Tag Archives: Raoul Walsh

Pursued

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 24, 2015

Pursued—Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Judith Anderson, Dean Jagger, John Rodney, Alan Hale, Harry Carey, Jr. (1947; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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This is a western noir, known as the first of that subgenre.  It is also a range melodrama with overtones of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca.  A not-entirely-clear past haunts and, to some extent, determines the course of the present.  The lead here is Robert Mitchum, the same year that he did the marvelous Out of the Past and one year before another of his best westerns noirs, Blood on the Moon.  The moving spirit behind this production appears to have been novelist and screenwriter Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun, The Furies), then a well-known writer.  He was married to Teresa Wright at the time.

The movie opens with a scene in a long-derelict ranch house in Glorieta Township, New Mexico Territory, early in the 20th century.  Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) enters the place, finding Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum), who seems to be the subject of the title.  She tells him that she’s not coming with him; he claims he was able to tell that just by looking at her.  The rest of the story is told in flashback.

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Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) and Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) confront both the past and a dim future.

As a child, young Jeb Rand is under a trap door in that same ranch house, terrorized by flashes of light and large flashing spurs, which will haunt his dreams for the rest of the movie.  Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), crawling across the floor, rescues him and adopts him as one of her family, along with her daughter Thor (short for Thorley) and son Adam.  Thor and Jeb grow up fond of each other, but Jeb and Adam have an up-and-down relationship with frequent fights.  One day Jeb accuses Adam of having shot a colt he was riding.  Mrs. Callum says it was deer hunters, but she knew it was her one-armed brother-in-law Grant Callum (Dean Jagger), who seems determined to kill the boy but now agrees to let him grow up.

When Jeb (Robert Mitchum) reaches adulthood, he loves Thor but still has a wary relationship with Adam (John Rodney).  They toss a coin to see who will go fight in the Spanish-American War; Jeb goes.  He becomes a war hero and is wounded, returning to the Callum ranch.  He plans to leave the ranch with Thor, and as he returns to make his departure, a figure ambushes him from a high ridge.  Jeb shoots back and hits the figure; it’s Adam.  He is acquitted at an inquest, at which he is prosecuted by Grant Callum, but Mrs. Callum and Thor do not forgive him.

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Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) does not depart on good terms with the Callums (Judith Anderson and Teresa Wright, with John Rodney prostrate on the ground).

[Spoilers follow.]  Jeb goes into a partnership with the saloon owner Jake Dingle (Alan Hale) and attends a dance to see Thor, who is dating young Prentice (Harry Carey, Jr.), son of the general store owner.  Grant Callum goads Prentice into following and shooting at Jeb, intending to finish the job if necessary, until he is stopped by Jake Dingle. The result is the death of Prentice, further estranging Jeb from the Callums—until Thor appears to start to change toward him, encouraging his suit.  As she explains to her mother, she’ll encourage him until they’re married, and then she’ll kill him.

But Jeb can read her mind, and provides her with a gun on their wedding night.  She switches again, and now loves him again.  But as they speak the house is surrounded by Grant and other Callums with guns.  Jeb makes his escape, with Thor agreeing to meet him at the old ranch house, resulting in the opening scene.  But the Callums show up, too, and they position Jeb for a hanging with a noose around his neck.  A wagon draws up, and it’s Mrs. Callum.  Jeb realizes what was going on the night she found him.  The flashes of light were gunfire, and the spurs were his father’s the night he was killed by Grant and other Callums.  Mrs. Callum had been having an affair with the senior Rand, and that is the root of Grant’s hatred and pursuit of Jeb.  Mrs. Callum stops the hanging by blasting Grant with a rifle, and Jeb and Thor (who has apparently changed her mind again) ride off together.

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It looks like the Callums will finally get Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum).

The best performance here is by Judith Anderson as Mrs. Callum, although Dean Jagger is good as the implacable Grant Callum.  Anderson reinforces the similarities with Rebecca, since it was her role as the fierce Mrs. Danvers that hung over that gothic tale.  Her only other western was The Furies, directed by Anthony Mann and also written by Niven Busch.  Robert Mitchum does well as Jeb Rand, the Heathcliff figure, although he is mostly impassive.  Teresa Wright is too sweet-seeming an actress to make the vengeful Thor believable, and, as written, seems to change her motivations abruptly more than once.  Heightening the noir sensibility, a whiff of forbidden sexuality, both past and present, hangs over the film.

Director Raoul Walsh could do well with noir-oriented westerns, as he does here; see his Colorado Territory (1949), with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo.  Music is by Max Steiner.  The brilliant black-and-white cinematography is by James Wong Howe; note the use of the canyons and rocks of the southwest (this was shot around Gallup, New Mexico), and the intricate lighting of the night scenes to heighten the noir feel.  101 minutes long.

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A Distant Trumpet

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 23, 2015

A Distant Trumpet—Troy Donahue, Suzanne Pleshette, James Gregory, Diane McBain, Claude Akins, William Reynolds (1964; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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This ambitious film is a highly fictionalized retelling of the surrender of Geronimo (here called War Eagle) and the supposed role of young Lt. Gatewood (here called Matt Hazard) and Gen. George Crook (here named Alexander Upton Quait).  It’s all based on a novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Paul Horgan, and it’s famed director Raoul Walsh’s last western, and his last movie of any kind.

Fresh from West Point, young 2nd Lt. Matt Hazard (Troy Donahue) is sent to dusty Fort Delivery in southern Arizona Territory, where boredom seems as much an adversary as War Eagle’s Apaches, lurking over the border in Mexico’s Sierra Madres.  Bringing with him White Cloud as an Apache scout, he finds the men at Fort Delivery lax and undisciplined.  The temporary commander of the fort is Lt. Mainwaring (William Reynolds), whose wife Kitty (Suzanne Pleshette) is the only woman at the post.  Mainwaring leads a detail off to retrieve long-requisitioned replacement mounts, while Kitty is supposed to head back to Washington, D.C.  While out collecting lumber, Hazard and his detail are attacked.  The men react badly and flee; Hazard fights and is separated from them.  He rescues Kitty Mainwaring, who was also attacked by Indians, and they spend the night in a cave together before returning to the fort.  Hazard’s attentions are now consumed more by Kitty than they are by his own distant fiancée Laura Frelief (a very blonde Diane McBain), niece to bachelor Gen. Alexander Upton Quait (James Gregory), a famous Apache fighter.

