Tag Archives: John Wayne

Cahill U.S. Marshal

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 20, 2015

Cahill U.S. Marshal—John Wayne, Gary Grimes, George Kennedy, Neville Brand, Clay O’Brien, Marie Windsor, Royal Dano, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey, Jr., Paul Fix, Hank Worden (1973; Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen)

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The late phase of John Wayne’s career was unusual because, unlike his contemporaries such as Henry Fonda and James Stewart, while he continued to make westerns as they did, some of Wayne’s were actually pretty good.  While this is not the best of late John Wayne, it is not among the worst, either.

J.D. Cahill (an aging John Wayne) is, as the title has already told us, a U.S. marshal, based in Valentine, Texas.  The drama comes because he has been, as a widower, a neglectful father, with his two sons (aged 11 and 17) growing up resentful of his constant absences from their lives.  The movie opens with a scene where Cahill catches and brings in five armed bank-robbers single-handedly, establishing his formidable competence as a marshal.

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J.D. Cahill (John Wayne) is clearly nobody to mess with.

Meanwhile, back in town, his older son Danny (Gary Grimes) has fallen in with bad company and has gotten himself thrown in jail with them to establish an alibi for a criminal enterprise.  The younger son Billy Joe (Clay O’Brien) has also been enlisted in the plan, moving the tools into position, providing a distraction for the sheriff and others by setting fire to a barn, and taking and hiding the loot after the job.  He lets the conspirators, led by Fraser (George Kennedy), out of jail, and they proceed to rob the bank, killing the sheriff and a deputy in the process.  They get back into jail as if they’d never been out, establishing their apparent innocence.

The boys, especially Billy Joe, have a tough time, since they’re not really hardened outlaws and were promised there’d be no killing.  J.D. takes Danny and the half-Comanche Lightfoot (Neville Brand in dark makeup) in pursuit of the supposed robbers, and catches four of them.  They seem guilty enough so they are sentenced to hang, although Danny knows they are innocent—of the bank robbery, at least.

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Cahill (John Wayne) is not pleased to find his older son Danny (Gary Grimes) in jail with questionable companions (George Kennedy).

He may be lacking as a father, but Cahill’s instincts as a manhunter are at full strength, and he knows something is up with his sons.  He and Lightfoot track them as they take the money from the robbery up in the mountains to meet Fraser and the others at a mine.  They are shot at by the gang’s sentry; Lightfoot wounds him but is himself killed.  The sons know that Fraser does not intend to leave them alive.  Since we have already seen Cahill take on several bad guys at one time, we are not surprised when he does it again; it is well-staged.  The sons take the loot back to town to return it, and it looks like they’ll arrive in time to stop the wrong men from hanging.  (They should still need a good lawyer, although that isn’t addressed.)  Cahill’s left shoulder is wounded twice in the course of the movie, but it looks like some repairs have been made to his relationship with his sons as well.  Maybe the future will be better.

The working title of the film initially was “Wednesday Morning.”  Produced by Wayne’s Batjac production company, there are elements of this we’ve seen elsewhere.  The faux-Indian figure (played by Howard Keel in The War Wagon and by Bruce Cabot in Big Jake) is here done best of all by Neville Brand, although he was never an actor of much subtlety.  Elmer Bernstein had done many musical scores on John Wayne movies (e.g., The Comancheros), and elements of the music here seem recycled.  Cahill’s invincibility seems a bit overdone, although it is a critical element of the story and certainly of the John Wayne persona.  The large hairy outlaw who doesn’t speak much but is a vicious killer seems imported from Big Jake.

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Head bad guy Fraser (George Kennedy) is pretty scary to an eleven-year-old in the rain.

John Wayne is, well, very much John Wayne in this movie.  His hats got taller during the 1970s, but he still looked convincing in a well-written part.  At 66, he was not in good health, suffering from emphysema and the lung cancer that would kill him in a few years.  Reportedly, he also had a few pangs about his own paternal neglect of his children over the years, which was partially addressed here by having one of them (Michael Wayne) as the producer.  In the early 1970s, Gary Grimes specialized for a few years in coming-of-age stories, notably in Summer of ’42, but also in westerns such as The Culpepper Cattle Company and The Spikes Gang, and he wasn’t bad at it.  Young Clay O’Brien, who played the younger son, was an authentic New Mexico cowboy whose first acting job had been on Wayne’s The Cowboys the previous year.  After a few years of playing small cowboys in movies, he went back to real cowboying, becoming a champion roper.  Part of the fun here is seeing all the good character actors in bit parts. Royal Dano, Paul Fix, Hank Worden, Marie Windsor (once queen of the B movies), Denver Pyle and Harry Carey, Jr. all show up briefly here.  Even Chuck Roberson, Wayne’s long-time stand-in and stunt double, shows up on screen here; in addition to playing the head of a lynch mob, most of the medium-to-long shots of Cahill on a horse are actually Roberson.

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Cahill (John Wayne), here with sons Billy Joe (Clay O’Brien) and Danny (Gary Grimes), takes a knife to the shoulder in the climactic shootout.

Director Andrew McLaglen had long had connections with John Ford and John Wayne through his father, actor Victor McLaglen.  This was his fifth and final movie directing John Wayne, and as a movie director, McLaglen was a pretty good television director; that is, he never seemed to be as good as he should have been, given the resouces and talent he often had to work with at this stage of his career (see The Way West, for example).  Screenwriter Harry Julian Fink and his wife Rita Fink had written Dirty Harry and Big Jake, and would go on to do a few more Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movies.

This movie is not the best of Wayne’s late career; The Cowboys, Big Jake and The Shootist (his last film) are all better.  But it’s far from the worst, which would include the lamentable Rio Lobo and The Train Robbers.  All in all, it’s worth watching, even if it sometimes seems like there’s less here than meets the eye.  Shot in Durango, Mexico, in color, at 103 minutes.

