Tag Archives: Wagon Trains

Arrow in the Dust

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 20, 2015

Arrow In The Dust—Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Tom Tully, Keith Larsen, Tudor Owen, Lee Van Cleef (1954; Dir: Lesley Selander)


Prolific director Lesley Selander seldom had a lot to work with, either in terms of budget or with casting.  This is one of his better casts.  Sterling Hayden was in a number of westerns and other movies in the mid-1950s, most notably Johnny Guitar (also from 1954).  Coleen Gray is now remembered principally as the girl on the wagon train John Wayne leaves behind in Red River (1948), only to see the Comanches slaughter the rest of the train—and for a smattering of films noir (Kiss of Death, Copper Sky).  Both Hayden and Gray appear together again in Stanley Kubrick’s film noir The Killing (1956).  This is both a wagon train and a cavalry story–as the poster proclaims, a “Flaming Saga of the Savage West.”

Here army deserter Bart Laish (Sterling Hayden) is on the run, somewhere east of Fort Laramie in western Nebraska-eastern Wyoming.  In Indian country, he’s trying to link up with a wagon train for safety as he makes his way west.  This is generally Sioux country, but the Pawnees seem to be on the warpath as well.  He hears of a Major Andy Peppers heading to take command of Camp Taylor, and finds the remnants of a small burnt-out wagon train, with Peppers dying in one of the wagons.  Peppers, it turns out, is his cousin, and they had started at West Point together before Laish had dropped out to become a gambler and gunfighter.  The dying major tries to persuade Laish to find a way to rescue the wagon train ahead.

Maj. Andy Peppers:  “It doesn’t matter what you’ve been or what you’ve done.  There must still be some good left in you.  Or have you changed so much, Bart?”


Stars Coleen Gray and Sterling Hayden in a publicity still.  And feisty doctor’s daughter Christella Burke (Coleen Gray) fights the attacking Pawnees with the best of them.

Camp Taylor, too, is burned out, and Laish dons Peppers’ uniform and insignia of rank.  He comes upon the wagon train, and he claims to be Peppers.  The few remaining troopers, led by Lt. Steve King (Keith Larsen), take him at face value; the experienced scout, Crowshaw (Tom Tully), has reservations but goes along.  The train itself includes attractive young Christella Burke (Coleen Gray), in whom King is interested, and freighting businessman Tillotson (Tudor Owen) with several wagons.  Laish-Peppers does well enough as the train is under almost continual attack, but Crowshaw knows he’s not Peppers.  They lose people and wagons fighting Pawnees and allied Apaches (?), but get ever nearer to Fort Laramie.  Finally, they discover Tillotson is hauling new Henry repeating rifles, and that’s really what the Indians want.  Tillotson is killed trying to attack Crowshaw, and they destroy his wagon, while Laish-Peppers is wounded fighting a rear guard action while the train moves out.

Laish had intended to leave the train before Fort Laramie to head south for Santa Fe.  But now Christella, who knows his story, Crowshaw and Lt. King will all speak up for him based on how he got the wagon train through, and he decides to go into Fort Laramie with the train.  In 1954, Laish and Christella weren’t allowed to just take off together for California, as they probably would have in real life.  Laish has to face the music, even though it will happen after the end of the movie.  For similar endings, where somebody who’s committed a crime has to give himself up instead of just moving on, see Four Faces West [Joel McCrea], Face of a Fugitive [Fred MacMurray] and The Moonlighter [MacMurray again].  The alternative seemed to be expiating one’s sins by taking a bullet (fatally) while doing something honorable, as Randolph Scott did in Western Union, and not getting the girl.


Lt. King (Keith Larson) introduces the faux major (Sterling Hayden) to the redoubtable Christella Burke (Coleen Gray).

This is a fairly good story, but it is marred by Selander’s pedestrian direction and by Hayden’s stiff, unnatural demeanor as the false Peppers.  Nevertheless, it’s one of Selander’s better films.  Coleen Gray is very good, and so are Tom Tully and some of the other supporting players.  Lee Van Cleef is one of Tillotson’s henchmen; he does not survive the movie, like his boss.

The writing, by Don Martin. is not dazzling.  In color, at 79 minutes.  Many of the prints of Selander’s low-budget movies from this period were not of good quality originally or have become dingy through poor preservation.


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The Way West

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 30, 2015

The Way West—Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Lola Albright, Sally Field, Jack Elam, Michael Witney, Katherine Justice (1967; Dir: Andrew V. McLaglen)


Kirk Douglas was a big star in the 1950s and 1960s, and he tended to indulge in flamboyant dress or other characteristics to emphasize his character in westerns.  (See his clothes in The War Wagon, for example, or the way his gunfighter character in The Last Sunset uses only a derringer.)  He’s the most prominent of the three big stars in this movie, and here the gimmick is the color red.  When we first see his character, he’s wearing a bright red cloak.  He drives a carriage with red wheels and undercarriage, and his Conestoga wagon is painted red.

This story is based on a novel by Montana author A.B. Guthrie, who also wrote The Big Sky and These Thousand Hills, both of which were turned into western movies.  This one tells the fictional story of the first wagon train of settlers going west from Missouri along the Oregon Trail to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1843.


Senator William J. Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) in his red cloak.

The moving force behind the expedition is former senator William J. Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) of Illinois.  He recruits Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum), a mountain man character from The Big Sky, to serve as the scout and guide for the company.  The group includes the Evans family, headed by Lije Evans (Richard Widmark), who is afflicted with the need to constantly move toward the frontier, his longsuffering wife (Lola Albright), to whom the widowed Tadlock is attracted, and their teenaged son Brownie.  There are the McBees, a family from Georgia (headed by Harry Carey, Jr.), taking their nubile daughter Mercy (Sally Field), several young peach trees and a bevy of unconvincing accents to the new land.  Newlyweds Johnnie (Michael Witney) and Amanda Mack (Katherine Justice) are stymied because the attractive Amanda is emotionally unbalanced and unable to face the idea of sex.  There is a stowaway preacher (Jack Elam, previously always a bad guy but about to move into more general character roles), unpersuasive and unattractive in his person and his religion, the first of many such in westerns.  Lije Evans becomes a leader and spokesman for those who don’t like Tadlock’s high-handed, autocratic ways.


The big three look ahead: Sen. William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas), scout Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) and Lije Evans (Richard Widmark).

