Tag Archives: Joseph Cotten

Two Flags West

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 31, 2014

Two Flags WestJoseph Cotten, Cornel Wilde, Jeff Chander, Linda Darnell, Arthur Hunnicutt, Noah Beery, Jr., Jay C. Flippen, Dale Robertson, Harry von Zell (1950; Dir: Robert Wise)

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This is a large-budget cavalry western with a good cast and a generic title.  The two flags referred to are north and south during the Civil War, as Col. Clay Tucker’s Confederate cavalrymen (they rode with Jeb Stuart) are recruited by Capt. Mark Bradford (Cornel Wilde) from a prison camp in Rockford, Illinois, to fight Indians out west as galvanized Yankees in autumn 1864.

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Col. Tucker (Joseph Cotten) and his men, in a Union prison in Rockford, Ill., are recruited to fight Indians.

They are headed for Fort Thorn in New Mexico Territory, to serve under Major Henry Kenniston (Jeff Chandler, the same year he played Cochise in Broken Arrow).  The ambitious Kenniston escaped from the famous Libby Prison in Richmond, and, in escaping, ruined his right leg so that he has been assigned out west instead of to duty in the main war.  His brother was killed at Chancellorsville, and he consequently hates Confederates.  The brother’s widow Elena Kenniston (Linda Darnell), a Spanish beauty returning home to Monterey, California, is temporarily staying with her brother-in-law at the post while she waits for a wagon train to California.  She becomes the center of romantic interest for the major, Capt. Bradford and even now-Lt. Tucker (Joseph Cotten). She seems to favor Bradford, and Tucker has other things on his mind dealing with all the conflicting loyalties, plots and counter-plots in this frontier post.

The primary source of tension in the film is whether the former Confederates will desert to Texas as soon as they get a chance, and it seems they will.  Major Kenniston assigns the southerners to carry out the execution of two men convicted of selling guns and booze to the Indians, only for the ex-Confedrates to discover after the two are dead that they were southern agents.  There are more southern agents, one of whom convinces Tucker to return to Fort Thorn until a later time when he can help carry out a larger plot.  After duty escorting a wagon train part of the way to California, Tucker brings back Mrs. Kenniston, who was escaping her brother-in-law’s domination, so that the major will trust the southerners.

[Spoilers follow.]  Finally, Tucker gets the signal to leave and does so with his men.  However, the angry, wrong-headed major (who refers to the Indians as rebels, so we know who he’s really thinking about) needlessly antagonizes the Kiowas by angrily and gratuitously killing Kiowa chief Satank’s son.  Given a choice by circumstances, Tucker and his men, instead of heading for Texas, return to the aid of the fort.  Beseiged by 1500 Indians, things look grim for the remaining troopers.

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Major Kenniston (Jeff Chandler) decides to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

After one day of fighting, Bradford and many others are killed, and things look even more hopeless.  With the stockade in flames, Kenniston decides to give himself up to the overwhelming Indian force to save what’s left of the fort and its defenders, and Tucker is left in command.  It appears that Tucker and Elena may make a new life together, although things are left ambiguous between them as they learn that Sherman has split the south and the end of the war is imminent.

Director Robert Wise didn’t make many westerns (Blood on the Moon, Tribute to a Bad Man); he was more known for such large-budget productions as The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles and the first Star Trek movie.  However, there are signs here of movie-making intelligence at work.  Some of the shots are reminiscent of John Ford:  see the southern soldiers racing back to the fort, for example, with a low camera angle that captures them along a ridge against a luminescent black-and-white sky.  Later, as Major Kenniston marches (with a limp) out of the stockade gates to his certain doom, he is shot from behind with a low camera angle, making it look as though he is walking upward, although we’ve already seen that the gate is on level ground.

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Linda Darnell and Joseph Cotten engage in some badinage between scenes.

Cotten and Darnell were at the peak of their careers, and Wilde and Chandler were first-rank movie stars at the time as well.  Darnell was allergic to horses, was not happy about her role in this western and reportedly didn’t get along well with either Wilde or Cotten, but she looks lovely and is fine in a better-than-average-female-in-a-western role.  She also wears one of the better hats seen on a woman in a western.  (Compare it, for example, with Donna Reed’s ineffective hat in Backlash.)  With her dark good looks, she was often cast as an Indian (Buffalo Bill) or Hispanic (The Mark of Zorro, My Darling Clementine) beauty.