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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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McLintock!

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 26, 2014

McLintock!—John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Yvonne De Carlo, Stephanie Powers, Jack Kruschen, Patrick Wayne, Jerry Van Dyke, Chill Wills, Strother Martin, Bruce Cabot, Hank Worden, Michael Pate, Leo Gordon (1963; Dir: Andrew McLaglen)

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Variations on a theme of The Taming of the Shrew.

Many find this John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara western comedy enjoyable; others claim it has no plot and is just a string of situations that worked in previous Wayne movies (Rio Grande, North to Alaska) put together without a real story keeping them together.  With all the familiar actors in familiar roles, it does feel like we’ve seen much of it before.  The exclamation point in the title is not a good sign, either.

George Washington McLintock (known to most of his neighbors, friendly or not, as GW or just McLintock) is a local land and cattle baron in an unspecified territory out west near the turn of the 20th century.  That makes it either Arizona, New Mexico or Oklahoma, which were the only territories left then, and there are references to the Mesa Verde and Comanches.  GW’s wife Katherine (Maureen O’Hara) hasn’t been living with him for some time (years, in fact), and he is given to drunken roistering.  When he comes home to his ranch from that, he tosses his large hat at the house’s third-story weathervane and it generally lights there.  Whichever of the Mexican boys gets to it the next morning can have it.  By the end of the movie, he’s made 310 tosses in a row without a miss.

Things are happening in the town of McLintock.  Homesteaders are arriving to settle the Mesa Verde, the local Comanches on the reservation are restless, the Comanche chiefs are coming home from exile, GW’s daughter Becky (Stephanie Powers) is coming home from school in the east, and various anti-McLintock forces (developers, the territorial governor, bureaucrats) are making things more difficult. Early in the movie GW hires young Devlin Warren (Patrick Wayne), son of a recently-deceased homesteader, as a hand on the ranch and his mother Louise (Yvonne De Carlo) as the ranch cook.

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Stills of the estranged couple (John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara) and the young lovers (Stefanie Powers and Patrick Wayne).

During the remainder of the movie, taking place around the town’s traditional July Fourth festivities, GW argues on behalf of the Comanches before a commission headed by the territorial governor; participates in a rollicking fight at a local mudhole involving homesteaders, ranchers and an unfortunate Indian agent (Strother Martin); watches his daughter flirt with the clearly unfit son (Jerry Van Dyke) of someone he has long despised while it become obvious that Becky and Devlin should be together; and tries unsuccessfully to get back together with his estranged wife Kate.

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“Somebody oughta belt you in the mouth.”

GW McLintock:  [Yelling at homesteader played by Leo Gordon.]  “You’ve caused a lot of trouble this morning.  Might have got somebody killed.  Somebody oughta belt you in the mouth, but I won’t… I won’t.  [Reconsiders]  The hell I won’t!”  [Knocks the man down a muddy hill, precipitating a free-for-all.]

By the end, Louise Warren resigns to marry the local sheriff, Becky and Devlin are engaged and, in a taming-of-the-shrew fashion, GW and Kate are reconciled.  Even the Comanches may get a fairer shake from the government, although that is not established.  There are way too many characters and too many situations, leading to a lot of loose ends.  If you enjoyed all the action and supposed good humor without inspecting it too closely, you had a good time.

Becky McLintock:  “You are my father, and if you do love me, you will shoot him [indicating Devlin].”
GW McLintock:  “I’m your father, and I sure love you.”  [Grabs a pistol from his cabinet and shoots Devlin point-blank in the chest.]
Becky McLintock:  “You shot him!  You really shot him! If he…..
GW McLintock:  [Interrupting Becky]  “If he dies, he’ll be the first man killed with a blank cartridge. [Brandishing the pistol]  We use this to start the races on the Fourth [of July].”

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Mud fight, with Edgar Buchanan, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne.

Director Andrew McLaglen was the son of Irish actor Victor McLaglen, long a friend of John Wayne’s mentor John Ford and of Wayne himself.   Andrew had gotten into the industry through directing television, especially episodes of Have Gun Will Travel.  With his comparative youth and inexperience, he was cheaper than Wayne’s first choice, Henry Hathaway, who had directed North to Alaska three years earlier.  There are evidences of his television background in the rollicking music, played very obviously to signal that the fight or whatever else is happening is not serious.  It’s a little heavy-handed.  The screenplay was written by James Edward Grant, another Wayne favorite, who also wrote and directed Angel and the Badman and had written The Alamo, Wayne’s big-budget production from three years earlier.

Of the large and rambunctious cast, Yvonne De Carlo and Jack Kruschen are particularly good as the new cook Louise Warren and Jake Birnbaum, the local Jewish merchant who is a long-time friend of GW.  Stefanie Powers and Patrick Wayne are fine as the young lovers, but Jerry Van Dyke plays Junior much too broadly for him to be considered a seriously competing suitor.  Chill Wills as GW’s majordomo Drago is less irritating here than he is in The Alamo, for example.

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If you enjoyed North to Alaska, you’ll probably want to watch this as well.  But you may have a hard time remembering the plot afterward.  More likely you’ll remember it as a series of vignettes, like the mud fight or the two spanking-with-a-coal-shovel episodes.  It’s like an extended television sitcom.  That spanking probably won’t play well with modern feminists, either.  This was the fourth of five films in which Wayne and O’Hara starred together, and the estranged married partners shtick was wearing a little thin without real issues.

In color, 127 minutes.  The lively theme song “Love in the Country” is sung by the folk trio The Limeliters.

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The Horse Soldiers

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 30, 2014

The Horse Soldiers—John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers, Ken Curtis, Judson Pratt, Willis Bouchey, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Althea Gibson, Hank Worden, Hoot Gibson (1959; Dir:  John Ford)

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Not exactly a western, since it takes place entirely in Mississippi during the Civil War.  But it stars John Wayne and William Holden riding horses and fighting battles, and it’s directed by John Ford.  So the western genre seems to be where it fits most comfortably—specifically, it’s a cavalry western.

