Tag Archives: Van Heflin

Santa Fe Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 15, 2015

Santa Fe Trail—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Van Heflin, Guinn Williams, Alan Hale, Moroni Olsen, Ward Bond (1940; Dir: Michael Curtiz)

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Around 1940, the dashing Errol Flynn was the star of several good westerns:  Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940) and They Died With Their Boots On (1941) are the best known.  Two of these were directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz, the director most closely associated with with Flynn. Olivia de Havilland and Flynn formed one of the greatest romantic on-screen partnerships from the golden age of Hollywood, and this was the seventh of their nine movies together.  And Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (a frequent drinking partner of Flynn’s) had appeared in several movies with Flynn (Robin Hood, Dodge City, Virginia City), mostly as quasi-comic relief.  Clearly Warner Bros. was hoping a formula that had worked before would produce box office gold again.

This one has nothing to do with Santa Fe and little to do with the famous Santa Fe Trail.  It should have been titled “Chasing John Brown.”  In 1854, the arguments over slavery that had led to the new potential state being called “Bleeding Kansas” were also manifest among the cadets at West Point.  Rader (Van Heflin) is taken with the sentiments of the fiery abolitionist John Brown; he is opposed, both personally and politically, to J.E.B. Stuart (Errol Flynn) of Virginia.  Stuart is supported by several other cadets, including George Custer (Ronald Reagan), Phil Sheridan, George Pickett, John Bell Hood and James Longstreet (all names that will become famous as generals in the upcoming Civil War).  When Rader and Stuart are involved in a fight, West Point Superintendent Col. Robert E. Lee (character actor Moroni Olsen) banishes Rader for his divisive political activities.  Stuart and his friends are punished by being sent to the most dangerous duty in the army at that time:  the Second Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.  They don’t mind at all.

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Young lieutenants Stuart (Errol Flynn) and Custer (Ronald Reagan) make the acquaintance of Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland).

Leavenworth is the western terminus of the railroad, although stage magnate Cyrus Holliday hopes to build toward Santa Fe when it is safe enough.  It isn’t yet, partly because of Indians but mostly because of John Brown and his strikes against supporters of slavery, such as the notorious raid on Ossawatomie.  Part of the Second Cavalry’s mission is to disband any armed groups, like Brown or his opponents.  Stuart and Custer are both interested in Holliday’s daughter Kit Carson Holliday (Olivia de Havilland), and are detailed to join a detail protecting a Holliday freighting column bound for Santa Fe.  A couple of days out, they encounter a Mr. Smith, who wants to take delivery of eight crates of Bibles.  One of the crates is dropped and breaks open, revealing rifles instead of Bibles.  Mr. Smith is in fact John Brown, and one of his men is the disgraced Rader.  As Brown and his men make their getaway (with some of the rifles), Brown’s young son Jason (Gene Reynolds), driving a wagon, is shot by Rader in the melee.

Back in Leavenworth, Jason reveals the location of Brown’s base in Palmyra before dying.  As Stuart investigates out of uniform, he is captured in Palmyra by Brown’s men.  He is about to be hung by them, when he grabs a gun and ducks into the barn where Brown-liberated black former slaves (Negroes, as they were called in 1940) are housed.  Stuart is being blasted from all sides and a lantern is shot, spilling flames all over the barn.  (We can see that Brown apparently doesn’t care what happens to the innocent blacks in his anger at Stuart.)  Stuart is rescued by the appearance of the rest of his detail, led by Custer, and Brown decides his work in Kansas is done, riding off to the east with his men.

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Stuart (Errol Flynn) fights John Brown in a fiery barn; and a still of Custer (Reagan) and Stuart (Flynn) in uniform.

Back in Leavenworth, both Stuart and Custer press their suits with Kit, and Stuart is the winner.  An old Indian woman at the fort makes dark prophecies about the future of the six friends and divisions and battles among them.  Stuart and Custer are both promoted to captain and head off to an assignment in Maryland, where their new commanding officer is Col. Lee again.

In Maryland Rader comes to the army, disillusioned with Brown because he hasn’t been paid for his military expertise as Brown promised.  Rader warns of Brown’s plans to take over the weapons from the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.  Because of the warning, Lee and his men are able to arrive in time to capture Brown in the act.  During a battle in which the army uses artillery to knock holes in the arsenal building, Brown kills Rader as a traitor.  (We knew he was going to die, with his conflicted loyalties).  John Brown is captured and hung, Stuart and Kit are married, and even Custer has a new girl friend.  The army friends ride off to an uncertain future in the Civil War, fighting on opposite sides.

