Tag Archives: Robert Taylor

Ride, Vaquero!

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 4, 2015

Ride, Vaquero!—Robert Taylor, Anthony Quinn, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Jack Elam, Ted de Corsia, Charles Stevens (1953; Dir: John Farrow)

RideVaqPosterRideVaqIt

This story takes place immediately after the end of the Civil War near Brownsville in southern Texas, on the Mexican border.  José Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) is the leader of a large gang of banditos and outlaws, with whom the law in the area (Ted de Corsia) does not have the resources to cope.  Esquedo’s right-hand man is his foster brother known only as Rio (Robert Taylor, with a lot of makeup, showy gun rig and leather cuffs).  With the end of the war, military resources in southern Texas are being beefed up.

King Cameron (Howard Keel) has bought up a lot of land in the area, and at the start welcomes his new wife Cordelia (Ava Gardner) to southern Texas.  Esquedo and his men keep burning ranches to keep out ranchers, settlers and their accompanying law.  Cameron stubbornly keeps rebuilding.  Rio has met Delia and is apparently attracted to her, but he says and does nothing that would give that away.

Rio to Esquedo:  “Why do you talk to me this way?  You wouldn’t kill anything…unless it was alive.”

RideVaqEsqMen

Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) surrounded by loyal retainers Barton (Jack Elam) and Rio (Robert Taylor).

As the conflict between Cameron and Esquedo escalates, Rio is sent to burn Cameron’s newest ranch house, which is well-fortified.  Before the task is complete, a cavalry unit shows up, and Rio and his men have to run for it.  Pursued closely by Cameron, Rio’s horse stumbles and throws him. Captured by Cameron, Rio then promises to help him round up and bring back horses from Mexico in return for Cameron not turning him over to the law or shooting him.  So the central conflict in the film is about Rio and his struggles with the ideal of loyalty.

Rio keeps his promise, to the disgust of Esquedo.  As Cameron leaves on an extended trip to purchase equipment, Rio is in effect his foreman.  Delia insists on being taken to Esquedo to try to talk him out of his war with Cameron.  Despite misgivings, Rio takes her.  The meeting goes badly, but Esquedo allows Delia and Rio to leave; he’s sure that Rio will come to his senses and rejoin him if given time.  Back at the Cameron ranch, Delia kisses Rio, and despite his attraction to her, he is horrified at her lack of loyalty to her husband, and he disappears.

José Esquedo: “The strong will fight the strong for possession of the weak.”
Cordelia Cameron: “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
José Esquedo: “Only six feet of it, Senora.”

RideVaqTaylorGardnerRideVaqQuinn

Rio (Robert Taylor) and Cordelia Cameron (Ava Gardner) get to know each other.  And Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) takes aim.

Finally Esquedo loses patience and takes over Brownsville with his men, killing the outgunned sheriff, looting the bank and local saloons.  As Esquedo’s men hear of approaching cavalry, they begin to desert him.  Cameron returns to Brownsville and stands up to Esquedo, although he can’t really match him with a gun.  Finally, Rio takes on the increasingly irrational Esquedo in the saloon where he’s about to kill Cameron and demonstrates finally where his loyalty lies.

John Farrow was not really a great director of westerns.  His best western, Hondo, was at least partially directed by John Ford.  The other two, Copper Canyon and this, are flawed.  Many of the women who worked with him, including Ava Gardner, seemed to despise him.  Howard Keel was not really a terrific actor, especially when he wasn’t singing, but he’s not bad here.  Ava Gardner made few westerns (just this and Lone Star the previous year); her part here seems underwritten.  It’s pretty well known that director Farrow (married to Maureen O’Sullivan, with whom he had seven children, including actress Mia Farrow) and Gardner were having an affair during filming.

We know that Robert Taylor could be very good in the right circumstances (see Ambush and Westward the Women from about the same time, for example).  But here he seems stiff and heavily made up, and his part as the conflicted Rio is not well written.  Still, he manages to be interesting.  Anthony Quinn could be an excellent actor (Man From Del Rio, The Ride Back, Warlock), but here he chews the scenery as an over-the-top stereotyped Mexican bandit chieftain.  Jack Elam is effective in one of his meatier (if brief) roles as Esquedo’s right-hand man after Rio leaves.  Geronimo’s Apache-Mexican grandson Charles Stevens is one of Esquedo’s banditos.

RideVaqFinal

Rio (Robert Taylor) and a debauched Esquedo (Anthony Quinn) meet over a prostrate Cameron (Howard Keel).

A considerable part of the weakness here is in the writing by Frank Fenton, who could do better (Station West, River of No Return, Escape from Fort Bravo, Garden of Evil).  Still, it’s watchable as the enigmatic Rio works out where his loyalties will lie.  For another character named Rio in a much worse western, see Jane Russell as Billy the Kid’s romantic interest in The Outlaw (1943).

Shot in color by the estimable Robert Surtees near Kanab, in southern Utah, at 90 minutes.  Music is by Bronislau Kaper.

