Tag Archives: John Wayne

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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The Comancheros

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 4, 2014

The Comancheros—John Wayne, Stuart Whitman, Ina Balin, Lee Marvin, Bruce Cabot, Michael Ansara, Jack Elam, Edgar Buchanan, Nehemiah Persoff, Patrick Wayne (1961; Dir:  Michael Curtiz, John Wayne [unaccredited])

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It is 1840.  In Louisiana, Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) is involved in a duel with an unscrupulous opponent, whom he kills.  The dead man is the son of a judge, so a warrant is issued for Regret’s arrest.  He prudently leaves, and on a gambling boat meets Pilar Graile (Ina Balin), a wealthy and assertive young woman with whom he shares a night.  In Galveston the next morning, however, Pilar is nowhere to be found, and Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne) arrests him on the Louisiana warrant.

As they head toward Ranger headquarters, Regret is educated about Texas, its geography and a bit of widower Cutter’s history.  They come upon a ranch that has been hit by a Comanche raiding party, and as they finish burying the victims Regret bashes Cutter with a shovel and disappears.

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The chagrined Cutter proceeds to Ranger headquarters, where Major Henry (Bruce Cabot) shows him prisoner Ed McBain (Guinn Williams in his last film), apprehended with a wagonload of rifles he intended to sell to the Comanches.    Henry persuades Cutter to take McBain’s place and head for a planned rendezvous in Sweetwater with a Comanchero connection.

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The connection in Sweetwater is Tully Crow (Lee Marvin), a partially scalped, heavy-drinking hardcase.  Crow and the faux-McBain carouse noisily and drift into a poker game, where one of the players is Paul Regret.  He does not give Cutter away, and during the game Cutter wins consistently and Crow gets progressively surlier.  As Cutter takes up his winnings and prepares to leave, Crow calls him out and draws on him.  Cutter wins, but it leaves him without a Comanchero connection.  They head for Ranger headquarters, but encounter  Comanche and Comanchero raiders at a ranch with Cutter friends.  Regret saves the day by escaping to get the Rangers back, and the raiders are driven off. 

Regret is now a Ranger friend, having proved himself.  On their way back to headquarters Cutter and Regret stop at the ranch of a young widow Cutter knows to take her into town.  The interlude gives Cutter a little additional humanity but doesn’t really go anywhere.  The Rangers provide Cutter with a feathered Indian lance that supposedly will give them safe conduct in Comanche country.  They are followed by young Ranger Tobe (Patrick Wayne), who is supposed to keep an eye on them from a distance.  He is killed, however, presumably to demonstrate that this is serious business despite how easily Cutter and Regret will make their own escape.

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They are accepted by the Comanches, who take them to Comanchero headquarters, where they are strung up because Amelung (Michael Ansara) recognizes Cutter from when he was arresting Regret.  However, Pilar appears and is the daughter of the head Comanchero.  She has them cut down and invited to dinner, but they are on thin ice.  They meet her crippled father (Nehemiah Persoff), and it turns out that of all the forces and loyalties in play, true love is strongest (not all that convincingly).  They make a run for it in a wagon with Pilar and her father, with both Comanches and Comancheros in hot pursuit.  The wagon overturns in the chase, Pilar’s father is killed, and the Ranger company arrives just in time to rescue them.

At the end Cutter willingly gives up his prisoner and Regret and Pilar head for Mexico.  The Comanchero ring has been broken.

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Based on a novel by Paul Wellman, the screenplay was originally penned by experienced writer Clair Huffaker.  But the studio ordered it worked over by James Edward Grant, a favorite of Wayne’s, and the seams show.  They may both have been good writers, but at several points the plot doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, beginning with Regret’s arrest.  The original director was Michael Curtiz, but he had health problems and the movie was finished with the uncredited Wayne acting as director.  Curtiz died of cancer shortly after the film was finished.

In terms of production design, although the film is set in Texas in 1840, it looks the same as every other John Wayne movie after The Searchers, whether set in 1840, 1898 or 1909, with anachronistic weapons and clothing.  Some of the references to Fort Sill and the prison at Yuma are off, since neither existed until at least twenty years later.  When Cutter steps into the McBain role, he wears a tall hat and long duster for no good reason, and they look silly on him.  Lee Marvin’s energetic malevolence as Tully Crow is more threatening than all the Comanches and Comancheros in the rest of the movie, but his role is much too brief. 

A strong point is the music by Elmer Bernstein, with a stirring theme second only to Bernstein’s work on The Magnificent Seven.  Cinematography is by the experienced William Clothier.  Shot near Moab, Utah.  In general, the movie is fun if you don’t require too much consistency or reasonableness in your plots.  Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called the film “so studiously wild and woolly it turns out to be good fun”; according to Crowther, “[t]here’s not a moment of seriousness in it, not a detail that isn’t performed with a surge of exaggeration, not a character that is credible.”

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Three years later Stuart Whitman starred in Rio Conchos, also written by Clair Huffaker, which has many similarities to the plot here but is a better movie.  By setting it after the Civil War, some of the anachronisms of this movie are avoided.  Among John Wayne films of this period, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, El Dorado, The War Wagon and True Grit are all better.  But several others are worse, too.

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Allegheny Uprising

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 22, 2014

Allegheny Uprising—John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Wilfrid Lawson, George Sanders, Brian Donlevy, Ian Wolfe, Moroni Olsen, Robert Barrat (1939; Dir:  William A. Seiter)

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Colonial settlers vs. Indians but mostly against British authority in western Pennsylvania in 1760 in this fictionalized account of the historical Captain James Smith and his Black Boys.  Released the same year as Trevor and Wayne appeared together in Stagecoach (it was the first movie they made after Stagecoach) and John Ford made the similarly-themed and bigger-budgeted Drums Along the Mohawk, this has been much more obscure and is seldom seen these days. 

