Tag Archives: Kirk Douglas

Shooting Stars, Part 3

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 14, 2015

Shooting Stars:  A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 3—Eleven Through Fifteen

Here we continue with our ranking of the top actors in westerns since 1939.  For the top ten such actors, see our posts Shooting Stars Part 1 and Shooting Stars Part 2.

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11.  James Garner [Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend, Hour of the Gun, Duel at Diablo, Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, Skin Game, A Man Called Sledge, The Castaway Cowboy, One Little Indian, Murphy’s Romance, Sunset, Maverick; on television, Maverick, Bret Maverick and The Streets of Laredo]

Oklahoma native James Garner is best known for his roles as an amiable western con-man, first demonstrated in the Maverick television series of the late 1950s.  He was better at that kind of role than anybody else (see Support Your Local Sheriff, Skin Game and Support Your Local Gunfighter).  He successfully played variants of that role in movies set in more modern times, including a couple of good ones set in World War II (The Great Escape [1963] and The Americanization of Emily [1964]) and a number of 1960s romantic comedies (Boys’ Night Out with Kim Novak, Cash McCall with Natalie Wood, The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling, both with Doris Day).  But that wasn’t the limit of his talents.  He could also do well at a kind of grim, humorless role, as he showed in Duel at Diablo (1966) and while playing Wyatt Earp in John Sturges’ Hour of the Gun (1967).  It was his misfortune that mainstream westerns were starting to decline in popularity when he was at his peak, and by the mid-1970s he was showing up in light, Disney-produced westerns with Vera Miles that haven’t been much seen (The Castaway Cowboy, One Little Indian).  More successful was his venture back into television as private detective Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files (for six seasons, starting in 1974).

In the later stages of his career, he was very good in a modern romantic western with Sally Field in Murphy’s Romance (1985), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe.  He showed up in two more westerns, once again as an aging Wyatt Earp in Hollywood of the late 1920s in Sunset (1988), and in the Mel Gibson Maverick remake (1994).  He returned to television with a short-lived series reprising his original Maverick character in Bret Maverick (1981) and with a credible turn playing an aging Capt. Woodrow Call in the television miniseries The Streets of Laredo (1995), based on a sequel to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.  (One story has it that he had been offered the role of either Woodrow Call or Gus McCrae–his choice–in the original Lonesome Dove miniseries but was sidelined by health problems.  Lonesome Dove, of course, went on to become a classic with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall in those roles.)  An interesting sidelight of his late career was to see him together with fellow westerns star Clint Eastwood as aging astronauts in Space Cowboys (2000).

Like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, Garner was long interested in automobile racing.  He was a good enough driver that he did his own driving stunts in The Rockford Files because he was better at it than any stuntman they could find.   In a 1973 interview, John Wayne called James Garner the best American actor.  Of all his films, The Americanization of Emily, with Julie Andrews (1964), was said to be Garner’s favorite—an excellent movie, wonderfully written and superbly acted but unfortunately not a western.

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12.  Burt Lancaster [Vengeance Valley, The Kentuckian, Vera Cruz, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Unforgiven, The Hallelujah Trail, The Professionals, The Scalphunters, Valdez Is Coming, Lawman, Ulzana’s Raid]

Burt Lancaster was one of the biggest movie stars of his time, from the late 1940s well into the 1970s.  Known especially for a vigorous brand of physical athleticism (he had once been a circus acrobat), an equally vigorous growth of hair and a large grin showing off a full set of very white teeth, he was willing to take any role that interested him.  He won an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in Elmer Gantry (1960).  For an early performance in a western, see him as the grinning unscrupulous quasi-outlaw Joe Erin in Vera Cruz (1954), playing with and against the more traditional and stolid Gary Cooper.  One of many to play Wyatt Earp, he did a credible version in John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), and he could also play a certain kind of comedy convincingly (The Hallelujah Trail [1965], The Scalphunters [1968]).  He was not afraid of taking a role secondary to lesser star Lee Marvin in The Professionals (1966), and his strong performance alongside Marvin made for an excellent western.

By the 1970s, as westerns faded in popularity as a cinematic genre, Lancaster was doing some of his strongest work in westerns as old scout Bob Valdez in Valdez Is Coming (1971) and as old scout Archie McIntosh in Ulzana’s Raid (1972), probably the last really good cavalry movie.  He’s even good as the central figure in the revisionist Lawman (1971) with Robert Ryan, which otherwise has some problems with its writing and direction.

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13.  Gregory Peck [Yellow Sky, Duel in the Sun, The Gunfighter, Only the Valiant, The Big Country, The Bravados, How the West Was Won, The Stalking Moon, Mackenna’s Gold, Shoot Out, Billy Two Hats, The Old Gringo]

Gregory Peck shared Joel McCrea’s ability to project a basic American style of decency, although his brand of that quality was a little flintier and less self-effacing than McCrea’s.  His ultimate cinematic expression of that quality is probably as southern lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  It made him convincing in playing reforming outlaws (Yellow Sky [1948], The Gunfighter [1950]), but less so in portraying bad guys (Duel in the Sun, 1947).  He was a big star, both comfortable and convincing at the center of a large-budget production (The Big Country [1958]).

