Tag Archives: Train Robbing

The Lone Ranger (2013)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 13, 2014

The Lone Ranger—Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, James Badge Dale, William Fichtner, Tom Wilkinson, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter, Barry Pepper, Steven Root (2013; Dir: Gore Verbinski)

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The Lone Ranger has not done well in the movies.  First, he showed up in inexpensive serials.  Then, after a good career in radio and television, he was caught up in the nostalgia for television in the movie studios, resulting in The Legend of The Lone Ranger (1981), featuring the immortal Klinton Spilsbury in his only movie role.  Now, in 2013, the Ranger was again brought to the big screen, this time by director Gore Verbinski, and no expense was spared, with big stars (Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer), a big budget, lots of action and many expensive CGI effects.

The film does not feature a story so much as various vignettes and action pieces strung together for a lengthy 149 minutes.  It opens with an unnecessary framing story from San Francisco in 1933.  A small boy dressed as the Lone Ranger (complete with mask) steps into a Wild West tent at a carnival (the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island wasn’t until 1939, but that’s the sort of event it seems to be), where a tableau showing an aged Indian comes alive.  It is Tonto (Johnny Depp), who proceeds to regale the lad with the story of his adventures with the Lone Ranger.

Tonto and Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) are chained in a railroad freight car heading for Colby, Texas, in 1869 as the transcontinental railroad nears completion.  Some one has put a gun in the floorboards so Cavendish can escape when his gang robs the train.  John Reid (Armie Hammer), newly graduated from law school in the east and now appointed the Colby County prosecutor, ineffectively tries to stop the escape and robbery, but only ends up chained to Tonto himself.  The Cavendish gang has killed the engineers and set the locomotive to increase speed as it heads toward the end of the track.

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William Fichtner in heavy makeup as the wendigo Butch Cavendish.

Texas Ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) rides up with his five men and succeeds in disconnecting the locomotive from the passenger cars, but Tonto and John manage to survive flying off the train at full speed as the train crashes.  John puts Tonto in jail (accused of being an Indian, apparently) and renews an acquaintance with Dan’s wife Rebecca (English actress Ruth Wilson), and she appears to have a thing for him.

Dan and John and the other rangers head off after Butch Cavendish and are led into an ambush by the drunken Collins, who has known them both since childhood.  All are apparently killed and Cavendish eats Dan’s heart.  Tonto comes upon the scene and buries the Rangers, only to discover that John is not dead.  John is chosen by a white spirit horse to come back to life, against Tonto’s advice that the other brother would do better.  Indeed, he explains a bit later to John that “Kemo Sabe” means “wrong brother,” kind of a running joke.  John dons a mask made from Dan’s vest, with bullet holes where he was shot forming the eye holes.

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Experienced Ranger Dan Reid (James Badge Dale) offers his brother John (Armie Hammer) a gun.

The two go to Red’s (a combination bar and wild whorehouse) in search of information on Cavendish or Collins, in a picaresque but unnecessary sequence.  Red (Helena Bonham Carter), a former dancer with an ivory artificial leg, seems inclined to help but gives no real information.  They make their escape and hear that Comanches are raiding ranches and farms, and they head for Dan Reid’s place.  The Comanches are actually Cavendish’s gang dressed as Indians (sort of); John kills the remaining two while supposedly firing a warning shot, and they follow one outlaw’s horse into the desert, where the horse keels over dead.

They are found by Comanches led by Big Bear (Saginaw Grant), and John tells what he knows of Cavendish and his plans.  But Tonto has no credibility among his own people, since he showed two white men where to find silver (“where the river begins”) twenty or thirty years ago, leading to the killing of most of his band.  The Comanches leave John and Tonto buried up to their heads, and the cavalry races over the top of them without bothering to stop.  The spirit horse pulls John out, and he in turn gets Tonto out to show him where the river begins.  There are a number of railroad cars laden with silver, and John and Tonto find Cavendish there.

