Tag Archives: Native Americans (Indians)

The Lone Ranger (2013)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 13, 2014

The Lone Ranger—Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, James Badge Dale, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, Barry Pepper, Steven Root (2013; Dir: Gore Verbinski)

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The Lone Ranger has not done well in the movies.  First, he showed up in inexpensive serials.  Then, after a good career in radio and television, he was caught up in the nostalgia for television in the movie studios, resulting in The Legend of The Lone Ranger (1981), featuring the immortal Klinton Spilsbury in his only movie role.  Now, in 2013, the Ranger was again brought to the big screen, this time by director Gore Verbinski, and no expense was spared, with big stars (Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer), a big budget, lots of action and many expensive CGI effects.

The film does not feature a story so much as various vignettes and action pieces strung together for a lengthy 149 minutes.  It opens with an unnecessary framing story from San Francisco in 1933.  A small boy dressed as the Lone Ranger (complete with mask) steps into a Wild West tent at a carnival (the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island wasn’t until 1939, but that’s the sort of event it seems to be), where a tableau showing an aged Indian comes alive.  It is Tonto (Johnny Depp), who proceeds to regale the lad with the story of his adventures with the Lone Ranger.

Tonto and Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) are chained in a railroad freight car heading for Colby, Texas, in 1869 as the transcontinental railroad nears completion.  Some one has put a gun in the floorboards so Cavendish can escape when his gang robs the train.  John Reid (Armie Hammer), newly graduated from law school in the east and now appointed the Colby County prosecutor, ineffectively tries to stop the escape and robbery, but only ends up chained to Tonto himself.  The Cavendish gang has killed the engineers and set the locomotive to increase speed as it heads toward the end of the track.

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William Fichtner in heavy makeup as the wendigo Butch Cavendish.

Texas Ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) rides up with his five men and succeeds in disconnecting the locomotive from the passenger cars, but Tonto and John manage to survive flying off the train at full speed as the train crashes.  John puts Tonto in jail (accused of being an Indian, apparently) and renews an acquaintance with Dan’s wife Rebecca (English actress Ruth Wilson), and she appears to have a thing for him.

Dan and John and the other rangers head off after Butch Cavendish and are led into an ambush by the drunken Collins, who has known them both since childhood.  All are apparently killed and Cavendish eats Dan’s heart.  Tonto comes upon the scene and buries the Rangers, only to discover that John is not dead.  John is chosen by a white spirit horse to come back to life, against Tonto’s advice that the other brother would do better.  Indeed, he explains a bit later to John that “Kemo Sabe” means “wrong brother,” kind of a running joke.  John dons a mask made from Dan’s vest, with bullet holes where he was shot forming the eye holes.

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Experienced Ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) offers his brother John (Armie Hammer) a gun.

The two go to Red’s (a combination bar and wild whorehouse) in search of information on Cavendish or Collins, in a picaresque but unnecessary sequence.  Red (Helena Bonham Carter), a former dancer with an ivory artificial leg, seems inclined to help but gives no real information.  They make their escape and hear that Comanches are raiding ranches and farms, and they head for Dan Reid’s place.  The Comanches are actually Cavendish’s gang dressed as Indians (sort of); John kills the remaining two while supposedly firing a warning shot, and they follow one outlaw’s horse into the desert, where the horse keels over dead.

They are found by Comanches led by Big Bear (Saginaw Grant), and John tells what he knows of Cavendish and his plans.  But Tonto has no credibility among his own people, since he showed two white men where to find silver (“where the river begins”) twenty or thirty years ago, leading to the killing of most of his band.  The Comanches leave John and Tonto buried up to their heads, and the cavalry races over the top of them without bothering to stop.  The spirit horse pulls John out, and he in turn gets Tonto out to show him where the river begins.  There are a number of railroad cars laden with silver, and John and Tonto find Cavendish there.

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Tonto (Johnny Depp) consults the spirit horse, while a disheveled John Reid (Armie Hammer) looks on.

John is taken and about to be executed by a military firing squad, when a train comes between him and his executioners in one of the split-second maneuvers typical of this movie.  The cavalry, led by a long-haired Custer-like captain (Barry Pepper) slaughters the Comanches when they attack.  John and Tonto attempt to blow up a high railroad trestle, for no obvious reason.

Meanwhile, evil railroad baron Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) has kidnapped Rebecca and Danny, intending them to be his new family.  In the movie’s most egregious geographical misplacement, the transcontinental railroad is joined at Promontory Summit—in Texas, not Utah.  As part of the festivities, Cole is taking over control of the railroad; he and Cavendish are partners, and have been ever since the child Tonto led them to the silver decades ago.  A chase of two trains follows, with the Lone Ranger riding the spirit horse along the top of one of them, diving to a flat car just as a tunnel comes up.  Both trains wreck, Butch Cavendish and the long-haired captain are killed, and Cole rides the silver cars over the blown-up trestle to his doom.  The Lone Ranger and Tonto ride off to right other wrongs, instead of John Reid settling down with his brother’s family.

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The last Ranger heads into action.

If this summary sounds like kind of a hash, the movie’s plot is.  Johnny Depp’s performance is strongly reminiscent of his shtick as Captain Jack Sparrow in the four (so far) Pirates of the Caribbean movies, not coincidentally also directed by Gore Verbinski.  Depp’s makeup is obviously based on a famous painting by western artist James Bama.  John Reid, the Lone Ranger (played by Armie Hammer), is played as a doofus; by the end of the movie, he is simply a more experienced doofus.  Things seem to be set up for perhaps a sequel, but the movie was not a big hit.  In fact, by some accounts it forced Disney to take a $190 million write-down on its books.

Some performances stand out enough to recognize that a couple of good actors were wasted in what they were given to do here.  James Badge Dale is good as the Ranger brother Dan Reid, and his character is killed off early.  Ruth Wilson, so good as Jane Eyre in the much more coherent BBC production (2006), is here whipsawed back and forth without any consistent motivation.  The supposed John Reid-Rebecca Reid infatuation doesn’t work.  William Fichtner, who can be effective with more restraint and less makeup, is too over-the-top filthy and evil as the wendigo (kind of an Indian vampire creature) Butch Cavendish. Tom Wilkinson can play this clichéd corrupt railroad baron in his sleep, and does.

This could be much longer if we went into the various geographic and historical anomalies and anachronisms in which this film abounds.  There is lots of borrowing from other westerns, such as the cross-dressing outlaw in the Cavendish gang (see Dead Man for the first such example of that), the use of a cannibalistic wendigo (see Ravenous) and the long-haired blond bad-guy cavalry leader (see The Mask of Zorro).  Overall, it’s not quite as bad as either The Wild, Wild West or the Klinton Spilsbury version of the Lone Ranger story from thirty years ago, but it’s not very good.

