Tag Archives: Lucien Ballard

The King and Four Queens

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 19, 2015

The King and Four Queens—Clark Gable, Eleanor Parker, Jo Van Fleet, Jean Willes, Barbara Nichols, Sara Shane (1956; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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In 1956, Clark Gable was 55 and his career was fading after 25 lustrous years in Hollywood.  MGM had not renewed his contract, and he was scrambling for work.  This was the second of three westerns he made with director Raoul Walsh, between The Tall Men and Band of Angels (a Civil War movie set in and around New Orleans).  He had long been known as the King in Hollywood, but that was becoming less true.

At the start of the movie, gambler Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable) is on the run from a posse and gets away only by riding down steep hills where they won’t go.  He finds himself in the town of Touchstone in the southwest, where he hears about the McDade family of outlaw brothers, based at a nearby ranch called Wagon Mound.  After pulling off a bank robbery for $100,000, the four brothers had been trapped in a barn.  In the following melée and fire, three of the brothers were burned to death, but one escaped with the loot.  Nobody knows who the surviving brother was.  Since then, the remaining inhabitants of Wagon Mound shoot anybody who approaches the ranch.

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Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet) lays down the law to a wounded Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable).

More than a bit of a con man, Kehoe smells a situation he can play to his advantage.  He rides up to Wagon Mound, ignoring the signs telling him to stay away, and is promptly shot by Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet)—just a shoulder wound, though.  He awakens in a ranch house, tended by Sabina McDade (Eleanor Parker), wife of Boone, and quickly meets Ruby (Jean Willes), wife of Roy, Oralie (Sara Shane), wife of Matt, and Birdie (Barbara Nichols), wife of Prince McDade. They’ve been at the ranch for two years, waiting to find out whose husband survives and to split up the loot when the survivor returns.  The local sheriff is keeping watch for the wanted survivor, too.  There’s a reward of $5000 for him, and $5,000 for the return of the stolen gold.

Strong-willed Ma wants to get rid of Kehoe as quickly as possible, but he helps them by backing off the sheriff and a posse when they come to Wagon Mound.  He tells the sheriff he’ll find the gold and ring a mission bell when the surviving McDade shows up.  Then he tells Ma what he’d told the sheriff, and she agrees to let him stay until the rains come, as they will shortly.  He spends the time getting to know all four of the daughters-in-law, who are intrigued/attracted by the new man in their midst.  The none-too-bright Birdie has a stage background in Chicago.  The dark Ruby (she wears red) has always used a sexual combustibility to control men. The prim and repressed Oralie has her own quieter attractions.  And the intelligent, red-haired Sabina is biding her time and is more careful with Kehoe.  They all want to get out of there and get on with their lives, and three of them do their best to seduce Kehoe.  Ma doesn’t trust him at all, nor does Sabina.

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The Queens: Birdie (Barbara Nicholls), Oralie (Sara Shane), Ruby (Jean Willes) and Sabina (Eleanor Parker).

[Spoilers follow]  Ma is right not to trust Kehoe.  He watches until he thinks he has identified where the gold is hidden in a grave.  As the rain comes and he must leave, Kehoe makes a run for it with Sabina and the gold in a wagon.  But before they’re out of sight of the ranch, Ma rings the bell, bringing the sheriff (unreasonably quickly, it seems).  Kehoe sends Sabina on with $5000 and stays behind to give the rest of the gold to the sheriff, telling them he’s keeping $5000 as the promised reward.

As Kehoe looks to meet Sabina at their rendezvous point, the priest who had been keeping Kehoe’s money says he gave it to Sabina, who had told him she was going south.  But her wagon went in another direction, and Kehoe follows that.  He finds Sabina waiting for him on the trail.  She tells him Boone was the surviving brother, and she met him (and did not marry him) the night before he was killed.  Pretending to be Boone’s wife, she’s been waiting for a split of the loot.  None of the outlaw McDade brothers survive.  She and Kehoe ride off together into the sunset.

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Sabina (Eleanor Parker) and Kehoe (Clark Gable) negotiate.

The King and Four Queens was the first (and last) project from Gable’s own production company, GABCO.  Gable has the kind of presence to pull off this role, even if he was getting long in the tooth and had to crash diet to get in shape for it.  Eleanor Parker was the biggest other name in the cast, and she’s good.  During a brief heyday of several years in the 1950s, she appeared in three westerns:  Escape from Fort Bravo with William Holden (1953, the best of them), Many Rivers to Cross with Robert Taylor (1955) and this one.  The other “queens” in the cast are not particularly memorable, although they do well enough.  Jo Van Fleet, who is persuasive as Ma McDade, was actually 14 years younger than Gable.  She also turned in a good performance the same year as Doc Holliday’s girl friend Kate Fisher in Gunfight at the OK Corral.  The film as a whole is watchable but not terribly memorable.

The principal writer was Margaret Fitts, who also wrote the very good Stars in My Crown (1950); unfortunately the writing is not strong here.  Excellent cinematography in color by Lucien Ballard; shot on location in southern Utah.  86 minutes long.

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The posters showing Gable in a gunfighter’s stance are inaccurate; he doesn’t use guns much in this movie.  A version of this story, with multiple parties trying to find the loot of three deceased outlaw brothers by following and otherwise harassing their attractive young widows was made in 2006 with more of a feminist twist as The Far Side of Jericho.  This original was better.

