Tag Archives: Louis L’Amour

The Tall Stranger

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 9, 2015

The Tall Stranger—Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, Barry Kelley, Michael Ansara, Whit Bissell, Leo Gordon, George Neise, Michael Pate, Ray Teal (1957; Dir: Thomas Carr)

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The stranger of the title is played by Joel McCrea, coming toward the end of his career, and he’s a bit long in the tooth for the role he plays in this combination wagon train-range war story with a convoluted plot based on a story by Louis L’Amour.  But he is still Joel McCrea, and, like Gary Cooper, he can still hold our attention and make us forget about his age.

Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) is heading home to Bishop Valley in Colorado Territory from the Civil War, when he spots rustlers and one of them ambushes him, shooting him and killing his horse.  All he saw of his assailant was a gold-plated rifle, along with fancy spurs.  He wakes up in a wagon heading west; a wagon train had found him, and Ellen (Virginia Mayo), a widow with a young son, had found room for him.  There is some hostility toward him among members of the wagon train.   Bannon was wearing parts of a Union uniform, and most of them are southerners and former Confederates.

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Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) returns home from the war to have it out with his brother (Barry Kelley).

He finds that they are led by a man named Harper (George Neise), and, although they think they are going to California, they are far south of the normal trail, heading for Bishop Valley, from which there is no good trail farther west.  Bannon is unlikely to get much of a welcome from the local cattle baron Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelley), his half-brother.  During the recent war, Bishop’s only son Billy had joined Quantrill’s Missouri border raiders, and Bannon had led the Union cavalry that captured him, among others of Quantrill’s men.  The son had been executed.  Bannon has to fight Bishop before Bishop will listen to him at all, but Bannon persuades Bishop to give him three days to talk the wagon train into leaving the valley.

Bishop approaches the wagon train with Stark (Leo Gordon, in a rare good guy role), Bishop’s foreman, and Red.  Harper goads Red into drawing his gun and shoots him; in the melee that follows, Mrs. Judson is killed, although Bannon sees that she was shot from behind with a hollow-point bullet—the same kind with which he had been ambushed.  Ellen is bathing in a stream when she is attacked by Zarata (Michael Ansara), leader of Harper’s rustlers; he has a gold-plated rifle and fancy spurs.  Bannon fights Zarata and seems to be winning, until Zarata grabs Ellen’s son and uses him as a shield, breaking the boy’s arm.

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Young widow Ellen (Virginia Mayo) defends herself and her son.

[Spoilers follow.]  Bannon takes Ellen and son back to Bishop’s ranch, where they are doctored by Bishop’s cook Charley (Michael Pate).  Now Bannon knows that Harper plans to use the settlers and Zarata to take over the valley, and Harper and Zarata’s men attack the ranch.  After a protracted siege, Bannon and Bishop use a makeshift smokescreen to allow Bishop’s men to escape from the bunkhouse and get weapons, swinging the battle in their favor.  Bishop gets Zarata but is himself mortally wounded.  Harper is killed.  In the end, Bannon, presumably the new owner of the ranch and the valley, offers to let the wagon train stay and build a town.  Although Ellen reveals that she has a sordid past in St. Louis with no husband (kind of like Anne Baxter in Three Violent People), she and Bannon appear to have a future together.

This is can be hard to find now, since it’s not on DVD, but it is worth watching. The print I saw (on Amazon) was both grainy and inconsistent in color, and it’s obviously in need of restoration. This is one of McCrea’s better westerns from the late 1950s, like Trooper Hook and Gunsight Ridge (both also from 1957).  Notwithstanding McCrea’s age, the fight scenes with Barry Kelley and Michael Ansara are well-staged and persuasive.  Virginia Mayo is also good here, and there is an excellent supporting cast as well.  Leo Gordon and Michael Pate are particularly good.

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Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelley) and Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea) are besieged by Harper and his minions.

Director Thomas Carr had started as a child actor in silent movies.  He was an extra in John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) and became a director of B movies at Republic in the 1940s.  When he made The Tall Stranger, he was near the end of his movie-directing career before going exclusively into television work.  Filmed in color in southern California, at 81 minutes.

Virginia Mayo’s best other westerns are Colorado Territory (1949), also with Joel McCrea, and Fort Dobbs (1958) with Clint Walker, but you can also see her in The Proud Ones (1956) with Robert Ryan, Westbound (1959) with Randolph Scott and in the [inaccurate] Jim Bowie biopic The Iron Mistress (1952) with Alan Ladd.