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Lt. Hazard (Troy Donahue) rescues Kitty Mainwaring (Suzanne Pleshette).

Mrs. Kitty Mainwaring:  “You’re a hard man, a duty man.  It’s your only love, really.”
2nd Lt. Matt Hazard:  “Is there a better kind?”
Mrs. Kitty Mainwaring:  “Well, speaking as a normal woman, yes; as an Army woman, no.”

Hazard works at shaping up the men, including the uncooperative Sgt. Kroger.  He also resists the corrupting influence of Seely Jones (Claude Akins) and his troop of prostitutes.  While on patrol, Hazard finds Mainwaring and his men all killed, and uses the opportunity to steal back the remounts and other horses from the Apaches.  Upon returning to the fort, he finds Laura there, along with a new commanding officer, Maj. Hiram Prescott.  Hazard seems more attracted to the newly-widowed Kitty Mainwaring than to Laura, and Laura senses that while making plans for them to be married as quickly as possible.

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Kitty Mainwaring (Suzanne Pleshette) and Laura the fiancee (Diane McBain) engage in a little verbal sparring.

An inquiry led by Gen. Quait seems to take Hazard and Prescott to task, but it’s a sham.  Quait is impressed by Hazard as he leads his men into a battle which is technically a victory but results in War Eagle retreating into Mexico again.  Hazard is sent with White Cloud to persuade War Eagle to surrender on generous terms from Quait.  When Hazard returns successfully, he finds that Quait is no longer in charge, that the terms have been changed, and that all the Indians, including the faithful White Cloud, are to be sent to Florida.

Hazard is summoned to Washington, where he is awarded the Medal of Honor for his feat and promoted to captain long before he otherwise would have been.  Feeling betrayed, however, he and Quait both resign in an attempt to get Pres. Chester Arthur to reverse some of the decisions made.  In the end, Capt. Hazard is shown commanding Fort Delivery and married to Kitty Mainwaring.

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At the big battle.

Troy Donahue and Suzanne Pleshette had enjoyed success with 1962’s Rome Adventure, and Warner Bros. apparently thought their casting in this cavalry tale would appeal to younger audiences.  The year this film was released, Donahue (real name: Merle Johnson) and and Pleshette were married in January and divorced in September.  (Donahue was married four times, and none of the marriages lasted longer than a couple of years.)  Donahue was very attractive in a blonde, hunky sort of way, but as an actor he was limited, and his film career was entering its downhill side as his limitations became more apparent.  The romantic triangle in this film looks doomed from the start, with the fiancée (Diane McBain) played rather unattractively.  Neither 77-year-old director Walsh nor star Donahue would ever make another western; Suzanne Pleshette would show up again in a few years in the comedy Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), with James Garner and Jack Elam.

Obviously intended as a large-budget epic, the movie feels more lightweight than that.  It is visually impressive, with excellent cinematography by William Clothier, and music by Max Steiner.  Shot in color on location in northern Arizona and around Gallup, New Mexico, at 117 minutes.

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Lt. Hazard and White Cloud on their big mission.

A better version of the Geronimo-Gatewood story, using the real names, is Walter Hill’s Geronimo:  An American Legend (1993), with Jason Patric, Matt Damon, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman.  In fact, after Gen. George Crook had done the hard work of getting Geronimo to surrender (a second time), he was supplanted by Nelson Miles, who took the credit and shipped both Geronimo and the Apache scouts who had supported the cavalry off to Florida.  Geronimo died in 1911 at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, having never seen his homeland in Arizona again.  The real disillusioned Lt. Gatewood did not receive the Medal of Honor.

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The King and Four Queens

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 19, 2015

The King and Four Queens—Clark Gable, Eleanor Parker, Jo Van Fleet, Jean Willes, Barbara Nichols, Sara Shane (1956; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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In 1956, Clark Gable was 55 and his career was fading after 25 lustrous years in Hollywood.  MGM had not renewed his contract, and he was scrambling for work.  This was the second of three westerns he made with director Raoul Walsh, between The Tall Men and Band of Angels (a Civil War movie set in and around New Orleans).  He had long been known as the King in Hollywood, but that was becoming less true.

At the start of the movie, gambler Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable) is on the run from a posse and gets away only by riding down steep hills where they won’t go.  He finds himself in the town of Touchstone in the southwest, where he hears about the McDade family of outlaw brothers, based at a nearby ranch called Wagon Mound.  After pulling off a bank robbery for $100,000, the four brothers had been trapped in a barn.  In the following melée and fire, three of the brothers were burned to death, but one escaped with the loot.  Nobody knows who the surviving brother was.  Since then, the remaining inhabitants of Wagon Mound shoot anybody who approaches the ranch.

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Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet) lays down the law to a wounded Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable).

More than a bit of a con man, Kehoe smells a situation he can play to his advantage.  He rides up to Wagon Mound, ignoring the signs telling him to stay away, and is promptly shot by Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet)—just a shoulder wound, though.  He awakens in a ranch house, tended by Sabina McDade (Eleanor Parker), wife of Boone, and quickly meets Ruby (Jean Willes), wife of Roy, Oralie (Sara Shane), wife of Matt, and Birdie (Barbara Nichols), wife of Prince McDade. They’ve been at the ranch for two years, waiting to find out whose husband survives and to split up the loot when the survivor returns.  The local sheriff is keeping watch for the wanted survivor, too.  There’s a reward of $5000 for him, and $5,000 for the return of the stolen gold.

Strong-willed Ma wants to get rid of Kehoe as quickly as possible, but he helps them by backing off the sheriff and a posse when they come to Wagon Mound.  He tells the sheriff he’ll find the gold and ring a mission bell when the surviving McDade shows up.  Then he tells Ma what he’d told the sheriff, and she agrees to let him stay until the rains come, as they will shortly.  He spends the time getting to know all four of the daughters-in-law, who are intrigued/attracted by the new man in their midst.  The none-too-bright Birdie has a stage background in Chicago.  The dark Ruby (she wears red) has always used a sexual combustibility to control men. The prim and repressed Oralie has her own quieter attractions.  And the intelligent, red-haired Sabina is biding her time and is more careful with Kehoe.  They all want to get out of there and get on with their lives, and three of them do their best to seduce Kehoe.  Ma doesn’t trust him at all, nor does Sabina.

