Tag Archives: Northern Westerns

Promise the Moon

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 8, 2014

Promise the Moon—Henry Czerny, Collette Stevenson, Aidan Devine, Shawn Ashmore, David Fox, Gloria May Eshkibok (Made for television, 1996; Dir:  Ken Jubenvill)


Better than most of the lower-profile and made-for-television western productions in the last twenty years or so.  The title doesn’t tell you much about this western.  It’s set in the ranch lands of western Canada of the 1920s. It’s still frontier, to a significant degree, and the financial times are hard.

Wilbur Bennett (Richard Donat) owns the Four Arrows ranch and is suffering health and financial problems.  With his dying request, he sends his foreman Royal Leckner (Henry Czerny) to Chicago to collect his long-neglected and presumably mentally-impaired 15-year-old son Leviatus (Shawn Ashmore) from a sanitarium, where he has been since birth.  There Leckner finds the young man surviving under deplorable conditions, with Sophie Twelvetrees (Gloria May Eshkibok), an Objibway woman who is also a patient, as his only protector.  The three of them ride in a cattle car back to Canada. 

Meanwhile Jane Makepeace (Colette Stevenson), a prim young Englishwoman who has been serving as a secretary to unscrupulous banker Sir Robert Butler (David Fox), declines his advances and has to find another situation for herself.  Desperate, she takes her accounting and business skills to the Four Arrow ranch, where she hopes to make herself necessary and maybe even get paid by helping them put their business affairs in order.  She also becomes the intermediary for Sophie and Levi to Leckner and the rest of the world. 

PromiseMoon2 Facing bleak futures.

The remainder of the movie centers around whether Jane will be allowed to stay, whether Levi will ever become functional and whether Leckner will succeed in keeping the ranch afloat financially and out of the clutches of the nasty banker.  Also on the fringes is Wilbur’s brother James Bennett (Aidan Devine) who feels aggrieved by the very existence of young Levi and is nefariously helping nasty banker Butler behind the scenes. 

It turns out Levi is deaf, not mentally deficient.  Leckner, Levi, Makepeace and associated ranchers make a cattle drive to Pendleton to produce the money they need to keep the bank and Butler at bay.  The ending is much as you’d expect, but with an interesting shootout in a hospital.

The story has something of a Hallmark feel about it, since it’s about the formation of a family by a group of unrelated strangers and has an interesting and, to some extent, unexpected (by everyone except the viewers, who are thinking “Why else would we be watching this?”) romance at its core.  But it plays out well, and the central performances by Czerny and Stevenson make the film better than anticipated.  And the pacing, editing and storytelling are good here, too.  Based on the book The Four Arrows Fe-As-Ko by Randall Beth Platt.  Filmed in Canada.


This is an unheralded and underrated Canadian production, somewhat like The Grey Fox and Gunless in that respect.  They’re also worth more attention.

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Nicholas Chennault ~ January 2, 2014

Gunless—Paul Gross, Sienna Guillory, Dustin Milligan, Tyler Mane, Graham Greene (2010; Dir:  William Phillips)


This is another western in which the beautiful hills and mountains of southern Canada stand in for… the hills and mountains of southern Canada?  Yes, this is a northern western, and a comedy.  And it’s pretty successful as a western comedy.  Now, this is a movie of which few have heard, so it didn’t make much of a splash on its initial release in 2010.  It opened 11th in Canada, and as a Canadian-funded, Canadian-set and Canadian-made film, it would have been expected to do as well there as it could anywhere.  Although it had a small budget ($10 million Canadian), it has good (not great) production values, decent writing, and, above all, good acting, especially in the leads.

As the film opens, a horse with a filthy rider sitting backwards and trailing a rope and branch slowly enters Barclay’s Brush, a town on the Canadian western frontier.  As the horse comes to a stop, the rider slides off the horse upside-down, and it is apparent that he is tied up.  After a brief conversation with a Chinese girl, he is extracted from his bonds and buys some bullets at the local store.  He comes from the States, where he was in the process of being hanged.  He is the Montana Kid. 

GunlessDirtyKid The filthy but possibly deadly Montana Kid.

Wandering back outside, he looks for his horse, which has disappeared.  It turns out the horse is with the local blacksmith, who is fixing it up.  There are words between the two, and the gunman calls out Jack the blacksmith (Tyler Mane), who doesn’t have a pistol.  After due consultation, a woman rancher, Jane Taylor (Sienna Guillory), offers the Kid a broken pistol in exchange for help putting up her windmill.  And a medical alert:  “Your bottom is bleeding.”   The doctor removes a bullet from the Kid’s gluteous maximus, free of charge.

