Tag Archives: Robert Duvall

Shooting Stars, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 13, 2015

Shooting Stars: A Ranking of the 29 Greatest Western Actors Since 1939
Part 1—The Top Five

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1.  John Wayne  [The Big Trail, Stagecoach, Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, Angel and the Badman, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, North to Alaska, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock!, The Sons of Katie Elder, The Comancheros, El Dorado, The War Wagon, Chisum, Cahill US Marshal, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, Big Jake, The Cowboys, The Shootist, et al.]

Wayne’s image is the first that comes to mind when we consider westerns between 1939 and the present.  He made many forgettable westerns while learning his craft during the 1930s in low-budget quickies, but beginning with Stagecoach in 1939 he made a surprising number of appearances in really good westerns.  While his career in westerns included a number of duds and clunkers, particularly toward the end (The Undefeated, Rio Lobo, The Train Robbers, etc.), for a long period he was consistently good—and often great.

Although, like most male stars, he sometimes seemed to show up in roles too young for him as he aged, he was more successful than most at playing age-appropriate roles as he grew older.  He successfully played older than he was in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and he moved into more mature roles naturally in The Searchers and Rio Bravo.  (He’s probably too old for Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, but somehow it works.)  He even made a couple of great westerns during the final stage of his career (The Cowboys, The Shootist).

Some of his position at the top of this list is due to his long-time relationship with John Ford, the greatest director of westerns, which helped both of them earn their pre-eminence in the field.  But he also made very good westerns with directors Howard Hawks, John Farrow, Don Siegel and others.

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2.  Clint Eastwood  [A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Hang ‘Em High, Paint Your Wagon, High Plains Drifter, The Beguiled, Joe Kidd, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy, Pale Rider, Unforgiven; Rawhide on television]

Eastwood is the greatest living star in westerns, although he is now in his 80s and is unlikely to make any more westerns either as a leading man or as a director.  Remarkably, he accomplished this mostly during a period when westerns were out of cinematic fashion; although he didn’t appear in nearly the number of westerns John Wayne did, his high position on the list results from the unusually high quality of the few westerns he did make.  Beginning with his central role in Sergio Leone’s influential Man With No Name Trilogy in the 1960s, he went on to appear in good westerns in the 1970s (Hang ‘Em High, for example) and to direct better ones with himself as the star (High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, Unforgiven).  Director Eastwood benefited from having an iconic western star (actor Eastwood) at the center of his films, and he knew how to use him.

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3.  James Stewart  [Destry Rides Again, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, Night Passage, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Bend of the River, The Far Country, Shenandoah, How the West Was Won, Firecreek, The Rare Breed, Bandolero!, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Shootist, et al.]

Before leaving for World War II, he made his reputation in modern films by Frank Capra and The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor.  His only western in that period was 1939’s Destry Rides Again.  Upon returning from the war, he revived his film career once again with Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and by working with such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann.  His high position on this list is due to the five films he made with Mann, in which he usually played a character on the psychological edge in some way.  Between them, Mann and Stewart re-defined in many ways the world of western movies and the stories they told.  The quality of westerns he made in the 1960s after his relationship with Mann fell apart tails off noticeably, although he made three late westerns with John Ford, one of which is particularly memorable (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).

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4.  Gary Cooper  [The Virginian (1930),The Spoilers (1930), Fighting Caravans, The Plainsman, The Westerner, Along Came Jones, Dallas, High Noon, Garden of Evil, Springfield Rifle, Vera Cruz, Man of the West, The Hanging Tree, They Came to Cordura, etc.]

Dave Kehr sees him as John Wayne’s principal rival.  “Cooper, for whom the words lanky and laconic seem to have been invented, was identified by the Department of the Treasury as the nation’s highest paid wage earner in 1939….the mildly satiric Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) already finds Cooper playing an inflated archetype — the Man of the West — rather than a character, much as he would in his most overrated film, Fred Zinnemann’s didactic political fable High Noon (1952).”

In his biography of Gary Cooper, Gary Cooper, American Hero (Robert Hale, London, 2001), Jeffrey Myers quotes Robert Warshow’s essay on westerns:  “The romantic image of the cowboy as the embodiment of male freedom, courage and honor was created by men who had lived a rugged life in the West:  in words by Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister, in art by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and in film, preeminently, by Gary Cooper.”  Cooper was an authentic westerner from Montana, and he had a natural way with western roles.  Cooper would challenge John Wayne for the top spot on this list, except that he didn’t make many westerns during the 1940s when his career was at its peak.  His reputation in westerns was substantially made by movies released before 1939, until he revived his career in the 1950s beginning with High Noon.  One consequence of this career arc is that in several of his best westerns from the 1950s he seems too old for the roles in which he’s cast.  He’s good enough that we mostly look past that, though.