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Was anything good?  There is excellent cinematography (see the overhead shots of the Rangers heading up a creek into the canyon) and some of the best use of Monument Valley since John Ford started using it as a setting, including for both Texas (The Searchers) and Tombstone, Arizona (My Darling Clementine). As a comedy, it doesn’t work terribly well, largely because of insonsistencies in tone and characterization, as well as lack of a story.  The stuntwork/CGI effects are over-the-top unbelievable from the start.  This film now holds the record for train crashes in a western with three, breaking the old record of two formerly held by Cecil B. DeMille for Union Pacific (1939).  You can do that more easily now that you can crash them on computers and not actually have to smash up equipment.

Director Gore Verbinski actually made one other western, and it’s better than this one:  the animated feature Rango (2011).  Johnny Depp is not a natural in westerns, but he too has made another one:  Jim Jarmusch’s surrealistic Dead Man (1995).  For a better fanciful western, see Cowboys & Aliens (2011).

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War Arrow

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 8, 2014

War Arrow—Jeff Chandler, Maureen O’Hara, John McIntire, Noah Beery, Jr., Henry Brandon, Dennis Weaver, Jay Silverheels, James Bannon, Suzan Ball (1953; Dir: George Sherman)

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Major Howell Brady (Jeff Chandler) is a war hero from the Civil War, now trying to recruit Seminoles in Texas to fight Kiowas led by Satanta (Jay Silverheels) and a mysterious white man.  When he arrives at his new post, Fort Clark, he finds that his new superior, Col. Jackson Meade (John McIntire), is dubious about his enterprise.  And he also finds a romantic interest in recent widow Elaine Corwin (Maureen O’Hara).  Meade seems to be interested in her, too.

Brady succeeds in recruiting the reluctant Seminoles led by Maygro (Henry Brandon, the German actor who played Scar in The Searchers and Comanche chief Quanah Parker in Two Rode Together), but there are undercurrents.  Meade is not supportive of the effort, even when it turns out to be quite successful.  And Maygro’s daughter Avis (Suzan Ball) has adopted white values and is interested in Brady.  The mysterious white man helping the Kiowas turns out to be the not-so-dead Corwin (James Bannon).  The conflict between Brady and Meade over strategy and use of the Seminoles leads to Brady being tossed in the brig.

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Major Howell Brady (Jeff Chandler) is interested in fiery young widow Elaine Corwin (Maureen O’Hara); adversaries Satanta (Jay Silverheels) and Brady (Chandler), not so hostile behind the scenes.

He nevertheless manages to save the post from destruction, and Corwin and Satanta are killed.  Meade is wounded and, of course, comes to a new appreciation of Brady—as does the now-widowed Corwin.  Avis turns her attentions to Seminole warrior Pico (Dennis Weaver).

The Corwin character is not very fleshed out, and the end, with Meade’s immediate conversion, doesn’t seem entirely believable.  The final battle at the post is not well done.  But this is fairly watchable anyway.  Shot in color by William Daniels (The Far Country, Night Passage), at only 78 minutes.

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Major Brady makes plans with allies Maygro (Henry Brandon) and Pico (Dennis Weaver).

For another movie of Jeff Chandler commanding cavalry out west and fighting Kiowas, see Two Flags West.  In that one, he plays the unreasonable commander rather than the fighting hero.  But it’s a good movie.  Chandler and Silverheels had played Cochise and Geronimo, respectively, in Broken Arrow, another good western, which had made Chandler’s reputation.  Dennis Weaver shows up again as an Indian, this time a Navajo, the same year (1953) in Column South, an Audie Murphy movie.

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Two Flags West

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 31, 2014

Two Flags WestJoseph Cotten, Cornel Wilde, Jeff Chander, Linda Darnell, Arthur Hunnicutt, Noah Beery, Jr., Jay C. Flippen, Dale Robertson, Harry von Zell (1950; Dir: Robert Wise)

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This is a large-budget cavalry western with a good cast and a generic title.  The two flags referred to are north and south during the Civil War, as Col. Clay Tucker’s Confederate cavalrymen (they rode with Jeb Stuart) are recruited by Capt. Mark Bradford (Cornel Wilde) from a prison camp in Rockford, Illinois, to fight Indians out west as galvanized Yankees in autumn 1864.

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Col. Tucker (Joseph Cotten) and his men, in a Union prison in Rockford, Ill., are recruited to fight Indians.

They are headed for Fort Thorn in New Mexico Territory, to serve under Major Henry Kenniston (Jeff Chandler, the same year he played Cochise in Broken Arrow).  The ambitious Kenniston escaped from the famous Libby Prison in Richmond, and, in escaping, ruined his right leg so that he has been assigned out west instead of to duty in the main war.  His brother was killed at Chancellorsville, and he consequently hates Confederates.  The brother’s widow Elena Kenniston (Linda Darnell), a Spanish beauty returning home to Monterey, California, is temporarily staying with her brother-in-law at the post while she waits for a wagon train to California.  She becomes the center of romantic interest for the major, Capt. Bradford and even now-Lt. Tucker (Joseph Cotten). She seems to favor Bradford, and Tucker has other things on his mind dealing with all the conflicting loyalties, plots and counter-plots in this frontier post.

The primary source of tension in the film is whether the former Confederates will desert to Texas as soon as they get a chance, and it seems they will.  Major Kenniston assigns the southerners to carry out the execution of two men convicted of selling guns and booze to the Indians, only for the ex-Confederates to discover after the two are dead that they were southern agents.  There are more southern agents, one of whom convinces Tucker to return to Fort Thorn until a later time when he can help carry out a larger plot.  After duty escorting a wagon train part of the way to California, Tucker brings back Mrs. Kenniston, who was escaping her brother-in-law’s domination, so that the major will trust the southerners.

[Spoilers follow.]  Finally, Tucker gets the signal to leave and does so with his men.  However, the angry, wrong-headed major (who refers to the Indians as rebels, so we know who he’s really thinking about) needlessly antagonizes the Kiowas by angrily and gratuitously killing Kiowa chief Satank’s son.  Given a choice by circumstances, Tucker and his men, instead of heading for Texas, return to the aid of the fort.  Beseiged by 1500 Indians, things look grim for the remaining troopers.

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Major Kenniston (Jeff Chandler) decides to sacrifice himself for the greater good.

After one day of fighting, Bradford and many others are killed, and things look even more hopeless.  With the stockade in flames, Kenniston decides to give himself up to the overwhelming Indian force to save what’s left of the fort and its defenders, and Tucker is left in command.  It appears that Tucker and Elena may make a new life together, although things are left ambiguous between them as they learn that Sherman has split the south and the end of the war is imminent.