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The Sons of Katie Elder

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 29, 2014

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

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

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

SonsKatieBros The Elder brothers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nevada Smith

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 29, 2014

Nevada Smith—Steve McQueen, Brian Keith, Karl Malden, Suzanne Pleshette, Arthur Kennedy, Martin Landau, Janet Margolin, Paul Fix (1966; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

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This episodic vengeance western is one of Steve McQueen’s few works in the genre.  Uneducated young Max Sand (McQueen) is the product of a mixed marriage—a white father and a Kiowa mother.  He finds his parents brutally killed by three outlaws and sets out to kill them all.  On the way he runs into gunsmith Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), who teaches him to shoot, along with various other survival skills. 

The first of the killers he finds is a gambler in Abilene, Jack Langley (real name Jesse Coe, played by Martin Landau).  Sand kills him in a knife fight, although he is badly wounded himself, saved only by the McGuffey reader stuffed in his shirt.  He is nursed back to health by Kiowa dance hall girl Neesa (Janet Margolin). 

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Young Max Sand (Steve McQueen) being instructed by Jonas Cord (Brian Keith).

He learns that Billy Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy) is in a prison camp in the Louisiana swamps, after an unsuccessful bank robbery.  Sand gets himself thrown in prison to find Bowdre.  Sand and Bowdre escape through the swamps with the help of young Cajun Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette), who is bitten by a snake and doesn’t make it. 

The third is Tom Fitch (Karl Malden in a bad-guy role) in the California gold country, where he has an outlaw gang.  Sands has tracked him down calling himself Fitch’s brother, but Fitch is now paranoid about Max Sand.  Fitch’s men bust him out of jail and all but kill him when they find he isn’t the outlaw.  They leave him for dead and he is nursed back to health by a Catholic priest.  He joins Fitch’s outlaw gang for a big job, and in the middle of the job takes after Fitch, whom he shoots to pieces but can’t bring himself to finish off.  Presumably then he joins up with Jonas Cord again. 

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This is based on two characters (Jonas Cord and Nevada Smith) from a sleazy Harold Robbins novel, The Carpetbaggers, which had been a successful movie two years earlier.  (Nevada Smith was played by Alan Ladd in that one, in his last movie role; he doesn’t look half-Kiowa, either.)  Well-produced and directed by old veteran Henry Hathaway, it looks good but the plot doesn’t hang together real well.  Characters feel manipulated (or tossed away) rather than developed except perhaps for Sand.  Cinematography by Lucien Ballard; music by Alfred Newman.  Watchable but not terribly memorable. 

Blond, blue-eyed McQueen at 36 seems old for the young Sand, and he certainly doesn’t look half Kiowa.  Brian Keith may be the best actor in the film; Howard da Silva is good as the Louisiana prison camp warden and Pat Hingle as a prison trusty.  Iron Eyes Cody, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones have uncredited bit parts.  A dark-haired Loni Anderson has an uncredited bit part as a dance hall girl in the first half of the film.  Filmed in the Owens Valley desert and in Inyo National Forest.

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The Proud Ones

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 10, 2014

The Proud Ones—Robert Ryan, Jeffrey Hunter, Virginia Mayo, Walter Brennan, Robert Middleton, Arthur O’Connell, Rodolfo Acosta (1956; Dir:  Robert D. Webb)

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The title apparently refers to aging town marshal Cass Silver (Robert Ryan) and young Thad Anderson (Jeffrey Hunter) in Flat Rock, Kansas, a cow town.  Early in the movie, Cass has a run-in with a dealer in a saloon run by Honest John Barrett (Robert Middleton, good here in his slimy mode), with whom he has a long and none-too-cordial history.  Silver, Barrett and Sally (Virginia Mayo) all knew each other in Keystone, where Silver was previously marshal.  A bullet creases Cass’s head and leaves him with impaired vision, and maybe dizziness, when he looks down.  Thad Anderson, just in with a trail herd from Texas, saves Silver from another gunman in the incident but takes a bullet in the leg. 

Cass spends the rest of the movie trying to evade assassins sent by Barrett, while he’s having recurring vision problems (and they’re getting worse).  Cass killed Thad’s father in Keystone, and Thad seems to be looking for revenge.  But he spends most of the movie getting wiser, both about what happened with his father and about Cass.  Cass hires him as a deputy and educates him in various ways:  “Your first lesson comes now.  At night, always walk in the shadows—you can see better.  In the daytime, walk away from the sun–you’ll live longer.” 

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Barrett’s public relations campaign with the locals seems to be working; the townspeople are increasingly uncomfortable with Cass and his skill with a gun.  Barrett spreads stories about Cass shooting unarmed men, including Thad’s father.  Cass in turn doesn’t know who he can really depend on, if anyone, since his deputy has a long-term grudge against him that he’s never hidden.  When the chips are down, though, Thad joins with Cass.  In the final shootout with Barrett’s men, Cass and Thad prevail and bond further.  Cass goes off to Kansas City for medical attention and to marry Sally. 

A good B-movie cast.  Virginia Mayo is a local businesswoman and Silver’s long-time romantic interest, but she has little to do here except express concern.  Walter Brennan is the jailor-deputy Jake, Arthur O’Connell is a nervous Silver deputy, and Rodolfo Acosta is Chico, a Barrett gunslinger trying to kill Cass.  In color, with cinematography by Lucien Ballard.  Lots of whistling on the effective soundtrack music by Lionel Newman. 