This is Cotten’s best role in a western; he generally seems a modern, urban actor, and he didn’t make many westerns (Duel in the Sun, The Last Sunset and a few others).  Although he was born into a southern family in Virginia, his Georgia accent here is elusive and sporadic.  The supporting actors (Hunnicutt, Beery, Flippen) are excellent, too, particularly the horse-faced Arthur Hunnicutt as the Confederate Sgt. Pickens.  This is a good cavalry western, but not much seen these days.  Filmed on location in New Mexico in black and white, at 92 minutes.

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For other cavalry westerns featuring Yankees and Confederates fighting Indians together, see Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Major Dundee (1965).  For Chandler in another role as a not-so-admirable commander, catch him in 1959’s The Jayhawkers!

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The Last Sunset

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 16, 2014

The Last Sunset—Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, Joseph Cotton, Carol Lynley, Jack Elam, Neville Brand  (1961; Dir:  Robert Aldrich)

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Gunman Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) arrives at the Breckenridge ranch in Mexico, to find that lady of the ranch is old flame Belle (Dorothy Malone) and that her weak alcoholic husband John (Joseph Cotton) is preparing for a cattle drive to Texas that they are unlikely to be able to accomplish.  Their nubile daughter Melissa (or Missy, played by Carol Lynley) is coming along, too.  O’Malley offers his help (for a price:  one-fifth of the herd plus Belle); now all they need is a trail boss who knows the way, and he promptly shows up in the form of Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), a Texas lawman who is hunting O’Malley for killing his no-good brother-in-law.  The two agree to put aside resolution of their differences until the herd gets to Texas.

As was often the case, Douglas made an unconventional protagonist for a western.  He wears tight-fitting black and uses a derringer instead of a larger gun.  He has been hunting Belle since the Civil War, when they had something going in Virginia.  This is a cattle drive western, with the usual incidents:  unreliable drovers (the nefarious Dobbs brothers, played by Neville Brand and Jack Elam); inclement weather (a dust storm), Indians (Yaquis), and a stampede.  As they head the herd north, Breckenridge encounters former Confederates in a bar; they were from his unit under Stonewall Jackson and confront Breckenridge with having run at Fredericksburg.  They’re forcing him to show them his wound (in his backside) when O’Malley and Stribling intervene.  As the three leave, one of the Confederates shoots Breckenridge in the back. 

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Now Belle is a widow, but Stribling shows romantic interest in her.  O’Malley rescues Stribling during a storm, and the Dobbs brothers make their move.  Belle shoots one, and O’Malley and Stribling recover the herd.  O’Malley gratuitously shoots a Yaqui (whose corpse is unusually cooperative in being moved to a horse), and Stribling gives the tribe a fifth of the herd to mollify them—O’Malley’s share.  As Belle develops feelings for Stribling, O’Malley and the much younger Missy also start to bond romantically.  On the night before the herd crosses the Rio Grande to Crazy Horse, Texas (presumably making this after 1876), Missy wears Belle’s yellow dress from a night long ago, and she and O’Malley make plans.

[Spoilers follow.]  Once the herd is in Texas, however, Belle discloses to O’Malley that Missy is his daughter.  Stribling and O’Malley (with his derringer) carry out their showdown, O’Malley characteristically without his hat.  When Stribling wins, he finds that O’Malley’s derringer wasn’t loaded. 

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The women are more central to what’s going on here than they are to most westerns, giving this sort of a melodramatic feel with several sudden revelations along the way.  Malone is very good.  Hudson is adequate but pales beside Douglas in the meatier role.  And he wears a strange hat.  Adapted by Dalton Trumbo from a novel by Howard Rigsby, Sundown at Crazy Horse. Not bad work from director Aldrich, who had directed Vera Cruz in 1954 and would yet do Ulzana’s Raid ten years later.  Shot in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

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Duel in the Sun

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 7, 2014

Duel in the Sun—Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Harry Carey, Butterfly McQueen (1947; Dir:  King Vidor)

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David O. Selznick’s sprawling and over-ripe western melodrama has not aged well in the more than sixty years since its release.  In some ways it seems even older than it is.  Social attitudes and movie tastes change, as this movie illustrates; and maybe the public just doesn’t have the taste for cinematic melodrama it once did.  Some of the fault lies in the overheated and clunky writing.  For a skilled director like King Vidor, the acting seems un-subtle, and there’s lots of old-fashioned violin music by Dimitri Tiomkin on the soundtrack.  Both Vidor and Tiomkin amply demonstrated elsewhere that they can do much better.  There are lightning and tempests in the background to emphasize how passions are out of control.  There’s opening narration in the weighty tones of Orson Welles.  The whole thing seems old-fashioned even for its time.  

