Tag Archives: James Stewart

Night Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 16, 2016

Night Passage—James Stewart, Audie Murphy, Dan Duryea, Jay C. Flippen, Dianne Foster, Elaine Stewart, Brandon De Wilde, Hugh Beaumont, Robert Wilke, Paul Fix, Olive Carey, Jack Elam, Chuck Roberson (1957; Dir: James Neilson)

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This is the movie that broke up the Anthony Mann-James Stewart partnership.  Beginning in 1950 director Mann and leading man Stewart had revitalized both westerns generally and Stewart’s career specifically with five westerns:  Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie.  (They had also made three non-westerns together.)  Mann and Stewart had planned to work together on this one, although neither thought the script was strong enough.  Mann also thought Stewart and Audie Murphy were too different to be believable as brothers, he didn’t think much of Murphy’s acting skills generally, and he was not fond of the continual emphasis on Stewart’s accordion.  Stewart liked the idea of being able to show off his accordion skills (although all his accordion-playing in the film was later dubbed in by a more expert musician).  So Mann left the production to go make The Tin Star, Stewart stayed, and the two never worked together again.

At the start of the film, Grant McLaine (James Stewart) is scraping by playing his accordion for change.  He had once been a troubleshooter for the railroad but had been fired when he let an outlaw escape.  Now Kimball (Jay C. Flippen), the railroad’s boss and the older husband of McLaine’s former flame Verna (Elaine Stewart), reluctantly hires McLaine back for one job:  to get a $10,000 payroll through to the end of the line, despite Whitey Harbin’s gang.  Verna makes it clear she wouldn’t mind resuming their relationship, and McLaine encounters Charlie (Dianne Foster), whom he had known as the long-time girlfriend of the Utica Kid.  And he rescues Joey, a kid (Brandon De Wilde) being tormented by Concho (Robert J. Wilke).

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Grant McLaine (James Stewart) demonstrates his prowess with the accordion to Joey (Brandon De Wilde).

True to recent form, Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) and his gang, including the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy), rob the train.  Frustrated at not finding the payroll, they take Kimball’s wife Verna for ransom.  McLaine and his accordion show up at the abandoned mining camp where Harbin’s gang holes up, and it develops that McLaine and the Utica Kid are brothers.  The Utica Kid (real name:  Lee McLaine) was the outlaw Grant McLaine let go five years previously, ruining his career with the railroad.  Charlie arrives, too, and McLaine shoots it out with Concho, precipitating a fight with the whole gang.

In the course of the extended gun battle, McLaine sends Verna and the payroll in an ore cart to safety.  As he and Charlie trade shots with the gang, the Utica Kid reluctantly joins them.  (In general he finds McLaine’s attempts to reform him tiresome.)  But we know what traditionally happens to men with conflicted loyalties (see Randolph Scott in Western Union and Robert Preston in Union Pacific, to cite just two examples from railroading/technological westerns).  Utica takes a slug from Whitey, but McLaine gets Whitey.  In the end, McLaine heads off with Charlie, although they both would seem to need a longer mourning period for the Utica Kid before getting on with any relationship.

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Finally on the same side, the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) and McLaine (James Stewart) shoot it out with Whitey Harbin and his gang.

So was Anthony Mann right?  The script is muddled and less than clear, the cast is talented but overlarge, Stewart (six feet three inches tall, 48 years old) and Murphy (five feet five inches tall, 31 years old) don’t seem much like brothers, and the accordion quickly becomes tiresome.  On the other hand, Murphy does fairly well in his role.  There is interesting interplay between Whitey (thoroughly bad) and the Utica Kid (some bad and some not so bad), who are obviously going to have it out at some point.  The movie was not well-received by critics or at the box office, Stewart seemed to blame Mann, and the two never spoke again.  Stewart didn’t agree to another western for four years, until he did Two Rode Together with director John Ford (not one of Ford’s best).

Dan Duryea, doing a humorless variation on his Waco Johnny Dean role from Winchester ’73, seems louder, more irritating and generally less successful here.  The two female roles are undistinguished, both in the writing and as executed on screen; Charlie, particularly, needed more.  There is a lot of talent involved here, but it doesn’t come together well.  It’s not really terrible, but not very good, either.  It probably would have benefited from an extensive script re-write, ditching the accordion and keeping Mann.

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Mann said later, “The story was so incoherent that I said the audience wouldn’t understand any of it.  But Jimmy was very set on that film.  He had to play the accordion and do a bunch of stunts that actors adore.  He didn’t care about the script whatever and I abandoned the production.  The picture was a total failure and Jimmy has always held it against me.”  Obviously, a clash of egos was involved, as often happens in movie-making.  Night Passage was perhaps not so total a failure as that, but Mann’s instincts were mostly right this time.

Shot in color near Silverton, Colorado, at 90 minutes; it was the first film made using the Technirama process.  The compact running time doesn’t really allow for enough development of the numerous characters, which may be one reason the women don’t seem all that interesting.  The cinematography by William H. Daniels is excellent.  The screenplay is by veteran screen writer Borden Chase (Red River, Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Vera Cruz), and music is by Dimitri Tiomkin (too many westerns and other films to list, including several with John Wayne).  Director James Neilson was working mostly in television at the time and had a less-than-distinguished record in movies over his career.

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Shooting Stars, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 13, 2015

Shooting Stars: A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 1—The Top Five

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1.  John Wayne  [The Big Trail, Stagecoach, Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, Angel and the Badman, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, North to Alaska, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock!, The Sons of Katie Elder, The Comancheros, El Dorado, The War Wagon, Chisum, Cahill US Marshal, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, Big Jake, The Cowboys, The Shootist, et al.]

Wayne’s image is the first that comes to mind when we consider westerns between 1939 and the present.  He made many forgettable westerns while learning his craft during the 1930s in low-budget quickies, but beginning with Stagecoach in 1939 he made a surprising number of appearances in really good westerns.  While his career in westerns included a number of duds and clunkers, particularly toward the end (The Undefeated, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, etc.), for a long period he was consistently good—and often great.

Although, like most male stars, he sometimes seemed to show up in roles too young for him as he aged, he was more successful than most at playing age-appropriate roles as he grew older.  He successfully played older than he was in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and he moved into more mature roles naturally in The Searchers and Rio Bravo.  (He’s probably too old for Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, but somehow it works.)  He even made a couple of great westerns during the final stage of his career (The Cowboys, The Shootist).

Some of his position at the top of this list is due to his long-time relationship with John Ford, the greatest director of westerns, which helped both of them earn their pre-eminence in the field.  But he also made very good westerns with directors Howard Hawks, John Farrow, Don Siegel and others.

