director of westerns rests.  Hawks was not particularly known for westerns, although most everybody in Hollywood who had worked in the industry as long as Hawks had some kind of experience with westerns.

redriverPosterredriverPosterSweden

What makes this one brilliant?  It marks the bringing of serious themes from other genres into westerns—the father-son conflict between Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), for example; the nature of leadership and its moral boundaries; competition between two young men with similar skills but different principles; and a complex relationship between a strong man and an assertive female.  It’s a great trail drive story, with overtones of obsession (Wayne’s character, foreshadowing the obsessiveness of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers).  The other relationships in the movie are not simple, especially when it seems the characters have to take sides between Dunson and Garth:  Loyal family retainer Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan), who loves them both; gunhand Cherry Valance (John Ireland), who competes with Garth but respects him nevertheless; and Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who is attracted to Garth romantically but like Groot has to mediate between Garth and the vengeful Dunson, while we try to figure out what kind of woman she is.

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Young Dunson (John Wayne) and his doomed love.

Dunson is a hard man from the start of the movie.  We first see him in 1851 with a wagon train heading from St. Louis toward California.  As Dunson and Groot leave the wagon train to head south into Texas across the Red River, Dunson’s girl in another wagon begs to go along.  He says he’ll send for her, and they part ways.  Comanches attack the train after Dunson leaves, and he sees the smoke from a distance.  Several attack Dunson and Groot, too; he fights them off, but they kill one of his two cattle.  They find the boy Matthew Garth wandering through the brush, a survivor of the attack who’d been chasing his cow when the Comanches came.   Dunson and Groot take him with them, farther south into Texas.  When Dunson finds the land he wants, it’s part of a huge Spanish land grant whose owner lives south of the Rio Grande.  Dunson figures he can take it, and he starts his ranch there with the brand Red River D.

Fast forward to the end of the Civil War, in 1865.  Garth returns from service in the war (presumably with the Confederacy), and Dunson has developed a huge herd for which there are no buyers in Texas.  Dunson wants to trail the herd a thousand miles north over the Chisholm Trail to the railroad in Missouri, something which has never been done successfully.  The rest of the movie is the epic story is of that first cattle drive north from Texas. 

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Cherry Valance (John Ireland) and Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) test each other.

It takes somebody as obsessive as Dunson to drive the herd (and his men).  They take off with the famous “Yee-haw” scene, and it’s not a smooth trip.  There is a night stampede, resulting in deaths both human and bovine.  Some of the men can’t take it and want to quit; Dunson becomes increasingly unreasonable, with his megalomania out of control.  When he plans to hang two deserters, Garth steps in and stops him.  Garth takes control of the herd, moving it north across the Red River and into Kansas, heading for Abilene rather than Sedalia, Missouri, as Dunson had insisted.  None of them know whether the railroad is really in Abilene, although with our modern point of view we have a pretty good idea that it is.

As they move into Kansas, they’re harassed by marauding Indians and wary of the pursuing Dunson.  The cowboys temporarily leave the herd to rescue a bunch of traveling gamblers and loose women from Indian attack, and Garth meets Tess Millay, who is wounded in the attack.  They are taken with each other, but Garth has his drive to finish and Dunson to deal with, and the herd moves on to the north.

redriverIndianAttack Tess attacked by Indians.

Dunson and his new men reach the gamblers’ camp and learn of the Indian attack and the herd’s movements.  Dunson wants to replace Garth as his son, and offers Tess half his ranch if she’ll bear him a son; she says she’ll do it if he gives up his plan to kill Garth¸ and she accompanies him toward Abilene.  Meanwhile, Garth and the herd make it there first, and Garth gets a top price for the herd, about $50,000.  This sets up the final scene, where all the characters sort out their loyalties and the means they’ll use to defend them.  The resolution of the father-son fight is abrupt and a little silly, but the rest of the movie is so good we can put up with that.

The movie was made in 1946 but sat on the shelf for two years before its release because of a dispute with Howard Hughes.  It features more adult and complex relationships than most previous westerns. It has a superb cast, and excellent direction.  This was Montgomery Clift’s first film, and he manages to be persuasive, if not entirely convincing, next to the overpowering physicality of John Wayne.  The women are unusually assertive for a western, both Joanne Dru (Mrs. John Ireland) and Coleen Gray, although Gray in her first film role gets just a couple of minutes of screen time.  The numerous supporting characters are well-written and well-acted, and they include, in addition to Dru, Ireland and Brennan, Noah Beery, Jr., Harry Carey (Sr. and Jr.), Chief Yowlachie as an Indian trail hand, Hank Worden, Coleen Gray and many others.  Appearing uncredited are Richard Farnsworth as a Dunson rider and Shelley Winters as a dance hall girl with the gamblers.

