Tag Archives: Manhunts

Jane Got a Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 11, 2016

Jane Got A Gun—Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Noah Emmerich (2016; Dir:  Gavin O’Connor)

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This female empowerment story with an extraordinary international cast and a clunky title had a bumpy path to the screen.  Originally, (Irish actor) Michael Fassbender was to star opposite (Israeli-born) Natalie Portman, but he left early on due to either (a) clashes with original (Scottish) director Lynne Ramsay, or (b) scheduling conflicts with an X-Men movie, depending on which version one believes.  (Australian actor) Joel Edgerton was moved from playing the villain to the role opposite Portman, and (English actor) Jude Law signed up to be the villain, only to leave shortly after Ramsay’s departure as director just as shooting was to start.  Bradley Cooper was then to come in as the bad guy, but also had scheduling conflicts.  Finally, (Scottish actor) Ewan McGregor was signed, Gavin O’Connor (director of the underrated Warrior) came in on very short notice, and the film was shot in New Mexico in early 2013.  Then it languished on the shelf for almost three years, while its distributor went into bankruptcy.  Eventually, the movie came to the Weinsteins and then to the big screen in early 2016.  Such turmoil in production often leads to very lowered expectations for the product.  It shouldn’t, in this case.

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Jane (Natalie Portman) seeks help from former flame Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton).

In New Mexico Territory in 1871, Bill Hammond (character actor Noah Emmerich) rides up to the remote ranch he shares with his wife Jane Ballard Hammond (Natalie Portman) and young daughter, only to fall off his horse with five bullets in him.  He mutters something about the Bishop Boys coming.  After providing some doctoring to Hammond, Jane takes her (three-year-old?) daughter Kate to a neighbor for safety.  And then she seeks out Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton).  Much of the rest of the story is told in various flashbacks.

Frost and Jane had been lovers in Missouri before Frost left to fight for the Union early in the Civil War, ten years previously.  He was apparently some kind of hero in that conflict and now has some talents as a gunslinger, which is what Jane says she’s seeking.  In another flashback, we see that in 1866 Jane, believing Frost had been killed in the war, took her daughter Mary and joined a wagon train of women heading west under the leadership of John Bishop (Ewan McGregor).  Meanwhile, Frost had also come west in search of her and had eventually ended up asking Bishop, who was also looking for her by the time Frost came to him.

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Jane (Natalie Portman) is not a natural with a pistol, although she can handle a rifle.

[Spoilers follow.]  Finally finding Jane married and with a child, Frost has apparently taken to drink and bitterness.  However, he reluctantly comes to Jane’s aid when she is attacked in town by one of Bishop’s men.  At the ranch Frost directs the effort in putting together a makeshift mine field in front of the cabin with mason jars, kerosene, nails and glass shards.  In more flashbacks, we see that Hammond was one of Bishop’s men.  He fell in love with Jane and rescued her from a brothel in Raphael, New Mexico, which is where the nefarious Bishop planned to take the women all along.  Jane’s daughter Mary had apparently been drowned, and current daughter Kate was conceived as a result of her brief stay in the brothel.

Another Bishop man shows up at the ranch, and Frost dispatches him.  The principal Bishop attack comes at night, with an incredible barrage of bullets shredding the ranch house.  However, the mine field works spectacularly, and the odds against Jane and Frost are reduced.  Both Frost (right shoulder) and Jane (torso) are hit, and Hammond is finished off, although he was apparently dying anyway.  Frost gets the last few attackers, but the final one is Bishop himself, who captures Frost.  Jane gets the drop on Bishop, and he claims that Mary is still alive.  As Jane blasts him, Bishop reveals that Mary is at the brothel in Raphael.

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The makeshift mine field takes its toll on the attackers.

In the final scenes, Jane and Frost retrieve Mary, and Jane claims the rewards for the now-deceased members of the Bishop gang (including $5000 for Bishop himself).  She forgoes the $2000 reward on Bill Hammond.  With the proceeds, she, Frost (with arm in a sling) and their two daughters head for a new life in California.

The actors are excellent.  Portman, Edgerton and McGregor all appeared in earlier Star Wars movies together and are unusually capable.  One of Edgerton’s major roles a few years ago was in the very good Warrior, directed by Gavin O’Connor.  Here, Portman gets a producing credit, along with several others, and was the moving force behind it all.  Edgerton has a writing credit, as one of three.  McGregor doesn’t actually show up on camera that frequently, but he is snakily evil when he does, and his menace looms over the entire movie.  The film has some grittiness; it is rated R for graphic violence, brothel scenes, loathsome bad guys and some bad language.  But if you can stomach that, it’s not a bad western.  Jane’s costume design is unusually good, managing to look both 19th-century, attractive and utilitarian together—especially her hat, which looks good but is less authentic.  Women’s hats can be a problem in westerns (but see Linda Darnell in Two Flags West from 1950), although they would seemingly be a necessity for any woman who spent much time out-of-doors.

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So what doesn’t work?  There is some excellent cinematography by Mandy Walker (the young lovers in a field of cattails, for example, and the explosion of the minefield).  But much of the night attack can be hard to see in the dark.  Although it’s not a long movie at 98 minutes, the story is lacking a spark of something.  Frost apparently did something extraordinary during the late war, but that isn’t established very well, nor is his status or skill as a gunslinger.  (Use of that term by Jane seems anachronistic.)  A couple of small scenes could have remedied that.  Perhaps the worry was that making the Dan Frost character a bit stronger would take away from focusing on Jane’s strength.  That doesn’t need to be the case, however; it can be a very good thing to have two strong characters to play off each other.  The storytelling is not entirely smooth, and things seem to bog down slightly from time to time as we wait for the next attack or flashback.

