Category Archives: Westerns Worth Watching

Vengeance Valley

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2016

Vengeance Valley—Burt Lancaster, Robert Walker, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Hugh O’Brian, Sally Forrest, Ted de Corsia, Ray Collins (1951; Dir:  Richard Thorpe)

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If you were making a western in the 1940s or 1950s, you could do worse than start with a story from western writer Luke Short, as was done here.  This was Burt Lancaster’s first western, and its brother-gone-bad story is fueled by the excellent actors Lancaster and Robert Walker, who was nearing the end of his career and short life.

Owen Daybright (Burt Lancaster) is the foster son of range baron Arch Strobie (Ray Collins).  In addition to being Strobie’s foreman, part of his responsibilities includes training Strobie’s real son Lee (Robert Walker).  Although relations are apparently good between the foster brothers, it’s unclear how much real tension might be there.  As the movie starts, the two are returning from an extended period caring for the herds during the winter.  In town, they hear that Lily Fasken (Sally Forrest), who formerly worked at a restaurant, has borne a baby out of wedlock.  Mostly shunned by the respectable people in town, Owen finds her being cared for by Lee’s new wife Jen (Joanne Dru).  He gives her some supplies and $500, leading her brother Dick (Hugh O’Brian) to suppose that Owen is the father and send for brother Hub (John Ireland, then married to Joanne Dru).

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Good brother Owen Daybright (Burt Lancaster) tries to talk bad brother Lee Strobie (Robert Walker) into doing the right thing.

We soon see that Lee is the real father of Lily’s child, and that Owen has feelings for Jen that he’s mostly hiding.  As the Fasken brothers try to take action against Owen, they are thrown in jail, and Owen and Lee head off to the spring roundup.  Lee is looking for a way out of his situation, and he tries to focus more of the blame for his own actions on Owen.  After Owen has a fight with a small-time rustler (Ted de Corsia), Lee arranges for the Faskens to be allowed into the roundup, where they can ambush Owen.

Meanwhile, Lee gets his father to make him a full partner in the ranch, and during the roundup he arranges to seel the Strobie stock for $40,000.  He hopes to make off with the money and use it to start anew in another location.  His marriage with Jen is falling apart because Jen has seen his selfish behavior for what it is.  But Owen crosses paths with Lee’s new buyer and confronts Lee, who then tries to lead him into the Fasken ambush.  Owen is wounded, but gets the Faskens, and Lee escapes.  Owen intercepts Lee, and there is a final confrontation between the two.

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The nefarious Fasken brothers Dick (Hugh O’Brian) and Hub (John Ireland) are convinced that Owen ruined their sister Lily.

Despite the good performances by Lancaster and Walker, and Dru’s usual attractiveness, this is somehow lacking a spark.  Dru is mostly underused.  The subplot involving Dru falling out with Lee and Owen falling for her is underplayed, although a still from the studio (below) would seem to make it more overt.  One is mostly inclined to attribute the lackluster results to journeyman director Richard Thorpe, who had been directing movies for almost thirty years.  Lancaster would go on to better westerns (Vera Cruz, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Professionals, Valdez Is Coming, Ulzana’s Raid) over his long career.  Walker would soon be dead of alcohol and a broken heart, with Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick having stolen his wife Jennifer Jones.  He could be an excellent actor in roles like the one he has here, as we have seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

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Lancaster, Dru and Walker in a studio still. Their situation never became this overt in the movie.

Shot in color in various Colorado location, at 83 minutes.  At a time when movies, including upscale westerns, were moving to widescreen forms of presentation, this is still in what is called “academy aspect,” the ratio in which movies had been shown for the previous decades.

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In a Valley of Violence

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 31, 2016

In a Valley of Violence—Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Formiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan (2016; Dir:  Ti West)

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Los Angeles Times writer Michael Rechtshaffen refers to this as part of the “The Great Western Revival of 2016.”  In fact, this slender renaissance in the western film genre began the previous year, in 2015, with such entries as Slow West, The Salvation and Bone Tomahawk, not to mention The Revenant and The Hateful Eight.  (See our post on Current Westerns for a more complete list.)  And now Ethan Hawke appears in two westerns released within a month—the remake of The Magnificent Seven and this smaller effort.

Writer-director-producer Ti West is more associated with horror/supernatural films than he is with westerns, but this is a respectable first effort in the genre.  Referred to by some as an “homage” to the western, it does feel like a collection of pieces from other westerns, with an overlay of spaghetti western sensibility.

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The rider (Ethan Hawke) talks, but principally to Abbie, his dog.

A lone rider (Ethan Hawke) heading for Mexico encounters a priest going to the town of Denton in the next valley.  Sidelined by a lame mule, the priest attempts to steal the rider’s horse but is foiled by the rider’s small dog, Abbie.  The rider heads for Denton, where he drinks water in a bar while waiting for the local store to re-open.  The townspeople are jittery and one refers to the place as “a valley of violence.”  A local loudmouth named Gilly (James Ransone) picks on the rider’s dog, and we know what that will precipitate.  Rather than shoot it out with Gilly, the rider busts his nose.

The one-legged town marshal (John Travolta) is the ultimate enforcer, Gilly’s father and the cause of the jitters in town.  He is also under no illusions about Gilly’s faults and bullying.  He deduces that the rider has a cavalry background and is perhaps a deserter, but they come to an agreement that the rider will leave town.  As the rider camps at night in the hills south of Denton, Gilly and his three hoodlums kill Abbie and throw the rider from a cliff.

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The marshal (John Travolta) instructs a resentful Gilly (James Ransone), while the hotel-keeping sisters (Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan) look on.

However, the rider does not die and makes his way back to Denton, encountering the priest again (he has been thrown out of Denton) and taking his gun and mule.  He also re-encounters Mary-Anne (Taissa Farmiga), the younger of two sisters who run the hotel in town.  Mary-Anne is seventeen, has been abandoned by her husband, and is desperate to get out of Denton.  The rider tells her his name is Paul, but he declines to take her with him.  She helps him anyway.