ProudOnesShooting Shooting contest.

This is said to be a remake of the non-western Red Skies of Montana from four years earlier, also with Jeffrey Hunter.  It can also be seen as another 1950s western exploring the uneasy relationship between the townsfolk and the good-with-a-gun marshal they hire to defend them.  More explicitly, it can be seen as a variation on the Rio Bravo aspect of that theme, as emphasized by the presence of Walter Brennan as the jailer.  Better than average, but kind of talky.  If you like Robert Ryan here, watch him in Day of the Outlaw from about the same time and as a supporting character to Burt Lancaster in Lawman from the early 1970s.  This is one of Jeffrey Hunter’s better roles, although he was always limited as an actor.

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Buchanan Rides Alone

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 6, 2014

Buchanan Rides Alone—Randolph Scott, Craig Stevens, Manuel Rojas (1958; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

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One of the Ranown westerns based in a town, like Decision at Sundown, instead of being shot out in the Lone Pine countryside.  Agry Town, on the California-Mexico border, is corrupt, like Sundown.  The genial Texan Buchanan rides in from Mexico and has trouble riding out.  The sheriff, the judge and the hotel keeper are all brothers named Agry, with a son of the judge as a short-lived trouble-maker.  That seems to make four Agrys.

In a saloon, Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas), a wealthy young Mexican seeking revenge, kills Roy Agry, son of Judge Simon Agry.  Buchanan helps him as the sheriff’s men proceed to beat him, and both land in jail, Buchanan with his $2000 from his years in Mexico confiscated.

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Buchanan rides in–alone.

Sheriff:  “Oh, you don’t like this town?”

Buchanan:  “I don’t like some of its people.”

Sheriff:  “Me included?”

Buchanan:  “You especially.”

Sheriff:  “Oh, you’d like to kill me maybe?”

Buchanan:  “I’d like to give you what your boys gave me.”

Sheriff:  “Take the law into your own hands, is that it?”

Buchanan:  “No, just you.”

As matters play out, Buchanan is sent out from town in the company of two deputies who obviously have instructions to kill him.  One of them, Pecos Hill, upon finding that Buchanan is a fellow West Texan, turns on the other and kills him.  Buchanan is released and they hold a non-stereotypical impromptu funeral for the deceased gunman.  Pecos has a speech in which he declares that his deceased friend was a cheater and a thief who couldn’t be trusted, but otherwise was not a bad guy.

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Pecos (L.Q. Jones) delivers an impromptu funeral soliloquy, while Buchanan (Randolph Scott) looks on.

The three senior Agrys are all conspiring against each other.  Judge Simon is the most powerful, and has his own gunman, Abe Carbo (Craig Stevens).  Sheriff Lew Agry has several deputies.  And hotel keeper Amos Agry is playing one against the other for his own advantage.  Simon keeps trying to extract a $50,000 ransom from Juan’s family, while Luke wants to get the money and hang Juan, too.  Amos wants a cut of the money.  Juan escapes and is recaptured; Buchanan is released and recaptured.   After several reverses, all the players end up at the border scrabbling over the $50,000.  The Agrys are on the U.S. side, and Juan and Buchanan are on the Mexican side.  The money is on the bridge in the middle, and there is a stand-off.  Lew sends Simon to get the money and then shoots him while he’s on the bridge. Lew then gets shot in turn.  With the two effective Agrys dead, Buchanan gets most of his $2000 back and then hands the $50,000 to Juan and the town over to Carbo.

This is based on the 1956 novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward.  The writing credit for this one is attributed to Charles Lang (as is Decision at Sundown), and Randolph Scott as Buchanan is talkier than in Burt Kennedy’s scripts, with more humor.  However, Boetticher later confirmed that he found the Lang script unsuitable and had Burt Kennedy re-write it.  Since Lang’s wife was gravely ill and they needed the money, Kennedy generously allowed the writing credit (and the fee) to stay with Lang.  Still, it’s not really Kennedy’s best work as a writer. 

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Buchanan (Scott), Carbo (Craig Stevens) and a nameless horse.

Interestingly enough, there is no significant female role in this film, not even for Karen Steele (the statuesque Mrs. Boetticher).  Television private eye Craig Stevens (“Peter Gunn”) plays Carbo, Simon’s hired gunman who always rides in a carriage.  Stevens gets second billing, but his character isn’t very developed.  There is an early screen appearance by L.Q. Jones as the chatty young Texan Pecos Hill. 

This is not one of the more highly-regarded Boetticher-Scott efforts, but it’s enjoyable enough to watch.  Cinematography is in color by Lucien Ballard.  Like all the other Ranown westerns, this is fairly short, at 78 minutes.  Filmed in Old Tucson-Sabino Canyon, in Arizona, not at Lone Pine like most of the other Ranown series.  So, although it’s the only one of the Ranown films to be set in California, it’s the only one not to be filmed in California.  Director Taylor Hackford has commented that Scott’s Buchanan is a sort of precursor to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, the character at the center of Sergio Leone’s influential Dollar movies. .