The inspiration for the title was apparently the 1989 Aerosmith song “Janie’s Got a Gun,” which plays on outrage for mistreatment of women and the helpless.  A better title would have let this story stand on its own, even though those themes are present here, too.  Movies with an overt ideological bent often do not thrive as stories; that’s why most revisionist westerns are not that good as westerns.  But this one mostly works.  Capable women with guns in westerns go back more than 70 years, at least to Loretta Young saving Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones (1945).  Strong, vengeful women with guns go back at least 45 years to 1971’s Hannie Caulder, with Raquel Welch, through Bad Girls (1994) and a number of others, and this fits into that genealogy.

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The Bishop Boys, led by John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), get their orders.

This is also one of those movies in which young lovers are separated by the Civil War and afterward have to sort out the consequences—or are unable to do so.  See The Last Sunset, for example, and Cold Mountain.  More recently, see Forsaken, which is slightly better than this film.

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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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Cahill U.S. Marshal

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 20, 2015

Cahill U.S. Marshal—John Wayne, Gary Grimes, George Kennedy, Neville Brand, Clay O’Brien, Marie Windsor, Royal Dano, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey, Jr., Paul Fix, Hank Worden (1973; Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen)

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The late phase of John Wayne’s career was unusual because, unlike his contemporaries such as Henry Fonda and James Stewart, while he continued to make westerns as they did, some of Wayne’s were actually pretty good.  While this is not the best of late John Wayne, it is not among the worst, either.

J.D. Cahill (an aging John Wayne) is, as the title has already told us, a U.S. marshal, based in Valentine, Texas.  The drama comes because he has been, as a widower, a neglectful father, with his two sons (aged 11 and 17) growing up resentful of his constant absences from their lives.  The movie opens with a scene where Cahill catches and brings in five armed bank-robbers single-handedly, establishing his formidable competence as a marshal.

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J.D. Cahill (John Wayne) is clearly nobody to mess with.

Meanwhile, back in town, his older son Danny (Gary Grimes) has fallen in with bad company and has gotten himself thrown in jail with them to establish an alibi for a criminal enterprise.  The younger son Billy Joe (Clay O’Brien) has also been enlisted in the plan, moving the tools into position, providing a distraction for the sheriff and others by setting fire to a barn, and taking and hiding the loot after the job.  He lets the conspirators, led by Fraser (George Kennedy), out of jail, and they proceed to rob the bank, killing the sheriff and a deputy in the process.  They get back into jail as if they’d never been out, establishing their apparent innocence.

The boys, especially Billy Joe, have a tough time, since they’re not really hardened outlaws and were promised there’d be no killing.  J.D. takes Danny and the half-Comanche Lightfoot (Neville Brand in dark makeup) in pursuit of the supposed robbers, and catches four of them.  They seem guilty enough so they are sentenced to hang, although Danny knows they are innocent—of the bank robbery, at least.

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Cahill (John Wayne) is not pleased to find his older son Danny (Gary Grimes) in jail with questionable companions (George Kennedy).

He may be lacking as a father, but Cahill’s instincts as a manhunter are at full strength, and he knows something is up with his sons.  He and Lightfoot track them as they take the money from the robbery up in the mountains to meet Fraser and the others at a mine.  They are shot at by the gang’s sentry; Lightfoot wounds him but is himself killed.  The sons know that Fraser does not intend to leave them alive.  Since we have already seen Cahill take on several bad guys at one time, we are not surprised when he does it again; it is well-staged.  The sons take the loot back to town to return it, and it looks like they’ll arrive in time to stop the wrong men from hanging.  (They should still need a good lawyer, although that isn’t addressed.)  Cahill’s left shoulder is wounded twice in the course of the movie, but it looks like some repairs have been made to his relationship with his sons as well.  Maybe the future will be better.

The working title of the film initially was “Wednesday Morning.”  Produced by Wayne’s Batjac production company, there are elements of this we’ve seen elsewhere.  The faux-Indian figure (played by Howard Keel in The War Wagon and by Bruce Cabot in Big Jake) is here done best of all by Neville Brand, although he was never an actor of much subtlety.  Elmer Bernstein had done many musical scores on John Wayne movies (e.g., The Comancheros), and elements of the music here seem recycled.  Cahill’s invincibility seems a bit overdone, although it is a critical element of the story and certainly of the John Wayne persona.  The large hairy outlaw who doesn’t speak much but is a vicious killer seems imported from Big Jake.

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Head bad guy Fraser (George Kennedy) is pretty scary to an eleven-year-old in the rain.

John Wayne is, well, very much John Wayne in this movie.  His hats got taller during the 1970s, but he still looked convincing in a well-written part.  At 66, he was not in good health, suffering from emphysema and the lung cancer that would kill him in a few years.  Reportedly, he also had a few pangs about his own paternal neglect of his children over the years, which was partially addressed here by having one of them (Michael Wayne) as the producer.  In the early 1970s, Gary Grimes specialized for a few years in coming-of-age stories, notably in Summer of ’42, but also in westerns such as The Culpepper Cattle Company and The Spikes Gang, and he wasn’t bad at it.  Young Clay O’Brien, who played the younger son, was an authentic New Mexico cowboy whose first acting job had been on Wayne’s The Cowboys the previous year.  After a few years of playing small cowboys in movies, he went back to real cowboying, becoming a champion roper.  Part of the fun here is seeing all the good character actors in bit parts. Royal Dano, Paul Fix, Hank Worden, Marie Windsor (once queen of the B movies), Denver Pyle and Harry Carey, Jr. all show up briefly here.  Even Chuck Roberson, Wayne’s long-time stand-in and stunt double, shows up on screen here; in addition to playing the head of a lynch mob, most of the medium-to-long shots of Cahill on a horse are actually Roberson.