RideVaqIt2RideVaqSpan

Like most other movies featuring a strong relationship of any kind between two men (Warlock, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and many others), comments have been made about a supposed homosexual subtext.  If it’s there at all (and it’s doubtful), there’s certainly nothing overt.  It becomes a lot campier if you start thinking about it in Freudian terms.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Cattle King

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 14, 2014

Cattle King—Robert Taylor, Robert Middleton, William Windom, Ray Teal, Robert Loggia, Joan Caulfield, Malcolm Atterbury, Richard Devon (1963; Dir: Tay Garnett)

CattleKingPosterCattleKingGerm

An aging Robert Taylor plays the eponymous Cattle King:  Sam Brassfield, owner of the Teton Ranch in 1883 Wyoming Territory, presumably in Jackson Hole.  Early scenes set up depredations on the range, with masked men cutting fences, stampeding cattle and shooting a Teton Ranch hand in the back.

It turns out that Clay Matthews (a hefty Robert Middleton), another rancher based in Cheyenne is trying to foment a range war to clear the area so he can bring in cheap Texas cattle to flood the area.  Opposing Brassfield are flinty sheepman Abe Clevenger (Malcolm Atterbury) and weak-willed Harry Travers (William Windom), whose sister Sharleen (Joan Caulfield) agrees to marry Brassfield in the course of the movie.  Brassfield is supported by longtime foreman Ed Winters (Ray Teal) and Mexican cowboy/gunhand Johnny Quatro (a young Robert Loggia).

CattleKingTaylor

The Cattle King of the title, Sam Brassfield (Robert Taylor).

The story is muddied by the passage of Pres. Chester Arthur (Larry Gates in lots of sidewhisker makeup and wig) through the state, from Cheyenne to Yellowstone Park.  Whenever he shows up, everything gets ponderous.  Eventually the Travers siblings are shot by Matthews’ gunman Vince Bodine (Richard Devon), and Sharleen is killed.  It brings on a final unconvincing showdown between Brassfield and Matthews, who doesn’t look like he’s any hand with a gun to rival Brassfield.

Clunky dialogue by writer Thomas Thompson (also an associate producer), arbitrary plot turns, too many unnecessary characters, relentless and unconvincing pacifism by Brassfield, meaningless presidential interludes, and little sense of Wyoming geography (Jackson Hole and Cheyenne are at opposite ends of a sizeable state) work against the film.  The settings look more like California (which they are) than Wyoming and the Tetons.  In color, at 90 minutes.

This doesn’t give Robert Taylor his best material to work with.  For better Taylor westerns, see Ambush, Devil’s Doorway, Westward the Women and The Last Hunt, among others.  Robert Middleton was an exceptional character actor, sometimes a bad guy as he is here, but often benevolent or a character of mixed motivations.  See him also in The Law and Jake Wade (again with Robert Taylor), Friendly Persuasion, and Big Hand for the Little Lady, among others.  Robert Loggia is young-ish here; see him as aging outlaw Frank Jarrett in Bad Girls thirty years later.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Ambush

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 2, 2014

Ambush—Robert Taylor, Arlene Dahl, John Hodiak, Don Taylor, John McIntire, Jean Hagen, Pat Moriarty, Bruce Cowling, Leon Ames, Charles Stevens, Chief Thundercloud, Ray Teal (1950; Dir: Sam Wood)

AmbushPosterAmbushPoster2

This is a very good cavalry vs. Apaches tale, with a large cast, lots of plot, good writing and excellent use of locations with scenic Southwestern rock formations around Gallup, New Mexico.  It was the final film of director Sam Wood, based on a story by western writer Luke Short.

It’s 1878 in Arizona Territory, and Mescalero Apache leader Diablito (Charles Stevens) has jumped the reservation again with his people. Ward Kinsman (Robert Taylor, in his usual dark hat), a former scout for the army has been prospecting on Bailey Mountain, Diablito’s home ground.  Current army scout Frank Holly (an outrageously bearded John McIntire) seeks him out for a mission at Fort Gamble, but they have to fight their way out.

AmbushMcTaylor

Scouts in trouble: Holly (John McIntire) and Kinsman (Robert Taylor).

Maj. Breverly (Leon Ames), the commanding officer, explains that a white woman, Mary Carlyle, traveling with a surveying party without authorization, was taken by Diablito when he slaughtered the party.  Her sister Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl) has arrived at Fort Gamble with the new by-the-book senior captain, Ben Lorrison (John Hodiak).  Breverly wants Kinsman to guide a party to rescue Mrs. Carlyle, but Kinsman declines, saying that it would take too many troopers’ lives to rescue one woman from Diablito.

There are not one but two romantic triangles going on at Fort Gamble: one involves Kinsman’s friend 2nd Lt. Linus Delaney, who’s having an affair with the wife (Jean Hagen) of an enlisted man, Tom Conovan (Bruce Cowling), who beats her.  The other develops as it becomes apparent that Lorrison wants Ann Duverall to marry him, and bit by bit Kinsman is taken with her despite himself.  Kinsman steps into the middle of a drunken attack by Conovan on Delaney and punches out Conovan, who will get thrown in the guardhouse when he awakens.