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The Queens: Birdie (Barbara Nicholls), Oralie (Sara Shane), Ruby (Jean Willes) and Sabina (Eleanor Parker).

[Spoilers follow]  Ma is right not to trust Kehoe.  He watches until he thinks he has identified where the gold is hidden in a grave.  As the rain comes and he must leave, Kehoe makes a run for it with Sabina and the gold in a wagon.  But before they’re out of sight of the ranch, Ma rings the bell, bringing the sheriff (unreasonably quickly, it seems).  Kehoe sends Sabina on with $5000 and stays behind to give the rest of the gold to the sheriff, telling them he’s keeping $5000 as the promised reward.

As Kehoe looks to meet Sabina at their rendezvous point, the priest who had been keeping Kehoe’s money says he gave it to Sabina, who had told him she was going south.  But her wagon went in another direction, and Kehoe follows that.  He finds Sabina waiting for him on the trail.  She tells him Boone was the surviving brother, and she met him (and did not marry him) the night before he was killed.  Pretending to be Boone’s wife, she’s been waiting for a split of the loot.  None of the outlaw McDade brothers survive.  She and Kehoe ride off together into the sunset.

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Sabina (Eleanor Parker) and Kehoe (Clark Gable) negotiate.

The King and Four Queens was the first (and last) project from Gable’s own production company, GABCO.  Gable has the kind of presence to pull off this role, even if he was getting long in the tooth and had to crash diet to get in shape for it.  Eleanor Parker was the biggest other name in the cast, and she’s good.  During a brief heyday of several years in the 1950s, she appeared in three westerns:  Escape from Fort Bravo with William Holden (1953, the best of them), Many Rivers to Cross with Robert Taylor (1955) and this one.  The other “queens” in the cast are not particularly memorable, although they do well enough.  Jo Van Fleet, who is persuasive as Ma McDade, was actually 14 years younger than Gable.  She also turned in a good performance the same year as Doc Holliday’s girl friend Kate Fisher in Gunfight at the OK Corral.  The film as a whole is watchable but not terribly memorable.

The principal writer was Margaret Fitts, who also wrote the very good Stars in My Crown (1950); unfortunately the writing is not strong here.  Excellent cinematography in color by Lucien Ballard; shot on location in southern Utah.  86 minutes long.

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The posters showing Gable in a gunfighter’s stance are inaccurate; he doesn’t use guns much in this movie.  A version of this story, with multiple parties trying to find the loot of three deceased outlaw brothers by following and otherwise harassing their attractive young widows was made in 2006 with more of a feminist twist as The Far Side of Jericho.  This original was better.

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Silver River

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mrs. Moore and McComb finally get together.

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

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

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

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Gun Fury

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 30, 2014

Gun Fury—Rock Hudson, Donna Reed, Philip Carey, Leo Gordon, Pat Hogan, Roberta Haynes, Lee Marvin, Neville Brand (1953; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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Three of the principal characters in this western from the early 1950s are still wallowing in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ben Warren (Rock Hudson in an early starring role) fought for the Union, has had more than enough killing and now wants only to marry his fiancée Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) and live on his large California ranch.  He doesn’t even wear a gun any more.  Jennifer is from Atlanta and is anxious to start a new life where the the desolation of Sherman’s March is not remembered.  And Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) is an embittered former Confederate, now an outlaw in the southwest.

As the film starts, Jennifer is on a stage carrying a large amount of gold and two former Southern gentlemen, along with a cavalry escort.  They stop in Haynesville, Arizona Territory, where Jennifer is meeting her future husband Ben.  He joins the stage passengers, and after it takes off Ben and Jennifer discover that the two Southerners are the noted outlaws Frank Slayton and Jess Morgan (Leo Gordon), and their new cavalry escort are Slayton’s men.  They rob the stage and think they’ve killed Warren, and Slayton abducts Jennifer, for whom he has developed a fascination.

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Strangers on a stagecoach:  Slayton (Phil Carey), Morgan (Leo Gordon), Warren (Rock Hudson), Ballard (Donna Reed), and a real stranger.

Slayton and Morgan have a falling out over the abduction, and Slayton leaves Morgan tied to a corral post for the buzzards.  Meanwhile, Warren discovers he isn’t really dead and takes one of the stagecoach horses in pursuit.  He releases Morgan, and they join forces to pursue Slayton for vengeance and to rescue Jennifer.  They are joined by an Indian Johash (Pat Hogan), whose sister was also taken by Slayton’s men in an earlier raid on Taos.

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Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) leaves Jess Morgan (Leo Gordon) to die.

As Slayton and his men get closer to the Mexican border, Morgan and Warren find a couple of his men buying supplies in a town and kill one of them.  Now Slayton knows they are following.  He stops by a village notable for its cantina and Mexican ladies of easy virtue, where Slayton has a girl Estella Morales (Roberta Haynes).  He has Jennifer cleaned up and has his way with her, although the camera doesn’t show that very explicitly.  Estella is enraged at being abandoned so casually.  Slayton makes a deal with Warren and Burgess: he’ll trade Jennifer back to Warren in exchange for Burgess.  Although Warren isn’t minded to make that trade, not trusting Slayton in the slightest, Burgess insists he can take Slayton.  It doesn’t work, and Burgess is killed.

Now it’s Warren and Johash against Slayton and the remainder of his band of outlaws.  Estella tries to get Slayton and is killed for her pains.  It comes finally, as we knew it would, to former pacifist Warren and the ruthless outlaw Slayton.  Just when it looks like Slayton has the advantage, it turns out he has forgotten Johash, and Slayton ends with a knife in his back.  Warren and Jennifer ride off to their California ranch.

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Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) is fit to be tied; Ben Warren (Rock Hudson) seeks vengeance.