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5.  Robert Duvall  [True Grit, Lawman, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Joe Kidd, Tender Mercies, Lonesome Dove, Geronimo: An American Legend, Broken Trail, Open Range]

His position on this list comes from what Duvall refers to as his Trail Boss Trilogy (Lonesome Dove, Broken Trail, Open Range).  In all of them he plays a trail boss moving his herd somewhere against considerable obstacles.  These three are of surprisingly high quality, despite the fact that two of them were not movies but were made-for-television miniseries.  Like Wayne, Eastwood and Stewart, Duvall has benefited from working with unusually capable directors of westerns, John Sturges, Simon Wincer, Walter Hill and Kevin Costner among them.  His Augustus McCrae (Lonesome Dove) is one of the most indelible characters in the history of westerns.

At an age similar to Eastwood’s, his career also took place largely during a period when not many westerns were made.  His Best Actor Oscar comes from a modern western of sorts; he played country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies (1983).  If you like him in more traditional westerns, give Tender Mercies a try.  He is one of the pre-eminent movie actors of his time generally, not just in westerns.  Unlike the others this high on the list, he has seldom played a conventional romantic lead.

To continue the list of top stars in westerns, see Shooting Stars, Part 2 and Shooting Stars, Part 3.

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Joe Kidd

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 24, 2014

Joe Kidd—Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, John Saxon, Don Stroud, Stella Garcia (1972; Dir:  John Sturges)

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One of the last films directed by John Sturges, with a screenplay written by Elmore Leonard.  The plot is similar to that of Valdez is Coming, which was also based on a novel by Leonard and made about the same time.  This is more predictable than Valdez, mostly by having Clint Eastwood playing Clint Eastwood in the title role but also by having a less organic plot.

This story is set in pre-statehood New Mexico Territory in 1912, starting in the small town of Sinola.  Joe Kidd (Eastwood) is a former bounty hunter and tracker hired by big rancher Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) to help his band of well-armed thugs find Luis Chama (John Saxon), a local Latino bandit chieftain/freedom fighter/land-reform agitator.  As Harlan shows himself to be merciless and his thugs brutalize those of Latino descent they come across, Kidd realizes his mistake.  He’s fired by Harlan before he can quit, and manages to escape with Chama’s girlfriend Helen Sanchez (Stella Garcia), only to find that Chama is not as noble as the native populace would like to believe, either.  There’s a great chase through the mountains, as Kidd hunts Harlan, who’s hunting Chama and Kidd.

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Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood) uses an unusual modern pistol to defend himself and Helen Sanchez (Stella Garcia).

Helen Sanchez:  “He is right.  We must give ourselves up, don’t you see?  There is no other way.”

Luis Chama [clearly not a proto-feminist]:  “I do not care what you think.  I take you along for cold nights and days when there is nothing to do.  Not to hear you talk.”

Kidd leads Harlan and his men back to town, where the fight concludes in a not-terribly-believable fight, with lots of bullets flying and an improbable train crash.

Interesting elements:  (a) The brick-red pants Eastwood wears throughout the movie.  This must be an early 1970s thing.  Compare them with the red pants worn by Jim Brown in Take a Hard Ride, for example.  (b) The specialized “modern” firearms used by Harlan’s men, including the Mauser C96 pistol-with-a-stock (1896) used by Lamarr Sims (Don Stroud) and the long-range rifle–a Remington-Keene sporter (1880)–used by Olin Mingo (James Wainwright).  Special care is also shown with Frank Harlan’s Custom Savage 99 (1899) and Joe Kidd’s Cased Ross Rifle model M-10 (1910).  Apparently Elmore Leonard was behind the scrupulousness about period weaponry.  (c) Harlan’s repeated deliberate mispronunciation of Chama’s name (as “Louis Chayma”).  It gets irritating, as perhaps it’s meant to do.

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Set in 1912 New Mexico, and shot at Lone Pine and Old Tucson.  This is not one of Eastwood’s best, or Sturges’, although it’s watchable.  Apparently director Sturges commented in 1978, “There are a lot of holes in Joe Kidd–some in the script that were never fixed and some resulting from cuts made because scenes just didn’t play.”  The Harlan thugs are too unrelievedly bad and despicable, and the plot is a bit outlandish (the big finale involving a train and a not-well-choreographed shootout).  With the Sturges-Eastwood-Duvall-Leonard team, one hopes this would be better than it turns out to be.  Not a long movie, at 88 minutes.  The score is by Lalo Schifrin, who did the memorable Mission:  Impossible theme.  For another western interested in post-frontier technology and weaponry, see Big Jake, set in 1909 and made about the same time as this one.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 2

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 4, 2013

John Wayne as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Tom Dunson in Red River, Hondo Lane in Hondo, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Sheriff John T. Chance in Rio Bravo and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

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Wayne is the most memorable and enduring western star that the movies have seen, appearing over a long career that began in silent movies and lasted until the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.  Unlike some other great western stars, he was always the protagonist, although a couple of his characters (Tom Dunson, Ethan Edwards) had some near-psychotic edges to them.  He seemed larger-than-life in the Wayne persona that was always part of his character in a film.  These listed here are his greatest performances, but there are others that could make the list, such as Wil Andersen in The Cowboys and J.B. Books in The Shootist.