AmbushInterrupt

Lorrison (John Hodiak) interrupts Delaney (Don Taylor) and Mrs. Conovan (Jean Hagen).

Kinsman agrees to guide a patrol escorting the paymaster to Fort Craig.  While they’re gone, Conovan stabs Breverly with a pitchfork and really gets thrown in the guardhouse.  A sub-patrol under Delaney captures a party of Diablito’s women and Tana (Chief Thundercloud), who says he hates Diablito.  Kinsman doesn’t quite believe him and gets his information from a disgruntled woman, who says that Mary Carlyle is with a party just ahead of them, alive and so far unharmed.

With Breverly out of commission with a punctured lung, Lorrison becomes acting commanding officer and decides to take after Diablito and Mary Carlyle.  He believes Tana’s advice, and Kinsman decides to go along even though his advice is ignored.  Lorrison insists on knowing why Kinsman changed his mind, and Kinsman honestly tells him that he doesn’t think Lorrison knows what he’s doing as well as Breverly would.  They fight, and Lorrison wins handily.

AmbushTriangle2

Lorrison doesn’t like Kinsman, but they both like Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl).

Lt. Delaney gives Kinsman something to deliver to Mary Conovan if Delaney doesn’t make it.
Ward Kinsman:  “Did you ever figure that maybe I won’t get back?”
Lt. Linus Delaney:  “You’ll make it. People only die when they have something to live for.”
Ward Kinsman:  “I know. That’s why I’m a little worried…for the first time.”
Lt. Linus Delaney:  “Well, I never thought I’d see the day.”
Ward Kinsman:  “That’s the point, isn’t it? To live to see the day.”

[Spoilers follow.]  There are two columns involved in the pursuit, one led by Capt. Wolverson (Ray Teal), and the other by Lorrison. Tana disappears, and Kinsman goes after him. He gets Tana and finds Conovan’s body. There are also two ambushes in the movie, the first by Lorrison at a watering hole Diablito is trying to reach. Kinsman stampedes Diablito’s horses and gets Mary Carlyle, but takes a spear in the hip. Lorrison and his men are on the verge of being overrun when Wolverson’s column hits Diablito’s forces in the rear, forcing him to take off into the desert.

Capt. Ben Lorrison to Kinsman:  “What do you think of the entire plan of action?”
Ward Kinsman:  “I wasn’t asked.”
Capt. Ben Lorrison:  “You are now.”
Ward Kinsman:  “The plan is based upon what Diablito should do.  You better be ready for what he can’t possibly do, but probably will.”

AmbushTaylorDahl

Kinsman finally gets a moment alone with Ann.

Lorrison, intent on finishing Diablito, takes a patrol after him, thinking correctly that they can’t get far without horses.  That brings up the second ambush, by Diablito.  He and his surviving men have hidden themselves in pits in the desert, leaving just enough trail to keep Lorrison following them into the trap.  All of Lorrison’s patrol is killed, but so are Diabilito’s men—except for Diablito himself, who is wounded.  As Kinsman and Delaney lead their own patrol to the site of the second ambush, Diablito reloads his pistol and plays dead.  Lest we not get who he wants to kill, he mutters to himself, “Kinsman.”  But Kinsman is wary; the trap doesn’t work this time, and Kinsman gets Diablito.

Back at Fort Gamble, Mary Conovan is now a widow, but the path is clear for her to get together with Delaney if they want to–the end is deliberately a little ambiguous for them.  Kinsman stands by Ann Duverall as the flag is raised to the strains of a bugle call, just as John Ford would have directed it.  No ambiguity there.

AmbushTaylor

The characters in this are well differentiated and believable, although some of the well-written dialogue is crisper than real people would be able to come up with.  Ward Kinsman is not infallible or invincible, as he demonstrates in his fight with Lorrison.  Lorrison has some capacity to learn (unlike, say, Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache), but he’s still sure he’s right and lets his animosity with Kinsman lead him to trust the wrong souces of information and advice.  Ann Duverall is not as priggish as she appears at first, and can also learn.  Delaney has a little self-restraint, but not enough to keep him out of trouble, until he is overtaken by events.

Fort Gamble, as depicted in this movie, is the same setting as Fort Bravo three years later in Escape from Fort Bravo:  Ray Corrigan’s ranch in Simi Valley, California.  The cinematographer, Harold Lipstein, was clearly enamored of the rock formations around Gallup, New Mexico, and he used them to good effect, often from low camera angles.  The excellent screenplay is by Marguerite Roberts (True Grit, 5 Card Stud, Shoot Out) from a story by Luke Short, usually a good starting source.

