Tag Archives: Richard Farnsworth

The Violent Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 23, 2015

The Violent Men—Glenn Ford, Babara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Dianne Foster, May Wynn, Richard Jaeckel, Basil Ruysdael, James Westerfield (1955; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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This belongs to the “cattle queen western” subgenre, along with Johnny Guitar, Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and various others from the 1950s, in which a dominant character is played by an established and prominent Hollywood actress of a certain age.  The violent men of the title are played by Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith, but it turns out to be Barbara Stanwyck who dominates the course of the plot.

Capt. John Parrish (Glenn Ford) is a wounded veteran of the Union cavalry in the recent Civil War. He had come west three years previously to recover from a wound that went through his lung.  He receives a clean bill of health at the start of the movie and intends to marry Carolyn Vail (May Wynn), sell his ranch and movie back east.  The only potential buyer is Lew Wilkison (Edward G. Robinson), the crippled owner of the huge Anchor Ranch, by far the largest in the valley.

Lew Wilkison:  “Here at Anchor we don’t pay much attention to that hogwash about the meek inheriting the earth.”

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Meeting the Wilkisons: Cole (Brian Keith), Lew (Edward G. Robinson), and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), with John Parrish (Glenn Ford).

Wilkison has long been trying to expand his Anchor Ranch to encompass the entire valley.  Twelve years previously during a burst of violence in the valley he was crippled, and he now walks only with crutches and even then with difficulty.  Parrish notices the Anchor men, especially gunman Wade Matlock (Richard Jaeckel), renewing their efforts to chase off other landowners; Matlock shoots the local sheriff in the back, and he is replaced by the unctuous Magruder (James Westerfield), who is more completely in Anchor’s pocket.  Lew Wilkison and his brother Cole (Brian Keith) offer Parrish only $15,000 for his ranch.  Wilkison’s alienated daughter Judith (Dianne Foster) is outraged at her father’s behavior, but his wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) appears to be pulling the strings and to have developed a relationship with Cole.

John Parrish:  “Don’t force me to fight, because you won’t like my way of fighting.”

Matlock and several Anchor riders try to push Parrish by killing one of his hands, but Parrish, who has been a determined pacifist to this point, takes the hand’s gun, confronts Matlock, and kills him.  No one attends Wade Matlock’s funeral, and one of Parrish’s riders wonders if there will be reprisals from Matlock’s friends.  John Parrish: “Matlock wasn’t the kind to have any friends after he was dead.”

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Gunman Wade Madlock (Richard Jaeckel) meets Parrish (Glenn Ford).

[Spoilers follow.]  Parrish brushes off his military skills from the war and prepares for battle.  Carolyn is appalled and ends their engagement when Parrish refuses to go east immediately.  Using his own ranch as bait, he sets up an ambush in a canyon when Anchor riders burn it down and take the shortest way home.  In retaliation,  Parrish and his men stampede Anchor’s horses and cattle, and use the distraction to burn most of the Anchor buildings.  Martha escapes the burning mansion, tossing away Lew’s crutches and leaving him to die in the flames.  Cole and Magruder lead a small army of riders attacking all the smaller ranchers and farmers, until Parrish finds that Judith has rescued her father.  In a confrontation at the Anchor ranch, Lew orders the riders away.  Parrish and Cole have a classic showdown, and Martha is killed by Cole’s Mexican paramour.  At the end, Lew wants to hire Parrish to run the Anchor ranch, and Judith and Parrish appear to be striking up a relationship.

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This is a good melodramatic range war western for its time, but pedestrian direction takes it out of the really excellent category.  Neither the Stanwyck nor the Dianne Foster character has much nuance.  Glenn Ford is good in his tenth western; he’s wearing the same hat he’ll be wearing for the next 15 years, and it’s not yet as disgusting and shapeless as it would become.  Edward G. Robinson was an excellent actor, and his presence, along with Stanwyck’s, reminds us of Double Indemnity (1944), giving this more of a western-noir flavor.  Robinson didn’t make many westerns, in part because, like James Cagney, he seems to have a modern, urban presence.  But he works well here, hard but able to shift tone convincingly.  Brian Keith, in dark hair and a thin mustache, makes a fine bad guy early in his career.  And Richard Jaeckel is good as a gunman without conscience.  An uncredited Richard Farnsworth is one of the Anchor riders.

During its second half, the action is interesting enough but not well developed, as the two sides progress through strike and counter-strike.  In particular, the shootout between Ford and Keith at the end is not well-edited (compare it with Budd Boetticher’s handling of Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin in Seven Men From Now [1956] in a moment of similar dramatic intensity, for example), nor is Stanwyck’s death.  The end seems very quick, not fleshed-out, and a bit out of character for Parrish.

