Tag Archives: Mining Camps

Canyon Passage

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2015

Canyon Passage—Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Patricia Roc, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine (1946; Dir: Jacques Tourneur)

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Dana Andrews is remembered these days primarily for such modern roles as he played in Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).  But he was also in several good westerns, such as The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Three Hours to Kill (1954), Strange Lady in Town (1955)… and this one.

The movie opens in Portland, Oregon, in 1856.  Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is a freighter, running strings of pack mules from San Francisco to Portland.  While in Portland, he gets paid $7000 and arranges to take Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), fiancée of his friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), back to George in Jacksonville in southern Oregon.  He is also attacked by a robber, whom he thinks to be Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) and with whom he has unpleasant history.  The robbery is not successful, and the thief gets away.

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Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) and Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) head south for Jacksonville.

On the way south to Jacksonville, they stop at the ranch of Ben Dance (Andy Devine) and his family, where Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) is staying.  Stuart is attracted to Caroline, but he seems also to have a relationship with Lucy.  At a cabin raising, he asks Caroline to marry him and she accepts, although she wants to stay put and is troubled that Logan is so footloose, constantly concentrating on expanding his freighting business.

Arriving at Jacksonville, Stuart fights Bragg and wins.  Lucy has been putting off setting a date for her marriage to George, but plans to go through with it after she goes to San Francisco with Logan to get a wedding dress.  Meanwhile, George is acting as a banker for miners in Jacksonville.  He has also been gambling and losing, and has been covering his losses by stealing from the gold deposited with him.  We see that George is also a man of restless affections, not limited to Lucy.  Eventually George stands accused of murdering one of his depositors for his gold, and Logan helps him escape before he can be hung.

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George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) finally persuades Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) to set the date for their wedding.

[Spoilers follow.]  As Logan and Lucy head south, they are attacked by Bragg.  They are unhurt, but their horses are killed, and they have to walk back to Jacksonville.  By that time the Jacksonville miners, led by Johnny Steele (Lloyd Bridges), have found and killed George in their absence.  After ambushing Logan, Bragg has also attacked an Indian woman, and now the Indians are torching farms and ranches in retaliation, including Ben Dance’s and Logan’s way stations and general store.  Dance is killed and the Indians are after Caroline Marsh, with Logan and the militia also in pursuit.  The Indians catch Bragg and take care of him, which seems to satisfy them for the moment.  Caroline decides she can’t marry Logan because he won’t settle down in one spot.  So Logan heads to San Francisco again to buy more mules to rebuild his operations.  And Lucy joins him.  They’re better suited to each other than Logan and Caroline were, anyway.

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A suspicious Johnny Steele (Lloyd Bridges) speaks for a band of vengeful miners.

Logan Stuart:  “There was a lot of good in George.”
Johnny Steele:  “He sure panned out no color.”
Logan Stuart:  “There’s a thin margin, Johnny, between what could be and what is.”
Johnny Steele:  “Yeah.  It was thin for you last night.  We were of a mind to hang you.”
Logan Stuart:  “You see how thin the margin is.”

Based on a story by Ernest Haycox, this is stuffed full of complicated and not-too-predictable plot and romantic triangles, densely populated with a good cast.  Dana Andrews plays Logan Stuart with the same stoic independence he did Det. Mark MacPherson in Laura.  Susan Hayward, an excellent and often fiery actress, has kind of a generically-written part that doesn’t really allow her to show what she can do.  She’s better in Rawhide [1951] and Garden of Evil [1954], both with meatier roles for her when she had become a bigger star.

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Ben Dance (Andy Devine) offers Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc) a little avuncular advice.

Brian Donlevy didn’t always play villains (see him in Billy the Kid [1941] and Cowboy [1958], for example), but at this stage of his career he’s so identified with bad guys (the corrupt saloon owner Kent in Destry Rides Again and the sadistic Sgt. Markov in Beau Geste, as just two examples from 1939) that we don’t trust him from the start.  The role of George Camrose calls out instead for somebody like Robert Preston, who specialized during the 1940s in friend-gone-bad roles, in which he established himself as charming first.  Ward Bond also has one of his occasional bad guy roles (e.g., The Oklahoma Kid), and he’s very effective.  This has one of Andy Devine’s better roles, too, where he is not used simply as a form of comic relief.  Hoagy Carmichael plays Hi Linnett, supposedly a small merchant, but mostly there to provide musical interludes, as in To Have and Have Not, and to comment on the action.  Carmichael’s song “Ole Buttermilk Sky” got the movie’s only Oscar nomination.  Several of the film’s significant events happen off-camera:  Bragg’s attack on the Indian maiden, the killing of George by the miners’ mob, the killing of Ben Dance by Indians, etc.

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Hoagy Carmichael as minstrel Hi Linnet provides musical interludes, occasional commentary and the film’s only Oscar nomination.

Jacques Tourneur was a good director of westerns, although he wasn’t best known for them in the 1940s.  Later on in the 1950s, he made a few of them (Stars in My Crown, Wichita, etc.) with Joel McCrea.  Ernest Pascal adapted the Haycox story into a screenplay, with some crisp, sometimes even philosophical, dialogue.  Music, except for that provided by Carmichael, is by Frank Skinner.  This was filmed on location in Oregon in color (a rarity for westerns in 1946) by Edward Cronjager, so it must have had a significant budget for its time.  92 minutes.

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Logan Stuart’s mule train wends its way past Oregon’s Crater Lake.

The title doesn’t seem to mean much; there are no obvious canyons involved.  For other “passage” westerns, see Northwest Passage (1940), California Passage (1950), Passage West (1951), Desert Passage (1952) Southwest Passage (1954), Oregon Passage (1957) and Night Passage (1957), which are otherwise unrelated to this one or to each other.

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Copper Canyon

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 6, 2015

Copper Canyon—Ray Milland, Hedy Lamar, Macdonald Carey, Harry Carey, Jr., Ian Wolfe, Mona Freeman, Hope Emerson (1950; Dir: John Farrow)

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Welsh actor Ray Milland didn’t make many westerns, and the best of the few he did make is probably A Man Alone (1955).  The beautiful Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr made even fewer; this movie, from late in her career, seems to be her only western.  Nevertheless, they both show up in this watchable and busy story of North-South disputes and nefarious doings in a post-Civil War western mining town.