At this point in his career Robert Taylor had made only one western, Billy the Kid about ten years previously.  He was just coming into a period when he would make several good ones.  In fact, after this he also made Anthony Mann’s first western, Devil’s Doorway, and the excellent Westward the Women.  This is one of the first really good cavalry movies not made by John Ford.  For similar good stories of the Old Scout with a headstrong or inexperienced commanding officer, see Hondo, Duel at Diablo and Ulzana’s Raid.  The plot has a number of similarities with Duel at Diablo, in particular.  For another good black-and-white cavalry western from 1950, see Two Flags West, with Joseph Cotten and Linda Darnell.

AmbushSpan

Diablito is played by Charles Stevens, who was said to be Geronimo’s Apache-Mexican grandson.  He appeared in a number of westerns beginning in the mid-1930s as Indian characters of one sort or another (see Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine and The Showdown, for example).

In black and white, with a lot of plot packed into 90 minutes. The DVD has been available from Warner Bros. Archive only since 2011, and not that many people have seen it.  It deserves a wider audience.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Return of the Gunfighter

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 24, 2014

Return of the Gunfighter—Robert Taylor, Chad Everett, Ana Martin, Lyle Bettger, Mort Mills, John Davis Chandler (1967; Dir:  James Neilson)

ReturnGunfPosterReturnGunfPolish

Aging gunfighter Ben Wyatt (played by aging Robert Taylor in his typical black, in one of his last movie roles) is released from the Arizona territorial prison at Yuma in 1878 after five years when it is discovered he was falsely convicted and imprisoned.  On his way to Lordsburg, New Mexico, he discovers (a) wounded Lee Sutton (Chad Everett) being chased by a Lordsburg posse after having killed a man named Boone; (b) his old friends the Domingos from days as a Juarista have been killed; and (c) three Boone brothers are also on the trail of Sutton.  (One of the Boones is played by Australian actor Michael Pate, who often convincingly played Indians in movies and television productions—Major Dundee, Hondo.) 

After retrieving the Domingo daughter Anisa (Ana Martin) from Cipar, Wyatt, Sutton and Anisa head for Lordsburg to find out who killed her parents.  Turns out it was Lee’s older brother Clay Sutton (Lyle Bettger), who displays his unsuitability by cold-bloodedly shooting down the corrupt town judge and marshal (Mort Mills), who are both in his pocket.  Lee must choose between Wyatt (who has saved him) and Anisa on one side, or his brother.  There is a final shootout in Lordsburg, and it turns out predictably.  Taylor isn’t bad, but he looks tired, which is appropriate enough for this role.  In fact, Taylor was gravely ill during the shooting of this film.  The ending should have provided some form of resolution in the life of Ben Wyatt, and it doesn’t.  The action should have more of an impact than it does.  Everett isn’t great.  There are a couple of holes in the plot.  On the whole, this isn’t bad, though.  Not much seen these days.  Burt Kennedy is listed as one of the writers, with Robert Buckner.  He was also starting to direct westerns about this time (Mail Order Bride, Young Billy Young), with his masterpiece (Support Your Local Sheriff) coming in two years.

 ReturnGunfGrp3????

Lee Sutton (Chad Everett), Anisa (Ana Martin) and Ben Wyatt (Robert Taylor); Ana Martin and Robert Taylor on the set of Return of the Gunfighter.

Taylor would be dead in two years, at the age of 57; this was his last western.  For another western in which Robert Taylor plays a character named Wyatt, see him as Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women (1951).  Chad Everett was a young, up-and-coming actor and appeared in a couple of westerns about this time before turning more completely to television (Medical Center).  The other is The Last Challenge, with Glenn Ford (1967).

Notes:  The nefarious Clay Sutton has a couple of gunslingers working for him named Sundance (the snaky John Davis Chandler in a strange hat, also seen in a bit part as a bounty hunter in The Outlaw Josey Wales) and Butch Cassidy, both bad guys.  The two historical outlaws did spend some time on New Mexico ranches, but not like this.  This movie was released a couple of years before the George Roy Hill movie came out, making the outlaw pair into sympathetic good guys.  Ostensibly the action takes place in 1878, but Lordsburg wasn’t founded until 1880. 

Save

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Billy the Kid (1941)

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 10, 2014

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

BillyKidWide

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

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

BillyKidTaylor2BillyKidHistorical

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

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

BillyKidHart

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

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

Save

Save

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Last Hunt

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 31, 2014

The Last Hunt—Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Russ Tamblyn, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget (1956; Dir:  Richard Brooks)

LastHuntPoster LastHuntIt2

A psychological western set in 1883 in Dakota Territory, when the buffalo herds were mostly gone.  Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger) is a former buffalo hunter whose modest herd of cattle is destroyed in a buffalo stampede.  He is lured back to his former profession by Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor), for a final go to make a stake to replace his herd.  They take Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan), a one-legged alcoholic buffalo skinner, and Jimmy O’Brien (Russ Tamblyn, as an improbable-looking Indian half-breed). 