This is one of three movies from 1953 in which director Raoul Walsh used his new discovery Rock Hudson. (The Lawless Breed and Sea Devils are the other two.)  None of them are particularly memorable.  Like Hondo, this film was made in the 3-D process that was all the rage that year, and the camerawork, especially in the second half, shows the usual evidence of that in the angles of thrown objects, striking rattlesnakes and such.  Carey as the sociopathic outlaw Slayton and Leo Gordon as the vengeful Jess Burgess give the best performances in the cast.  Leo Gordon was just breaking into movies, the same year that he played Ed Lowe (Geraldine Page’s despicable husband, shot by John Wayne) in Hondo.

Donna Reed is beautiful but nothing special as Jennifer (she’s more notable in Hangman’s Knot and Backlash later in the decade, for example), and Rock Hudson was never a dazzling actor, but he was more wooden here than he would be later in his career.  Lee Marvin and Neville Brand have early roles as members of Slayton’s gang, but they have neither enough lines nor enough camera time to distinguish themselves here.  Roberta Haynes is modestly interesting in a limited role as Mexican spitfire Estella, but one does feel that actual Mexican Katy Jurado could have done it better, and that the smoldering Linda Darnell did do it better in My Darling Clementine.

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The script by Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins is fine, based on Kathleen George’s novel Ten Against Caesar.  Warren has interesting exchanges with lawmen and townsfolk of the small towns he and Burgess go through in their pursuit, as he tries without success to get some help.  The title of the movie doesn’t mean anything in particular, which was common enough with westerns of that era.  One does expect better camera work from the experienced director Walsh; camera placement and angles here often telegraph what’s coming.  The one-eyed Walsh could not himself see the 3-D results of his work, but he had done better westerns—Colorado Territory, for example.  Shot on location in Sedona, Arizona.  83 minutes.

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The Lawless Breed

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 7, 2014

The Lawless Breed—Rock Hudson, Julia (Julie) Adams, John McIntire, Mary Castle, Lee Van Cleef, Hugh O’Brian, Dennis Weaver, Michael Ansara (1953; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)

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Rock Hudson in his first significant starring role plays John Wesley Hardin, a misunderstood young man with strong interests in guns, gambling and horse racing; he’s also a killer and eventually a family man.  His story is told in flashback after his release from prison.  Initially young Hardin is oppressed by his preacher-father, played by John McIntire looking like John Brown.  McIntire in a second role also plays Hardin’s more understanding (and less religious) rancher-uncle John Clements.  Mary Castle is Jane Brown, Hardin’s foster sister and fiancée (until she gets shot). 

This is a very melodramatic, sympathetic and not terribly factual look at the sociopathic killer.  Hardin claims “I never killed any one who didn’t try to kill me first.”  Julia Adams as his saloon-girl wife Rosie is lovely as always.  In this account, Hardin is hounded into killing by the brothers of his initial victim (Michael Ansara; the brothers are played by Hugh O’Brian, Glenn Strange and Lee Van Cleef).  In the end, Hardin is released from prison in Huntsville after serving 16 years, shakes hands with the warden in unlikely fashion, and goes home to Alabama, where he finds his 16-year-old son (Race Gentry) has taken up a gun and is about to get himself in a fight in a saloon.  He breaks up the fight, gets shot in the back and goes home to live happily ever after.  Apparently he died on the saloon floor in the original ending, but audiences didn’t like it. 

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Hardin (Rock Hudson) with doomed fiancee Jane Brown (Mary Castle); a grieving Hardin takes up with saloon girl and eventual wife Rosie (Julia Adams).

In this, young Hudson is kind of a wooden actor.  This was the first of three films director Raoul Walsh made with Hudson in 1953, along with swashbuckler Sea Devils and 3D western Gun FuryIn color.  Note character actor Francis Ford, brother of director John Ford, as a saloon sweeper.  This version of Hardin’s life is an obvious attempt to white-wash one of the west’s nastiest gunfighters.  In real life, the ill-tempered Hardin was no family man, may have killed as many as 43 men (by his claim), practiced law (sort of) when he got out of jail, and drifted to a saloon in El Paso, where he was shot in the back of the head by John Selman the year after he was released.  He did, however, write down his version of his life, upon which this movie claims to be based.

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If you want to read about the real Hardin, check out Leon C. Metz’ John Wesley Hardin:  Dark Angel of Texas (1998).

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The Tall Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 28, 2014

The Tall Men—Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan, Cameron Mitchell, Juan Garcia, Emile Meyer (1955; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)

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Title card:  “Montana Territory – 1866.  They came from the South, headed for the goldfields…  Ben and Clint Allison, lonely and desperate men. Riding away from a heartbreak memory of Gettysburg.  Looking for a new life.  A story of tall men – and long shadows.”

Brothers Ben (Clark Gable) and Clint Allison (Cameron Mitchell), Texans and Confederate veterans, find themselves in Mineral City, Montana, in 1866 during a blizzard.  Ben, who is often referred to as “Colonel” throughout the movie, rode with Quantrill during the war, and the brothers have not found their way home, nor have they found a purpose or much money.  They see Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan) with $20,000 and try to rob him.  In return, he makes a counter-proposal.  He wants to buy cattle in Texas at $3 to $4 a head and drive them to Mineral City, where he can get $50 a head for them.  They decide to join Stark in that enterprise.

The three ride south toward Texas and find themselves in Colorado Territory during another blizzard.  They encounter a starving migrant group including Nella Turner (Jane Russell), share a meal and keep moving.  They find Sioux sign a bit later; Stark and Clint keep moving toward Bent’s trading post; Ben goes back to warn the migrants.  The Sioux find them first, and the only survivor is Nella.  Ben and Nella wait out the storm in a cabin and trade stories.  Ben’s dream is to start his own ranch on “Prairie Dog Creek” in Texas.  Nella has grown up on a hardscrabble ranch and wants no more of that life, although the two are attracted to each other.  Eventually they make it to San Antonio, Texas, where they are reunited with Stake and Clint.

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Ben (Clark Gable) and Nella (Jane Russell) waiting out the blizzard.