Flynn and De Havilland make their usual charming couple.  De Havilland’s lively attractiveness reminds us that this kind of role usually passes unnoticed, but she does it unusually well.  Ronald Reagan, a perennial best friend to the lead in movies, is adequate if a bit light-weight as a fictional Custer.  The excellent character actor Moroni Olsen brings an appropriate gravitas to his role as Robert E. Lee.  Van Heflin isn’t bad in an early role as a villain who reforms, in the sort of role often played by Arthur Kennedy.  Heflin would graduate to more sympathetic parts eventually.  Ward Bond has a scarcely noticeable role as one of Brown’s men.

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John Brown (Raymond Massey) gives his final speech about the coming apocalypse. He’s not wrong.

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The famous John Steuart Curry mural “Tragic Prelude” in the Kansas Statehouse, 1938-1940.

The most memorable role in the film is Raymond Massey as John Brown, with his appearance and manner reminding us of the famous painting by John Steuart Curry from about the same time.  It was a natural role for Massey, and he would star as John Brown again in Seven Angry Men (1955), the main story of which is also the trial and hanging of the abolitionist.  Kansas slavery politics sound muddled here, although it is clear that John Brown is a bad guy, even if his heart is in the right place about the abolition of slavery.  He’s just too willing to use the sword on anybody who believes differently or crosses him.  Stuart is not all that convincing in his view that all the South needs is time and it will get rid of slavery on its own.  As in William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming,
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

1941’s They Died With Their Boots On was wildly inaccurate historically but enjoyable to watch, with Flynn playing Custer and De Havilland as his wife Libby in their last movie appearance together.  This is even more inaccurate, and slightly less watchable.  Of the six army friends in this film, only Stuart was actually in the West Point class of 1854, although it did include Robert E. Lee’s son George Washington Custis Lee (an eventual Confederate general) and Oliver O. Howard (ultimately a Union general).  Of the six supposed West Point friends depicted in the film, only Stuart did not survive the Civil War, although Custer famously met his own ignominious end at the Little Bighorn in 1876.

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Filmed in black and white, at 110 minutes, although there is a cut of only 93 minutes.  Music is by Max Steiner.

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Gunman’s Walk

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 25, 2014

Gunman’s Walk—Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, James Darren, Ray Teal, Kathryn Grant (1958; Dir: Phil Karlson)

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This is a son-goes-bad movie, a big-budget western, with Van Heflin (Shane, 3:10 to Yuma) as Lee Hackett, a prosperous and much-respected rancher with the largest spread in the state.  Sons Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren) are starting to differentiate themselves, but there are signs that one of them is going bad.

Ed, the blond older son and his father’s favorite, rides a half-breed wrangler (an uncredited Bert Convy) off a cliff while chasing a white mare on a horse drive.  Things look bad for Ed, who chafes under his father’s shadow.  But Ed is surprisingly exonerated at a hearing based on perjured testimony by itinerant horse trader Jensen Sieverts (Ray Teal).  Sieverts hopes to get some form of payoff from Lee Hackett in exchange for testifying.  Ed increasingly listens to neither his brother nor his father, nor even the local sheriff.  Younger brother Davy, who is dark and is said to look like his deceased mother, tries to strike up a relationship with Clee Chouard (Kathryn Grant), the half-Sioux sister of the dead wrangler.  Lee Hackett, who spent his younger years fighting the Sioux, finds the relationship highly unsuitable and expresses those feelings in intemperate words.

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Good brother Davy (James Darren) with Clee Chouard (Kathryn Grant).

Meanwhile, brother Ed becomes less and less controllable and more apt to rely on his skill with a gun. He rejects the attempts of both his father and his brother to reason with him.  Finally, Ed shoots the horse trader Sieverts and is thrown in jail.  The trader lives, and Lee buys him off yet again.  Ed escapes from the jail, killing an unarmed deputy, and his father tries to find him before a posse does.  There is the inevitable confrontation and shoot-out.  In the wake of Ed’s death, Lee is reconciled with his only remaining son and with the mixed-race young lady.

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Brother Ed (Tab Hunter) blasts the lying horse trader.