 

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Will Penny

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 26, 2013

Will Penny—Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Ben Johnson, Donald Pleasance, Bruce Dern, Lee Majors, Anthony Zerbe, Jon Greis (1968; Dir:  Tom Gries)

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This is an end-of-the-cowboy era western, like (and released two years earlier than) the excellent Monte Walsh.   It features great performances by Charlton Heston and Joan Hackett, as well as by supporting actors.  Bruce Dern is another loathsome villain in this film, but Donald Pleasance as his deranged preacher-rawhider-father holds the screen even better.  Director Gries also wrote the screenplay, and his son Jon played the boy.  This was apparently based on an episode (“Line Camp”) of Sam Peckinpah’s short-lived television series The Westerner, also written and directed by Tom Gries.  Cinematography is by Lucien Ballard, a favorite of Peckinpah. 

will-penny1 Charlton Heston in the title role.

Will Penny is an aging illiterate cowboy, almost 50 years old.  As a trail drive from Texas finishes, he looks for and finds a job as a line rider on the large Flatiron Ranch for the winter.  At his distant line cabin he encounters Catherine Allen, a woman with a son (Horace, played by Jon Gries) heading for Oregon, now abandoned by their guide in a remote location.  In their isolation Penny and Catherine encounter a bunch of “rawhiders,” a loathsome family led by a deranged preacher-father (Preacher Quint, played by Donald Pleasance), who provide much of the conflict.  In the end, Penny has a choice to make now that he’s developed a relationship with Catherine.  Heartbreakingly, however, he can’t take the offered family and love because he feels he’s too old; he doesn’t think he has enough time left to provide and build for them. 

WillPennyhackett-heston An impromptu family.

Ironically, the actor (Heston) playing the much older cowboy survived the young actress playing the romantic interest by 25 years.  This is a very good western that doesn’t take easy ways out.   Heston considered the film a personal favorite in his body of work.  It depends on his performance, and he was right to be proud of it.  This is one of two excellent performances by Joan Hackett in westerns, before she drifted into television work and a premature death at 53.  The other is the satire Support Your Local Sheriff.

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Ride the High Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 6, 2013

Ride the High Country—Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, James Drury, R.G. Armstrong, John Anderson, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates, John Davis Chandler, Edgar Buchanan (1962; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

This was director Sam Peckinpah’s second movie, one of the two that are counted his very greatest, and one of the first notable passing-of-the-old-west movies.  As aging former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) rides into a town in California’s Sierra Nevada at the turn of the century, he hears cheers from the citizenry lining the streets.  He sees no one else and figures the cheers must be appreciation for him and his earlier career, and he tips his hat.  Then he is rudely shooed out of the way by a policeman, as a camel and horse race around a corner and toward a finish line.  The cheers were for the racers.

In fact, Judd and his career are largely forgotten.  He’s been getting menial work where he can to survive, but time and the west itself have passed him by.  He finds old friend and fellow former lawman Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) working a shooting booth at a carnival, billed as the Oregon Kid.  Judd has been lured here by the offer of a good-paying job escorting $250,000 in gold down from a remote mining camp to the bank in town.

It turns out that expectations are too high on both sides of the deal.  The father and son who run the bank (Percy Helton and Byron Foulger, very good in bit parts) were unaware of how old Judd now is; and in fact there’s only about $20,000 in gold.  Judd is to get $20 a day, plus another $20 to be split between Westrum and his headstrong and girl-crazy young partner Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).

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Contemplating the limited rewards of a life spent in law enforcement.

The dialogue between Judd and Westrum as they ride the high country toward the camp of Coarse Gold has several recurring themes:  lost loves and disappointments of the past, the way that a career in law was too dangerous and didn’t pay enough to get married and have a family, and an easy way with scripture.  They come to a farm, where they seek lodging for the night with Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong), a man even more given to spouting scripture than they are.  His daughter Elsa (the luminous young Mariette Hartley) is anxious to experience more of life than is available on her mountain farm with an oppressive father.  She goes so far as to encourage Heck’s attentions.  It turns out she fancies herself engaged to a miner in Coarse Gold, and she sneaks off to follow Judd’s small band when they leave the next day.  And it also turns out that the gold isn’t all that’s coarse in the mining camp.

Her miner is Billy Hammond (James Drury in his pre-Virginian days), the most presentable of the five despicable Hammond brothers (John Anderson, Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones and John Chandler Davis are the others).  Longtree deposits Elsa with the Hammonds with considerable misgivings, while Judd and Westrum conduct their business in the camp, where the people are as coarse as what they mine.  That night Elsa, Billy and the Hammonds go to Kate’s Place for her to be wed to Billy by the inebriated Judge Tolliver (Edgar Buchanan).  Immediately after the wedding, she discovers that marriage with a Hammond is not at all what she was expecting.  Judd rescues her, and the small band retreats from Coarse Gold amid threats from the Hammonds.

highcountryhartley Mariette Hartley in her first movie.

Indeed, they are bushwhacked by the Hammonds on the trail while Judd is discovering that Westrum plans to make off with the gold himself.  Heck and Judd fight off the Hammonds, killing two of them (Sylvus, played by L.Q. Jones, and Jimmy, played by John Chandler Davis).  As they approach the Knudsen farm, they find that the three remaining Hammonds have made it there before them and killed Joshua.  Heck and Judd both take bullets, and, after a standoff, Judd and Westrum decide to take on the Hammonds “straight on, just like always.”  It’s a powerful ending. 