  • In the role that made him a star, Wayne captures the screen instantly in the shot in which he flags down the coach in 1939’s Stagecoach.  As the Ringo Kid, his mission for revenge and his relationship with bad girl Dallas (Claire Trevor) dominate the movie when the titular coach isn’t being chased by Indians.  The camera loves him, and director John Ford knew how to use him well, even here in their first work together. 
  • It wasn’t just Ford; Wayne’s work with other directors could be excellent as well.  For example, as the obsessive Tom Dunson, his relationship with foster son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his first and one of his best roles) is the backbone of Red River, directed by Howard Hawks.  He’s John Wayne clear through, but his behavior is edgy and uncertain enough that we’re not quite sure how the conflict will end.  That’s good writing and directing, too.  All of this worked together to make the first great cattle drive western, with John Wayne at the heart of it.
  • Hondo Lane is an ill-tempered Arizona scout who puts up with no nonsense and is all business, even in his relationship with Geraldine Page and her son.  Although he had used a longarm to good effect in Stagecoach, his seeming familiarity with a rifle in this role was even more natural.  (It became an integral part of Wayne’s performance as John T. Chance in Rio Bravo, as well.)  He carries the movie, as he usually did, and this excellent performance tends to be underrated in part because this 3D movie wasn’t readily available for viewing for several decades after its release, when the short-lived 3D fashion of the early 1950s had faded.
  • The occasionally irrational and always obsessive Ethan Edwards in The Searchers is nevertheless the character who captures us and carries us through his odyssey in pursuit of a niece taken by Comanches.  His towering obsession is rivaled by the magnificent landscape of Monument Valley, but he stands up to it with a compelling performance for a great director (John Ford again).  One of the iconic shots at the end of the movie shows Ethan Edwards silhouetted in a cabin doorway, holding his left elbow with his right hand before he turns and walks back out into the sunlight.  And we’re not sure to what future.  (Wayne said the pose was an homage to his mentor Harry Carey, whose widow Olive and son Harry Jr. were part of the cast here.)
  • In his second western with director Howard Hawks, Wayne carries the story in Rio Bravo as Sheriff John T. Chance, under siege much of the movie.  He faces bad guys who have much greater numbers and resources, while he has only a drunken deputy (Dean Martin), a gimpy jailor (cackling Walter Brennan) and a very young gunman (Ricky Nelson) to stand with him.  He even makes the May-December romance with a much younger Angie Dickinson seem reasonable.  Here, as in some other films, Wayne was more convincing with a rifle than with a pistol, especially as he got older.  And he was beginning to age when he made this movie.  Wayne played the same character in two more Hawks remakes, with progressively worse results each time.
  • His best acting was arguably in Red River and The Searchers, but he won his Best Actor Academy Award for Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.  As an aging, one-eyed, drunken U.S. marshal for Judge Isaac Parker, he leads a small party into the Indian Territory in search of a murderer and other miscreants.  One of the defining moments of his career in film takes place in a mountain meadow, where the indomitable Rooster Cogburn, facing off alone against four outlaws on horseback, shouts his challenge “Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!”, takes his horse’s reins in his teeth and charges, firing a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other.  Thrilling stuff.  Good writing and direction, too.  It’s interesting to compare Wayne’s version of the character with the Cogburn played 40 years later by another excellent actor, Jeff Bridges.

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Newman as Butch, and the real Butch Cassidy.

Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Always a superb actor, Newman brought an elusive quality to most of his performances and played all over the map as the roles required.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in one of the greatest he restored the almost-forgotten outlaw Butch Cassidy’s mythology as a likeable western Robin Hood.  Especially effective because of good directing, a legendarily great screenplay by William Goldman, excellent cinematography, a notable score and a balancing performance by Robert Redford, Newman’s Cassidy is nevertheless what moves the film, especially in the first half.  The chemistry between Newman and Redford is probably the most significant element in making the movie compelling.  For another really good performance in a western, see Newman in Hombre.

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Redford as Sundance, and the real Harry Longabaugh

Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid in Butch Cassidy and Jeremiah Johnson in Jeremiah Johnson

Redford was one of the greatest movie stars of his generation, and his natural reticence plays well in westerns that are written with due regard for the taciturn nature of many real westerners.  A native westerner himself, Redford could play them well.  It would have been good to see him in more westerns, but after the early part of his career, such films were no longer in cinematic fashion.  He can be seen in westerns with a modern setting and a concern for social attitudes:  The Electric Horseman (1979) and The Horse Whisperer (1998). And he directed and narrated a beautiful film about the 1920s modern west in A River Runs Through It (1992).

  • As the less talkative, better-shooting half of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford’s Sundance is engraved on the memories of those who love westerns.  Two of the best Sundance moments of the movie:  The initial scene, shot in sepia tones, where Sundance is at a card table, accused of cheating.  The setup is brilliant at revealing elements of both Butch and Sundance’s characters and establishing Sundance’s reputation.  And in Bolivia as the pair is trying out for jobs as payroll guards, when Strother Martin as the “colorful” mine manager asks for a demonstration of shooting ability.  Inexplicably, Sundance misses badly.  He asks, “Can I move?”  “What do you mean, move?”  “I’m better when I move.”  And with that he draws, shoots and hits the target multiple times within what seems like a heartbeat.  He was born for the role.