He didn’t make many westerns in the 1960s, part of his period of greatest stardom—only appearing in How the West Was Won (1962), as one among many stars.  Toward the end of the decade he appeared in a fairly good western thriller (The Stalking Moon [1968]), but like others he didn’t fare well as the genre, and his career generally, moved into a twilight period.  He showed up in such turkeys as Mackenna’s Gold (1969) and Billy Two Hats (1974).  Shoot Out (1971), which is watchable but not remarkable, is probably his best western from this period.  In his last western, he starred as crusty writer Ambrose Bierce, the titular character in The Old Gringo, during the period of Mexican revolutions in the 1910s, with Jane Fonda (1989).  He is justly praised for The Gunfighter and The Big Country; Yellow Sky and The Bravados are probably the most underrated of the westerns in which Peck appeared.

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14.  William Holden [Arizona, Texas, The Man From Colorado, Rachel and the Stranger, Streets of Laredo, Escape from Fort Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, Alvarez Kelly, The Wild Bunch, The Wild Rovers, The Revengers]

Like Burt Lancaster and Gregory Peck, William Holden is not remembered first for his westerns.  He is remembered first for his roles as the young writer found floating face down in a swimming pool in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and for Wilder’s World War II drama Stalag 17, for which he won his Best Actor Oscar.  But his slightly acid modern-seeming persona translated well enough to westerns if the material and directing were right.  He starred in them from his earliest days in the movies, beginning before World War II with Arizona, with Jean Arthur and Edgar Buchanan (1940), and Texas, with Glenn Ford and Edgar Buchanan (1941).  After service in the war, he resumed his film career generally, and westerns specifically, with such good films as The Man from Colorado, again with Glenn Ford (1948) and with the colonial western Rachel and the Stranger, with Loretta Young and Robert Mitchum (1948).

Even with his success and elevation to stardom with Sunset Boulevard and Stalag 17, he made the occasional good western during the 1950s, working with director John Sturges in the underrated Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and with John Ford in the Civil War cavalry story The Horse Soldiers, playing an army doctor continually feuding with John Wayne (1959).  Even as Holden’s alcoholism took its toll on him, Holden’s work in the 1960s included the good Civil War story Alvarez Kelly, with Richard Widmark (1966), and the western for which he is best remembered now:  Sam Peckinpah’s landmark The Wild Bunch (1969), in which Holden very effectively plays Pike Bishop, leader of an aging outlaw gang trying to pull off a last job amid the Mexican revolutions of the 1910s.  His career in westerns ended on an ignominious note with The Wild Rovers (1971), although the seldom-seen The Revengers (1972) is slightly better.

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15.  Kirk Douglas [Along the Great Divide, The Big Sky, Man Without a Star, Last Train from Gun Hill, The Indian Fighter, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Lonely Are the Brave, The Last Sunset, The Way West, The War Wagon, There Was a Crooked Man, Posse, The Man from Snowy River]

One of the biggest stars of his time (the prime of which was the late 1940s into the early 1970s), Kirk Douglas appeared in a surprising number of westerns. But many of them weren’t all that good, and in some of them his persona seemed to be fighting with the traditional western ways of looking at things.  Like Burt Lancaster, he liked to not wear a hat, or to wear it only pushed back on his head.  He experimented with especially tight and unlikely wardrobes (The Last Sunset, The War Wagon) which emphasized his robust physique and athleticism.  He played a gunfighter who improbably only used a derringer (The Last Sunset).  He didn’t really need the theatrical gimmicks, though.  If you look only at his best work in westerns, you find one of the best mountain man movies (The Big Sky), his athleticism and physical strength (not to mention real acting ability) used to good effect without gimmicky costuming in Last Train from Gun Hill, the bitter edges of his personality being used effectively as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral, and as an isolated loner in the modern west in Lonely Are the Brave.

His ego was extraordinarily large (not unusual in Hollywood), but he managed to team well with Burt Lancaster (Gunfight at the OK Corral) and John Wayne (The War Wagon) when those two were in the dominant roles.  As the 1970s came in, he starred in less effective revisionist westerns (There Was a Crooked Man, Posse), which would probably not have been made without him.  In his last western, he chewed the scenery in dual roles in The Man from Snowy River.

