Saturday, March 30, 2013

Chuka (1967)

Dir: Gordon Douglas - Cast: Rod Taylor, Ernest Borgnine, John Mills, Luciana Palucci, James Whitmore, Victoria Vetri, Louis Hayward, Michael Cole, Hugh Reilly, Barry O'Hara

Violent but clichéd cavalry versus Indians western, produced by and starring Rod Taylor, who also contributed to the screenplay. Taylor is the proverbial man-in-between, a knowing professional who may - or may not - be able to avoid a massacre. There are a few similarities to Director Douglas' own Rio Conchos, which was better paced and had more complex characters. 

In Rio Conchos, Richard Boone played an obsessive man, an Indian hater hired by the army to do an illegal job across the border. In Chuka, Taylor's titular character is also struggling with a few inner demons (his violent past and feelings for a long-lost love), but it all sounds a little hollow. However, the premise is interesting and there are even a few original story elements: The Cavalry unit is shown as totally inept, led by an alcoholic officer, while the Indians only plan to attack because they're hungry and are after the fort's ammunition, so they can defend themselves in the future against more redoubtable opponents. 

Douglas' direction is adequate, especially during the well-staged, tough action moments; there aren't enough of them, but they're quite potent and owned the movie (the equivalent of) an R-rating in most European countries. The characters are stereotypes, but they're played by an ensemble of  fine actors. Good-old Ernie Borgnine comes off best as an impulsive and violent, but deep down inside honest sergeant who refuses tot let down the man who once saved his life. 

The problem of this movie is not that it's bad - it isn't - but that it could easily have been a lot better. All scenes within the fort are shot on sound-stages, multiple shadows circling around the actors, and the romantic subplot - a failed attempt to give some depth to Taylor's character - adds very little to the story (unless the beauty of Luciana Paluzzi). 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Dir: John Ford - Cast: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers, Althea Gibson, Hoot Gibson, Stan Jones, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Ken Curtis

According to Philip French, the lion's share of the best Civil War pictures are situated in the margin of the historic event, directing viewers away from the divisive central issues of the conflict (1). They either use the Civil War as a backdrop or focus on a small group of characters, soldiers and/or civilians, whose lives are affected by the hostilities. John Ford's The Horse Soldiers is a good example of such a 'small-scale' Civil War movie: it focuses on three characters who are saddled which each other during a brief but decisive period. 

The movie is based on a little-known historic event, a suicidal mission, led by Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson, on the eve of the Battle of Vicksburg. Grierson was sent by General Grant across the Mississippi into Confederate territory, to destroy the railroad line to Vicksburg. In the movie, Grierson has become Marlowe, in normal life a railway engineer, and the troops are joined by an army doctor, Major Henry Kendall, who has his own specific ideas about the war. Marlowe and Kendall soon develop a strong disliking for each other. Things are further complicated when the regiment makes a stop at a southern plantation and Marlowe is forced to take the mistress and her slave with him, after the two women have been eavesdropping on a staff meeting and have learned about their plans. 

In Ford's vast body of work, The Horse Soldiers is a bit of an overlooked (and underrated) movie. Its visual qualities have been widely praised, but it has also been labeled as structurally rambling. Admittedly the film has its liabilities; yes, it is rambling and it's also a little overlong. William Clothier's cinematography of riders silhouetted against the sky or young Confederate recruits marching off to the battle field, is magnificent, often breathtaking, but the long shots also slow the movie down, leading to a certain languor in the proceedings. But the story is strong, offering a bleak image of the war, and the uneasy, triangular relationship between Marlowe, Kendall and Southern belle Miss Turner is well-handled. Constance Towers may look a little flaccid compared to Maureen O'Hara - who had been paired with John Wayne on various occasions in the mid-fifties - but The Horse Soldiers is not filmed in the fervid, sparkling style of The Quiet Man, it's a dark, somber movie, and the 'impossible' love story is told with restraint. As a lady Miss Turner has more affinity with the civilized, disciplined surgeon, but as a woman she's attracted to the strong commander, who's confused by his own feelings for her.

