Tag Archives: James Garner

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Skin Game

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 19, 2014

Skin Game—James Garner, Louis Gossett, Jr., Susan Clark, Ed Asner, Brenda Sykes, Andrew Duggan (1971; Dir: Paul Bogart, Gordon Douglas [uncredited])


This was the third and last of the three good western comedies starring James Garner in his amiable con-man persona.  Some might also consider Sunset and Maverick from late in Garner’s career to belong in the same category, but this is Garner in his prime.  Here he is ably joined by Louis Gossett and Susan Clark.

Not long before the Civil War, Quincy Drew (Garner) and his friend and partner Jason Rourke (Gossett) are running a con in Missouri.  Jason is a free black man from New Jersey; the two met in a Pennsylvania jail and started working together.  The two of them ride into a town in a border state, with Quincy pretending to be an impoverished slave owner reduced to selling his favorite slave.  He conducts an impromptu auction, usually in a bar, and rides out of town with the proceeds.  Jason later escapes at an opportune moment and rejoins Quincy, to repeat the con in another town.


Selling Jason (Lou Gossett) again.

They find themselves in Kansas, which is voting on whether to adopt slavery amid high political feelings on both sides.  Quincy puts Jason in a larger slave auction, but things don’t run smoothly this time.  Jason becomes enamored of Naomi (Brenda Sykes), another young slave up for sale.  Quincy is attracted to Ginger (Susan Clark), with whom he strikes up a liaison.  Matters are further complicated when fiery abolitionist John Brown (played by Royal Dano) shows up and violently liberates the slaves, and Quincy finds that Ginger has liberated him from his stash of money.

Jason and Quincy manage to find each other again, but matters still do not run smoothly.  Trying the con just one last time, Quincy’s con is exposed by Plunkett (Ed Asner), a nasty slave trader who has already bought Jason once.  Plunkett takes Jason south and sells him down the river, and Quincy is tossed in jail.  To Quincy’s surprise, Ginger manages to spring him from jail and volunteers to help him rescue Jason.


Quincy (James Garner) is taken with (and by) Ginger (Susan Clark).

They pose as medical missionaries seeking a slave with leprosy, as they look for wherever Jason may have been sold.  They find him at the Calloway plantation in Texas, with Naomi and several African recent arrivals who don’t speak English but have a way with horses.  The Africans have adopted Jason as their leader, and he refuses to leave without them.  Quincy is exposed while plotting their getaway, and is given a taste of the whip.  But the group manages to escape and head for Mexico.  It looks like Quincy and Ginger will stick together, although they still have issues about who’s in control and who holds the money.

As a western comedy, this is fairly successful.  It seems unlikely that a comedy with slavery as one of its central elements would be made today.  Among filmmakers, the current sensibility is not to see slavery as an element of history, but to portray it as so unrelievedly evil and patently wrong that no comedy can exist in its presence.  But in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were two good western comedies involving slavery: this, and 1968’s The Scalphunters, with Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.  Django Unchained (2012) also comes to mind as a recent western involving slavery with some comedic elements, but it is not primarily a comedy and Quentin Tarantino is unusually strong-minded in going his own way as a director.  The slavery element will rub some viewers the wrong way, but this movie does not condone slavery in any way.  If anything, it expresses some slightly anachronistic but perhaps accurate views of how slavery affected people, as Quincy is educated in how it feels.  It’s worth watching but seldom seen.


James Garner is the principal reason to watch this, but Lou Gossett balances him nicely in a strong performance.  The friendship between them is persuasive.  To see more comedic Garner from the same period, look for Support Your Local Sheriff (1969, perhaps his very best movie and role of this kind) and its sequel of sorts, Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971, with mostly the same team but not as successfully done).  Susan Clark is surprisingly good as the amoral pickpocket-con woman Ginger, a good match for Garner’s Quincy.  To see her in another western, check her out as Burt Lancaster’s reluctant hunting companion in Valdez Is Coming, also from 1971.  Ed Asner as Plunkett also makes an excellent despicable slave trader and villain.  As another villain, see him as greedy range boss Bart Jason in El Dorado (1966), with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum.