As it turns out, Gilson is a killer who hates Indians.  It’s obvious that Gilson and the decent McKenzie will clash at some point.  When it comes down to the hunting, Gilson gets spooked by the buffalo and comes to see McKenzie as the source of his problems.  Debra Paget is an unlikely-looking Indian woman with a small child, acquired by the band when Gilson guns down three Indian males who steal their mules.  Gilson and McKenzie have conflicts over her and over a while buffalo skin they acquire in their hunt. 

LastHuntBuffalos

[Spoilers follow.]  Gilson gets jumpier, more unreasonable and more unstable; he kills Woodfoot when Woodfoot tries to stop him from hunting McKenzie.  However, at the end Gilson freezes to death waiting to gun down McKenzie. 

Taylor is effective in a rare bad-guy role.  The downward trajectory of Gilson is sometimes compared to that of Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Interesting but talky, especially Nolan’s character, and it’s kind of downbeat.  This was written by director Richard Brooks, who needed an editor for the script but didn’t have one.  (This is similar in that regard to the better The Professionals ten years later, also written and directed by Brooks.)  

LastHuntWoodfootGranger

 Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan) warns McKenzie (Stewart Granger).

Some of the attitudes here seem a bit anachronistic—more politically correct than they would have been in the 1880s, but certainly less so than in the current 21st century.  There is more angst and psychological disintegration here than in most westerns.  Based on a novel by Milton Lott.  Shot in color in South Dakota. 

For more Stewart Granger in westerns, see The Wild North (1952) and North to Alaska (1960).  As the titles suggest, those are northern westerns set in northern Canada and Alaska.  Late in his career he also moved into German movies adapting Karl May’s Old Shatterhand stories.  Robert Taylor starred in westerns from Billy the Kid (1941) to the end of his career in the late 1960s.  A couple of the best of them are Westward the Women (1951) and The Law and Jake Wade (1958).  He often wore black, although he was seldom the bad guy as he was here.  During the 1950s Debra Paget often played exotic ethnics, including several movies in which she played Indian maidens, as she does here.  The first (and probably the best) such was Broken Arrow (1950), in which she plays a young Apache woman who marries James Stewart; she was only 15 when filming began on that one.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Devil’s Doorway

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 17, 2014

Devil’s Doorway—Robert Taylor, Paula Raymond, Louis Calhern, Edgar Buchanan, Spring Byington (1950; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

DevilsDoorwayPoster2DevilsDoorwayFren

An early and socially-conscious western by Anthony Mann (it was his first western, in fact); and a range war western with an interesting Indians vs. whites twist.  Civilized Shoshone Indian Lance Poole (or Broken Lance, played by blue-eyed Robert Taylor in dark makeup with his hair growing longer as the movie progresses) fought at Antietam in the Civil War and won the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, but he returns home to find that his people are in trouble.  His home town is Medicine Bow (the same Wyoming town that was the setting for The Virginian), and his family has long ranched at Sweet Meadows in the mountains.  The gap leading to their mountain valley is known as the Devil’s Doorway, and much of the action takes place around it. 

Long-time residents like Zeke Carmody (Edgar Buchanan) know Lance and treat him well enough.  However, a venal and bigoted eastern lawyer, Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), has lured sheep ranchers to the area with the promise of free land for the homesteading—Sweet Meadows.  Lance tries to follow the law, as directed by his young and attractive female attorney Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond, with Spring Byington playing her mother).  But Indians are not U.S. citizens (not until 1924, in fact), and can’t legally homestead themselves. 

DevilsDoorwayTaylorRaym2

Lance (Robert Taylor) and Orrie (Paula Raymond) ponder the futility of it all.

Lance’s father dies, and a band from the reservation seeks refuge with Lance at Sweet Meadows.  Lance tries legal recourse, but Coolan forms a mob and attacks Sweet Meadows.  The Indians are successful in holding them off for a while (both sides use dynamite, which is probably anachronistic for the 1860s), and Lance kills Coolan.  But Masters calls in the cavalry from Fort Laramie to get the Indians back to the reservation.  By the time the Indians agree to go back to the reservation, there are only the women and children left alive.  Lance dies theatrically, wearing his soldier’s jacket and Medal of Honor. 

The film is not based on any historical incident involving Shoshones, but it’s not wrong about the implacability of racial attitudes at the time, either.  The reservation in question would have been the Wind River reservation, which wasn’t, and still isn’t, bad as reservations go.  In those days the Shoshones would have only felt the need to leave it to go buffalo hunting.  The great Washakie was the Eastern Shoshone chief in the 1860s, and he was an effective leader respected by both Indians and whites. 

DevilsDoorwayFight

Beleagured Shoshones defend themselves against settlers, in a reversal of the usual situation..