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The Way West

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 30, 2015

The Way West—Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Lola Albright, Sally Field, Jack Elam, Michael Witney, Katherine Justice (1967; Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen)

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Kirk Douglas was a big star in the 1950s and 1960s, and he tended to indulge in flamboyant dress or other characteristics to emphasize his character in westerns.  (See his clothes in The War Wagon, for example, or the way his gunfighter character in The Last Sunset uses only a derringer.)  He’s the most prominent of the three big stars in this movie, and here the gimmick is the color red.  When we first see his character, he’s wearing a bright red cloak.  He drives a carriage with red wheels and undercarriage, and his Conestoga wagon is painted red.

This story is based on a novel by Montana author A.B. Guthrie, who also wrote The Big Sky and These Thousand Hills, both of which were turned into western movies.  This one tells the fictional story of the first wagon train of settlers going west from Missouri along the Oregon Trail to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1843.

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Senator William J. Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) in his red cloak.

The moving force behind the expedition is former senator William J. Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) of Illinois.  He recruits Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum), a mountain man character from The Big Sky, to serve as the scout and guide for the company.  The group includes the Evans family, headed by Lije Evans (Richard Widmark), who is afflicted with the need to constantly move toward the frontier, his longsuffering wife (Lola Albright), to whom the widowed Tadlock is attracted, and their teenaged son Brownie.  There are the McBees, a family from Georgia (headed by Harry Carey, Jr.), taking their nubile daughter Mercy (Sally Field), several young peach trees and a bevy of unconvincing accents to the new land.  Newlyweds Johnnie (Michael Witney) and Amanda Mack (Katherine Justice) are stymied because the attractive Amanda is emotionally unbalanced and unable to face the idea of sex.  There is a stowaway preacher (Jack Elam, previously always a bad guy but about to move into more general character roles), unpersuasive and unattractive in his person and his religion, the first of many such in westerns.  Lije Evans becomes a leader and spokesman for those who don’t like Tadlock’s high-handed, autocratic ways.

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The big three look ahead: Sen. William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas), scout Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) and Lije Evans (Richard Widmark).

They have the usual hardship episodes as they move west, with river crossings and Indian troubles.  Mercy McBee and Johnnie Mack fall together for a night, and as they finish Johnnie hears a sound and shoots at it, only to find that he has killed an Indian boy dressed in a wolf skin.  Although the wagons get away, the Sioux pursue, insisting on retribution for the killer.  Tadlock says the killer will receive white man’s justice—hanging—if they can identify him.  Eventually the discouraged Johnnie Mack gives himself up, and his fate further unhinges Amanda, not to mention leaving Mercy McBee pregnant.  As they cross some desert, the Tadlock carriage, driven by his young son Billy, overturns and kills the boy.  At Fort Hall, now in Idaho, they are welcomed to stay or to switch to a California destination until word gets around (falsely) that a sick member of their party has smallpox.  The local Hudson’s Bay factor can’t get rid of them fast enough then.

After a rebellion against Tadlock, the train arrives at a cliff about 30 miles from their destination.  When an attempt to lower a wagon and its driver goes badly wrong, the party accepts Tadlock’s iron-fisted direction again.  He’s the last to be lowered, but somebody cuts the rope and he falls to his death.  It’s the unhinged Amanda Mack, who holds him responsible for her husband’s death.  Brownie Evans marries Mercy McBee and takes responsibility for her child.  And Dick Summers, now losing his eyesight, heads back for Independence.

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Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) bringing up the rear.

This is a glossy and brightly-colored production, episodic in nature.  Except for Fort Hall, there’s no attempt to relate the episodes to actual points on the map.  The actors are fine, but their motivations seem arbitrary and sometimes inconsistent, as if it’s enough just to state them and not to show them developing.  Andrew McLaglen had been a successful television director (especially with Have Gun Will Travel) and had made it into movie directing with Gun the Man Down (1956) and McClintock! in 1963.  His father, Oscar-winning Irish actor Victor McLaglen (The Informer, Gunga Din, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, etc.), had been one of John Ford’s favorite actors, and Andrew had connections with John Wayne and his production company through that association.  But something of his direction stayed rooted in television, although he continued to direct the occasional western movie for decades.  Douglas, Mitchum and Widmark all produced better performances elsewhere.

Visually, you can see some of the difference by comparing the lowering of wagons down the cliff to a similar sequence in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail from more than 35 years earlier.  Although the Walsh film is in black and white, the visual effect is much more striking and memorable in the earlier film than in McLaglen’s large-scale color production.  The intention was obviously to produce an epic here, too, but it didn’t work out as well.  Reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote in the N.Y. Times:  “It is hard to believe that anybody could have made such a hackneyed hash of that fine A. B. Guthrie Jr. novel, The Way West, as [producer] Harold Hecht and Andrew V. McLaglen have in the Western movie of the [same] title…”  It’s watchable, but not terribly memorable.  Shot at various locations in Oregon (Bend, Eugene, Mt. Bachelor, Crooked River Gorge, and the actual Willamette Valley), at 122 minutes.