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Tonto (Johnny Depp) consults the spirit horse, while a disheveled John Reid (Armie Hammer) looks on.

John is taken and about to be executed by a military firing squad, when a train comes between him and his executioners in one of the split-second maneuvers typical of this movie.  The cavalry, led by a long-haired Custer-like captain (Barry Pepper) slaughters the Comanches when they attack.  John and Tonto attempt to blow up a high railroad trestle, for no obvious reason.

Meanwhile, evil railroad baron Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson) has kidnapped Rebecca and Danny, intending them to be his new family.  In the movie’s most egregious geographical misplacement, the transcontinental railroad is joined at Promontory Summit—in Texas, not Utah.  As part of the festivities, Cole is taking over control of the railroad; he and Cavendish are partners, and have been ever since the child Tonto led them to the silver decades ago.  A chase of two trains follows, with the Lone Ranger riding the spirit horse along the top of one of them, diving to a flat car just as a tunnel comes up.  Both trains wreck, Butch Cavendish and the long-haired captain are killed, and Cole rides the silver cars over the blown-up trestle to his doom.  The Lone Ranger and Tonto ride off to right other wrongs, instead of John Reid settling down with his brother’s family.

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The last Ranger heads into action.

If this summary sounds like kind of a hash, the movie’s plot is.  Johnny Depp’s performance is strongly reminiscent of his shtick as Captain Jack Sparrow in the four (so far) Pirates of the Caribbean movies, not coincidentally also directed by Gore Verbinski.  Depp’s makeup is obviously based on a famous painting by western artist James Bama.  John Reid, the Lone Ranger (played by Armie Hammer), is played as a doofus; by the end of the movie, he is simply a more experienced doofus.  Things seem to be set up for perhaps a sequel, but the movie was not a big hit.  In fact, by some accounts it forced Disney to take a $190 million write-down on its books.

Some performances stand out enough to recognize that a couple of good actors were wasted in what they were given to do here.  James Badge Dale is good as the Ranger brother Dan Reid, and his character is killed off early.  Ruth Wilson, so good as Jane Eyre in the much more coherent BBC production (2006), is here whipsawed back and forth without any consistent motivation.  The supposed John Reid-Rebecca Reid infatuation doesn’t work.  William Fichtner, who can be effective with more restraint and less makeup, is too over-the-top filthy and evil as the wendigo (kind of an Indian vampire creature) Butch Cavendish. Tom Wilkinson can play this clichéd corrupt railroad baron in his sleep, and does.

This could be much longer if we went into the various geographic and historical anomalies and anachronisms in which this film abounds.  There is lots of borrowing from other westerns, such as the cross-dressing outlaw in the Cavendish gang (see Dead Man for the first such example of that), the use of a cannibalistic wendigo (see Ravenous) and the long-haired blond bad-guy cavalry leader (see The Mask of Zorro).  Overall, it’s not quite as bad as either The Wild, Wild West or the Klinton Spilsbury version of the Lone Ranger story from thirty years ago, but it’s not very good.

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Was anything good?  There is excellent cinematography (see the overhead shots of the Rangers heading up a creek into the canyon) and some of the best use of Monument Valley since John Ford started using it as a setting, including for both Texas (The Searchers) and Tombstone, Arizona (My Darling Clementine). As a comedy, it doesn’t work terribly well, largely because of insonsistencies in tone and characterization, as well as lack of a story.  The stuntwork/CGI effects are over-the-top unbelievable from the start.  This film now holds the record for train crashes in a western with three, breaking the old record of two formerly held by Cecil B. DeMille for Union Pacific (1939).  You can do that more easily now that you can crash them on computers and not actually have to smash up equipment.

Director Gore Verbinski actually made one other western, and it’s better than this one:  the animated feature Rango (2011).  Johnny Depp is not a natural in westerns, but he too has made another one:  Jim Jarmusch’s surrealistic Dead Man (1995).  For a better fanciful western, see Cowboys & Aliens (2011).