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Cahill (John Wayne), here with sons Billy Joe (Clay O’Brien) and Danny (Gary Grimes), takes a knife to the shoulder in the climactic shootout.

Director Andrew McLaglen had long had connections with John Ford and John Wayne through his father, actor Victor McLaglen.  This was his fifth and final movie directing John Wayne, and as a movie director, McLaglen was a pretty good television director; that is, he never seemed to be as good as he should have been, given the resouces and talent he often had to work with at this stage of his career (see The Way West, for example).  Screenwriter Harry Julian Fink and his wife Rita Fink had written Dirty Harry and Big Jake, and would go on to do a few more Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movies.

This movie is not the best of Wayne’s late career; The Cowboys, Big Jake and The Shootist (his last film) are all better.  But it’s far from the worst, which would include the lamentable Rio Lobo and The Train Robbers.  All in all, it’s worth watching, even if it sometimes seems like there’s less here than meets the eye.  Shot in Durango, Mexico, in color, at 103 minutes.

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The Revengers

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 13, 2015

The Revengers—William Holden, Susan Hayward, Ernest Borgnine, Woody Strode, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jorge Luke, Warren Vanders (1972; Dir: Daniel Mann)

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It is doubtful that “revengers” is even a real word, but you get the idea.  Somebody’s after vengeance in this Dirty-Dozen-style flick.  That would be John Benedict (a visibly aging William Holden at 54, after years of hard living).  He’s a Colorado rancher whose family is slaughtered by Comancheros and their Comanche allies during a horse-stealing raid.  He tracks them down to the borders of the U.S. and Mexico, and figures he needs help.  Spotting a Mexican prison that rents out convict labor, he hires six of their worst inmates.  Leaving the guards behind, he gets the six decent clothes and weapons, but has some difficulty getting their active allegiance (a staple of this kind of film).

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John Benedict (William Holden, upper left) and his newly-recruited gang, including Ernest Borgnine (tall hat) and Woody Strode (front right).

He leads them in an attack on the Comanchero stronghold, getting most of them, but the leader Tarp (Warren Vanders) escapes although wounded.  Depressed at this failure, Benedict drinks heavily and has a falling-out with one of the six, a Mexican gunslinger who fancies that he may be Benedict’s son.  The six scatter, and Benedict, grievously wounded, is tended by the local healer, an Irish nurse of a certain age named Elizabeth Reilly (Susan Hayward).  There is some attraction between them during the time it takes Benedict to heal, but he rides off in search of closure with Tarp. However, he is arrested and thrown in the Mexican prison from which he had helped the six escape.

Two of the six, Hoop (Ernest Borgnine) and Chamaco (Jorge Luke), the Mexican gunslinger, reassemble the six.  They spring Benedict from the Mexican prison and resume the search for Tarp, whom they find held by a small U.S. cavalry unit besieged by Comanches and Comancheros.  They want him back.  Benedict proposes to kill Tarp and send him back to the Comanches that way, but doesn’t proceed with that out of respect for the badly wounded lieutenant in charge.  Benedict and the six join the outnumbered cavalry and use dynamite and a little artillery to make a last stand.  The cavalry wins, but not without casualties.  The lieutenant and the Mexican gunslinger Chamaco are among them.  And Benedict rides away without killing Tarp, having belatedly decided that revenge is an empty motivation.

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The wounded Benedict (William Holden) and Irish nurse Reilly (Susan Hayward) get to know each other.

There are a couple of things about the movie that don’t work very well.  One is the interlude with the Irish nurse (Susan Hayward) that doesn’t really go anywhere. Her accent isn’t good; it clanks as badly as Barbara Stanwyck’s faux-Irish in Union Pacific (1939).  When Hayward makes a reference to the possibility of having children, we notice that she seems to be in her fifties (at 55, she was a year older than Holden and three years away from her death of cancer) and children are improbable.  Benedict is supposed to be good with a gun, but he looks his age, his shoulders are rounded by now, and he’s not all that persuasive as a gunslinger.  And the ending, with Benedict just walking away from the revenge that has been the point of the movie, is similarly unpersuasive.  At the least, you’d expect that one of the remaining five would get Tarp, since they’ve all demonstrated that they’re not good at impulse control.  Most of the six are not well fleshed-out characters, but the film does keep moving.

Daniel Mann (The Rose Tattoo [1955], The Teahouse of the August Moon [1956], Butterfield 8 [1960], Our Man Flint [1966] et al.) didn’t do many westerns; this may be the only one.  Holden and Borgnine (a replacement for Van Heflin after Heflin’s unexpected death) were reunited from The Wild Bunch (1969) for more adventures in Mexico, but this doesn’t remotely approach that classic in quality.  This is Holden’s last western.  Hayward, in her extraneous role, was coming to the end of her career and wasn’t making many movies.  This was written by Wendell Mayes, who had been nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Anatomy of a Murder.(1956), and who went on to write the blockbuster Death Wish and Towering Inferno.  The music occasionally reminds one of 1970s television.  In color, shot in Sonora, Mexico, at 106 minutes.  It was made available on DVD in May 2014, with a blu-ray to come in August 2015.

