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Monday, April 17, 2017

The Guns of Fort Petticoat



The Guns of Fort Petticoat (1957)

The first movie production by Murphy-Brown Pictures, a partnership Audie Murphy had formed with Harry Joe Brown. It remained their only movie because of personal differences between the two partners. The Guns of Fort Petticoat was panned by contemporary critics who thought this outlandish story about a petticoat army fighting off an Indian attack didn't combine well with the historic background of the plight of the red man, but the movie seems to have withstood the test of time pretty well and today many think it's one of Murphy's more enjoyable efforts

The story is set in full Civil War time. Audie Murphy is Lt. Frank Hewitt, a guy from Dixie in Yankee service. When some Cheyenne braves leave their territory, Hewitt's commander, the racist Colonel John Chivington decides to punish them by attacking their virtually unprotected village. The result is an infamy known to history as the Sand Creek Massacre. Hewitt knows the Indians will seek revenge by attacking innocent homesteaders and with most men departed to fight in the Civil War, only women and children are left to defend the homesteads. He deserts to warn the women but is first treated by them as a 'blue belly traitor'. Things change when he shows them the dead body of a woman tortured and murdered by marauding Indians. Hewitt and the women entrench themselves in an abandoned mission post to fight of the imminent Indian attack ...


AudieMurphy was not a great dramatic actor, but his real-life experiences (he was one of the most decorated combat soldiers of WWII) seemed to lend credibility to his screen persona. He is quite convincing as the experienced soldier training the women in combat techniques, slowly turning the colorful troupe into an efficient fighting unit, the Guns of Fort Petticoat. Some clichés are tackled (several women and one child are killed during the attack), others remain intact; there's room for romance and comedy and yes, some of the comedy feels a little out of place, notably a scene of Murphy spanking the hot-headed Kathryn Grant. But let's not forget that many contemporary westerns (including those by the likes of Ford or Hawks) offered vaudeville-like interruptions of a serious narrative.

Director Marshall was no Ford or Hawks but he had a long career in both the western and comedy genre and overall the serio-comic mix works quite well. Only the coda, in which a court-martialed Hewitt is discharged thanks to the intervention of the women (and his commanding officer is charged instead), rings untrue. There's nothing wrong with using historic events as a background of a fictional story, but John Chivington was forced to resign after a thorough investigation by the Congress, and to suggest that his fate was sealed during an improvised military court by a group of women who stood up for the man who had taught them how to fight, is sheer nonsense. 

Director: George Marshall - Cast: Audie Murphy (Lt. Frank Hewitt), Kathryn Grant (Anne Martin), Hope Emerson (Hannah Lacey), Jeanette Nolan (Cora Melavan), Sean McClory (Emmett Kettle), Ainslie Pryor (Col. Chivington), Patricia Livingston (Stella Leatham) 


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Jane Got a Gun



Jane Got A Gun 

Ever since I saw her in Luc Besson’s Leon: The professional (1994) I have a soft spot for Natalie Portman. In 1994 she was thirteen, but looking like a child, today she’s 35, but still looking ever so young. Her juvenile features inevitably turn her movies into something of a guilty pleasure. In Jane got a Gun she is a young woman who has lost her innocence, but not her vulnerability. She’s the mother of a six or seven year old girl and the wife of a man with a questionable reputation, Bill Hammond (played by Noah Emmerich).

One day Bill comes home with eight bullets in his back. The men who shot him, the Bishop brothers, are on their way to the farm and their arrival will mean even more trouble. The only one who can help Jane and her wounded husband, is their neighbor Dan Evans (Joel Edgerton), but he is not only their neighbor, but also Jane's former fiancé, the man she left to become Mrs. Hammond. At first Dan isn’t willing to help her defend her farm, but he still has feelings for her and changes his mind when he's told that Bill Hammond is possibly dying ...