Orrie and her mother, as sympathetic, even radical, as they are for their times, can’t bring Orrie to act on the attraction she feels for Lance.  One of Lance’s last comments to Orrie:  “Maybe in a hundred years we could have made it work.”  But he’s right; in the 1860s, the Indians couldn’t win in this fictional situation.  Even Custer’s demise was ten years in the future.  This plays well with modern social sensibilities 60 years after its release.  It’s a little heavy-handed, especially at the end, but watchable.  Taylor, Calhern and Raymond are all good.  It was released the same year as the more celebrated Broken Arrow.  Shot in black and white by cinematographer John Alton, with great mountain scenery in Grand Junction and Aspen, Colorado.  The aspens and mountain meadows look authentic.

Robert Taylor was in the middle of a pretty good run as he moved into making more westerns.  See him also in the excellent Ambush (1950) and Westward the Women (1951).  During the 1950s, he would also be good in The Last Hunt (1956), The Law and Jake Wade (1958) and Saddle the Wind (1958).

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Saddle the Wind

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 5, 2014

Saddle The Wind—Robert Taylor, John Cassavetes, Julie London, Donald Crisp (1958; Dir:  Robert Parrish; Screenplay:  Rod Serling)

SaddleWindPosterSaddleWindFren

A psychological western, in which reformed gunfighter Steve Sinclair (played by an aging Robert Taylor) has to deal with his increasingly squirrelly and gun-happy much younger brother Tony (John Cassavetes).  The Sinclair ranch is one-third of a mountain valley, with the rest belonging to Dennis Duneen (Donald Crisp, in his old-bull-of-the-range mode, as in The Man from Laramie, but here with anti-violence principles). 

Tony shows up at the ranch with Joan Blake (Julie London), a dance hall girl, as his announced fiancée.  Tony shoots down Larry Venables (Charles McGraw, wearing a very 1950s name for a gunfighter), who has come seeking Steve, and things go downhill from there.  A group of range squatters with title to a strip of land announce their intention of fencing off their strip, leading to confrontation between those now using the range and the squatter leader Clay Ellison (Royal Dano), who seems none too mentally stable himself. 

SaddleWindThree

Eventually, Tony shoots Ellison and is banned from the valley by Duneen.  He confronts Duneen, and both are shot in the exchange.  Steve has to go after Tony now, and as they face off Tony shoots himself so Steve won’t have to.  The implication at the end is that Steve and Joan end up together.  The end is fairly abrupt.  The question from the start is not what will happen, but how will it happen. 

The Joan Blake role, played by Julie London, is underwritten and pretty much extraneous.  There is a good supporting cast, including Crisp, Dano and Ray Teal.  This is notable for a rare screenplay by Rod Serling, creator and writer of television’s The Twilight Zone; it’s his only western.  This is one of several westerns made by singer Julie London during a short period in the late 1950s, along with Drango, Man of the West and The Wonderful Country (also directed by Robert Parrish).  She seems a little glossy for westerns, usually playing a former or current saloon girl.  This is not quite as good as Taylor’s The Law and Jake Wade released the same year, but it’s still watchable.  Score by Elmer Bernstein.  Filmed in Colorado.  In color.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

The Law and Jake Wade

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 21, 2014

The Law and Jake Wade—Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Henry Silva, Robert Middleton (1958; Dir:  John Sturges)

LawWadePoster LawWadeGerm

“Do you want to die now, or in a few minutes?”

This is from director John Sturges’ early period; he made several very good westerns in the 1950s.  His major period was thought to be a little later, in the 1960s with larger-scale movies (The Magnificent Seven, The Hallelujah Trail, The Great Escape).  But with Escape from Fort Bravo, Bad Day at Black Rock, Last Train from Gun Hill and others, his work is worth seeking out.

Robert Taylor was usually kind of a wooden performer, but that stoic quality can work okay in westerns, of which he made several in the 1950s.  The real star of this modest western (shot at Lone Pine in Owens Valley) is Richard Widmark as Clint Hollister, a near-psychotic badman with whom Taylor has a past. 

LawWadeWidTayHollister and Wade negotiate.

Jake Wade (Taylor) is now a city marshal of a small town in New Mexico, but he springs Hollister from jail to save him from hanging because Hollister once did the same for him when they ran in the same outlaw gang.  The completely amoral (or even immoral) Hollister then repays him by abducting Wade and his fiancée Peggy (Patricia Owens).  It turns out that when Jake left the gang more than a year previously, he took the loot from their most recent robbery.  Now Hollister wants it, and he wants to kill Jake, too. 

The plots works itself out in the ghost town where Wade had buried the money in the cemetery, with a raid by Comanches and, ultimately (inevitably), a shootout between Wade and Hollister. 