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Four Guns to the Border

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 26, 2015

Four Guns to the Border—Rory Calhoun, Colleen Miller, Walter Brennan, John McIntire, Jay Silverheels, George Nader, Nina Foch, Charles Drake, Nestor Paiva (1954; Dir: Richard Carlson)

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Based on a story by Louis L’Amour, this unpretentious western also has an excellent cast.  The writing and direction aren’t quite as good as the cast and story, but but it’s worth watching, particularly if you like Rory Calhoun.  At this stage of his career, Calhoun played the protagonist in lower-budget movies (e.g., Dawn at Socorro, Apache Territory), while he was often the villain in big budget productions (The Spoilers, River of No Return).  Here he is something of both, but mostly the protagonist.  The cast includes John McIntire and Walter Brennan, both excellent character actors who didn’t often appear in the same movie, since they tended to play the same kind of old-coot-ish roles. (But see them together in The Far Country, where they’re both pretty good.)

In 1881 the four riders of the title are moving through Apache country, presumably in Arizona or New Mexico, when they come upon Simon Bhumer (pronounced “Boomer,” played by Walter Brennan) and his nubile, tomboyish daughter Lolly (Colleen Miller), fresh from finishing school.  Both Cully (Rory Calhoun), the leader of the four, and Bronco (George Nader) are visibly taken with her, but Simon thinks none of them are good enough for her.  In fact, he’s right.  The four are headed to pull off a bank robbery, while Simon and Lolly are going back to his ranch in Shadow Valley through territory infested with Apaches.

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Simon Bhumer (Walter Brennan) and daughter Lolly (Colleen Miller) head for their ranch; but a heated relationship develops between Lolly and Ray Cully (Rory Calhoun).

All six spend the night at Greasy’s general store, while Greasy (Nestor Paiva) reconnoiters in town to verify that the bank currently holds enough money to make robbing it worth while.  Cully has a combustible scene or two with Lolly until Simon breaks it up.  Gang members Bronco and Yaqui (Jay Silverheels) fight regularly, seemingly out of exuberance.  Dutch (John McIntire) has known Simon a long time; they were both quasi-outlaws, until Simon went straight.

The gang’s plan for the bank involves Cully creating a diversion while the robbery takes place, and then the gang bolts for the border.  Cully and Sheriff Jim Flannery (Charles Drake, previously seen as Shelly Winters’ ineffective boy friend Steve in Winchester ’73) were once young hellions, both vying for the affections of Maggie (Nina Foch), who chose Jim.  Cully picks a fight with Jim, which engages the town’s attentions until Maggie breaks it up.  Having completed the robbery as planned, the four head for the border with a posse in pursuit.  Back at Greasy’s store, they find it burned by Apaches, with Greasy dead.

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Sheriff Jim Flannery (Charles Drake) and Cully (Rory Calhoun) fight out old grievances.

[Spoilers follow.]  Meanwhile, Simon Bhumer’s horse goes lame, and he and Lolly are besieged by Apaches.  Cully hands the loot to Dutch and takes off to help.  Dutch gives it to Bronco and follows, and finally Bronco and Yaqui head for the battle, too.  It’s a desperate matter, and one by one Dutch, Yaqui and Bronco are all killed and Cully is gravely wounded.  Yaqui had used the bag of loot to bash an Indian, and the coins are scattered all over the site.  Simon and Lolly take Cully to the Shadow Valley ranch, and when the posse arrives at the battle site to chase off the Apaches, only bodies and the scattered proceeds of the robbery are left.

At the Bhumer ranch, Cully’s wound is bad enough so Simon has to go for medical help.  Flannery and two deputies arrive and start to shoot it out with Cully.  He calls out Flannery, while Lolly tries to talk him out of it.  As Cully and Flannery advance to their showndown, finally Cully surrenders—persuaded at last by the love of a good woman.

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Cully (Rory Calhoun) rides to the rescue, while Yaqui (Jay Silverheels) and Dutch (John McIntire) look on.