Shortly after the Civil War, a group of Confederate veterans approaches Johnny Carter (Ray Milland), who has a stage sharpshooting act.  They are under the impression that he is Col. Desmond, a former southern commander from Virginia.  Captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp during the war, he escaped with $20,000 the camp commandant had; as a consequence, he’s still wanted by the federal authorities, even though the war is over.

The southerners are mining copper but find themselves oppressed by a corrupt local regime in Coppertown and are unable to get their ore to market.  Carter denies that he is Desmond but shows up in Coppertown to put on his act in the local saloon, run by the beautiful and exotic Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr).  Both Roselle and deputy sheriff Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey) have been sent to Coppertown by the mysterious Mr. Henderson (Ian Wolfe) to keep the southerners from smelting and marketing their ore so he can buy them out cheaply.

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Adversaries Johnny Carter (Ray Milland) and Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr) strike up a closer acquaintance.

Carter strikes up a relationship with Roselle to the irritation of Travis, who has been trying to develop his own interests there.  While Roselle tries to keep Carter involved with her and not joining a miner’s wagon train to Mesa City, he slips out to give the miners cover by pinning down Travis’ attacking men.  Back in Coppertown, he is betrayed and framed for the robbery of the $160,000 in proceeds from Mesa City.  Carter has finally persuaded Balfour, owner of the local smelting facility, to allow the southerners to use it, but Travis shoots Balfour in the back.  With Roselle’s help Carter gets out of jail and stops the cut-rate sale of claims to Henderson.

Using military skills, Carter organizes an attack on Travis and his men at the smelter, with the support of the local cavalry Lt. Ord (Harry Carey, Jr.).  He wins a shootout with the nefarious Travis.  At the end he takes the stage out of town with Roselle, never having admitted that he is Desmond–if he is.  Lt. Ord is promoted to captain.  And Carter and Lisa take off for Sacramento and San Francisco to start a new theater, with $20,000 Carter happens to have in the lining of his gun case.

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Carter (Ray Milland) is captured by Deputy Sheriff Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey).

While pleasant and watchable fare, this isn’t terribly memorable.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of chemistry between Milland and Lamarr, as the attraction of these characters to each other overtakes their competing agendas.  According to stories from the production, the two leads couldn’t stand each other.  Milland doesn’t seem like much of a southerner.  Undeniably beautiful (and reportedly very intelligent as well), Lamarr doesn’t exude much warmth.  There are a lot of characters, many of whom remain underdeveloped. Six-foot two-inch Hope Emerson could be excellent in character parts (see her in Westward the Women [1951], for example), but here she is underused as Ma Tarbet, a bartender and associate of Roselle.  Philip Van Zandt is the cheerfully corrupt sheriff of Coppertown, dominated by his deputy Travis.  Harry Carey, Jr., is fine in one of his young lieutenant roles (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949; Rio Grande, 1950).  Macdonald Carey usually appeared in westerns with much lower budgets and less upscale casts, but he makes an excellent villain here.

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Stars Ray Milland and Hedy Lamarr in publicity stills.

Director John Farrow’s best-known western is Hondo (1953), although there are stories he didn’t finish that one.  This is in lively color, with a lot of plot for its 84 minutes.

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The Stranger Wore A Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 5, 2015

The Stranger Wore a Gun—Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor; George Macready, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Joan Weldon, Alfonso Bedoya, Clem Bevans (1953; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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One-eyed Hungarian director André de Toth had gotten off to a good start in westerns, with the sultry Ramrod (1947), followed by writing on The Gunfighter (1950) directed by Henry King.  He then followed with six westerns with Randolph Scott, of which this is one.  With a cast also including Claire Trevor and early bad guy roles for Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, this could have been great, and it isn’t.  The story and writing (by Kenneth Gamet) just aren’t strong enough.  But if you like De Toth’s work, Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor and Lee Marvin, you nevertheless have to see it.

The title could be attached to almost any western, a genre where all the strangers wear guns.  During the Civil War, Lt. Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott) spies for Quantrill in Lawrence, Kansas, in preparation for the notorious guerilla raid on that abolitionist-sympathizing town.  Disgusted by the indiscriminate slaughter and Quantrill’s callous indifference to the infliction of death and devastation, he drops out, but his reputation follows him.  After the war, Travis is a gambler on a riverboat when he is recognized and attacked.  A mysterious figure saves him with a thrown knife to the back of an attacker.  Sympathetic fellow gambler Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) sends him to Prescott, Arizona Territory, to Jules Mourret.

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Jules Mourret (George Macready) meets Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott).

Prescott is a lawless mining town, where two rival gangs raid the Conroy stage line and commit other depredations.  As Travis arrives (he’s the titular stranger with a gun), the territorial capital is being moved to Phoenix in reaction to Prescott’s lawlessness.  Mourret (George Macready), another former Quantrill man, turns out to be the leader of one of the two gangs and Travis’s knife-wielding rescuer from the riverboat.  Using the name of “Matt Stone,” Travis tells the Conroys that he’s a Pinkerton agent sent to help them.  The attractive Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon), daughter of the line’s owner, is obviously drawn to him.  And Travis finds himself once again working for the bad guys and deceiving decent people, just as he did for Quantrill.

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Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) and Travis (Randolph Scott) renew their acquaintance.  And Dan Kurth (Lee Marvin) displays his skills and determination.

Josie Sullivan shows up in Prescott to ply her trade as a gambler and to see how Travis is doing.  She tells him he’s wanted in Louisiana for the riverboat killing.  Conroy is fairly successful at hiding the gold on his stages, but when Mourret’s men Dan Kurth and Bull Slager (played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine) kill a friend while trying to beat out of him information he doesn’t have, Travis’s allegiances shift again.  He tries to set the two gangs against each other, with some success.  Nevertheless, he has to shoot it out with Kurth; Lee Marvin traditionally doesn’t have much luck against Randolph Scott (see Hangman’s Knot and especially Seven Men From Now).  Mourret and Travis ultimately fight it out in a burning building (see Scott in burning buildings in Hangman’s Knot, Riding Shotgun, and Ten Wanted Men), and Travis wins.  Shelby Conroy is crushed at Travis’ deceit and betrayal, but it turns out Travis really wants Josie anyway.  And she lied about him being wanted in Louisiana.

