Tag Archives: Outlaw Gangs

Call Him… Ringo

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 19, 2014

A Gunman Named Ringo

The historical Johnny Ringo was an Arizona gunman associated with Ike Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius and the outlaws known as the Cowboys around 1880 in Cochise County.  He may have been the most feared gunman among them, but that’s not clear.  He was found dead in a remote spot with a bullet in his head in 1882 at the age of 32, and nobody knows how he got the bullet or who put it there.  Since he often shows up as a character in movies about Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, some have been tempted to show Wyatt or Doc Holliday as the responsible party.  (See Michael Biehn’s death in Tombstone, for example—Biehn gives what is probably the best representation on film of the historical Ringo, although he is embellished somewhat.)  But nobody really knows the circumstances of Ringo’s death.  The coroner ruled that he died by suicide.  His reputation may have been exaggerated, but he had a great name for a gunman.  For historical background on the real Johnny Ringo, the definitive biography so far is probably Jack Burrows’ Johnny Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was (1987).


The Ringo KId (John Wayne) stops the stage in Stagecoach (1939).

The name Ringo itself, like “Cimarron,” is redolent of the legends of the American west, and it has been used many times in fictional situations.  The best known are the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939), and Jimmy Ringo, an aging gunfighter played by Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter (1950), both sympathetic characters.  The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) has just broken out of the territorial prison, but he was there for a crime he didn’t commit and most people except the Plummer brothers seem to like him.  Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) has led a life of violence, which apparently causes him to draw challengers like flies, but now he wants to leave that life behind and reconcile with his estranged wife, making a family life with a son who doesn’t know him.

Several makers of spaghetti westerns were fond of the name Ringo, too.  Giuliano Gemma seemed to be the most frequent, or at least the best-known, Italian Ringo.  It just seems like a good, all-purpose name for a gunman or an outlaw.  Variations on it (Django, Rango) crop up in a variety of western films.  You never see it applied to a lawman, though.


Above:  Gregory Peck as aging gunfighter Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter (1950); the studio hated Peck’s moustache and thought that it was why the movie didn’t do well at the box office, although the film is now regarded as a near-classic.  And Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo in Tombstone (1993), perhaps the best depiction on film of the actual Arizona gunman.  An educated man, he quotes the Bible and Latin aphorisms with seeming facility, although the real Johnny Ringo was unlikely to have had such an education.

The Oklahoma Kid (1937; Ringo, a sleazy lawyer)
Stagecoach (1939; The Ringo Kid)
The Gunfighter (1950; Jimmy Ringo)
Best of the Badmen (1951; Curley Ringo)
Montana Belle (1952; Ringo [Indian])
Gun Belt (1953; Billy Ringo)
City of Bad Men (1953, Johnny Ringo)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (1958; Johnny Ringo)
Toughest Gun in Tombstone (1958; Johnny Ringo)

Last of the Fast Guns (1958; Johnny Ringo in Mexico)
Una Pistola per Ringo (1965)
Il Ritorno del Ringo (1965)
Stagecoach (1966; The Ringo Kid)
Django (1966; Ringo)
Stagecoach (1986; The Ringo Kid)
Tombstone (1993; Johnny Ringo)
Wyatt Earp (1994; Johnny Ringo)


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The Virginian (2000)

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 10, 2014

The Virginian—Bill Pullman, Diane Lane, Harris Yulin, John Savage, Colm Feore, Dennis Weaver, Gary Farmer (Made for television, 2000; Dir: Bill Pullman)

The fact that The Virginian is one of the oldest of western stories reminds us of how recent the history of the west is.  Owen Wister’s 1902 novel was the first western bestseller, and it has been made as a movie several times, most recently in 2014.  The best one is generally thought to be the 1929 early sound version with Gary Cooper as the Virginian, which can be very difficult to find now, since it has never been made available on DVD.  This 2000 made-for-television version is at least the second best on film; it may be the best.


Like some of the older western stories that have been remade multiple times from the early days of movies, the story in many of the versions of The Virginian has not aged well.  Modern viewers may have trouble understanding the motivations of the characters and sometimes even the dialogue.  This effort, directed by its star, Bill Pullman, is a mostly successful attempt to update the characters in terms of making them intelligible to modern viewers while retaining the flavor of a bygone era in the dialogue and interactions of the characters.  It is one of the classic western tales: an easterner goes west, leaves civilization and must learn new ways.  In this case, the easterner is schoolmarm Molly Stark (Diane Lane) from Bennington, Vermont, who comes to Medicine Bow in Wyoming Territory in 1885.