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For another crippled cattle baron in a range melodrama, see Lionel Barrymore in Duel in the Sun (1947).  For Barbara Stanwyck as another cattle queen, see her in Forty Guns (1957, with Barry Sullivan); she doesn’t win there, either.  She’s better in Trooper Hook (1957, with Joel McCrea) and The Moonlighter (1953, with Fred MacMurray).  For Glenn Ford in another range melodrama, see him in Jubal (1956), which is better than this.  For James Westerfield displaying the same unctuousness in a range war, see Man With a Gun (1955, with Robert Mitchum).  For another Union Civil War veteran trying unsuccessfully to revert to pre-war pacifism because of the horrors of the war, see Rock Hudson in Gun Fury (1953).

There is some well-written dialogue here, by Harry Kleiner.  The music is by Max Steiner.  Shot in Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills, in California, and in Old Tucson, Arizona.  In color, at 96 minutes.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 5

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 7, 2013

Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner in The Grey Fox

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Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, and the real Bill Miner.

After a lifetime as a stuntman and extra, Farnsworth had an unusual resurgence as a leading man toward the end of his career, and this was one of his three best roles—perhaps the very best.  His understated style and low-key charm, with a soft voice, warmly reticent smile around a white moustache, and expressive blue eyes are his trademarks.  He was unexpectedly cast as the lead in this low-budget Canadian production from 1982.  He plays Bill Miner, a one-time stagecoach robber who has spent most of his adult life as a prisoner in California’s San Quentin prison and is now released into a more modern west he doesn’t quite understand.  We relate to his charm and apparent affection for people, however, as he tries to reshape his outlaw career into something more modern.  It’s a seldom-seen gem of a movie, and it all depends on Farnsworth.  He’s magnificent.  For his other great roles, see him as Matthew Cuthbert in the Canadian television miniseries Anne of Green Gables (1985) and as Alvin Straight, driving a yard tractor to visit his brother before his own death, in The Straight Story (1999).

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Kevin Costner as Lt. John Dunbar in Dances With Wolves and as Charley Waite in Open Range

People are ambivalent about Costner as an actor, with some of his highest visibility coming in large-scale action turkeys like Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; Waterworld, and The Postman.  (They’re surprisingly watchable, even when Costner is obviously miscast, as he was in Robin Hood.)  However, he seems to have an affinity for westerns, both as an actor and as a director, as demonstrated by these two films in which he performed both functions.  For his first western, see him as young scapegrace Jake in Silverado.  If you like him in these roles, look at his four baseball movies:  Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, For the Love of the Game and The Upside of Anger.  He’s a better actor than he is generally considered in the twilight of his film career.

  • In Dances With Wolves, he’s not only the lead as Lt. John Dunbar, Civil War hero and budding anthropologist, but he’s alone much of the time he’s on the screen.  And he’s the sole decent white man in the entire movie.  He won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director (unusual for a western), and he carries this lengthy movie as an actor. 

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  • In Open Range, he is again the director and also a lead as Charley Waite, but as Charley he gives more space to other leads (Robert Duvall, principally, and Annette Bening).  Charley is a more dour character—a cowboy with a backstory as a gunfighter, and Costner is excellent and persuasive.  His look is very authentic, too.  His achievements in these two movies as director and actor draw inevitable comparisons with Clint Eastwood.  He just hasn’t made as many westerns as Eastwood. 

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Graham Greene as Kicking Bird in Dances With Wolves

If Costner as Lt. Dunbar carries Dancing With Wolves as the only white man with whom we feel much sympathy, it is Canadian Oneida character actor Graham Greene who provides the human face of the Sioux/Lakota with whom Dunbar interacts throughout the movie.  (Rodney A. Grant provides a kind of younger, harder-nosed counterpoint to Greene.)  As the Lakota chief Kicking Bird, Greene approaches Dunbar as a human he doesn’t understand, and it enables Dunbar and Kicking Bird eventually to bridge the sizable linguistic and cultural gulf between them.  Greene’s understated but excellent performance emphasizes the Indians’ basic humanity.  For a brief performance with more humor, see Greene in Maverick and fleetingly in Gunless.