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Gunsight Ridge

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 9, 2014

Gunsight Ridge—Joel McCrea, Mark Stevens, Joan Weldon, Addison Richards, L.Q. Jones (1957; Dir:  Francis D. Lyon)

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This late Joel McCrea film seems more formulaic than it ought to; somehow the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  McCrea, getting a bit long in the tooth (he was 52 at the time), plays Mike Ryan.  He and the attractive Molly Jones (Joan Weldon) are passengers on the stage to Bancroft near the Arizona border with Mexico, where her father is the sheriff.  On the way the stage is held up by two robbers, one of whom has distinctive eyes above his bandanna-mask.  During the robbery the other’s mask slips, and he is recognized by the stage driver (Slim Pickens in a small role).  Molly berates Ryan for not trying to thwart the robbery, as her father would have done.  As the bandits make their getaway, the one who was recognized is shot down by the other.

As Ryan arrives in town, some of the town fathers have their misgivings about whether the sheriff is too old for the job.  Four cowboys from a local ranch (the Lazy Heart) ride in and proceed to shoot up the town.  The sheriff squares his shoulders and goes out to stop them without obvious help.  But Ryan tucks a gun in his belt and helps the sheriff stop them.  Since Ryan needs a job, the sheriff hires him as a deputy.  Meanwhile, the penniless Ryan inveigles a place at Mrs. Donahue’s upscale boarding house, where one of the other boarders is Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens), a gambler-miner, who (as is immediately obvious to the viewer) has the eyes above the bandanna in the stage robbery.

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Mike Ryan (Joel McCrea) and Velvet Clark (Mark Stevens) get acquainted.

As Ryan starts about his duties, he observes Clark playing the piano in the parlor when Clark figures nobody is around.  Clark then proceeds to the saloon, where he loses.  He explains to his paramour, saloon girl Rosa (Darlene Fields), that he had the talent but not the funds to develop that talent; it appears that his turning to crime was because of the frustration.  Leaving for the Oriental across the street, he instead robs the bank, being careful not to be seen.  During the investigation of the robbery, Ryan displays his credentials as a Wells Fargo detective and steps in to support the sheriff. 

The train is robbed by the four drunken cowboys from the ranch.  On his way to arrest them, the sheriff crosses paths with Clark and Clark shoots the sheriff rather brutally.  Ryan is also on their trail and finds the murdered sheriff.  Clark sees the robbery of the train and plans to take the $30,000 in proceeds from the drunken cowboy-robbers.  Meanwhile Ryan is following and gets a Mexican to show him a short cut by an old Indian trail over the mountains to their likely destination.  The townspeople there have captured the four cowboys, but Clark takes the loot, killing one of the captors.  He shoots Ryan’s horse as Ryan pursues, and Ryan has to get another.

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Ryan negotiates with an irate farm girl.

At a ranch house, Clark charms a farm girl into giving him a replacement horse.  Ryan still pursues, and catches up with Clark at Gunsight Ridge.  They shoot it out in the rocks, and Ryan wins.  He returns to Bancroft to Molly and to become sheriff as her father’s successor.

McCrea is good as always, and rides better than anybody else in the cast.  Stevens is excellent as Velvet Clark, and his character and performance are what make this movie better than average.  However, Stevens was a career second-tier actor in movies, and, except for McCrea, this is a low-wattage cast.  L.Q. Jones in an early role is one of the train-robbing cowboys.  In black and white, filmed in part at Old Tucson.