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Redford as Jeremiah Johnson, and the real Liver-Eating Johnston.

  • Not as heralded these days but even more difficult was Redford’s performance as Jeremiah Johnson, mountain man extraordinaire.  There’s not a lot of dialogue, Redford is alone on the screen much of the time, and he has to carry the movie himself.  He does.  The silences seem part of the story, and he’s very effective in the action sequences, although he doesn’t have the imposing physical size of the historical Johnson.  He makes relationships seem convincing with few words, on those few occasions when he forms them.  There’s good directing at work here, but the film depends on Redford’s performance.

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Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove and Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies

Both of these roles now seem unimaginable in other hands.  Duvall is one of the pre-eminent actors of his time, and not as a conventional leading man.  He could be on this list for his performances as Boss Spearman in Open Range and Print Ritter in Broken Trail as well.

  • Gus McCrae is the more loquacious of the two ex-Texas rangers around whom the epic Lonesome Dove revolves, and he carries more than his share of the action.  He’s garrulous and compelling, and it’s especially his relationships (with Diane Lane and Anjelica Huston) that interest us.  He’s more engaged than Call with the black-hearted Indian outlaw Blue Duck, and he and Tommy Lee Jones (as Woodrow Call) balance each other nicely.  Lonesome Dove might have been made for television, but Duvall himself sees this as his defining performance.   For Duvall as similar characters leading trail drives, see the other two in what Duvall refers to as his western trail-boss trilogy, Open Range and Broken Trail.
  • As alcoholic country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, Duvall won an Academy Award as Best Actor.  He’s convincing in a May-December relationship with Tess Harper, and he’s great at bringing us along as he sobers up and establishes a new family in which he’s only one of the wounded spirits.  It’s a terrific performance in a very good movie, not seen often enough.  For a comparable performance by another actor in a similar role, see Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.  For another similarly great performance by Duvall, albeit in a non-western, see The Apostle.

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Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove

Younger than Duvall, Jones nevertheless was persuasive as Woodrow Call, Gus McCrae’s long-time friend, co-Texas ranger and ranching partner.  A native Texan, Jones as Call embodied the taciturn, emotionally-repressed man of action.  It’s one of the high points in his career.  One stand-out moment:  As a mounted cavalryman in a Nebraska cow town starts to beat young cowhand Newt with a whip, Call spies the action from down the street.  Without a wasted motion, he bounds onto his horse (the Hell-Bitch), rides her full-tilt into the cavalryman and his mount and starts beating him bloody with a branding iron.  His explanation when finally pulled off by McCrae?  “I can’t abide rude behavior in a man.”  Grizzled and unhesitating, he’s a fit companion and complement to McCrae.  James Garner takes the role of an older Call in Streets of Laredo, and, although the material isn’t as strong as Lonesome Dove, he’s surprisingly good, too.  For other good Jones performances, see him as the long-lost half-Indian father in The Missing, as Hewey Calloway in The Good Old Boys (MfTV, 1995), and as the world-weary modern Texas sheriff in No Country for Old Men.

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Lawman

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 30, 2013

Lawman—Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Sheree North, Robert Duvall (1971; Dir:  Michael Winner)

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This features an implacable and almost superhuman Lancaster as Jared Maddox, the titular lawman from Bannock, which looks to be in the southwest, despite the name.  (The Bannocks were an Indian tribe that ranged mostly in Idaho.)  The movie was shot in Durango, Mexico.  Cowboys in the employ of Vince Bronson (Lee J. Cobb), returning from a cattle drive, shoot up Bannock and an old man is accidentally killed.  (The suggestion is that his life was less valuable because he was old.) 

Months later (in 1887), Maddox comes to their town Sabbath with a list of people he wants to take back to Bannock for trial.  Vince Bronson offers Maddox restitution and a deal to leave them alone, and Maddox refuses to talk about it.  The inference is that Maddox is harder on Bronson and his boys than any Bannock court will be.  While Maddox isn’t wrong in his interpretation of the law, he’s not entirely right, either.  His nature is indicated by an always-buttoned black leather vest he wears.  His character plays a flute alone in his hotel room to indicate a hidden sensitivity in his nature. 

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Robert Ryan in one of his last movies is Cotton Ryan, the over-the-hill lawman in Sabbath; he basically works for Bronson.  Much is made about how Cotton has been backed down before in several locations, but he seems to have more balance than Maddox, if not the same strong moral purpose.  This also has an early western role for Robert Duvall (in the same general time frame as True Grit, Joe Kidd) as Adams, a small rancher involved in the drive.  And an early role for Richard Jordan, who also appeared with Lancaster in Valdez Is Coming the same year. 

Running through this film is a sense of problems with traditional authority and values, very common in the early 1970s.  There is a good setup of moral quandaries, especially with the Cobb character.  The resolution, to the extent things get resolved, is less convincing.  There are questions on the climactic shootout, but this is better than average.  It was a good year for westerns starring Lancaster, with this, Ulzana’s Raid and Valdez is Coming.  