Ben as the trail boss hires former Confederates and mostly vaqueros headed by Luis (Juan Garcia) to drive 5000 cattle the 1500 miles to Montana.  Nella hooks up with Stark, who promises her half of the Montana Territory.  Stark brings her along on the trail drive over Ben’s objections, so she’s a continuing source of tension between the two.  As they approach Kansas, Jayhawkers demand $1 per head to allow the herd to pass, and Stark is inclined to pay it.  Ben isn’t, and the drovers shoot it out with the Jayhawkers with no casualties to themselves.

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Clint (Cameron Mitchell), Ben (Clark Gable) and Stark (Robert Ryan) face Jayhawkers at the Kansas border.

As they move on toward Wyoming, there are increasing signs of Indian trouble.  It is the middle of Red Cloud’s War, and the army in Wyoming Territory won’t let the herd keep going up the Bozeman Trail to the Montana mining towns.  Stark is inclined to turn the herd back to Abilene and sell it there; Ben wants to push ahead notwithstanding Red Cloud’s Sioux.  As usual, Ben wins.  Meanwhile, Clint is drinking more and there is bad blood between Clint and Stark.  During one confrontation, Stark demonstrates that he is better with a gun than Clint.  While riding point, Clint is killed by Indians, and Ben finds his arrow-filled body tied to a tree.

Ben and Stark find their way blocked by the hostile Sioux.  In a stirring sequence, Ben and his men stampede the herd through the Indians, and they soon find themselves outside of Mineral City.  Stark goes in to sell the cattle, and Ben follows with the herd.  At Stark’s office in the back room of a saloon, Stark divides up the money and then invites the local vigilance committee to take and hang Ben.  Ben reciprocates with the support of his more numerous vaqueros, and makes good his exit with his share of the money and Stark’s reluctant admiration.  Obviously the two never trusted each other, although they worked together on the long ride from Montana to Texas and the drive back north.

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Ben finds himself in a stand-off with Stark’s vigilantes in Mineral City.

Nathan Stark to the vigilantes:  “There goes the only man I ever respected.  He’s what every boy thinks he’s going to be when he grows up and wishes he had been when he’s an old man.”

As Ben arrives back at the camp preparing to head back to Texas, he finds Nella there.  She has decided Texas ranching with Ben is more to her taste than half of Montana Territory with Stark.

Clark Gable turns in a strong performance as trail boss Ben Allison.  Robert Ryan’s Nathan Stark is written to be stiff and not very sympathetic, although he is presumably one of the tall men of the title.  His final comment on Ben Allison (above) seems heavy-handed and unnecessary.  Jane Russell is not a very good actress, and the time given to development of her character during the movie slows things down.  Her recurrent singing quickly becomes tiresome.  The part needed either to be smaller or to have a better actress.  Russell does not manage to be interesting even during the obligatory bathing-in-the-river scene.

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This is not one of director Raoul Walsh’s better westerns, but there are some good touches.  For example, the lowering of wagons down cliffs reminds us of a similar scene from Walsh’s The Big Trail twenty-five years earlier.  The stampede-through-the-Indians scene is stirring.  This cattle drive western is obviously reminiscent of Howard HawksRed River, and interestingly Hawks’ younger brother William is a producer on this film.  The screenwriters are Sidney Boehm and the veteran Frank Nugent (who often worked with John Ford), and the writing is mostly unremarkable.  The excellent music is by Victor Young (Wells Fargo [1937], North West Mounted Police [1940], Rio Grande [1950], Johnny Guitar [1954] and most memorably Shane [1953]), who died the next year at the age of 56.  It was shot in color around Durango, Mexico, which is why some of the trail drive scenes look more like desert than they should for the northern plains.

Although Gable is quite watchable in this, none of his westerns turn out to be all that memorable.  He didn’t appear in westerns until the 1950s, when they were more respectable than they had been earlier in his career.  He was a mountain man in the poorly edited Across the Wide Missouri (1951), and Lone Star (1952) was better.  A King and Four Queens (1957), also directed by Walsh toward the end of his career, is at best undistinguished and not much seen these days.

Based on a novel by Clay Fisher, this is obviously also based on the real-life trail drive of Nelson Story from Texas to Montana in 1866, during Red Cloud’s War.  The real Nelson Story seems to have been more admirable than Nathan Stark, although he had his hard edges, too.  There are some historical anomalies.  If Ben and Clint Allison rode with Quantrill, for example, they never came anywhere close to Gettysburg during the war, although they refer to it.  Presumably the town of Mineral City is standing in for the western Montana mining towns of Virginia City and Bannack, which were about the only parts of Montana inhabited in 1866.  Those towns had memorable vigilantes, too.  The story of a trail drive from Texas to Montana has been depicted much better and with much more complexity in Lonesome Dove, of course.H

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The Big Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 23, 2014

The Big Trail—John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, Tyrone Power, Charles Stevens, Tully Marshall, Ian Keith, El Brendel (1930; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)

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This early talkie is interesting for two innovations:  (1) 20th Century Fox was introducing its new proprietary “Grandeur” 70 mm widescreen picture format, more than twenty years before such widescreen images became common in movies, and (2) director Raoul Walsh selected for the lead a young man (23) who would become the most enduring star in westerns of the 20th century—John Wayne.  Unfortunately the new widescreen format required extensive retooling of theatrical exhibition equipment and projection rooms, and in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s, few exhibitors had the funds to make those changes.  John Wayne would have to wait almost a decade for stardom, and widescreen formats would have to wait another twenty years.

John Wayne was a tall, good-looking former USC football player who had first gotten into movies during the 1920s by working as a prop man.  John Ford and others used him as an extra and in bit parts, but it was Raoul Walsh who first gave him a leading role here, as Breck Coleman, the scout for a wagon train headed west from Missouri.  Coleman is looking for the murderers who had killed his best friend, a trapper, and stolen his wolf pelts.  He decides to go along with the wagon train when he sees clues that the murderers might be with the train and when he is attracted to Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), a young woman heading west with her brother and sister.  Red Flack, the rough wagon master (Tyrone Power Sr.), is not fond of Coleman, but there is nothing he can do.  Gambler/gunman Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith) also joins the train to avoid being hung and because he too wants Ruth.