They have the usual hardship episodes as they move west, with river crossings and Indian troubles.  Mercy McBee and Johnnie Mack fall together for a night, and as they finish Johnnie hears a sound and shoots at it, only to find that he has killed an Indian boy dressed in a wolf skin.  Although the wagons get away, the Sioux pursue, insisting on retribution for the killer.  Tadlock says the killer will receive white man’s justice—hanging—if they can identify him.  Eventually the discouraged Johnnie Mack gives himself up, and his fate further unhinges Amanda, not to mention leaving Mercy McBee pregnant.  As they cross some desert, the Tadlock carriage, driven by his young son Billy, overturns and kills the boy.  At Fort Hall, now in Idaho, they are welcomed to stay or to switch to a California destination until word gets around (falsely) that a sick member of their party has smallpox.  The local Hudson’s Bay factor can’t get rid of them fast enough then.

After a rebellion against Tadlock, the train arrives at a cliff about 30 miles from their destination.  When an attempt to lower a wagon and its driver goes badly wrong, the party accepts Tadlock’s iron-fisted direction again.  He’s the last to be lowered, but somebody cuts the rope and he falls to his death.  It’s the unhinged Amanda Mack, who holds him responsible for her husband’s death.  Brownie Evans marries Mercy McBee and takes responsibility for her child.  And Dick Summers, now losing his eyesight, heads back for Independence.


Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) bringing up the rear.

This is a glossy and brightly-colored production, episodic in nature.  Except for Fort Hall, there’s no attempt to relate the episodes to actual points on the map.  The actors are fine, but their motivations seem arbitrary and sometimes inconsistent, as if it’s enough just to state them and not to show them developing.  Andrew McLaglen had been a successful television director (especially with Have Gun Will Travel) and had made it into movie directing with Gun the Man Down (1956) and McClintock! in 1963.  His father, Oscar-winning Irish actor Victor McLaglen (The Informer, Gunga Din, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, etc.), had been one of John Ford’s favorite actors, and Andrew had connections with John Wayne and his production company through that association.  But something of his direction stayed rooted in television, although he continued to direct the occasional western movie for decades.  Douglas, Mitchum and Widmark all produced better performances elsewhere.

Visually, you can see some of the difference by comparing the lowering of wagons down the cliff to a similar sequence in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail from more than 35 years earlier.  Although the Walsh film is in black and white, the visual effect is much more striking and memorable in the earlier film than in McLaglen’s large-scale color production.  The intention was obviously to produce an epic here, too, but it didn’t work out as well.  Reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote in the N.Y. Times:  “It is hard to believe that anybody could have made such a hackneyed hash of that fine A. B. Guthrie Jr. novel, The Way West, as [producer] Harold Hecht and Andrew V. McLaglen have in the Western movie of the [same] title…”  It’s watchable, but not terribly memorable.  Shot at various locations in Oregon (Bend, Eugene, Mt. Bachelor, Crooked River Gorge, and the actual Willamette Valley), at 122 minutes.


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Fighting Caravans

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 29, 2014

Fighting Caravans—Gary Cooper, Lili Damita, Ernest Torrence, Tully Marshall, Eugene Pallette (1931; Dir: Otto Brower, David Burton)


During the first half of the 20th century, Ohio-born dentist Zane Grey was the best-selling author of wildly popular novels, most of them set in the American west.  Beginning with Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912, the public had an apparently unquenchable appetite for his stories.  His 1929 novel Fighting Caravans was hot off the presses when this western was made based on it.  In all, as of 2012 112 western movies had been based on his works.

In 1931, Gary Cooper was an up-and-coming star in Hollywood at the age of 30.  His breakthough had come in 1926’s silent movie The Winning of Barbara Worth, a sort of western about the reclamation of California’s Imperial Valley.  He had always done westerns, including early sound versions of The Virginian (1929, now thought to be lost) and The Spoilers (1930), among others.  In 1930 he had appeared as the romantic lead in the popular Morocco, along with Marlene Dietrich.  Cooper had made it.  He was the biggest name in Fighting Caravans.  In the early sound era of the 1930s, most westerns were B-movies, quickly and cheaply made with poor writing and routine direction.  They had no cinematic prestige.  Fighting Caravans was more ambitious, shot on location in Sonora, California, with a big star like Cooper.


Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence, left) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall, right) connive to get Clint (Gary Cooper) and Felice (Lili Damita) together and then to keep them apart.

In the Civil War era (1862), a wagon train is about to leave Independence, Missouri, bound for Sacramento in California.  Scout Clint Belmet, who tends to drink too much and raise hell in a recreational sort of way, is being held by the local marshal.  Belmet’s mentors, old scouts Bill Jackson (Ernest Torrence) and Jim Bridger (Tully Marshall) persuade Felice (Lili Damita), a young French woman with a wagon train that is about to leave, that she will be left behind if she has no man to help her, so she tells the marshal that she and Belmet were married the previous night.  Belmet is released, and he and his two older friends arrange to scout for Felice’s wagon train.

Although he is not interested in marriage, Belmet finds that he is interested in Felice.  The old scouts scheme to break them up, so Belmet will maintain his freedom and remain with them.   Ultimately, Felice and Belmet have a falling-out over his refusal to contemplate marriage and family life.  Meanwhile, the wagon train is hounded by Kiowas, which is unusual on the Oregon-California Trail; the Kiowas ranged farther south and were much more likely to be found in the areas of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, near the Santa Fe Trail.  Belmet leaves the wagon train because of Felice, but he, Jackson and Bridger rejoin it when they see an Indian attack coming, inspired by white renegades.


Belmet (Gary Cooper) takes aim at hostile Kiowas; Felice (Lili Damita) and Belmet (Cooper) have a difference of opinion.

Bridger and Jackson are among those holding off the Indians at a river crossing while the last of the wagons get over.  They are killed, but Belmet scares off the Indians by exploding a wagonload of gunpowder.  Later, Felice loses control of her wagon heading down a steep incline, and Belmet saves her.  The train makes its way over snowy passes and finally to its destination, where we get the following sophisticated multilingual exchange:

Clint Belmet:  “I’m asking you a question and the answer can’t be maybe.  I’m asking you straight out—will you marry me?  Yes or no?”
Felice:  “Oui, Monsieur!”
Clint Belmet:  “Huh?”


A couple of shots of Cooper behind the scenes.