Jane Got a Gun was a troubled production. At some point, the names of Michael Fassbender, Sam Worthington, Bradley Cooper and Jude Law were all mentioned in relation to the production. The original director, Lynne Ramsey, left a few days into shooting and Edgerton was first cast as the villain but then filled the vacated role of the hero after Worthington had left the production. We can of course speculate about what might have been if this director or that actor, etcetera, but for a movie with this history, Jane got a Gun isn’t bad.
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The film has an interesting setting - the days immediately before and after the Civil War. It also has interesting characters: the three leads, Jane, Bill and Dan, all have their shady sides, and none of them is 'innocent': It soon transpires that Jane did not leave Dan but that, quite on the contrary, he left her, to fight in a war he believed in. Jane then headed West, in search of a new life, joining a wagon train led by two brothers, John and Vic Bishop, and realized far too late that the brothers had special plans with her. She only accepted to become the wife of a man with a questionable reputation because he was the only one who cared when she was in a humiliating, dishonoring situation.

Portman and Edgerton turn in good performances, but the other actors fare less well: McGregor is underused (he's also virtually unrecognizable due to a false moustache and a lot of make-up) and Emmerich is confined to his bed most of the time, not a comfortable position to make an impression as an actor. The film was criticized for its complex, flashback-driven narrative and I do agree that this back-and-forth, back-and-forth structure occasionally works a little confusing, but the twists, turns and revelations will surely hold your attention (and the final twist, concerning a second daughter, is particularly surprising). The action moments are often unexpected (and very brutal), but the movie seems to lack a real western ending: the attack on the farm is set at night and if it brings a Peckinpah movie to mind, it's not one of his westerns, but his siege drama Straw Dogs.

***
Dir: Gavin O'Connor - Cast: Natalie Portman (Jane), Joel Edgerton (Dan), Noah Emmerich (Bill), Ewan McGregor (John Bishop), Boyd Holbrook (Vic Bishop), Rodrigo Santoro (Fitchum)


Friday, April 1, 2016

Rio Grande



RIO GRANDE 

Dir: John Ford - Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman, Jr., Harry Carey, Jr., Chill Wills, J. Carrol Naish, Victor McLaglen, Grant Withers, Sons of the Pioneers (as the Regimental Singers), Patrick Wayne

The third part of Ford’s celebrated Cavalry Trilogy, following Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  It’s the first of five movies with John Wayne playing opposite to Maureen O’Hara; they were both strong characters and there had been doubts about pairing them for a movie, but they became good friends. The film also marks the film debut of John’s son Patrick (he plays one of the children).

The story is set fifteen years after the Civil War, but the theme is still (like in Yellow Ribbon) reconciliation. North and South must unite under the US flag and stick together in pursuit of marauding Indians. At a personal level, the theme of reconciliation is reflected by the relationship of an inhibited, stubborn officer, Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne) with his estranged wife (O’Hara) and his son, a boy he hasn’t seen since the end of the war. The young man was dropped as a cadet at West Point, but subsequently enlisted in the cavalry and is now assigned to his father’s regiment at the frontier. Soon after the boy, the mother also arrives at the outpost, to buy her son free.

Rio Grande was an adaptation of a story by J.W. Bellah, whose writings had served as the base for all three movies of the trilogy. Bellah’s story, called Mission with No Record, was based on an actual raid executed in 1873. A number of Kickapoo Indians had left their reservation and fled into Mexico; from time to time they were launching surprise attacks from their base south of the border. Eventually an officer from Fort Clark was ordered - unofficially - to put an end to the raids, even if the campaign violated the sovereignty of another nation. The action almost led to an international conflict and reportedly General Sherman was much angered at the operation that was planned behind his back (1).

In the movie the army still crosses the border, but the punitive expedition is turned into a rescue mission when a wagon load of women and children, sent by Colonel Yorke to another fort for savety, is intercepted by the Indians. The children are held captive in a church south of the border and the situation leaves Colonel Yorke no choice: he must act and must act without hesitation. Yorke sends his most daring trooper, Tyree (played by Ben Johnson) forward to infiltrate the Indian camp and protect the children so he can launch a full-scale attack on the camp without putting the children in danger. Tyree is given permission to choose two other troopers to accompany him and to Yorke’s shock his own son is one of the two men chosen ...