A taste of the lash for Quincy when he is discovered trying to free slaves.

In color, at 102 minutes.  As with Django Unchained, there is heavy use of the “N-word,” which is probably historically accurate.  Not to be confused with the seldom-seen Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1931, The Skin Game.  The characters from the movie later appeared in a made-for-television sequel Sidekicks (1974) directed by Burt Kennedy, with Lou Gossett reprising his role as Jason Rourke (or O’Rourke) and Larry Hagman playing the part of Quincy (or Quince) Drew.  This time the two con artists after the Civil War hatch a scheme to collect a $15,000 bounty offered for the capture of an outlaw.  For another comedy from the same period with slavery as one of its key points, see The Scalphunters from 1968.

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Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 12, 2014

Shoot-Out At Medicine Bend—Randolph Scott, James Garner, Angie Dickinson, James Craig, Gordon Jones, Dani Crayne (1957; Dir:  Richard L. Bare)


Made in black and white at a time when most westerns, even such low-budget productions as Budd Boetticher’s Ranown movies starring Randolph Scott, were in color.  To the modern viewer, the attraction is the cast, with Randolph Scott in his prime, James Garner in an early movie role about the time he was starting out in television’s Maverick series, and the young Angie Dickinson two years before Rio Bravo.

Ex-cavalry Captain Buck Devlin (Randolph Scott), Sgt. James Maitland (young James Garner) and Pvt. Wilbur Clegg (Gordon Jones) are trying to find out who’s providing the faulty ammunition that’s getting soldiers killed in fights with the Sioux.  They are helped by Quakers, and claim to be Quakers themselves as they go undercover to investigate thefts in the area of Medicine Bend, and look for the poor quality powder.


Three ex-soldiers as Quakers:  Maitland (Garner), Clegg (Jones) and Devlin (Scott).

Devlin develops a romantic relationship with the much younger Priscilla King (played well by Angie Dickinson–an even greater age difference than she would have with John Wayne in Rio Bravo), and Maitland with Nell Garrison (Dani Crayne), a saloon singer who works for E.P. Clark (James Craig).  Maitland and Clegg infiltrate Clark’s shady business by taking jobs at his store. Clark, now suspicious of the three strangers in town, tries to lure Devlin into a trap, but fails.  Devlin steals Clark’s ill-gotten gains one night and gives the money back to the pioneers from whom it was originally stolen.  As matters develop, Clark is behind the robberies and shoddy merchandise, and Maitland and Clegg almost get hanged before Devlin bails them out.


Production still of Angie Dickinson, Randolph Scott and Dani Crayne.

Clark’s operation is eventually uncovered and Devlin kills him in, ironically given the film’s title, a fistfight. The film ends with Devlin preparing to ride into the sunset with Priscilla King.

Warner Brothers was worried about declining revenues on Scott movies in the mid-1950s, as well as competition from television (in which it was gleefully participating, with programs like Cheyenne and Maverick).  For those reasons, they held down costs here by shooting the film in black and white.  It’s not exactly great; for example, it’s not as good as the westerns Scott made with Boetticher about this time.  But it’s not terrible, either.  It’s almost like recent movies with comic-book heroes, with the protagonist (Scott, in this case) assuming a secret identity and fighting crime with a mask.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 3

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 5, 2013

Burt Lancaster as Bill Dolworth in The Professionals


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.


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. 


  • 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.


  • 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.


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.


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.


  • 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.


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.


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.


  • 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.


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.


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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Duel at Diablo

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 2, 2013

Duel at Diablo—James Garner, Sidney Poitier, Bill Travers, Bibi Andersson, Dennis Weaver (1966; Dir:  Ralph Nelson)

This is a cavalry movie, almost the last good one in a sub-genre that has since become even less fashionable than westerns are generally.  (But see Ulzana’s Raid, about five years later—that’s probably the last good cavalry movie.)


In the opening scene, army scout Jess Remsburg (James Garner) is hidden on horseback amid the rocks, looking through binoculars at an apparently dead colleague strung up Indian-torture-style.  As he watches, another white man rides slowly into the same desert bowl of sand and rocks.  The white man’s horse collapses, and the man staggers to his feet.  Remsburg sees, as the horseman apparently does not, that two armed Apaches are quickly approaching on foot.  He rides out of the rocks, knocks the horseman out of harm’s way and shoots one of the Indians.  He helps the horseman to double up on his own buckskin horse, discovering that he is in fact a she—Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson).