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There are attempts to depict moral shades of gray among various characters.  Cobb’s Bronson isn’t that bad a person; he’s not trying to avoid reasonable consequences, and he’d make restitution if Maddox would let him.  Crowe Wheelwright (Jordan) is a young Bronson gunslinger who comes to see some of Maddox’s view.  Ryan can see both Bronson’s and Maddox’s view; he tries to broker a deal between them, which Maddox refuses.  Ryan is the foil to whom Maddox makes the comments most revealing of him. [Note that Ryan uses the word “gunsel,” normally associated with Dashiell Hammett’s work from a later time period, especially The Maltese Falcon.]

The townspeople seem actually to like Bronson (as opposed to being oppressed by him), and some take up arms against Maddox.  Some of the cowboys are as inflexible in their way as Maddox (e.g., Harvey Stenbaugh, played by Albert Salmi), and they’re the first ones to push things to violence; some are cowards or backshooters.   In some ways there may be too many characters.  There’s not enough explanation about Lucas (Joseph Wiseman), the crippled local saloon-bordello owner who has some history with Maddox.  He’s an interesting character, and a counterpoint to Ryan in some ways—some one who has not lost his edge despite reason to have done so.

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Such moral complexity is unusual in a western.  Maddox is world-weary and sees the fruitlessness of it all:  “It’s always the same.  If you post a man, he has to come into town to prove he’s a man.  Or you kill a man, he’s got a friend or kin — he just has to come against you… and for no reason… no reason that makes any sense.  And it don’t mean a damn to the man already in the ground.  Nobody wins.”  But he does it anyway because it’s his job.  As he goes out for the final shootout, he fatalistically says to Ryan:  “A man gets caught in his own doing.  You can’t change what you are.  And if you try, something always calls you back.”    

At the end, there seem to be some cracks in the implacable Maddox façade, but he’s forced into a shootout where there’s no room for hesitation.  It pushes him back into his black-and-white role and outlook.  After dealing with action forced by several others, Maddox shoots down the fleeing J.D. Cannon when he doesn’t really have to.  It certainly de-glamorizes the showdown.  Although Maddox comes out alive, nobody wins.  A rigid adherence to the letter of the law doesn’t make things turn out right.  In some ways, this is a story of obsession, like The Searchers, as well as a variation on the High Noon theme. And it’s said to be a remake of 1955’s Man With the Gun.  (All those are better movies, though.)

The print sometimes seen on the Encore Westerns channel isn’t in good shape, grainy and with washed-out colors.  British director Winner was better known for the Death Wish movies with Charles Bronson, and also made the western Chato’s Land with the same star; he’s said to be overly fond of camera zooms.  Sometimes this one is viewed as a violent relic of the early 1970s overly influenced by spaghetti westerns (unnecessarily violent, for example, as emphasized by the poster); others see it as a gem of moral complexity with excellent performances.  Ryan is said to have preferred this movie to The Wild Bunch.  Not many others would make that claim, but this is worth watching even though there is a residual feeling of director Winner wanting to make a statement more than tell a story that was real to him.

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True Grit (the Original)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 28, 2013

True Grit—John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, Jeff Corey, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, John Fiedler (1969; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

In the most enduring scene from this movie (and one of the great shootouts from any western), U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) shouts “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”, takes his horse’s reins in his teeth and, with a rifle in one hand and a pistol in the other, charges across a mountain meadow at Lucky Ned Pepper (an early Robert Duvall role) and three others of his outlaw gang.  It was for this role that Wayne won his only Best Actor Oscar, although you could argue that he’d done better acting in Red River, The Searchers and maybe later in The Cowboys.  Even Wayne thought this was not necessarily his most memorable work.  When asked if he thought True Grit was the best film he’d ever made, Wayne replied, “No, I don’t. Two classic Westerns were better — Stagecoach and Red River — and a third, The Searchers … and The Quiet Man was certainly one of the best.”

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John Wayne as one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn, one of his signature roles.

True Grit is ostensibly a manhunt western, but like any great movie it depends on character development as well as the story.  The story, taken from a best-seller by Charles Portis, features Mattie Ross (a first role for Kim Darby, then aged 21 and playing 14), a teenaged girl and also a person with True Grit from Arkansas.  After her father is killed on the streets of Fort Smith and the killer escapes into the lawless Indian Nations, Mattie decides to go after that killer.  Joining her on this quest are the one-eyed, hard-drinking Cogburn and bounty-hunting Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Glenn Campbell), both with their own agendas and reasons for going on the hunt.  In order to extract the killer, this small but plucky band must locate him and take on a variety of unsavory characters, including a nest of rattlesnakes and the outlaw gang with whom the killer has taken up.