As Paul re-enters Denton, he gives the marshal a chance to stay out of the confrontation, which, of course, he can’t take.  One by one, Gilly’s three henchmen are disposed of, with Paul and the marshal continuing their one-sided dialogue.  Unable to stand it any longer, Gilly rushes to the street, facing Paul with the now-unarmed marshal between them (a set-up reminiscent of the great Leone).  Gilly precipitates an extended exchange of gunfire, with the marshal seeming to take the brunt of it from both sides.  Both Paul and Gilly are hit in the leg.  As Paul takes refuge in the livery stable, Gilly hunts him down.  The final shot is predictable enough that we can see it coming.

There are decent performances here:  Ethan Hawke as the traumatized rider Paul does well.  His version of The Mysterious Stranger is not so superhuman as Clint Eastwood’s.  However, we don’t know enough about him to engage fully.  His character is underdeveloped (the problem seems to be in the script), but interesting enough.  Taissa Farmiga, as the younger and more interesting of the hotel-keeping sisters, is quite plain but good.  John Travolta as a quasi-villain is not quite as over-the-top as some of his performances have been in recent years, and he’s more interesting because of that.  John Ransone as Gilly has a more modern feel to him, but the lack of concern for the intrusion modern elements in a 19th-century story is one of the reasons for a spaghetti western feel.  There are several very talkative characters here.  Paul talks, but mainly to his dog; he’s clearly not good with people.  Mary-Anne and Gilly talk all the time, and the marshal seems fond of hearing himself as well.  The larcenous priest (Burn Gorman) talks a lot, too.

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Paul (Ethan Hawke) seeks revenge.

Why does this movie seem put together from elements of other westerns?  The opening scene, in which the priest attempts to rob a lone rider, reminds us of a similar opening scene in The Shootist.  The peaceable but possibly dangerous stranger harassed while drinking in a saloon is a pretty common trope (see Silverado, The Gunfighter and many others).  Killing a man’s dog to demonstrate the bad guy’s evil nature and provoke revenge has been used a fair amount (see Hondo and Big Jake, for example).  For a man thrown over a cliff who does not die, see The Last Wagon.  In fact, the protagonist who is all but killed and comes back to exact revenge is a staple of Clint Eastwood’s films, especially A Fistful of Dollars and Hang ‘Em High.  The one-against-several showdown moving through a town has also been used many times since High Noon, most recently, for example, in The Salvation in 2015.  The use of a vengeful woman in the final gunfight, thrown in at the climactic second, is becoming another cliché (most recently, see The Salvation and the remake of The Magnificent Seven).  Now you can feel it coming.

The film was shot near Santa Fe, New Mexico, in color at 104 minutes.  The excellent Morricone-esque score is by Jeff Grace.  Rated R for violence and language.

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The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 30, 2016

The Magnificent Seven—Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matt Bomer, Martin Sensmeier (2016; Dir:  Antoine Fuqua)

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The initial question is whether a 56-year-old classic with several iconic roles needs to be remade.  Of course, this classic was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, an even greater classic.  Just as with 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit in recent years, the answer is yes, this is a good western—not as great as the 1960 classic, but worth making and worth watching.

Not much remains the same as in the classic—just the magic number of seven (although an argument could be made that there are eight here, including feisty widow Emma Cullen), the fight to defend the helpless against evil and insuperable odds, and the final result, with a few lines here and there from the 1960 film.  Of course, the same is true of any number of movies where our heroes put together a small team to pit their expertise in a righteous cause against huge odds:  The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Armageddon, etc.

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The first two: Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington; note the gun worn butt-forward) and Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt).

Director Antoine Fuqua has a reputation for being good with large-scale action movies (as did John Sturges, director of the original), and he does well enough here.  He starts with good casting.  This time the leader of the seven is Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington, all in black), a “duly-sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas, and seven other states.”  The trailer says he is a bounty hunter.  He is approached by two homesteaders from Rose Creek (apparently in California), one of whom is Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), newly widowed.  (Her late husband, played by Matt Bomer, doesn’t even make it to the opening credits.)  When she explains her situation to Chisolm, he responds, “So you seek revenge.”  She answers, “I seek righteousness, as we all should.  [Pause.]  But I’ll take revenge.”  The revenge is against mining baron Bartholomew Bogue, played by Peter Sarsgaard with a hunch-shouldered evil-Richard Nixon vibe.  He wastes no time in persuading us of his badness, shooting an unarmed man point-blank and burning the local church.

Sam Chisolm:  “What we lost in the fire, we found in the ashes.”

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For the next segment of the movie, the focus is on the recruitment of the rest of the seven.  The second member is Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a gambler, drinker and gunman whose horse is saved by Chisolm.  Then follow Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a well-known Civil War sniper, and his partner Billy Rocks (played by Korean star Byung-hun Lee, apparently equally good with guns and blades, although he prefers blades).  They take on an eccentric bear-like Bible-quoting mountain man, Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio).   And they are joined by war-painted Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier, partially of Tlingit ancestry).

Arriving at Rose Creek, the seven proceed with efficiently cleaning out Bogue’s caretakers.  Then come the sequences of training the citizenry and preparing the field for the return of Bogue in a week with larger numbers.  The townspeople are game but don’t show much aptitude for weaponry, except for Emma.  Bogue returns as expected with dozens of hired gunmen (from the Blackstone agency, an obvious reference to the Pinkertons).  Initially the battle goes well enough, but it wears down the townspeople and the seven, albeit with a much greater toll on Bogue’s men.

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Young widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) seeks help.

As his numerical advantage is reduced, Bogue breaks out a gatling gun, which seems able at some distance to seek out opposing forces with surprising accuracy, not just rapid fire.  The end will come as no surprise, with most of the seven down, but the town and the remainder of the seven winning.  The ending reveals more of Chisolm’s motivations in taking on Bogue, and Emma gets her revenge.