The obvious comparison for this film is with The Big Trail, made the previous year with larger-than-usual ambitions.  Both are wagon train westerns from the early sound era, with virtually the same plot–getting from Missouri to northern California, with a young scout.  The Big Trail, in which director Raoul Walsh was experimenting with making a 70 mm. movie, bombed at the box office because theaters didn’t have the equipment to show it, but it was superior visually.  Fighting Caravans, with its more prominent star, did much better commercially.  The Big Trail was supposed to make John Wayne a star; it didn’t because few saw it, but he wasn’t bad.  Compare his straight-ahead acting with the hokiness of Gary Cooper in Fighting Caravans, although some of that is the result of the writing.  Tully Marshall plays the scout/wagonmaster’s mentor in both films, but he’s more significant in The Big Trail.  Film technology of the early sound era makes both movies seem somewhat dated, but the dialogue and social attitudes (heavy recreational drinking as one of life’s prime objectives, for example) of Fighting Caravans have aged more.  There’s a certain amount of overacting in both.  The lively Lili Damita (who became Errol Flynn’s first wife in 1935) is more interesting than Marguerite Churchill as the romantic object of John Wayne’s attentions in The Big Trail.  Taken as a whole, The Big Trail is longer, better and more significant in the history of western movies.  The principal reason for watching Fighting Caravans now is to see Gary Cooper, one of the greatest of western stars, in the early stage of his career.


Lili Damita joins a string of French women in westerns:  Denise Darcel in Westward the Women (1951) and Vera Cruz (1954), Nicole Maurey in The Jayhawkers (1959), and Capucine in North to Alaska (supposedly from New Orleans), 1960.  She can hold up her head in that company.  Gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette, who would show up later in the decade as Friar Tuck to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and a Mexican soldier in The Mark of Zorro, is mild comic relief here.

The original title of the production was Blazing Arrows.  Three years later, a lower-budget remake was released as Wagon Wheels, using stock footage from Fighting Caravans and with Randolph Scott in the Clint Belmet role.  Filmed in black and white on location near Sonora, California, at 81 minutes.

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Wagon Train Westerns

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 26, 2014

Wagon Train Westerns


Since the classic silent epic The Covered Wagon in 1923, some western stories have been based in the American movement westward that began in earnest on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.  With the fading of the fur trade, some mountain men became scouts for wagon trains (Kit Carson, The Way West).  Groups like the Mormons (Brigham Young, Bad Bascomb, Wagon Master) had their own epics of western movement during the wagon train era.  Indeed, director James Cruze of The Covered Wagon, was the son of such Mormon emigrants.

At their peak in the 1940s, wagon train westerns were, like technological westerns, another way to express the nation’s progress toward its triumphant Manifest Destiny, although sometimes the wagon train was in reverse (Virginia City, The Outriders).  The biggest names among directors of westerns have done wagon train westerns (John Ford, Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh et al.).  Although it featured less star power in its cast than most Ford westerns, Ford’s own favorite among his movies was said to be 1950’s Wagon Master.  Most of the biggest stars in westerns did a wagon train at one time or another:  see a very young John Wayne in The Big Trail (1930), a young and skinny Gary Cooper in Fighting Caravans (1931), James Stewart in Bend of the River (1952), and Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark in The Way West (1967), for example.


As the glow of Manifest Destiny faded during the Vietnam era, there were consequences for the western as well as for movies generally.  Although there were efforts to recast westerns in revisionist ways during the 1970s, their popularity as a genre was fading.  One casualty was the cavalry western, which waned with the decreasing popularity of the military in society, especially among the young.  Another was the wagon train western, as Americans rethought Manifest Destiny generally and the treatment of the Indians specifically.

The list below includes the most prominent westerns that feature wagon trains, although some of them (such as Red River and Silverado) may have wagon train sequences and not be primarily wagon train westerns. (Red River, for example, is primarily a cattle drive western.)  The best movies among them are indicated with an asterisk (*).  Any proposals for additions to the list are welcome.


Filming The Covered Wagon in Utah,1923.

*The Covered Wagon (1923; Dir: James Cruze).  In the year of The Covered Wagon‘s release, only fifty westerns were made.  The next year, there were three times as many.

*The Big Trail—John Wayne (1930; Dir: Raoul Walsh).  An epic experiment in 70 mm. that was supposed to be young John Wayne’s breakthrough as a star.  He had to wait for Stagecoach, almost ten years later.

Fighting Caravans—Gary Cooper (1931).  Cooper stars as a wagon train scout in a Zane Grey story, leading a wagon train from Independence, Missouri, to Sacramento.  They seem strangely to be hounded by Kiowas most of the way across, although Kiowas were generally far to the south of their trail west.

Wagon Wheels–Randolph Scott (1934).  A low-budget remake of Fighting Caravans with Randolph Scott in the Gary Cooper role, using extensive stock footage from the earlier film.

The Oregon Trail–John Wayne (1936)

3 Faces West—John Wayne (1940)

Wagon Train (1940)

*Virginia City—Errol Flynn, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart (1940; Dir: Michael Curtiz).  Primarily a story of Union vs. Confederate partisans out west, with Flynn as the primary Union spy and Randolph Scott as the Confederate leader.

Kit Carson (1940).  John Hall as the legendary and highly fictionalized mountain man and pathfinder, leading a wagon train to California during the 1840s.

Brigham Young—Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell (1940; Dir: Henry Hathaway).  The young lovers from The Mark of Zorro are back as young Mormon lovers led by Dean Jagger in the title role.

Bad Bascomb—Wallace Beery (1946).  Outlaw Zeke Bascomb (Wallace Beery) hides out as a guide to a wagon train of Mormons, only to be brought to the good side by young child Margaret O’Brien and her grandmother Marjorie Main.

*Red River—John Wayne (1948; Dir: Howard Hawks).  John Wayne heads to Texas on a wagon train in 1851.  When he leaves the train and heads south, he loses his love to Comanches and never entirely recovers from that.


A Swedish Kit Carson, and a German Wagon Master.

*Wagon Master—Ward Bond, Joanne Dru (1950; Dir: John Ford).  Mormons led by Ward Bond get Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. to guide them through obstacles such as rough trails, raiding Indians, seductive medicine show women and an outlaw clan.

The Outriders—Joel McCrea (1950).  As the Civil War draws to an end, Confederate scout Joel McCrea helps a wagon train laden with secret gold make its way back up the Santa Fe Trail.

*Westward the Women—Robert Taylor (1951; Dir: William Wellman).  Robert Taylor is the wagon master taking a train full of women to California to find new lives and new husbands in this surprisingly good western.

Passage West–John Payne (1951; Dir:  Lewis R. Foster).  In 1863, six convicts led by John Payne escape from a Salt Lake prison and take over a wagon train headed to California across the desert.

*Bend of the River—James Stewart (1952; Dir: Anthony Mann). Former Missouri border ruffian James Stewart leads a wagon train to their Oregon destination against considerable odds.