At the start of the film, Smith (John Wayne) and a friend are returned from captivity with the Indians after three years.  Although the French and Indian War has just ended, Smith finds that unscrupulous traders Callendar (Brian Donlevy) and Poole (Ian Wolfe) are trading weapons and firewater to the Indians, despite the fact that the Indians will use those supplies to kill both settlers and British soldiers. 

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Smith leads his Black Boys to circumvent blinkered British military authority, as represented by officious and hostile Capt. Swanson (George Sanders).  They take Fort Loudon from Swanson and capture the illicit supplies there.  They again take the fort to release colonials unjustly imprisoned in manacles by Swanson.  Callendar kills Smith’s best friend Calhoon (Moroni Olsen) and charges Smith with the murder.  He declines to be released by a mob and ultimately is acquitted. 

At the end of the movie he goes off to survey Tennessee with the lovely and spunkily tomboyish Janie MacDougall (Claire Trevor, mostly in anachronistic pants) in his wake.  In what is kind of an extraneous and loud role, she has spent the movie trying to get him to re-commit to a promise made years earlier, before his captivity, to marry her.  He never really does, although he seems closer at the end of the film.  Swanson is depicted more as rigid and unthinking than bad and gets sent home to England at the end of the movie. 

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Robert Barrat, who had played Chingachgook in 1936’s Last of the Mohicans, is the local magistrate who sympathizes with Smith and the settlers.  Wilfrid Lawson is MacDougall, Janie’s Scottish heavy-drinking, Indian-scouting father.  It’s not very politically correct for our time, what with the heathen savages (“the only friendly Injun’s a dead Injun”) and “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” attitudes.  It also partakes of 1930s populist sentiments.  It looks like it was shot in southern California, not Pennsylvania.  It’s pleasant and watchable, but perhaps not all that memorable.  This was a good year for Brian Donlevy’s villainy:  he was the sleazy saloon owner in Destry Rides Again and the sadistic Foreign Legion sergeant in Beau Geste in 1939 as well.  Chill Wills has an early film role here, moving on from his musical group the Avalon Boys.  In black and white.

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The War Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 28, 2013

The War Wagon—John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Howard Keel, Bruce Cabot, Robert Walker, Keenan Wynn, Bruce Dern, Harry Carey, Jr., Sheb Wooley, Chuck Roberson (1967; Dir:  Burt Kennedy)

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Fairly good late period John Wayne, better written by Clair Huffaker than most of Wayne’s regular fare.  This is an assembling-the-team-and-pulling-the-caper western (like The Badlanders and The Train Robbers) by Wayne’s Batjac production company.  It also represents Burt Kennedy’s move from writing (the best of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott films) and television directing to directing movies.  This was about as good as director Kennedy would get, though, except for his Support Your Local … pair starting the following year. 

Honest rancher Taw Jackson (Wayne) gets out of prison after three years and returns on parole to Emmett, New Mexico, about 43 ½ miles from El Paso.  He lost his ranch and was framed for some unspecified crime by Frank Pierce (Bruce Cabot), owner of the Pierce Mining Company, when gold was found on the ranch.  The wagon of the title is Pierce’s armored stagecoach, used for delivering gold to the railroad, accompanied by more than thirty armed guards on horses.  The sheriff is clearly in Pierce’s pocket. 

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Jackson aims to get back some of his gold when an unusually large shipment ($500,000) is due to move.  He first recruits amoral old enemy Lomax (Kirk Douglas), gunman, gambler, womanizer, bon vivant and, not incidentally, safecracker.  He had made arrangements in prison with Billy Hyatt (young Robert Walker, son of Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones), alcoholic but good with explosives, and with dishonest Wes Fletcher (Keenan Wynn), who hauls freight for Pierce and provides both information and a means of transporting the loot (in barrels of flour).  The final member of the team is Levi Walking Bear (a ludicrously cast Howard Keel, but he’s mostly comic relief), for his connections with the Kiowas led by Wild Horse, who is to provide a diversion for the wagon’s outriders during the robbery.

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Pierce outfits the wagon with a gatling gun just before the run, but with a few ups and downs things work out mainly as planned.  When the outriders are distracted by the Kiowas, Billy uses nitroglycerin to blow up a bridge and separate them from the wagon.  Lomax and Walking Bear set a trap to remove the wagon’s driver.  Pierce, inside the wagon, has a falling out with two of his henchmen at a critical moment, and they shoot him as he shoots them.  Fletcher shows up at the appointed place with his young blond wife (bought from her parents and played by Valora Noland), and the team puts the gold loose in the flour barrels.  Wild Horse, however, tries to double-cross them until distracted, and perhaps blown up, by nitroglycerin.  The Indians shoot Fletcher and the flour/gold wagon bolts driverless.  The barrels roll out toward the starving Kiowa women and old people, and the gang appears to have lost its loot—except that Jackson finds a few bags that Fletcher had surreptitiously stolen.  Presumably, Jackson gets his ranch back, and Billy gets Fletcher’s young, blond wife.

Kirk Douglas had been a significant movie star for 20 years when this was made, but a point is made of his athleticism, such as frequently leaping on to horses without using the stirrups.  He wears a hat less than most actors in westerns, as in The Last Sunset.  Douglas is dressed in very tight-fitting clothes, including a suede tunic-vest that must have been difficult to get into, matching suede boots, black form-fitting stretch pants and black gloves with a large ring on the outside of one finger.  The Douglas-Wayne interplay is very effective; they made three films together in as many years.  According to the production notes on the 2003 DVD release, Keenan Wynn’s battered hat that he wears in the picture was Leslie Howard’s Confederate cavalry hat from Gone With the Wind which Wynn purloined from MGM.  Wynn first wore the hat in a 1942 MGM screen test and “wore it in every picture he made.”  Although Wynn plays a crazy/dishonest old man, he was in fact nine years younger than Wayne.  According to Wayne, the (gratuitous) fight in the saloon was his 500th on-screen fight.