The Kid (played by Paul Gross, who was brilliant in the Shakespearean comedy series Slings and Arrows on Canadian television) slowly gets to know the townsfolk, who are rather taken with him, partly because of his dime-novel notoriety and partly because they seem to be genuinely friendly, if a bit quirky.  The local Mountie constable, Jonathan Kent (Dustin Milligan), a very stiff and rulebound young man, comes round to meet the Kid and have him sign his ledger—with his real name, Sean Lafferty.  Kent’s cosmopolitan Indian guide Two Dogs (Graham Greene) has to redirect him a time or two.  The Kid is invited to dinner at the doctor’s house, and regales them with tales of his killings, eleven of them.  Everybody calls him Sean—a name he apparently hasn’t used for years. 


Rapacious and loathsome bounty hunters, and N’kwala, otherwise known as Two Dogs.

Meanwhile, he’s on the lookout for pursuit from the States, bounty hunters who have been after him for ten years.  He plans to leave as soon as his horse is recovered, his deal with Jane is complete and he fulfills his obligations as a gunfighter by having it out with Jack the blacksmith.  Meanwhile, he attends an RCMP dance where Kent seems enamored of Jane, and the rest of the Mounties are not so enamored with the Kid.  As they try to intimidate him by beating him up, he is rescued curiously by the stiff Kent, who points out that the Kid has broken no laws and has no outstanding warrants in Canada, and that is not the Mountie way.

His clothes are being cleaned and repaired by the local Chinese tailor and laundryman, and meanwhile he’s wearing Chinese clothes around town.  He takes part in an evening of intellectual discussion about Aristotle led by the local schoolmarm, Alice.  And he thinks it’s time to leave when Jane shows signs of falling for him.

GunlessKidJane Sean and Jane

Jack has repaired a broken piece of the pistol (a big old Navy .44) and given it to the Kid, even though he knows the Kid plans to use it to force him into a gunfight.  And the bounty hunters draw ever nearer and demonstrate their lack of character by gratuitously killing a dog.  The question is not really whether they’ll catch up, but what will happen when they do.

The shootout is surprising, as are Sean’s new philosophical misgivings about his lifestyle, apparently triggered by Aristotle.  As the movie ends, we see young Kent’s romantic attentions turning to Alice, the blushingly receptive schoolmarm.


The Kid, back at his cleaned-up gunfighting best. Or is he?

The humor is dry Canadian, not broad Mel Brooks.  This might be the closest thing to the Support Your Local Sheriff movies made by James Garner in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It’s not as quickly paced as those, and the humor is quieter.  The pacing and the tone are not perfect.  It should have a better title.  Given Canadians’ sensitivities about their larger neighbor to the south, you can see why a Canadian production would not want to call itself The Montana Kid.  But that is its title in Australia, and it works better. 

With all this, Gunless is very worth watching.  It depends on Gross’s ability to project confused decency under filth and to develop believably and sympathetically, and he is charmingly up to the task, even if he occasionally mutters his lines.  His horse performs well as a confidante with a mind of his own.  And Sienna Guillory is fine as the feisty rancher Jane, with a lovely British accent.  This movie deserves to be much more widely seen.  Be sure to watch the outtakes with the credits; they contain some dubious language that was missing from the film, though.  Filmed at Fort Langley, British Columbia.  Short, at 89 minutes.  The DVD of this film was recently (Dec. 2013) on sale at Amazon for $3.62, and it’s hard to beat that.

It may or may not be significant that the writer-director of this movie is William Phillips.  That is also the name of a man in Spokane in the 1920s and 1930s who was rumored to have been Butch Cassidy, returned from Bolivia and not killed by the Bolivian army.


William Phillips of Spokane, and William Phillips of Canada.  What is the beard hiding?

For a younger Paul Gross in a made-for-television romance set in modern Alberta, see Getting Married in Buffalo Jump.


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White Fang

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 31, 2013

White Fang—Ethan Hawke, Klaus Maria Brandauer, James Remar, Seymour Cassel (1991; Dir:  Randal Kleiser)


The initial question is whether White Fang can properly be described as a western, since it also seems to belong to other genres:  adventure stories, man vs. nature stories, animal stories, coming-of-age stories, search-for-family stories.  But all of those have shown up as westerns, too.  The settings (Alaska and the Klondike during the gold rush of 1898) are a little unusual.  But they are situated in the North American west and have previously been the settings for obvious westerns:  Anthony Mann’s The Far Country, for example, North to Alaska and various versions of Rex Beach’s novel The Spoilers.  The source novel by Jack London is more firmly in the animal story category, but this has a lot of western feel about it.