One of the strengths of the original 1960 movie was in the casting of the seven; with one exception (Brad Dexter), every one of them was a significant star by the end of the decade.  Here, the temptation is to see the seven more as ethnic types.  One would have welcomed a little more backstory on them, but the same was true of the original.  Ethan Hawke’s Robicheaux is traumatized by PTSD and nightmares, similar to Robert Vaughn’s haunted gunfighter in the original.  There is a knife-on-gun fight with Byung-hun Lee’s Billy Rocks, as with James Coburn.  We never really understand D’Onofrio’s Jack Horne, and Sensmeier’s Red Harvest remains determinedly enigmatic.  Chris Pratt’s character is energetic and interesting, but kind of scattered.

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Some elements of the battle are predictable.  When we see that Bogue has an evil Indian in his ranks, we know that Red Harvest will have to deal with him.  As Chisolm gives Bogue too much time to talk, we can tell sense Bogue’s end coming from another source.  Sarsgaard is every bit as evil as required, but he’s not nearly as interesting as Eli Wallach’s Mexican bandit chieftain in the original.  Even the line about sheep being sheared seems flatter coming from him, because his character as written understands less.  Denzel Washington works well as a black leader of white men in the post-Civil War west, but nobody comments on it.  We never really know why Chisolm, a black man, and Robicheaux, a former Confederate sniper from Louisiana, are friends.

At bottom, Washington is good enough here that we’ll have to regret that he won’t be in as many westerns as we’d like to see him in.  His skill with a gun reminds one of Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars—perhaps not entirely believable, but good to watch and what we want to see from him.  As the vengeful young widow, Haley Bennett is surprisingly good.  If you’re wondering where you’ve seen her before, you may be surprised to remember her as a Britney Spears-esque teen pop star in the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics (with Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore).  Within a month after the release of this film, she had a significant role in The Girl on the Train.  Between the two, they probably constitute a breakout for her into stardom.

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A significant part of the conflict in the situation is from bad men struggling to do good, mostly without really intending to and juggling their different motivations.  How compelling or rewarding is the impulse to do good, to help the defenseless against evil?  Mostly religious settlers are depicted in modern movies just as ineffective simpletons.  Here religion seems to be taken a bit more seriously and given a bit more depth, by Jack Horne and by a number of others—a more accurate representation of why it is a positive force in the community.  When considering the odds, Jack Horne (otherwise kind of a wild man) says that defending good people, fighting alongside men such he now considers the seven to be, is all he can ask for in an end.  That’s a good line and comes across as an honest assessment, for him.  Although there is melancholy for the dead at the end, it does not end with the feeling of Chris Adams in 1960 or Kurosawa’s samurai in 1954:  “The old man was right.  Only the farmers won.  We lost.  We always lose.”  Sam Chisolm definitely won here.

Of course, another thing the 1960 original got right was its musical score by Elmer Bernstein, with its unforgettable theme.  Of all the elements from 1960, audiences may be looking for a reprise of that theme.  It doesn’t show up until the closing credits, but that’s okay.  The 1960 theme had a certain optimism that is contrary to the mood of this remake, and the 2016 score by James Horner and Simon Franglen is in the tradition of Bernstein’s work while fitting in better with this film.  Excellent cinematography by Mauro Fiore.  Shot largely in Arizona; in color, at 133 minutes.

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The Virginian (1929)

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 28, 2016

The Virginian (1929)—Gary Cooper, Mary Brian, Richard Arlen, Walter Huston, Eugene Pallette, Chester Conklin, Jack Pennick, Randolph Scott, Charles Stevens (1929; Dir:  Victor Fleming)

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This early talkie version of Owen Wister’s oft-refilmed 1902 western novel provides Gary Cooper with one of his signature roles in westerns, along with perhaps The Plainsman and High Noon.  At 28, he had been appearing in movies for about five years, many of them westerns.  And he had broken through to initial stardom with his role in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), a western of sorts.  A lanky native of Montana, he proved to be a natural in westerns, starring in many of them for the rest of his career.  Although the tale seems old-fashioned now and provides the basis for some of the oldest clichés in westerns, many think this 1929 film is the best version of the story on film.  It was also the first major sound film to be shot outdoors, made on location in Sonora, California.

Most fans of westerns will be familiar with the outlines of the story.  Beautiful young Molly Stark Wood from Vermont comes west to Wyoming Territory to teach at a remote school.  The biggest rancher in the vicinity is Judge Henry, but despite his title there is little law in the territory.  Molly (Mary Brian) meets Judge Henry’s foreman, known only as the Virginian (Gary Cooper), and his sunny-tempered friend Steve (Richard Arlen).  Originally put off by the Virginian’s informality, Molly nevertheless develops an affection for him.

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The Virginian (Gary Cooper) and Trampas (Walter Huston): “If you want to call me that, smile.”

That affection is tested twice.  In the first instance, Steve is corrupted by the rustler Trampas (Walter Huston).  When Judge Henry’s riders capture three of Trampas’ rustlers red-handed, one of them turns out to be Steve.  According to the rules of the time, they are all hanged, and the Virginian takes after Trampas.  As he tracks the rustler chief, Trampas shoots him in the back from ambush.  The Virginian’s horse takes him to the school, and Molly nurses him back to health, only to be horrified when she learns that he led those who hanged his friend Steve.

They manage to get past that, but on their wedding day in Medicine Bow, Trampas shows up in town and orders the Virginian out of town by sundown.  He actually says that the town isn’t big enough for both of them.  Molly tries ineffectively to talk her man out of doing what we all know he has to do.  As the sun goes down, Trampas shoots first, again from ambush, and the Virginian returns fire in a classic street shootout.  As the Virginian returns to Molly at their hotel, they fall into each other’s arms and the film ends.

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Molly (Mary Brian) reasons with the Virginian, to no avail.  And Trampas (Walter Huston) shoots the Virginian in the back from ambush.

The production seems a bit stilted by today’s standards, and the makeup (especially on Brian and Cooper) is clearly of the 1920s.  But this is still a very good western.  There has probably never been a better Virginian on film than the young Cooper, and the film made Cooper a bigger star.  This was his second talking western, after Wolf Song, also directed by Fleming.  He reportedly had trouble remembering his lines, now that he actually had to say lines.  The most difficult part in this story is usually that of Molly, who can easily seem priggish and overly Victorian to current audiences.  Mary Brian is adequate and sometimes spirited in her way, especially when compared with, say, Barbara Britton from the 1946 film version with Joel McCrea.