Arriving in Medicine Bow, Molly is taken to the remote ranch of Judge Henry (Harris Yulin in long hair).  When the wagon she’s riding in has problems, she’s rescued by the Virginian (Bill Pullman), one of Judge Henry’s riders.  He appears to be taken with her and is more direct about his interest than a well-brought-up easterner would be.  Judge Henry and other ranchers are having trouble with rustlers who seem to have some connection with rancher Sam Balaam (Dennis Weaver).  When the Judge promotes the Virginian to be his foreman, Trampas (Colm Feore) quits rather than work for the Virginian, and the Virginian’s good friend Steve (John Savage) unexpectedly leaves as well.  While rounding up horses, the badly outnumbered Virginian has to shoot it out with several rustlers and is gravely wounded.  He lies bleeding on the ground, where Molly eventually finds him by following his horse Monty, and she nurses him back to health.  They grow closer in the process.


As soon as the Virginian can ride, he is called upon to lead a band of riders against the rustlers.  They capture two of them, one of whom is the Virginian’s friend Steve and, according to the code of their time and place, must hang the two.  Molly is horrified to learn of the Virginian’s role in this, but they talk it out and continue with their plans to marry.  On the day of the wedding, a rider (James Drury, who played the Virginian in the 1960s television series) delivers a message that Trampas has killed two federal officers who were trying to deal with the rustlers and is now waiting for the Virginian in the Medicine Bow saloon.  Molly insists that the Virginian not go, but a man’s gotta do … well, you know.  As later stories would put it (John Wayne in Stagecoach, Randolph Scott in The Tall T), some things a man can’t ride around.

The Virginian rides into Medicine Bow, and we can see men, presumably with guns, on top of two or three buildings.  Leaving his own men outside, he walks straight in, leaving it up to Trampas.  Facing off, they agree to have the piano player play the Battle Hymn of the Republic and both draw when he comes to the phrase “His truth is marching on.”  The result should surprise no one, but it’s effective.  The Virginian grabs Sam Balaam, who’s behind it all, and forces him to call off the men stationed on the buildings.  The Judge’s wife tells the Virginian that Molly has gone back to Vermont, not on to Oregon as she has threatened for most of the movie.  In the closing scene, the Virginian, hat and all, appears in Bennington, Vermont, and there is an appropriate, if belated, rapprochement between him and Molly.  Presumably they live happily ever after.  In Wyoming Territory.  (Note that in the final scene, just before the credits, Molly appears to be riding the Virginian’s horse Monty, while he rides another horse, and we know how he feels about Monty.  So his commitment to Molly must be pretty high, too.)


Bill Pullman is good with the Virginian’s little hesitances in speech and old-fashioned dialogue.  Unlike other versions of the story, he is not already Judge Henry’s foreman, previously having come to be held in high regard, and his experiences with a gun are limited.  Diane Lane is decent, if occasionally a little stiff, as Molly Stark; but she’s better than the wooden Barbara Britton, who played Molly in the 1946 version with Joel McCrea.  Colm Feore makes a little more intelligible Trampas’ antipathy for the Virginian.  Partly it’s pride and personal dislike of the Virginian, and partly it’s goading from Sam Balaam.  John Savage is not as warm and friendly as Steve is usually portrayed. Harris Yulin is remote and not terribly avuncular as Judge Henry.  Dennis Weaver does well as the weaselly Sam Balaam.

The production design is good, particularly Molly Stark’s riding hat.  While the film does not always flow entirely smoothly, there are a lot of good small touches, too.  The saloon in Medicine Bow has a bobcat and a peregrine falcon as live parts of the decor.  As the Virginian strides toward the saloon with his life in turmoil, his future in doubt and his relationship with Molly perhaps gone forever, he nevertheless notes Balaam’s men with rifles on the roofs of surrounding buildings.  When he gets closer, he thinks he sees Steve around one corner nod and smile in approval for what he’s doing, although he knows Steve is dead.  The use of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the device for timing the draw works well.