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Young John Wayne as scout Breck Coleman; Tully Marshall and Marguerite Churchill as Zeke and Ruth Cameron.

As they head west across the plains, Coleman becomes more certain that Flack and his henchman Lopez (Charles Stevens) are his friend’s murderers, and Thorpe joins forces with them.  While Coleman is off hunting buffalo with a couple of Indian scouts, Thorpe ambushes him and sees him fall.  Thorpe, Flack and Lopez are surprised when he makes it back to camp with only a bullet hole in his saddle and no horse.

The wagon train encounters the usual difficulties:  hostile Indians, tough river crossings, steep canyon walls, heavy rains and other forms of rough country.  Thorpe persuades Ruth Cameron to leave the wagon train and head for California with him.  As Coleman goes off to visit a friend, he is followed by Thorpe.  When Thorpe draws his pistols to shoot Coleman in the back, he is instead shot by Coleman’s friend Zeke (Tully Marshall).  For a moment, the entire camp, including Ruth, believe that Coleman is a murderer, until Zeke comes to his defense.  Now the Cameron wagon has to stay with the main train.

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In snowy mountains, many are tempted to turn back until Coleman gives an impassioned speech, renewing their heart to forge on.  Flack and Lopez abandon the wagon train, but Coleman sees the train through to their destination in “the country beyond Oregon” (the tall trees look more like northern California).  Ruth has finally decided she loves Coleman and begs him to stay with them.  But he goes in search of Flack and Lopez, this time with a speech about how a man must make his own justice out west.  By the time he finds them, Lopez has frozen to death, and Coleman gets the nefarious Flack just as Flack is trying to shoot him.

As spring arrives in the pioneer valley, Ruth has decided that Coleman did not survive his dangerous mission of revenge or justice.  But she encounters him in the tall trees, and their love is renewed.  Fade to black, with symphonic music.

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Coleman and the villainous Red Flack (Tyrone Power); Coleman and Ruth Cameron.

The visuals are the best part of this movie, shot by cinematographer Arthur Edeson.  It was conceived as an epic when it was made, at the then-huge cost of $2 million.  It had a large cast and was shot on location in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and northern California, and the great natural beauty of the western vistas shows up on the wide screen with a lot of depth.  It was made in the early days of sound movies, and the recording equipment was still pretty primitive, especially when used outdoors, where almost all of this movie was shot.  Since theaters that could show the film in 70 mm were rare (at the time of its release, only Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles and the Roxy in New York City had the equipment for a film shot in the Fox Grandeur process), the film was simultaneously shot in the usual 35 mm format.  (Actually, five versions were shot on location, with French, German and Spanish language versions, mostly with different casts, accounting for the other three.)  

If you’re going to watch it now, see the restored version, at 122 minutes.  “A financial disaster, the widescreen Big Trail vanished for 60 years, until the Museum of Modern Art restored it in the 1980s in a widescreen 35-millimeter print.”  A two-disc DVD set was released in 2008.  Some say the original cut was 156 minutes long, but if so, that longer version doesn’t seem to be available.  In 2006, the National Film Preservation Board included The Big Trail in the National Film Registry.

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According to Dave Kehr, “Walsh makes maximum use of the width of the big screen, composing his shots so that the eye is led, as in classical painting, to pick out a series of details across the surface of the image.  But he also uses the extremely high resolution of the 70-millimeter stock to create perspectives that draw the viewer from foreground details to action in the distant background, at times seemingly miles away. Nothing less is at stake here than the whole system of analytical editing within a scene, as developed by the directors of the 1910s; what Walsh is doing does not really find an equivalent until Jacques Tati’s 70-millimeter masterpiece of 1967, Playtime.”

The unknown John Wayne (the studio came up with that name for young Marion Morrison for this film, taking the last name from Revolutionary-era General “Mad Anthony” Wayne) does well and holds the screen.  He is occasionally given stilted speeches and does the best he can with them, but he’s not yet the actor he will become.  If the movie had been more successful, this might have been his big breakthrough.  But it wasn’t, and he had to wait almost a decade for larger success to come in 1939’s Stagecoach.  He spent the intervening years making eight-day and ten-day B movie westerns, in an era when almost all westerns were cheaply and quickly turned out, and there was no cinematic prestige attached to them.

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Wayne (center) with stand-ins and foreign language counterparts.

Some of the other actors in the film, such as romantic interest Marguerite Churchill and Tyrone Power Sr. (playing the large and rough villain Red Flack with a growly voice), had stage backgrounds, and their acting is a bit broad for modern tastes.  They had to project so their voices could be caught by the relatively primitive microphones.  One of the trio of villains (Lopez) is played by Charles Stevens, a grandson of Geronimo, who played a number of Indian and Mexican characters (he had both Apache and Mexican ancestry) from the 1930s through the 1950s, in such films as Frontier Marshal and My Darling Clementine.  El Brendel, the pseudo-Swedish “comedian” who plays the comic-relief immigrant Gussie, was actually Philadelphia-born Elmer Goodfellow Brendle, who had affected a phony German accent until the sinking of the Lusitania.  Ward Bond (later the star of John Ford’s Wagon Master and TV’s Wagon Train series) was assigned by Walsh to manage the wagons, appropriately enough.  Marguerite Churchill, the pretty heroine, wound up marrying George O’Brien, John Ford’s favorite leading man from 1924 to 1931.

This movie, along with silent films The Covered Wagon (1923, directed by James Cruze) and The Iron Horse (1924, by director John Ford), constitute the great epics of western American expansion from the early decades of the movies.  While the writing is clunky by current standards and the glories of Manifest Destiny don’t play as well to modern ears as they did to the audiences of the 1930s, this is paced well and has spectacular visuals.  It’s fun to watch.

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If you watch Stagecoach soon after seeing The Big Trail, you’ll notice several improvements.  One is that Stagecoach has noticeably better writing.  Another is that in the intervening decade, sound equipment had improved dramatically in quality.  And a third is that, by laboring in 40 or so B movies in the interim and taking advice from such veterans as Harry Carey, John Wayne’s acting skills were also a lot stronger.  When his big break came again in 1939, he was a somewhat more mature 32, and he made the most of it.