Jubilee Trail–Vera Ralston, Joan Leslie, Forrest Tucker (1954; Dir:  Joseph Kane).  A trader and his New York bride encounter his former lover and illegitimate child on the trail westward to California.

Arrow in the Dust–Sterling Hayden (1954; Dir:  Lesley Selander).  Fake cavalry officer Sterling Hayden fights off Indians while trying to get a wagon train to Fort Laramie.

The Indian Fighter—Kirk Douglas (1955; Dir: Andre DeToth) Scout Kirk Douglas romances Indian maiden Elsa Martinelli and has his loyalties questioned.

The Last Wagon—Richard Widmark (1956; Dir: Delmer Daves).  Most of the wagon train has been wiped out by Indians, but luckily the few young survivors have Richard Widmark to get them through inhospitable terrain.

Westward Ho, the Wagons–Fess Parker (1956; Dir:  William Beaudine)

The Tall Stranger–Joel McCrea (1957; Dir:  Thomas Carr).  Returning from the Civil War to his brother’s valley in Colorado, Joel McCrea encounters a wagon train led by a land-grabber and rustler.  But on the good side, it has Virginia Mayo.

The Oregon Trail–Fred MacMurray (1959; Dir:  Gene Fowler, Jr.).  In 1846 reporter Fred MacMurray heads west with a wagon train, encountering Indians both hostile and friendly (Gloria Talbot).

Thunder in the Sun–Susan Hayward, Jeff Chandler (1959; Dir:  Russell Rouse).  A group of French Basque immigrants make their way across the country to California in 1850, with the guidance of old scout Jeff Chandler..

How the West Was Won (1962; Dir: Henry Hathaway et al.).  A large-scale epic with a little of everything, including wagon trains.

The Way West—Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark (1967; Dir: Andrew McLaglen).  A glossy Hollywood version of the A.B. Guthrie novel about the first wagon train headed west to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1843, featuring a mountain man character from his earlier novel The Big Sky.

Buck and the Preacher–Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte (1972; Dir:  Sidney Poitier).  A former slave and buffalo soldier, Sidney Poitier now guides wagon trains of blacks headed west.  But they have to fight off night riders and those who would head them back to the south.

*Silverado (1985; Dir: Lawrence Kasdan).  Most elements of traditional westerns, including a wagon train of emigrants, show up in this entertaining modern western.

Wagons East (1994).  Western comedy starring John Candy and Richard Lewis, with a wagon train heading back to civilization.

The Donner Party (2009).  A cinematic version of the story of the doomed emigrant party now remembered principally for cannibalism when it was snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas.

Meek’s Cutoff (2011).  A wagon train is misled in Oregon by a feckless mountain man-scout but rescued by strong-minded women (especially Michelle Williams) in this fact-based feminist drama.


Wagon Trains Featuring Women

Westward the Women (1951)
Meek’s Cutoff (2011)

Civil War Wagon Trains

Fighting Caravans (1931)
Virginia City (1940)
The Outriders (1950)


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Kit Carson

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 24, 2014

Kit Carson—John Hall, Dana Andrews, Lynn Bari, Ward Bond, Harold Huber, Clayton Moore, Raymond Hatton, Charles Stevens (1940; Dir: George B. Seitz)


Trapper Kit Carson and his men are attacked by Shoshones with Mexican guns near Fort Bridger, Wyoming, losing two years’ worth of pelts.  The only survivors are Carson and his friends Ape (Ward Bond) and Lopez (Harold Huber).  As they straggle into Fort Bridger, they find waiting for them a platoon of soldiers under Capt. John C. Fremont (Dana Andrews) and a wagon train for California led by Paul Terry (Clayton Moore), both of whom want Carson to guide them to California.  Carson refuses until he meets Dolores Murphy, a wealthy and attractive California heiress returning home. Then he signs up as wagonmaster.

Carson has continual disagreements with Fremont as to how to go about things as they move westward, and Carson keeps finding evidence that the Mexican army in California is providing guns to the Shoshones to keep Americans out.  Both Fremont and Carson are interested in Dolores Murphy, too.  As they approach the Sierra Nevadas, Fremont wants to take the direct pass into California; Carson warns that it leads into an area that would make for a good ambush and advises a route 60 miles longer, but safer.


Lopez (Harold Huber), Ape (Ward Bond) and Carson (Jon Hall) ride.

Fremont doesn’t listen, and his platoon ends up boxed in by a Shoshone-triggered landslide.  While the wagon train is under attack, too, Paul Terry sacrifices himself to warn Carson, and Carson rescues the soldiers by blasting them out with a wagon-load of gunpowder.  Once everybody is in California at the Murphy hacienda, Gen. Castro (C. Henry Gordon) decides to attack the American haciendas while their owners are attending a fiesta at Murphy’s.  Mexican Gen. Mariano Vallejo (Lew Merrill) is captured and tips off Carson, who rides to warn the Americans.  Vallejo switches sides, as he realizes that Castro has it in for him, too.  Meanwhile, Carson decides he has no suitable life to offer a woman and leaves Dolores for Fremont to marry.

While Carson, Ape and Lopez put up a mock defense of the Murphy hacienda against Castro, Fremont and Murphy attack Castro from the rear and defeat him.  They set up the Bear Flag Republic and receive word that the U.S. and California are at war, making this about 1846.  Ape is killed in the Mexican attack while setting off an explosive signal, and Fremont talks Carson (apparently) into the realization that Dolores can only be happy with Carson.


Carson (Jon Hall), Fremont (Dana Andrews) and Dolores Murphy (Lynn Bari) talk things out.

This film makes a hash of both geography and history.  Carson started working for Fremont as a guide in the 1842 when the fur-trapping was dying out, guiding him on four expeditions in California and the Great Basin.  While they were both in California while it was breaking away from Mexico during the Mexican War, they were on opposite ends of the state.  Carson was working as a courier and guide for Gen. Stephen Kearney across the southwest border to San Diego.  Fremont was rather famously married at the time, to Jessie Benton, daughter of the expansionist Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri.  It was the writing and promotion of Jessie Benton Fremont that made her husband famous, in fact.  Kit Carson was married at least three times beginning in 1835, to an Arapaho woman, a Cheyenne woman and finally to Josefa Jaramillo in Taos, New Mexico, in 1843.