John_Wayne - red river The final confrontation.

Excellent management of all these supporting roles gives them each differentiation and development while not impeding the overall pacing of the movie.  It adds to the large-scale feel of the film.  There’s so much going on that it rewards re-watching.  It’s ambitious and long for the year it was released, especially for a western—about two and a quarter hours.  After more than 60 years, this remains the greatest of the trail drive movies except for Lonesome Dove, which was not really playing by the same rules. 

There are some excellent visual touches, like the shadow that passes over the sun during the funeral of the young cowboy killed during the stampede.  Russell Harlan was the cinematographer.  The music is by Oscar-winning movie composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who also did the music for Hawks’ Rio Bravo more than ten years later as well as numerous other movies.  The tune for “Settle Down,” the theme for Red River, gets recycled in Rio Bravo when sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin.

RedRiverDruHawksDru and Hawks light up behind the scenes.

Wayne considered this film his second breakthrough, after Stagecoach.  (Maybe his third, if you consider his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, which nobody saw.)  Playing much older than he really was, as the megalomaniacal Tom Dunson, gave him a chance to demonstrate his acting chops in a film that a lot of people did see.  Even John Ford, who had cast him in Stagecoach almost ten years previously, was rumored to have said after seeing Red River, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!”  And the most productive period of their collaboration was coming up, with the cavalry trilogy and The Searchers.  Both Wayne and Hawks wore their Red River D belt buckles from this film for many years when dressed in jeans.  You sometimes see it popping up on Wayne in other westerns–nine of them in total.

Director Howard Hawks had initially wanted Jack Beutel (who had played Billy the Kid in The Outlaw) for the role of Matthew Garth.  But he got lucky when Beutel was still under contract to Howard Hughes, who was nursing a grudge against Hawks for their falling-out over The Outlaw a few years earlier.  Clift turned out to be a much better actor.  Wayne had misgivings about the difference in their sizes during the climactic fight, but Hawks was known for his ability to block and stage fights convincingly on film.  Wayne ultimately conceded that Hawks knew what he was doing.  Clift had never been in a western before, and never would be again.  Hawks advised him to watch and imitate stuntman Richard Farnsworth.  “Montgomery, you walk along behind him and watch him carefully.  If he scratches his butt, you scratch yours.  He’s a real cowboy.”  Red River made Clift a star.  Meanwhile, Farnsworth worked in westerns as a stuntman and in bit parts and waited more than 35 years for his own breakthrough role in The Grey Fox.

As of May 2014, Red River is now available on an excellent DVD set from Criterion Collection.

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Rio Bravo

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 11, 2013

Rio Bravo—John Wayne, Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan, John Russell, Claude Akins (1959; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

Well, John Wayne, yes, of course.  But Dean Martin?  Ricky Nelson?  Who’d be able to make this work at all, let alone make it memorable?  Director Howard Hawks, that’s who.  Rio Bravo’s initial commercial success and the enduring respect in which it is held are usually credited principally to Hawks, with considerable justification.  Hawks was one of the great directors of his long era, from silent movies to the 1970s, and he didn’t work in westerns all that often.  Rio Bravo was a commercial sort of movie, not held in great critical regard at the time of its release in 1959.  But that respect has increased over the ensuing 50 years, and it still scores high in re-watchability.  Various of the elements of the casting and film shouldn’t work, but they do. 

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The title apparently comes from the fact that Mexicans refer to the Rio Grande as the Rio Bravo.  The central plot is fairly common.  Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) of Presidio County, Texas, is holding the local land baron’s brother in his jail on a murder charge, and faces insuperable odds in trying to keep him there until a U.S. marshal arrives to take custody of the miscreant.  Tension builds as Chance puts together his beleaguered team, strategy develops on both sides and the odds against Chance rise.  Subplots involve the rehabilitation of his alcoholic deputy Dude (Martin) and an unlikely romance between Chance and young gambler/dance hall girl Feathers (Angie Dickinson).

rio-bravodude Dude battles his demons.