As has become common for westerns over the last couple of decades, this was filmed in Alberta, with good cinematography and frequent shots from above, giving a flavor of the remoteness and wildness of the land.  Since Molly Stark’s school house and cabin are remote even from from Judge Henry’s ranch, it’s surprising that she might not have found herself to be in danger in such a wild and lawless country.  In all, this is worth watching, a worthy update of a western story that some might consider old-fashioned.  It even has a high degree of re-watchability.  Perhaps we can hope for equally worthy updates of Whispering Smith or The Spoilers.  In color, at 95 minutes.


After dealing with Trampas, the Virginian (Bill Pullman) negotiates with Sam Balaam (Dennis Weaver).

For Bill Pullman in another western, he has a brief role as Ed Masterson (Bat’s brother) in Wyatt Earp.  Diane Lane, of course, had a prominent role in Lonesome Dove.  Gary Farmer, who plays the heavy cowboy Buster, was Johnny Depp’s Indian guide Nobody in Dead Man.  For another decent TNT production of an older western story, see Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in Zane Grey’s story Riders of the Purple Sage.


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Bad Girls

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 7, 2014

Bad Girls—Madeleine Stowe, Mary Stuart Masterson, Drew Barrymore, Andie MacDowell, Dermot Mulroney, James Russo, James LeGros, Robert Loggia, Nick Chinlund (1994; Dir: Jonathan Kaplan)


This is a modern feminist fantasy set in the southwest in 1891, with a few anachronistic touches.  Despite what one might expect from that description, it is (a) directed by a male and (b) fairly successful as a western.

The four women of the title are “bad” because they meet while working as prostitutes in a saloon in Echo City, Colorado.  When a socially-prominent customer referred to as “the Colonel” becomes abusive to Anita Crown (Mary Stuart Masterson), Cody Zamora (Madeleine Stowe, who may have been the most beautiful woman in the movies in the early 1990s) gives him a warning, and, when he pulls a gun and starts shooting, she coolly shoots him.  She is about to be lynched for the shooting, when her three compatriots, Anita, Lilly Laronette (Drew Barrymore) and Eileen Spenser (Andie MacDowell), rescue her and they all ride out of town.  The Colonel’s widow hires Pinkertons to go after them.


The girls: Mary Stuart Masterson, Drew Barrymore, Andie MacDowell and Madeleine Stowe.

Anita, who is a young widow, still has her husband’s homestead claim in Oregon, where she proposes to start a sawmill.  Cody has more than $12,000 in savings to help start the venture.  They head for Agua Dulce, a town not far from the Rio Grande in south Texas, where Cody’s money is in a local bank.  While trying to withdraw her money, Cody encounters a bank robbery being conducted by Kid Jarrett (James Russo) and his gang, with whom she has history.  The Kid makes off with her money, too, which she takes as an invitation to visit.  Eileen, who is not good with horses, is captured.  While in jail, she strikes up a conversation with modest rancher William Tucker (James LeGros), who eventually allows her to escape.

Cody heads south of the border to the Jarrett gang’s retreat.  The Kid’s father Frank (Robert Loggia), once head of the gang, had taken Cody in when she was fourteen.  Although he says he’ll give her back her money, the Kid beats her badly for leaving them years ago.  She is found barely able to ride by Joshua McCoy (Dermot Mulroney), who smuggles her back into Agua Dulce and gets her injuries tended.  He has been hunting the Jarrett gang because Frank Jarrett killed his father, stole their claim and caused his mother to fall into prostitution and an early death.


James Russo as outlaw chieftain Kid Jarrett.

Cody knows that Kid Jarrett plans to hit a train to get gold and a gatling gun.  She, the three other girls and McCoy and Tucker, using dynamite, instead interrupt the robbery and take the gun and Frank Jarrett, while the Kid makes off with Lily.  Although they plan to trade Frank for Lily, Frank taunts McCoy into killing him, and Cody forces McCoy to leave.  He goes back to the Jarretts’ retreat and kills several of them, helping Lilly escape.

When Cody, Anita, Lilly and Eileen bring the gatling gun to trade for Cody’s money, the Kid agrees but kills McCoy, precipitating a general gunfight.  The girls are surprisingly good with guns.  Finally it comes down to the Kid against Cody, and she wins.  They bury McCoy, Eileen stays with William, and Cody, Anita and Lilly head off for the Klondike.  They ride off into the sunset as the now-bumbling Pinkertons question a rancher in the foreground.