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There Was a Crooked Man

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 5, 2015

There Was a Crooked Man—Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Hume Cronyn, Warren Oates, Burgess Meredith, John Randolph, Lee Grant, Alan Hale, Jr. (1970; Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

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A cynical revisionist western prison movie, featuring Kirk Douglas in red hair as Paris Pitman, Jr., a convict wanting to get out to retrieve his stash of loot—half a million dollars he put in a rattlesnake pit in the barren mountains.  Although the title refers to one crooked man, its point of view is that everybody is at least a little crooked.  Pitman spends the movie conniving with everybody in sight (including the warden) and alternatively trying to orchestrate a break-out with a number of his imprisoned compatriots.

Eventually a new warden comes in, former sheriff Woodward Lopeman, played by Henry Fonda as the embodiment of Christian rectitude with a commitment to rehabilitation and fair treatment of the prisoners.  Pitman continues to foster havoc and confusion at the prison until, finally, he is successful at breaking out, tracked by Warden Lopeman.

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Paris Pitman (Kirk Douglas) spars verbally with new warden Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda).

Nobody is very admirable here, although the Fonda character tries until the end, when he succumbs to the lure of the loot.  There are a couple of shots of Douglas’ butt (in great shape at age 53), with other gratuitous nudity.  Although it seems to have been trying for humor, the movie has a pretty thoroughly amoral feel to it.  The comedy here is black, sometimes overly obvious, and it now seems dated.  Hume Cronyn and John Randolph play an obviously gay pair of con men, probably an innovation in movies at the time.  It’s from about the same time as Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and there are some similarities in tone.  Not as good as it should have been, with inconsistencies of tone.  Seen in a pretty dingy, beat-up print, but if you watch it on TCM, for example, the print they use is bright and clear.  Rated R.

Douglas himself, in his memoir The Ragman’s Son, noted that “The picture was very cynical and did not do well–everybody was crooked, nobody to root for.”  Douglas seems to place at least some of the blame on director Joseph Mankiewicz, who had directed All About Eve and Cleopatra, among others.  “He was much more at home with a scene in a library.”  Douglas did have high praise for the script, though, which would seem to be at least as much at fault.  This was one of the last films made by Mankiewicz, and his only western.  The screenplay is by David Newman and Robert Benton, not long after their first effort, Bonnie and Clyde.  For another cynical revisionist western from the early 1970s with Kirk Douglas, see Posse.

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Posse (1975)

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 14, 2014

Posse—Kirk Douglas, Bruce Dern, Bo Hopkins (1975; Dir:  Kirk Douglas)

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A 1970s revisionist western—anti-establishment, anti-authority, anti-military, anti-railroad, although more watchable than most such.  The message, when we get down to it, is that there is a very fine line between the outlaws and the men who hunt them—perhaps no line at all. 

Howard Nightingale (Kirk Douglas) is a Texas marshal with political ambitions, leading five uniformed men as his regular posse.  At the movie’s start, they are in pursuit of Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern) and his gang.  They burn down the barn in which the gang is sleeping (also burning down $40,000 in loot in the process), but Strawhorn escapes.  He quickly recruits another gang as the posse closes in on him again.  In the ensuing battle, the others in the gang are killed and Strawhorn surrenders. 

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He is taken to the town of Tesoto, where Strawhorn earlier had killed the town sheriff who tried to arrest him.  With Strawhorn in custody, Nightingale takes the opportunity to give a campaign speech for his election as senator, and his men make free with the local women.  The local newspaper is run by Harold Hellman, missing his right arm and leg (James Stacy, who’d lost them two years earlier in a motorcycle accident), who doesn’t much like Nightingale.  Nightingale is self-serving and too cozy with the railroad but doesn’t seem overtly bad or unduly corrupt. 

As they take Strawhorn away on their private train, he contrives to escape and, as they pursue, he takes the train and Nightingale as a prisoner and heads back to Tesoto.  With Nightingale as hostage he demands the posse pay $40,000 for Nightingale to remain alive.  They ruthlessly take all the money in the town, about $30,000.  Strawhorn hands it back to John Wesley (Bo Hopkins), head of the posse and invites them to mount up and join him.  All but one do, and they ride out of town as Strawhorn’s new gang. 

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One of Douglas’ last westerns, this cynical film should be compared with the anti-authoritarian There Was a Crooked Man from 1970, with greater ambitions, a bigger budget and bigger cast.  This is better, although very much a creation of the 1970s.  Douglas produced, starred and directed.  Dern is pretty good as Strawhorn.  The plot reversal at the end isn’t entirely believable, but it’s well done.  Shot in Old Tucson.  A movie with the same name was made by Mario Van Peebles in 1993 with a mostly ex-slave black posse.