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There are a number of the Wayne regulars along for the ride.  Harry Carey, Jr., Bruce Cabot, Sheb Wooley, Chuck Roberson.  Bruce Dern, a slimy Pierce henchman who gets killed early in the movie, would be the first to kill John Wayne in a western a few years later in The Cowboys.  The gold dust looks rather obviously like iron pyrite.

To see John Wayne as an outlaw again, look at 3 Godfathers, The Angel and the Badman, The Searchers, and The Train Robbers.  Maybe The Sons of Katie Elder.  He’s showing his age here; he’d already lost a lung to cancer, and it’s not terribly believable when he and Douglas seem to leap from the crashing war wagon.  But it’s an enjoyable and watchable movie anyway, if not among his best—better and more coherent than the previous year’s El Dorado, even though the estimable Howard Hawks directed that one.

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Filmed in color by William Clothier in Durango, Mexico.  Music by Dimitri Tiomkin, but it’s not one of his more memorable scores.  Theme song sung by Ed Ames.

This was the first of three John Wayne movies in which one of his old acting pals plays a dubious Indian:  Howard Keel here, Neville Brand in Cahill U.S. Marshal, and Bruce Cabot in Big Jake.  Young Robert Walker didn’t have much of a movie career, but you can catch him in another western:  Young Billy Young, with Robert Mitchum, also directed by Burt Young.

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3 Godfathers (1948)

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 25, 2013

3 Godfathers—John Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., Pedro Armendariz, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick, Mae Marsh, Jane Darwell, Hank Worden, Guy Kibbee, Ben Johnson (1948; Dir:  John Ford)

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If one were asked to name a Christmas western, 3 Godfathers would be the first that came to mind.  One might also add the made-for-television Jericho.  The official title of this version appears to have the numeral 3, instead of spelling out Three Godfathers.

This was at least the sixth remake of this story, including two previous silent versions by John Ford and a 1929 talkie directed by William Wyler.  Audiences at the time this was released probably thought it was better than current audiences would.  In fact, this is probably among the least-watched of Ford’s post-WW II work.  It seems old-fashioned, and it was not the first time that Ford had told this story.  It was made during the last period when not only was the reformed-badman theme in vogue but so was a kind of overtly sentimental religious outlook that was part of society’s general consensus.  That consensus has since disappeared.  For purposes of comparison, look at Wayne’s Angel and the Badman and Joel McCrea in Four Faces West, both from about the same time.  If we can’t exactly share those sentiments in our more cynical time, we shouldn’t lose the ability to appreciate the stories, since they were part of life in the American west, too.

Bob Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William Kearney, the Abilene Kid (Harry Carey, Jr., “introduced” in a story his father had starred in twice) ride into Welcome, Arizona, formerly known as Tarantula, planning to rob the local bank.  They meet Perley “Buck” Sweet (Ward Bond), the canny local sheriff, and his wife (Mae Marsh).  They hit the bank and as they are making their escape out of town, Sweet wings the Kid and puts a bullet hole in the bandits’ water bag.  They take out into the desert, heading for Mojave Tanks—three men on two horses. 

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At Mojave Tanks, they find Sweet has used the train to get two men there already.  They move on to Terrapin Tanks, only to find that a tenderfoot has ruined the granite tanks with dynamite, seemingly out of greed.  They lose their two remaining horses and are now afoot in the desert.  They find the tenderfoot’s wife—Perley Sweet’s sister (Mildred Natwick)–in her Conestoga wagon, out of water and about to give birth.  Her husband has disappeared four days previously, chasing their own horses.  Pedro, having had an Indian wife, is deemed the one best qualified to help with the birth, and a baby boy is born.  Before she dies, the new mother makes the three promise to be godfathers to the newborn and to save him from the desert.  Also being reborn in this grueling process is the faith of Robert Marmaduke Hightower (Wayne), who starts off as a nonbeliever. 

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The three stagger out toward New Jerusalem with the baby, guided by a scripture on the Nativity and saving their water for the wounded Kid and for the baby.  First the Kid dies, and Pedro takes the baby.  He falls down a bank and breaks his leg.  Realizing he can’t go on, he sends Hightower with the water over the mountain toward New Jerusalem.  Hightower can’t make it, but is urged along by the shades of his companions and the promise made to a dying woman.  As directed by the Bible, he finds a donkey and its colt—enough to stagger into New Jerusalem’s saloon with the baby. 

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Buck Sweet finds Hightower there just as the cowboy collapses.  When he revives (in jail), he’s willing for Buck and his wife (Mae Marsh) to take over custody of the child temporarily while he’s in jail.  The judge delivers a sentence in a barroom, after Hightower reaffirms his intention to keep the promise he made to the baby’s mother.  Because of his personal reformation and the care he has taken of the child, he gets the minimum, only a year and a day at Yuma.  Even the banker’s daughter seems taken with Hightower and promises to write to him. 

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Just ahead of the posse, Hightower delivers the baby to a bar in New Jerusalem, causing them to burst into the song “Silent Night.”  He collapses.