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Clint Eastwood as Josey Wales in The Outlaw Josey Wales and as William Munny in Unforgiven

Eastwood was his own director in both these movies, and that makes his achievement even more remarkable.  By now, at the end of his career, Eastwood is acknowledged as a masterful director.  Although the stories in both these movies are built around his character, he is generous in allowing others juicy parts as well.  Josey Wales is a quintessential Eastwood character, with his squint, his soft-spoken but hard-bitten way with words, and his ability to draw other characters to him sometimes against his own choice—not to mention his handy way with guns and with tobacco juice.  William Munny is even more hard-bitten, and at bottom may not be a very good person, as we see him forced more and more into an old life and the use of devastating old skills through the movie.  He is what Josey Wales might have become.  Together with his early work with Sergio Leone in the Dollar trilogy and Pale Rider, these roles and the rest of his career present the most impressive body of acting work in the genre since John Wayne.  And Wayne never wore the director’s hat as successfully as either Eastwood or Costner.

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Chief Dan George as Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josey Wales

Notable especially for its warm, understated humor and elegant humanity, Chief Dan George’s performance as aging Cherokee Lone Watie stands with Graham Greene in Dances With Wolves as the two best performances by Native Americans in westerns.  Time after time, George steals scenes from Eastwood’s Josey Wales.  On rewatching the film, George’s performance is one of the principal joys that one looks for.  He came to acting very late in his life and really has no comparably excellent parts in other films.  But look for him as Old Lodge Skins, Dustin Hoffman’s adoptive Cheyenne grandfather, in Little Big Man as well; he’s the best thing in that film, and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work there.

 

James Stewart as Destry in Destry Rides Again, as Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur and as Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

One of the best-known, most popular and most versatile actors of his time, Stewart also worked with a range of some of the best directors of his era.  In westerns, they included Anthony Mann and John Ford; in mysteries and thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock; in populist fare, Frank Capra.  He was kind of an American everyman, perhaps Henry Fonda’s only equal in that kind of role.

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  • In his early career, Stewart didn’t make many westerns.  But in 1939 (the same year he did Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Frank Capra), he starred as an offbeat kind of lawman in Destry Rides Again.  Played with warmth, gentleness and an often exaggerated version of his signature drawl, this was one of the most memorable westerns in a good year for the genre.  It has been remade more than once, but never as successfully as this original.  It must be admitted that Stewart is helped greatly by having Marlene Dietrich to play off.  With Smith in 1939 and with The Philadelphia Story coming the next year, you can’t even say Destry represents his best performance of this early phase of his career.  But Destry’s very memorable and bears rewatching more than 70 years later.  If you like this gentle Stewart approach, try 1950’s excellent Harvey, even if it isn’t a western.  Late in his career, Stewart again played a western mostly for laughs in The Cheyenne Social Club, with Henry Fonda as his costar.

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  • After his return from World War II, Stewart remade his career in his work with Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and his westerns with Anthony Mann.  One of his best roles with Mann was the reluctant and psychologically-damaged bounty hunter Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur.  Mann heroes are never all good, and Kemp is perhaps the most overtly conflicted of all of them.  But he holds it together and begins a comeback in the course of this film.  All of Stewart’s five westerns with Mann are worth watching:  Winchester ’73, The Far Country, Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie in addition to this one.

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  • Stewart made three movies with John Ford, and his most prominent role was as Ransom Stoddard, eastern lawyer out to remake the west in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  There’s a lot of ambivalence in the film between his reliance on law and Tom Doniphan’s (John Wayne’s) more direct approach to the violence of Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance.  Stoddard may be admirable in his way, but his approach wouldn’t have worked without Tom Doniphan’s, too, as the film shows.  Stewart seems miscast as Wyatt Earp in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, but the entire Earp interlude in that film is ill-conceived.  If you like Stewart in Liberty Valance in the late phase of his career, look for him in Two Rode Together, Shenandoah and How the West Was Won.

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Jeffrey Wright as Daniel Holt in Ride With the Devil

He starts out as a minor supporting character in a large cast.  By the end of this underrated Civil War film, he is one of the two principal remaining characters.  Their parting, at the end of the movie, is one of its most wrenching scenes, and Wright carries more than half of its dramatic weight, much of it without words.  (There’s good direction and editing at work here, too.)  Wright’s character Daniel Holt is a freed slave who fights for the south as a Missouri bushwhacker out of loyalty to George Clyde (Simon Baker), the man who freed him.  The motivations of such a man would be hard for modern audiences to understand under any circumstances, and Holt starts out carefully and enigmatically in a group of men who are not entirely sympathetic to him.  His friendship with Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) develops over the course of the film and becomes its strongest emotional current by the end.  Wright is a superb actor who has been seen principally in a variety of supporting and character roles.  Here he is excellent.