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Benedict (William Holden) prepares to hold off the Comancheros and their Indian allies.

Although it was released in the heyday of the revisionist westerns of the 1970s, this is more traditional in its approach and sensibility.  For better Holden and Borgnine at this late stage of their careers, see, obviously, The Wild Bunch.  For good Susan Hayward in a western, you have to go back twenty years to Rawhide (1951) and Garden of Evil (1954).

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The Gun Hawk

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 11, 2015

The Gun Hawk—Rory Calhoun, Rod Cameron, Rod Lauren, Ruta Lee, Robert Wilke, John Litel, Morgan Woodward (1963; Dir: Edward Ludwig)

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This is a late western in the careers of Rory Calhoun and Rod Cameron, and the last movie for director Edward Ludwig (who made such John Wayne non-westerns as Big Jim McLain, Wake of the Red Witch and The Fighting Seabees).

The title refers to the mysterious figure who runs the haven of Sanctuary on the Mexican border, enforcing his rules with his gun.   Blaine Madden (Rory Calhoun), not bad with a gun himself, rides into Baxter, the town where he grew up, in time to meet and help young footloose gunman Reb Roan (Rod Lauren).  Sheriff Ben Corey (Rod Cameron, with lots of gray paint in his hair) liked Madden when he was growing up and once offered him a job as his deputy.  He didn’t take it, but his jealous childhood friend Mitch (Morgan Woodward) did, and he still resents Madden.  Madden tells Corey he’s not staying in town but is headed to Sanctuary.

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Sheriff Ben Corey (Rod Cameron), Deputy Mitch (Morgan Woodward) and Blaine Madden (Rory Calhoun) all see trouble coming but differ in their responses.

In the local saloon, after Madden helps Roan in a fight with the Sully brothers, those brothers start picking on the town drunk (long-time character actor John Litel, who had often played ministers and even Gen. Phil Sheridan).  Finally, they shoot him, not realizing that he’s Madden’s father.  Madden leaves town, saying he’s not going in pursuit of them, but he finds them before Corey does.  Corey rides up, sees Madden standing over the two dead Sullys and tries to arrest him.  Madden rides away, gambling that Corey will not shoot him in the back, but he does, winging him.

Aimless young drifter Reb Roan finds Madden having collapsed from his wound and does what he can to doctor it.  It’s in Madden’s right arm (his gun arm), and it obviously impairs Madden’s ability to use his gun.  As the two of them ride into Sanctuary, Madden is greeted as “El Gavilan,” Spanish for “the hawk”—he is the mysterious figure who presides over Sanctuary.  His first action is to run out Johnny Flanders (veteran screen heavy Robert Wilke), who has violated Sanctuary’s rules about not using guns.  He accomplishes this not with guns but (not very convincingly for some one with a badly wounded right arm) with his fists.

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Roan (Rod Lauren) and Madden (Rory Calhoun) ride into Sanctuary.

[Spoilers follow.]  Ben Corey rides into Sanctuary and takes Madden into custody, but the residents of the hamlet prevent him from riding out with El Gavilan.  Mitch tries unsuccessfully to raise a posse in a neighboring town and wants to just shoot Madden down.  Corey takes back his badge.  Meanwhile, in Sanctuary Madden’s romantic interest Marleen (Ruta Lee) spends the night with him, and in the morning he forces Roan into a gun fight.  Roan is wounded but Madden (who was dying from his wound) is dead—a death the way he wanted it.  Marleen then explains to Roan that, having violated the rules of Sanctuary, he must now leave.

The ending is not terribly satisfying, and the rationale for Reb having to leave not all that convincing now that Madden is dead.  There are at least two alternate endings that would have worked better:  (1) Instead of Madden dying, he and Roan stage the final gunfight, but it is just that—staged, for Corey to witness from his perch above the town.  When he sees Madden’s apparent death, he gives up the chase, and Madden and the inhabitants of Sanctuary live happily ever after in their remote location.  Or better, (2) if Madden has to die, it plays out as in the movie, but with his last words the dying Madden passes to Roan the mantle of El Gavilan, and Roan becomes the protector of Sanctuary in the place of his mentor.  And it’s never really explained why the fatherly Corey actually did shoot Madden in the back, although theoretically just wounding him.  The result in the film is probably more true to the state of 19th-century medicine on the trail than if Madden had survived.

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A last night for Madden (Rory Calhoun) and Marleen (Ruta Lee).

Experienced hands Calhoun and Cameron are fine in this low-budget effort, although Calhoun spends too much time just looking pained, either from his wound or the situation around him.  Lauren and Ruta Lee are not impressive.  This is not among Calhoun’s very best efforts; those would probably be Dawn at Socorro (1954) and Apache Territory (1958), both with better writing. But it does pull us in with interesting characters, good world-weary acting from Calhoun and with its twist on familiar situations up to a point, until things fall apart at the end.  Rory Calhoun fans will want to watch it anyway.  In color, at 92 minutes.

For another tale of a haven for outlaws in the Southwest, see the more famous Rancho Notorious (1952) by director Fritz Lang, with the establishment presided over by Marlene Dietrich.  There is a string of westerns about gunmen with physical impairments, the best-known of which is El Dorado (1966), in which John Wayne is the afflicted gunslinger.