The supporting cast is very good, too.  Richard Arlen is good at showing Steve’s good nature and making him sympathetic as he falls under Trampas’ sway.  At the time this was made, Walter Huston was better known than Cooper, mostly from working on Broadway; he was paid $20,000 to Cooper’s $3,400.  (Director Victor Fleming was paid $75,000, so we know who had the real clout here.  A prominent director since 1919, Fleming, of course, was connected with some of the best-remembered films of the 1930s and into the 1940s, such as Captains Courageous, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind and A Guy Named Joe—hardly any of them westerns.)

Rotund, gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette is one of the Virginian’s principal supporters in the film.  You’ll recognize him from the later Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and the Tyrone Power version of The Mark of Zorro.  Silent comedian Chester Conklin makes a fleeting appearance.  Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens is in the cast as a Mexican.  North Carolina native Randolph Scott worked on the film as a dialect coach teaching Cooper how to speak as if he were from Virginia, and in a brief non-speaking part early in his career.  There had been earlier silent versions of the story in 1914 and 1923, but this one is better.  The film is in black and white, at 91 minutes.

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Initially Molly (Mary Brian) is torn between the Virginian (Gary Cooper, left) and his pal Steve (Richard Arlen, right), but she chooses well.

This is probably one of the three foundational westerns from the 1920s.  If you want to see how many of the tropes, archetypes and lore of the modern western were developed, watch The Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse and this.  If you want to watch Cooper in another western from the early talking-movies stage of his career, try Fighting Caravans (1931).  If you want to watch another version of The Virginian for purposes of comparison, try Bill Pullman’s television version from 2000 with Diane Lane, which tries to make the language and situations more relatable to modern audiences, with some success.  The 1946 remake with Joel McCrea, Barbara Britton and Brian Donlevy is less successful.

This can be very difficult to find, since it’s not available on DVD.  Sometimes you can catch it on TCM or on the Starz Encore Westerns channel, and it’s said to be on YouTube.

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Jane Got a Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 11, 2016

Jane Got A Gun—Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Noah Emmerich (2016; Dir:  Gavin O’Connor)

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This female empowerment story with an extraordinary international cast and a clunky title had a bumpy path to the screen.  Originally, (Irish actor) Michael Fassbender was to star opposite (Israeli-born) Natalie Portman, but he left early on due to either (a) clashes with original (Scottish) director Lynne Ramsay, or (b) scheduling conflicts with an X-Men movie, depending on which version one believes.  (Australian actor) Joel Edgerton was moved from playing the villain to the role opposite Portman, and (English actor) Jude Law signed up to be the villain, only to leave shortly after Ramsay’s departure as director just as shooting was to start.  Bradley Cooper was then to come in as the bad guy, but also had scheduling conflicts.  Finally, (Scottish actor) Ewan McGregor was signed, Gavin O’Connor (director of the underrated Warrior) came in on very short notice, and the film was shot in New Mexico in early 2013.  Then it languished on the shelf for almost three years, while its distributor went into bankruptcy.  Eventually, the movie came to the Weinsteins and then to the big screen in early 2016.  Such turmoil in production often leads to very lowered expectations for the product.  It shouldn’t, in this case.

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Jane (Natalie Portman) seeks help from former flame Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton).

In New Mexico Territory in 1871, Bill Hammond (character actor Noah Emmerich) rides up to the remote ranch he shares with his wife Jane Ballard Hammond (Natalie Portman) and young daughter, only to fall off his horse with five bullets in him.  He mutters something about the Bishop Boys coming.  After providing some doctoring to Hammond, Jane takes her (three-year-old?) daughter Kate to a neighbor for safety.  And then she seeks out Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton).  Much of the rest of the story is told in various flashbacks.

Frost and Jane had been lovers in Missouri before Frost left to fight for the Union early in the Civil War, ten years previously.  He was apparently some kind of hero in that conflict and now has some talents as a gunslinger, which is what Jane says she’s seeking.  In another flashback, we see that in 1866 Jane, believing Frost had been killed in the war, took her daughter Mary and joined a wagon train of women heading west under the leadership of John Bishop (Ewan McGregor).  Meanwhile, Frost had also come west in search of her and had eventually ended up asking Bishop, who was also looking for her by the time Frost came to him.

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Jane (Natalie Portman) is not a natural with a pistol, although she can handle a rifle.

[Spoilers follow.]  Finally finding Jane married and with a child, Frost has apparently taken to drink and bitterness.  However, he reluctantly comes to Jane’s aid when she is attacked in town by one of Bishop’s men.  At the ranch Frost directs the effort in putting together a makeshift mine field in front of the cabin with mason jars, kerosene, nails and glass shards.  In more flashbacks, we see that Hammond was one of Bishop’s men.  He fell in love with Jane and rescued her from a brothel in Raphael, New Mexico, which is where the nefarious Bishop planned to take the women all along.  Jane’s daughter Mary had apparently been drowned, and current daughter Kate was conceived as a result of her brief stay in the brothel.

Another Bishop man shows up at the ranch, and Frost dispatches him.  The principal Bishop attack comes at night, with an incredible barrage of bullets shredding the ranch house.  However, the mine field works spectacularly, and the odds against Jane and Frost are reduced.  Both Frost (right shoulder) and Jane (torso) are hit, and Hammond is finished off, although he was apparently dying anyway.  Frost gets the last few attackers, but the final one is Bishop himself, who captures Frost.  Jane gets the drop on Bishop, and he claims that Mary is still alive.  As Jane blasts him, Bishop reveals that Mary is at the brothel in Raphael.

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The makeshift mine field takes its toll on the attackers.

In the final scenes, Jane and Frost retrieve Mary, and Jane claims the rewards for the now-deceased members of the Bishop gang (including $5000 for Bishop himself).  She forgoes the $2000 reward on Bill Hammond.  With the proceeds, she, Frost (with arm in a sling) and their two daughters head for a new life in California.