There’s a lot of plot stuffed into only 83 minutes; it doesn’t develop organically, it feels at the end as if there are a number of loose ends, and there are a number of elements we’ve seen before. Neither the Travis nor the Sullivan characters is entirely admirable, with their shifty allegiances and casual deceit of friends and innocent people.  But it is a good cast and the film is ultimately worth watching.  Produced by Harry Joe Brown, with Randolph Scott as associate producer, in color; shot at Lone Pine.  It was also shot in 3-D, like Hondo and Gun Fury, during the brief period in the early 1950s when studios were experimenting with that new presentation.  That accounts for the occasional lunge toward the camera with a burning torch, gun or spear.

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A gleefully evil Bull Slager (Ernest Borgnine) enjoys the movie’s 3-D effects.

Claire Trevor (Stagecoach, Allegheny Uprising, The Desperadoes, Best of the Badmen) was coming to the end of an excellent Hollywood career.  Her performances in Stagecoach, Dead End, and Key Largo (an Oscar winner for her) are great ones.  Here she seems to be better than her material.  Joan Weldon never really balances her as a competing romantic interest in this film, although Trevor plays the sort of character who normally shouldn’t win in the end.  Weldon will show up to better effect in 1957’s Gunsight Ridge, with Joel McCrea.  Lee Marvin was starting his memorable career as a heavy (Hangman’s Knot, Seven Men From Now, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and Ernest Borgnine regularly showed up as a bad guy as well (Johnny Guitar, The Bounty Hunter, Vera Cruz).  Two years later they both turn up as bad guys working for Robert Ryan in John Sturges’ excellent Bad Day at Black Rock.   Alfonso Bedoya’s performance as the Mexican head of the gang rivaling Mourret’s bad guys seems fairly broad and stereotypical now.  If you’re a Scott fan, you’ll be delighted by the appearance of his beautiful dark palomino Stardust and his worn leather jacket, both of which show up here.  Although the directing in this film is nothing dazzling, De Toth went on from this to make the quintessential early 3-D horror movie:  House of Wax.

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Paint Your Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 29, 2015

Paint Your Wagon—Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, Harve Presnell, Ray Walston (1969; Dir: Josh Logan)

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Of course Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood are naturals for westerns, but for musicals?  Not so much.  So the question for Paint Your Wagon is:  Is it more a western or more a musical?  Despite the fact that it has Broadway star Harve Presnell (as gambler Rotten Luck Willie) on hand to sing the major musical number “They Call the Wind Maria,” Presnell’s big-time voice simply emphasizes that Marvin, Eastwood and Jean Seberg (whose singing is dubbed but still not impressive) are not really singers themselves.  The musical numbers mostly aren’t terribly memorable or well sung, but this isn’t very satisfying as a western, either.

By 1960, Alan Jay Lerner (the lyricist) and Frederick Loewe (the composer) were the apparent successors to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as the pre-eminent team turning out musicals for the stage and movies (My Fair Lady, Gigi, Brigadoon, Camelot).  Josh Logan, as a director, was known principally for his work in big stage and movie plays and musicals.  By the end of the decade, though, large-scale movie musicals were becoming an endangered species despite the success of Funny Girl (1968), and Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly represented the last gasp of the genre.  This is perhaps the least memorable of all the movies made of Lerner and Loewe musicals.  And the American public seemed to be losing its taste for such things in any event.

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Pardner (Clint Eastwood) and Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) make a discovery.

In the gold country of northern California, statehood seems imminent, so it is about 1850.  A landslide kills a Michigan farmer making his way to the goldfields and injures his brother (Clint Eastwood).  As Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) and others prepare to bury the deceased brother, they discover gold in the grave.  A mining camp (No Name City) springs up on the site, and Rumson and the brother, known only as Pardner, become partners in a gold claim.

Jacob Woodling (John Mitchum), a Mormon with two wives, is passing through; they are enthralling to the exclusively male inhabitants of No Name City.  The wives don’t get along and the Woodlings need money, so Jacob is willing to auction off the younger wife, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg), with her consent.  An inebriated Ben Rumson buys her for $800, and she agrees to the arrangement if he’ll build her a permanent cabin.  He does.

Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, and Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon, 1969.

The newly married couple and their Pardner (Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg and Lee Marvin).

In order to divert unwanted attention from his wife, the only woman in the vicinity, Rumson leads an expedition to hijack a stage carrying six “French bawds.”  They set up an establishment in No Name City and the settlement grows like a weed.  While Rumson was gone, Pardner and Elizabeth formed a relationship, and Rumson, Pardner and Elizabeth become a more or less comfortable threesome.  But matters are complicated by the arrival of a preacher, and by the Fentys, a farming family recovering after a near-death experience while trapped in the mountains.  They are staying at the Rumson cabin and are religious people who would be horrified at the unorthodox relationships in the household.  So Ben moves (temporarily) to accommodations in town, while he corrupts the Fenty’s son Horton (Tom Ligon), who takes readily to liquor, gambling and loose women.

[Spoilers follow.]  Meanwhile, Ben and Mad Jack Duncan (Ray Walston) tunnel under the establishments in town in order to get the gold dust that falls through the floorboards.  With Rumson and Duncan having honeycombed the town with tunnels, those tunnels and the town itself begin to collapse during a large bull vs. bear sporting event.  Rather than rebuild, most of the inhabitants of No Name City decide to move on, including Ben Rumson.  Elizabeth has always been adamant that she wants to stay permanently with her cabin, but after the influence of the Fentys she is no longer comfortable with her former domestic arrangements.  But Pardner stays with her, and with the departure of Rumson her situation becomes more conventional.  His name turns out to be Sylvester Newel, although he is still addressed as Pardner.

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The cast and director behind the scenes during filming; Alan Jay Lerner chats with Clint Eastwood.