This movie contains one of the great lines in a western, a line that a surprising number of people know.  As the aging Steve Judd and Gil Westrum talk about what they’ve learned and where to go from here in their lives, Steve says, “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  He doesn’t explain more than that, but it resonates.  It’s what gets him to the end of movie, and we know that he does indeed enter his house justified—whatever that means.  (See Luke 18:14 in the New Testament, where the line comes at the end of a parable on the difference between conventional righteousness and the real thing.  The line was apparently added by director Peckinpah from something he’d heard his father say.)

This was not a pretentious or large-budget film when it was made.  Peckinpah was known mostly for directing television westerns (Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman and his own brief series, The Westerner).  But he makes the elements come together here superbly to form one of the great westerns.  First is the casting:  Joel McCrea at 57 and Randolph Scott at 64 were near or even past retirement, but one can’t imagine any one else in their roles.  Scott has much more dialogue than we’re used to hearing from him, and he handles it with considerable dry humor.  The supporting characters are well-written and well differentiated.  The screenplay was written by N.B. Stone Jr., known mostly for television writing but also for the excellent Man With a Gun.  Its Old Testament flavor and dry humor play very well with the two principal characters.  Stone even has the drunk Judge Tolliver stand in a whorehouse and give a rather touching speech on marriage. 

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“Straight on, just like always.”

Elsa:  “My father says there’s only right and wrong–good and evil.  Nothing in between.  It isn’t that simple, is it?

Steve Judd:  “No, it isn’t.  It should be, but it isn’t.”

Lucien Ballard was the cinematographer, and his work was remarkable, as usual.  Note the use of the actual Sierras in the Inyo National Forest, and the way that bits of the story are told by means other than dialogue or the faces of the actors, as when Westrum makes a move for the gold and Judd catches him at it.  That part of the story is told with the camera just showing legs and feet, and it works very well.  And in the final shot, the dying Judd is shown from a very low angle against the looming mountains, almost as if he were one of them.  He slowly rolls over and out of the frame, and the camera doesn’t follow him.  It’s like watching a mountain crumble.

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Steve Judd enters his house justified.

This was Randolph Scott’s last film and Mariette Hartley’s first; it was also Joel McCrea’s last film of any consequence.  In some ways, this is a throwback to the kinds of roles Scott played in the early 1940s, when his character was often trying to decide whether to be a good guy or an unusually ethical bad guy (Western Union, Virginia City).  Gil Westrum and his choices are central to the movie.  The one cast member who is less than optimal is Ron Starr as Heck Longtree.  He’s irritating for the first half of the movie, but he is convincing enough in making his character’s changes as the movie progresses.  It’s just that he’s working here with giants (Scott and McCrea) in the principal roles and with extraordinary character actors.  Hartley outclasses him, too.

The high country of the title, in the end, is not just the magnificent mountain scenery in which this film takes place.  It’s also the moral ground on which the unyielding Steve Judd makes his stand.  And perhaps it’s the place he’ll meet Gil Westrum in a while.  Westrum’s last line, spoken to Judd, is “I’ll see you later,” which seems to bear much more meaning than it usually would.  Hartley said that after the last scene with McCrea, she turned to Scott to find him with tears streaming down his face.  For many, this and not The Wild Bunch is Peckinpah’s masterpiece.

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Ride the High Country was shot in just 26 days; Peckinpah was not yet as self-indulgent as he would quickly become.  As with Shane, the studio had no great confidence in this mid-budget western and did not promote it heavily.  Screenwriter William Goldman said he spoke to an MGM executive at the time who said the film had tested strongly, but they felt the film “didn’t cost enough to be that good.”  According to MGM records, the film made a loss of $160,000.  Notwithstanding the lack of promotion, the film was named by Newsweek and Film Quarterly as the best film of 1962; it won first prize at the Venice Film Festival; and it received the grand prize at the Brussels Film Festival (beating Fellini’s 8 ½).  Europeans loved it before American film audiences recognized what a classic this is.

A word of warning:  This has been shown on Encore’s Westerns channel, but the print they’re showing is a bad one that gives no no sense of how magnificent the cinematography of Lucien Ballard is or of the clear beauty of the panoramic vistas in the mountains.  Nor do they show it in widescreen, which is how it was shot and how it looks best.  It’s amazing how much these problems reduce the enjoyment of watching a great movie.  Look for a good DVD or Netflix instead.  This is one classic that is crying out for a Criterion Collection blu-ray treatment.

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Hour of the Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 30, 2013

Hour of the Gun—James Garner, Jason Robards, Robert Ryan, John Voight (1967; Dir:  John Sturges)

This underrated retelling of the Wyatt Earp story features the grim James Garner (see also Duel at Diablo and A Man Called Sledge), not the comic one with the easygoing charm.  Garner plays Wyatt, paired with Jason Robards as an excellent Doc Holliday—more believable as the tubercular gunfighter than the physically robust Kirk Douglas and Victor Mature in previous film versions of the story.  

hourofthegunGarner Garner as Wyatt Earp.

The Earp story has been more successfully retold in movies than any other from actual western history, with varying levels of accuracy.  The best cinematic version of the Earp story may be Tombstone, although My Darling Clementine, one of the older and least historically accurate versions, has its proponents.  Hour of the Gun belongs in this more than respectable company.  In fact, gritty thriller writer George Pelecanos, who says that westerns are his favorite film genre, claims Hour of the Gun as his favorite western, as the upright lawman Earp becomes a colder and more implacable killer in hunting his brothers’ murderers (interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, October 9, 2009).  Pelecanos points to the excellent Jerry Goldsmith score as one of the movie’s overlooked strengths.  The cinematography by Lucien Ballard is also terrific.  Edward Anhalt wrote the screenplay; he shows up briefly in the film as Doc Holliday’s doctor.