The actors are excellent.  Portman, Edgerton and McGregor all appeared in earlier Star Wars movies together and are unusually capable.  One of Edgerton’s major roles a few years ago was in the very good Warrior, directed by Gavin O’Connor.  Here, Portman gets a producing credit, along with several others, and was the moving force behind it all.  Edgerton has a writing credit, as one of three.  McGregor doesn’t actually show up on camera that frequently, but he is snakily evil when he does, and his menace looms over the entire movie.  The film has some grittiness; it is rated R for graphic violence, brothel scenes, loathsome bad guys and some bad language.  But if you can stomach that, it’s not a bad western.  Jane’s costume design is unusually good, managing to look both 19th-century, attractive and utilitarian together—especially her hat, which looks good but is less authentic.  Women’s hats can be a problem in westerns (but see Linda Darnell in Two Flags West from 1950), although they would seemingly be a necessity for any woman who spent much time out-of-doors.

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So what doesn’t work?  There is some excellent cinematography by Mandy Walker (the young lovers in a field of cattails, for example, and the explosion of the minefield).  But much of the night attack can be hard to see in the dark.  Although it’s not a long movie at 98 minutes, the story is lacking a spark of something.  Frost apparently did something extraordinary during the late war, but that isn’t established very well, nor is his status or skill as a gunslinger.  (Use of that term by Jane seems anachronistic.)  A couple of small scenes could have remedied that.  Perhaps the worry was that making the Dan Frost character a bit stronger would take away from focusing on Jane’s strength.  That doesn’t need to be the case, however; it can be a very good thing to have two strong characters to play off each other.  The storytelling is not entirely smooth, and things seem to bog down slightly from time to time as we wait for the next attack or flashback.

The inspiration for the title was apparently the 1989 Aerosmith song “Janie’s Got a Gun,” which plays on outrage for mistreatment of women and the helpless.  A better title would have let this story stand on its own, even though those themes are present here, too.  Movies with an overt ideological bent often do not thrive as stories; that’s why most revisionist westerns are not that good as westerns.  But this one mostly works.  Capable women with guns in westerns go back more than 70 years, at least to Loretta Young saving Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones (1945).  Strong, vengeful women with guns go back at least 45 years to 1971’s Hannie Caulder, with Raquel Welch, through Bad Girls (1994) and a number of others, and this fits into that genealogy.

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The Bishop Boys, led by John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), get their orders.

This is also one of those movies in which young lovers are separated by the Civil War and afterward have to sort out the consequences—or are unable to do so.  See The Last Sunset, for example, and Cold Mountain.  More recently, see Forsaken, which is slightly better than this film.

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Forsaken

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Walking Hills

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 24, 2016

The Walking Hills—Randolph Scott, John Ireland, Ella Raines, William Bishop, Edgar Buchanan, Josh White, Jerome Courtland, Arthur Kennedy, Charles Stevens (1949; Dir: John Sturges)

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The enigmatic title of this treasure-hunting noir western set in modern times (ca. 1950) refers to a large area of dunes that move around in strong winds.  An 1852 wagon train supposed to have been full of gold was been lost there, and in a back room card game in Calexico, young Johnny (Jerome Courtland) refers to having seen what might be a line of wagons out in the sand.  Old Willy (grizzled former dentist Edgar Buchanan) supplies the legend, and it is determined that everybody in the room must go, lest anybody staying behind later follow with his own search party and cut them out.

They are soon joined by Chris Jackson (Ella Raines), who works at a local lunch counter and has romantic history with two members of the group.  Aside from Old Willy, the most experienced hand is Jim Carey (Randolph Scott), a rancher and horse breeder, who brings along a mare he expects to foal at any time.  He supplies the expedition with horses, wrangled by his Indian hand Cleve (Charles Stevens).  Chris and Jim were a romantic item before she left him for rodeo rider/gambler Shep/Dave (William Bishop).  Shep in turn abandoned her in the rain in Denver.

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Jim Carey (Randolph Scott) is the center, figuratively and visually, of the group of gold hunters.

Frazee (John Ireland) is a private detective who was pursuing Shep but is now more interested in gold.  He has a gun and a heliograph, with which he signals a confederate in the foothills.  Bits of backstory are told in flashback, such as the fact that Shep had been in a card game in Denver that resulted in an accidental death, for which he is now wanted by the law.  That’s why he left Chris in Denver.  Johnny sees Frazee burying something and jumps him; he is shot by Frazee and initially thought to be paralyzed.  Chris insists that Jim get Johnny to a doctor, but Jim can’t leave his mare and thinks that Johnny won’t make it anyway.  He doesn’t, although he supplies a couple more bits of information before his demise.

[Spoilers follow.]  Old Willy discovers a wagon, giving the group new energy.  But there’s no gold in the wagon, and the band is hit by a sand storm, during which Frazee battles Shep, Chalk (Arthur Kennedy) and Jim with shovels and fists before Chalk shoots Frazee with his own gun.  Jim scrambles to round up the scattered horses in the storm, while the others seek cover.  When the storm passes, the wagon train stands revealed, but with no gold.  Shep takes off to turn himself in and sort things out; Jim gives Chris one of the few remaining horses to follow him.  And he forces Old Willy to reveal that he has in fact found $10,000 in gold, which he will have to split with the survivors.  Jim takes the remaining horse and the new foal, saying that he will send horses for them.

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Treasure-seekers and romantic triangle Chris (Ella Raines), Shep/Dave (William Bishop) and a shirtless Jim Carey (Randolph Scott).

The cast is very good.  Randolph Scott was the biggest star at the time, and he is the moral center of the movie, although he doesn’t seem all that moral at the start.  He’s in good physical shape for a man in his 50s, as his shirtless scenes remind us (for more of those, see him in Carson City).  His strong, taciturn role here reminds us of his work ten years later with director Budd Boetticher.  Sultry Ella Raines is good as Chris; this may have been the peak of her modest movie career, though.  John Ireland was also at the early peak of his long movie and television career following Red River, My Darling Clementine and I Shot Jesse James and before All the King’s Men.  Look for Scott and Ireland together again the same year in The Doolins of Oklahoma, a more conventional western.  William Bishop was fine in this, but did not have a particularly notable career before his early death at 41.  Arthur Kennedy doesn’t have much to do or much camera time.  For Edgar Buchanan in another role as a grizzled gold seeker about this time, see him with Glenn Ford in Lust for Gold. Geronimo’s grandson Charles Stevens gets more screen time here than he usually did, and he looks authentic.