Gen. U.S. Grant has besieged Vicksburg on the Mississippi River but not yet taken it, so that puts the time of this story in the first half of 1863.  Grant calls in cavalry Col. John Marlowe (John Wayne) and gives him the assignment of destroying supplies and railroads to the south in Newton Landing, between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge.  Marlowe’s officers include Col. Phil Secord (Willis Bouchey), an older man from Michigan with political ambitions, and Maj. Henry Kendall (William Holden), a surgeon who is almost instantly at odds with Marlowe.

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Hannah Hunter, Marlowe and Kendall at Greenbriar; Marlowe with one of his scouts.

Heading south and trying to keep the Confederates in ignorance of their whereabouts and objectives, the cavalry stops at the plantation of Greenbriar, run by Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers).  She receives them hospitably, given that her sympathies are southern, and discovers that they plan to destroy the supplies at Newton Landing and then head for Baton Rouge.  Kendall finds Hannah and her slave Lukey (Althea Gibson) listening, and Marlowe is forced to take them along so his plans are not prematurely revealed.  Hannah’s attempts to escape and hostility to the Yankees provide another source of tension within the column.

Hannah Hunter:  “They’ll catch up to you and cut you to pieces, you nameless, fatherless scum.  I just wish I could be there to see it!”

Col. John Marlowe:  “If it happens, Miss Hunter, you will be.”

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Trying to figure out why the Confederates aren’t putting up more resistance.

As they move toward Newton Landing, Marlowe’s men discover a couple of Confederate deserters (Denver Pyle and Strother Martin), whom Marlowe lures into giving information on Confederate units in the area before he turns them over to the southern sheriff.  At Newton Landing, there are a few Confederate soldiers led by a one-armed Col. Jonathan Miles (Carleton Young), known to Kendall from their days fighting Indians out west.  It turns out Miles has telegraphed for reinforcements, and when those additional men arrive on a train, Marlowe’s men are reluctantly forced to fight a battle. The Yankees win handily before destroying the supplies and railroad, which pains the one-time railroad worker Marlowe.  When the Confederate army asks a local military school to send its young men into battle, led by their reluctant headmaster/minister (Basil Ruysdael), Marlowe and his men are forced to leave the field rather than shooting them down, once more demonstrating Marlowe’s comparative humanity.  The political Col. Secord continually gives poor and self-aggrandizing advice, and when Marlowe takes to referring to Kendall as “Croaker,” Kendall responds by calling Marlowe “Section Hand.”

Col. John Marlowe [during firefight]:  “I didn’t want this. I tried to avoid a fight!”

Maj. Henry Kendall:  “That’s why I took up medicine.  

With Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry on their heels, they move south toward Baton Rouge, only to find their way blocked by another Confederate unit at a bridge about 40 miles from their destination.  Hannah’s slave Lukey is killed by the initial Confederate attack.  Meanwhile, Marlowe and Hannah get to know each other better as Hannah nurses Marlowe’s wounded men with Kendall and sees that Marlowe cares about his young wounded soldiers.  His hostility to doctors is rooted in the period before the war, when he was a young railroad section hand and his wife was killed by a medical mistake.  Marlow’s cavalry finds a way to ford the river and flank the blocking Confederates while their attention is fixed on a direct charge across the bridge.  Marlowe takes a leg wound, which Kendall binds up.

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The Colonel lights the fuse and dashes across the bridge.

Marlowe has to blow up the bridge so Forrest can’t follow him so closely.  He is the last across the bridge and tells Hannah he loves her, taking her bandanna for a neckerchief.  He barely makes it across the bridge, leaving Kendall and Hannah tending the wounded and Kendall presumably bound for captivity in Andersonville prison in Georgia.  Marlowe and Kendall are to some degree reconciled, with some mutual respect at the end.

Director Ford does well in managing his large cast and the action in this film.  There are typical Fordian touches, such as the opening shots of a column of cavalry riding along railroad tracks against the sky and supposedly singing a Civil War song over the initial credits.  There are the low-angle shots of cavalry riders as they charge across the bridge.  The story is based on an actual historical incident from the Civil War:  Grierson’s Raid, from Legrange, Tennessee, in April 1863, led by Col. Benjamin Grierson.  Grierson was a music teacher who was afraid of horses because one kicked him in the head as a child.  Joining the Union army to fight slavery (he was a staunch abolitionist) he wanted infantry duty but was assigned to the cavalry by mistake.  He turned out to be good at it and stayed in the cavalry after the war, becoming the first Colonel of the 10th Cavalry (buffalo soldiers).  It’s unclear why the names are changed, but presumably it was to give the writers and director greater freedom to deviate from the real historical events.  There probably wasn’t much of a love story involved in the real raid, nor such animosity with the regimental doctor.

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John Ford directs Wayne and Towers in an intimate scene.

Overall, the film seems to take an anti-war stance.  The movie takes an interesting attitude toward southerners and their slaves.  It does not condone slavery, but it shows close relationships between owners and slaves, as with Hannah and Lukey.  It seems sympathetic to the Union side generally, but it does not shy away from showing nobility in southerners in a way that now seems slightly old-fashioned (the sheriff to whom Marlowe turns over the deserters, the military school headmaster and his charges, the courtliness of Forrest in offering medical assistance to Kendall at the end, for example).  In modern times, when there can be no cinematic tolerance at all for slavery, it could probably not be done this way, although arguments could be made that Ford’s approach is historically accurate or defensible.  The incident with the two Confederate deserters is reminiscent of several situations in Cold Mountain (2003).