This was director Sturges’s second telling of the Earp story, a decade after his earlier Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  In the meantime, he’d made The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Hallelujah Trail, and he was at the peak of his game.  He was one of the best directors of his time in dealing with large-scale stories and action, but this is a more modest effort in terms of scope and budget.  While Gunfight goes with its title and builds up to the legendary battle, Hour of the Gun starts with the gunfight and focuses on Earp’s subsequent vendetta ride, as he hunts down those he holds responsible for gunning down his brothers.  In telling this story, it keeps more to the historical facts than the older film did, but only to a point.  Much of the dialogue in the courtroom scenes, for example, is taken from actual transcripts.  Text on screen after the initial credits says, “This picture is based on fact.  This is the way it happened.”  Well, not quite, but it’s closer than previously filmed versions of the story.

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The Earps and Holliday at the OK Corral.

In his 1967 review of the film, Roger Ebert called this one of Garner’s best performances.  The casting is one of the film’s strong points, especially in the three primary roles:  Garner as Earp, Robards as Holliday and Robert Ryan as an older and more cerebral Ike Clanton than we usually see.  Robards is good as Doc, although he’s significantly older than the actual historical character.  He mentions having killed during the Civil War, but the real Doc Holliday was much too young to have fought in the war.  The Earp brothers (Virgil and Morgan) are not terribly memorable in this version of the story.  Look for a young John Voight as Curly Bill Brocius in an early role.  Interestingly, there’s no Johnny Ringo in this version of the story.   And basically there are no women in this story, either.

Because of its focus on Earp’s search for revenge, the movie becomes more melancholy as Doc tries to keep Earp balanced.  Doc:  “I know you.  You can’t live like me.”  “Those aren’t warrants you have there.  Those are hunting licenses.”  Earp comes to realize the ultimate futility of revenge past a certain point.  The vendetta itself is not celebrated as much as in Tombstone.  The film’s climax shows Wyatt shooting it out with Ike Clanton in Mexico, which is not at all the way Clanton died.  The end of the movie, with Doc dying in a Colorado sanitarium, is heart-wrenching.  Wyatt says he’s going back to Tombstone as the U.S. marshal, so Doc will think he’s regained his idealism and respect for the law; in fact, he intends never to be a lawman again.  The irascible dentist-gunman forces Wyatt to leave and sits playing cards with an orderly on an outdoor veranda as Wyatt drives off in a buggy.  

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The poster emphasizes the revisionist elements of the film.

Since the movie presented a revisionist view for its time of a famous western lawman, audiences weren’t sure what to make of it when it was released.  But it stands up pretty well more than 40 years later.  Garner would play Wyatt Earp again in Blake Edwards’ 1988 comedy-thriller Sunset.   In Sunset, Garner is an aging Earp during the period of the late 1920s when the former lawman was in Hollywood advising on westerns, paired with Bruce Willis as Tom Mix.

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True Grit (the Original)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 28, 2013

True Grit—John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, Jeff Corey, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, John Fiedler (1969; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

In the most enduring scene from this movie (and one of the great shootouts from any western), U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) shouts “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”, takes his horse’s reins in his teeth and, with a rifle in one hand and a pistol in the other, charges across a mountain meadow at Lucky Ned Pepper (an early Robert Duvall role) and three others of his outlaw gang.  It was for this role that Wayne won his only Best Actor Oscar, although you could argue that he’d done better acting in Red River, The Searchers and maybe later in The Cowboys.  Even Wayne thought this was not necessarily his most memorable work.  When asked if he thought True Grit was the best film he’d ever made, Wayne replied, “No, I don’t. Two classic Westerns were better — Stagecoach and Red River — and a third, The Searchers … and The Quiet Man was certainly one of the best.”

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John Wayne as one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn, one of his signature roles.

True Grit is ostensibly a manhunt western, but like any great movie it depends on character development as well as the story.  The story, taken from a best-seller by Charles Portis, features Mattie Ross (a first role for Kim Darby, then aged 21 and playing 14), a teenaged girl and also a person with True Grit from Arkansas.  After her father is killed on the streets of Fort Smith and the killer escapes into the lawless Indian Nations, Mattie decides to go after that killer.  Joining her on this quest are the one-eyed, hard-drinking Cogburn and bounty-hunting Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Glenn Campbell), both with their own agendas and reasons for going on the hunt.  In order to extract the killer, this small but plucky band must locate him and take on a variety of unsavory characters, including a nest of rattlesnakes and the outlaw gang with whom the killer has taken up.