The play was first produced on Broadway in 1951 and took eighteen years to make its way to film.  It was not thought to represent Lerner and Loewe’s very best work.  The film is said to bear little relation to the original play, however.  After the success of several musical films in the 1960s, most notably My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), producers went looking for other projects to make, and the idea of Paint Your Wagon was revived for consideration.  The original plot, about an inter-ethnic love story, was discarded as being too dated.  The only elements retained from the original were the title, the Gold Rush setting and about half of the songs. In the play, Elizabeth has a very minor role, Pardner does not even appear, and Ben Rumson dies at the end.

There was a lot of talent at work on this film, with a big budget that unintentionally got bigger as production went along.  In addition to director Logan and the Lerner-Loewe team, the principal writer in adapting Lerner’s screenplay was Paddy Chayefsky.  Additional music is by André Previn, and Nelson Riddle and Roger Wagner conducted.  Incidental music is provided by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose members show up as extras and townspeople.  The movie was sumptuously shot by William A. Fraker near Baker, Oregon, and Big Bear Lake in California, and it’s long at 158 minutes (more than two and a half hours).  It often feels slow, with excessive drunken roistering by Rumson.  The collapsing tunnels and town sequence takes too long and is too elaborately staged.  (“Over-produced” is the term Roger Ebert used.)  The central conflict, with the evolution of Elizabeth’s domestic arrangements, does not feel all that organic or convincing.  For a fan of westerns, the principal interest in this is as a curiosity, to watch Eastwood and Marvin, both normally excellent actors, out of their element in a musical.  Although he appears much older in the film, Marvin was in fact only six years older than Eastwood at the time.  Marvin’s version of “Wand’rin’ Star” rose to No. 1 on the charts in the U.K., strangely enough.

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Relics of another era:  A poster by psychedelic master Peter Max; and a Swedish poster.

Lee Marvin was set to star in The Wild Bunch, but Paramount offered him $1 million plus a percentage to star in this one instead.  Apparently Josh Logan found Lee Marvin’s drunken roistering excessive as well, especially that not captured on film.  Unlike normal film practices, the liquids Marvin consumed on film were mostly actual liquor.  “Not since Attila the Hun swept across Europe, leaving five hundred years of total blackness, has there been a man like Lee Marvin,” according to Logan.

For another western comedy that starts with the discovery of gold in a grave, see Support Your Local Sheriff (also 1969).

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The Man From Colorado

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 8, 2014

The Man from Colorado—Glenn Ford, William Holden, Ellen Drew, Edgar Buchanan, James Millican, Ray Collins (1948; Dir: Henry Levin)

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In 1865, a unit of Union volunteer cavalry led by Col. Owen Devereaux (Glenn Ford), a former lawyer, has 100 Confederates trapped at the mouth of a canyon in Colorado.  The southerners try to surrender with a white flag; the only man on the Union side who can see it with binoculars is Devereaux, and he gives the order to his artillery to fire anyway, killing all of them.  Later that day, the cavalry gets the news of Lee’s surrender, meaning the war is over and that day’s killing was unnecessary twice over.  Devereaux confides to his diary that he likes killing and wonders about his own sanity.

The men of the newly-demobilized unit are received back home in Glory Hill as heroes, except for Sgt. Jericho Howard (James Millican), who’s under arrest for celebrating too much.  He escapes and becomes an outlaw.  Devereaux is asked by Big Ed Carter (Ray Collins), a big mine owner, to become the local federal judge; he asks his best friend, Capt. Del Stewart, to be the federal marshal.  Stewart, who is starting to see signs that Devereaux might not be completely balanced, accepts with the proviso that Devereaux must put down his own gun and stick to interpreting the law.  Meanwhile, Devereaux and Stewart are rivals for the affections of Caroline Emmet (Ellen Drew); she decides she’ll marry Devereaux.

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Stewart (William Holden) is sworn in as marshal by Devereaux (Glenn Ford).

Devereaux’s first big case concerns his own veterans.  Miners before volunteering, they have returned to their claims to find that Big Ed Carter and the Great Star Mining Co. say they own them now.  In court, it appears to be a matter of miner’s law (in effect before the war) against federal law, now that Colorado is a federal territory, which says that if a claim hasn’t been worked for three years then it is no longer good.  Over Stewart’s objections, Devereaux decides for Great Star and against his veterans, and most of them have no choice but to work for Carter and Great Star for $60 a month.

Meanwhile, outlaw Jericho Howard steals from Carter.  Stewart assembles a posse to give chase, and Devereaux joins it.  When Howard’s sidekick (one of Devereaux’s veterans) is captured, Devereaux gives him a trial on the spot and hangs him while Stewart is chasing Howard.  More men join Howard, and he robs Carter’s safe of $30,000, killing a mine employee in the process.

Dubious evidence implicates Jericho’s younger brother Johnny Howard and five others.  Stewart pursues Jericho and persuades him to come in to save his brother, but they arrive to find that Devereaux has summarily hanged Johnny and plans to hang the five others.  Even Caroline is horrified.  Carter reacts by firing all the Union veterans for fear they’ll help Jericho.  Stewart resigns as marshal.  Even Big Ed Carter worries about the near-civil war Devereaux’s decisions and behavior have created.

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Caroline (Ellen Drew) helps Stewart (William Holden) escape from Devereaux’s clutches.

As Devereaux proceeds with the hanging, Jericho Howard’s outlaws arrive and rescue the five, led by Del Stewart.  Devereaux lures Stewart into a trap by getting news to him that Caroline needs help.  But Caroline gets Devereaux’s diary and convinces Doc Merriam (Edgar Buchanan) that Devereaux is unbalanced and they need to get word to the governor in Denver.  Caroline and Doc are helping Stewart escape from jail, when Devereaux arrives, wounding Stewart and blockading the mining camp where the three flee.

The camp all sympathizes with Jericho, Stewart and the veterans.  Devereaux sets fire to the camp and as it burns he sees and goes after Stewart.  As he does, Jericho Howard grapples with him, and a burning building collapses onto Devereaux and Jericho, rendering Devereaux’s removal as judge moot.  He has been removed in a more final sense.

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The increasingly psychotic Devereaux in the flaming mining camp.