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Slow West

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 23, 2015

Slow West—Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn, Rory McCann (2015; Dir: John Maclean)

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Life in 1870 in Colorado Territory was apparently “nasty, brutish and short,” as in the well-known quotation by Thomas Hobbes and as depicted in this low-budget current western with a high body count.  Young (16-year-old) Scotsman Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is out of his element, searching for his lost love Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius).  A narrator (Silas, as it turns out) describes him as “a jackrabbit in a den of wolves.”  The mood is set as the credits role over Jay riding through an Indian burial site.  We are shown in a series of flashbacks how Jay’s uncle was accidentally killed in an altercation, causing Rose and her father (Rory McCann) to flee Scotland for the wilds of the New World.  The flashbacks also reveal that Rose, of a lower social caste, does not think of Jay as a lover.  What Jay also does not know is that a bounty of $2000 (very high for the time) has been posted on the Rosses, causing legions of distasteful bounty hunters to pursue them.

Silas:  “Kick over any rock, and most likely a desperado would crawl out and knife you in the heart if there was a dollar in it.”

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This is not as much a standoff between a masked Silas (Michael Fassbender) and a young Jay Cavendish as it would at first appear.

As Jay gets closer to the Silver Ghost Forest (a name more allegorical than real-sounding) somewhere in Colorado, he is confronted by three ex-soldiers hunting Indians for sport, until he is rescued by Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), one such bounty hunter.  Silas quickly and pitilessly dispatches the three, and Jay gives Silas his remaining money to get him safely to his destination.  They arrive at an isolated general store, and spot another bounty hunter, dressed as a minister and carrying an elaborate rifle.  While they are at the store, a desperate Swedish couple arrives and tries a hold-up.  The storekeeper kills the husband, and, as the wife holds a gun on Silas, Jay shoots her.  As they flee the scene, they see two blond children waiting outside the store.

Sickened by it all, Jay sneaks away from Silas and falls in with Werner (Andrew Robertt), a man in a yellow wagon who appears to be a 19-century anthropologist “recounting the decline of the aboriginal tribes in the hope of preventing their extinction by their conversion to Christianity.”  As Werner notes, “In a short time, this will be a long time ago,” showing a keen (and perhaps anachronistic) awareness of the transitory nature of the Old West.  When Jay awakens the next morning, he discovers that Werner has departed in the night with his horse, clothes and possessions.  He stumbles across the prairie until Silas finds him and gives him back his horse and clothes.  Silas denies having killed Werner for it.

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Chaperoned by Silas (Michael Fassbender), Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) makes his way farther west.

As they camp one evening, they are accosted by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), who presides over a band of scurrilous bounty hunters and with whom Silas once rode.  Payne plies them with absinthe, and Jay stumbles into Payne’s camp, noting that they appear to have the two blond children with them now.  When Jay and Silas awaken the next morning in a downpour, they have lost their guns and most of their meager possessions.  But they make it to the Silver Ghost Forest, and see the Ross cabin in the distance.  Silas ties Jay to a tree to keep him from dashing into the situation.

[Spoilers follow.]  We see that the reverend/bounty hunter has arrived first, and he picks off John Ross.  He is in turn blasted by Payne’s men, who lay siege to Rose and an Indian within the house.  As Silas tries to help them without a gun, he is shot twice and rendered helpless.  Silas, Rose and the Indian have reduced the number of Payne’s band, however.  Jay finally gets loose and makes his way to the cabin, only to be shot by a shaking Rose as he enters.  Payne finally enters as well and appears to have them at his mercy, but Rose slips a dying Jay her pistol and uses her body as a shield to give him the chance to shoot Payne.

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Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), leader of a pack of ruthless bounty hunters, in his impressive fur coat.

As the movie comes to an end, we see Rose, Silas and the two blond children, apparently living as a happy family.  It pans back over Silas’ killings that we saw earlier.  Maybe all the bounty hunters are dead; if not, we have no idea why they are able to live so peacefully now.

The title is curious but not inaccurate.  This was written and directed by first-time Scottish director John Maclean, with a bit of a European sensibility.  Sometimes the dialogue does not seem entirely authentic, as with Silas’ repeated “Let’s drift” when he’s ready to get going.  Jay crosses the U.S. (or at least the western part of it) on horseback without a hat, which seems unlikely.  The film does not always explain what’s going on, resulting occasionally in a slightly surreal feel, reminding us of, for example, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man—another tale of a stranger in a strange western land.  Still, it is skillfully executed in its way and worth watching.  Most viewers will find it more accessible than Dead Man.  The siege at the cabin is well-filmed; it could easily have been very confusing with so many characters involved, but we can follow it well enough.

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Rose (Caren Pistorius) finds herself besieged by bounty hunters and surrounded by flying bullets.

If the scenery does not always look completely like Colorado, that’s because this was shot mostly in New Zealand.  It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015, and was released in May.  The twangy music by Jed Kurzel is very good.  Excellent cinematography is by Robbie Ryan.  In color, at 84 minutes; rated R for the violence.

Irish actor Michael Fassbender is by far the best-known cast member, but all four of the main performers are excellent–Fassbender, young Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius and Ben Mendelsohn.  For South African/New Zealander Pistorius, in particular, it may prove to be a breakthrough role, although she isn’t actually on screen much until the end.  (Her name appears to be misspelled on one of the film’s posters.)  Fassbender had a production role as well, which is why the film got made.  If you have the opportunity, watch it twice; it will flow better the second time.

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Poster for the UK release of Slow West, scheduled for late June 2015.

Rodrigo Perez in The Playlist was one of the more enthusiastic reviewers:  “Brilliantly executed, Maclean’s movie is certainly an unconventional Western with a European and outsider’s perspective.  While it has its share of traditionally moody and atmospheric elements, Slow West is perhaps best defined by its sharp wit, absurdist violence and fairy tale qualities.  Evincing a magic realism of fable dreaminess, juxtaposed with harsh severity, Maclean is right at home with this tone.