This is one of Ford’s last movies and not, perhaps, among his very best, although it is still a very good western.  There are a host of Ford’s usual character actors, such as Strother Martin, Hank Worden and his son-in-law Ken Curtis in one of his better performances, but there is no Ben Johnson or Harry Carey, Jr.  1920s cowboy star Hoot Gibson shows up in a small role as a Union sergeant in his penultimate movie.  (His last appearance was as an uncredited deputy in Ocean’s Eleven.)  1950s African-American tennis star Althea Gibson appears as Lukey.  Judson Pratt is good as Marlowe’s hard-drinking Sergeant-Major Kirby, the sort of role in which Ford once would have cast Victor McLaglen.  This is one of three Civil War cavalry movies for William Holden, along with Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Alvarez Kelly (1966).  He was drinking heavily at the time and during production broke his arm falling off a bridge.

Strother Martin on working with John Ford:  “I did a tiny bit in The Horse Soldiers (1959) first, and that’s when I met him; and he liked me, I guess.  Ford said to somebody I knew, ‘I’ve got to get something else for that Stuffer.. Smucker… Stoofer… whatever the hell his name is,’ and he put me in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).”

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John Wayne and Hoot Gibson trading stories behind the scenes.

Constance Towers, who otherwise didn’t have much of a movie career, appears in one of her two Ford movies (along with Sergeant Rutledge), with her curiously 1920s-style looks.  Gen. U.S. Grant, appearing briefly at the start of the movie, is played by songwriter Stan Jones, who composed the movie’s featured song “I’ve Left My Love” which plays over the opening credits and elsewhere in the film and three years earlier had written “The Song Of The Searchers,” sung by the Sons Of The Pioneers over the titles of the The Searchers (1956).

Cinematography is in color by William Clothier.  The film was shot on location in Mississippi and Louisiana, giving it an authentic look.  Screenwriters were John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin, based on a novel by Harold Sinclair.  The score is by David Buttolph, with the title song by Stan Jones.

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The film marked the beginning of mega-deals for Hollywood stars.  John Wayne and William Holden received $775,000 each, plus 20% of the overall profits, an unheard-of sum for that time.  The final contract involved six companies and numbered twice the pages of the movie’s script.  The movie was a financial failure, however, with no profits to be shared in the end.

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The Sons of Katie Elder

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 29, 2014

The Sons of Katie Elder—John Wayne, Dean Martin, Earl Holliman, Michael Anderson, Jr., Paul Fix, James Gregory, Martha Hyer, George Kennedy, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, Percy Helton, John Doucette (1965; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

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There is no Katie Elder in this film; she has died and the movie starts with her ca. 1898 funeral in Clearwater, Texas.  Three of her four sons are in attendance, with the oldest watching from a nearby hill.  The four brothers are John (John Wayne), a well-known gunman who hasn’t been home in ten years; Tom (Dean Martin), a gambler who has also been gone for years; Matt (Earl Holliman); and Bud (Michael Anderson, Jr.), who has been going to the Colorado School of Mines for the last year but whose continued education there is in question.  None of them appear to have formed their own families or relationships that we see.

Katie had been living in semi-poverty since the death of her husband Bass Elder several months previously under suspicious circumstances.  Her former ranch is now owned by large landowner and gunshop proprietor Morgan Hastings (James Gregory), who is outwardly friendly but worried about John Elder’s presence.  He has hired gunman Curley (George Kennedy) to keep an eye on John’s comings and goings.

SonsKatieBros The Elder brothers.

Meanwhile the Elder brothers are trying to find out more about their mother’s circumstances and death.  Her best friend was a young woman named Mary Gordon (Martha Hyer), who is given to reminding the brothers how little they had been around.  Local sheriff Billy Wilson (Paul Fix) also worries that the brothers will stir up trouble, although he also worries about his own overzealous deputy Ben Latta (Jeremy Slate), who tends to see things in uncomfortably black-and-white terms.

The Elder brothers are finding that (a) their mother had a lot of grit and everybody liked her, and (b) their father was shot in the back after losing the ranch to Morgan Hastings in a card game.  A man from Pecos who had corresponded with Kate Elder about a herd of horses stops by, and the Elders agree to take 200 horses and drive them to Colorado for sale, to finance Bud’s continued college career.

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While they are gone to Pecos to get the horses, Billy rides out to where they are staying and Morgan Hastings shoots him from a distance with a rifle.  As the Elders return with the horses, they are taken prisoner by a posse and put in jail, where they continue to argue over how to respond.  John Elder seems to win the discussion, largely by virtue of being the oldest and being John Wayne.  While being transported by wagon, they are ambushed by a Hastings-led party.  They manage to get a few weapons and fire back; deputy Ben Latta and Matt are killed, and John gets Curley.  John, Tom and Bud make it back to town to get a doctor for Bud, who has been shot.

In town, Tom captures Hastings’ weaselly son Dave (Dennis Hopper).  Dave doesn’t really tell them anything, but Hastings shoots him and they find out that Hastings had cheated and killed their father.  In the end, Tom is badly wounded and John ignites and explodes the gun shop while Hastings is inside.  (In his gun battle with Hastings, it appears that John Elder gets 14 shots out of his Colt Peacemaker without reloading.  The final shot hits and ignites a barrel of gunpowder in Hastings’ gun shop.)

John Elder:  “All we want to do is make you end up rich and respectable.  You fight us every step of the way.”

Bud Elder:  “I don’t want to be rich and respectable. I want to be just like the rest of you.”