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American Outlaws

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 8, 2014

American Outlaws—Colin Farell, Gabriel Macht, Scott Caan, Timothy Dalton, Harris Yulin, Ali Larter, Kathy Bates (2001; Dir:  Les Mayfield)

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This is a good-looking, fanciful and not very factual retelling of the Jesse James legend.  There are a lot of young, good-looking actors in this one, most of whom were not well known when it was made.  Seemingly inspired by Young Guns, this makes the Jameses and Youngers seem like teenagers, and ends with the outlaws winning:  with his feisty young wife, the newly married Jesse goes off to Tennessee, where the railroad and the Pinkertons will be less interested in pursuing him.  There is nothing about such negative aspects of Jesse’s later life as the resumption of his outlaw career, the disastrous raid on Northfield, Minnesota, or Jesse’s eventual murder by a quasi-gang member. 

The focus is on the social battle between a heartless, fraudulent railroad and the good-hearted Missouri peasantry that supports the gang because the railroad oppresses them.  It emphasizes conflicts and dissension within the gang, especially between Jesse and Cole Younger.  Jesse (Colin Farrell) is presented as slicker with a gun than he probably was.  Although handy enough with weapons, Jesse was not primarily a gunfighter.  His brother Frank had the reputation of being the best with a gun in the James-Younger gang.  Jesse was a charismatic leader and planner, and quite cold-blooded when it came to the execution of his crimes.  As depicted in this movie, the gang apparently had an infinitely expandable roster of members when necessary; in the final scene there appear to be upwards of 50. 

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Frank (Gabriel Macht) and Jesse (Colin Farrell) liked their mom (Kathy Bates).

Farrell captures a version of Jesse’s charisma and attractive qualities, without the coldness and brutality.  Gabriel Macht is fine as older brother Frank James, although not much is made of his role.  Scott Caan seems stocky and pugnacious as Cole Younger; some of that is the fault of the script, and some is bad casting.  A very blond Ali Larter is Zee Mimms, Jesse’s first cousin (named after his mother), romantic interest and finally wife, and she seems very 21st century feminist, although not terribly bright.  Kathy Bates has a small role as Ma James (Zerelda Samuel), killed in a Pinkerton raid on her home (a young son was actually the one killed, and Mrs. Samuel was injured and lost an arm as a result of the real raid). 

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Cole Younger, Jesse and Frank pursue the outlaw path.

Timothy Dalton is a malevolent Allan Pinkerton pursuing the gang with a Scottish accent, and his twist at the end is not terribly persuasive (inadequate preparation in the script and cutting of the film prior to that).  Harris Yulin is the corrupt (and fictional) Thaddeus Rains, head of the fictional Rock Northern Railroad which Jesse despises and robs, and source of the purpose and funds for chasing Jesse and the gang.  Canadian (born in Edmonton and presumably Native American) Nathaniel Arcand plays Comanche Tom, a member of the gang unknown in actual history.  Not to be confused with American Bandits, also about Frank and Jesse but without much star power or budget.

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Director Lee Mayfield has worked principally in television.  Not a terrific film, and it didn’t do well at the box office, although it’s a guilty pleasure for some and others find overtly (if unintentionally) comedic elements in it.  Compare it with Texas Rangers, another youth-oriented (and not terribly successful) western released the same year.  The proliferation of different posters suggests that those backing the movie hoped heavy marketing would distract potential audiences from the fact that their product wasn’t very good.

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Union Pacific

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 15, 2013

Union Pacific—Joel McCrea, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Barbara Stanwyck (1939; Dir:  Cecil B. Demille)

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In the movies’ greatest year, we had this rare western by one of the cinema’s greatest showmen.  It obviously had a big budget, being made in the DeMille style, and was promoted very expensively.  As well as being a great year for movies generally, 1939 was also a good year for westerns, with this, Dodge City, Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Frontier Marshal and the misbegotten curiosity The Oklahoma Kid.