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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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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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Last Train from Gun Hill

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 19, 2013

Last Train From Gun Hill—Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Carolyn Jones, Earl Holliman, Brad Dexter, John Anderson (1959; Dir:  John Sturges)

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Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) is the town marshal in Pauley, married to a Cherokee woman.  His wife is raped and murdered by a couple of young men passing through, and Morgan recovers their horses.  He recognizes the saddle on one as belonging to an old friend in Gun Hill, cattle baron Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).  It was his son Rick (Earl Holliman) who was using his saddle and committed the crime. 

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Old friends Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn) and Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) talk about painful things.

On his way to Gun Hill on the train, Morgan meets Linda (Carolyn Jones), a saloon girl and Belden mistress recently emerged from the hospital after a beating from Belden pere and now returning to Gun Hill.  Gun Hill is a corrupt place, completely controlled by Belden.  Morgan confronts Belden, who denies any participation by his son in the death of Morgan’s wife.  But Morgan captures Rick and holes up in the Harper House hotel, where he is besieged by Beldon’s men. 

With some help from Linda, Morgan gets out to try to make it with Rick to the last train out of Gun Hill at 9:20 p.m.  At the last minute, Rick’s partner in crime, Lee Smithers (Brian Hutton), tries to shoot it out with Morgan and kills Rick instead.  Morgan gets Smithers and now has nobody to haul back to Pauley.  He and Belden shoot it out, at Belden’s insistence. 

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With the town against him, Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) holds Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) prisoner.

The bones of the plot may sound fairly pedestrian, but it’s better than that.  It’s a well-put-together John Sturges western from the end of his early period.  Douglas gives a good performance; he’s obviously in good shape from the way he’s able to carry a supposedly unconscious Earl Holliman (not a small person) over his shoulder for an extended period on screen without showing any strain or becoming lopsided.  His anguish at the death of his wife is believable, as is his determination to uphold the law and not take it into his own hands—one of the two central conflicts of the movie.  Anthony Quinn is very good, too, in a character reminiscent of the one he plays in WarlockJones and Holliman are good in different ways, in limited parts.  Reminiscent of the plot in 3:10 to Yuma in terms of trying to catch a train against armed resistance.  In color.  Music by Dimitri Tiomkin, cinematography by Charles Lang, Jr.  The screenwriter was said to have been the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.

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An Al Hirschfeld caricature, 1959.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 6

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 9, 2013

Robert Mitchum as Clint Tollinger in Man With the Gun

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Clint Tollinger comes into the town of Sheridan looking for a new horse shoe and his ex-wife.  Because of his reputation as a town tamer, Tollinger is recruited to clean up Sheridan, especially in resisting the forces of local cattle baron Dave Holman.  He’s up to the task, but the townfolk don’t always like his approach or the results.  In his middle period as an actor,  Mitchum has a noir feel to him in this role.  His earlier westerns (such as Blood on the Moon and Pursued) generally work better than his later ones (The Wonderful Country), although he’s not bad as the alcoholic sheriff J.P. Harrah in El Dorado.  For a superb non-western performance, catch him in one of the quintessential noir movies, Out of the Past.  He was also very good at playing bad guys, as he did in the original Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud.  Even when he was a good guy, he seemed on the verge of becoming a bad guy, and that possibility added an edge to his performances.

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Kirk Douglas as Matt Morgan in Last Train to Gun Hill

Kirk Douglas was in a surprising number of westerns, and he’s fairly good in many of them, although he tends to seem both urban and egocentric.  He was one of the biggest stars of his time, and Last Train from Gun Hill, directed by John Sturges, is one of his best westerns.   Matt Morgan is a sheriff married to an Indian wife.  She is raped and murdered by two young men, one of them the son of Morgan’s old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).  The core of the movie follows Morgan on his expedition to Gun Hill to retrieve the evildoers, and his resulting battles with Belden, with a variety of gunmen and with his own drive for vengeance.  Quinn is excellent here, too, and Carolyn Jones is good.  If you like Douglas’ style in this one, try him in The Big Sky, as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral and with John Wayne in The War Wagon.

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Anthony Quinn as Bob Kallen in The Ride Back

Anthony Quinn was in a surprising number of westerns from his early days in the movies, usually in small roles where he is an Indian, a villain or both (see The Plainsman, Union Pacific and The Ox-Bow Incident, for example).  During the 1950s he was more often a supporting character, and was always interesting.  Look for him, for example, as magnetic and multi-dimensional bad guys in Last Train from Gun Hill and Warlock (both from 1959).  He was also one of the leads in two smaller westerns:  The Ride Back and Man from Del Rio.  The Ride Back is really a two-man film, with Quinn and William Conrad, and they’re both excellent.  Quinn’s Bob Kallen is, like Quinn himself, half-Mexican; a dangerous gunman, he’s wanted back in Texas for a shooting that may have been justified.  He’s better with people and with guns than Conrad’s Chris Hamish and is constantly calculating how to play that next, spending most of the short film on an edge but going along for the moment with Conrad’s deputy sheriff.  He could play ethnic convincingly, and his career of the 1960s blossomed in those roles.  Look for him in The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek (perhaps his signature role of the 1960s), Lawrence of Arabia and in a mural on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles.  He’s one of those actors like Lee Marvin, who was almost always worth watching no matter what he was in.