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In some ways, this is a typical “unscrupulous land baron trying to take over the entire range” movie (see The War Wagon, for example, and any number of other such westerns).  It reunites John Wayne and Dean Martin from Rio Bravo; Martin isn’t as good in this one.  Earl Holliman is good but his part is underwritten; Michael Anderson as youngest brother Bud is largely just annoying.  Michael Anderson Jr. was in this and as a young soldier in Major Dundee before he drifted off to television work.  James Gregory and George Kennedy are good as patently bad guys.  The Martha Hyer character is unnecessary and doesn’t really do much.  There is a good cast of supporting character actors:  Paul Fix, John Doucette, Strother Martin, Percy Helton, Rhys Williams, John Qualen et al.  Rodolfo Acosta, who often played Indian chiefs (Hondo, Trooper Hook), is here one of Hastings’ gunmen.  Chuck Roberson, one of Wayne’s favorite stand-ins and stuntmen, is present as well.

This was Wayne’s first movie after having a cancerous lung removed.  He was not in good health, and he looks significantly older at 58 (playing a character who is supposedly around 40) than he had in The Comancheros four years earlier.  In general, this is a middle-of-the-pack John Wayne western from the 1960s—good enough but not remarkable.  It was remade in a modern urban setting with Mark Wahlberg as Four Brothers in 2005.

Shot in color in Durango, Mexico.  Cinematography is excellent, by Lucien Ballard.  Good music is by Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, The Comancheros).  The hearse featured at the funeral of Katie Elder currently resides in front of the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World.  In western history, there was a famous Kate Elder:  “Big Nose” Kate Elder, a prostitute of Hungarian origins and girlfriend of legendary gunfighter-gambler-dentist Doc Holliday.

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The Spoilers (1942)

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 26, 2014

The Spoilers—John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, Harry Carey, Margaret Lindsay, Richard Barthelmess, William Farnum (1942; Dir:  Ray Enright)

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In the early 1940s, Randolph Scott had been the hero in a couple of better-than-average westerns (Last of the Mohicans, Frontier Marshal) and had persuasively played an unusually ethical villain in a couple more upscale westerns (Western Union, Virginia City), in which his character does not survive.  Here he is called upon to play a charming but unambiguously bad guy for a change.  His good-guy counterpart is rising star John Wayne, three years after his star-making turn in Stagecoach.  The balance between these two attractive actors makes this story work.

This was not the first (or the last) cinematic version of Rex Beach’s story of claim jumping in Nome, Alaska, in 1900, but it is probably the best.  Not only are the two main roles well-cast, but they are ably supported by Marlene Dietrich and Harry Carey.

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Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) meets Helen, the judge’s niece (Margaret Lindsay), and is not amused.

Roy Glennister (John Wayne) and his mining partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey) are the proprietors of the wealthy Midas gold mine, and things are going well when new mining commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) shows up.  Glennister has a regular relationship with Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich), owner of The Northern saloon, and he’s returning from a trip to Seattle.  When he does, he’s in the company of the attractive Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay), niece of the new federal judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds).  He’s more attentive to Helen than he needs to be, and Cherry is offended.  Meanwhile, questions on the legitimacy of the Glennister-Dextry ownership of the Midas have been raised, and Dextry wants to respond directly with guns.  Glennister urges trying the legal way first.

What it gets them is having their mine and gold impounded, with several months before their case is heard, in which much more gold can be taken out by the authorities, McNamara and Stillman.  As Glennister and Dextry try to get their gold back, the local marshal is killed by Cherry’s manager-dealer Bronco Kid Farrow (played by silent star Richard Barthelmess in one of his last roles).  As tensions build between Glennister and Cherry, Bronco figures the blame for the marshal’s death will attach to Glennister, giving Bronco a better chance with Cherry.  It works to a point, and Glennister is jailed.

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Glennister (John Wayne), while wearing feathers, gets arrested by the bad guys.

McNamara hatches a plan for Glennister to be killed in an escape attempt, but Cherry gets wind of it and aids a real escape.  Glennister and Dextry take back the Midas, but Bronco is mortally wounded in a train crash during the attack.  As he dies, he admits he killed the marshal.  Cherry has been distracting McNamara while the Midas was retaken, and now Glennister shows up at the Northern to save her from McNamara’s attentions.  This leads to an epic fight, in which much of the Northern is wrecked.  In the end, McNamara, Stillman and supposed niece Helen are apprehended before they can get away.  The Midas is in the hands of its real owners again, and Glennister and Cherry are back together.

The fight between John Wayne and Randolph Scott is one of the most storied in the history of westerns.  This sequence took about five days to lay out and film.  It’s unusually vigorous and well-staged, but not perfect.  For example, at one point a stand-in for Scott is a little too obvious, and there are a couple of spots in which it looks like the film was speeded up.  Still, in most of the key roles, the actors are a step up from the 1955 remake, for example.  John Wayne is a better actor than Jeff Chandler, Randolph Scott is more charming than Rory Calhoun, and Marlene Dietrich did this kind of role better than anyone else (although Anne Baxter was also excellent in 1955), even if her wigs are a bit extravagant.  And Harry Carey is more restrained but watchable than John McIntire.  The movie is tightly-paced and works well.

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Randolph Scott and John Wayne wreck the Northern during an epic cinematic battle.

Barthelmess is an interesting side note in one of his last movie roles, as is William Farnum, who plays the Glennister-Dextry lawyer Wheaton.  He was the brother of early silent star Dustin Farnum (The Squaw Man, credited with being the first feature-length movie), and he had played Glennister himself in the 1914 movie version of the story–probably the first of five movies to use Beach’s 1906 novel as its basis. And there’s a brief vignette where Cherry encounters the poet Robert W. Service, writing about the shooting of Dan McGrew in The Northern.

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John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich were having an affair at the time this movie was made.

Note that Wayne got third billing on the posters, after Dietrich and Scott.  That would not long be the case.  Wayne and Dietrich have good chemistry in their relationship, perhaps because it mirrored their three-year affair in real life.  This was also Wayne’s first opportunity to appear in a film with Harry Carey, who had long been a mentor.  They would work together again in Red River and Angel and the Badman.