Wayne deserved his Oscar for his performance as Cogburn, which wasn’t simply a straight-up reprise of characters from his other westerns.  In many ways he’s playing against those invincible characters and his traditional image, as he lets his age show.  Darby was impressive her first time out although her career quickly faded.  John Wayne apparently didn’t share that view of Darby, bemoaning their “lack of chemistry” and calling her “the lousiest goddamn actress I ever worked with.”  Duvall is good in a brief role as the outlaw leader.  Glenn Campbell is the weak spot in the casting; you can see why he didn’t have much of a film career.  Campbell’s shortcomings are made more obvious by the screenwriter’s choice to follow the period flavor of the Portis book in the use of dialogue.  For the most part that works (Wayne and Darby carry it off well, for example), but Campbell would have a hard time acting even with more modern language.  Good character roles go to Strother Martin as Col. Stonehill, a Fort Smith horse trader bested by Ross in negotiations, and to a young Dennis Hopper as an outlaw (the same year he gained more celebrity in Easy Rider).  And of course to John Fiedler as Ross’s lawyer J. Noble Daggett in another brief appearance.

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There are many lines that stick with you, with the mostly successful attempt at period dialogue.  Pepper’s response to Cogburn’s challenge at one point:  “I call that bold talk from a one-eyed fat man.”  Cogburn says of Mattie Ross as she swims a river on her horse rather than be left behind:  “By God, she reminds me of me.”   The young outlaw Moon says of his partner Quincy:  “He never played me false until he killed me.”  The killer Tom Chaney bemoans his fate after Mattie shoots him:  “Everything happens to me.  Now I’m shot by a child!”

This movie came out about the same time as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  They’re both great, and they both depict western characters near the end of their careers.  But Butch Cassidy offers a more forward-looking twist on traditional western themes, while True Grit is much more of a play on those traditional themes.  They both work well, though.

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Marshal Cogburn, telling stories to a child.

Henry Hathaway was more a workmanlike than a spectacular director, and this was the best film from Hathaway’s late period.  He started out directing westerns during the early 1930s when they weren’t all that respectable, including being an assistant director on the 1929 version of The Virginian, with the young Gary Cooper in the title role.  He had acquired considerable experience by the time he made True Grit forty years later.  The music is by Elmer Bernstein, veteran composer of scores for many other westerns as well as lots of other movies of every kind.  Lucien Ballard shot it beautifully, largely in Colorado locations more mountainous and scenic than the supposed setting of Oklahoma.

This classic western no longer stands alone.  It must be viewed together with the Coen brothers’ 2010 remake, which also appears on this list of great westerns.  Wayne dominates this original as Rooster.  Jeff Bridges as Rooster is more remote in the darker remake, putting Mattie more in the center of the film.  The remake is truer to the ending of the novel.  And both are very worth watching.

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Lonesome Dove

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 9, 2013

Lonesome Dove—Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Danny Glover, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, D.B. Sweeney, Glenne Headley, Frederick Forrest, Steve Buscemi (miniseries made for television, 1989; Dir:  Simon Wincer)

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Finally, in 2008, a DVD with a worthy version of this modern classic novel was released.  Although Lonesome Dove was made for television in the late 1980s, it was apparently filmed with a large budget in a widescreen format, as now shown on the 2008 DVD.  And the new transfer was of a significantly better, clearer quality than earlier releases.  One result is that this version gives a greater sense of the visual sweep and power of the American west than its more limited predecessors.

The spine of Lonesome Dove is the story of a cattle drive from Texas border country on the Rio Grande north to Montana, but it includes so much more:  Indians and renegades, scurrilous buffalo hunters and rough cowhands, romances current and past, outlaws and old friends gone wrong, Texas rangers and Mexican rustlers, battles against evildoers, miscreants, Indians and the elements.  Based on one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, it takes the time to do justice to its rich source material.

How can the greatest western be something made for television?  It was the coming together of so many elements, including the rich and sprawling story, terrific cinematography, excellent music (by Basil Pouledoris), masterful direction, superb casting, and, perhaps most of all, the time to tell the story fully at its own pace and develop the characters.

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Capt. Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Capt. Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones).

And the cast!  The casting is magnificent.  Some of the excellent cast members (Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane) are known best for their work in non-western films.  Others (Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper) are icons well known from other westerns on this list.  Duvall is so good as romantic former Texas Ranger Gus McCrae that it is now impossible to think of anybody else in the role, although a younger McCrae has been played by others since.  Originally, James Garner was to have played Gus, but had to drop out for health reasons; he played Woodrow Call very creditably in the sequel Streets of Laredo miniseries.  Tommy Lee Jones, who is actually younger than Duvall, nevertheless matches him well as the unyielding, steel-spined Captain Woodrow Call.  Anjelica Huston as McCrae’s lifelong love Clara has one of the most memorable roles of her career, as does Diane Lane as the prostitute Lorena.  Danny Glover as the scout Deets is terrific.  It’s still strange to think of Frederick Forrest as the enigmatic but thoroughly evil Comanche Blue Duck, but even that bit of casting works.  Chris Cooper, in one of his first major roles, is oddly and quietly impressive as July Johnson, drawn out of a quiet life in Arkansas and thrust into the epic struggles around McCrae and Call.

There are vivid scenes that come to mind, and everyone has his favorites:  the death of a drover in a river filled with snakes, McCrae’s relentless pursuit of the elusive Blue Duck (who appears mysteriously and memorably in a flash of lightning), the hanging of an old friend gone wrong, Call decisively taking on the U.S. cavalry without hesitation (“I can’t abide rude behavior in a man”), McCrae and Clara trying to work out an old love, July Johnson coping with death and with the continuation of life, and Call’s inability to claim an important relationship, are only some.  Some things get resolved, and some seem not to; that’s life, and sometimes death.  It has an air of authenticity.  It stays with you.