Rio Grande is often called the most beautifully filmed of the cavalry pictures, but at the same time many regard it as the weakest of the trilogy. The story of the the broken down marriage and the son who grew up without his father is well-handled, but it offers few surprises; of course the two still love each other and of course the young man proves himself in battle. The songs performed by The Pioneers aren’t completely redundant - the 'Kathleen song' neatly illustrates the feelings of the protagonists - but there are too many of them and they’re not well integrated into the movie. The conflict with the Indians lacks a 'bad character' such as Henry Fonda’s Owen Thursday, the irresponsible martinet from Fort Apache who was played off against Wayne’s knowing Sergeant York (then written without the 'e').

As a result Rio Grande is - more then the other parts - a movie of moments: some incredible horse stunts, performed by the actors themselves (*2), drunken Indians performing a death song in the middle of the night, O’Hara opening Wayne’s war chest, finding a music box that plays 'I’ll take you home, Kathleen' (her name in the movie) and above all that majestic scene of Colonel Yorke all alone on a hill, grieving for the past, thinking of what might have been, agonizing the difficult task he has been assigned.

Notes:

*1) Gary Wills, John Wayne’s America, p. 181-183. The story of Rio Grande is set in 1879, fifteen years after 'Shenandoah’

* 2) See: http://www.westernhorseman.com/archive/classic-articles/198-ben-johnson - The text says: "(...) in Rio Grande, he and fellow actors Claude Jarman Jr. and Harry Carey Jr. did their own stunt work in a spectacular Roman-riding scene that's still a film classic. Anyone who views that scene can easily see that Johnson is a real horseman."



Monday, February 8, 2016

Hannie Caulder




Of all the oddities of the Western Wonderland of the early seventies, this must be one of the oddest. Like many westerns of the period it was shot in Spain and offers a cast of familiar faces as well as a few surprise appearances; it also tries to outdo the violent and perverted tendencies of the previous decade with lots of blood and a particularly nasty rape scene. With Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin playing the baddies in the style of the Three Stooges, this may sound like a half-baked American pseudo spaghetti, but the film is British, which explains some of the surprise appearances, such as Christopher Lee, Mr. Dracula himself, as a gunsmith, and Diana Dors as a prostitute.

In the opening minutes three outlaw brothers try to rob a bank in a sleepy Mexican border town. It’s an outrageous scene, with so much blood spilled, that it comes close to parody. Director Kennedy had done a few good western comedies (notably the excellent Support your local Sheriff), and the scene was probably meant as a spoofy version of the opening scene of The Wild Bunch, but it’s so gross, and at the same time so stupid, that it fails in every aspect. After all, even outlaws as inept as the Clemens brothers wouldn’t have robbed a bank with a regiment of federales sleeping on the porch of a town building. The next scene is the infamous rape scene, with the brothers not only raping a woman (played by a thirty-one year old Raquel Welch), but also killing her husband and burning down her house. The sequence is filmed with an almost total lack of subtlety or restraint. And again so much blood is spilled & spattered that the killing of the husband looks like a ritual slaughter.

Surprisingly the movie finds the right tone as it goes along. A key element is a strong performance by the much underrated Robert Culp as a bearded and spectacled bounty hunter, hired by Welch to turn her into a proficient gunwoman who can get even with the thugs who ruined her life. He gives her the shooting lessons she’s asking for, warning her at the same time of the ultimate futility of the revenge mission she has planned. Culp’s wonderfully reserved performance provides the movie with exactly the right counterbalance for the outlandish atmosphere. The shooting lessons are wisely nested in a carefully handled interlude involving Christopher Lee as a gunsmith with more children than you can think of. This is all handled with so much care, that we seem to have wandered into another movie. The scene eventually culminates into a bloody shootout with a Mexican gang of cutthroats, which seems a bit thrown in, but also leads the film to its final act, describing Welch’s revenge.