Glenn Ford, with longish hair and silver brushed into his sideburns, is convincing as the more-and-more unhinged Devereaux.  Stewart is more straightforward, except for his continuing affection for another man’s wife.  Ellen Drew is the weak point in the cast, kind of a low-rent Maureen O’Hara.  Her character’s motivation is not well-developed; initially she looks like she’s just going for the flashier character with higher social status.  A more modern look would probably present Devereaux’s psychosis more as a form of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), rather than irrational megalomania and an uncontrollable fondness for killing.  James Miilican is particularly good as the new outlaw Jericho Howard.

The title is a bit ambiguous, since both the protagonists are from Colorado, but presumably the title refers to Devereaux, who drives most of the action.  Shot at the Ray Corrigan ranch in Simi Valley in southern California. In color, at 100 minutes.

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Dick Powell visits with stars William Holden and Glenn Ford during filming of The Man From Colorado.

For another film involving a western commander unhinged by the Civil War, see Robert Preston as Col. Marston in Anthony Mann’s The Last Frontier (1955), with Victor Mature.  For another early Glenn Ford western, see him with Randolph Scott in The Desperadoes (1943).  He and Holden had previously starred in Texas, 1941.  Ford’s post-World War II career began taking off a couple of years earlier than this film with Gilda (1946) and other films noir, but his mix always seemed to include westerns, the best of which was probably the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957).  William Holden had been in movies for about ten years (see 1940’s Arizona, for example) and was a couple of years away from his big breakthroughs in Sunset Boulevard and Born Yesterday (both in 1950).  His Oscar as Best Actor came in Stalag 17 (1953).  But he continued to make westerns as well; he’s very good, for example, in Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), directed by John Sturges.  The casting of The Man From Colorado now looks very smart. These guys became big stars.

Historical note:  The only Confederates vs. Yankees battle out west during the Civil War took place at Glorieta Pass in northern New Mexico Territory in March 1862, early in the war.  The Sand Creek Massacre against Black Kettle’s Southern Cheyennes was perpetrated by Colorado volunteers under Col. John Chivington in Nov. 1864, about 40 miles from Fort Lyon in Colorado Territory.  So the action depicted at the start of the movie appears to be entirely fictional.

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Silver River

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 4, 2014

Silver River—Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Thomas Mitchell, Barton MacLane, Monte Blue, Tom D’Andrea, Bruce Bennett (1948; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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This is one of Errol Flynn’s lesser-known westerns, the sixth of eight that he made.  He and director Raoul Walsh had worked together before on They Died With Their Boots On in 1941 and couple of World War II pictures (Objective Burma and Northern Pursuit) before San Antonio (on which Walsh was uncredited) in 1945.  Instead of Olivia de Havilland or Alexis Smith, Flynn is here paired with Ann Sheridan.  They had actually worked together before, starting with 1939’s Dodge City, but Sheridan’s role there was quite small.  Here she’s the leading lady.

Capt. Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) is part of the Union guard on a pay wagon at Gettysburg during the Civil War.  Ordered to stay put, he is attacked by Jeb Stuart’s cavalry and flees.  When it looks like he’ll be captured, he torches a million dollars in paper money to keep it out of Confederate hands.  He is cashiered for his pains, so he and his junior partner Pistol Porter (Tom D’Andrea) head west, gambling on a river boat (presumably up the Missouri River).  Here, determined to be more ruthless, he runs afoul of Banjo Sweeney (Barton MacLane) and meets Mrs. Georgia Moore (Ann Sheridan), who’s hauling mining equipment to the silver mine she runs with her husband Stanley (Bruce Bennett).

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Mrs. Georgia Moore (Ann Sheridan) views Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) skeptically.

Disembarking from the riverboat, McComb finds that all the freighting capacity has been taken over by the acerbic Mrs. Moore.  Meeting the freighter Sam Slade, McComb wins Slade’s wagons, horses and mules at poker, so his gambling equipment and not the Moores’ mining equipment gets hauled to Silver City.  (There was an actual Silver City in Idaho and one in Nevada, but this one appears to be a fictional town in Nevada.)  Then McComb sells the freighting equipment to Stanley Moore for 6000 shares in his mining company, to the chagrin of Moore’s wife.  McComb also meets alcoholic lawyer Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell, in one of his patented drunken, classically-educated westerner roles).  When McComb refuses to let the miners gamble in his establishment with mining company scrip, he starts a bank and negotiates a percentage of the silver mines with the mining owners who now need more cash on hand.

The silver empires, McComb’s and everyone else’s, grow ever larger.  He buys land to the horizon and builds a quasi-castle.  He is supported in this by Beck until, when Beck and McComb find Sam Slade dying of Shoshone Indian wounds, McComb fails to warn Stanley Moore fully of the Indian dangers when he heads into the Black Rock Range looking for more silver.  Moore is indeed killed, and Beck accuses McComb of being like the Biblical King David in lusting after another man’s wife and getting him killed.  (The analogy doesn’t seem to fit completely, although McComb isn’t sad when Moore dies.  He has always been interested in Moore’s wife.)  Beck goes his own way, and McComb marries Georgia Moore.  Pres. Ulysses Grant (Joseph Crehan played him eight times, something of a specialty for him) visits Silver City, and McComb and the other mine owners promise to produce ever more silver.

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Plotting at the bar: Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell), Pistol Porter (Tom D’Andrea), Stanley Moore (Bruce Bennett) and Mike McComb (Errol Flynn).

However, they have a falling out, and there is a silver war by the Western Combine against the McComb interests, with the silver mines shut down.  McComb is inadequately sympathetic to the plight of the miners, and Georgia leaves him.  He has to sell his holdings, there is a run on his bank, and he loses his castle.  Plato Beck runs for the Senate with Georgia’s support and wants McComb to understand his populist position.  As Beck begins to speak to a crowd of miners, he is shot down by Banjo Sweeney, now a henchman of the Western Combine and its leader Buck Chevigee (Monte Blue).

But McComb leads the miners in capturing Sweeney, his men and presumably the Combine leaders in Silver City.  The miners want to lynch them, but McComb insists on due process, and Georgia comes back to him.  Maybe he even takes Plato Beck’s place in running for the Senate.

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Mrs. Moore and McComb finally get together.