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2.  Clint Eastwood  [A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High, Paint Your Wagon, High Plains Drifter, The Beguiled, Joe Kidd, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy, Pale Rider, Unforgiven; Rawhide on television]

Eastwood is the greatest living star in westerns, although he is now in his 80s and is unlikely to make any more westerns either as a leading man or as a director.  Remarkably, he accomplished this mostly during a period when westerns were out of cinematic fashion; although he didn’t appear in nearly the number of westerns John Wayne did, his high position on the list results from the unusually high quality of the few westerns he did make.  Beginning with his central role in Sergio Leone’s influential Man With No Name Trilogy in the 1960s, he went on to appear in good westerns in the 1970s (Hang ‘Em High, for example) and to direct better ones with himself as the star (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven).  Director Eastwood benefited from having an iconic western star (actor Eastwood) at the center of his films, and he knew how to use him.

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3.  James Stewart  [Destry Rides Again, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, Night Passage, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Shenandoah, How the West Was Won, Firecreek, The Rare Breed, Bandolero!, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Shootist, et al.]

Before leaving for World War II, he made his reputation in modern films by Frank Capra and The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor.  His only western in that period was 1939’s Destry Rides Again.  Upon returning from the war, he revived his film career once again with Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and by working with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann.  His high position on this list is due to the five films he made with Mann, in which he usually played a character on the psychological edge in some way.  Between them, Mann and Stewart re-defined in many ways the world of western movies and the stories they told.  The quality of westerns he made in the 1960s after his relationship with Mann fell apart tails off noticeably, although he made three late westerns with John Ford, one of which is particularly memorable (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).

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4.  Gary Cooper  [The Virginian (1930),The Spoilers (1930), Fighting Caravans, The Plainsman, The Westerner, Along Came Jones, Dallas, High Noon, Garden of Evil, Springfield Rifle, Vera Cruz, Man of the West, The Hanging Tree, They Came to Cordura, etc.]

Dave Kehr sees him as John Wayne’s principal rival.  “Cooper, for whom the words lanky and laconic seem to have been invented, was identified by the Department of the Treasury as the nation’s highest paid wage earner in 1939….the mildly satiric Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) already finds Cooper playing an inflated archetype — the Man of the West — rather than a character, much as he would in his most overrated film, Fred Zinnemann’s didactic political fable High Noon (1952).”

In his biography of Gary Cooper, Gary Cooper, American Hero (Robert Hale, London, 2001), Jeffrey Myers quotes Robert Warshow’s essay on westerns:  “The romantic image of the cowboy as the embodiment of male freedom, courage and honor was created by men who had lived a rugged life in the West:  in words by Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister, in art by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and in film, preeminently, by Gary Cooper.”  Cooper was an authentic westerner from Montana, and he had a natural way with western roles.  Cooper would challenge John Wayne for the top spot on this list, except that he didn’t make many westerns during the 1940s when his career was at its peak.  His reputation in westerns was substantially made by movies released before 1939, until he revived his career in the 1950s beginning with High Noon.  One consequence of this career arc is that in several of his best westerns from the 1950s he seems too old for the roles in which he’s cast.  He’s good enough that we mostly look past that, though.

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5.  Robert Duvall  [True Grit, Lawman, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Joe Kidd, Tender Mercies, Lonesome Dove, Geronimo: An American Legend, Broken Trail, Open Range]

His position on this list comes from what Duvall refers to as his Trail Boss Trilogy (Lonesome Dove, Broken Trail, Open Range).  In all of them he plays a trail boss moving his herd somewhere against considerable obstacles.  These three are of surprisingly high quality, despite the fact that two of them were not movies but were made-for-television miniseries.  Like Wayne, Eastwood and Stewart, Duvall has benefited from working with unusually capable directors of westerns, John Sturges, Simon Wincer, Walter Hill and Kevin Costner among them.  His Augustus McCrae (Lonesome Dove) is one of the most indelible characters in the history of westerns.

At an age similar to Eastwood’s, his career also took place largely during a period when not many westerns were made.  His Best Actor Oscar comes from a modern western of sorts; he played country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983).  If you like him in more traditional westerns, give Tender Mercies a try.  He is one of the pre-eminent movie actors of his time generally, not just in westerns.  Unlike the others this high on the list, he has seldom played a conventional romantic lead.

To continue the list of top stars in westerns, see Shooting Stars, Part 2 and Shooting Stars, Part 3.

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Broken Arrow

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 18, 2014

Broken Arrow—James Stewart, Jeff Chandler, Debra Paget, Basil Ruysdael, Will Geer, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jay Silverheels (1950; Dir: Delmer Daves)

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In 1870, former Union soldier and scout Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is a prospector in Arizona Territory, where Cochise’s Apaches have been at war with the Americans for ten years.  Jeffords gives a wounded Apache boy medical attention, and is spared by Geronimo when he attacks another band of prospectors.  In Tucson, Jeffords is asked to scout for Col. Bernall against the Apaches and declines, tired of war and fighting.  He makes a bet that he can get five mail riders through Apache Territory and spends a month learning Apache language and culture.  He is supported by his friend Milt Duffield (Arthur Hunnicutt), who manages the mail and offers to be the first rider.

Juan, Jeffords’ teacher in Apache ways, speaking of Cochise:  “Remember this: if you see him, do not lie to him… not in the smallest thing.  His eyes will see into your heart.  He is greater than other men.”

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Not even Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is safe in Apache Country.

Jeffords makes a trip to Cochise’s stronghold to ask for the chief (Jeff Chandler, in one of his signature roles) to let the mail riders through, promising that they will carry no military information.   After getting to know Jeffords, he accedes to the request.  Meanwhile, Jeffords meets Apache maiden Sonseeahray (Debra Paget, everybody’s favorite 1950s Indian maiden).

One-armed Gen. Oliver O. Howard (Basil Ruysdael) comes west and joins Col. Bernall on a raid into Apache territory.  Bernall rushes into an Apache ambush and his column is all but wiped out by Cochise’s forces.

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Jeff Chandler as the wise and powerful Cochise.

Back in Tucson, Jeffords gets into fights with Indian haters, particularly with Ben Slade (Will Geer), whose ranch was burned by Apaches with his wife still in the ranch house.  As Jeffords is about to be lynched, he is rescued by Gen. Howard.  Although Jeffords is suspicious at first, Howard explains that, motivated by his Biblical beliefs, he wants to make peace with the Apaches, and he wants Jeffords to set up a meeting with Cochise.