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Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers in Northwest Passage and as John J. Macreedy in Bad Day at Black Rock

Spencer Tracy was one of the best actors of his time, beginning about 1935, and his performances wear pretty well.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in these unconventional two he was excellent.

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  • As Major Robert Rogers, he leads Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, in their arduous and perilous raid on the Abenaki village of St. Francis in eastern Canada.  He projects decisive leadership when things are going well, harder leadership when men have to be left behind, and harder yet on the return trip when provisions are low and his men are being hunted on all sides.  He finally almost cracks when his beleaguered men reach Fort Wentworth, only to find it abandoned and without the supplies he had been promising his emaciated men.  His is the performance that holds attention during the movie, notwithstanding the supposed leads of Robert Young and Walter Brennan.  This movie wasn’t often seen, since it only became available on DVD in December 2011.

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  • Tracy’s career was on its downhill side and he was struggling with alcoholism when he was cast as the lead in this John Sturges modern western with a noir feel.  One-armed John J. Macreedy is getting backed into corners as soon as he steps off the train in Black Rock, and he’s quietly up to the challenges he faces.  Almost always he faces them with an even temper, but he also has mostly believable physical confrontations with Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan.  By the end he has sorted out the local mystery and all the bad guys before he gets back on the train.  This may be one of the best films set in the modern west, and Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in it.

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Dean Martin as Dude (Borachon) in Rio Bravo

In movies he usually played some form of caricature of himself, but Dean Martin could actually act when given good material and direction as he was in his first movie, Rio Bravo.  As Dude, the now-alcoholic former deputy of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Martin is convincing in his booziness and in his rehabilitation.  His barroom scene when he and Chance follow a killer into a bar where everybody thinks of him as a drunk is a classic.  You can see both desperation and calculation as he tries to figure out what to do.  He’s also pretty good in The Sons of Katie Elder (again with Wayne) and bearable in Bandolero! and Five Card Stud.

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Brad Pitt as Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James has often been portrayed on film, including by his son Jesse Edward James at age 46 in the silent film Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921) and by Tyrone Power (1939).  His historical charisma is elusive, and for some reason it’s harder to portray him than it is his brother Frank, who has been done well by Henry Fonda (twice) and Stacy Keach, among others.  Brad Pitt may be the best Jesse on film, in this beautifully-shot retelling of the Ron Hansen novel with the cumbersome title.  He’s charismatic, dangerous and a bit tired of it all at the end of his life, coolly playing with and pushing those around him.  This isn’t the best movie about Jesse and the James-Younger gang; that would be The Long Riders.  But Brad does make a better Jesse than the remote James Keach does in Walter Hill’s film.  This one is worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography and for Pitt’s performance in a notoriously difficult role.

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Robert Taylor as Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women

As an actor, Taylor was beautiful but not terribly expressive.  He could be a bit wooden sometimes, but this stoic quality is not always a detriment in westerns if the actor is well-directed in well-written material.  This underrated wagon train movie is really an ensemble effort, but Taylor’s wagonmaster Buck Wyatt is the dominant character.  He’s on screen most of the time, and he’s very good.  Taylor’s notable career in westerns begins with his performance as Billy the Kid (1941), mostly wearing his signature black, when he was more than ten years older than the Kid ever became.  Beginning in the late 1940s, he started to do more westerns:  Ambush and Devil’s Doorway (an early Anthony Mann western) are watchable.  In the 1950s his best westerns were with directors John Sturges and Robert Parrish:  The Law and Jake Wade and Saddle the Wind.

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Burl Ives in Day of the Outlaw

This wintry low-budget western noir is superbly cast in its two leading roles, and it wouldn’t work well otherwise.  Robert Ryan is head rancher Blaise Starrett, whose town is invaded by a band of military renegades led by Burl Ives as the dying Jack Bruhn.  It’s only his will and his leadership abilities that are keeping his lowlifes in line at all, and it’s a constant exercise in balancing what can be done with what basic decency requires even from a renegade.  Bruhn, whose past participation in some notable Civil War-era military mess in Utah is only alluded to and never much described, still has some kernel of that decency but can’t let it come to the fore lest his men rebel and tear him to shreds.  It’s always interesting to see what he’ll allow and what he won’t, what he can control and what he can’t, and what will happen if/when he dies.  The rotund Ives was best known in the 1950s as a singer of folk-type music, but he could also be very effective in Big Daddy-type roles (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).  For his other western in such a role, see him in the large-scale The Big Country, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  He also played a singing hotel desk clerk in Station West, with Dick Powell.