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Joel McCrea, a bigger star than John Wayne at the time, is Jeff Butler, a troubleshooter for the Union Pacific Railroad at the End of Track, wearing two guns with pistol butts facing forward.  His childhood and Civil War friend is Dick Allen (Robert Preston, charming in his first big part), now in the process of drifting over to the dark side for a big score.  They are both romantically interested in Molly Monahan, played with a painfully thick Irish brogue by Barbara Stanwyck.  Brian Donlevy, as one would expect, is the principal villain as Sid Campeau, the slimy saloon owner who corrupts Allen.  (See a young Anthony Quinn briefly as a sleazy gambler and Campeau confederate Jack Cordray, who tries to shoot Butler in the back.  The screen’s original Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, is said to be an uncredited player in this, too.)

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Its overarching story is the driving of the Union Pacific railroad line westward after the Civil War to meet the Central Pacific, overcoming all obstacles:  outlaws, Indians, snow, unmet payrolls and unfriendly mountain terrain.  The golden spike used in the meeting-of-the-lines scene is the real spike from 1869, borrowed from Stanford University.  McCrea and Preston are very good in this, Stanwyck a little less so, although that may not be her fault with her part written so faux-Irish.  Butler ultimately values his friendship with Allen and is able to escape hanging his friend, even when it becomes obvious that Allen has been involved in train robberies.  As one would expect, Allen redeems himself as he dies at the end.  At this stage of his career, Preston seemed to specialize in this kind of a role–the friend who goes bad (see North West Mounted Police, Whispering Smith and Blood on the Moon, for example).

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There’s a fair amount of spectacle here, with two train crashes (one caused by Indians, one caused by snow) and a major Indian attack, in addition to the nefarious outlaws.  It’s in black and white, but so were most movies in 1939, especially westerns.  (The exception:  see Dodge City, below.)  Compare this with the later (1941) technological western and winning-of-the-west epic Western Union, featuring Randolph Scott as the conflicted lead who has to sort out his loyalties while (a) being tempted by the dark side and (b) playing off straight arrow Robert Young.  Both movies are quite watchable.

DeMille didn’t make many westerns, but some would say that he invented the feature-length western with The Squaw Man in 1914.  By 1939, he’d been making movies for more than 25 years already.

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Dodge City

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 7, 2013

Dodge City—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Alan Hale, Bruce Cabot, Ann Sheridan, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Victor Jory (1939; Dir: Michael Curtiz)

Movie stars didn’t get much bigger than the team of Flynn and De Havilland in 1939.  Although this was the fifth of nine Warner Brothers movies they made together, it was also their first and perhaps best western.  It obviously had a big budget, being filmed in Technicolor at a time when most movies, and certainly most westerns, weren’t.  (For purposes of comparison, the other big color movies that year were Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz—pretty heady company.)  The director, the Hungarian Michael Curtiz, had been responsible for Flynn and De Havilland’s most successful movies, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (also in color the previous year) and, of course, Flynn’s earlier breakthrough, Captain Blood.

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Flynn is Wade Hatton, and the movie explains his accent by saying that he’s an Irishman with wanderlust and a background in the English military in India.  He fought in the Civil War for the South, and as the movie starts he and pals Rusty Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn Williams) are finishing a stint as buffalo hunters for the railroad that has just been completed to Dodge City.  After a run-in with Jeff Surrett (a young Bruce Cabot), they return to Texas while Dodge City itself falls into chaos and lawlessness, under the corrupt domination of saloon owner Surrett.  (His saloon is called The Gay Lady, and features Ann Sheridan in a modest role as his presumably eponymous headliner.)  Interestingly enough, the bad guys are Yankees, and the good guys are southerners, a reversal of the usual situation in westernsalthough there have always been some exceptions.

dodgecityFacingDown Facing down bad guys.