Jeffords goes to Cochise, who calls in other Apache leaders for the conference with Howard. Meanwhile, Jeffords marries Sonseeahray. The Apache leaders vote for a provisional peace with a three-month trial period and Cochise symbolically breaks an arrow, but Geronimo (an uncredited Jay Silverheels) leads a dissenting Apache faction that will continue to raid. During the trial period, Geronimo attacks a stage, but Jeffords leads Cochise’s men in a rescue. Ben Slade’s son leads Jeffords and Cochise into a trap to kill him; Jeffords is wounded and Sonseeahray is killed, as are Slade and his son. Cochise remains committed to the peace, and it endures—for now.

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Jeffords (Stewart) and the young Apache maiden (Debra Paget).

Cochise to Jeffords: “As I bear the murder of my people, so you will bear the murder of your wife.”

Tom Jeffords (closing narration):  “His words meant very little to me then, but as time passed, I came to know that the death of Sonseeahray had put a seal upon the peace.  And from that day on wherever I went—in the cities, among the Apaches, in the mountains—I always remembered my wife was with me.”

The film was a breakthrough in its time because it depicted Indians in a sympathetic light.  Director Delmer Daves had a background as an anthropology student, and some scenes of Apache ceremonies and beliefs have an interesting anthropological bent.  In the 65 years since its release, however, it has sometimes been criticized because some of the Indian roles, including Cochise and Sonseeahray, are played by white actors.  Jeff Chandler as Cochise is the ultimate noble savage, depicted as a far-sighted civil leader and a great military mind.  He received an Oscar nomination for the Best Supporting Actor for his work here.  Daves went on to create several more excellent westerns during the 1950s.

This film was the forerunner of such Indian-sympathetic films as A Man Called Horse (1970), Little Big Man (1970) and Dances With Wolves (1990).  It’s not perfect; it can seem a little stiff and politically correct for modern times, but it still makes good watching.  And mostly it’s historically accurate, as it claims in the opening narration, describing a peace reached in 1872.  That peace lasted only until 1875, when the Apaches were forced onto a reservation. Cochise died in 1874, still friends with Jeffords.

The Apache wedding words pronounced over Sonseeahray and Jeffords, often used since in many weddings of whites, are not authentic in the sense that they are not part of a traditional Apache ceremony.  They were written for this film.

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The movie was shot in 1949 but released in 1950, after Stewart’s first western with Anthony Mann, Winchester ’73.  Both were very successful.  Stewart at 41 is 26 years older than Debra Paget, who was 15 when filming began.  Based on Elliott Arnold’s novel Blood Brother, Albert Maltz wrote the screenplay but was blacklisted as one of the Hollywood 10, and the screenwriting credit is given to Michael Blankfort as a front for Maltz.  Music is by Hugo Friedhofer.  Shot in Technicolor (but not widescreen) in Sedona, Arizona.  93 minutes.

The movie’s world premiere was held in the Nusho Theater in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  Jeff Chandler and Jay Silverheels would reprise their roles as Cochise and Geronimo in The Battle of Apache Pass (1952), a sort of prequel to this film.  Another western classic depicting Cochise as a gifted military leader is John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948).

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Bandolero!

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 10, 2014

Bandolero!—James Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, George Kennedy, Andrew Prine, Will Geer, Jock Mahoney, Harry Carey, Jr., Dub Taylor (1968; Dir:  Andrew V. McLaglen)

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Director Andrew McLaglen was the son of actor Victor McLaglen, and through his father long had contacts with John Wayne and his Batjac production company.  He made his initial reputation as a television director on many Have Gun Will Travel episodes in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  By the mid-1960s he had graduated to movies, making a string of not-terribly-distinguished westerns.  This is one of two westerns directed by McLaglen with ! in the title, along with the John Wayne vehicle McLintock!  It’s kind of miscast and schizophrenic.  The first half, with James Stewart as Mace Bishop saving his outlaw brother Dee Bishop (Dean Martin) from hanging, has some humor.  The second half, with its chase into Mexico and desperate fight against bandidos, turns grim.  Apparently the word “bandolero” is another Spanish term for outlaw or bandit. 

The movie opens in Val Verde, Texas, in 1867.  James Stewart and Dean Martin don’t seem much like brothers; supposedly they were on opposite sides in the late Civil War, with Dee (Martin) riding with Quantrill in the nasty guerilla war on the Missouri borders, and Mace (Stewart) fighting for the Union with Sherman.  Raquel Welch has big 1968 hair (not to mention other attributes), and this is not her worst performance.  She is a former Mexican prostitute, now the trophy wife of wealthy rancher Stoner (Jock Mahoney), who gets killed when Dee’s gang tries to rob the local bank in Val Verde in an early sequence.  The robbery is botched, and the robbers are captured and sentenced to hang, necessitating their rescue by Mace. 

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Dee Bishop (Dean Martin), Maria Stoner (Raquel Welch) and Mace Bishop (James Stewart) during their escape, with Mace still dressed as a hangman.

Mace shows up disguised as the hangman.  In making their escape, the outlaws snatch Mrs. Stoner (Welch), for whom the sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy) has romantic intentions now that her husband is barely dead.  Johnson leads the posse in pursuit, with his deputy Roscoe (Andrew Prine).  In the chase, Maria Stoner falls in love with Dee Bishop, who is badly in need of redemption through the love of a good (even if formerly bad) woman with big hair.  Mace is increasingly ill at ease with Dee’s outlaw compatriots.  But Mace isn’t as clean as he might seem, either.  On the way out of town, he also robbed the local bank, largely because it seemed easy.

Dee Bishop [incredulous]:  “You robbed a bank?  You, Mace?”

Mace Bishop:  “Well, Dee, the bank was there… and I was there… and there wasn’t very much of anybody else there… and it just seemed like the thing to do.  Y’know, it’s not like you didn’t – something you never heard of.  Lots of people rob banks for all sorts of different reasons.”

Dee Bishop [now bemused]:  “You just walked into a bank and helped yourself to ten thousand dollars ’cause it seemed like the thing to do?”

Mace Bishop:  “That’s about the way it was, yeah, as, as well as I can remember, yeah.”

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Heading south into the northern Mexico deserts, the outlaws’ escape and, to be fair, the posse’s pursuit, is complicated by a swarm of Mexican bandidos.  Obviously they like Maria Stoner, too, and the lure of the bank money doesn’t hurt.  After the extended final shootout with the bandidos in the deserted Mexican town of Sabinas, hardly anybody is left alive, and the survivors aren’t who you’d expect according to the classic formulas. 