WhiteFang-Being Robbed Robbed in Skagway.

In 1898, young orphan Jack Conroy (Ethan Hawke at 21 but looking and playing younger) arrives in Skagway from San Francisco, at the height of the gold rush in the swirl and noise of the booming port.  He is immediately robbed by Beauty Smith (James Remar) and his two compatriots while looking for Alex Larson, an acquaintance of his late father’s.  Larson (the redoubtable Klaus Maria Brandauer) is heading over Chilkoot Pass for the diggings in the Klondike with his partner Skunker (Seymour Cassel) and doesn’t want to take on another person.  One reason:  his load includes the coffin of Dutch, whom he had promised to bury on his claim.  That adds a macabre note to the journey, in addition to being very unwieldy.  Jack manages to convince Alex and Skunker to let him tag along with their dog team, although Alex thinks he’s bringing too many useless items, like books.

On the trip, Jack learns a lot, partially by getting Dutch’s body dumped into a freezing lake and losing most of their ammunition.  One night the camp is attacked by wolves and Skunker is killed by the pack.  Jack spots a very young whitish wolf, who won’t let him get close.

WhiteFangHostiles Beseiged by wolves.

As Alex and Jack arrive in Dawson City, Alex renews his relationship with Belinda Casey (Susan Hogan), who owns a bar there.  He takes Jack out to his father’s claim and agrees to teach Jack to be a miner if Jack will teach him to read.  Meanwhile, the young white wolf is captured by the local Indian tribe, led by Gray Beaver (Pius Savage), who train it as a beast of burden.  On a trip up the river, Jack encounters and remembers the dog.  Gray Beaver says his name is Mia Tuk, or White Fang.  When Jack disturbs a grizzly bear and is attacked, Fang saves him by discouraging the bear.

On a trip to Dawson, Beauty Smith cons Gray Beaver out of the wolf-dog, whom he plans to make into a fighter.  He does this by unsavory methods, and the wolf-dog learns well until he meets a pit bull-type.  As Fang lies in the ring with the pit bull’s jaws claimped on his neck, the mounties break up the fight and Jack takes possession of the desperately injured Fang.  Jack and Alex get him back to Jack’s claim, where Jack nurses him slowly back to health and tries to form a relationship of sorts.  When Jack is buried in a cave-in, Fang digs him out and Alex finds Fang’s paws covered with shiny dust.  Gold! 

WhiteFang3 Larson and Conroy

Beauty Smith has already established that he has no qualms about robbery, stealing and dog-fighting.  He proceeds to establish that he is not beyond killing and claim-jumping, either, when he and his two henchmen attack Jack and Alex and set their cabin on fire.  Fang turns the tide when he jumps through a window and attacks the attackers, allowing Jack and Alex to capture them and turn them over to the mounties.

Jack has given half the title to the claim to Alex, and Alex plans to move to San Francisco with Belinda to open a hotel there.  They invite Jack along, but in the end he stays on the claim with Fang, since Fang can’t really be as civilized as San Francisco would demand.

WHITE FANG (1991) Conroy and Fang

Ethan Hawke is a good actor, and he was very good in this early role.  The real center of the movie, however, is Klaus Maria Brandauer as Alex.  Theoretically, Alex Larson is a supporting role—the capable miner and wilderness man who tutors the city boy.  But he is such a good actor that he provides a solid and interesting center for the film in this supporting role.  In the end, this movie is about relationships—not just the relationship that develops between Jack and Fang, but just as much about the relationship developing between Alex and Jack.  Both are about learning to trust.  Seymour Cassel is good as Skunker in a very limited role, and James Remar is suitably despicable as Beauty Smith.

The movie is made by Disney, and that usually is not a great sign.  But this partakes of Disney’s legacy of nature movies and dog stories (e.g., Old Yeller) in a good way.  There is a little more violence than is usual in Disney movies, but nothing very graphic.  It is well-paced, although significantly more than half the movie passes before Jack and Fang get together.  Although the film has a decent screenplay, much of the story is told visually, without dialogue.  It’s an effective approach here.

This film partakes heavily of the romantic cinematic view of wolves, as in Dances With Wolves and Never Cry Wolf.  It’s a tradition it shares with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books.  A note at the end of a movie says there’s no documented instance of wolves killing a human, as happened with Skunker in this movie.  They still tend to be pretty scary, especially in packs.