Director Robert Wise didn’t make many westerns (Blood on the Moon, Tribute to a Bad Man); he was more known for such large-budget productions as The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The Sand Pebbles and the first Star Trek movie.  However, there are signs here of movie-making intelligence at work.  Some of the shots are reminiscent of John Ford:  see the southern soldiers racing back to the fort, for example, with a low camera angle that captures them along a ridge against a luminescent black-and-white sky.  Later, as Major Kenniston marches (with a limp) out of the stockade gates to his certain doom, he is shot from behind with a low camera angle, making it look as though he is walking upward, although we’ve already seen that the gate is on level ground.

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Linda Darnell and Joseph Cotten engage in some badinage between scenes.

Cotten and Darnell were at the peak of their careers, and Wilde and Chandler were first-rank movie stars at the time as well.  Darnell was allergic to horses, was not happy about her role in this western and reportedly didn’t get along well with either Wilde or Cotten, but she looks lovely and is fine in a better-than-average-female-in-a-western role.  She also wears one of the better hats seen on a woman in a western.  (Compare it, for example, with Donna Reed’s ineffective hat in Backlash.)  With her dark good looks, she was often cast as an Indian (Buffalo Bill) or Hispanic (The Mark of Zorro, My Darling Clementine) beauty.

This is Cotten’s best role in a western; he generally seems a modern, urban actor, and he didn’t make many westerns (Duel in the Sun, The Last Sunset and a few others).  Although he was born into a southern family in Virginia, his Georgia accent here is elusive and sporadic.  The supporting actors (Hunnicutt, Beery, Flippen) are excellent, too, particularly the horse-faced Arthur Hunnicutt as the Confederate Sgt. Pickens.  This is a good cavalry western, but not much seen these days.  Filmed on location in New Mexico in black and white, at 92 minutes.

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For other cavalry westerns featuring Yankees and Confederates fighting Indians together, see Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Major Dundee (1965).  For Chandler in another role as a not-so-admirable commander, catch him in 1959’s The Jayhawkers!

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Buffalo Bill (1944)

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 29, 2014

Buffalo Bill—Joel McCrea, Maureen O’Hara, Anthony Quinn, Thomas Mitchell, Linda Darnell, Moroni Olson (1944; Dir: William Wellman)

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Director William Wellman directed some very good westerns, such as The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky and Westward the Women, but this isn’t one of his very best.  It has an interesting cast, but the story suffers from lack of a strong and cohesive story arc, as is often the case with biopics.   And, as with many historically-based movies in the 1940s, it takes numerous liberties with the real history involved.

The movie starts in 1877, with young Bill Cody (Joel McCrea) hunting buffaloes and rescuing a wagon of dignitaries and Sgt. Chips McGraw (Edgar Buchanan in heavy makeup, playing much older than he really was) from attacking Cheyennes with his excellent shooting.  Among those rescued are Senator Frederici (Moroni Olson) and his nubile daughter Louisa (Maureen O’Hara), with whom Cody is immediately taken, and writer Ned Buntline (Thomas Mitchell).  Cody is sympathetic to the Cheyennes and has friends among them, including chief’s son Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn) and school teacher Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell in a strange role).

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Stills of supposed Cheyennes Yellow Hand (Anthony Quinn) and Dawn Starlight (Linda Darnell).

When railroad interests try to force the Cheyennes off part of their land, Dawn Starlight tells Yellow Hand to take the senator as a hostage.  Cody rescues him, but the Cheyennes forge an alliance with the Sioux for a new war.  Cody and Louisa marry, and Cody scouts for the Fifth Cavalry against the Cheyennes (and against Louisa’s objections).  The advance scouts for the cavalry and the Cheyennes meet at War Bonnet Gorge, and in order to give the rest of the column time to come up for support, Cody takes on his blood brother Yellow Hand in single combat.  Cody wins, and Dawn Starlight is killed in the resulting battle as well.

Cody scouts for the Russian Grand Duke Alexis on a buffalo hunt, taking Louisa along.  Louisa tells him she’s pregnant, and they head for home.  The baby arrives before they get there, and Louisa bears a son named for Kit Carson with the help of an aged Cheyenne woman.  However, she won’t stay out west and takes their son to Ohio, where he can have the benefits of civilization and be kept safe.

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Cody goes to Washington, D.C. with Buntline to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for War Bonnet Gorge, only to receive word that Kit is dying of diptheria in Ohio.  He arrives just after Kit’s death, and leaves again.  In his bitterness, he takes on the venal railroad interests, and in turn is vilified with his role in the recent war questioned.  Alone and penniless in New York, he takes a job in a sideshow as a sharpshooter; Louisa shows up and demonstrates her faith in his marksmanship.  And Buntline conceives the idea for a Wild West show, giving rise to a montage in which Cody’s show performs before European monarchs and Cody ages decades in a few minutes, before riding off into a figurative Technicolor sunset with Louisa.

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Joel McCrea looks very good in long hair and goatee as Bill Cody, although he does not seem as outgoing and flamboyant as the real showman Cody was.  Even as a lowly scout and buffalo hunter in 1877, we are to believe that Cody wore outrageous pants.  Some of his actions with Indians, such as greeting them with “How!”, are jarring now, but were maybe less so when this was made.  He is depicted as having strong sympathies with the Indians and speaks up for them, although he always fights with the cavalry.

Red-haired Maureen O’Hara is appropriately fiery as Louisa Frederici Cody, although she seems inherently unreasonable in some of her attitudes.  Thomas Mitchell as Ned Buntline is much the same as he was as Doc Boone (in Stagecoach), as Plato Beck (Silver River) or a number of other heavy-drinking, classically-educated populist characters he played in westerns over the years. Anthony Quinn is good as Yellow Hand, but he stands out against other actors who are more clearly Indians.  Linda Darnell is a curious and unnecessary (but beautiful) character, an Indian school teacher in supposedly traditional Cheyenne dress—a carrier of civilization who has not herself fully partaken of various of its benefits.

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With teacher Dawn Starlight.

The supposed chronology of the movie doesn’t work well.   Although the movie is said to start in 1877 and a year or two passes before we hear of Crook’s defeat (actually more of a draw) at the Rosebud and Custer’s defeat on the Little Big Horn, those battles took place in 1876.  Cody did take on and kill Yellow Hand, but their relationship is exaggerated here.  Louisa Frederici’s father was not a senator, and they were married in the mid-1860s, not the late 1870s.  The Codys’ separation did take place, but they were estranged for most of their married life and never really got back together.  Cody started his first theatrical endeavors without Buntline in 1872, well before 1877, and briefly came back to the frontier after Custer’s defeat.  His manager/partner in the Wild West show was Nate Salisbury, not Ned Buntline.  He did have financial ups and downs with his shows, and he did love children as the movie shows.  At the turn of the 20th century, he may well have been the most recognizable celebrity on earth.  William Tecumseh Sherman is here claimed to have made the comment that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, but another general, Philip Sheridan, was supposedly the originator of that famous phrase.  As you might guess, there are other contenders for that honor, as well.