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Robert Ryan as Blaise Starrett in Day of the Outlaw

Robert Ryan was an excellent and versatile actor, and he seldom played unalloyed good characters.  In Day of the Outlaw, he plays the improbably-named Blaise Starrett, the founder and largest rancher in the remote town of Bitters in wintry Wyoming.  Starrett is at odds with local farmers as the movie starts, and he’s having an affair with the wife of one of them.  A gang of outlaws led by ex-army officer Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) moves in, interrupting the confrontation between Starrett and the farmers and replacing it with another.  Starrett doesn’t care for the few farmers and townspeople, but his sense of responsibility kicks in and he tries to figure out how best to try to protect them.  He’s the only one in town with the competence to do anything.  If you like him here, try The Proud Ones.  Later in his career he was principally a supporting character, as in The Wild Bunch, Lawman, and The Professionals.  For Ryan in bad guy roles, see him in The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock and Hour of the Gun, in which he played a more cerebral Ike Clanton than usually seen in the Wyatt Earp story.

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Tom Horn

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 23, 2013

Tom Horn—Steve McQueen, Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth, Slim Pickens, Geoffrey Lewis (1980; Dir:  William Wiard)

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This was the penultimate movie for 50-year-old Steve McQueen, who was dying of cancer in 1980.   It’s the story of a famous stock detective who hunted down rustlers in Wyoming around the turn of the century after a career as an Indian scout in Arizona.  He is now, and was then to some degree, an anachronism and a symbol of a freer and more open time on the frontier.  Even in Wyoming, the frontier was closing down and law had to be served.  Based in some significant measure on the memoirs of the actual Horn, some parts are remarkably accurate historically and others less so.

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Death and devastation seem to accompany Horn, regardless of how much of it he actually intends.

Horn’s principal tool is his rifle, with which he is remarkably accurate at long distances.  “The rifle Horn uses to such deadly effect in the film is an original Winchester Model 1876 in .45-60 caliber, fitted with a custom tang sight.  Manufactured from 1877-1894, the Model ’76 was an obsolete arm by the turn of the century, when the events of the story take place.  All the available historical sources state that Horn actually used a .30-30 Winchester Model 1894 for his controversial activities as a ‘stock detective’ in Wyoming.”  That is to say that Horn’s rifle in this movie is slightly anachronistic, but that’s quite common in westerns.

Beginning in 1901, in what looks to be too small a town for Cheyenne at that time, Tom Horn is hired by a group of Wyoming ranchers as a stock detective to stop rustling.  By most accounts, Horn’s method of stopping them was to pick off supposed rustlers at long range; this shows him mostly facing his opponents with the above-described rifle.  A couple of Horn’s victims were shot in Brown’s Hole on the opposite (southwestern) side of Wyoming.  The movie shows Horn as probably not being guilty of the murder (of a fifteen-year-old boy) for which he was hanged, but inarticulate and unable to cope with the process that condemns him.  Horn is finally done in by a conspiracy among the ranchers who hired him and then needed to distance themselves from the effects of his work.  And by an inaccurate transcript of a drunken conversation, which he does not bother to correct.  Horn’s last words, to the sheriff:  “Keep your nerve, Sam, ’cause I’m gonna keep mine.”  

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Horn (Steve McQueen) with Glendoline Kimmel (Linda Evans).

The dying McQueen makes Horn’s world-weariness and unwillingness to defend himself believable, if not entirely understandable.  Linda Evans is Glendolene Kimmel, a school teacher and romantic interest of Horn’s.  Richard Farnsworth is excellent as John Coble, the prime mover among the ranchers who remains loyal to Horn.  Slim Pickens is effective as Sam Creedmore, the sheriff in Cheyenne.  Rather an elaborate execution by hanging at the end, with an automated gallows.  Not enough background is given on why Horn is a legend of the west (i.e., his activities as a scout against the Apaches in Arizona), or his relationship with Glendolene.  The movie is shot with lots of stark browns and grays, and the second half is slow-moving. 

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This is an end-of-an-era western, shot in early 1979 and released in 1980 at a time when very few westerns were being made and McQueen’s career was no longer very active (no major commercial films since 1974’s Towering Inferno).  “If you really knew how dirty and raggedy-assed the Old West was, you wouldn’t want any part of it,” Horn tells Glendolene, who ultimately does not stick with him.  The actual deputy U.S. Marshal Joe LeFors, who set up Horn and testified against him, is here renamed Joe Belle (played by Billy Green Bush) for some reason.  There is a brief performance by an aging Elisha Cook, Jr. as a stable hand.