A bit later, Hatton is the honcho for a trail herd coming up from Texas to Dodge City along the Chisholm Trail.  Coming along are Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) and her neer-do-well brother, whose parents have died.  The brother is a drunk who is killed when his constant careless shooting causes a stampede, and Abbie blames Hatton for his death.  Obviously, that relationship will be repaired by the end of the movie.  After (a) Surrett is clearly responsible for the death of a competing buyer for Hatton’s cattle, and (b) out-of-control gunfire results in the death of a boy on a Sunday School outing, Hatton agrees to clean up the town and make it safe for decent people, women and the Pure Prairie League.  Abbie goes to work for Joe Clemens (the name an obvious homage to Mark Twain); Clemens is the crusading anti-Surrett newspaper editor of the Dodge City Star (Frank McHugh), the sort of part you can easily see Thomas Mitchell playing if he hadn’t been busy getting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for being Doc Boone in Stagecoach that year.  McHugh is fine, though, until he is whipped and then killed by vile Surrett henchman Yancey (the reptilian Victor Jory).  Ward Bond shows up in an early (and brief) role as Yancey’s unconvincing alibi.  (See him also in a fleeting role in the same year’s Frontier Marshal.) 

When Hatton and Abbie get the goods on Yancey and Surrett for Clemens’ death, the climax of the movie is a shootout on a burning train.  Ultimately, of course, Hatton, Rusty and Tex kill Surrett and his minions in the shootout, saving everybody a lengthy and uncertain trial.  The end of this movie sets up the next western for Flynn and De Havilland, with Col. Grenville Dodge asking Hatton to spend his honeymoon cleaning up the mining town Virginia City which is, if anything, in worse shape than Dodge City had been.

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De Havilland with Flynn as sheriff (smaller hat, baby blue tie).

Hatton’s initial wide-brimmed hat in this movie is unusual.  Note how he changes hats to one with a smaller brim (along with changing all his other attire) when he becomes sheriff.  The baby-blue string tie is a stretch; it probably should have been black.  Flynn, especially the younger Flynn, is always watchable, but some don’t find him very convincing in westerns.  De Havilland makes a lively western female lead and has her usual good chemistry with Flynn on screen.  The accounts say that she had a miserable time making the movie, and would have preferred the Ann Sheridan dance hall floozy role, even though Sheridan didn’t actually have much to do.  Of course, this film hasn’t much to do with the real history of cleaning up Dodge City. 

Written by the young Robert Buckner, who also wrote Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail (both Flynn western vehicles), as well as Jezebel, The Oklahoma Kid, Knute Rockne, All-American, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Desert SongVirginia City, the follow-on, when it gets made, is not an actual sequel and has Miriam Hopkins instead of Olivia de Havilland as Flynn’s romantic interest.

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 27, 2013

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross (1969; Dir:  George Roy Hill)

While True Grit in the same year was a backward-looking western playing off the traditions of the genre, Butch Cassidy looks ahead.  The language and humor are modern, and were more revolutionary when this movie was released than they seem now.  There are more overtly and self-consciously cinematic techniques used.  For example, the movie occasionally slides into sepia tones to reproduce the effects of old photographs; it even opens with such a sequence as it introduces Butch and Sundance to us.  And the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” interlude where Butch rides a bicycle and frolics with Etta Place and a belligerent bull is reminiscent of the singing scene from Rio Bravo, although Burt Bacharach’s music here is better, if more irrelevant to what’s going on in the rest of the movie.  The soundtrack was immensely popular in its time, and the “Raindrops” song won an Oscar for Best Song.

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Paul Newman, of course, plays Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford is the Sundance Kid.  They were so good in these roles that they touched off a vogue in “buddy” movies, where the primary relationship was a friendship between two males.  The peak of this trend was 1973’s The Sting with the same stars and director, which won the Best Picture Academy Award.  Butch Cassidy is so enjoyable that it has a lot of re-watchability.  For someone who is not familiar with westerns, this movie might be a good place to start.

The plot deals with the late stages of the career of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.   Historically, it was sometimes called the Wild Bunch, not to be confused with the fictional outlaws in the Peckinpah movie with that title or with the Doolin-Dalton gang based in Oklahoma, sometimes referred to by that name.  The gang is led by mastermind Butch Cassidy, who is slowly coming to the conclusion that there isn’t much future in the train-robbing business at the end of the 19th century, as the railroads devote more resources to his capture and become better at pursuing him. 