Wayne deserved his Oscar for his performance as Cogburn, which wasn’t simply a straight-up reprise of characters from his other westerns.  In many ways he’s playing against those invincible characters and his traditional image, as he lets his age show.  Darby was impressive her first time out although her career quickly faded.  John Wayne apparently didn’t share that view of Darby, bemoaning their “lack of chemistry” and calling her “the lousiest goddamn actress I ever worked with.”  Duvall is good in a brief role as the outlaw leader.  Glenn Campbell is the weak spot in the casting; you can see why he didn’t have much of a film career.  Campbell’s shortcomings are made more obvious by the screenwriter’s choice to follow the period flavor of the Portis book in the use of dialogue.  For the most part that works (Wayne and Darby carry it off well, for example), but Campbell would have a hard time acting even with more modern language.  Good character roles go to Strother Martin as Col. Stonehill, a Fort Smith horse trader bested by Ross in negotiations, and to a young Dennis Hopper as an outlaw (the same year he gained more celebrity in Easy Rider).  And of course to John Fiedler as Ross’s lawyer J. Noble Daggett in another brief appearance.

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There are many lines that stick with you, with the mostly successful attempt at period dialogue.  Pepper’s response to Cogburn’s challenge at one point:  “I call that bold talk from a one-eyed fat man.”  Cogburn says of Mattie Ross as she swims a river on her horse rather than be left behind:  “By God, she reminds me of me.”   The young outlaw Moon says of his partner Quincy:  “He never played me false until he killed me.”  The killer Tom Chaney bemoans his fate after Mattie shoots him:  “Everything happens to me.  Now I’m shot by a child!”

This movie came out about the same time as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  They’re both great, and they both depict western characters near the end of their careers.  But Butch Cassidy offers a more forward-looking twist on traditional western themes, while True Grit is much more of a play on those traditional themes.  They both work well, though.

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Marshal Cogburn, telling stories to a child.

Henry Hathaway was more a workmanlike than a spectacular director, and this was the best film from Hathaway’s late period.  He started out directing westerns during the early 1930s when they weren’t all that respectable, including being an assistant director on the 1929 version of The Virginian, with the young Gary Cooper in the title role.  He had acquired considerable experience by the time he made True Grit forty years later.  The music is by Elmer Bernstein, veteran composer of scores for many other westerns as well as lots of other movies of every kind.  Lucien Ballard shot it beautifully, largely in Colorado locations more mountainous and scenic than the supposed setting of Oklahoma.

This classic western no longer stands alone.  It must be viewed together with the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake, which also appears on this list of great westerns.  Wayne dominates this original as Rooster.  Jeff Bridges as Rooster is more remote in the darker remake, putting Mattie more in the center of the film.  The remake is truer to the ending of the novel.  And both are very worth watching.

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The Wild Bunch

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 26, 2013

The Wild Bunch—William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien, Bo Hopkins (1969; Dir:  Sam Peckinpah)

In Peckinpah’s earlier Ride the High Country, two former lawmen were playing out their string in a corrupt turn-of-the-century west.  In The Wild Bunch, there’s no hiding the fact that the protagonists are a gang of bandits and savage killers coming to the end of their time in an even more corrupt revolutionary Mexico.  Eventually they find unexpected humanity, even heroism, in that end.  “I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times.  The Wild Bunch is simply what happens when killers go to Mexico.  The strange thing is you feel a great sense of loss when these killers reach the end of the line.”  That’s what director Peckinpah says he was trying to do, but it’s more than that.

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The title notwithstanding, this doesn’t deal with the outlaw group historically known as the Wild Bunch—that was Butch Cassidy’s gang of bank and train robbers.  Like Butch Cassidy and, to some extent, True Grit in the same year, this is an end-of-an-era western.  The outlaw gang has reached the end of its time and knows it.

It is 1913, just before World War I—an era of multiple revolutions in Mexico.  The fictional outlaws in question are led by Pike Bishop (William Holden, in one of his last good roles).  Other members of the gang are played by Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Edmond O’Brien and Jaime Sanchez.  Robert Ryan is Deke Thornton, a former member of the gang captured and forced by the authorities to help track down his onetime comrades.  The movie opens with a memorable image of several children torturing a large scorpion with ants as the gang rides into a town, and the analogy of the scorpion to the gang will become obvious.  In the town, the gang botches a train station robbery, is shot up and then looks for a last big score.  They find it south of the border, agreeing to steal U.S. military weapons from a train for the benefit of Mexican revolutionaries.  However, there is a falling out with their employers on this job, and the climax of the movie involves a long shoot-out between the outlaws and the corrupt revolutionaries, which the outlaws cannot possibly win. 

wildbunchletsgo “Let’s go.”

The shoot-out scene is reminiscent of the final scene of Butch Cassidy, released the same year.  Both involve outlaws in a final fight against overwhelming odds south of the border.  A major cinematic difference, however, is that Butch Cassidy ends with a freeze frame of Butch and Sundance emerging from their cover and firing at the Bolivian army.  In a sense, they never really die because we don’t see the effects on them of the hail of bullets we hear.  The famous end of the fight in The Wild Bunch features extended slow-motion violence as each member of the gang is cut down while slaughtering as many Mexicans as possible.  In that slow-motion violence, it also has much in common with the end of Bonnie and Clyde from two years earlier.  Some felt that The Wild Bunch glorified violence too much, and it certainly influenced the way violence has been shown in westerns ever since.  That’s why most of the good westerns in the last two or three decades have R ratings.  Butch was lighter and more enjoyable; The Wild Bunch was more influential among cineastes. 

Playing Pike Bishop is one of William Holden’s best performances ever.  The role was originally slated to go to Lee Marvin, but he dropped out to make Paint Your Wagon (bad career move).  Holden made this at a time when drinking and hard living were taking their toll on his appearance and acting skills, but here he was still very good.  As with central characters Charlton Heston in Major Dundee, and Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country (earlier Peckinpah movies), the movie depends on Holden’s ability to keep our interest and sympathies.  He does it well.  Ernest Borgnine is excellent as Dutch Engstrom, Bishop’s principal support in the outlaw band. 