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Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma

Ben Foster was unknown to many moviegoers when he showed up as outlaw chieftain Ben Wade’s principal lieutenant Charlie Prince in this remake.  But he captured the screen as a bad guy trying to rescue his boss.  Partly it’s good production design with his costume, partly it’s written as a juicier role than in the original, but mostly it’s Foster’s compelling performance in one of the best westerns in recent decades.  Even though he’s a supporting character and not one of the principals, it’s no accident that it’s Foster’s Charlie Prince on some of the most prominent posters for this movie.  He tends to linger in the memory, and his performance is one of the reasons many rate the remake higher than the original.

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Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

He’s a different kind of one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne was, symbolized by his wearing the patch on his right eye instead of the left, as Wayne did.  He is surrounded by a better ensemble of actors (Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld) than Wayne was and doesn’t have to carry the entire movie the same way.  However, he is still central to the story, and his Rooster Cogburn is fun to watch and quite believable, even if it can be hard to understand what he’s saying at times.  In a role created by the most iconic of western stars, Bridges stands up to Wayne’s performance by disappearing more into the part and coming up with a harder-edged Cogburn.  He didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for this, but he was nominated.  You should watch both versions.

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Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained

The Vienna-born Waltz, in his second film with Quentin Tarantino, was reportedly reluctant to take on the role of the loquacious German-born, bounty-hunting dentist in Django Unchained.  He only did so upon being assured that his character would have no negatives—other than his profession of killing people, presumably.  His smooth brand of courtliness toward most people around him, including the newly-freed slave Django, provides a counterpoint to the hardness he displays in his profession, causing the viewer to constantly balance the two and wonder which will dominate in any situation.  He holds the screen well and less abrasively than other characters.  Coming into his own in Hollywood in middle age, he hasn’t been in other westerns.  But he played an excellent Nazi villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for both that role and this one.

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The Big Sky

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 29, 2013

The Big Sky—Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Elizabeth Threatt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Henri Letondal, Steven Geray, Buddy Baer, Hank Worden, Jim Davis (1952; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

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Underrated and slow-developing story of the voyage of the keelboat Mandan up the Missouri River in 1832 to trade with the Blackfoot Indians.  In other words, it’s a mountain man movie–the second best of that kind, after Jeremiah Johnson.  The guide and hunter for the expedition is Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt); his nephew Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) and Boone’s friend Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) learn their way in the unopened west as they go along.  Frenchie (Steven Geray), the head of the expedition, intends to bypass the usual fur company trade channels and go directly to trade with the Blackfeet at the headwaters of the Missouri, a trip of 2000 miles from St. Louis.  He is taking along non-English-speaking Teal Eye (half-Cherokee actress Elizabeth Threatt), a Blackfoot princess captured by the Crows and sold down the Missouri River, hoping she will facilitate trade with the otherwise hostile Blackfeet.  The expedition also acquires Poordevil (Hank Worden), an alcoholic Blackfoot who ends up being quite useful. 

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On the way upriver the Mandan is attacked by fur company minions led by Streak (Jim Davis) and by Crow allies of the fur company.  On the way Deakins and Caudill both develop relationships with Teal Eye, notwithstanding her initial hostility to Caudill and lack of English skills.  Aside from the conflicts with the fur company and Crows, the other questions are whether it will be Deakins or Caudill that Teal Eye will choose, and whether the one she chooses will stay with her or go back down the river. 

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The best actor in this film is Hunnicutt as mountain man Zeb Calloway, and he also provides the voice-over narration.  This may be his best role ever, and he is utterly convincing with period dialogue that could well seem highly artificial from another actor.  Kirk Douglas is the best-known of the stars today, and he is fine, playing the whole film with his hat pushed back on his head.  There are several reasons the film isn’t better-known today despite its top-of-the-line director and excellent quality.  Two of the leads, Threatt and Martin, didn’t have notable movie careers, although they are good here.  This was Threatt’s only film, and Martin had only a modest few good roles in the early 1950s before drifting into television work. 

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Elizabeth Threatt as Blackfoot maiden Teal Eye.  Douglas and director Hawks block out a fight scene.

Another is that the movie was not shot in widescreen or color at a time when westerns with any scope or ambition (Shane, Bend of the River) were mostly shot that way.  It was not particularly successful on its initial release.  A little slow-paced at its original 141 minutes, it was later edited down to 122 minutes by the studio, and it is difficult to find a decent print of the extended version these days.  That is what TCM shows, however, and the re-inserted material is of noticeably worse quality visually and in its sound.  It is in need of restoration and is not available on DVD currently (2013). 