This is one of the early films to make use of Monument Valley and southern Utah, the year after John Ford made Stagecoach there.  Although stunning, it doesn’t really look much like the country around Fort Bridger or California.  Aside from Ward Bond as Ape (who strangely uses a boomerang several times), none of the cast was much associated with westerns.  Half-Tahitian actor Jon Hall is better remembered for such exotic fare as Hurricane, although he would show up again in a 1947 remake of Last of the Mohicans (entitled Last of the Redmen).  Dana Andrews had a small parts in The Westerner, Belle Starr and The Ox-Bow Incident (he was the subject of a lynching) about this time, and he returned briefly to westerns in the 1950s (see Three Hours to Kill, Strange Lady in Town and Comanche, for example).  Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens (as Charley Stevens) has one of his juicier parts as Lt. Ruiz, who is working directly with the Shoshones.  Clayton Moore went on to his greatest fame as television’s Lone Ranger a decade later, and Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels (later Tonto) has an uncredited bit part here, too.  Director George B. Seitz was coming to the end of a long career and is better remembered for making several Andy Hardy movies about this time.


Jon Hall as Kit Carson; and the real Kit Carson.

If you’d like to read about the historical Kit Carson, see Hampton Sides’ recent Blood and Thunder:  An Epic of the American West (2006).  Kit Carson had been the subject of popular attention beginning with dime novels in the 1840s.  He showed up in movies beginning with an early short in 1903, and would move into television in the 1950s.  In black and white, at 97 minutes.

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Bad Bascomb

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 2, 2014

Bad Bascomb—Wallace Beery, Margaret O’Brien, J. Carroll Naish, Marshall Thompson, Marjorie Main (1946; Dir:  S. Sylvan Simon)


Wallace Beery is the eponymous Zeb Bascomb, leader of an outlaw gang, in this blatant attempt to recapture the sentimentality of his earlier hit with Jackie Cooper, The Champ (1931), which had been in turn a variation on Charlie Chaplin’s sweeter The Kid (1921)–a societal outcast is reformed or saved by the love of a child.   In other ways it uses story elements from the 1940 western Wyoming, in which Beery plays a nasty military deserter who ends up helping the good guys in a range war. 

Shortly after the Civil War, Bascomb and his gang try to rob a bank, only to run into a trap with law officers waiting for them.  Pursued by a posse, Bascomb, Bart Yancy (J. Carroll Naish) and young Jimmy Holden (William Marshall) escape and join a Mormon wagon train headed for Utah.  There is gold hidden on the train, and eventually Yancy finds it.  The plan is to take the gold and flee. 

However, by now Bascomb, going by the name Zeke Smith, has formed a relationship with nine-year-old Emmy (Margaret O’Brien), a member of the lost (and particularly clueless) Mormon wagon train.  And Bascomb further becomes romantically entangled with Emmy’s grandmother Abbey Hanks, played by Marjorie Main.  As the head elder lies dying, he entrusts leadership of the wagon train to Bascomb and makes him promise to get them through to Utah.  Yancy is disgusted and leaves to see if he can find more reliable allies.


Bascomb (Wallace Beery) with Emmy (Margaret O’Brien) and her grandmother Abbey Hanks (Marjorie Main).


Bascomb (Beery) and Bart Yancy (J. Carroll Naish) have a difference of opinion.

As the wagon train encounters hostile Indians, egged on by Bascomb’s now-former associate Yancy, Bascomb directs the set-up of the defense and rides off 40 miles to seek help from the cavalry.  (That’s an obvious double doing all the hard riding on film for the 61-year-old Beery.)  He fights off Indian attackers in his desperate ride, and meanwhile the wagon train is attacked.  The defense is led by Bascomb’s young (outlaw) associate Jimmy Holden, who has come to fancy one of the young ladies in the wagon train and, like Bascomb, is forsaking his outlaw ways. 

In the end, after rescuing the wagon train, the reformed Bascomb rides off with the federal officer to face the music for his life of crime.  Even the love of a child can’t save him from that.  In the 1940s and 1950s, outlaws had to be shown receiving the consequences of their crimes and seldom were allowed to just change their ways and get away with it. 


Al Hirschfeld caricatures of O’Brien and Beery and of Beery by himself.  His characters don’t usually smile, contrary to what both of these seem to show.

Wallace Beery had had a long and successful career as a bad guy (see him as Magua in the 1920 Last of the Mohicans, for example), and, surprisingly, as a rough-hewn not-really-so bad guy with a heart of gold.  He was a big star in his time, even though he obviously lacked matinee-idol looks.  By most accounts, Beery was not as nice to work with as the characters he portrays on screen, especially for child actors; he had all the coarseness his characters usually do, without the heart of gold.  Margaret O’Brien claimed that she had to be protected by crew members from Beery’s insistence on constantly pinching her.  He and Marjorie Main were paired in a number of movies beginning around 1940 (Wyoming), as Beery had been with Marie Dressler in the 1930s.  Bad Bascomb was one of Beery’s last five movies.  It was kind of an old-fashioned film even in 1946; Beery died three years later in 1949.  For current audiences, all the bonding with young Emmy can seem slow and cloying; others find it heart-warming, as the filmmakers intended.  This is interesting as a cultural artifact, a sort of film that isn’t made now.  Use it as a test, to see if you can get into the mindset of an earlier generation of filmgoers from almost seventy years ago.

You might see this as similar in theme to Angel and the Badman, made a year later in 1947, where an outlaw is reformed by his love (fatherly in this case, rather than romantic, as in Angel) for a young religious female.  It is also said that Bascomb inspired Anthony Mann in making one of his own westerns taking a Bascomb theme (bad guy-fugitive seeks refuge in/leads wagon train) in 1954’s Bend of the River. The opening scene of Bend of the River pays homage to Bad Bascomb by having James Stewart ride up to a wagon and receive a piece of food from a little girl. Some say that more than twenty years later in the original True Grit, John Wayne was channeling Wallace Beery as Rooster Cogburn, and winning his only Best Actor Oscar for it.  In black and white, at 112 minutes.  Filmed on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

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The Big Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 23, 2014

The Big Trail—John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, Tyrone Power, Charles Stevens, Tully Marshall, Ian Keith, El Brendel (1930; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)


This early talkie is interesting for two innovations:  (1) 20th Century Fox was introducing its new proprietary “Grandeur” 70 mm widescreen picture format, more than twenty years before such widescreen images became common in movies, and (2) director Raoul Walsh selected for the lead a young man (23) who would become the most enduring star in westerns of the 20th century—John Wayne.  Unfortunately the new widescreen format required extensive retooling of theatrical exhibition equipment and projection rooms, and in the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s, few exhibitors had the funds to make those changes.  John Wayne would have to wait almost a decade for stardom, and widescreen formats would have to wait another twenty years.