The movie’s not terrible, but not particularly memorable.  As a general principle, beware movies with “!” in the title.  Stewart made a string of not-so-good westerns beginning in the mid-1960s (Shenandoah, The Rare Breed, Firecreek); he obviously missed directors John Ford and Anthony Mann.  Dean Martin is better in this than he is in Rough Night in Jericho or in his movies with Frank Sinatra and other ratpackers, but he’s unusually dour for Martin.  Raquel Welch was at the peak of her fame (or notoriety), and she appeared during this window in a few westerns.  Look for her, for example, in 100 Rifles with Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds, and in the female revenge saga Hannie Caulder.  This may be the best of her westerns, but that’s not saying much.

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There’s good music by Jerry Goldsmith, and excellent cinematography by William Clothier.  Shot mostly in southern Utah and northern Arizona, with a couple of other stops, in color at 106 minutes.

Note:  Did Larry McMurtry have something to do with this film?  Note the character names that get used in the Lonesome Dove novel and mini-series in the mid-1980s:  a sheriff named July Johnson, with a deputy named Roscoe.  And a bad man named Dee, to be hanged.

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Cheyenne Autumn

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 1, 2014

Cheyenne Autumn—Richard Widmark, Carroll Baker, Gilbert Roland, Ricardo Montalban, Dolores del Rio, Karl Malden, Edward G. Robinson, James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Sal Mineo, Ben Johnson, Patrick Wayne, John Carradine (1964; Dir:  John Ford)

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This is the self-consciously epic story of the Northern Cheyennes’ escape from Indian Territory back to their northern homeland in late 1878.  It’s unusual to see a John Ford movie with this level of pretentiousness—overture, entr’acte, etc. 

The Cheyennes, led by Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) and war chief Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban), are slowly dying at their Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) agency run by ineffective Quakers.  When their attempts to get action from Washington fail, they depart in the middle of the night, heading 1500 miles northward.  Their Quaker schoolteacher Deborah Wright (Carroll Baker) goes with them, caring for their children. 

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Leaving Monument Valley:  Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban), Tall Tree (Victor Jory) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland)

Once they cross the Canadian River marking the border of Indian Territory, they are in breach of their treaty and are pursued by cavalry led by sympathetic Capt. Thomas Archer (Richard Widmark).  Archer is also romantically interested in Wright, but there’s little apparent chemistry there.  Among the Indians are Spanish Woman (Dolores del Rio), Dull Knife’s wife, and his son Red Shirt (Sal Mineo), a hot-headed young warrior interested in Little Wolf’s younger wife, and elder Tall Tree (Victor Jory).  The troopers include Lt. Scott (Patrick Wayne, also headstrong in wanting to avenge his father’s death in the Fetterman Massacre) and Troopers Plumtree (Ben Johnson) and Smith (Harry Carey, Jr.), subject of a running joke when Archer can’t remember his name.  The Indians set a successful trap for the cavalry; Scott is wounded and the Cheyennes escape to the north. 

Rumors of savages on the loose inflame Dodge City, leading to a not-terribly-effective comic interlude featuring an overage Wyatt Earp (James Stewart) in a southern planter’s getup and a buffoonish Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy). 

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A too-old and extraneous Earp (James Stewart) and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy)

After the interlude, the Indians are suffering terribly from hunger and exposure in the snow.  They split, with half following Dull Knife to seek food and shelter for the women and children at Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska.  The others, under Little Wolf, continue north.  At Fort Robinson, commanded by German Capt. Oskar Wessels (Karl Malden), the Cheyennes are imprisoned in a warehouse and denied food and warmth until they agree to head back to Indian Territory immediately. 

Archer heads to Washington, D.C., to try to help, and surprisingly encounters a sympathetic Secretary of the Interior in Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson).  They head west together by train.  Meanwhile, Dull Knife’s band breaks out of Fort Robinson, with about half of them apparently killed.  They make it to Victory Cave in the Black Hills, where they reunite with Little Wolf.  When Schurz and Archer find them there, they’re about to be fired on by the local cavalry until Schurz brokers a deal that will let them stay in the north.  Archer and Wright apparently marry and adopt a Cheyenne girl hurt during the exodus.  Little Wolf kills Red Shirt.  Life goes on.

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Capt. Archer (Richard Widmark) and Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz (Edward G. Robinson).

This is Ford’s last film, but not one of his best.  There’s a patronizing tone not unexpected in the 1960s, and the mix of pathos and sentimentality is not in good balance.  Desolate Indian Territory looks surprisingly like the Monument Valley or Arches National Park (Moah, Utah), as does everything between there and their northern homeland.  The Earp-Dodge City interlude is just plain awful.  Sal Mineo doesn’t look much like a Cheyenne; Roland, Del Rio and Montalban (all of Mexican ancestry) are quite noble and effective.  Most of the actual Indians are the Navajos Ford frequently used on his films, not Cheyennes.  Cinematography is by William Clothier, music by Alex North.  Based on the Mari Sandoz book.  Long for its time, at 154 minutes.

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The real Little Wolf and Dull Knife; the photograph was taken in Washington, D.C., in 1873.  The Northern Cheyennes were finally given a reservation adjacent to their long-time enemies the Crows in southeastern Wyoming, on the Little Bighorn, where Little Wolf died in 1904.  Dull Knife ended up (by choice) on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where many of his descendants still live.  The real story of the Northern Cheyennes trying to flee the army northward is one of the more heart-wrenching of Indian history.  If you’re interested in the real story, start with Dee Brown’s chapter in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (good writing but not unbiased and now more than 40 years old), and then go on to one of the more extended (and balanced) accounts of recent years.  This movie has its roots in the story, but is not as affecting.

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Two Rode Together

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 26, 2014

Two Rode Together—James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, Linda Cristal, John McIntire, Andy Devine, Olive Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., Ken Curtis, Annelle Hayes, Henry Brandon, Woody Strode, John Qualen (1961; Dir:  John Ford)

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A clunky title, and not a well-put-together story set in 1870s Texas.  This is one of those, like Rio Grande, that John Ford appears to have made simply for contractual reasons or for the money, not because he had a compelling story to tell.  The two riding together are straight-arrow cavalry Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark, seeming a bit old for the role at 45) and venal Tascosa marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart, wearing the same battered hat from his 1950s westerns with Anthony Mann and also seemingly old for the role at 52).   