In 1959 John Wayne was 52 and the film Ford and he had made two years earlier, The Wings of Eagles, a failed attempt to revive the winning formula of The Quiet Man (2), had told both men that it was time to move on. The Marlowe character from The Horse Soldiers is a more introvert type, with some of the stern aspects of Ethan Edwards from The Searchers (1956). It transpires that before the war a surgeon has killed Marlowe's wife when he insisted on operating her when there was no medical reason for it. This is a rather blunt way of explaining Marlowe' grievances towards Kendall (or medical science in general), but this gruffness of the character suits the Duke fine as an actor and his robust manners make a fine contrast to Holden's almost laconic acting style. 

One of the stuntmen, Fred Kennedy, was killed when he took a fall from a horse during the film's finale, the Battle of Vicksburg. Kennedy, who had worked with Ford before, was not in good shape but had begged Ford to give him a job as a stunt double because he needed the money. Ford was so shocked when the accident happened, that he stopped filming and closed the set. He later shot some additional scenes on another location (3).  

(1) Philip French, Westerns, Aspects of a movie genre, p. 10
(2) Gary Wills, John Wayne's America, p. 262-263
(3) For the accident see: Fred Kennedy's Death (Scroll down to the bottom of the page) 

Colorado Territory (1949)

Dir: Raoul Walsh - Cast: Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, Dorothy Malone, Henry Hull, John Archer, James Mitchell, Morris Ankrum, Basil Ruysdael, Frank Puglia, Ian Wolfe

The title of this movie is a bit deceptive. The movie is set in Colorado Territory, but Colorado is also the name of a girl, played by Virginia Mayo. She's a beauty living in a remote place in the desert, who all of a sudden decides to stay with Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea), an escaped convict dreaming of a quiet life, after pulling off one last spectacular heist.

“You don’t want to go back to jail, others don’t want to go back to dance-halls”

McQueen heads off to the territory from the title, to meet the man who had masterminded his escape from jail. He’s supposed to meet him in a place called the Valley of Death, an exit to nowhere. One character describes it as follows:

“The Spaniards came first and called it Todos Santos, but then arrived the Indians, who massacred them. Then came the pox who wiped out the Indians. Only snakes and scorpions survived, and finally there was an earthquake that took care of them“

On his way to the valley, the stagecoach he's traveling with is attacked by bandits. McCrea fights them off and brings to passengers to safety, earning their gratitude. One of the passengers, a wealthy man called Fred Winslow, feels so much sympathy for the young man, that he even sees a future husband in him for his daughter Julie Ann. All of a sudden, there are two possibilities for Wes McQueen to realize this 'quiet life' ...

Colorado Territory is remake, by the same director, of High Sierra (1941). The remake easily outshines the original; it avoids the sentimental pitfalls of the story and makes far better use of the magnificent landscape, especially in the finale, when a cornered McCrea, after that final heist, flies back to the Valley of Death. Colorado Territory is also a bit similar to director Walsh’s White Heat (also from 1949). Both films are about doom, but while James Cagney’s obsessed and tormented gangster was a man who triumphed in his hour of death (“Made it ma, top the world!”), McCrea is just a weary outlaw, a man who has made the wrong decisions all of his life, and is now at the end of his tether. Appropriately, his death is all but glorious; instead it’s sad and ugly.

“The sun goes West, and so does the opportunity”

This is a western as bleak as they come at this point in history, the late forties. It’s also tense, gritty and cynical. At one point, a sheriff strikes a match on the boot of a hanged man (have you seen this movie, Mr. Corbucci?). The atmosphere is closer to Peckinpah than to Ford. McCrea is a criminal, but he’s also a man of honor, he keeps his word and takes Mayo in tow because he thinks she would be lost without someone to protect her. Dreaming of settling down, he prefers a “respectable” farmer’s daughter to a “bad” dance-hall girl, but he finds out that the respectable girl is willing to turn him in for the reward of $20.000. When he finally accepts Mayo - the only one who ever cared for him - it’s too late, and both meet their destiny in the film’s magnificent finale, which shows the two lovers brought back to ant-size in a stupendous landscape.