The making of this movie almost defines the term “troubled production.”  That by itself doesn’t mean a movie will be terrible, but when that many things go wrong, it becomes much harder for such a collaborative effort to turn out well.  Five directors worked on this film, but most were either fired or left because of disagreements with McQueen, who is credited as the producer.  It is widely believed that McQueen directed much of the movie himself.  One of those said to be associated in the early stages was Sam Peckinpah, but he and McQueen had a falling out (as Peckinpah often did with producers).  “Neither Don Siegel nor Elliot Silverstein made it past pre-production.  Electra Glide in Blue director James Guercio only lasted for the first three days of the shoot, and cinematographer John Alonzo and McQueen himself also had a hand in the finished film at one point or another, with credited director William Wiard apparently hired only to placate the Directors Guild when they wouldn’t allow the star to direct himself.  The screenplay went through many changes along the route as well, with Thomas McGuane’s 450-page epic being constantly chipped away, Abraham Polonsky’s rewrite being rejected and Bud Shrake’s final script eventually alternating with McGuane’s depending on which version the star felt like filming that day.  And just to add to the good news, the picture suffered from major budget cuts due to studio politics and the threat of a William Goldman-scripted Robert Redford rival project (eventually made for TV with David Carradine as Mr Horn).  It shrank from a three-hour $10m epic about the Indian tracker and interpreter’s life to a $3m small-scale Western about its ignominious end.”  Score by Ernest Gold.  Shot in subdued color, in Arizona.

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The citified gent on the left is the actual Joe LeFors, the competent Wyoming lawman who pursued Butch Cassidy, captured Horn and extracted a (perhaps inaccurate) sort-of-confession by getting Horn drunk.  On the right is the real Tom Horn in 1903 while incarcerated awaiting his execution.  He’s making the rope that will be used to hang him.

McQueen didn’t actually make many westerns, although he seems very much like a western star.  Tom Horn was also played by John Ireland in the 1967 Fort Utah, which hardly anyone has seen, and by David Carridine in the 1979 made-for-television version of the story, Mr. Horn.  This is better than both of those, but that’s not saying much.  The definitive version of Tom Horn’s story has yet to be made.

McQueen did make western screen history with one element of the production design here.  This movie marks the re-introduction of the traditional big cowboy hat to westerns, after several decades of 1950s-styled hats.  Now a western with any pretension to authenticity is likely to include more historically-correct hats, which have been worn with great success by Tom Selleck (see Quigley Down Under, for example), among many others.

For the definitive Tom Horn biography, see Larry D. Ball’s Tom Horn in Life and Legend (2014).

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Red River

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 27, 2013

Red River–John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Noah Beery, Jr. (1948; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

This is the first of the two brilliant westerns (1959’s Rio Bravo is the other) on which Hawks’ reputation as a director of westerns rests.  Hawks was not particularly known for westerns, although most everybody in Hollywood who had worked in the industry as long as Hawks had some kind of experience with westerns.

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What makes this one brilliant?  It marks the bringing of serious themes from other genres into westerns—the father-son conflict between Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his adopted son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), for example; the nature of leadership and its moral boundaries; competition between two young men with similar skills but different principles; and a complex relationship between a strong man and an assertive female.  It’s a great trail drive story, with overtones of obsession (Wayne’s character, foreshadowing the obsessiveness of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers).  The other relationships in the movie are not simple, especially when it seems the characters have to take sides between Dunson and Garth:  Loyal family retainer Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan), who loves them both; gunhand Cherry Valance (John Ireland), who competes with Garth but respects him nevertheless; and Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), who is attracted to Garth romantically but like Groot has to mediate between Garth and the vengeful Dunson, while we try to figure out what kind of woman she is.

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Young Dunson (John Wayne) and his doomed love.

Dunson is a hard man from the start of the movie.  We first see him in 1851 with a wagon train heading from St. Louis toward California.  As Dunson and Groot leave the wagon train to head south into Texas across the Red River, Dunson’s girl in another wagon begs to go along.  He says he’ll send for her, and they part ways.  Comanches attack the train after Dunson leaves, and he sees the smoke from a distance.  Several attack Dunson and Groot, too; he fights them off, but they kill one of his two cattle.  They find the boy Matthew Garth wandering through the brush, a survivor of the attack who’d been chasing his cow when the Comanches came.   Dunson and Groot take him with them, farther south into Texas.  When Dunson finds the land he wants, it’s part of a huge Spanish land grant whose owner lives south of the Rio Grande.  Dunson figures he can take it, and he starts his ranch there with the brand Red River D.

Fast forward to the end of the Civil War, in 1865.  Garth returns from service in the war (presumably with the Confederacy), and Dunson has developed a huge herd for which there are no buyers in Texas.  Dunson wants to trail the herd a thousand miles north over the Chisholm Trail to the railroad in Missouri, something which has never been done successfully.  The rest of the movie is the epic story is of that first cattle drive north from Texas. 