LawWadeShootout

Widmark is excellent as the relentlessly nasty Hollister.  Notable supporting characters include Robert Middleton as Otero, and Henry Silva and DeForest Kelly (later of Star Trek) as other members of Widmark’s gang.  Silva shows up again as Chink, an evil henchman of Richard Boone in The Tall T, also made about this time, and as a Mexican Indian outlaw in The Bravados.  He often has an ethnic edge of some kind.  This is very watchable.  In color, with Wade wearing Taylor’s usual black.  See also Saddle the Wind, made with Taylor about the same time.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Great Performances in Westerns, Part 6

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 9, 2013

Robert Mitchum as Clint Tollinger in Man With the Gun

MitchumManwGun2

Clint Tollinger comes into the town of Sheridan looking for a new horse shoe and his ex-wife.  Because of his reputation as a town tamer, Tollinger is recruited to clean up Sheridan, especially in resisting the forces of local cattle baron Dave Holman.  He’s up to the task, but the townfolk don’t always like his approach or the results.  In his middle period as an actor,  Mitchum has a noir feel to him in this role.  His earlier westerns (such as Blood on the Moon and Pursued) generally work better than his later ones (The Wonderful Country), although he’s not bad as the alcoholic sheriff J.P. Harrah in El Dorado.  For a superb non-western performance, catch him in one of the quintessential noir movies, Out of the Past.  He was also very good at playing bad guys, as he did in the original Cape Fear, The Night of the Hunter and Five Card Stud.  Even when he was a good guy, he seemed on the verge of becoming a bad guy, and that possibility added an edge to his performances.

DouglasGunHill

Kirk Douglas as Matt Morgan in Last Train to Gun Hill

Kirk Douglas was in a surprising number of westerns, and he’s fairly good in many of them, although he tends to seem both urban and egocentric.  He was one of the biggest stars of his time, and Last Train from Gun Hill, directed by John Sturges, is one of his best westerns.   Matt Morgan is a sheriff married to an Indian wife.  She is raped and murdered by two young men, one of them the son of Morgan’s old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn).  The core of the movie follows Morgan on his expedition to Gun Hill to retrieve the evildoers, and his resulting battles with Belden, with a variety of gunmen and with his own drive for vengeance.  Quinn is excellent here, too, and Carolyn Jones is good.  If you like Douglas’ style in this one, try him in The Big Sky, as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral and with John Wayne in The War Wagon.

QuinnRideBack

Anthony Quinn as Bob Kallen in The Ride Back

Anthony Quinn was in a surprising number of westerns from his early days in the movies, usually in small roles where he is an Indian, a villain or both (see The Plainsman, Union Pacific and The Ox-Bow Incident, for example).  During the 1950s he was more often a supporting character, and was always interesting.  Look for him, for example, as magnetic and multi-dimensional bad guys in Last Train from Gun Hill and Warlock (both from 1959).  He was also one of the leads in two smaller westerns:  The Ride Back and Man from Del Rio.  The Ride Back is really a two-man film, with Quinn and William Conrad, and they’re both excellent.  Quinn’s Bob Kallen is, like Quinn himself, half-Mexican; a dangerous gunman, he’s wanted back in Texas for a shooting that may have been justified.  He’s better with people and with guns than Conrad’s Chris Hamish and is constantly calculating how to play that next, spending most of the short film on an edge but going along for the moment with Conrad’s deputy sheriff.  He could play ethnic convincingly, and his career of the 1960s blossomed in those roles.  Look for him in The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek (perhaps his signature role of the 1960s), Lawrence of Arabia and in a mural on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles.  He’s one of those actors like Lee Marvin, who was almost always worth watching no matter what he was in.

QuinnLA

Spencer Tracy as Major Robert Rogers in Northwest Passage and as John J. Macreedy in Bad Day at Black Rock

Spencer Tracy was one of the best actors of his time, beginning about 1935, and his performances wear pretty well.  He didn’t make many westerns, but in these unconventional two he was excellent.

TracyNorthwestPassage

  • As Major Robert Rogers, he leads Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, in their arduous and perilous raid on the Abenaki village of St. Francis in eastern Canada.  He projects decisive leadership when things are going well, harder leadership when men have to be left behind, and harder yet on the return trip when provisions are low and his men are being hunted on all sides.  He finally almost cracks when his beleaguered men reach Fort Wentworth, only to find it abandoned and without the supplies he had been promising his emaciated men.  His is the performance that holds attention during the movie, notwithstanding the supposed leads of Robert Young and Walter Brennan.  This movie wasn’t often seen, since it only became available on DVD in December 2011.

TracyBlackRock

  • Tracy’s career was on its downhill side and he was struggling with alcoholism when he was cast as the lead in this John Sturges modern western with a noir feel.  One-armed John J. Macreedy is getting backed into corners as soon as he steps off the train in Black Rock, and he’s quietly up to the challenges he faces.  Almost always he faces them with an even temper, but he also has mostly believable physical confrontations with Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan.  By the end he has sorted out the local mystery and all the bad guys before he gets back on the train.  This may be one of the best films set in the modern west, and Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in it.

MartinRioBravo

Dean Martin as Dude (Borachon) in Rio Bravo

In movies he usually played some form of caricature of himself, but Dean Martin could actually act when given good material and direction as he was in his first movie, Rio Bravo.  As Dude, the now-alcoholic former deputy of Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne), Martin is convincing in his booziness and in his rehabilitation.  His barroom scene when he and Chance follow a killer into a bar where everybody thinks of him as a drunk is a classic.  You can see both desperation and calculation as he tries to figure out what to do.  He’s also pretty good in The Sons of Katie Elder (again with Wayne) and bearable in Bandolero! and Five Card Stud.