An essential western.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Dir: Michael Cimino - Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotten, Mickey Rourke, Paul Koslo, Geoffrey Lewis, Willem Dafoe

I - A Cause Célèbre

With a running-time of nearly four hours, Heaven's Gate is one of the longest and most ambitious movies in film history. With a budget of 44 million dollars and earnings of no more than a little over 3 million, it's also one of the biggest flops. It led to the downfall of a studio, United Artists, and gave the final blow (or nearly so) to auteur film making in Hollywood. It has also been slammed for animal cruelty and turning history upside down. In other words: Heaven's Gate is as much as cause célèbre as a movie.

The different versions

The full-length version of 219 minutes opened in New York, November 19th, 1980. It was killed overnight with a stream of negative reviews and the Studio pulled it back after only one week, forcing Cimino to cut it back to a more acceptable length. The "edited version", running 144 minutes, finally showed up in april, in cinemas on the west coast. Reactions remained negative, and box-office results were cataclysmic. In Europe critics were a little more positive, but only after the complete 219 minutes version ("extended version") had popped up on various film festivals (I first saw it in Ghent, in the late 80s), some of them started to champion it as a massacred masterpiece. In 2012 Cimino created yet another version, running 216 minutes ("restored version"), that was first shown at the Venice Film festival. And yet again, some have called it a masterpiece unjustifiably pulverized by critics.

II - The Movie

Heaven's Gate opens with a scene set during the 1870 Harvard graduation ceremony. In his speech the Dean urges the graduates to spread culture through contact with the uncultivated, but his words are followed by those of the class valedictorian Billy Irvine (John Hurt), who says he sees little reason for change in a society that is overall well-ordered. After a dance and a celebration game (won by Billy's friend Jim Averill), we jump twenty years ahead, and arrive in a Wyoming of the 1890s where a violent conflict is about to break out between ranchers and immigrant settlers. A group of local cattlemen have noticed that their herds are being looted by starving immigrants from Eastern Europe, and have therefore, with the approval of the State, drawn up a death list of 125 'anarchists'. Averill (Kris Kristofferson) - now a sheriff - is responding to the Dean's request to associate with the poor immigrants, while Irvine is responding to his own irreverent speech, standing aside, commenting the proceedings in a permanent state of inebriety.

A first impression

The main problem of Heaven's Gate is that it lacks coherence. It has a glorious look, and some of the larger set pieces are truly magnificent, but there are also scenes that go on far too long or are simply redundant. It veers too much from historic fresco to western and love story. In The Deer Hunter Cimino had managed to combine the personal and the epic, and that is exactly what he failed to do here. Hurt's role is so fragmented that the opposition between his and Kristofferson's character (and the clash of their conflicting views on society) remains underdeveloped. The triangular love story, with sheriff Averill and hired gunman Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) both courting the same woman, Ella, a young French brothel owner, almost feels detached from the rest of the film. Cimino tries to create of feeling of coherence through a series of symbolic scenes all using circular patterns: the dancing scene of the beginning, with dozens of people dancing the Viennese Waltz on Strauss' Blue Danube, the rolling rink sequence halfway the movie, and the battle sequence near the end, with a horse charge in Indian style on the mercenaries, who are kneeling down and shooting at the assailants. All these scenes are beautifully constructed and filmed, but their symbolism is empty, purely rhetorical.

III - Accuracy an obsessions

The edited version was nearly incomprehensible, but had at least this advantage that it made you curious about the full-length movie. The problem with the complete version is that - now things all make sense - you become aware of the fact that the script is rather thin. Basically it's the story of settlers, newcomers in a region, forced to fight for the right to settle down, a story often told in westerns. Cimino turned this familiar western fare into a political story of xenophobia, a decision he was fiercely attacked for. Some even called his movie un-American. What was this conflict, known as the Johnson County war, really about?