 

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The Big Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 23, 2014

The Big Trail—John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, Tyrone Power, Charles Stevens, Tully Marshall, Ian Keith, El Brendel (1930; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)

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This early talkie is interesting for two innovations:  (1) 20th Century Fox was introducing its new proprietary “Grandeur” 70 mm widescreen picture format, more than twenty years before such widescreen images became common in movies, and (2) director Raoul Walsh selected for the lead a young man (23) who would become the most enduring star in westerns of the 20th century—John Wayne.  Unfortunately the new widescreen format required extensive retooling of theatrical exhibition equipment and projection rooms, and in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s, few exhibitors had the funds to make those changes.  John Wayne would have to wait almost a decade for stardom, and widescreen formats would have to wait another twenty years.

John Wayne was a tall, good-looking former USC football player who had first gotten into movies during the 1920s by working as a prop man.  John Ford and others used him as an extra and in bit parts, but it was Raoul Walsh who first gave him a leading role here, as Breck Coleman, the scout for a wagon train headed west from Missouri.  Coleman is looking for the murderers who had killed his best friend, a trapper, and stolen his wolf pelts.  He decides to go along with the wagon train when he sees clues that the murderers might be with the train and when he is attracted to Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), a young woman heading west with her brother and sister.  Red Flack, the rough wagon master (Tyrone Power Sr.), is not fond of Coleman, but there is nothing he can do.  Gambler/gunman Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith) also joins the train to avoid being hung and because he too wants Ruth.

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Young John Wayne as scout Breck Coleman; Tully Marshall and Marguerite Churchill as Zeke and Ruth Cameron.

As they head west across the plains, Coleman becomes more certain that Flack and his henchman Lopez (Charles Stevens) are his friend’s murderers, and Thorpe joins forces with them.  While Coleman is off hunting buffalo with a couple of Indian scouts, Thorpe ambushes him and sees him fall.  Thorpe, Flack and Lopez are surprised when he makes it back to camp with only a bullet hole in his saddle and no horse.

The wagon train encounters the usual difficulties:  hostile Indians, tough river crossings, steep canyon walls, heavy rains and other forms of rough country.  Thorpe persuades Ruth Cameron to leave the wagon train and head for California with him.  As Coleman goes off to visit a friend, he is followed by Thorpe.  When Thorpe draws his pistols to shoot Coleman in the back, he is instead shot by Coleman’s friend Zeke (Tully Marshall).  For a moment, the entire camp, including Ruth, believe that Coleman is a murderer, until Zeke comes to his defense.  Now the Cameron wagon has to stay with the main train.

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In snowy mountains, many are tempted to turn back until Coleman gives an impassioned speech, renewing their heart to forge on.  Flack and Lopez abandon the wagon train, but Coleman sees the train through to their destination in “the country beyond Oregon” (the tall trees look more like northern California).  Ruth has finally decided she loves Coleman and begs him to stay with them.  But he goes in search of Flack and Lopez, this time with a speech about how a man must make his own justice out west.  By the time he finds them, Lopez has frozen to death, and Coleman gets the nefarious Flack just as Flack is trying to shoot him.

As spring arrives in the pioneer valley, Ruth has decided that Coleman did not survive his dangerous mission of revenge or justice.  But she encounters him in the tall trees, and their love is renewed.  Fade to black, with symphonic music.

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Coleman and the villainous Red Flack (Tyrone Power); Coleman and Ruth Cameron.

The visuals are the best part of this movie, shot by cinematographer Arthur Edeson.  It was conceived as an epic when it was made, at the then-huge cost of $2 million.  It had a large cast and was shot on location in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and northern California, and the great natural beauty of the western vistas shows up on the wide screen with a lot of depth.  It was made in the early days of sound movies, and the recording equipment was still pretty primitive, especially when used outdoors, where almost all of this movie was shot.  Since theaters that could show the film in 70 mm were rare (at the time of its release, only Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles and the Roxy in New York City had the equipment for a film shot in the Fox Grandeur process), the film was simultaneously shot in the usual 35 mm format.  (Actually, five versions were shot on location, with French, German and Spanish language versions, mostly with different casts, accounting for the other three.)  

If you’re going to watch it now, see the restored version, at 122 minutes.  “A financial disaster, the widescreen Big Trail vanished for 60 years, until the Museum of Modern Art restored it in the 1980s in a widescreen 35-millimeter print.”  A two-disc DVD set was released in 2008.  Some say the original cut was 156 minutes long, but if so, that longer version doesn’t seem to be available.  In 2006, the National Film Preservation Board included The Big Trail in the National Film Registry.

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According to Dave Kehr, “Walsh makes maximum use of the width of the big screen, composing his shots so that the eye is led, as in classical painting, to pick out a series of details across the surface of the image.  But he also uses the extremely high resolution of the 70-millimeter stock to create perspectives that draw the viewer from foreground details to action in the distant background, at times seemingly miles away. Nothing less is at stake here than the whole system of analytical editing within a scene, as developed by the directors of the 1910s; what Walsh is doing does not really find an equivalent until Jacques Tati’s 70-millimeter masterpiece of 1967, Playtime.”

The unknown John Wayne (the studio came up with that name for young Marion Morrison for this film, taking the last name from Revolutionary-era General “Mad Anthony” Wayne) does well and holds the screen.  He is occasionally given stilted speeches and does the best he can with them, but he’s not yet the actor he will become.  If the movie had been more successful, this might have been his big breakthrough.  But it wasn’t, and he had to wait almost a decade for larger success to come in 1939’s Stagecoach.  He spent the intervening years making eight-day and ten-day B movie westerns, in an era when almost all westerns were cheaply and quickly turned out, and there was no cinematic prestige attached to them.

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Wayne (center) with stand-ins and foreign language counterparts.