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Cherry Valance (John Ireland) and Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) test each other.

It takes somebody as obsessive as Dunson to drive the herd (and his men).  They take off with the famous “Yee-haw” scene, and it’s not a smooth trip.  There is a night stampede, resulting in deaths both human and bovine.  Some of the men can’t take it and want to quit; Dunson becomes increasingly unreasonable, with his megalomania out of control.  When he plans to hang two deserters, Garth steps in and stops him.  Garth takes control of the herd, moving it north across the Red River and into Kansas, heading for Abilene rather than Sedalia, Missouri, as Dunson had insisted.  None of them know whether the railroad is really in Abilene, although with our modern point of view we have a pretty good idea that it is.

As they move into Kansas, they’re harassed by marauding Indians and wary of the pursuing Dunson.  The cowboys temporarily leave the herd to rescue a bunch of traveling gamblers and loose women from Indian attack, and Garth meets Tess Millay, who is wounded in the attack.  They are taken with each other, but Garth has his drive to finish and Dunson to deal with, and the herd moves on to the north.

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Dunson and his new men reach the gamblers’ camp and learn of the Indian attack and the herd’s movements.  Dunson wants to replace Garth as his son, and offers Tess half his ranch if she’ll bear him a son; she says she’ll do it if he gives up his plan to kill Garth¸ and she accompanies him toward Abilene.  Meanwhile, Garth and the herd make it there first, and Garth gets a top price for the herd, about $50,000.  This sets up the final scene, where all the characters sort out their loyalties and the means they’ll use to defend them.  The resolution of the father-son fight is abrupt and a little silly, but the rest of the movie is so good we can put up with that.

The movie was made in 1946 but sat on the shelf for two years before its release because of a dispute with Howard Hughes.  It features more adult and complex relationships than most previous westerns. It has a superb cast, and excellent direction.  This was Montgomery Clift’s first film, and he manages to be persuasive, if not entirely convincing, next to the overpowering physicality of John Wayne.  The women are unusually assertive for a western, both Joanne Dru (Mrs. John Ireland) and Coleen Gray, although Gray in her first film role gets just a couple of minutes of screen time.  The numerous supporting characters are well-written and well-acted, and they include, in addition to Dru, Ireland and Brennan, Noah Beery, Jr., Harry Carey (Sr. and Jr.), Chief Yowlachie as an Indian trail hand, Hank Worden, Coleen Gray and many others.  Appearing uncredited are Richard Farnsworth as a Dunson rider and Shelley Winters as a dance hall girl with the gamblers.

John_Wayne - red river The final confrontation.

Excellent management of all these supporting roles gives them each differentiation and development while not impeding the overall pacing of the movie.  It adds to the large-scale feel of the film.  There’s so much going on that it rewards re-watching.  It’s ambitious and long for the year it was released, especially for a western—about two and a quarter hours.  After more than 60 years, this remains the greatest of the trail drive movies except for Lonesome Dove, which was not really playing by the same rules. 

There are some excellent visual touches, like the shadow that passes over the sun during the funeral of the young cowboy killed during the stampede.  Russell Harlan was the cinematographer.  The music is by Oscar-winning movie composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who also did the music for Hawks’ Rio Bravo more than ten years later as well as numerous other movies.  The tune for “Settle Down,” the theme for Red River, gets recycled in Rio Bravo when sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin.

RedRiverDruHawksDru and Hawks light up behind the scenes.

Wayne considered this film his second breakthrough, after Stagecoach.  (Maybe his third, if you consider his first starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, which nobody saw.)  Playing much older than he really was, as the megalomaniacal Tom Dunson, gave him a chance to demonstrate his acting chops in a film that a lot of people did see.  Even John Ford, who had cast him in Stagecoach almost ten years previously, was rumored to have said after seeing Red River, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!”  And the most productive period of their collaboration was coming up, with the cavalry trilogy and The Searchers.  Both Wayne and Hawks wore their Red River D belt buckles from this film for many years when dressed in jeans.  You sometimes see it popping up on Wayne in other westerns–nine of them in total.

Director Howard Hawks had initially wanted Jack Beutel (who had played Billy the Kid in The Outlaw) for the role of Matthew Garth.  But he got lucky when Beutel was still under contract to Howard Hughes, who was nursing a grudge against Hawks for their falling-out over The Outlaw a few years earlier.  Clift turned out to be a much better actor.  Wayne had misgivings about the difference in their sizes during the climactic fight, but Hawks was known for his ability to block and stage fights convincingly on film.  Wayne ultimately conceded that Hawks knew what he was doing.  Clift had never been in a western before, and never would be again.  Hawks advised him to watch and imitate stuntman Richard Farnsworth.  “Montgomery, you walk along behind him and watch him carefully.  If he scratches his butt, you scratch yours.  He’s a real cowboy.”  Red River made Clift a star.  Meanwhile, Farnsworth worked in westerns as a stuntman and in bit parts and waited more than 35 years for his own breakthrough role in The Grey Fox.