As a general matter, this is above average.  Rory Calhoun is good here, and the film has also surprisingly strong female roles.  Both Colleen Miller as Lolly and Nina Foch in a limited role as Maggie are good; Calhoun and Miller have good chemistry together.  Jay Silverheels has one of his best roles, not to mention a very colorful costume.  All in all, this is a good early Calhoun western.  The ending, with Cully giving himself up, is not entirely satisfying, but it’s how such matters were handled in westerns from the 1940s and 1950s (see Joel McCrea in Four Faces West and Fred MacMurray in The Moonlighter for just two other examples).  The good guy could not be allowed to get away with crime even if he was repentant, lest all society fall apart.

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Richard Carlson directs Rory Calhoun and Colleen Miller in their climactic scene.

Richard Carlson is known mostly as an actor in supporting roles, but he directs competently here in his second feature.  In color, at 83 minutes.  This can be hard to find, since it is apparently not available in the U.S. on DVD.

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Apache Territory

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 9, 2015

Apache Territory—Rory Calhoun, Barbara Bates, John Dehner, Leo Gordon Frank DeKova, Francis De Sales, Thomas Pittman, Carolyn Craig, Myron Healey (1958; Dir: Ray Nazarro)

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Based on an early novel by Louis L’Amour (Last Stand at Papago Wells, which would have been a better and less generic title), this is first an Old Scout Takes Charge story.  The Old Scout here is Logan Cates (Rory Calhoun), and he is one of those omni-competent frontiersmen of whom L’Amour was so fond, like Hondo Lane (John Wayne, also in a story by L’Amour), Ward Kinsman (Robert Taylor in Ambush), Shalako (Sean Connery in Shalako) or Archie McIntosh (Burt Lancaster in Ulzana’s Raid).  It is also a Lost Patrol story, like Fort Massacre, from the heyday of cavalry westerns.  It has echoes of Strangers on a Stagecoach stories, except that this time it’s strangers surrounded by Apaches.  If only it had an easterner coming west and learning new ways and a Mysterious Stranger, it might have most of the traditional elements of western stories packed into one relatively short B western.

We first find Cates in the Arizona desert, aided by a little voice-over narration, as he tries to get to Yuma while avoiding hostile Apaches.  He’s successful enough until he spies several white horsemen who don’t see Apaches about to attack them; he fires a couple of warning shots, and they take off, followed by the Apaches.  He cautiously approaches the next water, only to find the whites’ bodies, and a live Apache.  He kills the Apache and finds one young white survivor with a wound:  19-year-old Lonnie Foreman (Thomas Pittman), who joins him.  A bit later Cates comes upon a wagon the Apaches have already left; a quivering young woman, Junie Hatchett (Carolyn Craig), huddles under the sagebrush with the rest of her family slaughtered nearby.

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Logan Cates (Rory Calhoun) and Jennifer Fair (Barbara Bates) hash over past regrets.

As the three head for Apache Wells, they encounter two more riders:  former Confederate cavalry officer Grant Kimbrough (John Dehner) and his fiancée Jennifer Fair (Barbara Bates), also heading for Yuma.  As they all stop for water at Apache Wells, they are surrounded by Apaches under their leader Churupati and are joined in due course by six surviving cavalrymen from a patrol from Yuma, as well as Lugo (Frank DeKova), a Pima scout and prospector.  The cavalrymen have their own problems, in addition to having lost fifteen men already.  Their sergeant, Sgt. Sheehan (Francis De Sales), is a former desk clerk from St. Louis, and Zimmerman (Leo Gordon), whom he has demoted, is in a state of near constant rebellion.

[Spoilers follow.]  The sergeant defers to Cates in matters of strategy and planning.  Kimbrough initially does the same, but doesn’t trust his fiancée with Cates around and really wants to leave quickly.  Zimmerman wants to take over and is a constant source of tension.  Kimbrough and Zimmerman don’t trust Lugo, but Cates is inclined to, since Apaches hate Pimas.  Cates has a history with Jennifer that puts him at odds with Kimbrough.  He insists that they wait out the attack, since they have water and the Apaches don’t.  He and Lugo think a storm is imminent, and they plan to get out under cover of the weather.  The cavalrymen get picked off one by one, starting with the sergeant and another.  Zimmerman is killed trying to break out, and another (Myron Healey) is driven crazy thinking of his family in Illinois.  Finally, as the storm comes up, Cates, Lonnie, Kimbrough and Conley (the last cavalryman) fashion bombs out of gunpowder and canteens and use the storm as cover to deliver them—except for Kimbrough, who tosses his aside and ducks back to cover.