Eileen (Andie MacDowell), Lilly (Drew Barrymore) and Cody (Madeleine Stowe) shoot it out with Jarrett’s gang.

With a large cast like this, and only 99 minutes, some elements of character and plot are bound to be underdeveloped.  Lilly, in particular, although there is the implication of a lesbian relationship with Eileen, seems not fleshed out enough.  Andie MacDowell never is very convincing with guns.  The real women of the west, obviously, were not this glamorous.  The four female leads are good in their roles generally, and, surprisingly enough, so are three of the male characters:  Dermot Mulroney as McCoy, James LeGros as the low-key William Tucker, and James Russo as Kid Jarrett, who nevertheless seems a bit over the top in his loathsomeness.  (Apparently being a bad guy in westerns was a good fit.  See him also as a talkative white slaver in Broken Trail, and as a corrupt marshal in Open Range.)  The excellent music is by Jerry Goldsmith and occasionally elegant cinematography by Ralf Bode.  The “extended cut” of the movie available on DVD is not much longer than the theatrical release version (100-104 minutes), but is said to include an additional nude shot or two.  Both versions are rated R.

Tamra Davis started as director of this film, with a script written by Yolande Turner and Becky Johnston.  A few weeks into filming, the production company became unhappy with the direction the film was taking.  They shut down production, replaced Davis with Jonathan Kaplan, had the script completely rewritten and sent the four main actresses off to “cowboy camp” to learn how to shoot, rope and ride.  Drew Barrymore, in particular, was unhappy with the sacking of Davis.  The new writing is nothing remarkable.  The set used for Kid Jarrett’s hideout was built for Alamo: The Price of Freedom (1988).  Kid Jarrett’s room is the Alamo set interior, designed by Roger Ragland.  The town is on location in Alamo Village, Bracketville, Texas, designed by Alfred Ybarra for John Wayne’s production of The Alamo (1960).


Three of the stars (Masterson, Barrymore and MacDowell) with director Kaplan.

So what’s anachronistic here?  The women often wear pants and attire of other sorts that weren’t worn in the 1890s, at least by women in public.  The use of “Cody” as a first name is fairly recent, and even then is almost always male.  The Klondike references are about seven years too early in 1891.  The women’s social attitudes are obviously more 1990s than 1890s.  For earlier westerns focusing on women, see William Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951) and George Marshall’s Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957), both of which feature Hope Emerson.  For Madeleine Stowe in another western, see her in Last of the Mohicans (1992).  For another variation on the female buddy western, see Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz in Bandidas (2003).

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Nicholas Chennault ~ November 5, 2014

Siringo—Brad Johnson, Chad Lowe, Steven Macht, Floyd Crow Westerman, Crystal Bernard, William Sanderson, Barry Corbin (Made for Television, 1995; Dir: Kevin G. Cremin)

Probably an interesting movie could be made about Charlie Siringo, but this isn’t it.  The contents of this short, made-for-television piece are completely fictional.  The real Charlie Siringo was not part Kiowa, as this would have it (his father was Italian and his mother Irish, both immigrants).  He spent most of his career as a Pinkerton agent, not an actual lawman, and he was not exceptionally sympathetic to Indians.  Much of his time was spent undercover working against labor (as in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, in the 1890s) or in unsuccessfully chasing Butch Cassidy.  He became known principally because he wrote a memoir describing his adventures.


Siringo (Brad Johnson) and Kaitlin Mullane (Crystal Bernard) nurse an old Indian.

In this slight effort, Siringo (Brad Johnson) lives in Arizona at the San Carlos Apache reservation.  After capturing Texas bad guy Wade Lewis (Steven Macht) who was selling guns to Indians and assassinating their leaders, Siringo is put on leave while he recovers from a leg wound.  Lewis escapes while being shipped to the Yuma prison, and Siringo is sent north after him, accompanied by talkative young deputy U.S. marshal Winton Powell (Chad Lowe).