McCabe has a sweet situation in Tascosa, where he gets ten percent of all the businesses in town, including Belle Aragon’s saloon and <ahem> in addition to his modest marshal’s salary.  The cavalry at Fort Grant is under pressure from civilians to recover their captive relatives from Quanah Parker’s Comanches; most have been with the Indians for years.  The cavalry, led by Major Frazer (John McIntire), can’t go onto Indian land without breaking the existing treaty and re-igniting active hostilities, so Frazer is recruiting McCabe for the job.  McCabe thinks an army scout’s pay ($80 a month) isn’t nearly enough for this kind of risky mission, so he gets contributions from the civilians and hears their stories.  One of the civilians is Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones), who’s looking for her brother.  Gary falls for her, although the relationship is inadequately developed.  (It seems to be taken for granted that anyone would fall for Shirley Jones, which may be true.)

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Lt. Gary (Richard Widmarl) and Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) mull things over.

McCabe takes off for Parker’s camp, accompanied by a reluctant Gary in civilian clothes.  He trades guns and other weapons to Parker (played by six-foot-five-inch German-born Henry Brandon—Scar from The Searchers).  Parker has his own difficulties with militants like Stone Calf (Woody Strode), but he’s quite willing to trade his white captives, one of whom is Stone Calf’s wife, who turns out to be the Mexican Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal).  Taking back Elena and Marty’s now much older brother, McCabe is attacked by Stone Calf and kills him. 

Back at the post, the rescued captives have trouble integrating.  Marty’s brother is thoroughly an Indian, and he kills a slightly deranged white woman who claims to be his mother.  He is lynched for it.  The whites, especially the cavalry wives, do not accept Elena among them, either.  McCabe goes back to Tascosa to find he’s been replaced as marshal and in Belle Aragon’s affections.  He takes off for California with Elena to where their pasts presumably won’t follow them, and Gary and Marty get engaged.

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The beautiful Linda Cristal as Elena, a young Mexican woman recaptured from the Comanches.

 

The film has a large cast, including Harry Carey, Jr. (by this time it was becoming clear that he’d never be more than a bit player) and Ken Curtis (from The Searchers—at the time he was Ford’s son-in-law) as brothers and supposed comic relief.  Andy Devine is a fat sergeant, and Olive Carey is the major’s sympathetic wife.  John Qualen is a Scandinavian settler whose daughter won’t come back from the Comanches.  The Belle Aragon role (Annelle Hayes) sparks a little interest, but it’s not developed.  Linda Cristal (see her also in John Wayne’s version of The Alamo) is excellent, and Shirley Jones is underused.  And the leads are too old for the roles they play, although they’re both excellent actors (kind of like Gary Cooper in Man of the West).  This time around, there’s no Monument Valley.  The Comanches look pretty clean. 

This film has some echoes of The Searchers—looking for whites among the Comanches, even the actor (Henry Brandon) playing the Comanche chief—but it’s not as coherent or focused.  It was also not a critical or box office success.  There’s no real resolution of the conflicting social attitudes, which is probably realistic.  The real Quanah Parker’s mother was Cynthia Ann Parker, a white captive.  This was the first of three westerns Stewart did with Ford, just before The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Ford seems to be moving toward a more sympathetic view of Indians, which would come to full flower in his final movie three years later, Cheyenne Autumn, also with Widmark as a cavalry officer and Stewart badly miscast as a comic Wyatt Earp.  In color, with cinematography by Charles Lawton, Jr.  Written by Frank Nugent, a favorite of Ford’s.  Not Ford’s best work, but watchable.

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Stewart and director Ford wait between scenes.

From Dave Kehr, NY Times columnist.  Two Rode Together finds its most intimate moment in an unbroken four-minute shot in which a career officer (Richard Widmark) and a mercenary Indian trader (James Stewart) exchange their views on women and independence.  But this comic sequence proves to be the lead-in to a nightmarish evocation of domestic life gone wrong, as Widmark and Stewart enter an encampment of traumatized families, each hoping that Stewart will be able to negotiate the release of a member held captive by Comanches. The love of a husband for his wife or a mother for her child proves to be pitifully inadequate in the face of the cultural divide that has risen between them.

“Ford’s darkest and most bitter film, Two Rode Together opens into the mythic perspective of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), where the shortcomings of human relations are subsumed by the greater march of civilization — a glorious lie masking an unbearable truth.”

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How the West Was Won

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 11, 2014

How the West Was Won–James Stewart, Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan (1962; Dir:  Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall)

NY Times, by Dave Kehr, Sept. 8, 2008.  Written on the occasion of the release of the restored version of the movie on DVD.

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The first Cinerama features were travelogues, transporting 1950s spectators to parts of the world most would never see.  (Many of the earliest Edison and Lumière films, at the turn of the 20th century, fulfilled a similar function.)  Released in the United States in 1963, How the West Was Won would be the first — and, as it turned out, the last — narrative film to be shot in the three-strip Cinerama process.

In a sense the film’s guiding aesthetic is still that of the travelogue, but instead of visiting various scenic locations, it makes brief stops at most of the symbolic locations of the western genre, from the embarkation points of the Erie Canal to the California mountains of the Gold Rush.

The script, by James R. Webb (Vera Cruz), does its best to touch all the thematic bases of the genre too:  the male characters include a mountain man (James Stewart) and a river pirate (Walter Brennan); a wagon master (Robert Preston) and a riverboat gambler (Gregory Peck); a builder of railroads (Richard Widmark) and a frontier marshal (George Peppard).  The main female characters are even more broadly archetypal: a pair of sisters, portentously named Lilith (Debbie Reynolds, who becomes a saloon singer and budding capitalist) and Eve (Carroll Baker, who stakes out a farm on a Mississippi riverbank and mothers two boys).

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As a dramatic narrative How the West Was Won doesn’t work all that well.  Few of the characters are on screen long enough to establish identities beyond those of the stars who play them.  Most of the episodes are thinly developed, and over all the film has a jerky, stop-and-start rhythm, perhaps because it is the work of three different directors.

Henry Hathaway (True Grit) reportedly was in charge of the project and directed three episodes (“The Rivers,” “The Plains” and “The Outlaws”).  John Ford directed one (“The Civil War”), and George Marshall another (“The Railroad,” although Hathaway later said he had to reshoot much of Marshall’s material).

Instead this is a movie of visual epiphanies, ingeniously realized in the face of crippling stylistic challenges.  The Cinerama camera — an 800-pound behemoth that resembled a steel-girded jukebox — could move forward and backward with ease and elegance, resulting in some of the most impressive moments in the film (like the long tracking shot through a river town that opens “The Rivers”).  But it couldn’t pan from side to side without creating registration problems, and close-ups were all but impossible to achieve with the system’s short 27-millimeter lenses.