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By the end, the survivors ride out.  Kimbrough is dead after a fight with Lugo, Cates and Jennifer are back together, and it looks like Lonnie and Junie will ride on to California and make a life together with a little gold given to them by Lugo.  The five are the only survivors.  We never see Churupati.

Rory Calhoun could be a decent actor with good material and direction (see him in Dawn at Socorro, for example).  Here he mostly looks pained while others quarrel with him, as he tries to save people he’s not really responsible for.  He tended to be the protagonist in B westerns but a bad guy in A westerns (see, for example, The Spoilers and River of No Return).  Cates’ backstory of his relationship with Jennifer is not terribly convincing.  One suspects the direction by journeyman Ray Nazarro wasn’t much help.  Nazarro directed a lot of B westerns, and this was his last movie.  John Dehner (The Fastest Gun Alive, Trooper Hook, Man of the West, The Left-Handed Gun) and Leo Gordon (Hondo, Gun Fury, Ten Wanted Men, 7th Cavalry, McLintock!) were both excellent character actors, and they do well enough here. Gordon tends to be on one note of hostility here, and he can do much more than that if allowed.  Barbara Bates is fine; she’s required to move from hositility to Cates to despising Kimbrough to rapprochement with Cates, and it works.  DeKova works well enough as the Pima Lugo.   Pittman and Craig would have done better with better writing for their parts and more nuanced direction.   Both Tom Pittman and Carolyn Craig, who played the young couple, died young and violently—Pittman soon after the release of this movie in a car crash and Craig in 1970 by gunshot (suicide).  Barbara Bates was also a suicide in 1969.

In all, this is a watchable B western, especially for fans of Rory Calhoun.  It’s not perfect, and it’s marred by pedestrian direction.  Among all westerns, it might win the award for Best Performance by a Gila Monster.  Shot in color by Irving Lippman, at 77 minutes.  Not to be confused with Apache Country, with Gene Autry (1952).  Or with the classic Fort Apache, for that matter.

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Louis L’Amour Stories

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 7, 2014

Westerns Based on the Works of Louis L’Amour

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Louis L’Amour, a veteran of World War II, was a prolific author who began his career writing for the pulps under a variety of names.  In the 1950s, stories from his westerns (he called them “frontier stories”) began to be made into movies.  Partly from this, and partly from the fact that he could write an engaging story and turned them out frequently, by the 1970s his works began to show up on best-seller lists.  Many of them involved a large Tennessee family whose members moved west one by one–the Sacketts.  As he became better known to the general public, his works tended to be made for television.  Born in North Dakota in 1908, at the time of his death in 1988 he had written 105 works–89 novels, 14 short-story collections, and two full-length works of nonfiction, and many of them were still in print.  They have continued to be reprinted after his death.

Among the movies made from his novels, the best is the first:  Hondo, starring John Wayne as irascible scout Hondo Lane (1953).  The list of movies based on his works inevitably included some real clunkers, like Taggart (1965).  There are some curiosities, like the Euro-Western Shalako (1968), directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring the Scottish Sean Connery and the French Bridget Bardot.  Among the more successful adaptations are those made for television by TNT, frequently starring Sam Elliott and/or Tom Selleck:  The Quick and the Dead (1987, not to be confused with Sam Raimi’s 1995 movie of the same name with Sharon Stone, which has no relation to the L’Amour book), Conagher (1991) and Crossfire Trail (2001).  This list does not include movies based on L’Amour’s short stories.

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Hondo (1953)

Four Guns to the Border (1954)

Stranger on Horseback (1955)

Treasure of Ruby Hills [Rider of the Ruby Hills] (1955)

The Burning Hills (1956)

Blackjack Ketchum, Desperado [Kilkenny] (1956)

Utah Blaine (1957)

The Tall Stranger (1957)

Apache Territory [Last Stand at Papago Wells] (1958)

Guns of the Timberland (1960)

Heller in Pink Tights (1960)

Taggart (1965)

Kid Rodelo (1966)

Shalako (1968)

Catlow (1971)

Cancel My Reservation [The Broken Gun] (1972)

The Man Called Noon (1973)

The Sacketts (MfTV 1979)

The Cherokee Trail (MfTV 1981)

The Shadow Riders (MfTV 1982)

Down the Long Hills (MfTV 1986)

The Quick and the Dead (MfTV 1987)

Conagher (MfTV 1991)

Shaughnessy [The Iron Marshal] (MfTV 1996)

Crossfire Trail (MfTV 2001)

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