In Wyoming they find Kaitlin Mullane (Crystal Bernard), a former girlfriend of one of Lewis’s fellow escapees.  Kaitlin has used the proceeds of a long-ago robbery to start a ranch there and go straight.  Meanwhile, Siringo befriends an aging Sioux couple with health problems.  When the outlaws and their gang arrive, the young deputy marshal is killed and Siringo almost is as well.


Brad Johnson as Charlie Siringo; and the real Charlie Siringo, Pinkerton operative.

Nursed back to health by the Sioux, he finds and attacks the outlaws Indian-style (bow and flaming arrows, stealth).  In the final shoot-out Kaitlin is killed, and Siringo hauls the despicable Lewis back to Arizona instead of killing him as he really wants to, thus establishing himself as a real lawman.  If it wants us to care what’s going on, this needs to do a better job of developing story and characters, especially Siringo.  Short, at 90 minutes.

For Brad Johnson in another western, see him as bad guy and assassin Beau Dorn in Crossfire Trail (2001), trying to get Tom Selleck.

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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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Best of the Badmen

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 28, 2014

Best of the Badmen—Robert Ryan, Robert Preston, Claire Trevor, Walter Brennan, Jack Beutel, Bruce Cabot, Robert Wilke, Tom Tyler (1951; Dir:  William D. Russell)


The late 1940s and early 1950s had a lot of titles with some version of the word “badman” in them. This has a good cast, but a muddled story.  Robert Ryan is Jeff Clanton, a native-Missourian major in the Union army as the Civil War is ending.  He ends up capturing and administering the oath of allegiance to the remains of Quantrill’s band, including various Youngers and Jameses, before he himself is mustered out.  A detective agency owner, Matthew Fowler (Robert Preston at his most weaselly, a pseudo-Pinkerton), objects and gets a mob together.  Clanton shoots one of Fowler’s men as the mob threatens the now-disarmed Confederates, and they take off. 

Clanton is convicted of murder by a kangaroo court but is sprung before his scheduled hanging by Lily (Claire Trevor), Fowler’s estranged wife.  After a lengthy escape he is reunited with the Confederates in Quinto, Indian Territory, and he leads them on raids against Fowler-protected banks and trains.  Lily also shows up in Quinto, and Curley Ringo finds out her identity. 


Lily (Claire Trevor) offers to help Jeff Clanton (Robert Ryan) get out of jail.

Cole Younger (Bruce Cabot), rather than Jesse James (Lawrence Tierney), seems the dominant personality in the group; gradually they become more violent than Clanton is comfortable with.  He determines that a final train robbery will be his last; Lily is shot during it, and he, Bob Younger (Jack Beutel, notable mostly for his role ten years earlier as Billy the Kid in The Outlaw) and Doc Butcher (Walter Brennan) make their escape from Quinto. 

However, Lily is captured by Fowler’s men and is used as bait to trap Clanton.  Clanton engineers a raid on Fowler’s headquarters during which Fowler is shot by one of his own men.  Lily and Clanton presumably live happily ever after.  It is never clear why Lily and Fowler are so much at odds, why she would spring Clanton in the first place and why the otherwise upright Clanton can so easily make off with another man’s wife.  Ryan is good, as always; Claire Trevor isn’t given much to work with.  Walter Brennan is the best character in the film. 

BestBadmenShirtless Still of Robert Ryan as Clanton.

In color.  The supposed Missouri and Oklahoma locations look a lot like southern California and southern Utah.  Not long at less than 90 minutes.  From some reason, the posters seem to emphasize a shirtless image of Ryan; he looks to be in good shape.  Later in his career, Ryan would play another Clanton:  Ike Clanton, nemesis of Wyatt Earp, in Hour of the Gun (1966).  It is tempting to see this as a sequel of sorts to Badman’s Territory (1946), a Randolph Scott movie that also featured the James gang in Quinto, and Lawrence Tierney as Jesse James.  Neither is very historical.

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Billy the Kid (1941)

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 10, 2014

Billy the Kid—Robert Taylor, Brian Donlevy, Ian Hunter, Mary Howard, Gene Lockhart, Lon Chaney, Jr., Guinn Williams (1941; Dir:  David Miller)


In color in 1941, so this was a large-budget production.  Robert Taylor (at 30 in his second western, already ten years older than Billy ever was) makes a very elegant and smooth Billy, clad all in black and often wearing a leather jacket when he’s in gunfighting mode.  Brian Donlevy is in a rare decent-guy role as Billy’s best friend Jim Sherwood, now working for good-guy rancher Eric Keating (Ian Hunter) and his sister Edith (Mary Howard) in New Mexico.  Keating undertakes to help Billy reform his life, and Billy even develops an interest in the sister.  But things aren’t destined to work out for the Keatings or for Billy. 