“Slow-burning and simmering, Slow West knows how to kick the voltage into high gear.  As the movie gallops to its inevitable epic conclusion, the narrative is like three wicks lit and racing to a thrilling and explosive ending with a high body count, but with heart and soul, too.  A dark but spirited fable about the pitilessness of the West, the meaning of home on the range and the worthwhile qualities of wicked, seemingly irredeemable men, Slow West is a terrific little parable, and a strong debut by John Maclean worth treasuring.”

 

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Domino Kid

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 21, 2015

Domino Kid—Rory Calhoun, Andrew Duggan, Kristine Miller, Yvette Duguay, Eugene Iglesias (1957; Dir: Ray Nazarro)

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In 1957 and 1958, Rory Calhoun was juggling his career between movies and television.  Not enough good movie roles were coming his way, so he took a producing role in a few westerns, working with journeyman director Ray Nazarro.  The best of these was probably Apache Territory (1958), based on a story by Louis L’Amour, in color.  Less ambitious efforts were The Hired Gun and Domino Kid, both in 1957.

Domino Kid is Court Garrand (Rory Calhoun), taking his name from the Double Six Ranch where he grew up.  While he was away fighting in the Civil War, a roving band of five outlaws raided the ranch and killed his father.  As the movie begins, Domino is hunting down the outlaws one by one.  By the time the movie is a few minutes old, he has killed Haymes and Trancas and is looking for Ed Sandlin.  He finds him in a saloon, with Sandlin sounding like he wants to make amends but really planning an ambush.  Domino manages to get Sandlin and escape town, looking for number four:  Sam Beal (played by an uncredited James Griffith, with his distinctive voice).  Domino gets Beal but does not get away unscathed.  Badly wounded, he is rumored to be dead.  And he has no idea who the fifth man in the gang was.

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Former girlfriend Barbara (Kristine Miller) accuses Domino (Rory Calhoun) of becoming just another gunslinger–and not much of a guitar player.

Back in his home town of Pradera, former friends, including girlfriend Barbara (Kristine Miller), hear of his vengeance quest with increasing disquiet.  Wade Harrington (Andrew Duggan), a new banker in town, is interested in his Double Six Ranch, and hopes he’s dead.  But when Barbara visits the place, she finds him there, recuperating from his wounds.  He tries for a loan from Harrington but is denied.  On his way home he finds Harrington’s men damming the water his ranch depends on, claiming that the stream is on public land.  Domino threatens to kill Harrington if he doesn’t tear down the dam.

Domino drinks more heavily in Rosita’s cantina with Juan (Eugene Iglesias), an old friend who saw the five outlaws at the time of the original crime.  Domino broods about whether he’s becoming just another killer, as people seem to think.  One night, an oaf in the cantina uses his quirt on Rosita and Domino decks him.  Juan hauls the unconscious oaf off the premises but is captured by the oaf’s friends.  As they are about to torture Juan, Domino shows up and decks him again.  Juan says the oaf is the fifth man Domino’s been looking for.

As Domino prepares to leave the next morning at 10, Harrington challenges him in the street with a rifle.  He chooses not to respond, but we know that Harrington has already placed the oaf and some others at the site to help him.  As they fire at him, Domino fires back getting a few but taking some slugs himself.  As he falls, he gets the fifth man.  Harrington seems to be fine.  And Barbara promises to nurse Domino back to health.

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Publicity stills of a steely-eyed Rory Calhoun; and Domino (Calhoun) and Barbara (Kristine Miller) getting together.

The ending is hopelessly muddled.  At one point in the shoot-out, it looks like Harrington is helping Domino out, but we have no idea why, since he arranged for this attack.  And several plot threads relating to the ranch are left unresolved.  What about the dam?  Is it on public land?  What about Harrington?  Is he in fact a good guy, or at least not so bad as we had thought?  Is the ranch idea going to work?  The Mexicans—Rosita (Yvette Duguay) and Juan (Eugene Iglesias)—are among the best characters in this one.

Rory Calhoun could do well in westerns, and he deserved better material, direction and writing than this.  Since he was a producer, however, maybe he had only himself to blame.  But the story works for a while, until it trips over its own feet.  For better Rory Calhoun in protagonist roles, see Dawn at Socorro and Apache Territory.  He had the best male widow’s peak in movies since Robert Taylor.

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Three Hours to Kill

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 7, 2015

Three Hours to Kill—Dana Andrews, Donna Reed, Dianne Foster, Stephen Elliott, Richard Coogan, James Westerfield (1954; Dir: Alfred L. Werker)

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In the classic western The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Dana Andrews was one of three innocent victims of a lynching, along with Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford.  In this, Andrews returns three years after he was the victim of an unsuccessful lynching attempt to find out who was responsible for the murder for which he was almost killed.

There are mixed, but mostly negative, reactions as Jim Guthrie (Dana Andrews) confronts one by one the leaders of the lynch mob.  In flashback we see the story of how banker Carter Mastin (Richard Webb) was killed at a dance, with certain strategic gaps so we don’t know who actually did it.  Guthrie’s main suspects are saloon owner Sam Minor (the unctuous James Westerfield), barber Deke (a frazzled Whit Bissell), hostile rancher Niles Hendricks (Richard Coogan) and smooth gambler Marty Lasswell (Laurence Hugo).  Guthrie’s long-time friend Ben East (Stephen Elliott) is now the sheriff, and he doesn’t immediately lock Guthrie up, although Guthrie is still officially accused of the murder.  Instead, Ben gives Guthrie three hours until he has to leave town—hence the title with the double meaning.