So it’s the rise and fall and at least partial redemption of silver king Errol Flynn, both morally and materially.  Flynn could really act; Ann Sheridan looks luscious with her hooded eyes, but Flynn is a better actor.  This was the fourth movie in which they starred together.  Flynn at only 39 was getting toward his last few movies by this time, and his career-long style of hard living, over-the-top drinking and constant debauchery was starting to take its toll on his looks.  But that works in this role, where he is supposedly aging over a period of years.  Tom D’Andrea is good as Pistol Porter, and Thomas Mitchell did what he usually did in alcoholic roles.  Bruce Bennett is decent but bland as the mining-engineer husband, but then he’s supposed to be.  And Barton MacLane chews the scenery as the conscienceless villain Banjo Sweeney.

This isn’t Walsh’s best western (maybe that was Colorado Territory the next year), and it was not a big hit in its time.  But Walsh often (but not infallibly) had a good feel for westerns.  You can sometimes see it in the composition of shots of the wild, mountainous landscapes with riders or wagons moving against them, or in the crane shots of crowds of milling miners with lots of action.  This isn’t often seen any more, but it’s worth watching both for Flynn’s performance and for Walsh’s direction.  And for the lovely Ann Sheridan.  It was the last time Flynn and director Walsh worked together.

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Shot in black and white, at 110 minutes, although there is apparently a slightly longer cut at 114 minutes somewhere.  A movie with this kind of scope in 1948 should have been shot in color, but it was a transitional period for such things in the movies.  It’s not available on DVD at this point.

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Wild Bill (1995)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 2, 2014

Wild Bill—Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, David Arquette, James Gammon, Christina Applegate, Keith Carradine, Bruce Dern, Marjoe Gortner, James Remar, Steve Reevis (1995; Dir: Walter Hill)

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This film sports an excellent cast with Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok, Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane, and, best of all, one of the greatest living masters of the western movie, Walter Hill directing.  Should be great, right?  It doesn’t seem to be, though.

Jeff Bridges does look terrific as Wild Bill; there is very good production design on this film.  At the start of the movie, there are brief vignettes from his career as a lawman:  battling cavalrymen from the Seventh Cavalry in a bar in Tommy Drum’s saloon in Hays City, Kansas, killing several of them; killing Phil Coe and, accidentally, his own deputy Mike Williams, in Abilene; and jousting with and killing Sioux chief Whistler (Blackfoot actor Steve Reevis) on the plains, at Whistler’s insistence.  All those incidents get him to the rough mining town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in August 1876.  He hasn’t been a lawman for five years, and he’s 39 years old.  He makes his living as a gambler (badly, apparently).  His eyesight is going, thanks to glaucoma.  He may be suffering from a venereal disease.  And he drinks a lot and takes refuge in smoking opium.

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Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok; Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane.  One looks pretty authentic, and one less so.

As soon as he gets to Deadwood, he encounters old friend Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin), who makes it plain she’d like to renew an old relationship and even take it farther.  He doesn’t reciprocate, although he still values the friendship.  Jack McCall (David Arquette) is the none-too-smart son of Susannah Moore (Diane Lane), whom Hickok had once promised to marry.  Instead, he went off to scout for the army and, when he came back six months later, she had a relationship going with Dave Tutt.  Hickok killed Tutt in a gunfight in Springfield, Missouri, in 1865, and Susannah died in an asylum.  McCall announces he intends to kill Hickok, but Hickok, who has already demonstrated that he doesn’t have much fear when it comes to guns, doesn’t seem unduly concerned.

Bill hits the opium den, and smoking the stuff takes him back to other events in his life.  Sometimes those are in color, as with his gunfight in Cheyenne with a crippled Will Plummer (Bruce Dern), with Bill tied to a chair.  Usually, the flashbacks are in black and white, often with a skewed angle, as when Bill encounters a band of Cheyenne dog soldiers.  He remembers the McCandles fight that made his reputation as a gunfighter and almost killed him.  He remembers his brief and unsuccessful theatrical career with Buffalo Bill (Keith Carradine in a cameo).  He remembers Susannah Moore and Dave Tutt, as well.  McCall finds him in the opium den relatively helpless under the effects of the narcotic, but he’s not as helpless as he seems.

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Cheyenne dog soldiers in an opium dream.

Finally McCall and several desperadoes, including Donnie Lonnigan (James Remar) and Jubal Pickett (Stoney Jackson), get the drop on Hickok as he and Calamity Jane are dallying in No. 10 saloon.  Hickok friends Charley Prince (John Hurt, apparently an English version of actual Hickok friend Charley Utter) and California Joe (James Gammon) join them, as well as a prostitute on whom McCall has a fixation (Christina Applegate).  We know how this is going to end, and it takes a while getting there with all these extraneous characters.  Finally, Bill gets some of the desperadoes and chases off the rest.  But he’s holding black aces and eights, and the weaselly McCall shoots him in the back of the head with a derringer, to be hung himself later.  Nowhere does Bill’s recent wife, Agnes Lake, show up, nor is she referred to.

Jeff Bridges is an excellent actor, and he looks good in the part.  He communicates Hickok’s fearlessness and a powerful personality.  But it’s not an attractive period in Hickok’s life, and the performance seems a bit over the top.  The Hickok gunfight scenes are very effective and believable.  Ellen Barkin is much more attractive than the real Calamity Jane, as is usual in a movie about Hickok.  Although there are a number of good character actors (Bruce Dern, John Hurt, James Gammon, Diane Lane), many of them seem extraneous to what’s going on, especially during that overly-extended final sequence in the bar.  Hurt’s character talks too much, meaning the writing isn’t as good as it could be.  Arquette’s McCall is probably intended to be as weaselly as he is here, but he’s on screen too much.

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The real James Butler Hickok and his murderer, Jack McCall, the first person executed by federal authorities in Dakota Territory.

Director Walter Hill has made what may be the best movie to date about Jesse James (The Long Riders), as well as an underrated film about Geronimo (Geronimo: An American Legend) and the really excellent made-for-television Broken Trail.  He has a genuine feel for westerns, but this is probably his weakest.  The movie claims to be based on a good novel by Pete Dexter, Deadwood, and the play Fathers and Sons by Thomas Babe, but it certainly doesn’t keep very closely to the novel.  Hill himself wrote the screenplay, so he has no one else to blame for that.  It was not a success at the box office, costing more than $30,000,000 and making back only $2,168,000 domestically.