James Darren has the thankless role of the the underappreciated good brother, who is romantically interested in the half-breed’s sister.  Heflin is good as the father.  Ray Teal is very good as the sleazy horse trader who perjures himself to get Ed off the hook and to get himself a payoff from Lee.  However, this is a clunky story, fairly predictable.  Even worse, there is clunky acting by Hunter and Darren, who don’t look at all like they might be brothers.  Saddle the Wind, from about the same time, does this story better.  Written by Frank Nugent.  Song “I’m a Runaway” is sung by Tab Hunter.  In color, at 97 minutes.

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They Came to Cordura

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 17, 2014

They Came To Cordura—Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, Michael Callan, Dick York, Richard Conte (1959; Dir:  Robert Rossen)

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Gary Cooper is a little old (again) in his last western and one of his last roles of any kind, as Major Thomas Thorn, the Awards Officer of the 1916 Pershing expedition into northern Mexico against Pancho Villa after Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico.  Thorn had been at Columbus, and his conduct there he (and others) viewed as cowardly.  So a coward is in charge of selecting and writing up the heroes of the expeditionary force into Mexico. 

After Thorn’s first hero is killed in subsequent action, he obtains permission from Pershing to take any others he may select with him back to forward headquarters base at Cordura.  As Thorn observes a successful cavalry charge on a rancho at Ojos Azules (“blue eyes”) owned by Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth), the alcoholic daughter of a disgraced (and now deceased) former U.S. senator, he selects four or five soldiers for their conspicuous heroism during the charge (historically, the last cavalry charge made by the U.S. army).  But the movie is about role reversal and the transitory nature of both cowardice and heroism. 

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The group of awardees is comprised of Lt. Fowler (Tab Hunter), Sgt. Chawk (Van Heflin), Pvt. Hetherington (Michael Callan), Cpl. Trubee (Richard Conte), and Pvt. Renziehausen (Dick York).  As the six soldiers, now including Miss Geary in their group, move toward Cordura, they are attacked by the remnants of the Villa forces from Ojos Azules and lose their horses.  Under the stress of trying to make it across the Chihuahua desert, the potential awardees all show themselves to be despicable, mutinous and/or weak in various ways, while it is Thorn’s iron will supported only by Adelaide (who knows that she will be imprisoned for aiding the enemy once she is in army custody) that keeps them going.  Thorn asks them individually what led to their heroism in battle, and they don’t know.  They simply did it.  But whatever courage they briefly showed in battle, they don’t seem to have courage with stamina for the longer haul—for the desperate trip to Cordura, once they lose their horses.  The coward Thorn does have that kind of courage. 

In the end he is successful at getting them through despite themselves and presumably submits the miscreants for their original awards as he wrote them up.  But the exact ending is a bit unclear.  The movie, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout (who also wrote the novel “The Shootist”), is not as good as the novel, which was a best-seller in its time.  Neither the film nor the novel is much seen these days.  Rita Hayworth isn’t bad, but Gary Cooper is miscast; he’s a little long in the tooth at 58 to be playing an army officer in the field.  Tab Hunter is wooden.  Van Heflin, known for being stalwart in Shane and 3:10 to Yuma, is excellent here as the angry and mutinous Sgt. Chawk.   The benediction on all this is pronounced by Adelaide Geary:  “One act of cowardice doesn’t make a man a coward forever, just as one act of bravery doesn’t make a man a hero forever.”  

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Reportedly the film was taken out of director Rossen’s hands by the studio, which cut and re-cut it.  Rossen’s original, about half an hour longer, was said to be a significantly better film.  Even so, the shorter version is more than two hours long.  It’s hard to escape the feeling that it should have been better.  One viewer’s comment:  “There are definite moments of insight and interest in the film, but it tends to wear down the viewer with its nearly relentless cynicism and unpleasantness.”  Even so, it isn’t as downbeat as it could have been.  The studio insisted, for example, that Cooper’s character couldn’t die in the end.  Hayworth is good in this, receiving some of the best reviews in her career for her acting here.  The film was a flop at the box office, though.  This is in need of restoration to a director’s cut.  In color, filmed on location in Mexico, Las Vegas and St. George, Utah.