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Breck Coleman, scout, to the dispirited pioneers weary of trekking through the snows of the high mountains:  “We can’t turn back!  We’re blazing a trail that started in England.  Not even the storms of the sea could turn back the first settlers.  And they carried on further.  They blazed it on through the wilderness of Kentucky.  Famine, hunger, not even massacres could stop them.  And now we picked up the trail again.  And nothing can stop us!  Not even the snows of winter, nor the peaks of the highest mountain.  We’re building a nation and we got to suffer!  No great trail was ever built without hardship.  And you got to fight!  That’s right.  And when you stop fighting, that’s death.  What are you going to do, lay down and die?  Not in a thousand years!  You’re going on with me!”

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Saskatchewan

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 20, 2014

Saskatchewan—Alan Ladd, Shelley Winters, Hugh O’Brian, J. Carrol Naish, Jay Silverheels.  (1954; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)

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The very blond Mountie Inspector Thomas O’Rourke (Alan Ladd) has been raised by Cree Indian chief Dark Cloud and is now stationed at Fort Walsh about 20 miles north of the Canadian border with the U.S.  Jay Silverheels is Cajou, his Cree foster-brother.  The post-Custer Sioux under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are moving into Canada, threatening to overthrow the peace and lead a general Indian uprising.  They’ve wiped out the group of which Montanan Grace Markey (Shelley Winters) is part, but she’s rescued by O’Rourke. 

It turns out she’s wanted for murder back in Montana.  O’Rourke’s troop of Mounties has to get back to Fort Walsh to warn his commanders there about the Sioux, although they don’t believe him and O’Rourke’s in trouble for refusing to obey due authority.  Hugh O’Brian plays Carl Smith, a malcontent Montana lawman with the troop, who’s always trying to get them to leave a wounded Mountie behind.  It turns out that Smith is (a) a U.S. marshal taking Grace back to Great Falls, (b) the brother of the murdered man, and (c) the actual murderer of his brother.  That gets sorted out on the way to Fort Walsh.  Banks, the Mountie commander, leads his men into a Sioux ambush, and it looks like Custer’s fate will be repeated north of the border.  O’Rourke is able, with the help of the Crees, to save his commanders from the Sioux anyway, despite being locked in the stockade with his men. 

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Inspector O’Rourke (Alan Ladd, out of uniform), Grace Markey (Shelley Winters) and Cajou (Jay Silverheels).

J. Carrol Naish is particularly good as a French-Canadian trapper and scout.  Problems:  There’s very little chemistry between the Ladd and Winters characters, who supposedly are fascinated with each other.  Saskatchewan is actually a plains province and doesn’t have mountains like these.  Sitting Bull made it to Canada for a couple of years (Crazy Horse never went there), but he had neither the resources nor the disposition to cause much trouble before eventually being forced back to the U.S.  The Mounties have very clean red coats, and wear anachronistic Smokey the Bear-style hats that weren’t regulation until after World War I.  O’Rourke wears one of the bright red coats while sneaking up to spy on the Sioux without much cover, and surprisingly enough they fail to spot him.  Filmed beautifully in color in Banff National Park (in Alberta, not Saskatchewan).  Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe were said to be filming The River of No Return (actually located in Idaho) in the same locale at the same time.

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Colorful Mounties, great scenery.

For another movie about Mounties, see Cecil B. DeMille’s North West Mounted Police (1940), with Gary Cooper, or The Wild North (1952), a manhunt in the frozen wastes with Stewart Granger, Wendell Corey and Cyd Charisse.

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Calling the Shots: Great Directors of Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2013

Calling the Shots:  Great Directors of Westerns

“A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.”  Billy Wilder.

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What makes a director of westerns great?  Criteria include the following: 

·         Ability to tell stories:  Does the story flow?  How well can a viewer follow it?  Some directors are interested in mood and style to the exclusion of story.  They can also be great directors, but westerns are rooted in stories, and in certain kinds of stories.  If there is inadequate attention to story, or if it’s hard to follow and doesn’t flow, or if it causes the viewer’s attention to wander, the other elements of the film had better be unusually strong to retain our interest.  Some directors seem less interested in story and are still great.  Consider Howard Hawks, who in recruiting Robert Mitchum for El Dorado in 1966, responded to Mitchum’s questions about the movie by telling him the story didn’t matter because the movie had “some great characters.”  And Sergio Leone would often not pay much attention to plot and story while he was playing with mood and visual style.  But they’re both great directors of westerns nevertheless.

·         Visual style:  Film is primarily a visual medium, and those directors who are remembered as the greatest either have their own distinctive visual styles or are linked for several movies with an excellent cinematographer.  It can be hard to distinguish which parts of the visual style are the responsibility of the director and which of the cinematographer.  But the director bears the ultimate responsibility for how the movie works, and they both have to perform well to score high in this area.  Think of Sam Peckinpah and Lucien Ballard in this context, or John Ford and Winton Hoch.

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·         Use of actors:  It’s no accident that certain particularly effective directors develop relationships with actors that they tend use over and over again.  They tend to reinforce each other’s strengths.  John Ford and John Wayne are the best-known such director-actor pairing, but Anthony Mann-James Stewart, Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott and Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood also come quickly to mind.  Ford and Wayne worked together from 1939 until the end of Ford’s career in the 1960s, but more frequently these actor-director partnerships flourish for five years or less.  The best directors often get good (or even great) performances out of actors that don’t do as well in other contexts.  Think of Howard Hawks’ use of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson (and maybe Angie Dickinson) in Rio Bravo.  That’s one of the things that tends to make us think of Hawks as a great director.

·         Connection with traditional themes:  Sam Peckinpah’s connection with traditional western themes often causes questions in the mind of his viewers, but it’s undeniably there—sometimes revisionist in sensibility, but always there.  This is one of John Ford‘s strengths, too, although he can also seem too connected with nostalgic Americana.  Other directors who are great seem to lack the sense of connection and go straight for the revisionist elements.  These may produce great movies but not necessarily great westerns.  That’s one reason why there has been a discussion for decades about how great McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Robert Altman is.  Some think it’s one of the greatest westerns, but it has a fairly low sense of connection with traditional themes and remains rooted pretty firmly in the early 1970s.  Altman was a great director, and you couldn’t consider you’d seen his best work without watching McCabe, but it’s not inarguably a great western. 