Some of the other actors in the film, such as romantic interest Marguerite Churchill and Tyrone Power Sr. (playing the large and rough villain Red Flack with a growly voice), had stage backgrounds, and their acting is a bit broad for modern tastes.  They had to project so their voices could be caught by the relatively primitive microphones.  One of the trio of villains (Lopez) is played by Charles Stevens, a grandson of Geronimo, who played a number of Indian and Mexican characters (he had both Apache and Mexican ancestry) from the 1930s through the 1950s, in such films as Frontier Marshal and My Darling Clementine.  El Brendel, the pseudo-Swedish “comedian” who plays the comic-relief immigrant Gussie, was actually Philadelphia-born Elmer Goodfellow Brendle, who had affected a phony German accent until the sinking of the Lusitania.  Ward Bond (later the star of John Ford’s Wagon Master and TV’s Wagon Train series) was assigned by Walsh to manage the wagons, appropriately enough.  Marguerite Churchill, the pretty heroine, wound up marrying George O’Brien, John Ford’s favorite leading man from 1924 to 1931.

This movie, along with silent films The Covered Wagon (1923, directed by James Cruze) and The Iron Horse (1924, by director John Ford), constitute the great epics of western American expansion from the early decades of the movies.  While the writing is clunky by current standards and the glories of Manifest Destiny don’t play as well to modern ears as they did to the audiences of the 1930s, this is paced well and has spectacular visuals.  It’s fun to watch.

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If you watch Stagecoach soon after seeing The Big Trail, you’ll notice several improvements.  One is that Stagecoach has noticeably better writing.  Another is that in the intervening decade, sound equipment had improved dramatically in quality.  And a third is that, by laboring in 40 or so B movies in the interim and taking advice from such veterans as Harry Carey, John Wayne’s acting skills were also a lot stronger.  When his big break came again in 1939, he was a somewhat more mature 32, and he made the most of it.

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Breck Coleman, scout, to the dispirited pioneers weary of trekking through the snows of the high mountains:  “We can’t turn back!  We’re blazing a trail that started in England.  Not even the storms of the sea could turn back the first settlers.  And they carried on further.  They blazed it on through the wilderness of Kentucky.  Famine, hunger, not even massacres could stop them.  And now we picked up the trail again.  And nothing can stop us!  Not even the snows of winter, nor the peaks of the highest mountain.  We’re building a nation and we got to suffer!  No great trail was ever built without hardship.  And you got to fight!  That’s right.  And when you stop fighting, that’s death.  What are you going to do, lay down and die?  Not in a thousand years!  You’re going on with me!”

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The Alamo (1960)

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 18, 2014

The Alamo—John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey, Richard Boone, Chill Wills, Frankie Avalon, Linda Cristal, Ken Curtis, Joseph Calleia, Denver Pyle, Hank Worden (1960; Dir:  John Wayne)

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This retelling of the Alamo story and the beginnings of Texas independence from Mexico is perhaps the most John Wayne film ever made:  Wayne was the star, producer, and director, and his company provided some of the financing.  Wayne as an actor was at his peak in the wake of The Searchers and Rio Bravo, and the movie was released to great hype.  From our vantage point more than 50 years later, one would expect that it would have done well at the box office but perhaps not been greeted with much enthusiasm by critics.  In fact, it was the opposite.  A hugely expensive production in its time ($12 million) with an enormous cast, it only made back $8 million domestically.   Wayne lost his personal investment.  The movie eventually went into the black, making lots of money in Europe and Japan, but Wayne no longer owned it by that time.  Critical reaction was mixed at best, but the movie was one of the few nominated for for the Best Picture Academy Award for 1960.

In 1836, Texans are declaring their independence from Mexico, and Mexican president/generalissimo Santa Anna is bringing his experienced army of more than 6000 north to bring them back into the fold.  There is not much of a Texas army to oppose him—only 600 men under Fannin at Goliad and 187 men commanded by William Barret Travis (English actor Laurence Harvey) at San Antonio, using the old mission at the Alamo as a fortress of sorts.  Sam Houston (Richard Boone in his curmudgeonly mode) is trying to put together a real army to oppose Santa Anna, but he desperately needs time to do that.

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In addition to Travis, “Colonel” Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark), former Louisiana land speculator and knife fighter, commands some militia at the Alamo.  And a bunch of roistering Tennesseans nominally led by former congressman Davy Crockett (John Wayne) are in town with an uncertain destination.  Travis offends local Hispanics such as Juan Seguin (Joseph Calleia), who would otherwise support Texas independence, Travis and Bowie bicker constantly, and Travis ineffectively tries to recruit the Tennesseans. 

During the build-up, Crockett bonds with his men, gives the occasional speech about how the word “republic” chokes him up, and makes a play for a young and attractive Hispanic widow (the beautiful Linda Cristal).  She has no apparent dramatic purpose, since she doesn’t actually get together with Crockett and she doesn’t stick around after the first third of the movie.  In the midst of their drunkenness, Crockett manipulates the Tennesseans into joining the defenders of the Alamo.

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Laurence Harvey as Travis and Richard Widmark as Bowie (with his volley gun).

Santa Anna and his good-looking army show up and blast away at the Alamo.  Crockett and Bowie conduct a commando operation to destroy the biggest Mexican gun, and there are constant conflicts with Travis.  It can be no secret to us (or to audiences of 1960) that in the end the defenders are overwhelmed by Santa Anna’s forces and slaughtered to a man in an extended battle sequence, creating the first heroes of Texas independence.  Each of the three defending principals gets an appropriately heroic end.

The need to make this a John Wayne movie means this film disproportionately focuses on the supposed Crockett, who seems not very authentic historically.  He’s not too old for the part, since Crockett was almost 50 when he died at the battle.  There’s a lot of meandering in the first two-thirds of the movie with extraneous characters.  The Tennesseans (especially Chill Wills) quickly become tedious in their constant drunken revelry.  Apparently having learned from Rio Bravo that one should always have a teen-idol singer in the cast to appeal to the younger demographic, Frankie Avalon here is another in a series of unnecessary young brothers and compatriots (Fabian in North to Alaska, Bobbie Vinton in Big Jake and The Train Robbers) who can’t act well.