The Johnson County War

The Johnson County War was in the first place a range war, fought between rich cattleman and farmers who had settled in the region in recent times. The region was in public domain, which means it was open to both open range and homesteading. There was a steady stream of  poor European immigrants in the last decades of the 19th Century, and there's no doubt they weren't always welcomed by the residents. Complaints about rustling led to hostilities and the decision of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (representing the cattlemen) to hire detectives to track down thieves. There are several reported cases of lynching as well as incidents with detectives shooting rustlers. The extremely cold winter of '86/'87 had been followed by a dry and unusually hot summer and the loss of thousands of cattle had led to food-scarcities. Finally the cattlemen drew up their death list and hired mercenaries to settle things once and for all. The immigrants sided with the small farmers and eventually got the upperhand; the army had to interfere in order to save the lives of those who had planned the massacre.

A desire for authenticity

Cimino scores a few points but most historians think he exaggerated the number of  immigrants overflowing Wyoming. The number of names on the death list and mercenaries hired have also been disputed. The attention paid to historic accuracy compares unfavorably with his obsession for composition and period detail. Cimino spent hours to get all people in the right place for some the greater set pieces while large parts of the budget were consumed by his desire for authenticity. He was fanatical about set & costume design, demanded up to fifty takes of relatively uncomplicated scenes and delayed filming for hours until the desired cloud-banks appeared. At the same time none of the key characters were close to their historic counterparts: Jim Averill and Ellen (Ella) Watson were killed before the war broke out (they were lynched) and Nate Champion was a small farmer, not a detective hired by the cattlemen. I know, Heaven's Gate is a movie, but if your movie is supposed to be a history lesson, you'd better have you facts right. Cimino's desire for authenticity also led to these accusations of cruelty to animals. He wanted real (no fake) blood, so horses were bled from the neck and their blood smeared on actors' faces, he wanted real intentins for large belly wounds, so cows were disembowled, etc. The list is long and the reports on it don't make a nice read.

IV - The movie, re-evaluated

My ideas about the movie haven't changed much over the years. I still consider it a film with great moments, but not necessarily a great film. I have always liked the atmospheric and evocative score by James Mansfield (who's also the fiddler in the movie) and I like it even better today. With the exception of Kristofferson, who mumbles himself through the movie, the actors turn in decent performances, making the very best of their ill-defined (or in some cases one-dimensional) characters; Isabella Huppert is particularly strong as Ella. Much has been said about Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography. Many thought it was one of the film's undeniable assets (along with the score), but there have also been complaints about its arty farty nature. Zsigmond filtered the image to create a sepia-toned, occasionally almost monochromatic print of brown and gold tints. The interiors are often of Rembrandt like clair-obscur, with shafts of light fallen through openings in walls or ceilings. Personally I find these endless scenes of silhouettes moving through beams of light and clouds of dust a bit tiresome. Apparently Cimino agrees with this point of view. For the 2012 version, he has neglected all of Zsigmond's intentions and chosen for a far more vivid color scheme. I don't know what to think of it. Watching the movie may be a more pleasant experience now, as Glenn Erisson put it, but the new color scheme betrays the original intentions.

One final note: It's not a complete surprise that younger generations of critics, who watch the movie for the first time, react more positively than those who were confronted with it when it was first released. Some of the movie's aspects seem more poignant and topical today than they did back then. With Texans building a wall to keep Mexicans on their side of the border and immigrants being attacked in the streets of Athens or Rome, we can no longer pretend that the xenophobic elements of the movie are totally out of place.

Feature lengths:
Edited Version: 144 min (2h24min)
Extended Version: 219 min (3h39min)
Restored Version: 216 min (3h36min)
There still are rumours about a version with a 5 hours running-time (approx), but it probably only was a rough cut. Still, it must be said that the editing of the long versions looks a little abrupt ...