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Fights break out, mostly centering on private investigator Frazee (John Ireland).

Surprisingly for a relatively short film, this includes a couple of musical interludes by bluesman Josh Smith.  Note the camera angles used by director Sturges during those interludes to provide visual interest and prevent things from becoming too static during the songs.  The birth of a foal in the desert provides a symbol of hope and renewal when things are going badly.

The classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre had come out the previous year (1948), and this was obviously influenced by the success of that film.  It was shot in Death Valley and Lone Pine in beautiful black and white by Charles Lawton, Jr., who later worked with producer Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott several more times on the Boetticher westerns.  The sandstorm scenes are particularly effective.  He also worked with eminent western directors Delmer Daves, including the marvelously shot 3:10 to Yuma, and John Ford.

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At a compact 78 minutes, much is revealed by flashback, but not everything.  The story is left with a few holes in it, and that appears to be by design.  Story and screenplay are by Alan LeMay (Gunfighters, San Antonio, Rocky Mountain, novels for The Searchers and The Unforgiven).  This is from early in the career of excellent director John Sturges (Escape from Fort Bravo, Bad Day at Black Rock, Last Train from Gun Hill, The Magnificent Seven, Hour of the Gun et al.).  It is not as polished as some of his later work, but it is well worth watching (and even re-watching), although it can be hard to find

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The Wonderful Country

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 31, 2015

The Wonderful Country—Robert Mitchum, Julie London, Pedro Armendariz, Gary Merrill, Albert Dekker, Victor Mendoza, Satchel Paige (1959; Dir: Robert Parrish)

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In the 1950s, Julie London was known primarily as a sultry singer, but she also made three westerns:  Saddle the Wind (1958), with Robert Taylor; Man of the West (1958), with Gary Cooper; and this one with Robert Mitchum.  The story involves another of Robert Mitchum’s adventures in Mexico (e.g. Bandido and The Wrath of God), or rather back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., as he tries to sort out his loyalties.

Mitchum plays Martin Brady, an American who has long been working in Mexico as a pistolero for the Castro family—specifically for Cipriano Castro.  As the movie opens, he is delivering silver pesos to a German merchant named Sterner across the Rio Grande.  In a dusty border town on the U.S. side, his horse (a big black Andalusian stallion named Lágrimas—Spanish for “tears”) is spooked and throws him, breaking his leg.  As he is laid up for two months, he makes a number of acquaintances, most of whom have their own agendas for him.  And he begins to feel that he’d like to stay on the U.S. side.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) gets his broken leg set.

Brady initially fled Texas when his father was killed, and he in turn shot the killer.  But the local Texas Ranger authority (Albert Dekker), who would like to recruit him as a ranger, tells him that it was long ago now, and that most who know about it think he did a good thing.  The military commander at Fort Jefflin, Major Stark Colton (Gary Merrill), wants to form a joint venture with the Castros to hunt the Apaches who strike back and forth across the border.  Mrs. Helen Colton obviously hasn’t much attraction to her own husband, and Brady hears scuttlebutt about her affairs in Missouri.  As he thinks about staying, he attends a social gathering at the fort.  While he’s avoiding becoming involved with Mrs. Colton, a hardcase (played by Chuck Roberson, John Wayne’s favorite stand-in) picks a fight with a German friend of Brady’s and Brady is forced to kill him.

He then flees south of the border, where he finds that he is in trouble because the guns never made it back to the Castros while Brady was laid up.  Cipriano Castro (Pedro Armendariz) is now the governor in the capital city, but the Castro brothers no longer trust each other.  As Major Colton visits the capital and forms an alliance with Cipriano, Brady dallies with Mrs. Colton but is interrupted when Cipriano orders him to kill the other Castro brother—the general Marcos (Victor Mendoza).  Brady refuses and flees the city, but now neither Cipriano nor Marcos trusts him.  He flees north, with his pursuit being led astray by a friend.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) and the major’s wife (Julie London) try to come to terms with their mutual attraction.

The American force is now 100 miles deep in Mexico, but Marcos succeeds in assassinating his brother and repudiates the alliance.  Major Colton is mortally wounded in an encounter with Apaches, but Brady manages to retrieve the stolen wagon of rifles.  Colton dies, and Mrs. Colton tells Brady that if he wants her he’ll have to find her in the U.S.  Nearing the Rio Grande, Lágrimas is shot by a pursuer sent by Marcos Castro.  Brady kills the pursuer, but is forced to shoot Lágrimas as well, symbolic of killing his past life.  He leaves his sombrero and gun by the horse’s body and heads across the Rio Grande.

Some have referred to this as an “existential western,” as Brady tries to figure out where he belongs, if anywhere.  Based on a novel by Tom Lea (who has a cameo as a barber), the story is slow developing in its first half but picks up speed as Brady returns to Mexico.  At only 98 minutes, some of the characters and their competing agendas seem underdeveloped.  Mrs. Colton herself doesn’t really come alive as a character, as she might have with a little more development.  Without having read the novel, I’m guessing it probably works a little better than the movie in some respects.  Robert Mitchum, in his world-weary mode, is the primary reason to watch this movie, although it’s fun to see baseball pitcher Satchel Paige in his only movie role as a buffalo soldier sergeant.  Mitchum was also the executive producer.

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Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) and a sergeant (Satchel Paige) find the stolen rifles.

Shot in color on location in Durango and Guanajuato, Mexico, the movie looks good, especially in a high definition print.  Director Parrish also did Saddle the Wind, but his career was nothing remarkable.  The “wonderful country” of the title is presumably Mexico—wonderful, perhaps, but dangerous.