Once past the first ten, fifteen minutes, Hannie Caulder is a surprisingly enjoyable western, although the would-be mystical ending is weak (what’s all this nonsense with Stephen Boyd - dressed in black - supposed to mean?). Even some of the comedy starts to work (Borginine and Martin starting to fight while trying to rob a stagecoach!). Edward Scaife’s lush cinematography of the Spanish locations is admirable. I wasn’t too pleased with Ken Thorne’s score. It occasionally reminded me of Jerry Fielding’s magnificent score for The Wild Bunch, but never seems to find the right balance between classic and modernist influences. Too much old school in a modern context. But of course in this movie everything (direction, landscape & score) plays second fiddle to Welch, and she had never looked better and would never look as good again as she did in Hannie Caulder. A promotion pic of her in her poncho, and no more than a poncho, became one the most iconic images in the history of film making.

***
Dir: Burt Kennedy - Cast: Raquel Welch (Hannie Caulder), Robert Culp (Thomas Luther Price), Ernest Borgnine (Emmett Clemens), Jack Elam (Frank Clemens), Strother Martin (Rufus Clemens), Christopher Lee (Bailey), Stephen Boyd, Aldo Sambrell, Brian Lightburn, Luis Barboo, Diana Dors (Madam)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Three Amigos




Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short are The Three Amigos, a comedy team from Hollywood’s silent era (probably inspired by The Ritz Brothers). After being sacked by the studio they receive a telegram from a Mexican woman named Carmen, who wants them to come to her little hometown Santo Poco, south of the border, and do some work for the locals. The three think they’re asked to perform their singing cowboy routines, but no: the señorita had accidently seen their adventures on a big screen (while visiting a church so it must be a sign)and thinks they will be able to defend the town against real bandidos ...

As one might expect in a comedy, the three amigos are the last to understand the seriousness of the situation: the town of Santo Poco is visited on regular intervals by the notorious bandit El Guapo, who has discovered the racketeering business and is asking increasingly more money for his services from the poor villagers. And as you might expect (again) in a comedy, the three manage to do what they were hired for, in spite of their own incompetence. And they do this - the film makers know their stuff - by rallying the villagers to stand up for themselves and organize their own defence; in other words, the three amigos become the magnificent three.

As a comedy Three Amigos is not without merit, but knowing that three of the most popular American comedians from the period are in it, one would have expected it to be funnier. The script offers all three of them a few opportunities to show what they’re capable of, but only in one scene, set around a campfire, there’s something like a synergetic effect, otherwise the best moments come from individual efforts, and the three never really feel like a team. In one scene, Short and Martin perform a song and dance number in a cantina; it’s a nice and funny scene but you wonder what Chase is doing while they’re performing their act: it turns out that he was playing the piano - at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe.


Chase, Short and Martin aren’t among the greatest American comedians in history, but they’re not among the worst either and all three were at their peak in the mid-eighties. The problem is that they had a rather different background and style. Short and Chase had both been part of the Saturday Night Show and were known for the zany characters and physical style of comedy; Martin, with his intellectual background (he had studied philosophy at UCLA), usually kept more distance to the material he worked with.

Three Amigos has its moments and I noticed that it also has its fans: some critical notes from my part on facebook led to some spiteful remarks. I therefore gave it another chance. It’s actually not too bad and some of the solo bits and vignettes are even pretty good. Kai Wulff is hilarious as the German who has always idolized Short’s skills as a gunslinger and therefore challenges him to a duel and ... is outdrawn by him. Alfonso Arau - best known to western buffs as one of the baddies from The Wild Bunch - has the movie’s best remembered line as the villain El Guapo, after watching the three performing their routine:


"I like these guys. They are funny guys. Just kill one of them."

Randy Newman is mentioned as co-author of the script; he wrote three songs for the movie and also has a ‚cameo’ as a singing bush (maybe he wrote his own lines). Let’s say that his songs are better than his performance ...