At the movie’s heart are the two McCanles brothers, the heirs of the Spanish Bit Ranch, a huge Texas ranching empire owned by Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore).  The brothers are set against each other by mixed-race temptress Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones, who was in general more likely to play saints and nuns than half-Indian seductresses).  Lillian Gish is Laura Belle McCanles, the McCanles mother, who brings Pearl into the household initially.  For once, Gregory Peck plays the bad brother, the more macho but increasingly evil Lewt McCanles.  Senator McCanles is a more or less typical overbearing cattle baron who wants his own way, except that he never seems to have a very good grip on what he’s doing.  It’s not one of Barrymore’s better performances, although he could be an excellent character actor with better material and direction.

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Lewt gets worse and worse through the movie, refusing to marry Pearl or let the decent Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford) marry her, either, after Lewt heartlessly has his way with her.  He causes a nasty and colorful train wreck worthy of Cecil B. DeMille (DeMille loved to film trains crashing).  The Senator chases good son Jesse McCanles (Joseph Cotten, never entirely comfortable in westerns) away to Austin, where he gets engaged to a railroad heiress.  Finally, Lewt shoots Jesse down in cold blood, and, when it looks like Jesse will survive, Pearl decides she has to shoot Lewt or he’ll eventually be successful in his attempts to kill his good brother.  They (Pearl and Lewt) shoot each other in the desert and die in each other’s arms. 

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Both Jones and Peck seem miscast in this epic, although Jones was nominated for an Oscar as best actress for her performance here.  And there are some social attitudes that don’t play so well these days.  For example, Butterfly McQueen is a stereotypical black domestic named Vashti, painful to watch now.  An underlying assumption seems to be that one of the reasons for Pearl’s sexual voracity is her mixed racial heritage.  It might be acceptable if it came from her lack of education, perhaps, but not from her half-Indian ancestry.  Her devotion to Lewt seems to be born out of his rape of her, a concept modern feminists are bound to find offensive.  These may have been common attitudes in the 1870s, when this movie is set, or in the 1920s, when Vidor was already a major director of silent movies and Gish and Barrymore major stars.  Or maybe they come from Niven Busch’s novel on which this steamy epic was based.  But they make the movie seem old and uncomfortable now.

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It had a very big budget for its time, and it looks good.  The movie is very much the creature of its producer, David O. Selznick, Jones’s future husband and the Svengali of her career.  Although it made some money eventually, it marked the end of this kind of extravaganza for Selznick.  Reportedly, Selznick’s constant interference is responsible for the overwrought nature of the many of the movie’s elements.  It had worked for Gone With the Wind eight years earlier, but not here.  The affair between Jones and Selznick, both married to other spouses at the time, was one of the worst-kept secrets since the movie industry moved to California, giving an edge to the film’s notoriety with the public.

Nicknamed “Lust in the Dust,” it’s kind of a clunky movie despite all the talent involved.  The word most often associated with it today is “campy.”  Watch out for the screen awash not only with vivid Technicolor, but with strong undercurrents of sexual obsession.  At 144 minutes, it’s long for a western in the 1940s.  But maybe not for a Selznick epic.

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At the time of its release, it was the most expensive movie ever made.  Selznick spent two years making it, at a then-astronomic cost of $6 million.  Although King Vidor is named as the director, Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, Josef von Sternberg, and even Selznick himself sat in the director’s chair at one point or another during production.  Martin Scorsese claims this was the first movie he ever saw and one of the reasons he became a director.  Maybe it’s also the reason he’s never made any westerns.  Still, it’s something you have to see if you have ambitions to be the next Scorsese.  Gregory Peck was in lots more westerns, including, ten years later, another large-scale family epic like this one:  The Big Country.  It’s much better.

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