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Flashback: Irate citizens attempt to hang Jim Guthrie (Dana Andrews) immediately after the banker’s murder.

None of the four candidates seems entirely satisfactory as the real killer, and a lot of people disliked Carter Mastin, but other matters develop as well.  When Guthrie barely escaped with his life, his fiancée Laurie Mastin (Donna Reed), sister of the murdered man, was pregnant and married Niles Hendrick to give her son a father.  Saloon girl Chris Palmer (Dianne Foster) still has a thing for Guthrie, although he doesn’t appear interested.  Gambler Lasswell has two women (unusual in a 1950s western) and attempts to leave town with them but is apprehended by Guthrie.

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Jim Guthrie (Dana Andrews) holds his four murder candidates at Sam Minor’s saloon.

[Spoilers follow.]  As the four principal suspects sit out the three hours in Minor’s saloon, they review the events of the night of the murder.  Laurie still seems to have feelings for Guthrie, but will he break up her family?  As the accounts of the murder are examined, a new candidate starts to emerge, although we know him and see it coming.  In the end, Guthrie and the real killer shoot it out, Laurie stays with her family, and Guthrie and Chris ride out of town together.

This is a modest, effective and underrated western whodunit, and it is not really well known today.  Dana Andrews is remembered more for modern roles (Ball of Fire, Laura, The Best Years of Our Lives, etc.), although he made a number of westerns, even some good ones (The Ox-Bow Incident, Canyon Passage, Strange Lady in Town).  In the early 1950s Donna Reed made several westerns (The Far Horizons, Gun Fury, Hangman’s Knot, They Rode West, Backlash, etc.), and she is good here as the conflicted Laurie in a difficult situation.  This was produced by Harry Joe Brown, who did a number of Randolph Scott movies, including those with director Budd Boetticher.

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Eventually, of course, Guthrie (Dana Andrews) is forced to resolve matters in a final shootout.

On the whole, it’s worth watching and should be more widely remembered.  In color, at 77 minutes.  For another western featuring vengeance from an innocent man almost lynched, see Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High.

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The Last Posse

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 2, 2015

The Last Posse—Broderick Crawford, John Derek, Charles Bickford, Skip Homeier, Henry Hull, Wanda Hendrix (1953; Dir: Alfred L. Werker)

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Aging, heavyset Broderick Crawford would seem to make an unlikely leading man, but he was the lead in two “last” westerns in 1953:  The Last Posse and Last of the Comanches.  He’d won the Best Actor Oscar for playing Willie Stark in All the King’s Men (1949) and was moving more into television work, where he would make his mark in Highway Patrol.  And he still had a few westerns left in his career.

This one takes place in Roswell, New Mexico, where the sheriff is hard-drinking John Frazier (Broderick Crawford), who once played a significant role in cleaning up the town.  Now it’s mostly peaceful, but not as peaceful as it may seem.  The posse of the title rides back into town at the start of the film, weary and with Frazier seemingly wounded, but without prisoners or stolen money.  Most of the story is told in flashbacks.

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Sheriff John Frazier (Broderick Crawford) gives a whiskey drummer (Henry Hull) some backstory on Sampson Drune.

The three Romers, rancher Will (Todd Mitchell) and his sons George (Guy Wilkerson) and Art (Skip Homeier) have been unfairly treated by bigger rancher Sampson Drune (Charles Bickford at his most cantankerous).   When they seek redress, they get into a fight with Drune’s adopted son Jed Clayton (John Derek).  Drune concludes a big cattle sale for $205,000 and attempts to deposit the money in the local bank, when it is stolen by the Romers, who take off into the desert with it.  Drune and Clayton head the posse chasing them, which includes the most prominent of the local citizens—the banker and the store owner among them.  Frazier is given an out, but he joins them, too.  He knows, as Jed does not, that Drune killed Jed’s father, and Frazier suspects that Drune has something similar in mind for the Romers, who also know what he’s done.

During the pursuit in the desert, Drune and Clayton get ahead of the rest of the posse, but Frazier knows the desert well and cuts them off.  Drune knocks Frazier off his horse, but Frazier nevertheless reaches the Romers first as they seek refuge in some rocks.  As they try to get away, George Romer falls to his death, and Will and Art surrender to Frazier.

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The two remaining Romers surrender to Sheriff Frazier (Broderick Crawford).

[Spoilers follow.]  As Frazier takes custody of the two arrested Romers, the rest of the posse rides up.  Sampson Drune guns down both Romers, and gets Frazier at least twice as well, as Frazier tries to tell Clayton the truth about Drune.  Clayton reflexively kills Drune.  By the time the posse arrives back in Roswell, Frazier is in very bad shape.  Posse members have agreed to tell a story that has all Romers and Drune being killed in a shootout in the desert.  Clayton will inherit the large Drune ranch, and the others will split up the $205,000, after claiming it was lost in the desert.

As the judge starts an inquest that evening, things proceed as planned, except that Frazier struggles into his clothes and with great difficulty takes a seat at the proceeding.  His presence convinces Clayton to tell the truth to the judge about what happened.  At the end Clayton re-unites with girlfriend Deborah (Wanda Hendrix), and it is discovered that Frazier had died of his wounds about the time he sat down.  They didn’t need to tell the truth after all, leaving the town’s leading citizens to wallow in their own collective hypocrisy.

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John Frazier (Broderick Crawford) and Jed Clayton (John Derek) confer.