Interesting to note that the charismatic Pedro Armendariz had equal billing with Wayne in this film.  He’s very good as an actor, and as a rider—watch him handle the horse as the three make their getaway in Welcome.  However, Armendariz had blowups with Ford during filming and never worked with him again.  There are many Ford regulars in this cast:  Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick (who seems older than the 28 to 30 she’s supposed to be), Jane Darwell, Hank Worden, Harry Carey, Jr., and an early role for Ben Johnson.  They do fine, although the story does not move quickly during its period in the desert. It was the last film for Guy Kibbee, who plays the judge who sentences Hightower.  Mae Marsh had started in movies in 1910 at the age of 15, appearing in such classics as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance for D.W. Griffith.  By 1940 she was a favorite character actress of John Ford, appearing in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), 3 Godfathers (1948), and The Searchers (1956).

The movie was a bit old-fashioned even when it was made, and it seems a little more so now.  It shows more than usual of Ford’s sentimental streak, and the Christmas overtones are certainly leaned on.  About the same time this was released (1948), Wayne was starting some of his strongest work:  Fort Apache (with Ford), Red River (with Howard Hawks) and The Wake of the Red Witch.  The next year would see She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (with Ford) and The Sands of Iwo Jima, which garnered Wayne his first Academy Award nomination.  Although not as strong as these other films, this doesn’t need to be ashamed in their company, either.  It’s a kind of a tale, with a sort of sentimental Christianity about it, that has gone out of fashion now, but it’s worth watching.  It features the singing of Ford’s usual “Shall We Gather at the River,” and also “Bringing in the Sheaves.”  Filmed at Lone Pine, in color.  The cinematographer was Winton Hoch, who won an Oscar for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the next year and later shot The Searchers with Ford.

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Posters for the 1916 and 1919 versions of the story, both starring Harry Carey.

Note:  In the original story by Peter B. Kyne, the Hightower character does not survive, unlike the quasi-happy ending in this version.  The Kyne novel, published in 1913, was first made into a movie in 1916, starring Harry Carey as Bob Sangster (the John Wayne role here).  Carey, a mentor to a young John Ford, had died in 1947, the year before this movie was released.  Ford’s first version (and the second on film) was a silent movie Marked Men, in 1919, also starring Harry Carey.  His second (the third movie of this story) was called Action, only two years later in 1921, with Hoot Gibson.  Action is now considered to be lost, as are 60 of Ford’s 70 silent films.  William Wyler did a version in 1929 as Hell’s Heroes, starring Charles Bickford and Raymond Hatton.  A fifth version, Three Godfathers in 1936 by Richard Boleslawski, starred Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan.  This sixth version followed in 1948, and is by far the best-known now.  The seventh and last version (so far) to be put on film was The Godchild in 1974, with Jack Palance, Jack Warden and Keith Carradine as escaped Union POWs during the Civil War.  Some of the themes (three unsuitable stand-ins for parents under desperate circumstances) were used in Japanese Studio Ghibli’s 2002 anime Tokyo Godfathers, but that really isn’t a remake.

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Big Jake

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 21, 2013

Big Jake—John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Richard Boone, Patrick Wayne, Christopher Mitchum, Bruce Cabot, Harry Carey, Jr. (1971; Dir:  George Sherman)

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A better-than-average John Wayne western from his late period (post-True Grit), maybe the third best after The Cowboys and The Shootist.  Wayne plays Jacob McCandles, long estranged from his family and thought dead by many.  At the start of the movie in 1909, his family is attacked by evildoers led by John Fain (Richard Boone, in one of his better villain performances).  They shoot his oldest son Bobby (played by Bobby Vinton) and kidnap his grandson Little Jake (Ethan Wayne), demanding $1 million in ransom. 

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Big Jake is called back by his wife (Maureen O’Hara, in the last of their five movies together) and undertakes to lead a group into Mexico to deliver the money, aided by sons James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum), who are fans of new technology, longtime Indian scout Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot) and Dog.  There is friction, if not outright hostility, between Jake and the sons, and the writing for and acting of the sons is probably the weakest element of the movie.  Others hear about the money and would like to steal it.  There’s a good shootout scene when the ransom is delivered, with excellent dialogue between Big Jake and John Fain, although some criticize the film as too violent and bloody.  The juxtaposition of old West ways and new technology with its limitations is effective.

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These westerns in which John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara play an estranged married couple (Rio Grande, McClintock!) always seem to make the resolution of the estrangement a lot easier than it would be in any real relationship.  It isn’t clear why the Boone character wears an orange serape the whole movie.  Did they think we wouldn’t recognize him without it?  Did they suppose it made him look larger?  Is he related to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name?  The narration at the start, setting the late-west, early modern nature of 1909, is unnecessary and a bit clunky.  In general, the film isn’t stitched together all that well and has too close an eye on what seems to have sold in previous Wayne movies, but it’s nevertheless quite watchable.

Director George Sherman was an old timer, and this was his last significant film.  It is said that he was in bad health during the filming and that Wayne took over for him frequently.  There are some instances of less-than-great camera angles during fights; in general the directing isn’t remarkable.  The writing is by the same husband-wife team that wrote Dirty Harry about the same time.  Note some of the trademarks:  the recurring “I thought you were dead,” usually answered by “Not hardly.” And the lines repeated between Boone and Wayne are effective.  Good score by Elmer Bernstein.  Dog seems very like the feral character Sam from Hondo, made 20 years earlier.  This was also made by Batjac, Wayne’s production company.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 2

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 4, 2013

John Wayne as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Tom Dunson in Red River, Hondo Lane in Hondo, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Sheriff John T. Chance in Rio Bravo and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

stagecoachRingoRingo stops the stage and the movie.

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Wayne is the most memorable and enduring western star that the movies have seen, appearing over a long career that began in silent movies and lasted until the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.  Unlike some other great western stars, he was always the protagonist, although a couple of his characters (Tom Dunson, Ethan Edwards) had some near-psychotic edges to them.  He seemed larger-than-life in the Wayne persona that was always part of his character in a film.  These listed here are his greatest performances, but there are others that could make the list, such as Wil Andersen in The Cowboys and J.B. Books in The Shootist.