·         Innovation:  In westerns, as in other genres of movies, it can get tiresome to watch the same movies over and over under other names.  Something has to be different, and the great ones bring innovation with them.  John Ford’s stories often seem based in a nostalgic Americana from another era, but he was the first to see the possibilities of Monument Valley as a location and nobody has used it more effectively.  And his visual sense was cutting-edge in its time.  Anthony Mann’s anguished protagonists (usually played by James Stewart) were different than what had been seen in westerns before, but they ushered in perhaps the greatest era of western movie-making in the 1950s.  Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were innovators whose innovations have stuck in the genre.

·         Body of work:  It’s pretty hard to be considered a great director of westerns with only one western.  That means, in a film-making business where not that many westerns are made, that there are few directors you can point to as up-and-coming directors of westerns.  A director of a great western (Michael Mann with Last of the Mohicans, James Mangold with 3:10 to Yuma, the Coen brothers with True Grit) might make only one western in an entire career.  So one of the considerations in being a great director of westerns is to ask, “What is the totality of his work in the genre?”  Not every western John Ford or Howard Hawks made was great, but you have to take them all into account, the great and the less-great, when assessing the director. 

·        Influence on others:  If you have any sense of cinematic history, it’s impossible to watch violence in a current western without considering how The Wild Bunch changed the depiction of violence on film.  Certain kinds of shot (a rider in the distance, a tight close-up focusing on the eyes) remind one of Sergio Leone’s style, as does music involving chanting or whistling.  Effective use of wide desert vistas, especially the geological formations in Monument Valley, calls John Ford to mind.

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·         Film-making adventurousness:  Doing something new is always a risk, because films are marketed along traditional lines, pitching them in ways that have worked before.  Studio executives always want something that’s worked before, as opposed to something different.  Doing the different thing may produce a great western without producing the kind of financial returns that get a studio’s or distributor’s attention.  The Grey Fox, A Thousand Pieces of Gold and Lone Star were modestly successful films that were great westerns without spawning a horde of imitators, or, in the case of two of those, without even being available on DVD.  But the urge to do something in a different way will be essential to keeping the westerns genre (or any other) alive.  It’s a constant process of referring to the past (since the western as a genre relates uniquely to the history of America’s west) and infusing it with something new.  That challenge can be having the discipline and skill to balance the urge to reach for one’s own vision without tipping over into self-indulgence (the curse of Sam Peckinpah).

Having said all that, below is a an idiosyncratic and fairly short personal list containing a ranking of the greatest directors of western movies.  This will be followed by short lists of directors that might be great if we expanded the list a bit, lists of the greatest directors of westerns still working, and some others.  Each of the greatest directors and the near-greats will get an individual future post.

The Greatest Directors of Westerns Since 1939

  1.  John Ford
  2.  Anthony Mann
  3. Howard Hawks
  4. Sam Peckinpah
  5. Budd Boetticher
  6. Sergio Leone
  7. Clint Eastwood
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Clint Eastwood on the set of High Plains Drifter, 1973.

Near-Great Directors of Westerns

  1. Walter Hill
  2. Kevin Costner
  3. John Sturges
  4. Delmer Daves
  5. Simon Wincer
  6. William Wellman

Greatest Directors of Westerns Now Working

(Those Who Have Made More Than One).  If any of these guys made one more great western, and maybe just one more good one, they’d vault on to the list of greatest directors.  Eastwood’s last western was Unforgiven, more than twenty years ago, and he’s now in his 80s.  Walter Hill is getting up there, too.  But Costner and Wincer could each come up with something, although Costner doesn’t often direct any more.

  1. Clint Eastwood (already on the Greatest Directors list)
  2. Walter Hill
  3. Kevin Costner
  4. Simon Wincer
  5. The Coen Brothers

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Notable Directors of Westerns

1.  Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, True Grit, The Sons of Katie Elder, Rawhide)
2.  Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men)
3.  Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, Day of the Outlaw, The Bounty Hunter)
4.  Jacques Tourneur (Canyon Passage, Stars in My Crown, Stranger on Horseback, Wichita)
5.  Edward Dmytryk (Warlock, Alvarez Kelly, Broken Lance)
6.  Don Siegel (The Shootist, Two Mules for Sister Sara)
7.  Andrew V. McLaglen (Cahill U.S. Marshal, Shenandoah, The Way West, McLintock!)
8.  Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, The War Wagon, The Train Robbers)

Antonia Bird in 2004. Antonia Bird

Female Directors of Westerns

They’re still quite rare.  Most of these are within the last twenty years.  But one of them, Nancy Kelly, made a western that’s on the list of 55 great westerns.  Now, if somebody would only issue a DVD of A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  After all, there are many others not so great for which a DVD is available.  (The MfTV designation means it was made for television.)

Lina Wertmuller, The Belle Starr Story

Maggie Greenwald, The Ballad of Little Jo (MfTV)

Nancy Kelly, A Thousand Pieces of Gold

Antonia Bird, Ravenous

Randa Haines, The Outsider (MfTV)

Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff 

Suza Lambert Bowzer, A River of Skulls

Rachel Talalay, Hannah’s Law (MfTV)     

Lang  Fritz Lang

One-Eyed Directors of Westerns

Raoul Walsh and Andre de Toth were both genuinely one-eyed.  The others tended, especially as they got older, to wear an eye patch over a weaker eye.  Two of these directors even made 3-D films during the brief fad for those in the early 1950s:  House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun by Andre de Toth, and Gun Fury by Raoul Walsh.  With only one eye, they could of course not see the 3-D effects at all.

John Ford

Raoul Walsh (The Big Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio, Colorado Territory, The Tall Men, etc.)

Fritz Lang (The Return of Frank James, Western Union, Rancho Notorious)

Andre de Toth (Ramrod, Carson City, Riding Shotgun, The Bounty Hunter, Day of the Outlaw)

Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar)

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