Duel At Diablo3

Remsburg (Garner) at Diablo Canyon.

Taking her back to Fort Creel, Remsburg meets her husband Willard (Dennis Weaver), who is not all that thrilled to have her back.  Ellen spent a year in captivity among the Apaches earlier in her life and was subsequently rescued by cavalry.   This time Ellen was trying to escape white society and go back to the Indians.  Remsburg is enlisted by Lt. McAllister (Bill Travers), recently promoted up from the ranks, to guide a troop of 24 very green cavalrymen to Fort Concho along with ammunition wagons.  Willard Grange gets the fort’s commanding officer to force McAllister to allow him to go along with the patrol despite the danger from the marauding Apaches.  Forced to go along as well is former buffalo soldier Sergeant Toller (Sidney Poitier), who has to go in order to receive payment for horses already captured and delivered to the army.  It will be dangerous, since Chata’s hostile band of Apaches has jumped the reservation and is in the vicinity.

Meanwhile, McAllister acquaints Remsburg with some details of the death of Remsburg’s Comanche wife, handing over her scalp.  He says he got it from the gunman-marshal Clay Dean (John Crawford) at Fort Concho, giving Remsburg some incentive to guide McAllister’s cavalry there.  As the patrol makes its way to Fort Concho, Chata, who has more than twice as many warriors as McAllister has inexperienced soldiers, finds its trail and attacks.  McAllister is hit twice with arrows, but the survivors of his patrol manage to fight their way into Diablo Canyon, which has water—water, but no way out.  They have to fortify themselves in the box canyon and hope for relief from Fort Concho.

Meanwhile, Ellen Grange has managed to find her way back to Chata’s band, where her motivation for doing so is revealed:  she has an infant son by Chata’s now-deceased son.  However, the Indians don’t like her any better than the whites do, and plan to kill her as soon as it’s convenient.  Until Remsburg rescues her again, this time with the baby, too.


Toller (Poitier) and McAllister (Travers) set out for Fort Concho.

Hope is disappearing for the remnants of the patrol in Diablo Canyon.  Toller has taken over effective command for the badly wounded McAllister.  After leaving Ellen Grange with her husband again along with the remnants of the besieged patrol, Remsburg makes his way to Fort Concho for reinforcements, but it’s doubtful those reinforcements will arrive at the canyon in time to save McAllister’s men.  Meanwhile, in Fort Concho Remsburg finds out who killed his wife and deals with the nasty gunman-marshal. 

It’s a good movie, but a grim one.  Some find it violent, but most of the violence is shown indirectly, except for soldiers being hit with arrows.  There are references to Indian tortures and a real sense of the dwindling numbers of the patrol and its reduced chances for survival as the movie goes on.  This is a socially-conscious western in which the lines between Indian and white make a lot of difference in various ways to the characters.  The Indians are accorded a certain dignity without minimizing their tendency to torture captives and enemies.


James Garner is also excellent in his grim mode here, as in Hour of the Gun.  His haunted but capable scout character is central to the movie, but the movie is largely an ensemble effort.  Bill Travers is excellent as the openly Scottish Lt. McAllister, the ambitious soldier promoted from the ranks.  Sidney Poitier was at the peak of his career when this movie was released, and he projects both authority and a don’t-mess-with-me dangerousness.  He is too urban to be a natural in westerns, as Garner is, but he’s effective as the ex-buffalo soldier.  (Note some of the film editing when he’s supposedly breaking horses, for example; he obviously hadn’t much experience riding.)  It’s not clear why Ellen Grange has a Swedish accent, but nobody seems to worry about it.