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McCrae looks for a lost love with Clara (Anjelica Huston).

The McCrae-Call partnership around which this story revolves was loosely based on the Oliver Loving-Charlie Goodnight relationship from the 1860s; they’re the Texas pair who blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail.  This version of the story was so powerful that it generated three more long novels (one sequel and two prequels) with the same characters from author Larry McMurtry.  None of those matches the novel on which this was based.  The others tend to get more sidetracked in the dark, the quirky and the wildly idiosyncratic, losing their grip on the themes and story that give the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove its powerful narrative thrust.  Some of them have been made into watchable miniseries themselves (Streets of Laredo, Comanche Moon), but none of them works as well as this original on the page or on screen.  The story of Lonesome Dove seems complete in itself, despite McMurtry’s insistence on giving more of it less compellingly in other novels.  As for made-for-television sequels not based on McMurtry novels, such as Return to Lonesome Dove, watch them at your own peril.

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This was the first large-scale directing effort by Australian Simon Wincer, who has gone on to make both theatrical releases (Quigley Down Under) and excellent made-for-television westerns (Last Stand at Sabre River, Monte Walsh), including the Lonesome Dove prequel Comanche Moon.  He got it right the first time.

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Blue Duck (Frederick Forrest), the worst of the bad guys, although there are a number to choose from.

Lonesome Dove and one other are often cited as the best miniseries ever, and their proponents tend to divide along gender lines.  The other is the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version), and you can guess who likes which.  They’re both great, but only one of them is a western.

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Open Range

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 27, 2013

Open Range—Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Bening, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, James Russo (2003; Dir:  Kevin Costner)

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Kevin Costner isn’t in great critical favor as a director these days, but he also seems to be one of the three or four best current directors of westerns (see the discussion of directors below).  He’s probably underrated as an actor as well, since he’s turned in some strong work at this stage of his career in such non-westerns as The Upside of Anger.  He directed and starred in Open Range, and he did very well in both those capacities.

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Boss Spearman and Charley Waite heading for the showdown.

The story is a pretty typical cattle drive/range war sort of thing, in which Robert Duvall is Boss Spearman, a rancher moving his herd to market in 1882 with the help of Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) and a couple of others.  At Harmonville, they run afoul of the entrenched local land baron Denton Baxter (played by the British actor Michael Gambon) and his minions, including a corrupt marshal (played by James Russo).  These sorts of conflicts are never settled easily in a western.  “Man’s got a right to protect his property and his life, and we ain’t lettin’ no rancher or his lawman take either.”  Duvall is superb as usual, and Costner has enough heft and strength to play off him well.  The Costner character seems a bit dour under the harsh circumstances (although less so than in Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp), but he looks and plays as authentic.

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Even so, this might be ordinary enough were it not for two elements.  The first is an excellent mature romance between Waite and Sue Barlow, the local doctor’s sister (Annette Bening)—mature because it’s between realistic people of a certain age, not because a lot of flesh or overt passion is shown.  It is convincing, charming and seems true to the period.  The second takes a while to develop, but the culminating shoot-out actually manages to seem more believable and real than most others in westerns.  Note, however, Waite fanning his gun.  It looks impressive and conveys a sense of familiarity with a gun, and perhaps expertise, but it was a notoriously inaccurate and often wasteful way of discharging a weapon, especially if you needed to save ammunition during an extended fight.  Still, westerns have always been reluctant to show gunfighters reloading, since it slows down the action.  The sound of guns firing in this film is loud enough to carry a shock with it (as with the punched-up sound of gunshots in Shane 50 years earlier), and that seems realistic, too.

In the extreme situations that develop, Spearman and Waite each discover new things about the other.  There seem to be real relationships here.

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Annette Bening as the doctor’s spinster sister Sue.

Michael Gambon’s sheer malevolence as the land baron can seem a little over-the-top, and there’s a fair amount of scenery-chewing on his part.  However, there is the gorgeous scenery of the Canadian Rockies as captured by cinematographer James Muro.  This was the last movie made by veteran character actor Michael Jeter, who died soon after its release.   Because of the violence, the movie is rated R.

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Broken Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 25, 2013

Broken Trail—Robert Duvall, Thomas Haden Church, Greta Scacchi, Scott Cooper, Gwendoline Yeo, Rusty Schwimmer, James Russo, Chris Mulkey (Made for television, 2006; Dir:  Walter Hill)

This originally aired as a two-night miniseries on television; its playing time on DVD is just over three hours.  But television or not, its top-of-the-line casting, a strong story, good direction and excellent production values qualify it for this list.  It won an Emmy for Best Miniseries.