As of May 2014, Red River is now available on an excellent DVD set from Criterion Collection.

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The Cowboys

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 22, 2013

The Cowboys—John Wayne, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bruce Dern, Sarah Cunningham, Slim Pickens, Colleen Dewhurst, A Martinez, Robert Carradine (1972; Dir:  Mark Rydell)

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Wil Anderson: [repeated line]  “We’re burnin’ daylight.”

This is one of the two great cattle drive westerns starring John Wayne.  The other is Red River, which admittedly is better and was more ground-breaking in its day.  But this is excellent in its way and has aged fairly well in the more than 40 years since its release.  John Wayne carries this movie pretty much on his own; although the supporting roles are well-played, they are significantly smaller than Wayne’s.

cowboys1 Andersen and his recruits (click on the picture for better focus).

The emphasis in the title is on the “boys” part, although the cows are certainly present as well.  Aging Montana rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne) finds himself without his usual help when it’s time to drive his cattle 400 miles east to market in Belle Fourche.  In desperation, he is forced to take on eleven young boys as his drovers, and it is a coming-of-age exercise for them.  They encounter Colleen Dewhurst and her bevy of soiled doves, as well as rough men of questionable motives, as they do their growing and learn their trade.  Like many other westerns (The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Shootist, for example), this one is also about the search for family and belonging.  Andersen can offer them knowledge and opportunities they don’t yet have and becomes their hard-edged father figure; they become the replacements for his own dead sons.  It all works.

It was no secret when this movie was released that a John Wayne character would get killed for the first time ever in a western, or at least for the first time since he had become a major star (with the exception of The Alamo, of course).  That provided part of the punch of the film on its initial release.  The rest of the impact was in the way it was done, by the near-psychotic villainy of Bruce Dern as Long Hair/Asa Watts.  Wayne told Dern that everybody would hate him for the role; Dern said he responded, “Maybe, but they’ll love me in Berkeley,” a reference to distaste among some on the left for Wayne’s right-wing politics. 

cowboysbrownecowboysdern Nightlinger and Watts

When the movie was released in 1972, the country was still in the midst of a strong wave of anti-Vietnam war sentiment, and many thought that the way the rest of the movie played out after Anderson’s death glorified too much violence by boys too young.  But that seems less of a worry on re-watching; a greater problem lies with incomplete believability in that sequence.

Jebediah Nightlinger[praying to God as he’s about to hanged by Asa Watts and his gang]  “I regret trifling with married women.  I’m thoroughly ashamed of cheating at cards.  I deplore my occasional departures from the truth.  Forgive me for taking your name in vain, my Saturday drunkenness, my Sunday sloth.  Above all, forgive me for the men I’ve killed in anger [eyes shifting to Asa Watts] … and those I am about to.”

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Still, it’s a good movie, and an excellent western.  Young director Mark Rydell (The Rievers, On Golden Pond) said he wanted George C. Scott for the lead role at first but was persuaded by the studio to go for Wayne’s surer box office clout instead, despite Rydell’s personal distaste for Wayne’s politics.  It was a smart move.  Although Scott was an excellent actor, he didn’t carry the same authority in westerns that Wayne did.  It’s a fairly simple plot, and the film takes its time getting things set up before the cattle drive actually takes off.  But overall the movie’s pacing works well.  It was shot in New Mexico with a lot of dust, textures, long vistas and beautiful mountains.  The John Williams score is excellent, with a touch of some guy named Vivaldi.

In addition to Dern’s wonderfully loathsome badness, Roscoe Lee Browne gives a strong performance as Jebediah Nightlinger, the drive’s cook and the first black man these young men have seen.  Browne plays Nightlinger with perhaps the most perfect diction and Shakespearean delivery ever heard in a western.  Colleen Dewhurst is great in her brief role as the madam of a traveling group of soiled doves, and Sarah Cunningham shows a lot of character as Anderson’s wife.  Richard Farnsworth is a member of Long Hair’s gang, a decade before he started getting meatier roles.  Among the boys, A Martinez as Cimarron, the outsider (and the oldest), and the young Robert Carradine as Slim are particularly memorable.  But the boys all make an effective ensemble.  Five of them had experience acting, and the rest were from ranching and rodeo backgrounds.  They work together well.