When the relief column from Fort Concho takes off, Col. Foster, the commanding officer, is played by Ralph Nelson, the movie’s director, who is listed as Alf Elson in the acting credits.  A television director in the 1950s and a director of mainstream movies in the 1960s, Duel at Diablo was the first of his two westerns, both cavalry movies.  (The other was 1970’s Soldier Blue, about the Sand Creek massacre—a stronger anti-military statement but less effective movie.)  Some find the music dated by now, and it does seem identifiably of the 1960s, unlike the more enduring music of, say, Elmer Bernstein or Ennio Morricone.  


Shooting on location near Kanab, Utah; photograph taken by director Ralph Nelson.  Click on picture for a higher resolution image.

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Hour of the Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 30, 2013

Hour of the Gun—James Garner, Jason Robards, Robert Ryan, John Voight (1967; Dir:  John Sturges)

This underrated retelling of the Wyatt Earp story features the grim James Garner (see also Duel at Diablo and A Man Called Sledge), not the comic one with the easygoing charm.  Garner plays Wyatt, paired with Jason Robards as an excellent Doc Holliday—more believable as the tubercular gunfighter than the physically robust Kirk Douglas and Victor Mature in previous film versions of the story.  

hourofthegunGarner Garner as Wyatt Earp.

The Earp story has been more successfully retold in movies than any other from actual western history, with varying levels of accuracy.  The best cinematic version of the Earp story may be Tombstone, although My Darling Clementine, one of the older and least historically accurate versions, has its proponents.  Hour of the Gun belongs in this more than respectable company.  In fact, gritty thriller writer George Pelecanos, who says that westerns are his favorite film genre, claims Hour of the Gun as his favorite western, as the upright lawman Earp becomes a colder and more implacable killer in hunting his brothers’ murderers (interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, October 9, 2009).  Pelecanos points to the excellent Jerry Goldsmith score as one of the movie’s overlooked strengths.  The cinematography by Lucien Ballard is also terrific.  Edward Anhalt wrote the screenplay; he shows up briefly in the film as Doc Holliday’s doctor.

This was director Sturges’s second telling of the Earp story, a decade after his earlier Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  In the meantime, he’d made The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Hallelujah Trail, and he was at the peak of his game.  He was one of the best directors of his time in dealing with large-scale stories and action, but this is a more modest effort in terms of scope and budget.  While Gunfight goes with its title and builds up to the legendary battle, Hour of the Gun starts with the gunfight and focuses on Earp’s subsequent vendetta ride, as he hunts down those he holds responsible for gunning down his brothers.  In telling this story, it keeps more to the historical facts than the older film did, but only to a point.  Much of the dialogue in the courtroom scenes, for example, is taken from actual transcripts.  Text on screen after the initial credits says, “This picture is based on fact.  This is the way it happened.”  Well, not quite, but it’s closer than previously filmed versions of the story.


The Earps and Holliday at the OK Corral.

In his 1967 review of the film, Roger Ebert called this one of Garner’s best performances.  The casting is one of the film’s strong points, especially in the three primary roles:  Garner as Earp, Robards as Holliday and Robert Ryan as an older and more cerebral Ike Clanton than we usually see.  Robards is good as Doc, although he’s significantly older than the actual historical character.  He mentions having killed during the Civil War, but the real Doc Holliday was much too young to have fought in the war.  The Earp brothers (Virgil and Morgan) are not terribly memorable in this version of the story.  Look for a young John Voight as Curly Bill Brocius in an early role.  Interestingly, there’s no Johnny Ringo in this version of the story.   And basically there are no women in this story, either.

Because of its focus on Earp’s search for revenge, the movie becomes more melancholy as Doc tries to keep Earp balanced.  Doc:  “I know you.  You can’t live like me.”  “Those aren’t warrants you have there.  Those are hunting licenses.”  Earp comes to realize the ultimate futility of revenge past a certain point.  The vendetta itself is not celebrated as much as in Tombstone.  The film’s climax shows Wyatt shooting it out with Ike Clanton in Mexico, which is not at all the way Clanton died.  The end of the movie, with Doc dying in a Colorado sanitarium, is heart-wrenching.  Wyatt says he’s going back to Tombstone as the U.S. marshal, so Doc will think he’s regained his idealism and respect for the law; in fact, he intends never to be a lawman again.  The irascible dentist-gunman forces Wyatt to leave and sits playing cards with an orderly on an outdoor veranda as Wyatt drives off in a buggy.  