  • In the role that made him a star, Wayne captures the screen instantly in the shot in which he flags down the coach in 1939’s Stagecoach.  As the Ringo Kid, his mission for revenge and his relationship with bad girl Dallas (Claire Trevor) dominate the movie when the titular coach isn’t being chased by Indians.  The camera loves him, and director John Ford knew how to use him well, even here in their first work together. 
  • It wasn’t just Ford; Wayne’s work with other directors could be excellent as well.  For example, as the obsessive Tom Dunson, his relationship with foster son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his first and one of his best roles) is the backbone of Red River, directed by Howard Hawks.  He’s John Wayne clear through, but his behavior is edgy and uncertain enough that we’re not quite sure how the conflict will end.  That’s good writing and directing, too.  All of this worked together to make the first great cattle drive western, with John Wayne at the heart of it.
  • Hondo Lane is an ill-tempered Arizona scout who puts up with no nonsense and is all business, even in his relationship with Geraldine Page and her son.  Although he had used a longarm to good effect in Stagecoach, his seeming familiarity with a rifle in this role was even more natural.  (It became an integral part of Wayne’s performance as John T. Chance in Rio Bravo, as well.)  He carries the movie, as he usually did, and this excellent performance tends to be underrated in part because this 3D movie wasn’t readily available for viewing for several decades after its release, when the short-lived 3D fashion of the early 1950s had faded.
  • The occasionally irrational and always obsessive Ethan Edwards in The Searchers is nevertheless the character who captures us and carries us through his odyssey in pursuit of a niece taken by Comanches.  His towering obsession is rivaled by the magnificent landscape of Monument Valley, but he stands up to it with a compelling performance for a great director (John Ford again).  One of the iconic shots at the end of the movie shows Ethan Edwards silhouetted in a cabin doorway, holding his left elbow with his right hand before he turns and walks back out into the sunlight.  And we’re not sure to what future.  (Wayne said the pose was an homage to his mentor Harry Carey, whose widow Olive and son Harry Jr. were part of the cast here.)
  • In his second western with director Howard Hawks, Wayne carries the story in Rio Bravo as Sheriff John T. Chance, under siege much of the movie.  He faces bad guys who have much greater numbers and resources, while he has only a drunken deputy (Dean Martin), a gimpy jailor (cackling Walter Brennan) and a very young gunman (Ricky Nelson) to stand with him.  He even makes the May-December romance with a much younger Angie Dickinson seem reasonable.  Here, as in some other films, Wayne was more convincing with a rifle than with a pistol, especially as he got older.  And he was beginning to age when he made this movie.  Wayne played the same character in two more Hawks remakes, with progressively worse results each time.
  • His best acting was arguably in Red River and The Searchers, but he won his Best Actor Academy Award for Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.  As an aging, one-eyed, drunken U.S. marshal for Judge Isaac Parker, he leads a small party into the Indian Territory in search of a murderer and other miscreants.  One of the defining moments of his career in film takes place in a mountain meadow, where the indomitable Rooster Cogburn, facing off alone against four outlaws on horseback, shouts his challenge “Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!”, takes his horse’s reins in his teeth and charges, firing a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other.  Thrilling stuff.  Good writing and direction, too.  It’s interesting to compare Wayne’s version of the character with the Cogburn played 40 years later by another excellent actor, Jeff Bridges.

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Newman as Butch, and the real Butch Cassidy.

Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Always a superb actor, Newman brought an elusive quality to most of his performances and played all over the map as the roles required.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in one of the greatest he restored the almost-forgotten outlaw Butch Cassidy’s mythology as a likeable western Robin Hood.  Especially effective because of good directing, a legendarily great screenplay by William Goldman, excellent cinematography, a notable score and a balancing performance by Robert Redford, Newman’s Cassidy is nevertheless what moves the film, especially in the first half.  The chemistry between Newman and Redford is probably the most significant element in making the movie compelling.  For another really good performance in a western, see Newman in Hombre.

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Redford as Sundance, and the real Harry Longabaugh

Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid in Butch Cassidy and Jeremiah Johnson in Jeremiah Johnson

Redford was one of the greatest movie stars of his generation, and his natural reticence plays well in westerns that are written with due regard for the taciturn nature of many real westerners.  A native westerner himself, Redford could play them well.  It would have been good to see him in more westerns, but after the early part of his career, such films were no longer in cinematic fashion.  He can be seen in westerns with a modern setting and a concern for social attitudes:  The Electric Horseman (1979) and The Horse Whisperer (1998). And he directed and narrated a beautiful film about the 1920s modern west in A River Runs Through It (1992).

  • As the less talkative, better-shooting half of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford’s Sundance is engraved on the memories of those who love westerns.  Two of the best Sundance moments of the movie:  The initial scene, shot in sepia tones, where Sundance is at a card table, accused of cheating.  The setup is brilliant at revealing elements of both Butch and Sundance’s characters and establishing Sundance’s reputation.  And in Bolivia as the pair is trying out for jobs as payroll guards, when Strother Martin as the “colorful” mine manager asks for a demonstration of shooting ability.  Inexplicably, Sundance misses badly.  He asks, “Can I move?”  “What do you mean, move?”  “I’m better when I move.”  And with that he draws, shoots and hits the target multiple times within what seems like a heartbeat.  He was born for the role.

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Redford as Jeremiah Johnson, and the real Liver-Eating Johnston.