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John Wayne had some strong performances in the last part of his career, from True Grit to The Shootist.  Along with those two, The Cowboys and Big Jake are memorable.  Of course, he was in some duds as well, such as The Train Robbers and Rio Lobo.  But that’s not a bad batting average.

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The Grey Fox

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 12, 2013

The Grey Fox—Richard Farnsworth, Jackie Burroughs, Wayne Robson (1983; Dir:  Phillip Borsos; no DVD)

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Richard Farnsworth as The Grey Fox, and the real Bill Miner

A small film when it was initially released, it’s also one of the few great westerns not available on DVD, so it remains largely unseen.  Note the Canadian spelling in the title.  This was a Canadian production, most of the story takes place in Canada, and it was beautifully filmed on location in British Columbia.  It has an excellent soundtrack with music by Canadian Michael Conway Baker and The Chieftains, although that soundtrack has never been released in the United States.  There’s a Celtic flavor to the sound, which works well with the time and setting.

The film is an end-of-an-era western based on the true story of Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber released from San Quentin in 1901 after 33 years in prison.  He tries to go straight, but it’s not easy at his age and with his lack of modern skills.  There aren’t many stagecoaches left to rob, but there are trains, so Miner adapts to the new transportation technology, aided by an inept young assistant named Shorty Dunn (Wayne Robson). 

Meanwhile, the aging Miner, who is going under the name George Edwards, also begins a charming May-December romance with Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs), a younger liberated modern woman and photographer.  The romance, Miner’s new career as a gentleman train robber and its aftermath form the rest of the story for this movie.  There’s not much violence or hard language, although there is tension as Miner is hunted by the forces of the law.  The film’s pacing is slower than that of many westerns as relationships develop.  (Compare it to A Thousand Pieces of Gold, perhaps, although it has more action.)  But the elegiac pacing seems to fit the story and the actors, and it works well.

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The movie is marvelously directed and acted.  At the time The Grey Fox was made, Richard Farnsworth was 61, with a 40-year career as a stuntman and minor supporting actor.  His role here is at the center of this movie, and he’s great.  Farnsworth’s voice, phrasing and intonations are unique, velvety and memorable, not to mention those gentle blue eyes and the terrific moustache.  Toward the end of his career, he played three marvelous roles, and this was perhaps the best of them.  (The others are Matthew Cuthbert in the Canadian television series Anne of Green Gables [1985] and Alvin in The Straight Story [1999], but during the 1980s after The Grey Fox he started getting meatier supporting roles in many movies.)  You have to believe in Miner and care about him for the movie to work at all, and Farnsworth is quietly superb.  Jackie Burroughs is also very good in her smaller role as the emancipated photographer and romantic interest.  The romance could easily have been not terribly believable, given the difference in ages and eras, but it works and works well. 

In his calm, steady way, Farnsworth knew how remarkable his feat was, and he was appreciative of the opportunity.  He told the Associated Press in 1983, “I guess you might say that The Grey Fox is a kind of Cinderella story for me.  When I was a kid, I read in the western magazines about a skinny old guy with a moustache who came out of San Quentin after 30 years for stage robbing and tried his hand at train robbing.  Forty-two years later, I end up playing him in a movie.  I guess I grew into him.”  He was a natural presence in westerns, but he also worked well in such films as The Natural (1984).  He had significant supporting roles in Tom Horn, Comes a Horseman and The Two Jakes.  He even played Wild Bill Hickok in the execrable The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), although he was significantly older than Hickok ever got to be.

GreyFoxBorsosFarnsworth Director Borsos with Farnsworth.

This gem was made with a limited budget; it didn’t have recognizable stars and was released principally in art houses.  It’s clearly on a different scale than, say, Silverado, which had much more to work with in terms of budget and stars.  But for what it is, it’s great, and it ends on a curiously upbeat note that you wouldn’t have seen coming with the generally autumnal feeling of the film.  Even in a film this small, Farnsworth got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as Miner.  The film won the Best Film Genie, the Canadian version of the American Oscar, and Richard Farnsworth won the best foreign actor award (foreign, as in non-Canadian).

The director, Tasmanian-born Canadian Phillip Borsos, was only 27 when he made this movie, his first feature film.  He died in 1995 of leukemia at 41.

For another excellent and largely unseen small Canadian western check out Gunless (2010), with Paul Gross as The Montana Kid sidetracked in western Canada.  For another underrated but excellent relationship-oriented western, see the aforementioned A Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991), if you can find it.  It’s not available on DVD, either, although there were rumors that it was to be released by Panamint in late 2015.

Note:  The real Bill Miner died in prison, but this story ends the way it should.

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