The poster emphasizes the revisionist elements of the film.

Since the movie presented a revisionist view for its time of a famous western lawman, audiences weren’t sure what to make of it when it was released.  But it stands up pretty well more than 40 years later.  Garner would play Wyatt Earp again in Blake Edwards’ 1988 comedy-thriller Sunset.   In Sunset, Garner is an aging Earp during the period of the late 1920s when the former lawman was in Hollywood advising on westerns, paired with Bruce Willis as Tom Mix.

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Support Your Local Sheriff

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 29, 2013

Support Your Local Sheriff—James Garner, Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Harry Morgan, Walter Brennan, Bruce Dern (1969; Dir:  Burt Kennedy)

This is probably the best western satire ever made.  Yes, that includes Mel Brooks’ broader Blazing Saddles.   The plot seems to follow Rio Bravo from ten years earlier, but that’s not an uncommon plot for westerns.  (See 2008’s Appaloosa for a later, but more serious, example.)  The title comes from a law-and-order bumper sticker popular with some in the late 1960s.

In a small western town, settlers and prospectors discover gold in Boot Hill while burying one of their own.  That sets off a gold rush and overnight the town develops aspirations to respectability—except for the many rowdies attracted by the gold strike.  Among those with newfound wealth are Mayor Ollie Perkins (played by Harry Morgan) and his daughter Prudence (Joan Hackett), along with others on the town council.  The prosperity brings a fair amount of disorder with it, however, and the town council is unable to keep a live sheriff for long until they happen on Jason McCullough (James Garner, in his good-natured mode).  McCullough is just passing through “on my way to Australia” when he decides to check out the gold rush.  He seems handy enough with a gun, and he’ll actually take the job, however temporarily.  So he’s hired.

supportlocal1 Basically on his way to Australia.

His first act is to imprison Joe Danby (Bruce Dern), whom he sees kill a man in a saloon.  Danby is part of an important Clanton-esque family of quasi-outlaws; the Clanton connection is strengthened because Pa Danby, head of the clan, is played by veteran character actor Walter Brennan in a role reminiscent of his Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine twenty years earlier.  The Danbys can muster legions of relatives and gunmen, while McCullough’s support is mostly the town “character” (or drunk) Jake (Jack Elam) who becomes McCullough’s unwilling deputy, along with Prudy, to whom McCullough is attracted romantically.

support2 Romancing the mayor’s daughter.

The writing is sprightly enough, but the genius of the film lies in the casting.  This is the sort of role James Garner played better than anybody else; he’s basically reprising his Maverick character from the television series.  If you want to see what a good job Joan Hackett does as Prudence, compare her with Suzanne Pleshette in the sequel Support Your Local Gunfighter.  Pleshette is fine; she just doesn’t have the comic intensity and daffiness that Hackett does.  Elam is marvelous.  He demonstrates here that he has made the transition from playing criminals, villains and evildoers to full-blown character parts.  As Elam’s Jake says while striking a pose at the end of the movie, he “goes on to become one of the most beloved characters in western folklore.”  And we believe him, mostly.

Harry Morgan’s appearance as the town’s mayor and Prudence’s father is particularly interesting when compared with another role from earlier in his career.  He played one of the townspeople who wouldn’t help Marshal Will Kane in 1952’s High Noon.  When it comes to the showdown here, he doesn’t help Jason McCullough, either, although he is much more charming about it.  And McCullough never seems all that threatened, anyway.  Jack Elam’s “town character” also echoes his town drunk role from High Noon, but he comes through better here in a much meatier role.

support3 The town character takes a hand.

Director Burt Kennedy has done a fair number of workmanlike westerns spread over several decades.  He’s also known as the writer for the best of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns of the late 1950s.  This movie represents the best of his work as a director.  The script by writer-producer William Bowers is terrific.  Too bad Bowers didn’t write the sequel.  The Gunfighter sequel, with the same director, Garner, Elam and Morgan, is enjoyable, too, but not as perfect as this film.  For more of Garner in his amiable con-man mode, see Skin Game, with Louis Gossett and Susan Clark.

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