For other films about the same period, see Bandido, The Professionals, The Old Gringo and various movies about Pancho Villa.  Maybe The Wild Bunch.  The Mexican revolutions in the 1910s seemed to breed cynicism.  Toward the end of her career, Rita Hayworth was in two westerns, both of them set in 20th century Mexico or central America:  this, and The Wrath of God (1972), her last film.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 4

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 6, 2013

Glenn Ford as Ben Wade and Van Heflin as Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma

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The two are inseparable, because it’s the tension between them and the opposite ideas they represent that make this movie work.  In large part, that’s because neither of them is quite what he seems.  Ford’s Wade claims to be an unrepentant outlaw, but he’s drawn to the decency he sees in Heflin’s Evans.  Evans is decent, but by the end of the movie he has shown the development of a quiet heroism that no one else in the movie will step up to.  And that makes a difference even to Wade.  For other really good performances by these two, look for Ford in Cowboy, Jubal (both with excellent director Delmer Daves) and The Sheepman and Heflin in Shane.

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Christian Bale as Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma

It’s somewhat the same story, but there are differences, especially in how things end.   Russell Crowe is excellent as the captured outlaw leader Ben Wade, but the Dan Evans role as a desperate honest rancher is harder.  How do you make quasi-ineffective decency attractive, both to the movie audience and convincingly to the other characters?  Evans gradually becomes less ineffective and more heroic, to us, to Wade and to his own son.  He doesn’t ask for their admiration, but by the end of the movie he has it.                        

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Alan Ladd as Shane in Shane

Movie roles don’t come any more iconic than Shane, the mysterious gunfighter in the film with his name as its title.  The entire movie revolves around him, as its title implies.  As an actor, Ladd has some drawbacks to overcome:  his small size works against him in a couple of fight scenes; his urban-seeming reserve nevertheless works to lend him some mystery as a western gunman; and he was not a natural either with guns or horses.  Maybe some of his success in this role is due to brilliant direction by George Stevens, who was into an amazing string of movies at the time Shane was made.  But when the film ends, it’s Ladd as Shane that we remember.  He makes almost as big an impression on us as he does on young Brandon de Wilde in the movie.  Ladd made a number of westerns during his career, although none of them are as strong as Shane.  The next best is probably Branded; after that try The Badlanders, Red Mountain and Saskatchewan. 

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Bruce Dern as Asa Watts (Long Hair) in The Cowboys

The role of demented ex-con Asa Watts gave Bruce Dern the chance to both kill John Wayne and to chew the scenery in one of the best bad-guy performances ever in a western.  He’s exactly what’s needed in this role—never quite convincing in his belated attempts at sincerity, and clearly psychotic as he takes on Wayne and his boys.  In Dern’s long career as a supporting actor, this is one of the roles that defines him.  For a similar role, see him as a villain fighting Charlton Heston in Will PennyFor a comedic variant on this role, see him as ne’er-do-well miscreant Joe Danby in Support Your Local Sheriff.  He plays an outlaw who may be more sympathetic than any of the lawmen in the revisionist PosseIn a more sympathetic role late in his career, catch him as an aging lawman on a manhunt south of the border in the made-for-television Hard Ground.

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Gary Cooper as Will Kane in High Noon

Cooper was too old for the part, and presumably for the young Grace Kelly as his romantic interest, when he played Will Kane.  But his particular style of underplaying worked magnificently in this role, and it revitalized his career.  Besieged on every side by a resentful deputy, by old relationships, by evasive townspeople, and most of all by the advancing hour with its approaching confrontation with evildoers, Kane takes the strain and steps up to do what a man’s got to do.  This, Alan Ladd’s Shane and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards are the iconic roles of the western in the 1950s.  A westerner from Montana himself, Cooper always had both a good feel for playing western roles and a Gregory Peck-like way of projecting a basic decency.  See him also in Man of the West, a later role for which he was also too old, The Hanging Tree, Vera Cruz and Garden of Evil.  For a younger Gary Cooper, see him as Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman and as a friend of Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner.  He’s even good as a quasi-comic singing cowboy in Along Came Jones, although he clearly can’t sing.