John Wayne was a tall, good-looking former USC football player who had first gotten into movies during the 1920s by working as a prop man.  John Ford and others used him as an extra and in bit parts, but it was Raoul Walsh who first gave him a leading role here, as Breck Coleman, the scout for a wagon train headed west from Missouri.  Coleman is looking for the murderers who had killed his best friend, a trapper, and stolen his wolf pelts.  He decides to go along with the wagon train when he sees clues that the murderers might be with the train and when he is attracted to Ruth Cameron (Marguerite Churchill), a young woman heading west with her brother and sister.  Red Flack, the rough wagon master (Tyrone Power Sr.), is not fond of Coleman, but there is nothing he can do.  Gambler/gunman Bill Thorpe (Ian Keith) also joins the train to avoid being hung and because he too wants Ruth.


Young John Wayne as scout Breck Coleman; Tully Marshall and Marguerite Churchill as Zeke and Ruth Cameron.

As they head west across the plains, Coleman becomes more certain that Flack and his henchman Lopez (Charles Stevens) are his friend’s murderers, and Thorpe joins forces with them.  While Coleman is off hunting buffalo with a couple of Indian scouts, Thorpe ambushes him and sees him fall.  Thorpe, Flack and Lopez are surprised when he makes it back to camp with only a bullet hole in his saddle and no horse.

The wagon train encounters the usual difficulties:  hostile Indians, tough river crossings, steep canyon walls, heavy rains and other forms of rough country.  Thorpe persuades Ruth Cameron to leave the wagon train and head for California with him.  As Coleman goes off to visit a friend, he is followed by Thorpe.  When Thorpe draws his pistols to shoot Coleman in the back, he is instead shot by Coleman’s friend Zeke (Tully Marshall).  For a moment, the entire camp, including Ruth, believe that Coleman is a murderer, until Zeke comes to his defense.  Now the Cameron wagon has to stay with the main train.


In snowy mountains, many are tempted to turn back until Coleman gives an impassioned speech, renewing their heart to forge on.  Flack and Lopez abandon the wagon train, but Coleman sees the train through to their destination in “the country beyond Oregon” (the tall trees look more like northern California).  Ruth has finally decided she loves Coleman and begs him to stay with them.  But he goes in search of Flack and Lopez, this time with a speech about how a man must make his own justice out west.  By the time he finds them, Lopez has frozen to death, and Coleman gets the nefarious Flack just as Flack is trying to shoot him.

As spring arrives in the pioneer valley, Ruth has decided that Coleman did not survive his dangerous mission of revenge or justice.  But she encounters him in the tall trees, and their love is renewed.  Fade to black, with symphonic music.


Coleman and the villainous Red Flack (Tyrone Power); Coleman and Ruth Cameron.

The visuals are the best part of this movie, shot by cinematographer Arthur Edeson.  It was conceived as an epic when it was made, at the then-huge cost of $2 million.  It had a large cast and was shot on location in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and northern California, and the great natural beauty of the western vistas shows up on the wide screen with a lot of depth.  It was made in the early days of sound movies, and the recording equipment was still pretty primitive, especially when used outdoors, where almost all of this movie was shot.  Since theaters that could show the film in 70 mm were rare (at the time of its release, only Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles and the Roxy in New York City had the equipment for a film shot in the Fox Grandeur process), the film was simultaneously shot in the usual 35 mm format.  (Actually, five versions were shot on location, with French, German and Spanish language versions, mostly with different casts, accounting for the other three.)  

If you’re going to watch it now, see the restored version, at 122 minutes.  “A financial disaster, the widescreen Big Trail vanished for 60 years, until the Museum of Modern Art restored it in the 1980s in a widescreen 35-millimeter print.”  A two-disc DVD set was released in 2008.  Some say the original cut was 156 minutes long, but if so, that longer version doesn’t seem to be available.  In 2006, the National Film Preservation Board included The Big Trail in the National Film Registry.


According to Dave Kehr, “Walsh makes maximum use of the width of the big screen, composing his shots so that the eye is led, as in classical painting, to pick out a series of details across the surface of the image.  But he also uses the extremely high resolution of the 70-millimeter stock to create perspectives that draw the viewer from foreground details to action in the distant background, at times seemingly miles away. Nothing less is at stake here than the whole system of analytical editing within a scene, as developed by the directors of the 1910s; what Walsh is doing does not really find an equivalent until Jacques Tati’s 70-millimeter masterpiece of 1967, Playtime.”

The unknown John Wayne (the studio came up with that name for young Marion Morrison for this film, taking the last name from Revolutionary-era General “Mad Anthony” Wayne) does well and holds the screen.  He is occasionally given stilted speeches and does the best he can with them, but he’s not yet the actor he will become.  If the movie had been more successful, this might have been his big breakthrough.  But it wasn’t, and he had to wait almost a decade for larger success to come in 1939’s Stagecoach.  He spent the intervening years making eight-day and ten-day B movie westerns, in an era when almost all westerns were cheaply and quickly turned out, and there was no cinematic prestige attached to them.


Wayne (center) with stand-ins and foreign language counterparts.

Some of the other actors in the film, such as romantic interest Marguerite Churchill and Tyrone Power Sr. (playing the large and rough villain Red Flack with a growly voice), had stage backgrounds, and their acting is a bit broad for modern tastes.  They had to project so their voices could be caught by the relatively primitive microphones.  One of the trio of villains (Lopez) is played by Charles Stevens, a grandson of Geronimo, who played a number of Indian and Mexican characters (he had both Apache and Mexican ancestry) from the 1930s through the 1950s, in such films as Frontier Marshal and My Darling Clementine.  El Brendel, the pseudo-Swedish “comedian” who plays the comic-relief immigrant Gussie, was actually Philadelphia-born Elmer Goodfellow Brendle, who had affected a phony German accent until the sinking of the Lusitania.  Ward Bond (later the star of John Ford’s Wagon Master and TV’s Wagon Train series) was assigned by Walsh to manage the wagons, appropriately enough.  Marguerite Churchill, the pretty heroine, wound up marrying George O’Brien, John Ford’s favorite leading man from 1924 to 1931.

This movie, along with silent films The Covered Wagon (1923, directed by James Cruze) and The Iron Horse (1924, by director John Ford), constitute the great epics of western American expansion from the early decades of the movies.  While the writing is clunky by current standards and the glories of Manifest Destiny don’t play as well to modern ears as they did to the audiences of the 1930s, this is paced well and has spectacular visuals.  It’s fun to watch.