Moreover, characters couldn’t move freely across the wide screen, because crossing the two join lines — where the images overlapped — would create a distracting jump, and the action (beyond the broad movements of rushing trains or stampeding buffalo) had to be restricted to the center of the screen.

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Hathaway and Marshall are resourceful and craftsmanlike in dealing with these limitations, finding ways to position the actors so that the join lines are hidden, or filling the unused space beyond the center frame with vertiginously detailed landscapes that fall off into infinite distance.

But it is John Ford who rises to the challenge most poetically, chiefly by ignoring it.  “The Civil War” is an exquisite miniature (unfortunately padded out by some battle sequences lifted from Raintree County, an earlier MGM Civil War film) that consists of only three scenes: a mother (Ms. Baker) sends a son (Peppard) off to war; the son has a horrible experience as night falls on the battlefield of Shiloh; the son returns and finds that his mother has died.  The structure has a musical alternation: day, night, day; exterior, interior, exterior; stillness, movement, stillness.

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In the first and last scenes the famous Fordian horizon line extends the entire length of the extra-wide Cinerama frame.  In the aftermath of the battle the horizon line disappears in darkened studio sets.  The sense of the sequence is profoundly antiwar — Generals Sherman and Grant, played by John Wayne and Henry Morgan, briefly appear as a couple of disheveled, self-pitying drunks — and it gradually becomes apparent that the elderly Ford is revisiting one of his early important works, the 1928 drama Four Sons.

The expressionistic middle sequence, with its studio-built swamp, refers to F. W. Murnau, whose Sunrise was one of the great influences on the young Ford, while the open-air sequences that bracket it, with their unmoving camera, long-shot compositions and rootedness in the rural landscape, recall the work of the American pioneer D. W. Griffith.

When, in the final panel of Ford’s triptych, a gust of wind tousles Peppard’s hair in the foreground and then continues across to the forest in the middle distance and on to the stand of trees in the most distant background, it seems like a true miracle of the movies: a breath of life, moving over the face of the earth.  No less formidable a filmmaker than Jean-Marie Straub has called “The Civil War” John Ford’s masterpiece; for the first time, thanks to this magnificent new edition, I think I know what he’s talking about. Birth, death, rebirth.

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Note:  This epic of the west is long, at 164 minutes.  Voice-over narration is by Spencer Tracy.  Music was by Alfred Newman.  In addition to this piece, Dave Kehr was the writer of a 2005 documentary on director Budd Boetticher entitled Budd Boetticher:  A Man Can Do That.  After fourteen years of writing a column for the New York Times on new DVD releases, of which this was one, he now works as a film curator for the MoMA in New York.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 5

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 7, 2013

Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner in The Grey Fox

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Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, and the real Bill Miner.

After a lifetime as a stuntman and extra, Farnsworth had an unusual resurgence as a leading man toward the end of his career, and this was one of his three best roles—perhaps the very best.  His understated style and low-key charm, with a soft voice, warmly reticent smile around a white moustache, and expressive blue eyes are his trademarks.  He was unexpectedly cast as the lead in this low-budget Canadian production from 1982.  He plays Bill Miner, a one-time stagecoach robber who has spent most of his adult life as a prisoner in California’s San Quentin prison and is now released into a more modern west he doesn’t quite understand.  We relate to his charm and apparent affection for people, however, as he tries to reshape his outlaw career into something more modern.  It’s a seldom-seen gem of a movie, and it all depends on Farnsworth.  He’s magnificent.  For his other great roles, see him as Matthew Cuthbert in the Canadian television miniseries Anne of Green Gables (1985) and as Alvin Straight, driving a yard tractor to visit his brother before his own death, in The Straight Story (1999).

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Kevin Costner as Lt. John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves and as Charley Waite in Open Range

People are ambivalent about Costner as an actor, with some of his highest visibility coming in large-scale action turkeys like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; Waterworld, and The Postman.  (They’re surprisingly watchable, even when Costner is obviously miscast, as he was in Robin Hood.)  However, he seems to have an affinity for westerns, both as an actor and as a director, as demonstrated by these two films in which he performed both functions.  For his first western, see him as young scapegrace Jake in Silverado.  If you like him in these roles, look at his four baseball movies:  Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game and The Upside of Anger.  He’s a better actor than he is generally considered in the twilight of his film career.

  • In Dances With Wolves, he’s not only the lead as Lt. John Dunbar, Civil War hero and budding anthropologist, but he’s alone much of the time he’s on the screen.  And he’s the sole decent white man in the entire movie.  He won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (unusual for a western), and he carries this lengthy movie as an actor. 

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  • In Open Range, he is again the director and also a lead as Charley Waite, but as Charley he gives more space to other leads (Robert Duvall, principally, and Annette Bening).  Charley is a more dour character—a cowboy with a backstory as a gunfighter, and Costner is excellent and persuasive.  His look is very authentic, too.  His achievements in these two movies as director and actor draw inevitable comparisons with Clint Eastwood.  He just hasn’t made as many westerns as Eastwood. 

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Graham Greene as Kicking Bird in Dances With Wolves

If Costner as Lt. Dunbar carries Dancing With Wolves as the only white man with whom we feel much sympathy, it is Canadian Oneida character actor Graham Greene who provides the human face of the Sioux/Lakota with whom Dunbar interacts throughout the movie.  (Rodney A. Grant provides a kind of younger, harder-nosed counterpoint to Greene.)  As the Lakota chief Kicking Bird, Greene approaches Dunbar as a human he doesn’t understand, and it enables Dunbar and Kicking Bird eventually to bridge the sizable linguistic and cultural gulf between them.  Greene’s understated but excellent performance emphasizes the Indians’ basic humanity.  For a brief performance with more humor, see Greene in Maverick and fleetingly in Gunless.

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Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales in The Outlaw Josey Wales and as William Munny in Unforgiven

Eastwood was his own director in both these movies, and that makes his achievement even more remarkable.  By now, at the end of his career, Eastwood is acknowledged as a masterful director.  Although the stories in both these movies are built around his character, he is generous in allowing others juicy parts as well.  Josey Wales is a quintessential Eastwood character, with his squint, his soft-spoken but hard-bitten way with words, and his ability to draw other characters to him sometimes against his own choice—not to mention his handy way with guns and with tobacco juice.  William Munny is even more hard-bitten, and at bottom may not be a very good person, as we see him forced more and more into an old life and the use of devastating old skills through the movie.  He is what Josey Wales might have become.  Together with his early work with Sergio Leone in the Dollar trilogy and Pale Rider, these roles and the rest of his career present the most impressive body of acting work in the genre since John Wayne.  And Wayne never wore the director’s hat as successfully as either Eastwood or Costner.

