Tag Archives: Selling Guns to the Indians

Unconquered

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 17, 2014

Unconquered—Gary Cooper, Paulette Goddard, Howard Da Silva, Ward Bond, Boris Karloff, Mike Mazurki, Katherine DeMille, Cecil Kellaway (1947; Dir: Cecil B. DeMille)

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Gary Cooper had made a reputation in a variety of film genres in the 1920s and 1930s, including upscale westerns.  By the 1940s he was among the biggest stars in Hollywood, and he only made four westerns during the decade:  The Westerner and North West Mounted Police in 1940, Along Came Jones in 1945 and Unconquered in 1947.  North West Mounted Police and Unconquered were not the low-budget productions typical of the genre then.  They were directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and Unconquered was DeMille’s usual self-conscious epic, made with a large budget, in color and with a long playing time of 146 minutes.

Unconquered begins in 1763, the time of Pontiac’s Uprising in the northwest frontier of Britain’s American colonies, more than a decade before the Revolution.  Comely young English woman Abigail Hale (Paulette Goddard) is sentenced to death or transportation to the colonies in indentured servitude for helping her dying brother resist impressment into the Royal Navy.  She chooses transportation.  As the ship carrying her and other convicts nears the colonies, Abby attracts the interest of smooth but nefarious Indian trader Martin Garth (Howard Da Silva), who bullies the slave trader on the ship into auctioning her prematurely.  Unexpectedly, she is bought by Virginia militia Capt. Christopher Holden (Gary Cooper, not young at 46), who distrusts and wants to frustrate Garth.  Holden arranges for her to receive her freedom when he leaves the ship the next day, since he’s meeting his fiancée.

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Abby (Paulette Goddard) catches the eye of Indian trader Martin Garth (Howard Da Silva).

Holden’s plans go astray.  His fiancée Diana (Virginia Grey) reveals that she has married Holden’s brother, and Garth bullies the slave trader into giving him Abby’s freedom papers and reselling her to his henchman Bone (Mike Mazurki).  Holden ends up inland at the Peaketown Fair, where he meets his blacksmith friend John Fraser (Ward Bond), sees Abby again, meets with Col. George Washington (Richard Gaines) and Sir William Johnson, the King’s premier Indian agent.  They hear of Pontiac’s plans to inflame the northwestern tribes (western Senecas, Shawnees, Ottawas) in the western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan areas.  Holden agrees to carry wampum belts inviting the chiefs to a meeting, although he knows Garth’s Indian allies will be trying to kill him.  They do get his two scout comrades, but Holden makes it to Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania.

There he finds the garrison is both depleted and reluctant to believe him.  He also finds Abby working in Bone’s tavern, and he abducts her to use as bait for Garth.  At a ball, Holden manages to challenge Garth to a duel, but Garth and Bone make off with Abby to the camp of Guyasuta (Boris Karloff), chief of the western Senecas and Garth’s father-in-law.  They leave Abby with Guyasuta, but his warriors and women begin to torture her.  Holden finds her and uses apparent magic (gunpowder explosions, a compass) get her released.  Pursued by Guyasuta’s warriors, they head downriver in a canoe, shooting rapids and going over a waterfall where Holden arranges a wildly improbable grab of a conveniently overhanging tree branch just in time.

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Abby (Paulette Goddard) and Holden (Gary Cooper) head for the falls.

As they make their way to the fort at Venango, Holden and Abby find evidence of Indian raids and slaughtered settlers.  At Venango, evidence suggests that the fort surrendered when given promises of mercy but the inhabitants were slaughtered by the Indians anyway.  However, the garrison at Fort Pitt refuses to believe them, and Holden is court-martialed and imprisoned.  Abby promises Garth she’ll stay with him if he’ll arrange for Holden’s escape.  He does, but also arranges for sharpshooters to ambush Holden during the escape.  Garth’s spurned Seneca wife Hannah (Katherine DeMille, Cecil’s daughter) re-directs Holden but is shot herself.

Holden makes it to Col Henry Bouquet at Bushy Run looking for reinforcements for Fort Pitt, but finds Bouquet’s ranks depleted, too.  He arranges to borrow Bouquet’s drummers and pipers and a hundred dead men, using them to feign a relief column to chase off the Senecas now besieging Fort Pitt just as Fort Pitt is on the verge of surrendering as Venango did.  As Garth and Bone try to escape with Abby, Holden catches them in a stable and finally shoots it out with Garth.

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Holden (Gary Cooper) has it out with Garth (Howard Da Silva), as Bone (Mike Mazurki) and Abby (Paulette Goddard) look on.

Although this is watchable, it has a few elements that don’t work well with modern audiences.  The color cinematography by Ray Rennahan is excellent.  The heavy-handed introductory narration and the dialogue can be clunky, and the Indians are mostly evil stereotypes, as one might guess from the casting of Karloff.  Some critics at the time referred to this as “The Perils of Paulette,” because of the way she seems to move from crisis to crisis.  The production design is good; DeMille gets the uniforms, forts and firearms right.  Cooper and Goddard are both a little old for their roles, but they work well enough.  Goddard had several fights with DeMille during filming, and he would never cast her again in one of his movies.  Her accent in this film is decidedly not English.  This was also the last of Cooper’s four films with DeMille.  Howard Da Silva makes an excellent villain.  In his memoirs, DeMille said that he was not completely satisfied with the ending and thought it needed to be stronger.

By this time, Cecil B. DeMille had been making westerns for more than thirty years, since The Squaw Man in 1914, the first feature-length movie of any kind.  This was his last western, but not his best.  Both The Plainsman (1936) and Union Pacific (1941) are watched more than North West Mounted Police (1940) and this.  Unconquered was based on Neil Swanson’s novel The Judas Tree; he also wrote Allegheny Uprising, another colonial-period western starring John Wayne and Clair Trevor.  The river scenes were shot on the Snake River in Idaho, and look very good.  Iron Eyes Cody is both in the cast and listed as an Indian language consultant, but we now know that Cody, despite making a career as a cinematic, advertising and television Indian, was in fact the son of Sicilian immigrants.

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Guyasuta (Boris Karloff) with daughter Hannah (Katherine DeMIlle); and Cecil B. DeMille directs Paulette Goddard in her bath scene.

Although Pontiac never actually shows up in this film, the traditional historical work on his wars is Francis Parkman’s The Conspiracy of Pontiac, first published in 1851 but still readable.  Guyasuta was not the unrelievedly evil character depicted here although he consistently opposed the expansion of American settlement in the Ohio country.  For a recent biography see Brady Crytzer’s Guyasuta and the Fall of Indian America (2013), which not only describes his role in Braddock’s defeat, Pontiac’s uprising and the Battle of Bushy Run as mentioned in this film, but takes him all the way up through the American Revolution and the Battle of Oriskany (see Drums Along the Mohawk) to his participation in the Indian defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 by Mad Anthony Wayne.  For a description of the situation on the American frontier in 1763, see Colin Callaway’s The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (2006).

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Siringo

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Comancheros

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 4, 2014

The Comancheros—John Wayne, Stuart Whitman, Ina Balin, Lee Marvin, Bruce Cabot, Michael Ansara, Jack Elam, Edgar Buchanan, Nehemiah Persoff, Patrick Wayne (1961; Dir:  Michael Curtiz, John Wayne [unaccredited])

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It is 1840.  In Louisiana, Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) is involved in a duel with an unscrupulous opponent, whom he kills.  The dead man is the son of a judge, so a warrant is issued for Regret’s arrest.  He prudently leaves, and on a gambling boat meets Pilar Graile (Ina Balin), a wealthy and assertive young woman with whom he shares a night.  In Galveston the next morning, however, Pilar is nowhere to be found, and Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne) arrests him on the Louisiana warrant.

As they head toward Ranger headquarters, Regret is educated about Texas, its geography and a bit of widower Cutter’s history.  They come upon a ranch that has been hit by a Comanche raiding party, and as they finish burying the victims Regret bashes Cutter with a shovel and disappears.

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The chagrined Cutter proceeds to Ranger headquarters, where Major Henry (Bruce Cabot) shows him prisoner Ed McBain (Guinn Williams in his last film), apprehended with a wagonload of rifles he intended to sell to the Comanches.    Henry persuades Cutter to take McBain’s place and head for a planned rendezvous in Sweetwater with a Comanchero connection.

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The connection in Sweetwater is Tully Crow (Lee Marvin), a partially scalped, heavy-drinking hardcase.  Crow and the faux-McBain carouse noisily and drift into a poker game, where one of the players is Paul Regret.  He does not give Cutter away, and during the game Cutter wins consistently and Crow gets progressively surlier.  As Cutter takes up his winnings and prepares to leave, Crow calls him out and draws on him.  Cutter wins, but it leaves him without a Comanchero connection.  They head for Ranger headquarters, but encounter  Comanche and Comanchero raiders at a ranch with Cutter friends.  Regret saves the day by escaping to get the Rangers back, and the raiders are driven off. 

Regret is now a Ranger friend, having proved himself.  On their way back to headquarters Cutter and Regret stop at the ranch of a young widow Cutter knows to take her into town.  The interlude gives Cutter a little additional humanity but doesn’t really go anywhere.  The Rangers provide Cutter with a feathered Indian lance that supposedly will give them safe conduct in Comanche country.  They are followed by young Ranger Tobe (Patrick Wayne), who is supposed to keep an eye on them from a distance.  He is killed, however, presumably to demonstrate that this is serious business despite how easily Cutter and Regret will make their own escape.

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They are accepted by the Comanches, who take them to Comanchero headquarters, where they are strung up because Amelung (Michael Ansara) recognizes Cutter from when he was arresting Regret.  However, Pilar appears and is the daughter of the head Comanchero.  She has them cut down and invited to dinner, but they are on thin ice.  They meet her crippled father (Nehemiah Persoff), and it turns out that of all the forces and loyalties in play, true love is strongest (not all that convincingly).  They make a run for it in a wagon with Pilar and her father, with both Comanches and Comancheros in hot pursuit.  The wagon overturns in the chase, Pilar’s father is killed, and the Ranger company arrives just in time to rescue them.

At the end Cutter willingly gives up his prisoner and Regret and Pilar head for Mexico.  The Comanchero ring has been broken.

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Based on a novel by Paul Wellman, the screenplay was originally penned by experienced writer Clair Huffaker.  But the studio ordered it worked over by James Edward Grant, a favorite of Wayne’s, and the seams show.  They may both have been good writers, but at several points the plot doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, beginning with Regret’s arrest.  The original director was Michael Curtiz, but he had health problems and the movie was finished with the uncredited Wayne acting as director.  Curtiz died of cancer shortly after the film was finished.

In terms of production design, although the film is set in Texas in 1840, it looks the same as every other John Wayne movie after The Searchers, whether set in 1840, 1898 or 1909, with anachronistic weapons and clothing.  Some of the references to Fort Sill and the prison at Yuma are off, since neither existed until at least twenty years later.  When Cutter steps into the McBain role, he wears a tall hat and long duster for no good reason, and they look silly on him.  Lee Marvin’s energetic malevolence as Tully Crow is more threatening than all the Comanches and Comancheros in the rest of the movie, but his role is much too brief. 

A strong point is the music by Elmer Bernstein, with a stirring theme second only to Bernstein’s work on The Magnificent Seven.  Cinematography is by the experienced William Clothier.  Shot near Moab, Utah.  In general, the movie is fun if you don’t require too much consistency or reasonableness in your plots.  Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called the film “so studiously wild and woolly it turns out to be good fun”; according to Crowther, “[t]here’s not a moment of seriousness in it, not a detail that isn’t performed with a surge of exaggeration, not a character that is credible.”

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Three years later Stuart Whitman starred in Rio Conchos, also written by Clair Huffaker, which has many similarities to the plot here but is a better movie.  By setting it after the Civil War, some of the anachronisms of this movie are avoided.  Among John Wayne films of this period, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, El Dorado, The War Wagon and True Grit are all better.  But several others are worse, too.

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Allegheny Uprising

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 22, 2014

Allegheny Uprising—John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Wilfrid Lawson, George Sanders, Brian Donlevy, Ian Wolfe, Moroni Olsen, Robert Barrat (1939; Dir:  William A. Seiter)

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Colonial settlers vs. Indians but mostly against British authority in western Pennsylvania in 1760 in this fictionalized account of the historical Captain James Smith and his Black Boys.  Released the same year as Trevor and Wayne appeared together in Stagecoach (it was the first movie they made after Stagecoach) and John Ford made the similarly-themed and bigger-budgeted Drums Along the Mohawk, this has been much more obscure and is seldom seen these days. 

At the start of the film, Smith (John Wayne) and a friend are returned from captivity with the Indians after three years.  Although the French and Indian War has just ended, Smith finds that unscrupulous traders Callendar (Brian Donlevy) and Poole (Ian Wolfe) are trading weapons and firewater to the Indians, despite the fact that the Indians will use those supplies to kill both settlers and British soldiers. 

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Smith leads his Black Boys to circumvent blinkered British military authority, as represented by officious and hostile Capt. Swanson (George Sanders).  They take Fort Loudon from Swanson and capture the illicit supplies there.  They again take the fort to release colonials unjustly imprisoned in manacles by Swanson.  Callendar kills Smith’s best friend Calhoon (Moroni Olsen) and charges Smith with the murder.  He declines to be released by a mob and ultimately is acquitted. 

At the end of the movie he goes off to survey Tennessee with the lovely and spunkily tomboyish Janie MacDougall (Claire Trevor, mostly in anachronistic pants) in his wake.  In what is kind of an extraneous and loud role, she has spent the movie trying to get him to re-commit to a promise made years earlier, before his captivity, to marry her.  He never really does, although he seems closer at the end of the film.  Swanson is depicted more as rigid and unthinking than bad and gets sent home to England at the end of the movie. 

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Robert Barrat, who had played Chingachgook in 1936’s Last of the Mohicans, is the local magistrate who sympathizes with Smith and the settlers.  Wilfrid Lawson is MacDougall, Janie’s Scottish heavy-drinking, Indian-scouting father.  It’s not very politically correct for our time, what with the heathen savages (“the only friendly Injun’s a dead Injun”) and “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” attitudes.  It also partakes of 1930s populist sentiments.  It looks like it was shot in southern California, not Pennsylvania.  It’s pleasant and watchable, but perhaps not all that memorable.  This was a good year for Brian Donlevy’s villainy:  he was the sleazy saloon owner in Destry Rides Again and the sadistic Foreign Legion sergeant in Beau Geste in 1939 as well.  Chill Wills has an early film role here, moving on from his musical group the Avalon Boys.  In black and white.

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Arizona

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 30, 2013

Arizona—Jean Arthur, William Holden, Warren William, Edgar Buchanan (1940; Dir:  Wesley Ruggles)

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Set in Tucson before and during the Civil War.  Phoebe Titus (Jean Arthur) is the quintessential strong western woman, running a pie business, starting freighting operations and building her dream ranch.  The movie revolves around her.  Pete Muncie (William Holden) is originally passing through on his way to California, but they catch each other’s eye.  When this movie was released, in a reversal of the usual pattern Jean Arthur was 40 and Holden only 22, but the difference isn’t very visible on screen.  This and Texas are among the earliest films for both Holden and Edgar Buchanan; this was Holden’s first western and first starring role. 

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In Tucson the local bad guys are led by saloon owner Lazarus Ward (Porter Hall), until Ward is taken over by new arrival Jefferson Carteret (Warren William).  They sell guns to the Indians (Apaches) and organize other forms of theft and evildoing.  Muncie takes his time getting ready to settle down, and Titus’ freighting business allows her to build up the money she needs for her ranch.  The Ward-Carteret gang steals her money, and she borrows it back from Carteret.  Muncie takes it to Nebraska to buy a herd.  On his return, he is attacked by Apaches paid by Carteret, who shoots his own partner Ward in the back.  After his wedding the next day, Muncie shoots it out with Carteret, offscreen (as in Stagecoach).  The focus remains on the new bride Phoebe as she stands in the local store ordering supplies for her ranch, hearing gunshots outside and wondering whether she’s already a widow.  The camera stays on her face, and there is real acting going on there. 

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Phoebe Titus interrupts a poker game.

Arthur anachronistically wears pants for almost all of the movie, and the plot is kind of uneven, but it’s watchable and Arthur in particular is good.  Edgar Buchanan, a former dentist in real life, plays the first of his reprobate judge roles, in which he would specialize for the rest of his career.  Long for a western in 1940, at just over two hours, and some feel it has pacing problems.  In black and white.

Jean Arthur didn’t make a lot of westerns, but she’s in some good ones.  Look for her as Calamity Jane in The Plainsman, for example, with Gary Cooper.  Her final movie, for which she was enticed out of retirement in her 50s, was Shane.

One of the lasting legacies of this film was the creation of the set, the Old Tucson Studios, used as a setting for western towns in hundreds of movies and television shows since, including, for example, Rio Bravo and Tombstone.

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The Plainsman

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 14, 2013

The Plainsman—Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, James Ellison, Charles Bickford, Helen Burgess, Porter Hall (1936; Dir:  Cecil B. DeMille)

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In Belgium, Hickok wasn’t even billed as the main character.

Two or three years later, and this large-scale western would have been made in color.  This may be Gary Cooper’s best pre-High Noon western, although many of his earliest efforts in the genre (The Winning of Barbara Worth, The Virginian, Wolf Song, The Spoilers, Fighting Caravans) can be hard to find now.  It is better than The Westerner, a 1940 version of the Judge Roy Bean story.  This and the 1936 version of Last of the Mohicans are probably the most watchable pre-1939 westerns of the 1930s.

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Cooper plays Will Bill Hickok, the long-haired plainsman of the title, although that could also be his friend Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), newly married to easterner Louisa (Helen Burgess) as this film starts at the end of the Civil War.  The events between 1865 and Hickok’s death in 1876 are compressed seemingly into just a few months, and the movie is an overt exercise in myth-making.  Still, it can be fun to look for the actual history when it shows up.

Bill heads to Hays City, Kansas, where he finds miscreants led by Jim Lattimer (Charles Bickford) planning to sell surplus repeating rifles to the Sioux and Cheyennes.  Trying to prevent that, Bill gets into trouble both with the Indians and with Custer’s Seventh Cavalry (the historical Hickok did have run-ins with Custer’s brother Tom and other soldiers as a peace officer in Kansas in the late 1860s).  Meanwhile, Cody’s new wife Louisa tries to get him to settle down and start a hotel with her.  The third principal character is Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur, considerably more blond and much better-looking than the historical character), who has an ambiguous relationship with Bill but would obviously like to make it more romantic.

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After capture by Indians, a couple of battles and attempts by Custer to find and arrest him, Bill’s pursuit of the gun peddlers takes him to Deadwood, where he kills Lattimer and holds the rest of Lattimer’s gang for the army, until Jack McCall (Porter Hall) shoots him in the back, leaving a beautifully unmarked corpse.  Cody arrives with the Fifth Cavalry, Bill is posthumously exonerated of any wrongdoing and America goes on to conquer Indians, evildoers and the frontier generally.

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Two frontier Bills (Wild and Buffalo) holding off the Cheyennes under desperate circumstances.

Cooper plays one of the most attractive Hickoks on film, tall and lean with restrained humor and wearing two guns with butts facing forward (he’s convincingly good with them).  Arthur is quite good as well, although she looks very little like the historical Calamity Jane, and Ellison is adequate if a bit wooden in a good-looking way.  Director De Mille reportedly hated Ellison’s performance and wanted to ensure that Ellison never had as good a part in quite as good a film ever again.  If so, he was successful.  The historical Cody marriage was troubled, as this one starts out.  Young Anthony Quinn shows up toward the end of the movie as an unnamed Cheyenne.  

Jean Arthur began her career in silent movies, and she was in some very good movies in the 1930s and early 1940s.  But they were mostly in urban settings working with great directors–Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, George Stevens–in such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Only Angels Have Wings, The More the Merrier, etc.  She wasn’t bad in three westerns, though:  The Plainsman, Arizona (1940), and Shane (1953), her last movie.

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DeMille directs Ellison and Cooper in The Plainsman.

In black and white.  DeMille hired famous Indian photographer Edward S. Curtis to shoot some stills and film for this movie.

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Rio Conchos

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 12, 2013

Rio Conchos—Richard Boone, Stuart Whitman, Anthony Franciosa, Jim Brown, Edmond O’Brien, Wende Wagner, Rodolfo Acosta (1964; Dir:  Gordon Douglas)

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The lead is ostensibly Stuart Whitman, but Richard Boone steals this better-than-average western, and actually gets top billing in the wake of his Have Gun Will Travel stardom on television.  Jim Brown doesn’t have many lines in his movie debut, made just before his last football season, but he looks good and conveys a sense of fighting expertise.    

In 1867, Capt. Haven (Whitman) and Sgt. Franklyn (Brown) are transporting 2000 repeating rifles from St. Louis to Texas.  The rifles are stolen by a former Confederate, Col. Theron (“The Grey Fox”) Pardee (Edmond O’Brien), who takes them to Mexico.  Pardee plans to sell them to Apaches led by Bloodshirt (Rodolfo Acosta as the Apache chief, just as he was in Hondo and Trooper Hook).  Former Confederate Major Jim Lassiter (Boone) returned from the war to find his wife and son killed by Apaches, and he has become a revenge-obssessed alcoholic.  The movie starts with a scene of Lassiter killing half a dozen Indians at a burial.  When Haven finds Lassiter with one of the stolen rifles and tosses Lassiter in jail, Lassiter is forced to help Haven and Franklyn try to recover or destroy the guns across the Rio Grande in Mexico.  He reluctantly agrees, if they take Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa), a charming Mexican murderer also in jail, who speaks both Spanish and Apache.  The four don’t trust each other, and that’s where much of the drama lies for this movie.  How good is Lassiter’s word?  Can Rodriguez be relied on?  Does Haven know what he’s doing?

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Capturing the Apache maiden (Wende Wagner).

Along the way they acquire a prisoner, Apache maiden Sally (Wende Wagner in dark paint and decolletage), who adds another note of hostility to the group although she doesn’t speak English.  They make their way into Mexico with a wagon load of gunpowder as bait for the gun thieves, fighting among themselves and with Mexican banditos and Apaches.  Lassiter is the most resourceful fighter and tactician among them, but they all have their strengths (as with The Professionals two years later).  They finally find Pardee on the Rio Conchos (a tributary of the Rio Grande, extending into the state of Chihuahua), along with the rifles and Bloodshirt’s Apaches, but are captured by the Indians and tortured before an explosive ending. 

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There’s lots of action, most of it well-filmed.  Whitman is somewhat wooden and his part seems a little underwritten, but Boone is great, with a magnificent voice and weatherbeaten looks.  Franciosa is also very good, but his characterization (and that of most Mexicans in this movie) will strike current audiences as a little broad and perhaps stereotypical.  Wende Wagner, in her first movie, is the weak link, both in acting and in her part as written in the movie.  She doesn’t look much like an Indian (although she apparently had some Indian ancestry along with German and French), and her movie career didn’t develop into much.  Most of the dramatic tension comes from trying to figure out whether the four or five central characters will be, on balance, good or bad.  In the end only Haven and Sally survive the final action, and improbably they seem to go off together.  But Lassiter does get Bloodshirt, or, rather, they get each other.  

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This movie has a darker and grittier tone than, say, The Comancheros, which has a similar plot (stopping the sale of firearms to Indians) and the same screenwriter.  It probably suffered in its time for being an ensemble piece without instantly identifiable good guys, instead of a John Wayne-style obvious good guys vs. obvious bad guys western of the sort that audiences were used to then.  Lassiter, the most compelling character, is sometimes hard to identify with.  But that also makes it less predictable in its way.  An underrated and, these days, seldom seen western.

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Filmed in Arizona and around Moab, Utah.  Screenwriters are Joseph Landon and Clair Huffaker (who also wrote The Comancheros, The War Wagon and the novel on which this film is based).  Good early score by Jerry Goldsmith.  Available on DVD as of 2011 together with Take a Hard Ride, a spaghetti western featuring Jim Brown on another expedition into Mexico.  This was probably the best western directed by Gordon Douglas, who also directed Fort Dobbs, Yellowstone Kelly and the 1966 Stagecoach remake, along with Barquero and at least one episode of Maverick. 

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Winchester ’73

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 24, 2013

Winchester ’73—James Stewart, Millard Mitchell, Dan Duryea, Shelly Winters, Stephen McNally  (1950; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

This movie marks the first cinematic pairing of director Anthony Mann with actor James Stewart, who teamed for five memorable westerns in the 1950s before falling out over Night Passage.  As a notable actor-director pair in westerns, they rank with the John Ford-John Wayne and Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott teams.  For Stewart, it was his first western since 1939’s Destry Rides Again, and it marks the real beginning of his career as a significant western star.

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The title refers to a new model rifle, the One-of-a-Thousand Model 1873 Winchester, of which only 133 were made.  It is won by Lin MacAdam (Stewart) in a hard-fought marksmanship contest in Dodge City in 1876, where the contestants include Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), who, not coincidentally, turns out to be MacAdam’s brother.  MacAdam went off to the Civil War on the Confederate side with his sidekick High Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell), and Brown followed the outlaw trail.  (Dutch Henry Brown is the actual name of at least two real outlaws of the post-Civil War period in the west.)

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MacAdam (James Stewart) at the shooting contest.

MacAdam is tracking down Dutch Henry for reasons of his own.  Dutch Henry steals the rifle (among other things) and leaves Dodge abruptly.  The rifle is coveted by everybody who sees it and seems to take on a life of its own, interweaving its own story with MacAdam’s chase of Dutch Henry.  MacAdam and High Spade also cross paths with Steve Miller (Charles Drake) and his girl Lola Manners (Shelley Winters), and a cavalry troop besieged by Indians.  The rifle goes from Dutch Henry to Joe Lamont (John McIntire), who trades guns to the Indians, including, unwillingly, this rifle.  After the cavalry battle the rifle goes to Steve, although he doesn’t seem to deserve it.  Near-psychotic gunman-outlaw Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea, in a bravura performance) takes it—and Lola—from Steve and heads for Tascosa, Texas, where he is to meet Dutch Henry for a bank robbery.   There he loses the rifle to Dutch Henry.  

Winchester-73-tacklingDean Losing it with Waco Johnny Dean.

As Dean and Lola wait in a saloon in Tascosa for a signal from Dutch Henry, MacAdam and High Spade catch up and recognize Lola from their previous encounter.  MacAdam (showing some incidental instability himself) takes care of Dean, breaks up the robbery and sets out in hot pursuit of Dutch Henry again.  He catches him, and they have it out in a final shootout in the rocks.  (The shootout in the rocks has some similarities with the final showdown in The Naked Spur.)  In the end, Lola (who has been wounded while trying to save a child) and MacAdam appear to end up together.

winchester73_shootout Shootout in the rocks.

The cast is remarkable, and not just the leads.  Stewart is terrific, demonstrating his usual decency but with a touch of dangerousness, obsession and a little instability.  The young Shelley Winters gives one of the best performances of her career as Lola, a blowzier Claire Trevor-esque role.  Millard Mitchell is fine as High Spade; he shows up as a sheriff in The Gunfighter released the same year and later with Mann and Stewart again as a prospector in the small cast of The Naked Spur.  Duryea as Waco Johnny Dean outshines Stephen McNally as Dutch Henry Brown when it comes to villains.  If you look at the supporting cast, you’ll find Will Geer as Wyatt Earp (although older and in a more senior position than he would have been in 1876) in the opening sequences; Jay C. Flippen as hard-bitten cavalry Sergeant Wilkes, in over his head in defending against a large force of hostile Indians; John McIntire as a sleazy gun-runner; Ray Teal; and Charles Drake as Lola’s unheroic fiancé Steve.  Among the young Hollywood newcomers are Rock Hudson as the Indian chief Young Bull and Tony Curtis as the cavalryman who finds the rifle after the battle and gives it to Sgt. Wilkes.

Fritz Lang was originally slated to direct this one, and when he pulled out Stewart recommended Anthony Mann, with whom he had done some stage work in the 1930s.  It gave Mann his opportunity to move up from low-budget movies into A westerns, and he made the most of it.  Much of Mann’s previous work had been in the noir genre, and it shows with the psychological elements of this and future Mann westerns—a new kind of mental claustrophobia in the wide-open spaces of the west.  The film also gave a new twist to Stewart’s traditional persona; this one is decent, too, but also obsessed with vengeance and troubled by his own personal demons.  These characters led to perhaps the most productive decade of his career, in such films as The Naked Spur (also with Mann) and Vertigo (with Alfred Hitchcock).  Elegantly filmed in Arizona in black and white.

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Production still of James Stewart.

The DVD issued in 2003 has an unusual, fascinating and rambling commentary by James Stewart, originally recorded in 1989 for the laser disc version of the film.  One wishes that John Wayne and Henry Fonda, or John Ford and Anthony Mann, had done a few such commentaries.

You can see the rifle from the movie, with the names of the actors engraved on the stock (“Jimmie Stewart”), at the Cody Historical Center in Wyoming.

This film made movie history in another way, too.  Stewart’s salary was a bit steep for this movie’s budget, so he agreed to lower it and accept a percentage of the film’s gross as part of his compensation.  When the film was a hit, Stewart did significantly better financially than he would have in just taking his usual salary.  Instead of the $200,000 Stewart was requesting for the movie, he is said to have ended up with $600,000 because of the new deal structure.  This led to many more such arrangements for stars in movie financing, as well as to much creative accounting about what the “gross” or “net” take of a movie might be.

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The Man from Laramie

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 17, 2013

The Man from Laramie—James Stewart, Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Alex Nicol, Cathy O’Donnell, Aline MacMahon, Jack Elam, Wallace Ford (1955; Dir:  Anthony Mann)

This was the last of five westerns in five years with the very effective pairing of director Anthony Mann and leading man James Stewart.  It was the only one in Cinemascope, and it’s one of the best.  (Mann and Stewart also made three non-westerns, and Mann made three or four westerns without Stewart.)

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As this film opens, freighter Will Lockhart (Stewart) is taking three wagons of supplies from Laramie, Wyoming, to Coronado, New Mexico.  At his last campsite before arriving in Coronado, he surveys the site of the Dutch River massacre, where a patrol of twelve cavalrymen were all killed by Apaches with new repeating rifles.  Lockhart’s brother was one of the twelve, and he’s come to find and kill the person responsible for selling the guns to the Indians.

In town he delivers the supplies to the general store run by Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), niece of the local cattle baron who basically owns the town and most of the surrounding countryside.  He was lucky to get through; the Apaches have prevented most such shipments from arriving in Coronado.  He’s looking for return cargo to Laramie, and Barbara directs him to nearby salt flats, where she says the salt is free for the taking.

As Lockhart and his men load their wagons, a number of cowboys led by Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) ride up with guns drawn.  Dave thinks the salt is on Barb Ranch land and isn’t free to just any one.  On Dave’s orders, the cowboys burn Lockhart’s wagons, kill his mules, and rope him, dragging him through a campfire.  Before matters go any farther, Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy), the Waggoman foreman, rides up and stops the altercation.  The next day in Coronado, Lockhart beats up Dave and fights Vic to a draw before Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), the cattle baron himself, stops things.  Alec offers to pay for Lockhart’s destroyed wagons and animals and suggests that he leave the country. 

We see that Vic and Barbara would get married, but Barbara wants Vic to agree to leave the area before she’ll marry him.  She needs to get him away from her uncle’s powerful and slightly malevolent influence.  Vic feels that Alec has promised him a stake in the Barb Ranch and he is unwilling to leave that.  Dave, Barbara’s cousin, is described as “weak,” and we see that he has poor judgment and a sadistic streak.  Kate Canady owns the Half Moon, the only significant spread in the area not controlled by Waggoman.  She’d like to hire Lockhart as her foreman, but he says he doesn’t know anything about cattle.  The inference is that he’s been in the army.  Eventually Lockhart takes the job with Canady.  Lockhart:  “You’re just a hard, scheming old woman, aren’t you?”  Kate:  “Ugly, too.”

Alec Waggoman is played by Donald Crisp with his usual appearance of stern rectitude, but Alec isn’t averse to breaking his word occasionally.  Despite his promises, he seems willing to cast Vic off with nothing if it helps him get what he wants.  Alec and Kate have some ancient history and were engaged in their younger days.  It’s a pretty complex group of characters, although Lockhart doesn’t have as much of the potential instability that Stewart’s characters sometimes show in other Mann westerns.

As Lockhart trails some Half Moon stock on to Barb range, Dave Waggoman takes a shot at him.  Lockhart returns fire, hitting Dave in the hand.  When Dave’s backup cowboys arrive, Dave has them hold Lockhart while he shoots him point blank in the right hand in a brutal scene.

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This is the low point for Lockhart, but the Waggoman faction is having internal troubles of its own.  Alec Waggoman is going blind, unknown to his son and foreman.  Dave and Vic are the ones selling guns to the Indians, and when they fall out over how to manage it, Vic kills Dave.  When Alec finds a discrepancy in accounts and goes looking for a wagonload of guns, Vic pushes him down a cliff and leaves him for dead.  Lockhart finds him and takes him to Kate for medical help.  He’s also developing his own romantic interest in Barbara, who seems attracted back despite her arrangement of sorts with Vic.

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Lockhart (James Stewart) is not letting his wounded hand stop him.

Ultimately, Lockhart finds the wagon with guns by following Vic.  He forces Vic to push them over a cliff before deciding he can’t just take his long-awaited revenge and shoot Vic.  Vic’s escape is only momentary, though.  He encounters the Apaches who were coming for the guns they’d already paid for, and they surround him and shoot him down. 

As things quiet down, Lockhart suggests to Barbara that if she’s going east, she’ll pass through Laramie and should ask for Capt. Lockhart.  (Laramie and Fort Laramie were not the same place, and someone headed east from New Mexico would have to go considerably out of her way to pass through either.)  Meanwhile, Kate Canady takes over the care of the now-blind but still alive Alec Waggoman.  Finally, they’ll be married, several decades after that wedding was initially planned.

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The cowboy, the girl and the horse.

These characters are all written to be more complicated than you’d find in most westerns.  Stewart and Crisp are both known quantities as actors, and they’re as good as you expect.  Alec Waggoman as a character has some Lear-like overtones, if you like that sort of thing.  Kennedy as Vic seems better than Nicol as Dave, but some of that may be because Dave’s role is written to be more overtly unattractive.  Vic’s motivation is not always clear and seems to be changing during the movie.  Cathy O’Donnell manages to convey a certain amount of stubbornness coupled with romantic confusion but is otherwise not terribly memorable.  (Stewart seems too old for her.  And it’s hard not to think that Joanne Dru, Virginia Mayo or Coleen Gray would have done better with the role.)  Aline MacMahon is very good as Kate Canady; she has some of the most acerbic lines in the film.  Wallace Ford is good in brief appearances as Lockhart’s scout Charley O’Leary, and Jack Elam puts in an equally brief appearance as the town drunk and informer before he’s killed.  It all works, even though there are some loose ends to the plot that are never explained.

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