Keating is on his way to getting an edgy Billy back into a more accepatable legal status when Keating is killed by minions of bad-guy Lincoln County boss Hickey.  Billy goes completely off the rails, gets the bad guys and is in turn killed by Sherwood in kind of a “suicide by cop” scenario.  Billy uses his right (and supposedly slower) hand so Sherwood can beat him.  Some elements of the actual story remain with a number of changed names, but overall this is not very historical.  Keating, for example, is a stand-in for Billy’s English employer, rancher John Tunstall, whose murder touched off Billy’s most murderous period.  There is no sheriff Pat Garrett, and Billy’s death in the movie doesn’t bear much resemblance to how he was actually killed.  Billy is heavily romanticized and much better looking (and better dressed) than in real life.  However, this version of the story is worth watching, and is much better than Howard Hughes’ Billy the Kid movie The Outlaw released just a couple of years later. 


Robert Taylor as Billy, nattily dressed all in black with his gun on his left.  And a cleaned-up version of the only authenticated historical photograph of Billy, with his pistol on his left.  It is now thought that the historical image is flipped, and that Billy was in fact right-handed.

Frank Puglia is gratingly stereotypical as Billy’s Mexican friend Pedro Gonzalez, with an obviously dubbed singing voice and heavily swarthy make-up, before he is killed.  Lon Chaney, Jr., plays a thug working for Hickey (Gene Lockhart), the sleazily corrupt boss of Lincoln County for whom Billy initially goes to work.  As with Paul Newman 15 years later, Billy is played as left-handed with a gun as in the famous photograph, now thought to be reversed.  Fairly routine writing.  Filmed near Flagstaff, Arizona, although some of the scenery looks like Monument Valley.  For versions of Billy with more (but not complete) historicity, see The Left-Handed Gun, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and even Young Guns.


In 1941 aging former western movie star William S. Hart shows Robert Taylor his authenticated pistol once owned by the historical outlaw Billy the Kid.  The front sight is filed down for a faster draw.

If you want more information on the historical Billy, see To Hell on a Fast Horse:  Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and the Epic Chase to Justice in the Old West by Mark Lee Gardner (2010), Billy the Kid:  The Endless Ride by Michael Wallis (2008) or Billy the Kid:  A Short and Violent Life by Robert Utley (1991), among many other possibilities.



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Nicholas Chennault ~ March 24, 2014

Dallas—Gary Cooper, Ruth Roman, Raymond Massey, Leif Erickson, Steve Cochran (1950; Dir:  Stuart Heisler)


Clunky writing and unduly lurid names mar this otherwise ambitious effort.  In color and with Gary Cooper, this obviously had a good budget for a western in 1950.  It starts with a cameo appearance by Bill Hickok (Reed Hadley) as a marshal in Springfield, Missouri, who helps Blayde Hollister (Gary Cooper—see about the florid names?) stage his own death so that he won’t be followed by “wanted” posters in trying find the nefarious Marlow brothers. 

U.S. Marshal Martin Weatherby:  “But Marshal! This – this outlaw; if you don’t arrest him, I shall!”

Wild Bill Hickok:  “Outlaw?  Let me tell you something, son.  This ain’t Boston.  We had a war down here and you’ll find men in high offices who are thieves and cutthroats.  You’ll find others who are branded outlaws that are only fighting for what’s their own.  There’s those known as bad men and those as are bad men.  You better learn to tell the difference!”


Hollister, Weatherby and Hickok:  Instructing the inexperienced marshal.

Hollister is an unreconstructed Civil War veteran hunting evildoers who burned his place and slaughtered his family in Georgia during the war.  He befriends Martin Weatherby (Leif Erickson), an apparently incompetent U.S. marshal from Boston.  Weatherby’s on his way to Dallas to aid the family of his fiancée, Tonia Robles (Ruth Roman), and Hollister persuades him to change places, since Weatherby is not only inappropriately dressed but incompetent with a gun. 