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Broken Trail takes place in 1898 and follows Print Ritter (Robert Duvall) and his nephew Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church) as they drive a herd of 500 horses from the John Day country of Oregon eastward across the mountains of Idaho to Sheridan in north-central Wyoming.  That’s where the British are paying top dollar for horses because of the Boer War.  Along the way, they have a number of unexpected adventures, such as rescuing a wagon-load of non-English-speaking Chinese women destined for prostitution.  They deal with problems provided by nature and by various miscreants, loathsome outlaws, prostitutes, vile madams and a lawless mining town.

But the story and characters are what keep us watching.  Duvall has always been supremely watchable in a western role if the writing’s any good at all.  However, he and the film benefit hugely when he’s got another strong performer to play off; think of Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove and Kevin Costner in Open Range Duvall has said that he thinks of these two movies along with Broken Trail as his trail boss trilogy, and they’re all good. 

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In this case it’s Church’s performance, and his relationship with Duvall’s character, that make this movie excellent.  In some ways his character is harder, more humorless and more unyielding than Duvall’s, but in the end he can change more than Duvall can.  There’s a certain amount of heartbreak in this one, as well as all the action one could wish.  There are a number of historical touches that make this richer than it had to be.  It takes the time to develop not only the relationship between uncle and nephew but to differentiate the Chinese women as individuals.  It’s longer than most movies and the pace isn’t quick, but it seldom seems to drag.

This is obviously the story of a stock drive, horses in this case–or as Print Ritter calls them, “high-desert mustangs.”  As with many westerns, however, the subtext is the search for family on a number of levels:  the healing of long-time family relationships; the bonding of strangers; the formation of new romantic relationships and the relationships that don’t quite get formed—all while using traditional western themes, situations and settings.

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Lonesome Dove was clearly a strong influence on this film, and this is not quite on the same level as that masterpiece.  The three-hour playing time makes the pace seem leisurely at times, especially in the second half.  The editing is looser than it could be, and not all of the many threads of the story seem to be entirely consistent or tied up by the end of the film.  There are a couple of spots where it seems like what was captured on camera could be clearer, as when the horses crest the Whale’s Back and start down the other side.  The ending seems extended beyond what we expect, but that extension has a certain power to it as we learn what became of these characters after the events of the movie.  Although they are fictional, they do seem real after this recounting.  The device is fairly common, but it is exceptionally well done in this case.  In the words of Print Ritter, “We’re all travelers in this world.  Sweet grass to the packin’ house, birth to death, we travel between the eternities….”  People make their choices, and human ties remain what the individuals have made of them.

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The Chinese women are all sympathetic and well-played, especially Gwendoline Yeo as Sun Foo (No. 3, the oldest).  Greta Scacchi is Nola Johns, an older prostitute who flees Cariboo City with Harte and the Chinese women, and she’s very good.  Scacchi is a very beautiful English-Italian actress of a certain age, deliberately made up here to indicate the hard use to which her character has been subjected.  She shows quiet warmth as her relationships develop with other characters, along with strength in disappointment, and, in the end with just her voice, controlled heartbreak.  Other smaller roles are excellently played:  Rusty Schwimmer as the vicious madam Big Rump Kate Becker; Chris Mulkey as ruthless bad guy Big Ears Ed Bywater; Scott Cooper as Heck Gilpin, fiddler and apprentice horse wrangler; and James Russo as Captain Billy Fender, loquacious white slaver.  The bad guys are pretty thoroughly evil, no question about it.

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Bad guys:  Big Rump Kate Becker (Rusty Schwimmer) and Big Ears Ed Bywater (Chris Mulkey)

The production design is excellent, overseen by Ken Rempel.  The production team obviously spent time doing their research and making this look and sound authentic for its period.  Except for Cariboo City, a rowdy Idaho mining camp (which was in fact largely abandoned by 1898), this movie doesn’t spend much time in towns, so look at what the characters are wearing and the equipment they use:  The curve of the brim on Church’s hat, for example, and the leather cuffs these working cattlemen wear to protect their arms from rope burns.  (Now we need to see a cowboy on these northern ranges wearing a pair of woolly chaps.)  The use of the term “buckaroo” was in fact common especially around the Great Basin and points north where this takes place, although not so much in more southern ranching areas.  The description by Nola Johns of the downward career path of a western prostitute is quite accurate.

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There’s been a trend in recent years to use the Canadian Rockies in Alberta for filming westerns, and Broken Trail benefits from this gorgeous scenery, with Lloyd Ahern as the cinematographer.  The horses crossing a river or just breathing on a frosty morning, keeping the herd moving through an early snowfall–it always looks great, even if you’ve never seen these things before.  On occasion it may not look much like the high deserts of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho, however.  Since it wasn’t released in theaters, it wasn’t subject to the cinematic rating system.  It would have been on the borders of PG-13 and R, because of the violence, occasional language (although they’re careful), and themes involving prostitution, ruthless behavior, and death.  Director Walter Hill (see The Long Riders, as well as the underrated Geronimo:  An American Legend) clearly feels an affinity for the era and is one of the three or four best directors now working in the genre, although he doesn’t actually make a lot of westerns.

If you’re interested in another good western featuring the Chinese in the American west, see A Thousand Pieces of Gold.

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Thomas Haden Church and director Walter Hill.

 

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