  • Not as heralded these days but even more difficult was Redford’s performance as Jeremiah Johnson, mountain man extraordinaire.  There’s not a lot of dialogue, Redford is alone on the screen much of the time, and he has to carry the movie himself.  He does.  The silences seem part of the story, and he’s very effective in the action sequences, although he doesn’t have the imposing physical size of the historical Johnson.  He makes relationships seem convincing with few words, on those few occasions when he forms them.  There’s good directing at work here, but the film depends on Redford’s performance.

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Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove and Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies

Both of these roles now seem unimaginable in other hands.  Duvall is one of the pre-eminent actors of his time, and not as a conventional leading man.  He could be on this list for his performances as Boss Spearman in Open Range and Print Ritter in Broken Trail as well.

  • Gus McCrae is the more loquacious of the two ex-Texas rangers around whom the epic Lonesome Dove revolves, and he carries more than his share of the action.  He’s garrulous and compelling, and it’s especially his relationships (with Diane Lane and Anjelica Huston) that interest us.  He’s more engaged than Call with the black-hearted Indian outlaw Blue Duck, and he and Tommy Lee Jones (as Woodrow Call) balance each other nicely.  Lonesome Dove might have been made for television, but Duvall himself sees this as his defining performance.   For Duvall as similar characters leading trail drives, see the other two in what Duvall refers to as his western trail-boss trilogy, Open Range and Broken Trail.
  • As alcoholic country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, Duvall won an Academy Award as Best Actor.  He’s convincing in a May-December relationship with Tess Harper, and he’s great at bringing us along as he sobers up and establishes a new family in which he’s only one of the wounded spirits.  It’s a terrific performance in a very good movie, not seen often enough.  For a comparable performance by another actor in a similar role, see Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.  For another similarly great performance by Duvall, albeit in a non-western, see The Apostle.

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Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove

Younger than Duvall, Jones nevertheless was persuasive as Woodrow Call, Gus McCrae’s long-time friend, co-Texas ranger and ranching partner.  A native Texan, Jones as Call embodied the taciturn, emotionally-repressed man of action.  It’s one of the high points in his career.  One stand-out moment:  As a mounted cavalryman in a Nebraska cow town starts to beat young cowhand Newt with a whip, Call spies the action from down the street.  Without a wasted motion, he bounds onto his horse (the Hell-Bitch), rides her full-tilt into the cavalryman and his mount and starts beating him bloody with a branding iron.  His explanation when finally pulled off by McCrae?  “I can’t abide rude behavior in a man.”  Grizzled and unhesitating, he’s a fit companion and complement to McCrae.  James Garner takes the role of an older Call in Streets of Laredo, and, although the material isn’t as strong as Lonesome Dove, he’s surprisingly good, too.  For other good Jones performances, see him as the long-lost half-Indian father in The Missing, as Hewey Calloway in The Good Old Boys (MfTV, 1995), and as the world-weary modern Texas sheriff in No Country for Old Men.

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El Dorado

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sometimes the gun hand works.

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Sometimes it doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stagecoach

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 2, 2013

Stagecoach—John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, John Carradine (1939; Dir:  John Ford)

In addition to being the first of the modern westerns, this was also director John Ford’s first use of Monument Valley, which became his favorite filming location for westerns, and his first association with John Wayne in a starring role.  It was Ford’s first sound western and his first western of any kind in 13 years.  When the film was made, Claire Trevor was the biggest star in the cast and was paid the highest salary.  Wayne had been in a number of low-budget westerns in the 1930s, but this was his first big lead in an upscale film since 1930’s The Big Trail with director Raoul Walsh almost a decade earlier.  That one had bombed on its theatrical release, although it’s been rediscovered by many in the DVD age.   Casting Wayne in Stagecoach was Ford’s idea; the studio preferred Gary Cooper, but ultimately went along with Ford’s recommendation.   This film put John Wayne on the track to being an even bigger star than Trevor, especially when he was teamed with Ford in future projects. 

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The movie is based on a 1937 short story by western writer Ernest Haycox, which is in turn said to be based on Guy de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif,” which takes place in Normandy during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War.  In this film, several strangers board the crowded Overland Stage in Tonto, Arizona, heading for Lordsburg, New Mexico.  One is Dallas (Claire Trevor), a prostitute being run out of town by the respectable women.  Another is Mrs. Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a pregnant army wife going to meet her husband, although her pregnancy is neither mentioned nor shown until it’s time for the baby’s birth.  The male passengers include alcoholic Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), also being run out of town; Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek), a timorous whiskey salesman; Hatfield (John Carradine), a professional gambler with a southern accent and an occasional chivalrous streak; and Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a bank president clutching his bag with suspicious tenacity.  Riding shotgun to stage driver Buck (Andy Devine) is Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft), looking for the Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who has just busted out of jail.  All these stories would seem complicated enough, but these passengers aren’t on just any stage trip:  Geronimo’s Apaches are on the warpath in the area the stage will be traveling through.

stagecoachRingo The stage stops for Ringo.

As the stagecoach rounds a bend, there’s a figure waving it down, rifle in one hand and saddle in the other.  The camera zooms in on his face, and it’s Ringo, in one of the most memorable shots of this film.  He’s been in prison because he was framed by the Plummer brothers, who killed his father and brother and sent him to prison before he was 17.  Now that he has escaped from jail, he’s on his way to Lordsburg for a final confrontation with the Plummers.  Both Curley and Doc Boone know Ringo and like him, and Curley takes him prisoner, in part to keep him alive. 

There are two stage stations and a ferry between Tonto and Lordsburg.  At the first station, all is well.  The stage changes horses but loses its cavalry escort; the passengers eat, and Dallas is shunned by the more respectable passengers:  Hatfield, Mrs. Mallory and Gatewood.  Ringo and Doc Boone are friendlier, and Ringo suggests that he’s the one being shunned.  “I guess you can’t expect to break out of prison and into society in the same week.”   There’s amazingly quick character development, including one brief but revealing scene where a canteen is passed around the stage.