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Yul Brynner as Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven

One of the most memorable roles in Brynner’s long and varied career is as the enigmatic Chris Adams, the leader of the Seven.  His accent is hard to place, and Brad Dexter refers to him, not entirely convincingly, as “You old Cajun.”  In the end, we go with him, though, through the tryouts, the planning, the initial confrontations with the bandits, and the outright battles.  We don’t really know him any better as he and Steve McQueen ride out of the village they have saved, though.  But there’s a reason he reprised this role at least twice—once in the first of the sequels and again as a robotic version of his character in Westworld.  And it’s a version of this role he plays in the spaghetti western Adios, Sabata and in Invitation to a Gunfighter.  The role had become iconic, although Brynner didn’t make many westerns.

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Steve McQueen as Vin in The Magnificent Seven

This was McQueen’s breakthough role in movies, although he had become a television star of sorts as the moral bounty hunter Josh Randall in Wanted:  Dead or Alive.  Seemingly a natural for westerns, he nevertheless didn’t make very many of them; his career flowered as the genre was going through one of its numerous fades.  Vin is a rootless cowboy who steps up to help Chris Adams drive a hearse with an unwanted Indian corpse to Boot Hill, in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes.  It’s even more interesting if one considers that McQueen didn’t get along well with Brynner and was looking for ways to make Vin more noticeable with bits of business (shaking shotgun shells, taking off his hat to scan the horizon, etc.).  It works for him; he pretty much steals the scene, and it’s interesting to watch from that perspective.  Notwithstanding the lack of personal chemistry between the actors, the relationship between the characters works, too.  The only other westerns in his body of work were Nevada Smith (1966) and Tom Horn (1980, when the actor was already dying).  McQueen and director Sturges would have another significant success with the non-western The Great Escape,1963.

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Kevin Kline as Paden in Silverado

Silverado is really an ensemble movie, but the character most at the heart of it is Kevin Kline’s Paden.  He never actually loses his temper or composure, even in the most threatening or dire circumstances.  He has a native elegance and competence, but we never learn as much about his backstory as we do about the other major chatacters.  We discover that Paden rode with Cobb’s outlaws for a time and has a quixotically humane streak along with a fondness for saloons, but that’s all we know.  The result is that he’s a bit enigmatic.  For all we know, after the action shown in the movie, Paden lives out his days as a saloon proprietor with Linda Hunt in the town of Silverado, although he’s been instrumental in wiping out the largest rancher in the area.  The character works, although in a way it cries out for a real romantic relationship, aside from his friendship with Hunt’s character.  There’s an allusion to an attraction to Rosanna Arquette’s settler character, but it’s not very developed or persuasive, with the feeling that much of it was left on the cutting room floor.  Kline’s film career largely took place during a period when not many westerns were made, and this may be his only such movie.  For other roles showcasing his sly humor, see Soapdish, Princess Cariboo (in a minor role with wife Phoebe Cates as the lead) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention The Big Chill, another ensemble movie by Lawrence Kasdan from the early 1980s.

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3:10 to Yuma (the Original)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 15, 2013

3:10 to Yuma—Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, Leora Dana, Felicia Farr, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Emhardt (1957; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

Dan Evans:  What’s the matter?
Mrs. Alice Evans:  Nothing. It seems terrible that something bad can happen and all anybody can do is stand by and watch.
Dan Evans:  Lots of things happen where all you can do is stand by and watch.

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There’s an undercurrent of fatalistic courage in the Dan Evans character played by Van Heflin.  Dan struggles with his obligations the whole movie, but when it counts he doesn’t just stand by and watch.  The inevitable comparison is with the 2007 remake.  Well, this unpretentious 1957 original from a story by Elmore Leonard has much less action than the remake; it’s more a psychological study, with Glenn Ford’s excellent performance as ruthless but charming outlaw boss Ben Wade at its heart.  The plot holds together a little better, and the ending is simpler and makes a bit more sense, although there have always been those who don’t find this original ending believable, either.  For a western, there’s a lot of talk in this movie.

Van Heflin as Dan Evans is good, but he’s doing a version of his solid rancher character from Shane, the sort of role for which he is now mostly remembered.  This one is deeper and more complex, with more camera time for his character.  Evans is an Arizona rancher about to go under financially.  When a reward is offered to get captured outlaw chieftain and gunman Ben Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma, where the infamous territorial prison is located, Evans takes the job as a way to address at least some of his difficulties.  Unexpectedly, a relationship of sorts develops.  Heflin’s stolid and beleagured Evans gives Ford’s Wade a worthy opponent to play against, as Evans’ courage develops while he’s faced with temptation.  Evans’ ambivalence is obvious the entire movie as he is forced to hear Wade’s Mephistophelean blandishments during a lengthy stretch in an upper hotel room (the bridal suite, in fact) in Contention.  As things turn out, Wade also has more ambivalence than he has showed most of the time. 