Crawford makes an effective sheriff here, the most honest character in the movie although he is either drunk, hung over or badly injured for much of the film.  He does some strenuous riding in the desert, down steep slopes and falling off his horse at least three times, where it is apparent that it is a skinnier stunt double doing the riding and falling.  Skip Homeier does his usual “kid with a gun” sort of performance (The Gunfighter, Ten Wanted Men, Dawn at Socorro, The Tall T, Comanche Station) in a limited role.  He was never a leading character in them, but he managed to be in a surprising number of good westerns.  Charles Bickford is unpleasant (as he could be in real life, apparently; see The Big Country), spiteful and unscrupulous the entire movie.  John Derek does not seem to be much of an actor, and will soon move into photography and become better known for his series of wives than for his acting career.  Wanda Hendrix’s character is extraneous.  The fussy Henry Hull is a whiskey drummer to whom Frazier tells key parts of his story.

This was produced by Harry Joe Brown, experienced with westerns and now remembered principally for his work with Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher.  In black and white, with a lot of plot for 73 minutes.

For Broderick Crawford in another western role, see him as bad guy Vinnie Harold, challenging Glenn Ford in The Fastest Gun Alive (1956).   Director Alfred Werker also made At Gunpoint (1955), with Fred MacMurray.

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The Salvation

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 17, 2015

The Salvation—Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Mikael Persbrandt, Jonathan Pryce, Douglas Henshall (2014; Dir: Kristian Levring)

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This is a bleak Danish Euro-western with a vengeance-driven plot.  Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) are Danish veterans of an unsuccessful 1864 war with Birmarck’s Germany, as Germany grabbed the traditionally Danish province of Schleswig-Holstein.  In the wake of the war they came to settle on the American frontier, and after seven years Jon’s wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and 10-year-old son Kresten are finally able to join them.  As Jon and his family take a stagecoach from the town of Black Creek, they are joined at the last minute by two men who have been drinking.  In the course of the journey, the men show interest in Jon’s wife and knock him out of the coach.  He follows and finds first his dead son and then his wife’s body.  Implacable, he kills the two men responsible.

It develops that the more offensive of the two was the brother of Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a Union army veteran, former Indian fighter and now local outlaw chieftain.  Delarue has terrorized the town, led by mayor-undertaker Keane (English actor Jonathan Pryce) and sheriff-priest Mallick (Scottish actor Douglas Henshall), but now he ups the ante.  He demands that in two hours the town surrender the killer (obviously impossible), or two people for him to kill.  When he doesn’t like the two chosen, he gratuitously shoots a third.

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Col. Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) takes his head tax.

[Spoilers follow.  If you plan to see this in the near future, you may wish not to read this and the following paragraph.]  Delarue is not operating alone.  He is chasing people off so that a railroad can take over the town and all the country around because it has oil—hence the name Black Creek.  Keane buys up farms for a pittance and delivers the deeds to Delarue.  When Jon and Peter come back to town to sell their farm, Jon is captured and Peter thrown in jail.  Peter escapes and releases the beaten Jon.  As they flee, they split up, and Peter is killed. Jon finds a rifle and heads back to town.

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Brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), not a man to underestimate.

Delarue has raped his brother’s widow Madelaine (Eva Greene), who has a scar across her mouth and is mute from having her tongue cut out by Indians.  She tries to leave but is restrained by Delarue’s men, and he gives her to them.  Having made it back to Black Creek, Jon kills Keane and puts him in one of his own coffins.  Jon starts picking off Delarue’s men one by one, and a larger-scale battle breaks out.  Jon is hit twice, and it looks like Delarue, the last survivor of his band, will win.  But voiceless Madelaine kills him with a rifle blast to the back.  As Sheriff Mallick and his posse come back to town, Jon orders them to leave, and then he and Madelaine leave together.

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Former soldier Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is not a man to run.

Mads Mikkelsen, with the sharp planes of his face, plays implacable very well, but he seems mostly to have only one expression.  Eva Green, with no dialogue but only her ferocious eyes for communication, is very effective.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes an adequate villain, but one that is written without much subtlety; the story would work better if there were more dimension to him.  Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt as Jon’s brother Peter may be the best character in the movie, but he is killed off too early.  French-English former soccer star Eric Cantona plays one of the most prominent of Delarue’s henchmen (the Corsican).  This is an unusual take on the immigrant experience in the American west.

The combining of town positions like mayor and sheriff with undertaker and priest make clear the town’s connivance with Delarue and its responsibility for what comes of that.  The sheriff-priest has chosen to protect his flock by acceding to the presence and dominance of evil.  This kind of collective guilt is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s town of Lago in High Plains Drifter (1973), although The Salvation has none of its surrealism.  The necessity and ultimate futility of violence remind us more of Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven (1992).  There is little dialogue and less exposition.  Although the movie is not long at 92 minutes, it feels quite leisurely, even slow, in its pacing.  As a western, it works; although it is violent, it nevertheless does not exactly revel in the violence.  This may be the best Danish western you’ll ever see.

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Madelaine (Eva Green), recent widow who doesn’t say much, is not a woman to take lightly.

The film was co-written and directed by Kristian Levring.  The excellent cinematography, much of it in tones of brown, is by Jens Schlosser.  It was shot in South Africa, with the occasional butte or other geographical feature to remind us, perhaps by means of CGI, of the American west.  The music, mostly quiet guitar, is played by Javier Mas.  Rated R for violence.  Seen at several film festivals (including Cannes) in 2014, it was released in the U.S. in art houses and video-on-demand in late February 2015 and is scheduled for release in the UK in April 2015.

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