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Director William Wellman, star Joel McCrea and editor James B. Clark on the set.

Cody’s Medal of Honor was awarded in 1872, for service as a civilian scout to the 3rd Cavalry, displaying “gallantry in action” at Loupe Forke, Platte River, Nebraska, not for Warbonnet Gorge.  After Cody’s death in 1917, Congress revised the standards for receiving the Medal and removed from the rolls 911 given to civilians and others that would not be awarded by the new standards.  Among those removed was Cody’s.

This was a large-budget production in its time, with an excellent cast.  As a whole, elements of the film don’t work all that well; the weakness is largely in the structure and story.  Shot in color at various locations in Arizona, Utah and Montana, at 90 minutes.  For another interesting view of the Cody marriage (with a young Anthony Quinn as another Cheyenne warrior), see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936).  In They Died With Their Boots On (1941), Anthony Quinn was Crazy Horse and got to kill Custer and make off with the 7th Cavalry’s banner.  For a revisionist look at Cody as a showman and the supposed history of the West, see Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), with Paul Newman as Buffalo Bill.

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McCrea as Buffao Bill, with Maureen O’Hara; the real W.F. Cody in theatrical gear, ca. 1875.

As an historical artifact, the real Cody made a film with footage of from his show in 1908 near the end of his career.  Four minutes of the footage can be seen at http://moviessilently.com/2013/10/19/silent-movie-time-capsule-105-years-ago-buffalo-bill-cody-appeared-in-a-movie/

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Broken Arrow

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 18, 2014

Broken Arrow—James Stewart, Jeff Chandler, Debra Paget, Basil Ruysdael, Will Geer, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jay Silverheels (1950; Dir: Delmer Daves)

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In 1870, former Union soldier and scout Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is a prospector in Arizona Territory, where Cochise’s Apaches have been at war with the Americans for ten years.  Jeffords gives a wounded Apache boy medical attention, and is spared by Geronimo when he attacks another band of prospectors.  In Tucson, Jeffords is asked to scout for Col. Bernall against the Apaches and declines, tired of war and fighting.  He makes a bet that he can get five mail riders through Apache Territory and spends a month learning Apache language and culture.  He is supported by his friend Milt Duffield (Arthur Hunnicutt), who manages the mail and offers to be the first rider.

Juan, Jeffords’ teacher in Apache ways, speaking of Cochise:  “Remember this: if you see him, do not lie to him… not in the smallest thing.  His eyes will see into your heart.  He is greater than other men.”

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Not even Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is safe in Apache Country.

Jeffords makes a trip to Cochise’s stronghold to ask for the chief (Jeff Chandler, in one of his signature roles) to let the mail riders through, promising that they will carry no military information.   After getting to know Jeffords, he accedes to the request.  Meanwhile, Jeffords meets Apache maiden Sonseeahray (Debra Paget, everybody’s favorite 1950s Indian maiden).

One-armed Gen. Oliver O. Howard (Basil Ruysdael) comes west and joins Col. Bernall on a raid into Apache territory.  Bernall rushes into an Apache ambush and his column is all but wiped out by Cochise’s forces.

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Jeff Chandler as the wise and powerful Cochise.

Back in Tucson, Jeffords gets into fights with Indian haters, particularly with Ben Slade (Will Geer), whose ranch was burned by Apaches with his wife still in the ranch house.  As Jeffords is about to be lynched, he is rescued by Gen. Howard.  Although Jeffords is suspicious at first, Howard explains that, motivated by his Biblical beliefs, he wants to make peace with the Apaches, and he wants Jeffords to set up a meeting with Cochise.

Jeffords goes to Cochise, who calls in other Apache leaders for the conference with Howard. Meanwhile, Jeffords marries Sonseeahray. The Apache leaders vote for a provisional peace with a three-month trial period and Cochise symbolically breaks an arrow, but Geronimo (an uncredited Jay Silverheels) leads a dissenting Apache faction that will continue to raid. During the trial period, Geronimo attacks a stage, but Jeffords leads Cochise’s men in a rescue. Ben Slade’s son leads Jeffords and Cochise into a trap to kill him; Jeffords is wounded and Sonseeahray is killed, as are Slade and his son. Cochise remains committed to the peace, and it endures—for now.

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Jeffords (Stewart) and the young Apache maiden (Debra Paget).

Cochise to Jeffords: “As I bear the murder of my people, so you will bear the murder of your wife.”

Tom Jeffords (closing narration):  “His words meant very little to me then, but as time passed, I came to know that the death of Sonseeahray had put a seal upon the peace.  And from that day on wherever I went—in the cities, among the Apaches, in the mountains—I always remembered my wife was with me.”

The film was a breakthrough in its time because it depicted Indians in a sympathetic light.  Director Delmer Daves had a background as an anthropology student, and some scenes of Apache ceremonies and beliefs have an interesting anthropological bent.  In the 65 years since its release, however, it has sometimes been criticized because some of the Indian roles, including Cochise and Sonseeahray, are played by white actors.  Jeff Chandler as Cochise is the ultimate noble savage, depicted as a far-sighted civil leader and a great military mind.  He received an Oscar nomination for the Best Supporting Actor for his work here.  Daves went on to create several more excellent westerns during the 1950s.

This film was the forerunner of such Indian-sympathetic films as A Man Called Horse (1970), Little Big Man (1970) and Dances With Wolves (1990).  It’s not perfect; it can seem a little stiff and politically correct for modern times, but it still makes good watching.  And mostly it’s historically accurate, as it claims in the opening narration, describing a peace reached in 1872.  That peace lasted only until 1875, when the Apaches were forced onto a reservation. Cochise died in 1874, still friends with Jeffords.

The Apache wedding words pronounced over Sonseeahray and Jeffords, often used since in many weddings of whites, are not authentic in the sense that they are not part of a traditional Apache ceremony.  They were written for this film.

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The movie was shot in 1949 but released in 1950, after Stewart’s first western with Anthony Mann, Winchester ’73.  Both were very successful.  Stewart at 41 is 26 years older than Debra Paget, who was 15 when filming began.  Based on Elliott Arnold’s novel Blood Brother, Albert Maltz wrote the screenplay but was blacklisted as one of the Hollywood 10, and the screenwriting credit is given to Michael Blankfort as a front for Maltz.  Music is by Hugo Friedhofer.  Shot in Technicolor (but not widescreen) in Sedona, Arizona.  93 minutes.

The movie’s world premiere was held in the Nusho Theater in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  Jeff Chandler and Jay Silverheels would reprise their roles as Cochise and Geronimo in The Battle of Apache Pass (1952), a sort of prequel to this film.  Another western classic depicting Cochise as a gifted military leader is John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948).