The cavalry detail that was to pick up the stage at the first station is out chasing Apaches instead, and after taking a vote among the passengers the stage moves on toward the second station.  Here matters develop more quickly.  Mrs. Mallory collapses, and as there are hurried instructions for hot water, we realize she’s about to give birth.  (At least two of the other passengers didn’t recognize that she was pregnant, either, with the reticence of a bygone era.)  Doc Boone sobers up and delivers a baby girl, with the help of Dallas.  Outside in the moonlight, Ringo proposes marriage to Dallas and with her help he almost escapes.  However, Chris, the Mexican station master, has an Apache wife, who leaves with several vaqueros and the station’s spare horses.

Ringo decides not to escape here because he sees Indian sign and holds up.  Curley takes him back into custody, and the stage heads warily for the ferry, after which they all figure they’ll be safe.  The ferry and its station are burned out, though.  Buck, Curley and Ringo rig supporting logs to help the stage float across the river, and they head for Lordsburg with a sigh of relief.  But we know the Apaches are somewhere around, and inevitably they show up and give chase.  After an extended chase (featuring some superb, state-of-the-art stuntwork by Yakima Canutt), the stage’s defenders run out of ammunition, with Hatfield saving his last bullet to spare Mrs. Mallory the indignities of capture by the savages.  And then ….

stagecoach-1939 Under attack by Geronimo.

Well, Ringo has to make it to Lordsburg, and he does.  He has it out with the nefarious Plummer brothers (three Plummers against one Ringo), and matters work out as they should, perhaps not with complete believability.  Doc Boone does not miraculously become a respected teetotaler, and Dallas is unable to leave her past completely behind, but things work out for them as they should, too.

It’s great storytelling, with bits of social commentary unobtrusively scattered along the way.  John Wayne captures the screen whenever he’s in the frame, and Claire Trevor is magnificent.  Wayne has the iconic western line:  “There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”  If Thomas Mitchell’s hard-drinking Doc Boone seems a bit stereotypical from our vantage point (almost identical to Edmond O’Brien’s hard-drinking newspaperman in Liberty Valance 25 years later, in fact), well, he was perhaps less so in 1939.  Donald Meek’s whiskey drummer, whom every one mistakes for a clergyman, is very effective.  And we despise the overbearing banker Gatewood as we are meant to do.  The Apaches actually look like Indians, which you can’t say of many western films of this era; Ford generally used Navajos instead of Apaches, though.

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In addition to being the first use of Monument Valley as a setting (and the first of seven Ford films to use it), there’s other good filmmaking going on here.  Ford doesn’t use a lot of close-ups, so we tend to pay attention when he does.  The interior ceilings are low, which must have presented problems for the lighting of the time.  That adds to the claustrophobic feeling as the movie progresses, and was imitated by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane two years later.  And the stunt work by Yakima Canutt was later imitated in such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Maverick.

Although there were a couple of other well-made westerns in 1939, it was largely this film that rejuvenated the genre, brought it an element of respectability and started the modern era for westerns.  (Many 1940s westerns would still show evidence of low budgets, singing cowboys and lots of stereotypes—the revolution didn’t happen overnight.)  But Stagecoach was a real accomplishment and remains highly watchable today.  In what is still thought of as Hollywood’s single greatest year, Stagecoach was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Interior Decoration, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone) and Best Score.  It won for the last two. 

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Dallas (Claire Trevor) and Ringo (John Wayne) in Lordsburg, about to confront reality.

In an interview for a 1971 article, Ford reminisced about casting Wayne.   ‘I got a call from [producer] Walter Wanger who had one more picture to make under his United Artists contract. So I sent him the short story and he said, “That’s a pretty good story. I’m thinking of Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich,” he said.

“I don’t think you can go that high on salary with a picture like this,” I said. “This is the kind of picture you have to make for peanuts.”

“Have you got anybody in mind?” Wanger asked me.

“Well, there’s a boy I know who used to be an assistant prop man and bit player for me,” I said. “His name was Michael Morrison, but he’s making five-day Westerns and calls himself John Wayne now.”

“Do you think he’s any good?” he asked.

“Yes, I think so,” I said. “And we can get him for peanuts.”‘  And John Wayne became a star.

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A production still of the cast, from Claire Trevor on the left to George Bancroft on the right.

As Ford recalled it, he had plenty of confidence in the film, but it wasn’t always obvious that it would be a hit.  ‘After I shot Stagecoach, I worked closely with the cutter.  But there wasn’t a helluva lot to do.  I cut with the camera.  When the picture was put together, Wanger invited a few top people – brilliant brains of the industry who proceed to say how they would have done Stagecoach.  Sam Goldwyn said, “Walter, you made one mistake:  You should have shot it in color.  You should start all over again and make it in color.”  Douglas Fairbanks Sr. said: “The chase is too long.”

‘Then it was shown to the great producers at RKO, who had turned the project down in the first place.  One of them said, “It’s just a B picture.”  Another said, “It’s all right, but it’s still a Western.”  Well, of course, the picture went out and hit the jackpot.  It started a flood of Westerns, and we’ve been suffering from them ever since.”‘

It was also made at a particularly productive period of John Ford’s career, the same year that he made Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln and just before he made The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley.  It was an amazing streak for a great director.

The 1966 remake of Stagecoach was pleasant enough, but a pale and much less charismatic imitation of the original.  A made-for-television version in 1986 seemed to be merely a vehicle for a number of aging country music stars (mostly without much acting ability) and didn’t work at all.  The best other variation on this theme (strangers on a stage under attack, complete with social prejudices and hypocrisy, the supposedly respectable but actually corrupt businessman) is the 1967 movie Hombre.