Cinematography, mostly in color but also occasionally in sepia tones and black and white, is by Lloyd Ahern (Broken Trail).  Music is by Van Dyke Parks, who also did the music for the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010).  Perhaps that’s why the song over the opening and closing credits is the same as that used as the theme music for True Grit:  the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”  Jeff Bridges starred in that one, too, as Rooster Cogburn.  Wild Bill is only 98 minutes, but it feels longer, which is not a good sign.  However, if you’re particularly interested in cinematic versions of Wild Bill Hickok, Jeff Bridges’ work in westerns or the career of Walter Hill, you’ll want to watch this, too, if only for the sake of completeness.  This doesn’t keep particularly close to the facts of Bill’s life, but neither do most movies featuring Wild Bill Hickok.  In particular, McCall had no relationship with Hickok.  He was just someone who had lost money to Hickok the night before and killed him opportunistically by shooting him in the back of the head with a .45 (acting alone).  The movie is rated R for violence and seaminess in language and sexual matters.

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Walter Hill directing Jeff Bridges.

Hill was also involved in the making of the cable television series Deadwood, which had some of the same gritty feel, directing the first episode (2004).  That one featured Keith Carradine as a world-weary Wild Bill for several episodes.  For an earlier and more adulatory version of Wild Bill’s myth, see Gary Cooper as Bill in The Plainsman (1936).  The definitive Wild Bill movie probably has yet to be made.

If you want the real historical background on James Butler Hickok, look for the biography by Joseph Rosa, They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok (1974).

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Lust for Gold

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 23, 2014

Lust for Gold—Glenn Ford, Ida Lupino, Gig Young, William Prince, Edgar Buchanan, Paul Ford, Will Geer, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jay Silverheels (1949; Dir: S. Sylvan Simon)

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This mystery-noir western is a retelling of the story of the Lost Dutchman Mine on Superstition Mountain in Arizona.  It has a modern (ca. 1949) framing story with the supposed grandson of the Dutchman, and the historical portion of the film, which takes place in 1886 and 1887, features a sordid romantic triangle and several murders.  The movie starts with a certification from the governor of Arizona that the events of the film are true “according to the histories and legends of Arizona.”  This is about as truthful as most such movie declarations are.

In modern times, Barry Storm (William Prince), the grandson of German-born Jacob Walz, is hiking on Superstition Mountain when he hears a gunshot and finds the body of adventurer Floyd Buckley (Hayden Rorke), shot with a hunting rifle.  He reports this to the Sheriff Lynn Early (Paul Ford) in Florence, Arizona, and leads an expedition to retrieve the body.  Revealing himself to be the grandson of Walz (the Dutchman after whom the mine is named), deputies Ray Covin (Will Geer) and Walter (Jay Silverheels), an Apache, go back to the site with him and tell him the history of the mine and show him a couple of the landmarks associated with it.  Storm goes off to a retirement home in Phoenix, looking for more of the story.

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Walz (Glenn Ford) and Wiser (Edgar Buchanan) follow the last of the Peraltas to the lost mine.

Long known by Apaches, the fabulous mine was rediscovered by the three Mexican Peralta brothers around 1850.  Manuel Peralta and his miners are killed by Apaches led by Cochise, however.  More than thirty years later, Ramon Peralta returns to Superstition Mountain (about 40 miles from Phoenix) with an American partner (Arthur Hunnicutt), who can file on the claim.  They are followed by Wiser (Edgar Buchanan) and his friend Jacob Walz (Glenn Ford), who trail them to the mine.  Once there, they kill Ramon and his partner and Walz kills Wiser, leaving the three bodies in a ravine.

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Walz cashes in the first of his gold.

[Spoilers follow.]  Walz takes his initial load of gold back to Phoenix, where gold fever builds.  Among those affected is Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino), who tells her ineffective husband Pete (Gig Young) to disappear while she gets to know Walz.  She’s successful, and Walz is infatuated with her, while Pete becomes a local laughingstock.  Walz makes five trips to the mine, returning each time to Julia.  After the fifth trip he sees Julia and Pete together and realizes he’s being played.  He gives Julia a map back to the mine, and Pete and Julia arrive there before him.  Walz takes their mules and supplies and traps them at the mine without water.  Finally Pete runs out of bullets and Julia tries to go to Walz.  Pete stops her, and she stabs him in the back (literally, with a knife).  As Julia climbs toward Walz, there’s an earthquake and she’s crushed by rocks;  Walz is also killed and the entrance to the mine buried.

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Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino) is trapped at the mine.

Storm now thinks he can find the mine, and he heads back to the mountain.  However, there is still Buckley’s killer, who has apparently killed a total of four men over two years.  The killer also finds Storm, and they fight.  It is deputy Ray Covin, who is larger than Storm.  During their lengthy fight, it appears that Ray is winning until he is bitten by a rattlesnake and falls over a cliff.  It develops that Lynn Early had his suspicions about Ray but could not prove them until he could use Storm as bait.  Storm still hasn’t found the mine, though.

The structure of the movie is a bit complicated, with its multiple flashbacks, but it works if you’re paying attention.  This film has a large cast of good actors and a very noir feel, with few admirable characters.  British-born Ida Lupino is particularly effective as the faithless Julia Thomas, and Glenn Ford is appropriately moody as a Walz who is alternately sympathetic and murderous.  Ford’s German accent is slippery.  The weakest link in the cast is William Prince as Barry Storm; but he’s not terrible and spends most of his time narrating.  This was based on Thunder God’s Gold, a 1945 book by the real Barry Storm that renewed interest in the Lost Dutchman Mine, but there are many versions of the story.   The real Jacob Walz supposedly died of pneumonia in 1891 after flooding on his Arizona ranch.  Author Storm was not in fact a grandson of Walz, and sued the studio.

There are some painted backgrounds and obvious studio shots, and the earthquake sequence does not look particularly real.  But the movie is nevertheless quite watchable.  This was director S. Sylvan Simon’s last film; he died a short time later of a heart attack at 41.  Shot on location in Arizona, in black and white by Archie Stout; 90 minutes in length.