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Selander’s Cavalry

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 9, 2014

Journeyman director Lesley Selander is said to have made more westerns than any other director, purely in terms of numbers–107 Westerns between his first directorial feature in 1936 and his last in 1968.  This requires a little explanation.  Allan Dwan, a well-known director between 1909 and 1961, directed 171 westerns.  But 157 of these were silent movies produced between 1911 and 1917, when movies were not yet generally at feature length.  (Cecil B. DeMille is thought to have made the first feature-length movie in 1914 with The Squaw Man.)  So Selander is considered to have made the most westerns in the modern era–since 1920 or so, let’s say.

In the hierarchy of directors, Selander was more prolific but less talented than, say, Andre de Toth.  He seldom had a large budget, well-known writers or a big star to work with; these were mostly B movies.  But leading actors in Selander movies occasionally included Randolph Scott (Tall Man Riding) or Rory Calhoun (The Yellow Tomahawk, below), and he often had good character actors (John Dehner, Robert Wilke, John Doucette, Noah Beery, Jr.).  Long-time character actor Harry Dean Stanton got his start on Selander westerns.  During the 1950s Selander was at the peak of his career when he made several cavalry movies, including these four.

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War Paint—Robert Stack, Joan Taylor, Keith Larsen, Peter Graves, Charles McGraw, John Doucette, Robert Wilke (1953; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Robert Stack is Lt. Billings, the commander of a small cavalry troop charged with delivering a treaty to an Indian chief.  If he doesn’t receive it within a week, the chief will go on the warpath.  The chief’s son Taslik (Keith Larsen) is guiding the soldiers to his father, but he secretly wants war to come and is undermining the mission.  His sister Wanima (Joan Taylor), a beautiful Indian princess, secretly follows the patrol, sabotaging their water and helping her brother in other ways.  Not a lot of action or much star power, but the cast is good aside from that.  Filmed in color in the vicinity of Death Valley.  Workmanlike directing, with occasionally clunky writing.  89 minutes.

The Yellow Tomahawk—Rory Calhoun, Peggie Castle, Noah Beery, Jr., Lee Van Cleef, Rita Moreno, Peter Graves (1954; Dir: Lesley Selander)

This was a B movie directed by Lesley Selander, so Rory Calhoun is a good guy in it.  In higher-grade movies, he tended to show up as a bad guy (The Spoilers, River of No Return), and he could be convincing as either good guys or bad.

Indian scout Adam Reed (Rory Calhoun) is a blood brother to the Cheyenne war leader Fireknife (Lee Van Cleef).  When the cavalry, led by Major Ives (Warner Anderson), insists on building a post in Wyoming Territory contrary to the treaty with Red Cloud, Fireknife warns Reed that there will be bloodshed, especially because Ives was one of the leaders at the Sand Creek Massacre of Black Kettle’s Cheyennes a few years previously.

While traveling to warn the cavalry detachment, Reed encounters Kate Bolden (Peggie Castle), who is looking for her betrothed lieutenant.  (Obligatory nude-bathing-in- the-wilderness scene.)  Ives refuses to leave and bit by bit all the soldiers are killed except Ives.  Reed guides the small party of survivors to Fort Ellis, where he hopes to turn Ives over to a court martial.  Finally, it comes down to Reed against Fireknife, one brother against another, and Reed wins.  Bolden has transferred her affections to Reed after her lieutenant is killed.  And it turns out Ives is part Cheyenne, which is the personal stain he was trying to wipe out at Sand Creek.

Filmed in Kanab, in southern Utah, this movie features some clunky acting and was seen in a very poor print.  It was theoretically shot in color, but the print I saw was black and white and grainy.  Castle wears anachronistic very tight blouse and pants.  Van Cleef doesn’t sound like an Indian, although his Indian looks are better than some whites in such parts.  Noah Beery is a Mexican scout, pursued by amorous Indian maiden Honey Bear (unconvincingly played by Rita Moreno).  Peter Graves is a cowardly prospector who kills his partner after they’ve discovered gold.  On the whole it’s watchable, but not really good.  82 minutes.

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Tomahawk Trail—Chuck Connors, Susan Cummings, George Neise, Harry Dean Stanton (1957; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Clunky writing distinguishes this B western about a beleaguered cavalry patrol in Apache country.  The two conflicts:  (a) an inexperienced, incompetent (and out of his head) lieutenant (George Neise) with the patrol in danger among Mescalero Apaches; and (b) Apache chief Victorio’s daughter (Lisa Montell) captured by the patrol.  Experienced sergeant Wade McCoy (Chuck Connors) has to take over, although some members of the patrol question his authority and he has the spectre of a court martial hanging over him (a la The Caine Mutiny).  McCoy gets them back to the post without horses, only to find all the personnel there slaughtered and the well water salted.  At the post they have to hold off an attack by Victorio’s superior forces, until the fight is resolved when his daughter returns to the Apaches.  The lieutenant is killed in the defense.

Susan Cummings plays Ellen Carter from Philadelphia; when she dons a military uniform out of necessity, it looks suspiciously tailored to her form (much as Joanne Dru looked good in military garb in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon).  A young Harry Dean Stanton (billed as Dean Stanton) plays the disabled lieutenant’s orderly.  The movie uses an actual Indian actor (Eddie Little Sky) as Johnny Dogwood, the patrol’s Apache scout.  Filmed around Kanab in southern Utah, in black and white.  Short, at only 60 minutes.

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Revolt at Fort Laramie—John Dehner, Gregg Palmer, Frances Helm (1957; Dir: Lesley Selander)

Generally, this is a decent late black-and-white B western curiously lacking in star power.  The Civil War is starting back east, and the garrison at Fort Laramie is (a) facing its own problems with Red Cloud and (b) trying to sort out where the individual loyalties of the soldiers will lie in the conflict between the states.  Major Seth Bradner (John Dehner) is from Virginia, with southern sympathies.  Second-in-command Capt. James Tenslip (Gregg Palmer) is a northerner, in love with Bradner’s niece Melissa (Frances Helm).  The soldiers appear equally split between north and south, although historically southerners tended (and still tend) to take to a career in the military more than northerners.  A too-venal-seeming Jean Selignac (supposedly a half-Sioux, played by Don Gordon) is a scout whose own loyalties are in question for different reasons.  Dehner is fine; Palmer is fairly forgettable; Helm is okay.  Filmed in Kanab, Utah.  Look for an uncredited Harry Dean Stanton as a southern-leaning private.  Short, at 73 minutes.

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Drum Beat

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 4, 2014

Drum Beat—Alan Ladd, Audrey Dalton, Marisa Pavan, Charles Bronson, Elisha Cook, Jr., Anthony Caruso, Rodolfo Acosta (1954; Dir: Delmer Daves)

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In the wake of the enormous success of Shane, Alan Ladd formed his own production company, Jaguar Productions, and this was its first film.