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Outlaw chieftain Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) chats up barroom girl Emmy (Felicia Farr).

Leora Dana, as Evans’ wife Alice, seems realer than Gretchen Mol does in the remake, but she’s also given a meatier role than Mol.  It’s a little surprising how much of Wade’s interlude with a saloon girl Emmy (Felicia Farr) was in the original; it seems a little frank in its implications for a 1950s western.  Richard Jaeckel as Wade’s second in command Charley Price doesn’t have Ben Foster’s psychotic edge, but the role wasn’t written that way the first time around.  Missing from the remake is Henry Jones’s role as Alex Potter, the town drunk cum outlaw guard, replaced by Alan Tudyk as Doc Potter in a different kind of role.  Also not in this original:  the nastiness of the lender and his repulsive henchmen; the father-son developments between Dan and his oldest son; Dan’s disability and Civil War background; the morally-blinkered Pinkerton man killed by Wade on the trip to Contention; and the Indians and the railroad men who try to the keep the party from making it there.  In fact, the arduous segment from Evans’ ranch to Contention is not in the original.  Wade’s gang in Contention seems a little more human and less invincible, although Dan Evans still seems very overmatched. 

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Wade (Glenn Ford) and his lieutenant Charley Prince (Richard Jaeckel).

In the end, Alice shows up in Contention to try (unsuccessfully) to talk Dan out of walking Wade to the train; and as Dan and Wade get to the train under attack from Wade’s gang, they just roll into an empty boxcar on the moving train.  Dan has earned Wade’s respect, and it’s Wade who suggests getting onto the train to get Dan out of an otherwise untenable situation.  He ends by saying that he’s broken out of Yuma before, and the feeling is that he’ll do it again.  That’s probably okay with Dan, who just sees his job as getting Wade to Yuma and is not concerned with what may happen after that.  He’s developed a little affection for Wade, too, if not any admiration for his moral character.

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Wade (Glenn Ford) and Evans (Van Heflin) look to make a run for the 3:10 train to Yuma.

You can see this as another of those 1950s meditations on the uneasy relationship between the law enforcer and the town he protects, as with High Noon, The Tin Star, and Warlock, although the emphasis here is on the developing relationship between Evans and Wade.  Dan is one of those ordinary citizens who steps up, not a professional gunman or career law enforcement man.  There are obvious noir influences here.  This original version of the story is highly watchable and ought to be seen by any fan of the remake.  This could legitimately be placed on a list of great westerns, and probably would be if it weren’t eclipsed by the showier remake.  At 92 minutes, it’s also considerably shorter than the remake.  This is more about psychology (in a good way); the remake is more about action.  Glenn Ford dazzles in the juicier Ben Wade role.

In general Delmer Daves seems a workmanlike director who made some good westerns in the 1950s.  His work is usually worth seeking out.  But he has his champions as something more.  Bertrand Tavernier pointed out in Film Comment, “What first impresses the viewer is Daves’ attention to landscape, to nature, expressed in shots that intimately and sometimes inextricably mingle lyricism and realism.

“He actually insisted on personally supervising the kind of material many Hollywood filmmakers would leave to second-unit directors–extreme long shots, transitional moments filmed at dawn or twilight.”

In black and white; cinematographer Charles Lawton (not Laughton), Jr., also worked with Budd Boetticher during this period.  This would get some votes as the most beautifully shot black-and-white western ever made, if you watch it in high definition (either the Criterion Collection DVD or somewhere like TCM).  The Contention-Bisbee railroad connection figured again in Leonard’s story for Hombre.  The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine:  “Though you’ve got no reason to go there, and there ain’t a soul that you know there, when the 3:10 to Yuma whistles its sad refrain, take that train . . . . . .”

Note:  The hat Glenn Ford wears in this movie he wore for most of his westerns in the 1950s and 1960s, long past when it should have been retired.  He joins John Wayne and James Stewart as western stars with recurring hats.

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Shane

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 20, 2013

Shane—Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jack Palance, Jean Arthur, Brandon de Wilde, Elisha Cook, Jr., Edgar Buchanan, Emile Meyer, Ben Johnson (1953; Dir:  George Stevens)

Shane:  “A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool:  an axe, a shovel or anything.  A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.  Remember that.”