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Cattle Empire

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 1, 2015

Cattle Empire—Joel McCrea, Gloria Talbott, Don Haggerty, Phyllis Coates, Bing Russell, Richard Shannon, Paul Brinegar (1958; Dir: Charles Marquis Warren)

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In the opening scenes of this late Joel McCrea cattle drive story, John Cord (McCrea) is being dragged through the streets of Hamilton by irate citizens as, bit by bit, his backstory emerges.  He has been just let out of Yuma Territorial Prison in Arizona after serving a five-year sentence.  An experienced trail boss, his men had gotten out of control and trashed Hamilton, resulting in extensive property destruction and a few deaths.  Cord himself had ended it in a brawl with local cattle baron Ralph Hamilton (Don Haggerty), from which Hamilton had emerged blind but married to Cord’s one-time fiancée Janice (Phyllis Coates) after Cord had been sent off to prison.

Now Hamilton has sent for Cord for his trail boss skills, at a time when Cord has few other choices. The town has never recovered and is on the verge of blowing away in a drought.  Hamilton thinks Cord is tough enough to get a combined local herd of 4000 cattle to market at Ft. Clemson, at a time when water is even harder than usual to find.  They have to get there first to win an army contract.  There’s also a rival herd managed by another cattle baron Garth (Richard Shannon), which Cord also agrees to lead.  It’s not clear what Cord’s game is, other than various unresolved feelings of revenge—against Ralph Hamilton, Janice Hamilton and various of the townsfolk.  Aside from Ralph Hamilton, the only citizens who treat Cord decently are the aging brothers George Washington Jeffrey (Hal K. Dawson) and Thomas Jefferson Jeffrey (Paul Brinegar), who join the trail drive along with G.W.’s granddaughter Sandy (Gloria Talbott) and a number of other more or less resentful cattlemen.

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John Cord (Joel McCrea) drinks with the Jeffrey brothers (Hal Dawson and Paul Brinegar), two of the few friends he has left in town.

As matters get sorted out, Cord drops out of Garth’s drive, telling him to head for Horsethief Creek because there’s no water at the Dismal River.  Garth suspects that Cord is now trying to distract him and heads for the Dismal; in fact, Cord has been straight with Garth and is taking the Hamilton herd to Horsethief Creek.  Slowly relations with the Hamiltons and the townsfolk develop.  Hamilton offers Cord his ranch and cattle empire (and even Janice, by implication) for getting them through.  Janice in some ways regrets her faithlessness to Cord, and it is unclear how far matters between them go before the ultimate resolution.  It looks like they go quite a way, which was unusual for both a 1950s western and for a Joel McCrea character.  Sandy evinces some romantic interest in Cord, even though he seems significantly too old for her.

Needless to say, Cord gets the herd through.  [Spoilers follow.]  But Garth, thinking Cord was trying to slow down his herd, went to the DIsmal River and lost his herd.  He has now hired gunhands to take away the Hamilton herd at Indian Pass, before they can get to Fort Clemson.  Ralph Hamilton confesses that five years ago, when Cord beat his herd to market, it was he who had turned Cord’s hands loose on the town and started the fight with Cord.  Now Cord has to save the herd from Garth’s gunmen and shoot it out in traditional fashion with Garth himself.  As he leaves, it seems that rather than taking Ralph’s offer Cord will head for new ground in the northwest… and will come back for Sandy.

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It takes a tough trail boss (Joel McCrea) to get the herd to market.

Director Charles Marquis Warren was known more for his screenwriting than for his directorial abilities, although he did direct a few other westerns, of which Trooper Hook (also starring McCrea) and 1956’s Tension at Table Rock (with Richard Egan) are probably the best.  He then moved almost entirely into television work.  That this is worth watching at all is due almost entirely to Joel McCrea, who’s a little more morally evasive than normal for him; otherwise the writing is undistinguished and the acting (other than McCrea) is unremarkable.  The romantic triangle between McCrea, Coates and Talbott is interesting but seems at least partially unresolved.  As noted before, the McCrea-Talbott age difference is obviously significant, but, like Gary Cooper and John Wayne, Joel McCrea could make it work out believably.  The story seems unbalanced, with a lot of development of the various Cord-Hamilton-citizenry resentments and motivations and not enough of the actual arduous drive.  It might have benefited from another 12-20 minutes of cattle drive, if it was done well.  The film obviously utilizes a lot of stock footage during the cattle drive.

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The geography of the film is a little hazy.  Cord had been in prison at Yuma, making it seem like Arizona Territory.  But there are also references to the Staked Plains and to arriving at the Pecos, which sounds like maybe Texas-New Mexico.  Fort Clemson, the ultimate destination of the drive, is apparently fictional.  Fans of cattle drive westerns will note that there are several of the standard vicissitudes of trail drives missing here:  no stampedes with related deaths, no bad storms and bad weather interludes, no Indian raids and such.  That’s one reason the drive itself seems a bit light.  McCrea gives a speech about how the hardest part of the drive is coming up between them and Horsethief Creek, and, with the next scene cut, the herd’s at Horsethief Creek without any of the hard going.  It’s not the best of late McCrea westerns, but he makes it worth watching.  Not to be confused with Cattle Drive, another McCrea cattle drive western from earlier in the 1950s.  For the greatest of cattle drive westerns, see Lonesome Dove and Red River.

Shot in color in the Alabama Hills around Lone Pine, at 83 minutes.  This is not often seen these days, since it’s not available on DVD in the United States.  The year following this film, three members of the cast (Paul Brinegar, Steve Raines and Rocky Shahan) joined the television trail drive western Rawhide, with Eric Fleming as trail boss Gill Favor, a young Clint Eastwood as segundo Rowdy Yates, and writer-producer Charles Marquis Warren in control of the series.