Here Alan Ladd is Johnny McKay, former Indian fighter and now peace commissioner to the Modocs by appointment from Pres. Ulysses Grant.  He has two romantic interests going on in the film:  Toby (Marisa Pavan), daughter of the peaceful former Modoc chief, and Nancy Meek, niece of a local rancher and family friend of the Grants.  Charles Bronson in an early role (his first under that name rather than as Charles Buchinsky, his real name) is a muscular Captain Jack, leader of the warlike portion of the Modoc tribe.

The story bears only a passing resemblance to the actual course of the Modoc War of 1872-1873 in northern California and southern Oregon, and these Modocs mostly look more like a cross between Apaches (colorful cloth headbands) and plains tribes (leather shirts, etc.).  The warlike Captain Jack kills most of the peace commissioners, including General Canby (Warner Anderson), and leaves McKay for dead.  The rest of the war isn’t shown much until McKay captures Jack, and Jack is sentenced to be hung.  Toby is killed in the course of all this, so McKay is left with just one romantic interest by the end.  Anthony Caruso is Toby’s brother, who also doesn’t trust Captain Jack; Elisha Cook, Jr., is Crackel, trading arms and information to the Modocs.  So it appears that both sides have two factions.

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McKay (Alan Ladd) and Captain Jack (Charles Bronson) fight it out in a river.

The New York Times noted “Charles Bronson is probably the most muscular Indian ever to have brandished a rifle before a camera,” and Peter Baker wrote in Films and Filming:  “[Alan Ladd’s] performance is dwarfed by that of Charles Bronson as Captain Jack.”  It wasn’t hard to dwarf Alan Ladd under most circumstances.  The relatively short Ladd (at 5 feet 4 inches) is carefully filmed here, but shouldn’t have had much of a chance against any decent fighter the size of Bronson (only 5 feet 8 inches himself, but quite muscular).  When Bronson worked as Charles Buchinsky, his agent worried that name would stunt his career during the blacklist era.  Legend has it they were discussing possible new names while driving on Bronson Avenue in Los Angeles, looked up at the “Bronson Gate” sign at Paramount Studios, and a future star was rechristened.  In the 1970’s, after Bronson had become a global superstar, Drum Beat was reissued in some countries under the title Captain Jack with Bronson’s name on top.

This was one in a series of fairly good westerns Ladd made in the 1950s after ShaneDrum Beat, Saskatchewan, The Badlanders.  And another in a series of decent westerns made by Delmer Daves during the late 1940s and the 1950s (3:10 to Yuma, The Last Wagon, Cowboy, Jubal, The Hanging Tree).  Writer and director Daves had spent much of his youth living on reservations with Hopi and Navajo Indians, and his westerns such as Broken Arrow (1950, directed by Daves) and White Feather (1955, written but not directed by Daves) were notable for their sympathetic portrayals of Indians.  The film was shot in northern Arizona’s Coconino National Forest.  In color.  This is not currently available on DVD in the United States, so it can be hard to find.

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Charles Bronson as Captain Jack; the real Modoc leader Captain Jack (Kintpuash) in 1864.

Several books have been written about the Modoc War.  Dee Brown had a chapter on Captain Jack and the war in his 1972 best-seller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  For a longer account of the war, see Hell With the Fire Out:  A History of the Modoc War (1997) by Arthur Quinn.

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Ambush

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 2, 2014

Ambush—Robert Taylor, Arlene Dahl, John Hodiak, Don Taylor, John McIntire, Jean Hagen, Pat Moriarty, Bruce Cowling, Leon Ames, Charles Stevens, Chief Thundercloud, Ray Teal (1950; Dir: Sam Wood)

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This is a very good cavalry vs. Apaches tale, with a large cast, lots of plot, good writing and excellent use of locations with scenic Southwestern rock formations around Gallup, New Mexico.  It was the final film of director Sam Wood, based on a story by western writer Luke Short.

It’s 1878 in Arizona Territory, and Mescalero Apache leader Diablito (Charles Stevens) has jumped the reservation again with his people. Ward Kinsman (Robert Taylor, in his usual dark hat), a former scout for the army has been prospecting on Bailey Mountain, Diablito’s home ground.  Current army scout Frank Holly (an outrageously bearded John McIntire) seeks him out for a mission at Fort Gamble, but they have to fight their way out.

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Scouts in trouble: Holly (John McIntire) and Kinsman (Robert Taylor).

Maj. Breverly (Leon Ames), the commanding officer, explains that a white woman, Mary Carlyle, traveling with a surveying party without authorization, was taken by Diablito when he slaughtered the party.  Her sister Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl) has arrived at Fort Gamble with the new by-the-book senior captain, Ben Lorrison (John Hodiak).  Breverly wants Kinsman to guide a party to rescue Mrs. Carlyle, but Kinsman declines, saying that it would take too many troopers’ lives to rescue one woman from Diablito.

There are not one but two romantic triangles going on at Fort Gamble: one involves Kinsman’s friend 2nd Lt. Linus Delaney, who’s having an affair with the wife (Jean Hagen) of an enlisted man, Tom Conovan (Bruce Cowling), who beats her.  The other develops as it becomes apparent that Lorrison wants Ann Duverall to marry him, and bit by bit Kinsman is taken with her despite himself.  Kinsman steps into the middle of a drunken attack by Conovan on Delaney and punches out Conovan, who will get thrown in the guardhouse when he awakens.

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Lorrison (John Hodiak) interrupts Delaney (Don Taylor) and Mrs. Conovan (Jean Hagen).

Kinsman agrees to guide a patrol escorting the paymaster to Fort Craig.  While they’re gone, Conovan stabs Breverly with a pitchfork and really gets thrown in the guardhouse.  A sub-patrol under Delaney captures a party of Diablito’s women and Tana (Chief Thundercloud), who says he hates Diablito.  Kinsman doesn’t quite believe him and gets his information from a disgruntled woman, who says that Mary Carlyle is with a party just ahead of them, alive and so far unharmed.

With Breverly out of commission with a punctured lung, Lorrison becomes acting commanding officer and decides to take after Diablito and Mary Carlyle.  He believes Tana’s advice, and Kinsman decides to go along even though his advice is ignored.  Lorrison insists on knowing why Kinsman changed his mind, and Kinsman honestly tells him that he doesn’t think Lorrison knows what he’s doing as well as Breverly would.  They fight, and Lorrison wins handily.

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Lorrison doesn’t like Kinsman, but they both like Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl).

Lt. Delaney gives Kinsman something to deliver to Mary Conovan if Delaney doesn’t make it.
Ward Kinsman:  “Did you ever figure that maybe I won’t get back?”
Lt. Linus Delaney:  “You’ll make it. People only die when they have something to live for.”
Ward Kinsman:  “I know. That’s why I’m a little worried…for the first time.”
Lt. Linus Delaney:  “Well, I never thought I’d see the day.”
Ward Kinsman:  “That’s the point, isn’t it? To live to see the day.”