This was a first film for Martin and Nelson, and very early in Dickinson’s career.  Wayne was in the stage of his career (after The Searchers) where his characters became frankly middle-aged.  Martin and Nelson were both better known as singers than actors, and for commercial purposes (and presumably to show male bonding), there had to be a scene where song breaks out.  It’s the cheesiest moment in the movie, but surprisingly it doesn’t undercut the development of the film.  Martin is excellent, as he was in another, later western (The Sons of Katie Elder).  Nelson didn’t have much of a film career, but he was fine in this as youthful gunfighter Colorado Ryan.  Dickinson was remarkable as the young gambler Feathers in a May-December romance with Chance.

There are lots of moments that stick with you:  Chance giving the most threatening “Good evening” greeting you’ll ever see on film as he passes a suspect character on the street at night.  In a saloon, an angry Chance turns, bashes a bad guy with his rifle and then says of the bleeding thug on the floor, “Aw, I won’t hurt him.”  In the villain’s saloon, a frowzy, despised Dude rubs his stubbled jaw, spins, draws, shoots and drops a killer in the shadows above him who’s been dripping blood into a beer on the bar.  Chance’s tough love to the recovering alcoholic deputy:  “’Sorry’ don’t get it done, Dude.”  Any of three exchanges between Chance and Feathers in her hotel room.  Walter Brennan’s incessant cackling and complaining as Stumpy, the lame jailhouse guard.  Colorado finally buying into the big fight by tossing Chance his rifle in the street while the bad guy’s thugs have the drop on him.  The constant playing of the Deguello, the threatening Mexican trumpet and guitar music (composed by Dimitri Tiomkin) emanating from the bad guy’s saloon, supposedly meaning “no quarter will be given.”  John Russell’s tall, smooth and impeccably dressed villain verbally spars with Chance at the jail.  (This was Russell’s most memorable role in a modest career.)

riobravo1 Arresting brother Joe.

And there are lots of small touches that work well in retrospect:  The way Wayne’s character favors a rifle (as he did in Hondo and several other movies) as his weapon of choice, and how he handles it.  Martin’s sloppy attire and convincing degradation when his character is a drunk.  The use of roll-your-own cigarettes throughout the movie, as an indication of male bonding.  Wayne’s convincingly battered hat, which he used from 1939’s Stagecoach for the next 20 years of movies (see, for example, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Hondo), tilted forward on his head with the front brim bent slightly up.

A few touches don’t work as well:  The singing scene is not universally beloved.  And the stock-Mexican portrayals of the hotel keeper and his wife don’t play as well today as they may have 50 years ago.  But the movie is remarkably sure-footed, and what seems to be a leisurely plot development seldom drags.

Rio-Bravo-chancefeathers Chance and Feathers

Hawks said that one of the interests for him in making Rio Bravo was to make a counter-statement to Fred Zinneman’s High Noon, released six years earlier and nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.  Instead of trying to get help from townspeople and cattle drovers (as does Marshal Will Kane in High Noon), Chance here prefers to rely instead on a very small group of professionals for his support.  Hawks was also not impressed with the drawn-out slow-motion violence of Peckinpah’s influential The Wild Bunch a decade later; he thought that violence was more effective if it was over quickly as in real life, instead of glorifying it in extended slower sequences.

Hawks was known for stealing from himself, re-using material that had worked in his other films.  The Chance-Feathers relationship is very reminiscent of the middle-aged Bogart and young Lauren Bacall in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944).  Even some of Feathers’ lines are virtually the same, and she shows a very similar aggressiveness in the relationship.  Walter Brennan was also a principal supporting character in To Have and Have Not.  There are similar pop musical touches in both movies, with Hoagy Carmichael in To Have and Have Not and Martin/Nelson in Rio Bravo. 

riobravohawks Director Hawks and Angie Dickinson

Later, Hawks would remake Rio Bravo twice more, with diminishing success each time.  1966’s El Dorado featured Wayne again, with Robert Mitchum in the Martin role and a young James Caan in the Nelson role.  It worked, but not as well as Rio Bravo.  Rio Lobo in 1970, again starring Wayne, used many of the same plot elements.  It was Hawks’ last film and not one of his more successful in a number of ways.  John Carpenter took the plot as the basis for his 1976 urban action film Assault on Precinct 16.

Some credit for the enduring success of Rio Bravo should go to excellent screen-writing by two frequent Hawks collaborators:  Jules Furthman (a screenwriter since 1915, with Mutiny on the Bounty, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The Outlaw, Nighmare Alley) and Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep, Hatari, El Dorado, Rio Lobo, The Empire Strikes Back).  As with most great films, however, a number of elements worked together well to produce something worth remembering.

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