If you watch Stagecoach soon after seeing The Big Trail, you’ll notice several improvements.  One is that Stagecoach has noticeably better writing.  Another is that in the intervening decade, sound equipment had improved dramatically in quality.  And a third is that, by laboring in 40 or so B movies in the interim and taking advice from such veterans as Harry Carey, John Wayne’s acting skills were also a lot stronger.  When his big break came again in 1939, he was a somewhat more mature 32, and he made the most of it.


Breck Coleman, scout, to the dispirited pioneers weary of trekking through the snows of the high mountains:  “We can’t turn back!  We’re blazing a trail that started in England.  Not even the storms of the sea could turn back the first settlers.  And they carried on further.  They blazed it on through the wilderness of Kentucky.  Famine, hunger, not even massacres could stop them.  And now we picked up the trail again.  And nothing can stop us!  Not even the snows of winter, nor the peaks of the highest mountain.  We’re building a nation and we got to suffer!  No great trail was ever built without hardship.  And you got to fight!  That’s right.  And when you stop fighting, that’s death.  What are you going to do, lay down and die?  Not in a thousand years!  You’re going on with me!”

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The Last Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 15, 2014

The Last Wagon—Richard Widmark, Felicia Farr, Nick Adams, Susan Kohner, Tommy Rettig, Stephanie Griffin (1956; Dir:  Delmer Daves)


Sheriff Bull Harper:  “Don’t be fooled by the color of his eyes and his skin.  He may be white, but inside he’s all Comanche.”

As the movie opens, Comanche Todd (Richard Widmark) is on the run on foot from what appears to be a posse.  He gets two of them before the leader, the brutal Sheriff Bull Harper (George Matthews), captures him.  While Harper’s taking him back for trial, they encounter a wagon train of devout Christian emigrants in Apache territory and band together with them, at least for protection from the Indians.  We’ve seen Todd kill others in the posse already, but Bull Harper doesn’t seem all that trustworthy either.

[After capturing Todd, Sheriff Harper offers to join Colonel Normand’s wagon train.]  Col. William Normand (Douglas Kennedy):  “He’s safe in your custody, I suppose. It’s just that we got women and children with us.”

Sheriff Bull Harper:  “He’ll be safe. The first time he don’t look safe, he’ll get dead.”


The next night several young people are off swimming and, when they return to the wagons, they find them burned and everyone killed by the Apaches.  Todd, who was manacled to a wagon wheel, went over a cliff with the wagon, but he’s still alive.  And he’s the only hope of the young people to get out of the desert and wilderness alive.  Only he has the survival skills and the wilderness knowledge they’ll need.  Jenny (Felicia Farr) and her young brother Billy (Tommy Rettig) are inclined to trust Todd, but two others (including Nick Adams) don’t and the remaining one (half-Indian, played by Susan Kohler) is undecided. 

Comanche Todd:  “We’ve got six bullets, and that idiot uses up three of them on a stinkin’ rattler you could kill with a stick.”

The relationships develop while Todd guides them toward safety, with death lurking constantly around every corner.  Eventually Todd saves a patrol of soldiers, who then take him into custody.  The final scene is Todd’s trial before General Oliver O. Howard, where it comes out that the sheriff and his three rotten brothers had raped and killed Todd’s Comanche wife and son and had left him for dead.  He’d been hunting them ever since. 


Delmer Daves, like John Sturges, is one of those directors from the 1950s whose westerns are usually worth watching.  So is this.  Although it’s quite watchable, however, it’s not smoothly plotted.  The ending doesn’t have the same edge that the rest of the film does.  Widmark is excellent as Todd, keeping us unsure how bad or good Comanche Todd is, and Felicia Farr is also very good.  At this stage of his career, Widmark was playing both bad guys (The Law and Jake Wade) and good guys (Sturges’ Backlash and this) in westerns, although he had made his initial reputation ten years earlier playing psychotic killers in films noir.  To see Farr in another western, she plays the girl who catches Glenn Ford’s interest in a barroom and delays him long enough that he gets captured in the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957), also directed by Delmer Daves.  She’s also in Daves’ JubalThis film is better looking than much of Daves’ work.  Shot in color (Cinemascope and Technicolor) in Sedona, Arizona.  98 minutes.  Music is by Lionel Newman, younger brother of Alfred Newman.

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Wagon Master

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 17, 2013

Wagon Master—Ward Bond, Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey, Jr., Jane Darwell, Alan Mowbray, Charles Kemper, James Arness, Francis Ford, Hank Worden, Jim Thorpe (1950; Dir:  John Ford)


The title of this movie is sometimes written in one word, but in the movie titles it’s two.  Even lesser John Ford westerns, like this and 3 Godfathers, are better than average westerns.  This one, although well cast, is lacking in star power, with leads going to actors who usually played supporting roles in Ford’s westerns.  It is normally thought that the title refers to Ward Bond’s character, who went on to play the role of the wagon master in the television series Wagon Train before his death in 1960 at the age of 57.  But in the film Bond refers to Ben Johnson’s character as the wagon master.

Here Bond plays the role of Elder Wiggs, leader of a band of Mormons stranded in Crystal City, a town that doesn’t like them, as they try to make their way toward the San Juan River country, not too far from the Monument Valley and Moab locations where this was filmed.  Wiggs encounters the horse trading Blue brothers Travis (Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey, Jr.) who are familiar with the desolate country and hires them to guide the beleaguered Mormons. 


The Blue brothers and Elder Wiggs (Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr. and Ward Bond).

The first problem encountered is a medicine show (or “hoochie-coochie show,” as Wiggs refers to it) wagon, also kicked out of Crystal City and now stranded in the desert when its team of mules took off.  They’re consoling themselves with Dr. A. Locksley Hall’s elixir.  Hall (Alan Mowbray, who played the alcoholic Shakespearean actor in Ford’s My Darling Clementine) and his troupe reluctantly join the Mormons, who with equal reluctance are willing to give them replacement stock and take them as far as the cutoff to California.  Travis is drawn to Denver (a woman with a past, and named after a city, like Dallas in Stagecoach), the most attractive of Hall’s entourage.  (John Ford’s older brother Francis plays Mr. Peachtree, a minor member of the Hall group.) 

The next problem is water, scarce in this dry part of the southwest.  Third, they encounter the Cleggs, a Deliverance-style band of related outlaws led by Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper), wounded in their most recent holdup—in Crystal City, as it happens.  He needs medical attention and decides not to leave the train after he gets it.  The Cleggs’ willingness to resort to violence and gunplay seems to put them in charge, to the dismay of the non-violent Mormons.