[Spoilers follow.]  There are two columns involved in the pursuit, one led by Capt. Wolverson (Ray Teal), and the other by Lorrison. Tana disappears, and Kinsman goes after him. He gets Tana and finds Conovan’s body. There are also two ambushes in the movie, the first by Lorrison at a watering hole Diablito is trying to reach. Kinsman stampedes Diablito’s horses and gets Mary Carlyle, but takes a spear in the hip. Lorrison and his men are on the verge of being overrun when Wolverson’s column hits Diablito’s forces in the rear, forcing him to take off into the desert.

Capt. Ben Lorrison to Kinsman:  “What do you think of the entire plan of action?”
Ward Kinsman:  “I wasn’t asked.”
Capt. Ben Lorrison:  “You are now.”
Ward Kinsman:  “The plan is based upon what Diablito should do.  You better be ready for what he can’t possibly do, but probably will.”

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Kinsman finally gets a moment alone with Ann.

Lorrison, intent on finishing Diablito, takes a patrol after him, thinking correctly that they can’t get far without horses.  That brings up the second ambush, by Diablito.  He and his surviving men have hidden themselves in pits in the desert, leaving just enough trail to keep Lorrison following them into the trap.  All of Lorrison’s patrol is killed, but so are Diabilito’s men—except for Diablito himself, who is wounded.  As Kinsman and Delaney lead their own patrol to the site of the second ambush, Diablito reloads his pistol and plays dead.  Lest we not get who he wants to kill, he mutters to himself, “Kinsman.”  But Kinsman is wary; the trap doesn’t work this time, and Kinsman gets Diablito.

Back at Fort Gamble, Mary Conovan is now a widow, but the path is clear for her to get together with Delaney if they want to–the end is deliberately a little ambiguous for them.  Kinsman stands by Ann Duverall as the flag is raised to the strains of a bugle call, just as John Ford would have directed it.  No ambiguity there.

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The characters in this are well differentiated and believable, although some of the well-written dialogue is crisper than real people would be able to come up with.  Ward Kinsman is not infallible or invincible, as he demonstrates in his fight with Lorrison.  Lorrison has some capacity to learn (unlike, say, Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache), but he’s still sure he’s right and lets his animosity with Kinsman lead him to trust the wrong souces of information and advice.  Ann Duverall is not as priggish as she appears at first, and can also learn.  Delaney has a little self-restraint, but not enough to keep him out of trouble, until he is overtaken by events.

Fort Gamble, as depicted in this movie, is the same setting as Fort Bravo three years later in Escape from Fort Bravo:  Ray Corrigan’s ranch in Simi Valley, California.  The cinematographer, Harold Lipstein, was clearly enamored of the rock formations around Gallup, New Mexico, and he used them to good effect, often from low camera angles.  The excellent screenplay is by Marguerite Roberts (True Grit, 5 Card Stud, Shoot Out) from a story by Luke Short, usually a good starting source.

At this point in his career Robert Taylor had made only one western, Billy the Kid about ten years previously.  He was just coming into a period when he would make several good ones.  In fact, after this he also made Anthony Mann’s first western, Devil’s Doorway, and the excellent Westward the Women.  This is one of the first really good cavalry movies not made by John Ford.  For similar good stories of the Old Scout with a headstrong or inexperienced commanding officer, see Hondo, Duel at Diablo and Ulzana’s Raid.  The plot has a number of similarities with Duel at Diablo, in particular.  For another good black-and-white cavalry western from 1950, see Two Flags West, with Joseph Cotten and Linda Darnell.

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Diablito is played by Charles Stevens, who was said to be Geronimo’s Apache-Mexican grandson.  He appeared in a number of westerns beginning in the mid-1930s as Indian characters of one sort or another (see Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine and The Showdown, for example).

In black and white, with a lot of plot packed into 90 minutes. The DVD has been available from Warner Bros. Archive only since 2011, and not that many people have seen it.  It deserves a wider audience.

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North West Mounted Police

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 27, 2014

North West Mounted Police—Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, Madeleine Carroll, Paulette Goddard, Preston Foster, Lynne Overman, George Bancroft, Montagu Love, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Wallace Reid, Jr. (1940; Dir: Cecil B. DeMille)

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This is a typical Cecil DeMille production for its time, with a large cast and shot in Technicolor at a time (1940) when that was still rare for westerns. Gary Cooper stars in the second of his three DeMille westerns. The first was The Plainsman (1936), and the third would be Unconquered (1947), set in colonial times. Cooper was a big star, and, although he initially made much of his reputation in westerns, he only made a handful of them in the 1940s. (See The Westerner, 1940, and the western comedy Along Came Jones, 1945.)

It is 1885, and the Second Riel Rebellion is brewing among the mixed-ancestry Metís (pronounced “meet-us” in this movie) people of Saskatchewan in Canada. Louis Riel (Francis McDonald) is retrieved from Montana, where he has been teaching school, by Dan Duroc (Akim Tamiroff) and Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft, who had played the good-hearted sheriff in Stagecoach the previous year).  Riel has reservations about any association with the rough Corbeau, who has a history of running liquor and guns to the Indians, but Duroc persuades him to go along because Corbeau has a gatling gun which will equalize things with the Queen’s forces.

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Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) and the fiery Louvette (Paulette Goddard).

Two red-coated Mounties, Sgt. Jim Brett (Preston Foster) and Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) discover in Batoche, the Metís capital, that the rebellion has reached dangerous proportions, with Big Bear’s Crees on the verge of joining the Metís. Romantic interests are established for both of them, Logan with Metís maiden Louvette Corbeau (daughter of Jacques Corbeau, played by Paulette Goddard as kind of a dark-skinned, blue-eyed Gypsy) and Brett with Logan’s sister April Logan (Madeleine Carroll), a selfless nurse among the Metís in Batoche.  She doesn’t seem convinced that Brett’s for her.

Into this cauldron of brewing rebellion and budding romance rides a Texas Ranger, Dusty Rivers (Gary Cooper), who is looking to arrest Corbeau for a murder in Texas.  He is received dubiously at Fort Carlton, especially by Sgt. Brett, when he develops an immediate attraction to April Logan. Brett goes off to persuade Big Bear to remain allied to the Queen, but when Corbeau promises to bring him red coats covered with blood, Big Bear gives him three days to do that before he will join the rebellion.

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Sgt. Brett (Preston Foster) negotiates with the Crees for Rivers (Gary Cooper) and a Scottish scout (Lynne Overman).