***
Dir: John Landis - Cast: Chevy Chase (Dusty Bottoms), Steve Martin (Lucky Day), Martin Short (Ned Nederlander), Joe Mantegna (Harry Flugleman), Alfonso Arau (El Guapo), Loyda Ramos (Conchita), Patrice Martinez (Carmen), Kai Wulff (The German)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Man in the Wilderness



MAN IN THE WILDERNESS 

1971 - Dir: Richard C. Sarafian - Cast: Richard Harris, John Huston, Percey Herbert, Prunella Ransome, Henry Wilcoxon, Dennis Waterman, Ben Carruthers, James Doohan 

Like the upcoming The Revenant (2015, Alejandro G. Iñárritu) this movie is based on the real-life story of trapper Hugh Glass, who was left for dead after a bear attack by the members of his party during an expedition through the Northwest territories. The new movie adaptation was also the reason to return to the older one. I had seen it, most probably on videocasette, somewhere in the Eighties and I remember that I wasn't very fond of it then. I thought it was slow and also rather confusing: for one thing I didn't understand why the group of fur trappers led by John Huston were wheeling this large boat (looking like Noah's ark) over the mountains.

In the movie Glass is called Zachary Bass, and he's played by Richard Harris, fresh from his turbulent adventures with the Sioux in A Man Called Horse (1970, Elliot Silverstein). Zachary is the guide of a group of fur trappers who are returning from an expedition up North with a boat (dragged by mules) full of furs. When mauled by a grizzly bear, the leader of the trappers, Captain Filmore Henry is convinced that Zacharay will not survive his wounds. He therefore decides to move on and leave only two of his men behind to bury the dying man. Zachary is even deserted by these two when hostile Indians are ranging the woods, but he miraculously survives his terrible wounds and - after a series of trials - start trailing those who abandoned him ...

Man of the Wilderness was shot in Spain and some have noted  that the locations have little in common with the Northwest territories where the events are supposed to take place, but the cinematography of the  rugged Spanish terrain is lush and impressive. The film works well - very well actually - as long as it stays with the heavily wounded Bass. The real-life trials and tribulations of Hugh Glass were staggering, almost unbelievable: he had festering wounds, a broken a leg and severe cuts on his back and in his left flank; to prevent gangrene he let maggots eat the dead flesh around the compound fracture of his leg. The movie renders his endurances very well; the first three quarters of an hour are gripping, occasionally (literally) painful to watch.

Unfortunately it does not stay with the suffering, fighting Bass; there are flashbacks to the past, explaining how Bass became an atheist and wanderer (in reality they're so splintered that they hardly explain anything) and the camera also shifts between the crawling man and the party that left him for dead. The real-life Captain Henry (his name was William Henry Ashley) wanted to ascend the Missouri river as part of a fur-trading venture, which explains the boat, but in the movie it all looks absurd. The scenes of the ship on dry land are majestic, but we get an awful lot of them and the movie rambles on and on to an inconclusive ending. We're also supposed to believe that the heavily wounded Bass eventually managed to catch up with the expedition (which would have been an effort of truly superhuman proportions). In reality Glass did not follow their trail but tried to reach the nearest settlement, Fort Kiowa on the Missouri river.

In the end Man of the Wilderness falls into the category of movies that can be described as 'interesting-good-but-not-great'; it has been labeled as an anthropological western (some of the scenes of Indian life are touching, notably a scene of a woman giving birth in the woods) but also as a study in sado-masochism and excess. I'm normally not a fan of Richard Harris but he turns in a very convincing performance and John Huston is also fine as the party leader and lunatic Henry (clearly modeled after Captain Ahab from Moby Dick). The movie dates from the time when the SPCA (Society for Prevention of cruelty to Animals) was still fighting a fierce battle to improve the treatment of animals on film sets; watching the movie it's impossible to imagine that 'no animals were hurt in the making of it'.