Croc Blanc Leaving Fang (not really)

The movie was filmed on location in Alaska, around Haines and Skagway.  There is panoramic scenery elegantly filmed by cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, and a panoramic score by Basil Poledouris, according to the credits.  Actually, Basil Poledouris was hired to write the film’s original score, having worked with director Kleiser on The Blue Lagoon.  Poledouris’ score was rejected in mid-production in favor of one from Hans Zimmer. Unusually, both scores were fully recorded, one in London and the other in California, and pieces written by both Poledouris and Zimmer appear in the finished film.

Director Randal Kleiser is a sort of journeyman commercial-movie director, known principally for Grease and The Blue Lagoon.  One wouldn’t have looked for something as good, as visual and as modest as this from him.  It was successful enough that a sequel was made three years later, with none of the participants from this first film.

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The Far Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 18, 2013

The Far Country—James Stewart, Walter Brennan, Ruth Roman, John McIntire, Corinne Calvet, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Robert Wilke, Royal Dano, Jack Elam, Kathleen Freeman (1954; Dir:  Anthony Mann)


In another of Mann’s stories about an alienated loner, Jeff Webster (James Stewart) has driven a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Seattle, where they are loaded on a steamboat for Skagway, Alaska Territory.  It is 1898, so the Alaskan gold rush is on.  Webster and his garrulous partner Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) plan to drive the herd even farther north to Dawson, where there isn’t a lot of beef and they can get top dollar for their cattle.  Then, as Ben tells anyone who will listen, they’ll buy a ranch in Utah, where they’ll spend the rest of their days.

Jeff isn’t just a loner; he’s a loner who’s good with a gun and killed two men on the drive to Seattle.  When the boat’s authorities try to arrest him, he is hidden by saloon owner Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), who’s taken a romantic interest in him.  As he’s driving his cattle off the boat, Jeff inadvertently disrupts a public hanging conducted by Gannon (John McIntire), the local authority who is a law unto himself with a band of thugs (Jack Elam, Robert Wilke) to back him up.  He confiscates Jeff’s cattle, and Jeff takes a job leading Ronda Castle’s wagons to Dawson, up over the Chilkoot Pass.  When he get the wagons over the pass, he goes back to Skagway in the middle of the night, steals his cattle back and drives them over the pass toward Dawson.


Jeff Webster (James Stewart) makes a new acquaintance (Ruth Roman) while escaping the law on the way to Alaska.

Once in Dawson, Ben makes connections with the regular folk, including Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), a young girl they had met in Skagway.  With the gold has come a rougher element and some crime, and the process is sped up by Ronda’s Dawson Castle saloon.  Jeff sells his cattle at a high price and buys a local gold claim.  Meanwhile, the Mounties haven’t yet figured out how to extend their authority over the unruly area.  Jeff finds himself with several conflicts:  two potential romantic interests; the salt-of-the-earth regular residents and claimholders against the glitzier newcomers out for a fast buck; and regular law and order against Gannon’s variety of law.

Yes, Gannon has shown up in Dawson, with an even larger gang of thugs than he had in Skagway.  Claim-jumping becomes a regular feature of life in Dawson, as do murder and robbery.  Jeff resists taking a hand until he’s robbed and left for dead, and Ben is killed.  Renee nurses him back to health, and although his arm is still in a sling, he has a final shootout with Gannon and his minions.


Jeff Webster (James Stewart) confronts a gleefully corrupt Gannon (John McIntire, with henchman Jack Elam on his left).

This is one of the best of the “northerns” set during the Alaska gold rush (see also North to Alaska, White Fang and The Spoilers), and like many of them, it features a character based on the real-life conman Soapy Smith, who took over Skagway for a time.  This has a larger cast than some of Anthony Mann’s westerns, and they’re quite good.  Both Ruth Roman and Corinne Calvet are believable romantic interests, so that the final choice is not a foregone conclusion.  John McIntire is excellent as Gannon, the Soapy Smith character.  Walter Brennan’s talkative Ben makes personal connections much more easily than Jeff, but he tends to let information slip when he shouldn’t.  Jay C. Flippen and Kathleen Freeman are both part of the good Dawson crowd.  Stewart is edgy as he usually was in a Mann western; he wears his usual hat and rides Pie, the horse he rode through seventeen westerns.  One key plot point relates to a bell Jeff hangs from his saddle horn.


James Stewart demonstrates that Randolph Scott wasn’t the only star of western movies who could have a romantic triangle going, first with saloon owner Ruth Roman and then with mining lass Corinne Calvet.