Filmed in 1951, Shane sat quietly on the shelf at Paramount for two years before its release in 1953.  There are a couple of versions of the reasons for the delay.  In one version, director George Stevens simply dithered over the editing of the movie for the interim.  But studios have ways of pressuring directors to get on with it if they really want to release a film.  The other version has it that Paramount didn’t really think they had anything interesting in this property.  Alan Ladd was not quite as big a star as he had been ten years earlier (as the killer Raven in This Gun for Hire, for example), and Jean Arthur, coaxed out of semi-retirement for what would be her final film role, was thought to be over the hill.  When Shane was finally released, though, it turned out to be a big hit and received four Oscar nominations.  And it is one of the greatest westerns ever made.

shane1 The Mysterious Stranger.

This movie tells one of the archetypal western stories, one which had been used before and many times since.  Shane (played by Ladd) is the quintessential Mysterious Stranger.  The Stranger rides into a community in conflict, sides with the underdog, uses his talent for violence to balance the odds, and, when he wins the conflict, finds that there is now no place for him in the community.

The film wastes little time getting into the story.  In the opening sequence, Shane rides up to the Starrett homestead in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole in the shadow of the magnificent Grand Tetons.  He’s wearing nicely tailored buckskins and and a showy gunbelt.  It’s clear he can use the gun, although he’s not overbearing about it.  While Shane gets a drink of water, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) is accosted by several other riders led by local cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer).  Ryker and his men ride through Starrett’s garden to warn him off the land, which in Ryker’s view is his free range.  The sodbusters have no business fencing it off.  Shane quietly backs Starrett up and is invited by Starrett to stay.  Starrett’s son Joey (Brandon de Wilde) develops a fascination with Shane.  So does Joey’s mother Marian (Jean Arthur), although more quietly.  When Marian tells Joey not to become too attached to Shane, we know she’s speaking to herself, too.  The relationship develops but is left carefully undefined.

The dispute between cattle baron and homesteaders escalates, and the film develops the homesteaders as individual characters, including Stonewall Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr., in one of his most memorable roles) and Fred Lewis (Edgar Buchanan).  Starrett and Shane fight Ryker and several of his men to a standstill in the local saloon, and Ryker decides he needs a real gunfighter.  So he sends to Cheyenne for Jack Wilson (Jack Palance).

shanepalance

Stonewall Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.) is no match for Jack Wilson (Jack Palance).

Wilson, cold and menacing in black, guns down Torrey in a muddy street in particularly ruthless fashion, and it’s only a matter of time until somebody more competent has to deal with Wilson.  Marian Starrett hates guns and fighting, but it’s clear there will be more of both.  Joe Starrett, as apparent leader of the homesteaders, feels he has to take on the fighting role, too, although it’s obvious Shane could do it better, especially when it comes to guns.  And Starrett realizes that if something happens to him, the attraction between Shane and Marian would mean she wouldn’t be left defenseless.  As Starrett starts for town to have it out with Ryker, Shane, now dressed in his buckskins and gunbelt again, stops him.  They fight, and Shane wins by knocking Starrett out with his gun—cheating, in effect.  As he rides toward town and the final confrontation with Wilson and Ryker, Joey follows on foot.  The showdown plays out as it should.  Shane points out to Ryker that his free range days are over, just as Shane’s skill with a gun is now becoming anachronistic.  Having made the area safe for civilization, Shane rides off into the mountains, with Joey yelling, “Shane!  Come back, Shane!”  But Shane knows he can’t go back, and he takes his mysteriousness with him.  We still don’t know his other name or much of his history—only what we were shown when he was in this valley.

shane and joey The loner takes his leave.

It’s surprising that this turned out to be such an archetypal western.  The director, George Stevens, was top-notch but not known for westerns—more for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (Swing Time) and perhaps later epics like Giant.  And this is a meticulously directed movie.  In the opening shot, for example, a deer being watched by Joey raises its head, and its antlers perfectly frame the approaching rider—Shane.  Scenes are shot from many angles and carefully stitched together in the editing room.   Frequent low camera angles (a) encourage us to see the action as if through Joey’s eyes, (b) emphasize the majesty of the mountains and the sky, and (c) mask the fact that Ladd was quite short, only five feet six inches tall.