Miscellaneous:

* Revenant - Hugh Bass covered more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) to reach Fort Kiowa, which gave the local Indians the impression that he had come back from the other side; he was therefore called a 'revenant' by them, that is a ghost (from the French word revenant, ghost. The French word comes from the verb (it's a participle used as a substantive, a common use in French) revenir, to return, come back from the other side)

* For Hugh Glass see: http://www.rosyinn.com/more005.html or his wikipedia page

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dark Command (1940)



DARK COMMAND

Dir: Raoul Walsh - Cast: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Walter Pidgeon, Gabby Hayes, Roy Rogers, Porter Hall, Marjorie Main, Raymond Wallburn

"We gotta saying down in Texas ..."

An early John Wayne western, made one year after the monumental Stagecoach. With a budget of $750,000, Dark Command (1) was quite a prestige object for its production company, Republic, in those days best known for B-movies and serials. It also features singing cowboy Roy Rogers, in a surprisingly dramatic role as Claire Trevor’s trigger-happy younger brother. The story is set in Lawrence, Kansas, on the eve of the Civil War, as the political tensions between the states are growing. Some elements of the plot are (very loosely) based on the historic Quantrill's Raiders. The finale is a romantisized representation of the infamous raid on Lawrence that took place in full wartime, on August 21, 1863.

The film opens with the arrival in town of Doc Crunch, a traveling dentist, and his assistant Bob Seton, a lanky fellow from Texas (they’re a great team: Bob knocks teeth loose, Doc pulls them out!). Lawrence is to be their terminus because the young man falls in love with the local banker’s daughter, Mary McCloud. The illiterate Bob becomes town Marshall, after beating the shoo-in for the election, the seemingly peaceful schoolteacher William Cantrell. The two men are also in competition for Mary and their rivalry comes to a head when Bob is forced to arrest Mary’s brother Fletch for shooting a man. Fletch is defended in court by the eloquent Cantrell, who successfully pleads self-defense. Mary now marries Will, even though she has no romantic feelings for him, and Fletch secretly joins Cantrell and his raiders, a guerilla group supposedly fighting for the Confederacy ...

Dark Command was directed by Raoul Walsh, the man who had discovered Wayne a decade earlier and given him his first leading role in a major production, The Big Trail (1930). Walsh knew exactly how to use the young man and Wayne's character in the movie, Bob Seton, is in every inch type of hero the Duke would become identified with, a friendly yet unflinching man with unquestionable ethics.

Dark Command is a A-movie that often plays like a B-movie. The Duke has a few funny lines as the illiterate guy from Texas who instantly recognizes Shakespeare as a fellow Texan, but some of the light comedy seems out of place in this context. Not too much is made of the historic context of the Missouri-Kansas wars anyway. Like the Cantrell character from the movie, the historic Quantrill was a well-educated person, but he had become a vagabond at relatively young age and had shot his first man at the age of 18. He most certainly did not become a bushwhacker because some guy from Texas had frustrated his aspirations to become a lawman (2).

In the end this might all be of little importance. The movie is no doubt uneven, a bit wacky at times, but it also offers a lively mix of action, romance and drama. And the action scenes are very well handled. The raid on Lawrence (3) is an impressive sequence, beautifully shot and engineered, an entire town going up in flames. Fans of the director will be inclined to compare it to the fiery finale (“Top of the World, Ma!") of White Heat. However, it’s not the movie’s most famous scene. The scene that secured Dark Command a place in film history, is a spectacular (and obviously very dangerous) leap of four men and a team of horses off a cliff into a lake. It was filmed with famous stunt men Yakima Canutt and Cliff Lyons doubling for Wayne and Gabby Hayes. It’s said that the scene (indirectly) led to the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after similar risky stunts continued to pop up in other movies.




Notes:

(1) It’s sometimes listed as The Dark Command and this title also appeared on some publicity material such as posters and lobby cards, but the on-screen title is Dark Command, without the definite article

(2) For a more insightful take on the Kansas-Missouri wars I recommend Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil (or Daniel Woodrell's source novel Woe to live on)

(3) For Quantrills Raid on Lawrence see: http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/content/quantrill%E2%80%99s-raid-lawrence