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Chief Dan George as Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales

Notable especially for its warm, understated humor and elegant humanity, Chief Dan George’s performance as aging Cherokee Lone Watie stands with Graham Greene in Dances With Wolves as the two best performances by Native Americans in westerns.  Time after time, George steals scenes from Eastwood’s Josey Wales.  On rewatching the film, George’s performance is one of the principal joys that one looks for.  He came to acting very late in his life and really has no comparably excellent parts in other films.  But look for him as Old Lodge Skins, Dustin Hoffman’s adoptive Cheyenne grandfather, in Little Big Man as well; he’s the best thing in that film, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work there.

 

James Stewart as Destry in Destry Rides Again, as Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur and as Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

One of the best-known, most popular and most versatile actors of his time, Stewart also worked with a range of some of the best directors of his era.  In westerns, they included Anthony Mann and John Ford; in mysteries and thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock; in populist fare, Frank Capra.  He was kind of an American everyman, perhaps Henry Fonda’s only equal in that kind of role.

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  • In his early career, Stewart didn’t make many westerns.  But in 1939 (the same year he did Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Frank Capra), he starred as an offbeat kind of lawman in Destry Rides Again.  Played with warmth, gentleness and an often exaggerated version of his signature drawl, this was one of the most memorable westerns in a good year for the genre.  It has been remade more than once, but never as successfully as this original.  It must be admitted that Stewart is helped greatly by having Marlene Dietrich to play off.  With Smith in 1939 and with The Philadelphia Story coming the next year, you can’t even say Destry represents his best performance of this early phase of his career.  But Destry’s very memorable and bears rewatching more than 70 years later.  If you like this gentle Stewart approach, try 1950’s excellent Harvey, even if it isn’t a western.  Late in his career, Stewart again played a western mostly for laughs in The Cheyenne Social Club, with Henry Fonda as his costar.

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  • After his return from World War II, Stewart remade his career in his work with Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and his westerns with Anthony Mann.  One of his best roles with Mann was the reluctant and psychologically-damaged bounty hunter Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur.  Mann heroes are never all good, and Kemp is perhaps the most overtly conflicted of all of them.  But he holds it together and begins a comeback in the course of this film.  All of Stewart’s five westerns with Mann are worth watching:  Winchester ’73, The Far Country, Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie in addition to this one.

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  • Stewart made three movies with John Ford, and his most prominent role was as Ransom Stoddard, eastern lawyer out to remake the west in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  There’s a lot of ambivalence in the film between his reliance on law and Tom Doniphan’s (John Wayne’s) more direct approach to the violence of Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance.  Stoddard may be admirable in his way, but his approach wouldn’t have worked without Tom Doniphan’s, too, as the film shows.  Stewart seems miscast as Wyatt Earp in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, but the entire Earp interlude in that film is ill-conceived.  If you like Stewart in Liberty Valance in the late phase of his career, look for him in Two Rode Together, Shenandoah and How the West Was Won.

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Jeffrey Wright as Daniel Holt in Ride With the Devil

He starts out as a minor supporting character in a large cast.  By the end of this underrated Civil War film, he is one of the two principal remaining characters.  Their parting, at the end of the movie, is one of its most wrenching scenes, and Wright carries more than half of its dramatic weight, much of it without words.  (There’s good direction and editing at work here, too.)  Wright’s character Daniel Holt is a freed slave who fights for the south as a Missouri bushwhacker out of loyalty to George Clyde (Simon Baker), the man who freed him.  The motivations of such a man would be hard for modern audiences to understand under any circumstances, and Holt starts out carefully and enigmatically in a group of men who are not entirely sympathetic to him.  His friendship with Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) develops over the course of the film and becomes its strongest emotional current by the end.  Wright is a superb actor who has been seen principally in a variety of supporting and character roles.  Here he is excellent.

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Robert Ryan as Blaise Starrett in Day of the Outlaw

Robert Ryan was an excellent and versatile actor, and he seldom played unalloyed good characters.  In Day of the Outlaw, he plays the improbably-named Blaise Starrett, the founder and largest rancher in the remote town of Bitters in wintry Wyoming.  Starrett is at odds with local farmers as the movie starts, and he’s having an affair with the wife of one of them.  A gang of outlaws led by ex-army officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) moves in, interrupting the confrontation between Starrett and the farmers and replacing it with another.  Starrett doesn’t care for the few farmers and townspeople, but his sense of responsibility kicks in and he tries to figure out how best to try to protect them.  He’s the only one in town with the competence to do anything.  If you like him here, try The Proud Ones.  Later in his career he was principally a supporting character, as in The Wild Bunch, Lawman, and The Professionals.  For Ryan in bad guy roles, see him in The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock and Hour of the Gun, in which he played a more cerebral Ike Clanton than usually seen in the Wyatt Earp story.

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Bend of the River

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 25, 2013

Bend of the River—James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Julia Adams, Jay C. Flippen, Stepin Fetchit, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano (1952; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

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The second and perhaps the weakest of the five Anthony Mann-James Stewart westerns from the early 1950s.  However, even a weak Mann-Stewart western is still highly watchable.  Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) is a former Missouri border raider and gunman leading a wagon train to the Mount Hood area of Oregon (in 1847?) and trying to live down his past. 

On the way, he rescues horse thief Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from hanging, only to discover that Cole is a former Kansas border raider and gunman.  Together they fight off a small band of Shoshone renegades and the train arrives in Portland, where the settlers buy supplies to be delivered to them and head up the river toward Mount Hood.

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When the supplies don’t arrive on schedule in September, McLyntock and head settler Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen) head for Portland to find out why.  They discover Portland is now a mining boom town, and the miners have driven prices for food and supplies through the roof.  With the help of Cole and his young gambler friend Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson), McLyntock takes the supplies, closely pursued by saloon owner and slippery merchant Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie). 

They eventually fight off Hendricks’ men, killing Hendricks.  But Cole has come to realize miners will pay a lot more for the supplies, and he hijacks the entire wagon train, leaving McLyntock behind on foot.  McLyntock follows, picking off various of the drivers and taking their weapons.  Eventually he succeeds in taking back the wagons, only to have to fight off an attack by miners led by Cole. 