PittJames

Brad Pitt as Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James has often been portrayed on film, including by his son Jesse Edward James at age 46 in the silent film Jesse James Under the Black Flag (1921) and by Tyrone Power (1939).  His historical charisma is elusive, and for some reason it’s harder to portray him than it is his brother Frank, who has been done well by Henry Fonda (twice) and Stacy Keach, among others.  Brad Pitt may be the best Jesse on film, in this beautifully-shot retelling of the Ron Hansen novel with the cumbersome title.  He’s charismatic, dangerous and a bit tired of it all at the end of his life, coolly playing with and pushing those around him.  This isn’t the best movie about Jesse and the James-Younger gang; that would be The Long Riders.  But Brad does make a better Jesse than the remote James Keach does in Walter Hill’s film.  This one is worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography and for Pitt’s performance in a notoriously difficult role.

TaylorWestward

Robert Taylor as Buck Wyatt in Westward the Women

As an actor, Taylor was beautiful but not terribly expressive.  He could be a bit wooden sometimes, but this stoic quality is not always a detriment in westerns if the actor is well-directed in well-written material.  This underrated wagon train movie is really an ensemble effort, but Taylor’s wagonmaster Buck Wyatt is the dominant character.  He’s on screen most of the time, and he’s very good.  Taylor’s notable career in westerns begins with his performance as Billy the Kid (1941), mostly wearing his signature black, when he was more than ten years older than the Kid ever became.  Beginning in the late 1940s, he started to do more westerns:  Ambush and Devil’s Doorway (an early Anthony Mann western) are watchable.  In the 1950s his best westerns were with directors John Sturges and Robert Parrish:  The Law and Jake Wade and Saddle the Wind.

IvesDayOutlaw

Burl Ives in Day of the Outlaw

This wintry low-budget western noir is superbly cast in its two leading roles, and it wouldn’t work well otherwise.  Robert Ryan is head rancher Blaise Starrett, whose town is invaded by a band of military renegades led by Burl Ives as the dying Jack Bruhn.  It’s only his will and his leadership abilities that are keeping his lowlifes in line at all, and it’s a constant exercise in balancing what can be done with what basic decency requires even from a renegade.  Bruhn, whose past participation in some notable Civil War-era military mess in Utah is only alluded to and never much described, still has some kernel of that decency but can’t let it come to the fore lest his men rebel and tear him to shreds.  It’s always interesting to see what he’ll allow and what he won’t, what he can control and what he can’t, and what will happen if/when he dies.  The rotund Ives was best known in the 1950s as a singer of folk-type music, but he could also be very effective in Big Daddy-type roles (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).  For his other western in such a role, see him in the large-scale The Big Country, for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  He also played a singing hotel desk clerk in Station West, with Dick Powell.

FosterYumaFosterYumaPoster

Ben Foster as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma

Ben Foster was unknown to many moviegoers when he showed up as outlaw chieftain Ben Wade’s principal lieutenant Charlie Prince in this remake.  But he captured the screen as a bad guy trying to rescue his boss.  Partly it’s good production design with his costume, partly it’s written as a juicier role than in the original, but mostly it’s Foster’s compelling performance in one of the best westerns in recent decades.  Even though he’s a supporting character and not one of the principals, it’s no accident that it’s Foster’s Charlie Prince on some of the most prominent posters for this movie.  He tends to linger in the memory, and his performance is one of the reasons many rate the remake higher than the original.

jeff bridges, tg

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

He’s a different kind of one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne was, symbolized by his wearing the patch on his right eye instead of the left, as Wayne did.  He is surrounded by a better ensemble of actors (Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld) than Wayne was and doesn’t have to carry the entire movie the same way.  However, he is still central to the story, and his Rooster Cogburn is fun to watch and quite believable, even if it can be hard to understand what he’s saying at times.  In a role created by the most iconic of western stars, Bridges stands up to Wayne’s performance by disappearing more into the part and coming up with a harder-edged Cogburn.  He didn’t win a Best Actor Oscar for this, but he was nominated.  You should watch both versions.

WaltzDjango

Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained

The Vienna-born Waltz, in his second film with Quentin Tarantino, was reportedly reluctant to take on the role of the loquacious German-born, bounty-hunting dentist in Django Unchained.  He only did so upon being assured that his character would have no negatives—other than his profession of killing people, presumably.  His smooth brand of courtliness toward most people around him, including the newly-freed slave Django, provides a counterpoint to the hardness he displays in his profession, causing the viewer to constantly balance the two and wonder which will dominate in any situation.  He holds the screen well and less abrasively than other characters.  Coming into his own in Hollywood in middle age, he hasn’t been in other westerns.  But he played an excellent Nazi villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for both that role and this one.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone