Tag Archives: The Search for Family


Nicholas Chennault ~ March 5, 2016

Forsaken—Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Demi Moore, Brian Cox, Michael Wincott, Aaron Poole, Greg Ellis (2015; Dir: Jon Cassar)


Canadian father and son actors Donald and Kiefer Sutherland have not really worked together in a film before, although each has done westerns (Kiefer in the Young Guns movies, and Donald in a remake of Dawn Rider).  This is a traditional sort of western, presenting again the question of whether a gunman can reform, when despite his good intentions circumstances call him back to his former ways and skills (like many westerns from Hell’s Hinges to The Gunfighter to Unforgiven).

The movie begins with a flashback, although we don’t know that’s what it is yet, of a boy apparently dying of a gunshot.  Then come introductory shots reminiscent of films by directors Budd Boetticher, Sergio Leone and any number of other westerns, of a lone rider making his way across the landscape and the credits.  It is 1872 in Wyoming Territory, and this is John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) heading homeward to Fowler, where he has not been since he left to fight for the Union in the Civil War ten years earlier.


John Henry (Kiefer Sutherland) has returned, but he and his father (Donald Sutherland) have a difficult past and are still wary of each other.

His father is the Rev. William Clayton (Donald Sutherland), a white-haired, unyielding man from whom his son has long been estranged.  John Henry discovers that his mother is recently dead, and there seems to be little common ground with his father.  In town, we find that John Henry is a well-known gunman, although he says he no longer wears a gun.  He meets Gentleman Dave Turner (Michael Wincott), a southern-born gunman whom he treats with a modicum of respect, and Frank Tillman (Aaron Poole), whom he doesn’t.  They are both employed by James McCurdy (Brian Cox), who is trying to buy up all the surrounding land cheaply in anticipation of the coming of the railroad.

John Henry Clayton, explaining his failure to come home after the war:  “I was done with killing, but she wasn’t done with me.”


John Henry (Kiefer Sutherland) and Mary-Alice (Demi Moore) try to sort out life’s turns.

John Henry also encounters a former flame, Mary-Alice Watson (Demi Moore), who married someone else eight years ago.  Although there is clearly still some affinity between them, John Henry tells her she was right to have married Tom Watson.  Watson (Greg Ellis) is not so sure of his wife’s affections.  As McCurdy’s men increase the pressure and the violence, Tillman sees that John Henry is serious about not taking up the gun again, and they beat him mercilessly.  Mary-Alice helps the Rev. Clayton drag John Henry to his buggy, to her husband’s distress, and he decides to sell out.

John Henry revisits his family’s past. He starts clearing a field that he says his mother had wanted him and his father to clear together, although the father denies it.  Finally, he seeks some solace at church, where he and his father talk about the death of his brother William in a drowning accident when they were boys (echoes of one of Donald Sutherland’s best movies, Ordinary People).  And he confesses that he quit the gunman’s life when, defending himself against two attackers, he accidentally killed a boy in the scene we saw at the movie’s start.  We see Rev. Clayton start to work on clearing the field, indicating changes in his relationship with his son.


Father and son (Donald Sutherland and Kiefer Sutherland) work on their relationship, which is not as dreary as that sounds.

[Spoilers follow.]  As McCurdy’s violence mounts, John Henry maintains his resolve not to resort to his old skills.  But when Tillman and his boys knife the Rev. Clayton in town, and it looks like Mary-Alice’s husband is next, John Henry is pushed over the edge.  He gets out his gun again, and at the general store picks up a big LeMat revolver, which holds nine bullets and a 10-gauge shotgun shell.  There follows a classic extended saloon shootout, very well done.  But when John Henry emerges into the street, there is Gentleman Dave.  Pleading that he has left his Colt in the saloon and the heavy LeMat would put him at a disadvantage, he goes back into the saloon.  But instead of returning immediately to the street, he finds and initiates a showdown with McCurdy.  At the end, Gentleman Dave concedes that he no longer has an employer, and the two of them go their separate ways.  Narration by Gentleman Dave closes out the movie with what little is known of the rest of John Henry’s doings.

John Henry Clayton (coming to a decision):  “It’s time I did something right in my life.  This is what I know how to do.”


John Henry (Kiefer Sutherland) makes an entrance in McCurdy’s saloon.  Note the big LeMat in his left hand.

There is not much about this film we haven’t seen before, but it’s done well here.  The Sutherlands are good actors, and are convincing as father and son in a strained relationship.  The development of that relationship works.  John Henry Clayton is not so different from Jack Bauer (the relentless and deadly character he played in several seasons of television’s 24), it turns out.  He’s persuasive as the haunted gunfighter trying to quit, and he’s very good as the experienced killer who knows his business.  Demi Moore, who is not seen much on film these days, is also good as Mary-Alice.  She seems well cast.  One of the juicier roles, that of Gentleman Dave, is very well done by Michael Wincott, albeit in a strange hat.  He plays Gentlemen Dave with a courtly silkiness and quasi-ethical consideration that adds interest.

That is not to say that the film is without missteps. When Tom Watson confronts John Henry and demands whether he still loves Mary-Alice, he remains silent, feeding Tom’s fears.  The appropriate answer is “She’s married to you, and I respect that,” which he has already told her.  John Henry’s use of language changes.  At first, he speaks in a relatively uneducated manner, while his preacher-father speaks more formally.  But when he’s talking with Gentleman Dave at the end, he adopts Dave’s courtly form of speech with polysyllabic words.  That’s probably intentional by the writer, Brad Mirman.  Although not quite a classic, if you’re looking for a good traditional western, this is worth seeking out.  The end is curiously satisfying, seemingly formulaic but also true to the characters as they have developed.


Michael Wincott (dressed as Gentleman Dave), Donald Sutherland and Kiefer Sutherland on the set.

Apparently the original cut of the film was three hours and fifteen minutes long.  Deciding to trim it to focus on the father-son relationship, the producers have a final film less than half that, at 90 minutes.  They were probably right to do that, although one would like to see the longer cut, too.  Among the material on the cutting room floor are an introductory scene showing how John Henry was in a gunfight that led to his life as a gunman, and a subplot involving a young man drifting into the gunslinger’s life and leaving his girlfriend, while John Henry moves in the opposite direction.  Kiefer Sutherland was the moving force behind the film and putting it together.  He and director Jon Cassar had worked together on 24 (Cassar directed 58 episodes), along with co-stars Michael Wincott and Greg Ellis.

Made for a budget of less than $20 million, this is one of those productions involving a lot of Canadian talent, locations and funding, like The Grey Fox and Gunless.  It’s not clear what the title “Forsaken” refers to, unless it’s John Henry’s attempt to forsake his gunman’s life or his feeling that God has forsaken him.  This was filmed in Alberta near Calgary, and the cinematography by Rene Ohashi makes good use of the scenery.  The elegiac music is by Jonathan Goldsmith.  Rated R for violence and McCurdy’s bad language.

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

Cahill U.S. Marshal

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 20, 2015

Cahill U.S. Marshal—John Wayne, Gary Grimes, George Kennedy, Neville Brand, Clay O’Brien, Marie Windsor, Royal Dano, Denver Pyle, Harry Carey, Jr., Paul Fix, Hank Worden (1973; Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen)


The late phase of John Wayne’s career was unusual because, unlike his contemporaries such as Henry Fonda and James Stewart, while he continued to make westerns as they did, some of Wayne’s were actually pretty good.  While this is not the best of late John Wayne, it is not among the worst, either.

J.D. Cahill (an aging John Wayne) is, as the title has already told us, a U.S. marshal, based in Valentine, Texas.  The drama comes because he has been, as a widower, a neglectful father, with his two sons (aged 11 and 17) growing up resentful of his constant absences from their lives.  The movie opens with a scene where Cahill catches and brings in five armed bank-robbers single-handedly, establishing his formidable competence as a marshal.


J.D. Cahill (John Wayne) is clearly nobody to mess with.

Meanwhile, back in town, his older son Danny (Gary Grimes) has fallen in with bad company and has gotten himself thrown in jail with them to establish an alibi for a criminal enterprise.  The younger son Billy Joe (Clay O’Brien) has also been enlisted in the plan, moving the tools into position, providing a distraction for the sheriff and others by setting fire to a barn, and taking and hiding the loot after the job.  He lets the conspirators, led by Fraser (George Kennedy), out of jail, and they proceed to rob the bank, killing the sheriff and a deputy in the process.  They get back into jail as if they’d never been out, establishing their apparent innocence.

The boys, especially Billy Joe, have a tough time, since they’re not really hardened outlaws and were promised there’d be no killing.  J.D. takes Danny and the half-Comanche Lightfoot (Neville Brand in dark makeup) in pursuit of the supposed robbers, and catches four of them.  They seem guilty enough so they are sentenced to hang, although Danny knows they are innocent—of the bank robbery, at least.


Cahill (John Wayne) is not pleased to find his older son Danny (Gary Grimes) in jail with questionable companions (George Kennedy).

He may be lacking as a father, but Cahill’s instincts as a manhunter are at full strength, and he knows something is up with his sons.  He and Lightfoot track them as they take the money from the robbery up in the mountains to meet Fraser and the others at a mine.  They are shot at by the gang’s sentry; Lightfoot wounds him but is himself killed.  The sons know that Fraser does not intend to leave them alive.  Since we have already seen Cahill take on several bad guys at one time, we are not surprised when he does it again; it is well-staged.  The sons take the loot back to town to return it, and it looks like they’ll arrive in time to stop the wrong men from hanging.  (They should still need a good lawyer, although that isn’t addressed.)  Cahill’s left shoulder is wounded twice in the course of the movie, but it looks like some repairs have been made to his relationship with his sons as well.  Maybe the future will be better.

The working title of the film initially was “Wednesday Morning.”  Produced by Wayne’s Batjac production company, there are elements of this we’ve seen elsewhere.  The faux-Indian figure (played by Howard Keel in The War Wagon and by Bruce Cabot in Big Jake) is here done best of all by Neville Brand, although he was never an actor of much subtlety.  Elmer Bernstein had done many musical scores on John Wayne movies (e.g., The Comancheros), and elements of the music here seem recycled.  Cahill’s invincibility seems a bit overdone, although it is a critical element of the story and certainly of the John Wayne persona.  The large hairy outlaw who doesn’t speak much but is a vicious killer seems imported from Big Jake.


Head bad guy Fraser (George Kennedy) is pretty scary to an eleven-year-old in the rain.

John Wayne is, well, very much John Wayne in this movie.  His hats got taller during the 1970s, but he still looked convincing in a well-written part.  At 66, he was not in good health, suffering from emphysema and the lung cancer that would kill him in a few years.  Reportedly, he also had a few pangs about his own paternal neglect of his children over the years, which was partially addressed here by having one of them (Michael Wayne) as the producer.  In the early 1970s, Gary Grimes specialized for a few years in coming-of-age stories, notably in Summer of ’42, but also in westerns such as The Culpepper Cattle Company and The Spikes Gang, and he wasn’t bad at it.  Young Clay O’Brien, who played the younger son, was an authentic New Mexico cowboy whose first acting job had been on Wayne’s The Cowboys the previous year.  After a few years of playing small cowboys in movies, he went back to real cowboying, becoming a champion roper.  Part of the fun here is seeing all the good character actors in bit parts. Royal Dano, Paul Fix, Hank Worden, Marie Windsor (once queen of the B movies), Denver Pyle and Harry Carey, Jr. all show up briefly here.  Even Chuck Roberson, Wayne’s long-time stand-in and stunt double, shows up on screen here; in addition to playing the head of a lynch mob, most of the medium-to-long shots of Cahill on a horse are actually Roberson.


Cahill (John Wayne), here with sons Billy Joe (Clay O’Brien) and Danny (Gary Grimes), takes a knife to the shoulder in the climactic shootout.

Director Andrew McLaglen had long had connections with John Ford and John Wayne through his father, actor Victor McLaglen.  This was his fifth and final movie directing John Wayne, and as a movie director, McLaglen was a pretty good television director; that is, he never seemed to be as good as he should have been, given the resouces and talent he often had to work with at this stage of his career (see The Way West, for example).  Screenwriter Harry Julian Fink and his wife Rita Fink had written Dirty Harry and Big Jake, and would go on to do a few more Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movies.

This movie is not the best of Wayne’s late career; The Cowboys, Big Jake and The Shootist (his last film) are all better.  But it’s far from the worst, which would include the lamentable Rio Lobo and The Train Robbers.  All in all, it’s worth watching, even if it sometimes seems like there’s less here than meets the eye.  Shot in Durango, Mexico, in color, at 103 minutes.


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

Saddle Tramp

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 20, 2015

Saddle Tramp—Joel McCrea, John McIntire, Wanda Hendrix, Jeannette Nolan, John Russell, Ed Begley (1950: Dir: Hugo Fregonese)


Chuck Conner (Joel McCrea) is the titular saddle tramp, an experienced cowhand heading through Nevada on his way to California.  He stops to see Slim Stevens, an old friend with four small boys. Their mother has been dead a year, and while Chuck is there Slim falls off a horse and breaks his neck.

Chuck heads toward California with the four boys in tow.  He finds a job at the Higgins ranch, but owner Jess Higgins (John McIntire) doesn’t like kids [a plot contrivance that isn’t terribly persuasive, especially since he’s married to Jeannette Nolan, one of the quintessential mother figures in westerns].  So the kids camp out in the hills, and Chuck takes them food.  They are joined by Della (Wanda Hendrix), a runaway whose uncle (Ed Begley) has improper ideas about her.


Meanwhile, Higgins is at war with the neighboring Martinez ranch over rustling, and Higgins’ foreman Rocky (John Russell) is developing suspicions about Chuck.  It turns out, however, that Rocky and the Martinez segundo are behind the rustling.  Chuck catches them at it, and they catch him.  The kids and Della manage to bring both Higgins and Martinez factions to Chuck’s rescue.  At the end, Chuck appears to have married Della (despite an age difference of some significance) and taken the boys back to Slim’s ranch to try to make a go of it.

Pleasant enough fare, if unremarkable.  Some plot elements don’t really come together.  In color, although there appear to be different cuts of it.  One version is 90 minutes long; the version shown on the Encore Westerns channel seems to be only 74 minutes.  For Wanda Hendrix in another western, see her in The Last Posse.

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