Raymond Massey is the oldest and chief of the nefarious Marlow brothers, William, Cullen and Bryant.  Bryant (Steve Cochran) wears a Union kepi and two guns on two belts; he’s the most obvious and open gunman among the Marlow brothers.  William is apparently a respectable businessman, while actually being the mastermind of the Marlow operations.  Hollister kills Cullen soon after arriving in Dallas, and the question is how he’ll get the other two brothers. 

Tonia Robles:  “Do you know what Texas means?  It’s an Indian word for friends.  It’s a big land with room for everyone.  And you could be a part of it in time.”


The Marlows temporarily capture Hollister, and he shoots it out with Bryant.  Bryant tells him it was William who lit the fires in Georgia.  As Hollister heads for town to get William, the oldest Marlow brother gets out on the other side of town while Hollister’s real identity is revealed by one of his former men.  He pursues William toward Fort Worth, where William has been successful in arranging for a posse to capture the infamous Reb Hollister.  William heads back to Dallas to extort as much as he can from the Robles family before he departs for good.

Hollister escapes from jail with the posse in hot pursuit, heading for Dallas, where Tonia’s father Don Felipe has been trying to raise money.  He enters the Robles house disguised as the father, taking out William’s accomplices and getting into an extended gunfight with William.  Meanwhile the posse follows and runs into the rest of Marlow’s men, who are captured.  Of course Hollister wins the fight with William, who is turned over to the authorities.  Weatherby has meanwhile arranged for a full pardon for Hollister, and Tonia has fallen for Hollister as well.  Weatherby goes off to build a railroad.


This is watchable but not terribly memorable.  This formulaic stuff is what Gary Cooper’s career in westerns had come to before High Noon; it had a big enough budget but isn’t remotely among his best stuff.  He’s watchable but not particularly believable.  Ruth Roman may be the best thing in this movie.  (See her in The Far Country; she’s good in that, too.)  It has some modestly comic touches, many of which are intentional.

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Station West

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 22, 2014

Station West—Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Agnes Moorehead, Burl Ives, Gordon Oliver, Guinn Williams, Raymond Burr, Tom Powers, Regis Toomey (1948; Dir:  Sidney Lanfield)


“A STRANGER IN TOWN…WHERE STRANGERS WEREN’T WELCOME!…and he found out a gal double-crossed is Deadly as Poison!”

Well cast, Dick Powell’s only western is sometimes referred to as a noir western, mostly because stars Powell and Greer frequently found themselves in films noirs but also because of the flavor of the dialogue and the shadows in the cinematography.  This is a rare western for both Powell and Greer, and they’re both very good in it.

Powell is Haven, an undercover military man investigating the murder of two soldiers killed while transporting gold.  He gets a job working for Charlie (Jane Greer), the very attractive owner of the local saloon and many other enterprises around town.  There’s a well-staged fight between Haven and Mick Marion (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, playing Charlie’s chief thug instead of his usual quasi-comic relief).  The question seems mostly to be whether Charlie is centrally involved in local crime or whether it’s her right-hand man Prince (Gordon Oliver) who’s doing it. 


Haven (Dick Powell) and Charlie (Jane Greer) figure things out.

Chemistry develops between Charlie and Haven.  Agnes Moorehead plays a mine owner and romantic interest of the local post commander (Tom Powers).  Burl Ives is a singing hotel clerk and one-man Greek chorus as he comments on the action.  “A man can’t grow old where there’s women and gold.”  Both Ives and Greer sing, quite pleasantly.

In the end, Haven shoots Prince but Prince shoots Charlie while going for Haven.  Turns out that Haven and Charlie are in love, but that’s not going to work out.  There is snappy film-noir-style dialogue; this is based on a story by Luke Short, usually a good source for a western.  It seemed that not all the plot threads were resolved in the end, but it was pleasant to watch.  This might make a good double feature with Rancho Notorious, Blood on the Moon or Colorado Territory.  Above average; shot in Sedona, Arizona, in black and white with lots of shadows, at 80 minutes.  Good cinematography by Harry Wild.

Burl Ives was surprisingly interesting to watch in westerns.  He was in five or six of them, of which this is an early one and the only one in which he sings.  In his two best, from the late 1950s, he played strong leaders, very effectively:  The Big Country and Day of the Outlaw.