This was an expensive production shot on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming–like Shane and Jubal.  Hawks was both director and producer.  Based on a classic novel by Montana author A.B. Guthrie, the screenplay was written by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach et al.).  The music is by Dimitri Tiomkin.  The black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan and supporting actor Hunnicutt were both nominated for Academy Awards.  The novel is probably still stronger than this film.  If it had been made a few years earlier (at the time of Hawks’ Red River, say, when color and scale expections were smaller), the movie would probably be regarded as a classic.  It’s one of Hawks’ three best westerns.

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If you like Arthur Hunnicutt here, look for him in smaller roles in two other good westerns from 1950:  Broken Arrow and Two Flags West.  For other westerns based on novels by A.B. Guthrie, see The Way West, also with Kirk Douglas (1967), or the seldom-seen These Thousand Hills (1959).  This is better, though.

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Gunfight at the OK Corral

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 16, 2013

Gunfight At The O.K. Corral—Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lyle Bettger, DeForest Kelly, Dennis Hopper, Jack Elam, Earl Holliman, John Hudson, Martin Milner, Lee Van Cleef (1957; Dir:  John Sturges)

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This is the first and bigger-budgeted (and not necessarily the better) of two effective retellings of the story of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone directed by John Sturges.  A decade later he’d do it again with a lower-wattage cast in a version that told the story better.  This version owes something to My Darling Clementine, and it’s not much closer to the facts than John Ford’s classic was.   The gunfight itself is the end, rather than the middle, of the story as shown here. 

Two Hollywood giants of their day, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, play Wyatt and Doc Holliday—the second of seven films the two made together.  Douglas, although an excellent actor here, is obviously from the Victor Mature school of robust tuberculars, very different physically from the spindly homicidal dentist of history.  Rhonda Fleming is lady gambler Laura Denbow, a romantic interest for Earp in Dodge City, although she refuses to follow him to Tombstone and actually isn’t very necessary to the proceedings.  Jo Van Fleet is Kate Fisher, Doc’s not-very-faithful prostitute girlfriend, obviously based on Big Nose Kate Elder.  Dennis Hopper is good as a conflicted young Billy Clanton, but Lyle Bettger isn’t terribly memorable as Ike. 

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Doc (Kirk Douglas) and Wyatt (Burt Lancaster) join forces against Shanghai Pierce and Ringo in Dodge City.

The gunfight, like that in Clementine, is nothing like what actually happened.  In addition to all the choreography, it shows Ike and Finn Clanton getting killed, and ultimately Billy, too.  In fact, Ike ran away from the fight and survived intact, and Finn wasn’t there.  Doc shoots down Ringo (well-played by John Ireland), but Ringo wasn’t there either.  As with Clementine, the action is precipitated by a Clanton killing of the youngest Earp brother, James (Martin Milner).  In fact, James was the oldest Earp brother and was not involved in the events in Arizona at all.  The actual gunfight lasted a mere 30 seconds, resulting in three dead men after an exchange of 34 bullets.  In this adaptation, the movie gunfight took four days to film and produced an on-screen bloodbath that lasted five minutes.  And there’s nothing about the subsequent murder of Morgan or the maiming of Virgil Earp, or Wyatt’s vendetta ride.  Like most versions from this era, the story steers clear of Wyatt’s irregularities in his relationships with women. This movie works by itself as a story, as long as you’re not remembering the real story too much.  This also makes Earp’s role as a Dodge City lawman more important than it was.  As a cinematic matter, a nice touch is the montage of shots of concerned women just before the gunfight:  Ma Clanton, worrying about her errant sons, especially young Billy; Allie Earp, Virgil’s wife; and the faithless Kate Elder. 

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Heading for the corral with a low camera angle–clearly not a social call.

An interesting comparison is with Sturges’ second version, Hour of the Gun, which features James Garner in his grim mode as Wyatt and Jason Robards as a sardonic Doc—not as lustrous a cast, but it works better. Much of this film was shot at the famous Old Tucson facility, not far from the real Tombstone.  However, its “town street” set was used surprisingly as Fort Griffin, Texas, in the opening reels, while later Tombstone street scenes were shot in southern California, on the same Paramount Ranch set that was later used as Virginia City, Nevada, on TV’s “Bonanza” (1959).  The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine, who had a voice made for western themes.  Excellent score by Dimitri Tiomkin; cinematography by Charles Lang.  The co-writer on this was apparently Leon Uris, author of the best-selling novels Exodus and Battle Cry. 

Dennis Hopper, interestingly enough, was born and raised in Dodge City, Kansas, where the first half or more of this movie takes place.  Billy Clanton: “I don’t know why I get into gunfights. I guess sometimes I just get lonely.”  This was also the second time John Ireland was gunned down in Tombstone; here he plays Ringo and in Clementine he was Billy Clanton.  Wyatt’s last word on the subject:  “All gunfighters are lonely.  They live in fear.  They die without a dime, a woman or a friend.”

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