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In production design, there are a few concessions to 1836 this time, especially in the hats and firearms.  Bowie’s seven-barrel flintlock volley gun (called a Nock gun, after its British maker) looks impressive; such a gun was developed by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars for naval warfare but was not widely used because of its horrific recoil.  Crockett’s coonskin cap looks hot and foolish; thankfully, he often wears more regular hats.

In Rio Bravo the year before, one of the prominent musical features was the constant playing of the Deguello, Mexican-flavored trumpet and guitar music that was said to have been played by Santa Anna’s men at the Alamo, signifying that no quarter was to be given.  It was a romantic story, but, In fact, the tune was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin for that film.  Here the theme music is a combination of the Tiomkin Deguello and the melancholy “Green Leaves of Summer” by Tiomkin, which would be nominated for an Oscar and become a big hit for the folk group The Brothers Four.  The overture and musical intermission are usually omitted for television broadcasts.

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Cinematography was by the excellent William Clothier.  The screenplay was by James Edward Grant (Angel and the Badman), long a favorite (and often clunky) writer-friend of Wayne’s.  The two or three patriotic speeches dropped in, especially those for Wayne, stop the action and don’t work very well.  Producer/director Wayne wanted to express his patriotic sentiments and he got his way, but that aspect doesn’t play well now.  The final battle scene has some curious editing, showing Mexican soldiers lunging at one or another of the notable defenders, cutting away, and seconds later returning to the defender, now skewered with a bayonet or sword and falling over.

The Alamo received seven Academy Award nominations.  It won the Oscar for Best Sound (Gordon E. Sawyer, Fred Hynes) and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Chill Wills), Best Cinematography (William Clothier), Best Film Editing (Stuart Gilmore), Best Musical Score (Dimitri Tiomkin), Best Music (Song) (Dimitri Tiomkin and Paul Francis Webster for The Green Leaves of Summer) and Best Picture.  Chill Wills placed a tasteless ad in Variety, soliciting votes and referring to those who voted for him as his “Alamo cousins.”  Groucho Marx responded in a small ad of his own:  “Dear Mr. Wills, I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo” (nominated for Exodus).

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Wayne directing, apparently in the same hat he wore from Stagecoach (1939) through Rio Bravo (1959).  The hat does not appear on-screen in The Alamo, though.

This film is a relic of John Wayne in the 1960s at the height of his career, and that is the reason to watch it.  John Wayne learned that he didn’t want to direct, although he took over that role again (uncredited, at his insistence) on 1962’s The Comancheros when Michael Curtiz was dying of cancer.  As in the making of other films (see The Cowboys, for example), Wayne’s right-wing politics sometimes conflicted with those of others in the production.  In this case, Widmark didn’t get along with him well.  Widmark repeatedly challenged Wayne’s direction and once they almost came to blows; thereafter the two remained professional but distant. The movie is long, at 167 minutes, and there is a director’s cut at 203 minutes (1993, obviously done without Wayne’s participation) if you want even more and if you can find it.  The movie was re-released in 1967 at 140 minutes, so there are lots of choices.  Some of these cuts are in need of restoration.

So how accurate is it?  Not very.  For example, Bowie did not brandish a seven-barrel volley gun, nor was he wounded in the leg during the final assault, nor did his wife die during the time of the siege. He fell ill due to typhoid fever and was barely awake during the final attack, and Bowie’s wife had died a year before the battle was fought.  Fannin was not ambushed and slaughtered during the siege of the Alamo.  He and his men were murdered in Goliad on Palm Sunday three weeks after the Alamo fell.  Bowie and Crockett never made the decision to leave the Alamo as shown in the movie.  Though Bowie and Travis disliked each other intensely, they agreed that the Alamo should be defended.  And the time frame for the battle is wrong.  The movie shows the final battle taking place during the day; in reality, the final Mexican attack was pre-dawn, while most of the Alamo defenders were sleeping.  The individual deaths of Travis, Bowie and Crockett are fictional, for dramatic effect.  They were killed, but, especially for Crockett, the individual circumstances are not generally known and are still a matter of debate.

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Billboard art by Reynold Brown, emphasizing the film’s epic scale and the final battle.

In a bit part as an aide to Santa Anna, look for famed Mexican bullfighter Carlos Arruza; well-known director Budd Boetticher would fizzle away his career in Mexico during the 1960s trying to make his magnum opus, a documentary on Arruza, before Arruza’s early death in 1966.  If Arruza’s presence in the film was intended to make it appeal to Mexicans, it didn’t work; the film was banned in Mexico.  There are various Canutts (related to Yakima, legendary stuntman and second unit director), Patrick Wayne, even an uncredited Pilar and Toni Wayne.

The first movie about the battle at the Alamo was the silent The Immortal Alamo (1911), now thought to be lost.  There have been at least eight films portraying it, and three television productions, including Disney’s “Davy Crockett at the Alamo” episode on Disneyland.  This is not the best film ever made about the Alamo, but it might be the most prominent.  For a better, more historical Crockett performance, see Billy Bob Thornton in The Alamo (2004)The 2004 movie, which tries for greater historical accuracy, is not among the greatest westerns, but it’s better than this version and Thornton’s performance is terrific.  The definitive Alamo movie has yet to be made.

For more actual history of the Alamo and its defense, focusing on the three protagonists (Crockett, Bowie and Travis) and doing a good job of separating the legends from what is actually known, see the books Three Roads to the Alamo (1999), by William C. Davis and The Blood of Heroes (2012), by James Donovan.

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Angel and the Badman

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 1, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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