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The Furies

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 20, 2015

The Furies—Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Beulah Bondi, John Bromfield, Thomas Gomez, Blanche Yurka, Albert Dekker, Wallace Ford (1950; Dir: Anthony Mann)

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Niven Busch was a well-known novelist and screenwriter during the 1930s and 1940s and into the early 1950s, leaving Hollywood in 1952.  Among his non-western screenplays were He Was Her Man (1934) with James Cagney and the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana Turner.  But by the 1940s, he was also writing significant westerns, like The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan and Pursued (1947), one of the early westerns noirs, with Robert Mitchum, Busch’s then-wife Teresa Wright and Judith Anderson.  His biggest-selling novels tended to be western sagas with a lot of melodrama, family angst, overtly classical references (like this one, trying to make connections with Greek tragedy) and Freudian overtones.  His best-known such novel was Duel in the Sun (1946), made into an overheated potboiler by David O. Selznick.  But The Furies was probably the best movie based on his novels, just as it was probably the best of Barbara Stanwyck’s cattle queen sagas from the 1950s (The Maverick Queen, Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, Forty Guns, et al.).  And maybe the best of anybody’s cattle queen movies, although Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) with Joan Crawford has its partisans, too.

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Adversaries T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) frame Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck).

Set in New Mexico of the 1870s, the title “The Furies” refers to the self-conscious name of the huge ranch of T.C. Jeffords, as well as to the female deities of vengeance in Greek mythology.  The aging Jeffords (Walter Huston in his last role) has long been a law unto himself, now spending most of his time in San Francisco.  He put together the cattle empire, sometimes issuing his own scrip (called “TCs”) when money was tight.  The best part of his land is referred to as the Darrow Strip, which T.C. acquired through dubious legal means and by killing the Darrow who owned it.  There are also “squatters” on Jeffords’ range, most prominently the Herreras, who have lived there for generations.  It is not primarily an “Anglos vs. Hispanics” situation, though.  The most ardent anti-squatter is Jeffords’ range boss El Tigre (Thomas Gomez), who is obviously of Hispanic origin.

At the beginning of the film, T.C.’s two grown children are waiting for his arrival.  The son Clay (John Bromfield) is about to get married; he doesn’t get along with his father and is not the favored child.  That would be daughter Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck), who has more of her father’s aggressive personality and can manage him better.  He has promised that she will get The Furies and a $50,000 dowry if she marries some one of whom he approves.  At the ball celebrating Clay’s marriage, one of the less desirable attendees is gambler and saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey).  When Vance is taken with him, he maintains his independence.  And when Vance wants to marry him, T.C. offers him the $50,000 dowry if he won’t.  Darrow takes the money without blinking and starts a bank in town.

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T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) don’t always get along, either.

Vance takes some solace in her long-time “friendship” with Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland).  She is taken aback when T.C. returns from Washington with a widowed companion, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).  Flo is after independence/money, and T.C. gives her his remaining $50,000.  More significantly for Vance, Flo is planning to take over as the lady of The Furies and to sideline Vance, despite T.C.’s promises to Vance.  Furious, Vance attacks Flo with scissors, severely gashing her face and causing facial paralysis on one side.  Seeking refuge with the Herreras, Vance is followed by T.C. and his men.  Using dynamite to shake the Herreras into surrender in their mountain home, T.C. ruthlessly hangs Juan Herrera, and Vance enters her vengeance phase.

Using the $50,000 given to Rip Darrow, Vance travels the west, buying up TCs at a huge discount.  She persuades T.C.’s San Francisco bankers to extend the Jeffords loans for another 90 days by going through the banker’s wife, Mrs. Anaheim (Beulah Bondi) and giving T.C. enough time to round up and sell 20,000 cattle.

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Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) gets ready to attack Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).

T.C. is desperate enough to try to get back Flo’s $50,000, but in a surprisingly touching scene she refuses now that she’s uglier, lonelier and drinking more.  T.C. makes his roundup on time and sells his cattle, only to discover that the buyer is Vance, using his own TCs.  So she buys his cattle with worthless scrip, and he’s still broke.  Nevertheless, the two make a sort of peace with each other, and Vance plans to marry Rip at last, giving him back the Darrow Strip for his part in the maneuver.  As T.C. announces his plans to start over, he is shot down by Juan Herrera’s mother (Blanche Yurka).

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Mom Herrera (Blanche Yurka) prepares to take her revenge.

All of this is carried out with tempestuous emotions, overweening hubris, Shakespearean drama and psycho-Freudian father-daughter overtones that never become explicit.  On the whole, with all that’s going on in this plot, the film could have been a bit longer; it seems a little compressed at 109 minutes.  The cast is excellent, especially Walter Huston (only a couple of years after his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Barbara Stanwyck.  The two seemed to get along well off-screen as well.  Huston observed of his co-star, “Barbara Stanwyck loved doing westerns more than anything where she had to dress up frilly and chase after a man.  At heart, she’s a cowgirl.  Or a cowboy—she’s one of the toughest, most no-nonsense women in this town, and she stopped playing the old cat-and-mouse game years ago.”

Judith Anderson is very good in a small but critical part (see her also in Pursued), and Beulah Bondi in what amounts to a cameo.  Gilbert Roland, after almost 30 years in movies since the days of the silents, is always a pleasure to watch, although he seems a little too old for Juan Herrera here.  The weakest spot in the cast is Wendell Corey, who usually played forms of policemen (see The Wild North and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window) and was kind of a stone-faced actor; he doesn’t seem to have the personality or flamboyance to be gambler Rip Darrow.

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Gambler-banker Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) and Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) try to work things out.

1950 was a good year for the great director Anthony Mann, who was then making the first of his westerns:  Devil’s Doorway, with Robert Taylor, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, and this.  They’re all worth watching, and you can’t consider you’ve seen the best of westerns without Mann’s work from this period.  This one shows some of his noir-ish tendencies, with lots of wild night skies and dark shadows, especially with the frequent shots of the sign over the main gate of the ranch against the night sky.  The best way to watch The Furies (other than on the big screen) is on the 2008 Criterion Collection DVD, with the usual Criterion interesting extras and excellent print transfer.  The screenplay is by Charles Schnee.  Shot in black and white, mostly on location in Arizona by Victor Milman.  Music is by Franz Waxman.

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For other western family sagas in addition to Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Furies, see The Sea of Grass (1947), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and, more recently, Legends of the Fall (1994), with Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn.  And maybe even Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992).  For other westerns based on the works of Niven Busch, see Belle Starr (1941), Distant Drums (1951) with Gary Cooper, Budd Boetticher‘s The Man From the Alamo (1953) with Glenn Ford, and The Moonlighter (1953) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

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