This is also one of the last roles for Robert Ryan, who plays Deke Thornton, conflicted as he leads a group of despicable bounty hunters in tracking down his former friends (much like the John Vernon role in The Outlaw Josey Wales).  Few actors in westerns played conflicted as well as Ryan (see Day of the Outlaw and Lawman, for example).  As edited for the film’s theatrical release, Thornton’s principal function is as audience surrogate, telling us what to think about what are actually repulsive-seeming outlaws, but are in many ways more admirable than the other characters with whom they come in contact:  railroad executives and detectives, bounty hunters theoretically on the right side of the law, corrupt Mexican revolutionaries, even German militarists.  Everybody’s corrupt, it seems to say; you just get to choose the direction and the degree of your corruption. 

wild-bunch-machine-gun Pike Bishop goes big.

The film also has good supporting performances from Peckinpah regulars Ben Johnson and Warren Oates (as the outlaw Gorch brothers), Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as sleazy bounty hunters, and Bo Hopkins in his first role as a feeble-minded gang member abandoned and killed in the early railroad office holdup.  Edmond O’Brien is the old horse wrangler for the gang.  There are no significant female roles in the film, but even those few females are less admirable in their way than the outlaws who are their customers.

The depiction of many of the Mexicans now seems a little dated, but it’s still powerful.  They’re mostly caricatures and prostitutes.  Jaime Sanchez as Angel, the Mexican member of the outlaw band, may have deserved better.  Much of the movie was filmed in Mexico, a favorite Peckinpah location as well as the actual setting for this movie’s action.

Most would see The Wild Bunch as Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece.  Others prefer the earlier Ride the High Country, as a purer story.  The Wild Bunch certainly has a lot more moral ambiguity; there are no purely admirable characters, just strong ones and weaker ones.  There are some themes of honor and loyalty, but it’s not certain what they mean or exactly how they apply.  The Wild Bunch shows some development in cinematic abilities from High Country (the memorable scorpion image, for example) and it’s near the peak of Peckinpah’s depiction of male bonding and love of violence.  Even in this great movie, however, there are signs of the self-indulgence that marred much of the director’s career.  Decades later, the violence still seems savage and excessively gory.  The glorification of drunken roistering as central to male bonding seems somewhat misplaced, although it fits with Peckinpah’s own views and life.  As with some earlier Peckinpah movies (notably Major Dundee), and almost all later ones, Peckinpah had continual battles with the studio over his inability or unwillingness to control the film’s budget and shooting schedule.  This one is a great western and a strong one, but it’s also one of those, like Unforgiven and even The Searchers, which can be easier to admire than to watch again, mostly because of their emotional roughness.

The cinematography by Lucien Ballard is marvelous.  There’s a brilliant shot, for example, of an exploding bridge dumping a dozen horsemen into the Rio Grande, and another of horses and their riders tumbling down sand dunes where you can taste the sand and dust.  The movie has many memorable images, but not a lot of memorable lines.  The lines you do remember seem unremarkable by themselves; it’s the situations which cause you to remember them.  When Bishop says to his gang, “Let’s go,” for example, you know then (and you sense that they know) they won’t survive, and you remember that feeling.  Bishop’s ethos is expressed in his rationale for not breaking up the gang:  “We’re not gonna get rid of anybody!  We’re gonna stick together, just like it used to be!  When you side with a man, you stay with him!  And if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal, you’re finished!  We’re finished!  All of us!”  But it isn’t like it used to be, and the suggestion is that it probably never was.  They are finished, and they’re just trying to find a way to play it out.  The screenplay and Jerry Fielding’s score were nominated for Oscars; they didn’t win.

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In the DVD age, there is a director’s cut of the film (144 minutes), released in 1994, although Peckinpah was long dead by then.  It includes more of the relationship between Pike Bishop and Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton, giving the Thornton character more weight than he had in the theatrical release.

This movie did not spring fully-grown from nowhere.  It owes something to The Professionals three years earlier, to the sensibility and look of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, and to Bonnie and Clyde two years before.  But it is clearly its own Sam Peckinpah movie, too, and has itself become very influential far beyond westerns.  As a western, its limitations may be that it lies on the fringes of western themes and leaves a feeling of nihilism and discomfort for reasons that can be hard to define.  Roger Ebert referred to it on its release as “possibly the most violent film ever made,” and more than 40 years later that violence has not lost its impact or its controversiality.  And it has influenced just about every western (and many movies in other genres) made since.

This was not just an “end-of-an-era” western; it was also one of several “end of the western” films, supposedly tolling the death of an entire genre of movies.  It was the end of its era in westerns, certainly, and the beginning of another one.  The lover of westerns can find quite a few great westerns in the 40-plus years since this one, including such other “end of the western” movies as The Shootist and Unforgiven.  According to Roger Ebert, one of the film’s stronger proponents, “It represents its set of sad, empty values with real poetry.”  He recommended the restored 144-minute cut.  The Wild Bunch is one of the five westerns listed by the AFI on its list of the 100 greatest American movies, along with High Noon, The Searchers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. and Unforgiven.  (See http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx.)

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