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Jeremy’s daughter Laura (Julia Adams) is the romantic interest, initially attracted to Cole but eventually repulsed by his obvious sleaziness.  The plot doesn’t hang together terribly well, and Jeremy Baile is kind of a tiresome character.  There’s rather a lot of killing, mostly not of Indians.  Set in an earlier period than other Mann westerns (presumably no later than the 1850s, with Oregon immigration and former Missouri-Kansas border raiders), but there are no concessions to that time in the look and weapons.  It looks just the same as all other Mann westerns, including The Far Country which is set in 1898. 

James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (1952). Courtesy Photofest. P

Former bushwacker, now trail scout.

Stewart and Kennedy are fine; Hudson seems a little out of place; and the lovely Julia Adams is given little to do.  This is supposedly the last film in which Stewart appeared with his real hair.  He’s wearing his usual westerns hat and presumably riding his horse Pie, though.  Stepin Fetchit plays kind of a jarring character to modern eyes—an old-fashioned black stereotype with near-unintelligible dialogue sometimes.  Based on the novel “Bend of the Snake” by Bill Gulick and filmed on location near Mount Hood.  In color.  The DVD is unfortunately only in full frame, like The Far Country, not in widescreen.

Note:  Reader Simón Cherpitel notes that Bend of the River was made when many movies and studios were still making the transition to widescreen formats.  This one was originally filmed in “academy ratio,” and therefore the DVD shows all there is to see (unlike, say, the later Mann-Stewart The Far Country, which was shot with a more widescreen aspect ratio).

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Destry Rides Again (1939)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 6, 2013

Destry Rides Again—James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Donlevy, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Irene Hervey, Samuel S. Hinds, Jack Carson, Una Merkel (1939; Dir:  George Marshall)

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Another one of the really good westerns from 1939, which was as good a year for westerns as it was for movies generally.  Although it has a large and excellent cast, it depends principally on the two biggest names, James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and how they work out things between them.  With both this and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939 was a good year for Stewart, playing Thomas Jefferson Destry in one and Thomas Jefferson Smith in the other, both in obvious appeals to old-fashioned patriotism.  It was Stewart’s first western and the last for eleven years, until he hooked up with Anthony Mann for 1950’s Winchester 73, well after World War II.

Bottleneck is a corrupt town run by Kent (Brian Donlevy in his smooth bad-guy mode), owner of a huge saloon where the principal entertainment seems to be provided by Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich in the first of her three westerns), not that she has a great singing voice.  The local mayor Hiram J. Slade (Samuel S. Hinds), constantly chewing tobacco, is in Kent’s pocket.  And Kent is busily collecting deeds to a strip of land across the valley (by means of rigged card games and other similarly unscrupulous methods), so he can extort a toll from drovers of cattle herds wanting to cross.  Once the local sheriff in Bottleneck was Tom Destry, who moved on to Tombstone, leaving behind deputy Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), now a drunk reduced to cadging quarters and drinks in Kent’s saloon (like the character Dude in Rio Bravo twenty years later). 

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Mischa Auer, James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich

As the movie opens, Kent, with Frenchy’s help, cheats yet another ranch owner out of his land at cards and kills Sheriff Keough.  Mayor Slade cynically appoints Dimsdale, the town drunk, as the new sheriff.  However, Dimsdale sobers up and sends for Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr. (James Stewart), who is said to have cleaned up Tombstone after his father was shot in the back there.  Destry arrives on a stage in the company of a hot-headed rancher, Jack Tyndall (Jack Carson), and his sister Janice (Irene Hervey), only he doesn’t wear a gun—says he doesn’t believe in them.  He’d rather whittle napkin rings.  He manages to deal with several near-crises without guns, and develops what appears to be an interest in Frenchy.  He pauses long enough to demonstrate an uncommon skill with a handgun in target practice, although to the viewer the casual way Destry handles a pistol (slinging it carelessly at the target) seems unlikely to be accurate.  There’s a truly impressive barroom fight between Frenchy and Lily Belle Callahan (Una Merkel)—right up there with other great fights in westerns.

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Destry (James Stewart), Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) and Kent (Brian Donlevy) get acquainted in Kent’s saloon.

Meanwhile, Destry looks into the disappearance of former Sheriff Keough, and even manages to discover the sheriff’s body.  Mayor Slade appoints himself the judge, while Destry and Dimsdale secretly send for a federal judge.  When Kent and Slade find out about the federal judge, a war breaks out and Destry is forced to put on his guns.  Dimsdale is killed, and the forces of right and justice attack Kent’s saloon.  Both sides are blasting away when the saloon is invaded by the town’s women (marshaled into action by Frenchy), wielding brooms and such.  Both sides hold their fire and the women appear to be winning the battle in the saloon.  Kent sneaks a shot at an unaware Destry, and Frenchy redeems herself for all her shady dealing when she takes the bullet for him.  (This is the way both this and Rancho Notorious end, with Marlene Dietrich taking a bullet for somebody else to redeem herself for her nefarious misdeeds.)  At the end, Destry’s romantic attentions seem to be turning to Janice, less overtly interesting than the deceased Frenchy but much more appropriate for Destry.

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Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich):  She knows what the boys in the back room will have.

It’s engaging and almost great, but it has a kind of Capra-esque sentimentality and shows its age a bit—more than, say, Stagecoach or even Dodge City from the same year.  The tone is wryly comic (except for the occasional death) with Stewart’s Destry, and more overtly with Mischa Auer as Boris Stavrogin, a Russian dominated by his wife (Una Merkel) to the extent that everybody calls him by the name of Callahan, who was her prior husband.  He’s there for comic relief, mostly effective.  It’s not that easy to pull off, but it flows pretty smoothly here.  In some ways, one can see Support Your Local Sheriff from 30 years later as an attempt to do the same thing, although it’s not exactly a remake.  Some of the humor dealing with roles of the sexes seems a bit outmoded.  Destry’s aw-shucks demeanor and interminable stories about a feller he once knew somewhere are almost as tiresome to his fellow characters as they are to us.  Brian Donlevy is at his nefarious best, the same year as he played another of his memorable villains:  the evil Sergeant Markov in Beau Geste.  This was remade twice in the early 1950s, with Joel McCrea and again with Audie Murphy, but this second version (after a 1932 Tom Mix original) is much better than either of those—or the original, for that matter.  Nobody much remembers the 1959 musical comedy Broadway stage production with Andy Griffiths. 

Director George Marshall (The Sheepman) was a journeyman who started in the age of silents and ended up doing television in the 1960s.  He was not particularly known for westerns.  Lyrics to songs, including “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” (one of the most effective musical interludes ever in a western), were by Frank Loesser.  In black and white.  “Suggested by” a story by pulp writer Max Brand.

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