The script was by Borden Chase, who provided the scripts for previous Mann films Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River, as well as for Red River and Night Passage.  The film was shot on location at Jasper in Alberta.  Cinematography was by William H. Daniels.  The DVD version in general circulation (2010) is unfortunately only a full-screen, pan-and-scan version.

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North to Alaska

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 10, 2013

North to Alaska—John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs, Fabian (1960; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)


This “northern” is fueled by sexual tension and fights, most of them of the rollicking variety complete with lots of mud and cartoon-like twittering noises when somebody gets punched.  That is, it has an overlay of comedy.  The story owes a lot to earlier movies about claim-jumping in Alaska, such as The Far Country and The Spoilers.

The plot has former Washington logger and now Alaska miner Sam McCord (John Wayne) heading south from Nome to buy heavy mining equipment and bring back for his partner George Pratt (Stewart Granger) the supposed Pratt “fiancée” Jenny, whom George hasn’t seen in three years.  Their mining claim is now producing gold richly enough to afford both.  In Seattle, McCord finds that Jenny is working as a domestic and is now married to a butler; but in a house of ill repute he also finds the elegant Michelle Bonet (Capucine) and decides to bring her back for George.  Michelle, also known as Angel (the backstory for the French actress in this film is that she’s from New Orleans, thus accounting for the accent), is more interested in McCord himself, who, although loudly anti-marriage, generally treats her like a lady.


Partners Sam McCord (John Wayne) and George Pratt (Stewart Granger).

Meanwhile, sleazy gambler Frankie Cannon (Ernie Kovacs in a rare but very effective movie role) has gained control of the town’s largest saloon/hotel and has started an underhanded operation to take over other people’s claims, including the McCord-Pratt claim.  Cannon and Michelle also have a past relationship, which Cannon would like to resume.

On McCord’s return to Nome, the differing aims of McCord and Bonet eventually surface, while McCord and Pratt defend their claim against Cannon and fight between themselves.  Pratt’s younger brother Billy (played a bit broadly by the singer Fabian) is more a distraction than necessary to the plot.  One is tempted to attribute his presence in this movie to that of another teen idol, Ricky Nelson, in Rio Bravo a year earlier.  Neither conflict (McCord-Bonet and McCord/Pratt-Cannon) is all that serious, and the ending is fairly predictable.  The sub-conflicts (McCord-Pratt over Bonet and Bonet with her own past) also work themselves out well enough.  You can tell this movie was made in the early 1960s because the alleged prostitute Michelle never actually sleeps with McCord and thereby regains her long-lost status as a “good girl.”  It’s hard to imagine a current filmmaker playing the relationship that way.  


Ernie Kovacs as sleazy gambler/claim jumper Freddie Cannon.

The movie, while not in the very top level of John Wayne westerns, takes its time developing the plot and is pleasantly watchable.  The commercial success of the movie was apparently attributed to the exuberant fight scenes.  This led to the making of the similar McLintock! a few years later, which had no discernable plot but good muddy fight scenes and a feisty romantic relationship.  The theme song here, as performed by Johnny Horton, was a popular hit in its time and might be second only to Tex Ritter’s High Noon theme among sung musical themes for westerns.  The experienced and versatile director Henry Hathaway had his roots in silent movies and was capable in a variety of genres, including westerns (Rawhide, Garden of Evil, How the West Was Won, True Grit).  He made 31 westerns in his lengthy career.  


Pratt, McCord and Michelle argue things out.

Incidentally, one of the ways Hathaway held down the budget in this movie was to shoot most of it around Point Mugu in southern California, rather than on location in Alaska.

This film is part of a modest tradition of good westerns that were set in the Alaska gold rush days of the end of the 19th century.  They include The Spoilers, a much-remade film in the first half of 20th century, the 1942 version of which has a legendary fight scene featuring bad guy Randolph Scott and good guy John Wayne; The Far Country (Anthony Mann-James Stewart); and White Fang, based on the Jack London novel (featuring Klaus Maria Brandauer and a young Ethan Hawke).  Soapy Smith was an actual con man who, under a cover of respectability, for a time took control of the corrupt civic government and police in Skagway, Alaska, during the gold rush.  Several of these northerns feature a version of the real-life Smith character (Kovacs here, John McIntire in The Far Country, Randolph Scott in The Spoilers) and strong, sympathetic female saloon owners (Marlene Dietrich and Anne Baxter in different versions of The Spoilers and Ruth Roman in The Far Country).

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