The movie opens with two brilliant sequences.  First, with the opening credits, is a pseudo-version of The Great Train Robbery, followed by a sepia-toned card game that establishes the tone for the movie with its dialogue, as well as setting the characters for Butch and Sundance.  As the movie goes to full color, it features two actual train robberies and their aftermath.  Butch and Sundance escape their relentless pursuers, but only with great difficulty.  They take temporary refuge with Etta Place, a rural school teacher and the girlfriend of Sundance, with whom Butch enjoys the musical bicycle interlude.  Etta is played by the luminous Katharine Ross, then best known for her breakthrough role a couple of years earlier in The Graduate.  (These two movies represent the peak of her cinematic career.)  And Etta doesn’t come between Butch and Sundance.

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Foolin’ around, during a musical interlude that shows off the David-Bacharach music but doesn’t do much to advance the plot.

Using their ill-gotten train-robbery gains, the trio stops in New York to see the sights on the way to South America.  They travel to Bolivia and try to go straight, but that doesn’t work for them and they take up bank robbery again as Los Bandidos Yanquis.  Eventually tracked down by the Bolivian army in the small town of San Vicente, they shoot it out, ending the movie with the famous final freeze-frame shot of the wounded Butch and Sundance emerging with guns blazing from the room where they’ve taken cover.  For many, it’s a more effective end for characters we’ve come to care about than the final slow-motion violence of The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde.

Butch was an immensely attractive character, both in real life and as portrayed by Newman in this movie.  It is now hard to imagine anybody but Redford as Sundance, although the role reportedly almost went to Steve McQueen.  Newman and Redford are very persuasive, both in their individual roles and as friends.  The cast is excellent, top to bottom.  Ross is very good, although there are times when her character seems extraneous.  The various members of the gang are very good, too, although Ted Cassidy is physically much larger than the actual Harvey Logan, the meanest and perhaps most dangerous man in the gang.  (See the famous photograph of the bunch taken in Fort Worth, where Harvey Logan appears much more innocuous.)  Strother Martin makes a memorable appearance as a “colorful” Bolivian mine manager.  Jeff Corey, who was the killer Tom Chaney in True Grit, is a sympathetic sheriff here.  This was also the film debut of Ross’s future husband, Sam Elliott, but he’s hard to spot.

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The famous photograph of the Wild Bunch taken in Fort Worth in 1901, with Sundance in the left front and Butch in the right front.  Harvey Logan is standing on the right.

There is violence in this movie, and not just from blowing up safes and railroad cars.  Aside from all the shooting in the final scene, there is also a scene where Butch and Sundance take back from Bolivian bandits the mine payroll they were hired to protect.  In Bonnie and Clyde fashion, the shootout and the resulting deaths are in slow motion–except here the slow motion is stopped with the hail of bullets, so the last image of the two is of them in action.

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Butch and Sundance take on the Bolivian army.

The script by William Goldman (The Princess Bride) is an acknowledged gem, and it won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.  Lines from it are bandied between aficionados of the genre:  “Rules, in a knife fight?”  “Can I move?  I’m better when I move.”  “Woodcock, is that you?”  “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”  “You just keep thinkin’, Butch.  That’s what you’re good at.”  “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him.”  “Who are those guys?”  “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”  The squabbling of Butch and Sundance sometimes sounds like an old married couple, but it’s effective.  The film was included at no. 73 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest American films of all time (http://www.afi.com/100years/movies10.aspx).

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As with True Grit, much of the movie was shot in Colorado; the Bolivian scenes were shot in Mexico.  The cinematographer was the excellent Conrad Hall, who won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work here.  The movie was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Midnight Cowboy.

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The Grey Fox

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 12, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

GreyFoxBurroughsGreyFoxFarnsworth

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

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

GreyFoxBorsosFarnsworth Director Borsos with Farnsworth.

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

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

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

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

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