WagonmasterCleggs Shiloh and Floyd Clegg.

Next up, Indian trouble:  they encounter what seem to be hostile Navajos, played by the actual Navajos Ford normally used as Apaches or Comanches in his Monument Valley epics—except for Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox, in his last film appearance.  However, the Navajos actually seem inclined to trust Mormons more than normal white men, and the two groups bond over a campfire dance.  Reese Clegg attacks a Navajo woman, and in order to prevent bloodshed Wiggs orders him whipped.

A posse from Crystal City, where the Cleggs robbed the bank and which evicted both Hall’s wagon and the Mormons, catches up with them, seeking the Cleggs.  The Cleggs won’t let Hall’s wagon leave at the appointed place, and it looks like the Mormons are in for it from the Cleggs as well.  They come to a place where the Mormons have to dig a track for their wagons, including their unwieldy wagon with seed grain needed for their colony on the San Juan.  Still resentful at Reese’s whipping, Uncle Shiloh is on the verge of making Wiggs take the seed grain wagon on the track at full speed, insuring both Wiggs’ death and the destruction of the Mormons’ vital seed grain.  But Sandy, attracted to one of the Mormon girls (Kathleen O’Malley), is slipped a gun by her younger brother and starts shooting.  His brother Travis grabs a gun from a downed Clegg and together the two of them finish off the nasty Cleggs.  Wiggs’ comment to Travis:  “I thought you said you never got involved in gunplay.”  “I said, only shootin’ snakes.”


The medicine wagon and a prominent occupant:  Joanne Dru as Denver.

As far as we know, Sandy ends up with Prudence and Travis with Denver, although Denver is rather uncooperative through most of the movie, even when Travis tempts her with the prospect of joining him at a ranch in a special valley he knows (reminiscent of Ringo’s pitch to Dallas in Stagecoach). 

Historically, the story seems grounded in the actual story of the Mormon pioneers’ grueling journey to the San Juan River country in far southeastern Utah.  A couple of times they sing “Come, Come Ye Saints,” the Mormon signature hymn, although there is also a rendition of the inevitable “Shall We Gather at the River.”  There’s some actual familiarity with Mormons behind all this, although there are stereotypical elements in the portrayal of the Mormons, too.

Bond and the young Johnson are excellent, as are Mowbray (with a whiff of W.C. Fields about him) and Kemper in lesser roles.  Ben Johnson, with his cowboy background, did his own stunts and was one of the best riders in westerns (along with perhaps Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott).  Carey is fine in a slighter role.  Joanne Dru (married to actor John Ireland at the time) here reminds one of her role in Red River, although that was directed by Howard Hawks; she’s good at playing an attractive semi-bad girl.  James Arness shows up in an early role as Floyd Clegg; Hank Worden is a mentally-impaired Clegg.  Charles Kemper is very good as the slimy Uncle Shiloh Clegg; he was killed in an automobile accident not too long after making the movie.  Jane Darwell is Sister Ledyard, who blows a horn to get attention or to get things moving.


Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) calls for attention.

The movie is short, at less than 90 minutes, but well put together.  It is one of the better wagon train westerns; it would make a good double feature with Westward the Women, from about the same time.  There’s a fair amount of music from the Sons of the Pioneers, as in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande.  This was made between those two cavalry movies.  Ford was clearly enamored of the singing group during this period, although they’re an element that hasn’t aged particularly well for the tastes of modern audiences.  There’s a strong strain of Fordian nostalgia here, as in many of his westerns.  Ford is said to have claimed this was his favorite of his movies, and it’s quite good, if more modest than some others.  In black and white.

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Bend of the River

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 25, 2013

Bend of the River—James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Julia Adams, Jay C. Flippen, Stepin Fetchit, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano (1952; Dir:  Anthony Mann)


The second and perhaps the weakest of the five Anthony Mann-James Stewart westerns from the early 1950s.  However, even a weak Mann-Stewart western is still highly watchable.  Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) is a former Missouri border raider and gunman leading a wagon train to the Mount Hood area of Oregon (in 1847?) and trying to live down his past. 

On the way, he rescues horse thief Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from hanging, only to discover that Cole is a former Kansas border raider and gunman.  Together they fight off a small band of Shoshone renegades and the train arrives in Portland, where the settlers buy supplies to be delivered to them and head up the river toward Mount Hood.

BendRiverAdamsKennedy Laura chooses badly.

When the supplies don’t arrive on schedule in September, McLyntock and head settler Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen) head for Portland to find out why.  They discover Portland is now a mining boom town, and the miners have driven prices for food and supplies through the roof.  With the help of Cole and his young gambler friend Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson), McLyntock takes the supplies, closely pursued by saloon owner and slippery merchant Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie). 

They eventually fight off Hendricks’ men, killing Hendricks.  But Cole has come to realize miners will pay a lot more for the supplies, and he hijacks the entire wagon train, leaving McLyntock behind on foot.  McLyntock follows, picking off various of the drivers and taking their weapons.  Eventually he succeeds in taking back the wagons, only to have to fight off an attack by miners led by Cole. 


Jeremy’s daughter Laura (Julia Adams) is the romantic interest, initially attracted to Cole but eventually repulsed by his obvious sleaziness.  The plot doesn’t hang together terribly well, and Jeremy Baile is kind of a tiresome character.  There’s rather a lot of killing, mostly not of Indians.  Set in an earlier period than other Mann westerns (presumably no later than the 1850s, with Oregon immigration and former Missouri-Kansas border raiders), but there are no concessions to that time in the look and weapons.  It looks just the same as all other Mann westerns, including The Far Country which is set in 1898. 

James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (1952). Courtesy Photofest. P

Former bushwacker, now trail scout.

Stewart and Kennedy are fine; Hudson seems a little out of place; and the lovely Julia Adams is given little to do.  This is supposedly the last film in which Stewart appeared with his real hair.  He’s wearing his usual westerns hat and presumably riding his horse Pie, though.  Stepin Fetchit plays kind of a jarring character to modern eyes—an old-fashioned black stereotype with near-unintelligible dialogue sometimes.  Based on the novel “Bend of the Snake” by Bill Gulick and filmed on location near Mount Hood.  In color.  The DVD is unfortunately only in full frame, like The Far Country, not in widescreen.

Note:  Reader Simón Cherpitel notes that Bend of the River was made when many movies and studios were still making the transition to widescreen formats.  This one was originally filmed in “academy ratio,” and therefore the DVD shows all there is to see (unlike, say, the later Mann-Stewart The Far Country, which was shot with a more widescreen aspect ratio).

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