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The Hanging Tree

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 14, 2014

The Hanging Tree—Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Karl Malden, George C. Scott, Ben Piazza, Karl Swenson, John Dierkes, Virginia Gregg (1959; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

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Gary Cooper in one of his last roles plays wounded-in-spirit gunslinging frontier doctor Joseph Frail—apparently not the doctor’s real name.  He comes to the Montana gold camp of Skull Creek in 1873 and sets up his medical practice in a cabin overlooking the town.  It’s a rough place, plagued by outlaws, giving rise in turn to a vigilante movement.  We see quickly that this has resulted in a rough, quick and sometimes misdirected form of justice, represented by the hanging tree.

Doc Frail is known by several of the townspeople.  The town itself is full of undesirables; among them Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden), with whom the doc has some history.  We can tell from the beginning that Frenchy is an undesirable because of the ugly ear-flap hat he wears.  We first see him taking shots at a young man stealing gold out of his sluice boxes.  The doctor takes in the young man (Rune, played by Ben Piazza ) and removes the bullet; as payment he says Rune must be his bondservant for an undetermined period of time. 

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Doc deals with Frenchy (Karl Malden); Doc Frail and Elizabeth (Maria Schell)

The haunted doctor gambles (he seems to be good at it) and drinks some, and he’s not very good tempered.  Some of his backstory comes out, involving his dead wife and brother and a house on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi in southern Illinois, deliberately set on fire.  Meanwhile, a stage is robbed and crashes down a hill.  Passengers include Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), a young Swiss woman, and her father.  The father is killed and Elizabeth is left blind and otherwise in bad shape due to exposure by the time she is found. 

The doctor takes over her care in a cabin near his.  Aside from those consumed with lust (Frenchy), those envious (Society Red, played by John Dierkes, and George Grubb [George C. Scott in an early role], a faith healer and alchoholic who sees the doctor as competition and a tool of the devil), there is also a self-righteous wife, Edna Flaunce (Virginia Gregg), of an otherwise decent general store keeper, suspicious that there’s something improper going on.  After all, the doc was known to treat loose women, too. 

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When Elizabeth can finally see again, she and Rune are released by the doctor, who also, unknown to them, provides them with a grubstake.  They use it to set up a mining partnership with Frenchy.  Just as Frenchy is on the verge of quitting for good, they have a big strike.  In the partying afterward, Frenchy tries to rape Elizabeth and the doc shoots him.  Grubb leads a mob to hang the doc; he is rescued when Elizabeth and Rune give the mob their claim.  Presumably the doc and Elizabeth live happily ever after, even without the claim.

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Delmer Daves directs star Gary Cooper on location near Yakima, Washington.

The story is based on a novel by Montana author Dorothy M. Johnson.  Montana native Cooper seems old for the part, as he has for most of his western romantic leads during the 1950s (High Noon, Garden of Evil, Man of the West, etc.), but he’s still effective.  Although Cooper was ill with lung cancer, he’s ironically shown smoking in several scenes.  Maria Schell is very good as Elizabeth, and Ben Piazza is fine as Rune.  The community seems a little too deliberately loathsome and the doctor a little too unreasonably haunted. 

Not much seen these days, and the print I saw (on TCM, even, which makes an effort to show the best prints available) was not great.  Still, it’s a pretty decent western.  It’s also one of the last westerns directed by Delmer Daves (3:10 to Yuma, Cowboy, The Last Wagon, The Badlanders) in a very productive career as a director of westerns.   In color, filmed around Yakima, Washington.  Score by Max Steiner, with a theme sung by Marty Robbins (better than most such, and nominated for an Oscar).  Finally released on DVD in 2012.

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A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 6, 2013

A Thousand Pieces of Gold—Chris Cooper, Rosalind Chao, Michael Paul Chan (1991; Dir:  Nancy Kelly)

This is a small movie—one with a limited budget and without major stars at the time it was made—and it’s not available on DVD, so many people haven’t seen it.  Based on a novel by Ruthannne Lum McCunn, it’s a more or less true story of how China Polly and Charlie Bemis meet in an Idaho mining camp, and what follows from that meeting.  There are, strangely enough for a western, no gunfights, but there is a lot of gambling and anti-Chinese prejudice.

jim_lalu_over_mts Lalu arrives in Idaho.

Lalu (Rosalind Chao) is sold by her impoverished family in China and is transported to San Francisco and then to a mining town in northern Idaho, where she has become the property of Hong King (Michael Paul Chan).  Hong King runs the local saloon and gambling den, which he rents from Charlie Bemis (Chris Cooper); he can’t own it since he isn’t a citizen and isn’t allowed to become one.  A constant element of the background is the racist treatment of the numerous Chinese.  Charlie himself, though not Chinese, appears to be on an extended streak of bad luck.

Everybody refers to Lalu as China Polly, and Hong King intends to sell her sexual favors in a back room of the saloon.  With the help of a knife, she persuades him that this would not be a good course to take, and she earns her keep with more socially acceptable forms of hard work.  Eventually, Charlie wins her from Hong King in a poker game, and she repays Charlie by nursing him back to health after Charlie receives a serious wound.   He’d like a permanent relationship with her, but she’s adamant that she intends to return to her family in China.  By the end of the movie, however, the Chinese are driven out of the mining camp, and China Polly decides her real home is with Charlie.  The real-life Bemises established a homestead together on Idaho’s romantically named River of No Return.

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Polly (Rosalind Chao) and Charlie (Chris Cooper) dance warily.

At heart, this is a romance with a western setting.  It is also the only one of the great westerns directed by a woman.  It is slower-paced than many westerns, but it seems true to its time and place.  It’s surprising how many really good westerns of the last 20 years have featured Cooper, an otherwise not-terribly-well-known or flashy actor.  (See Lone Star and Lonesome Dove, for example.)  He’s understated, and he’s good.  And Rosalind Chao is excellent as Lalu/China Polly; she is the central figure and really makes the movie work.  It was filmed in the old mining town of Butte, Montana.  It’s not on DVD, but it’s worth seeking out wherever you can find it.  Just be aware that it focuses more on relationships and less on action than most westerns do.

If this movie leaves you wanting to know more about the real China Polly and Charlie Bemis, check out The Poker Bride by Christopher Corbett (New York:  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010).  For another great western featuring the Chinese in the American west, try Broken Trail, above.

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