Ronnie Logan and another Mountie are sent off to remote guard duty at Duck Lake.  When April hears of the seriousness of the rebellion, she sends Louvette Corbeau to warn Ronnie.  Instead of warning him, she lures him into a situation where she can take him prisoner.  In his absence, a column of Mounties are mostly massacred at Duck Lake, including the commander (played by Montagu Love).  His dying command to Brett is that he get Ronnie and make him pay for his desertion.

While Sgt. Brett takes command of the few surviving Mounties left at Fort Carlton, heading on an apparent suicide mission to Big Bear, Rivers helps April flee the burning fort and heads for Batoche, where he distracts the defenders by cutting their canoes loose and destroying the gatling gun.  He helps Ronnie escape the clutches of Louvette, only to see him cut down by an Indian assassin hired by Louvette to get Rivers.

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Rivers liberates Ronnie Logan from his scheming captor Louvette;  River woos nurse April Logan (Madeleine Carroll).

At Big Bear’s camp, Brett is improbably successful at retrieving the Crees’ loyalty and the rebellion seems to be over, with Duroc dead and Riel and Corbeau captured.  A Mountie tribunal is on the verge of convicting Ronnie of desertion, until Rivers comes in and attributes to Ronnie his own efforts in destroying the gatling gun at Batoche, saving Ronnie’s reputation.  At the end, he abducts Corbeau to take him back to Texas, but as he leaves with his prisoner, Brett and April find him and announce that April is marrying Brett.  But Brett allows Rivers to take Corbeau and leaves Rivers’ version of Ronnie’s heroism to stand even though he suspects otherwise.

Joel McCrea had starred for DeMille in Union Pacific in 1939 and was the first choice to play Rivers.  But he dropped out to do Alfred Hitcock’s Foreign Correspondent and was about to be cast in two Preston Sturges films (all included in the best work of his career), so the role went to Gary Cooper.  English actress Madeleine Carroll had made her reputation working with Alfred Hitchcock as the first of his cool blondes (The 39 Steps, Secret Agent) and in costume dramas (Prisoner of Zenda, Lloyd’s of London).  By 1938 she was said to be the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.   After her sister Marguerite was killed in a London bombing raid, she spent the rest of the war as a field nurse and in other war efforts.   She became a U.S. citizen in 1943, but her career never revived after the war.  At this stage of his career, Robert Preston often played the friend or brother who went bad (Union Pacific, Blood on the Moon, Whispering Smith), and his character usually died because of that.  Several young actors, including Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Regis Toomey, Rod Cameron and Wallace Reid, Jr. (son of a silent star who died of drug addiction) play young Mounties or Indians.

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DeMille directs Carroll and Cooper as they flee Fort Carlton in a canoe.

One of the screenwriters here is Alan LeMay, author of the novel The Searchers was based on.  But the dialogue is clunky, and Cooper’s, in particular, is excessively of the aw-shucks homespun variety.  Between that and his character’s too-precious name, it’s not one of his more successful performances.  He could play frontier characters naturally and was doing so convincingly at this time in his career (playing western in The Westerner the same year, and playing Appalachian backwoods in Sergeant York, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar the following year), but it doesn’t work well here.  Neither the abrupt end of the rebellion nor the abrupt change of heart by April Logan are entirely convincing, either.  After the opening scene, Riel largely disappears, and we never discover why he’s essential to the rebellion.  He certainly has little charisma as depicted here.

This is one of the fifty movies listed in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way) by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell (1978).  It’s not that epically bad, but is it worth watching? It is if you are interested in either Cooper or DeMille, not to mention the beautiful Carroll.  For another (and better) story of an American gone north, see Gunless (2010).  For another story of Mounties and Indians, see Raoul Walsh’s Saskatchewan with Alan Ladd (1954).  If you’re interested in the background of Canada’s Second Riel Rebellion, see Strange Empire by Joseph Kinsey Howard (first published in 1952).

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In color, at 126 minutes.  Shot principally around Big Bear Lake in California, San Bernardino National Forest.  The movie won an Oscar for Best Editing.

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A Thunder of Drums

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 4, 2014

A Thunder Of Drums—Richard Boone, George Hamilton, Luana Patten, James Douglas, Arthur O’Connell, Slim Pickens, Charles Bronson, Richard Chamberlain.  Cameos:  country singer Duane Eddy, rodeo star Casey Tibbs (1961; Dir:  Joseph M. Newman)

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A grim cavalry western, with hard-bitten Capt. Stephen Maddocks (Richard Boone) commanding the undermanned frontier outpost Fort Canby in 1870.  George Hamilton is newly arrived Lt. Curtis McQuade, son of a former post commander and current general.  While fighting Apaches, Maddocks roughly schools McQuade, who also renews his former relationship with Tracey Hamilton (Luana Patten), the fiancée of fellow officer Lt. Gresham (James Douglas).  Maddocks doesn’t want the trouble that is bound to come from such a romantic triangle, with the inevitable competition and animosity between his young officers.

“Bachelors make the best soldiers out here.  They have nothing to lose but their loneliness.”  The line might have been interesting if used once; it’s used twice by Maddocks.  Maddocks leads the garrison on a sortie against the hostiles.  As the lieutenants learn their trade in frontier Indian fighting, there is a climactic battle.  Predictably, Gresham is killed; a little less predictably, McQuade lets Tracey go back east so that he can follow Maddocks’ grim dictum and be a soldier without family entanglements. 

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A sergeant (Arthur Connell), lieutenant (George Hamilton) and private (Charles Bronson) fight Apaches.  Or are they Comanches?

There are references to a former officer saying “Never apologize.  It’s a sign of weakness.”  That presumably goes back to John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  It turns out that McQuade’s father made sure that Maddocks stayed a captain for the rest of his career because of an unspecified mistake long ago. 

A bearded Richard Boone is good as the embittered Maddocks, although he’s relentlessly downbeat and mostly hostile.  He’s the center of the movie, as he would be in Rio Conchos three years later, and he’s the primary reason to watch this.  A young George Hamilton isn’t particularly good as McQuade; he will show up again in A Time for Killing, a 1967 cavalry western, as a Confederate major pursued in Utah and Arizona by Yankee Glenn Ford.  Charles Bronson, as a trooper obsessed with women, and Richard Chamberlain (who would soon become famous as television’s Dr. Kildare), as a wounded lieutenant, have small parts.  Arthur O’Connell is probably the strongest supporting player here as a veteran sergeant, the sort of role that would have been played more broadly by Victor McLaglen in John Ford cavalry movies a decade earlier.  

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The print was a bit muddy (on Encore Westerns; watch it on TCM, if possible, where they use a better print).  Written by James Warner Bellah, who also wrote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Sergeant Rutledge and the stories for Fort Apache, Rio Grande and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  Shot in color in Santa Clarita, California, and near Old Tucson and Sabino Canyon, Arizona.  97 minutes long.  Notwithstanding the title, there aren’t any drums; lots of “talking smoke,” though.

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