It works brilliantly, but if you watch the movie again, some elements start to seem less than perfect.  The seams in the moviemaking begin to show.  Brandon de Wilde’s Joey becomes more irritating, although he does behave more or less like a real child.  The pacing of the movie, with all the development of the not-so-interesting homesteader bonding, seems to drag a little in places.  In the physical fight scenes, it becomes more apparent that they’re shot and edited to disguise the fact that Van Heflin, for example, is much larger than Alan Ladd, and they’re less persuasive on a second or third viewing.  It seems unlikely that Joey could run all the way to town after the riding Shane in time to witness the final shootout.  After that final showdown, when Shane twirls his gun and pops it in his holster, you become aware that the shot is only of his midsection and gun arm, and you wonder if it’s a double doing that expert twirling.  (It is–gunsmith/stuntman Rodd Redwing.)  Still, it’s great movie-making.

Shane - Ladd, Arthur, Heflin

A production still of the three stars: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur and Van Heflin.

The casting shouldn’t work as well as it does.  Although he was in several westerns, Alan Ladd still seems more like an urban character in appearance and speech.  The golden hair, the classic good looks, the low-key, reserved approach to acting, the rich voice—all work well for the mysterious Shane in this movie.  Jean Arthur seems urban, too, although she too was in a couple of other westerns (The Plainsman, Arizona) earlier in her career.  Arthur was in her fifties when this was made, significantly older than her two male co-stars and ten years older than Emile Meyer, who plays the seemingly aging Ryker.  The age differences aren’t obvious, but something strange was going on with Arthur’s hair in this movie; she seems to have been wearing wigs constantly, and not all that persuasively.  Van Heflin plays the kind of role for which he is best known, the solid and reliable but perhaps not so exciting husband.  And he’s excellent here, with a lot more lines than the quiet Shane.  (First choice for the Starrett role was said to be William Holden, who would have been good, too.)  Jack Palance doesn’t have much screen time, but his menace has become iconic.  Elisha Cook, Jr. and Ben Johnson (as Chris Calloway, a Ryker cowhand who has a change of conscience) are very good in minor roles, too.

Ladd was reported to have had trouble with guns and Palance was new to horses.  The scene where Shane is showing Joey how to shoot is said to have required 116 takes, and Palance’s mounting up after taking a drink of water is said to actually be a dismount played in reverse.  None of it matters.  This movie is a classic.

In the wake of Shane’s box office success, it received several Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.  For Best Supporting Actor, both de Wilde and Palance were nominated, although, perhaps surprisingly, Ladd was not nominated in the Best Actor category.  Novice screenwriter A.B. Guthrie, Jr., received a Best Screenplay nomination for his script based on a novel by Jack Schaefer (also the author of Monte Walsh).  The only win, however, was by Loyal Griggs for Best Cinematography, which he richly deserved.  Shot on location in Jackson Hole, the film makes the best use ever of the majestic Tetons on the Wyoming-Idaho border.  (A few years later, director Delmer Daves would also make particularly effective use of Jackson Hole in the underrated Jubal.)  The score by Victor Young is good, too.  The success of Shane boosted Ladd’s career, as High Noon had done for the aging Gary Cooper the previous year.

Van Heflin plays a very similar character in Delmer Daves’ excellent 3:10 to Yuma.  About 35 years later, Clint Eastwood remade this story with himself as a more overtly mysterious stranger in Pale Rider.  It too was an excellent western—it just didn’t quite have the resonance of this original version.  For another good Alan Ladd western, see him in Branded or Saskatchewan.  For a slightly older Brandon de Wilde in another western, see him with James Stewart and Audie Murphy in Night Passage.

ShanePoster One of several posters.

Note:  On the movie’s soundtrack, the sound of shots was punched up by Stevens in the editing of the film, so as to cause the shots to be more shocking when those sounds occur.  This technique was copied in Bonnie and Clyde about 14 years later.  Warren Beatty, a producer as well as a star of Bonnie and Clyde, tells a story of talking with a projectionist in London who unknowingly pronounced Bonnie the film with the worst-mixed sound since Shane.  The projectionist thought it was unintentional and compensated by reducing the sound level for the shots.  [See comments by Beatty in a documentary on George Stevens, shown on TCM.]  For a more recent example of playing with the sound of shots for greater effect, watch Open Range.

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