For the 1971 article with comments from various participants in the production (including John Wayne and Claire Trevor), see:  http://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1004-Winter-2010-11/Features-On-John-Fords-Stagecoach.aspx

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Fort Apache

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 28, 2013

Fort Apache—John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Shirley Temple, John Agar, Pedro Armendariz (1948; Dir:  John Ford)

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A Custer-esque poster, reminiscent of a print often seen in 19th century saloons.

This is the first of Ford’s cavalry trilogy from the late 1940s, a landmark series and an extraordinary achievement in the western genre.  This initial entry revolves around the conflict in leadership between Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda, with a streak of white in his hair), a by-the-book martinet with no experience in dealing with Indians, and the more reasonable, pragmatic and experienced Capt. Kirby York (John Wayne).  The Chiricahua Apaches under Cochise have left their reservation (the leadership of Cochise would place this in the early 1870s) and gone to Mexico.  It falls to Thursday’s command to deal with them.

fortapache2 Henry Fonda as Col. Owen Thursday

West Point graduate Thursday rose to be a general in the Civil War, but afterward he was reduced in rank as the military shrank to its peacetime size.  He feels that small-time Fort Apache in Arizona Territory isn’t worthy of him, and, Custer-like, he wants to reclaim supposed past military glories in his new posting.  He’s overly concerned with insignificant military niceties and too stubborn to accept advice from more experienced subordinates.  His highest-ranking subordinates are Captains York, who also saw service as a colonel in the Civil War but has since acquired considerable experience out west dealing with the Apaches, and Collingwood (silent film star George O’Brien, who played older officers in all three of Ford’s cavalry trilogy movies), older than York and with a longer and warmer acquaintance with Thursday.  Collingwood is on the verge of retirement, just waiting out the days or weeks in this remote outpost until his final retirement orders come through.  Unlike Thursday, York has enough experience to realize the outpost’s vulnerabilities.  As York sees it, not everything needs to come to a fight, including the current situation with Cochise.  To complicate matters, Thursday’s daughter Philadelphia (an almost grown-up ShirleyTemple) shows up at the post and develops a romantic interest in young West Point graduate Lt. Michael O’Rourke (John Agar).  O’Rourke is the son of the post’s Irish sergeant major (Ward Bond)—now a non-commissioned officer, although he was a Medal of Honor winner and a major in the Civil War.  To Thursday, that would be a highly unsuitable match.

fort_apache_wayne Wayne as Capt. Kirby York

Thursday shows some signs of being able to learn as he and York discover that the Apaches have left their reservation because they’ve been systematically cheated by a corrupt Indian agent, who’s also selling guns and alcohol to them on the side.  York is sent with Sgt. Beaufort (a Mexican and former Confederate major, played by Pedro Armendariz; the sergeant speaks Spanish as does Cochise) on a diplomatic mission to find Cochise and persuade him to come back.  In reliance on York’s word, Cochise and his people come far enough back to parley with Thursday.  However, Thursday is certain he knows best, and he is grossly and unnecessarily offensive to the Indians, precipitating a battle.  He is sure that savages with no training cannot have the military capability of defeating U.S. cavalry, no matter how outnumbered that cavalry might be.  Going against York’s advice, Thursday charges into an ambush, with York and young O’Rourke ordered to stay behind with the supply train.

fort-apache-laststand

The result is the massacre of all Thursday’s men, including Collingwood and the elder O’Rourke.  In the final scene at the post some years after the event, York is now the commanding officer, and not-quite-so young O’Rourke is his second in command, now married to Philadelphia Thursday.  Members of the press are asking York about Thursday’s supposedly heroic last stand and a famous painting of “Thursday’s Charge,” and York confirms the glorious myth—“Correct in every detail,” he says of the overblown and obviously inaccurate painting.  It’s a foretaste of the Liberty Valance valedictory:  “When the legend become fact, print the legend.”

There are the usual Ford cavalry characters here:  Irish sergeants led by Michael O’Rourke (Ward Bond), Fergus Mulcahey (Victor McLaglen) and Quincannon (Dick Foran); young, mouthy lieutenants (John Agar); beautiful eastern young women (Temple) inexperienced with the west; savvy long-time military wives (Emily Collingwood and Mary O’Rourke, played by Anna Lee and Irene Rich); noble Indian leaders (Cochise, played here by Miguel Inclan); former Conferates now serving well out west (Armendariz); and scurrilous Indian agents (Silas Meacham, played by Grant Withers).  There are names that will recur in future parts of the cavalry trilogy:  Quincannon (a stereotypical Irish sergeant played by twice by McLaglen in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande) and Kirby York (played again by Wayne in Rio Grande).  No Ben Johnson or Harry Carey, Jr., yet, though; they’ll have to wait for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  Young lovers Agar and Temple were in fact married at the time, although they’d be divorced in a couple more years.

fortapache1  Production still:  Wayne, Fonda, Agar and Temple

These three movies were not conceived as a trilogy, and, though they all have typical Ford weaknesses (nostalgia, sentimentality, broad stereotypes), they have his strengths as well, including his unparalleled visual sense.  This, like the others, was filmed at Utah’s Monument Valley (although the Fort Apache set was located in Simi Valley, California), and is in black and white.  In some ways, the plot of Fort Apache is the strongest of the three.  It’s based on a short story by James Bellah, “Massacre.”

In addition to Custer, an Arizona inspiration for the story might be Lt. Howard Cushing of the 3rd Cavalry.  Cushing led his troopers into an Apache ambush at Bear Spring northwest of Fort Huachuca in Arizona Territory and was killed.  He is sometimes referred to as “the Custer of Arizona.”

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