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The Proposition

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 21, 2014

The Proposition—Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, David Wenham, Emily Watson, Richard Wilson, Danny Huston, John Hurt (2005; Dir:  John Hillcoat)


This Australian western features terrific performances from Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley and Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns, a captured member of the outlaw Burns gang headed by his brother Arthur.  In the 1880s, the Burns gang has long been pursued ineffectively by Captain Stanley, raiding, plundering, ravishing women and then disappearing into the outback.  Finally, in the wake of the rape and murder of the Hopkins family, Stanley captures the two younger Burns brothers:  middle brother Charlie and his mentally-impaired 14-year-old brother Mikey (Richard Wilson).  But he really wants oldest brother Arthur, who runs the gang.  Stanley gives Charlie the Proposition of the title:  He’ll turn Charlie loose and give him nine days to kill brother Arthur.  If he doesn’t do that within the nine days, Stanley will hang brother Mikey on Christmas Day.  Charlie has to choose which brother will live–the sweeter and not-responsible-for-his-actions Mikey, or the intelligent and charismatic but violent, nasty and wild Arthur.  And he will be the instrument of the death of whichever dies.

PropositionWinstoneWinstone as Capt. Stanley.

Pearce heads into the outback, not sure what he’ll do or how he’ll do it.  Meanwhile, Stanley is overseen by government bureaucrat Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) and deals with the fragility of his cultured wife Martha (Emily Watson) in this rough setting.  The more we see of the Burns gang, in flashbacks and in current action, the more we realize what a horrible bad guy Arthur is, and our sympathies start shifting around.  Maybe Arthur could somehow get the government bureaucrat, and then Stanley could get him?  But it doesn’t work out that way.  Arthur and what’s left of the gang continue their furious, and almost mindlessly violent, depredations. 

Charlie encounters possibly-mad bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt).  He is captured and wounded by aborigines, but is rescued by Arthur and the gang.  As he recuperates from his wounds he has to come to terms with how he’ll react to Stanley’s Proposition.  In the end, the Burns gang comes to Stanley (violently–they do everything violently), and Charlie is appalled by it all.

By hearing the premise, you’d think that Stanley is a monster and Pearce not much better, but they turn out to be the most sympathetic characters in the film.  There is marvelous cinematography by Benoit Delhomme and excellent use of the bleak Australian outback landscape, which becomes one of the characters.  The loathsome government bureaucrat is well-played by David Wenham.  You feel it when Winstone’s plot breaks apart.  Winstone and Pearce are excellent in as Capt. Stanley and Charlie Burns.  The production design is very good, too. The effective music was composed and performed by musician Nick Cave (who also wrote the script) and violinist Warren Ellis.

PropositionGang The remaining Burns gang.

The film is not without its weaknesses; the pacing, for example, is too slow.  It has some of the weaknesses of spaghetti westerns, i.e., lingering tight close-ups on faces, flies and dust that don’t advance plot or character understanding much; and there are strange and loathsome soldiers/police/townspeople without giving us much understanding of them.  Emily Watson’s character (the cultured wife of Captain Stanley) is a little spooky, although she’s written that way.  That is, Watson is a good actress and the weakness is in the writing and direction.  It makes her too much just a symbol.  There is poor linking of motivation with the actions of Arthur Burns (Danny Huston, son of director/actor John Huston and grandson of  actor Walter Huston).  Is he just a psychopathic monster, despite his obvious intelligence and literary flair?  He’s interesting in a way, but just too unintelligible.  There is too much dust and not enough exposition, perhaps.  Too much strong language.  The biggest problem:  Over-the-top graphic violence.  It makes Arthur Burns seem like Freddy Kruger.  It is rated R for the violence and language.


Brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Arthur (Danny Huston) at the end.

There are echoes of Sam Peckinpah in the graphic violence, and of Sergio Leone in some of the ways the film was shot.  Roger Ebert gave it 4 out of a possible 4 stars, describing the film as a “A movie you cannot turn away from; it is so pitiless and uncompromising, so filled with pathos and disregarded innocence, that it is a record of those things we pray to be delivered from.”  Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly called it “A pitiless yet elegiac Australian Western as caked with beauty as it is with blood.”

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