* Philip French, Westerns, p. 136-141
* The Johnson County War  -
* Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate, a documentary by Michael Epstein
* Glenn Ericsson, DVD Savant Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, Blu-ray review

The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972)

16 year old Grimes thinks life in town sucks, so he joins trail boss Mr. Culpepper, in the hope to become a real cowboy. He’ll soon learn that the life of a cowhand is far from heroic ...

At the same time a revisionist western and a coming-of-age movie, The Culpepper Cattle Co is an enjoyable ride all the way – or maybe I should say: nearly all the way. It’s deliberately paced and instead of telling a straightforward story, it seems more concerned with giving us a fragmented (but often incisive) impression of the harsh reality of frontier life. It has a fabulous look - some have noticed that various images look like Remington paintings (*1) - but never glorifies the life it depicts. In his classic book on western movies, author Philip French called it one of a series of westerns related to the Vietnam experience, showing young men being exposed to the corruption of adult life (*2).

Phil Hardy typifies the movie as ‘decidedly a post-Wild Bunch western’ (*3). True, it has some of the grittiness and slow motion violence of a Peckinpah movie, but the end is introduced by a turn which is closer to Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (or the Hollywood remake The Magnificent Seven). When Culpepper moves on with his cattle after a conflict involving a land owner and a Mormon community, some of his men decide to stay with the Mormons, because this land owner (who has ordered both the cattle men and the Mormons to leave), has taken their guns. As one of them puts it: "Nobody has ever taken my gun." In the end they’re all killed, except for Grimes, who forces the Mormons to bury the dead, and then, symbolically, buries his own gun, because he’s appalled by the amount of violence he has witnessed.

Like in Seven (both the Japanese original and the Hollywood remake) the ending illustrates the idea that those who live by the land, are stronger than those who live by the gun (or sword). But whereas Kurosawa used a subtle stroke to make his point, Richards throws you his message in the face, underlining it with – dear me – the overbearing tones of Amazing Grace

The fragmented, episodic narrative leads to a certain amount of sluggishness, but overall this is quite an engrossing movie, well-acted by a cast of familiar faces: Luke Askew, Geoffrey Lewis, Matt Clark, Bo Hopkins, Charles Martin Smith (the boy who’s only ‘a little bit’ afraid of Pat Garrett in the opening scenes of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) – they’re all there and they’re all excellent. Billy ‘Green Bush’ is also very fine as the trail boss and Anthony James is terrifying as the stubborn and fanatic leader of the Mormons, Nathaniel . (Pierce, the land owner: “This is my land!”. Nathaniel: “God’s land!”). The action scenes were coordinated by Hal Needham (who also has a cameo), and the movie was also the first to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who would become one of the most successful movie producers of all time.

Dir: Dick Richards - Cast: Gary Grimes (Ben), Billy Green Bush (Culpepper), Luke Askew, Bo Hopkins, Geoffrey Lewis, Matt Clark, Anthony James, Charles Martin Smith 


* (1) DVD Savant - Review by Glenn Ericsson
* (2) Philip French, Westerns, p. 113-114; apart from this movie, French mentions The Cowboys and The Spikes Gang. One could also think of Robert Benton's Bad Company, although the premise is a bit different in that movie
(3) Phil Hardy, The Aurum Encyclopedia of Westerns

Non-Western: Prometheus

Note: This is not a review of the movie Prometheus, I only discuss some aspects of it

No need to mention the name of the director, year of making, etc. Prometheus is Prometheus. The movie everybody was looking forward to. Me too. Anticipation causes frustration. A couple of friends told me that I wouldn't like it for very specific reasons. I trusted them and therefore avoided the film when it was shown in theatres, but now it was released on DVD, I could no longer look the other way.

Let me tell you first what I did like, apart from the glorious look and production design. I liked the presentation of this interdisciplinary research group, in the beginning of the movie. Everybody who has ever worked with (or within) such a group knows scientists are small children: put five of them in one room and what you get is a kindergarten. And nobody will be able to tell you who is the android. They look weird and often talk with funny accents. One of the crew members even talked with the same Scottish accent as a physicist I once met at the Philips Natuurkundig Laboratorium (Philips Physics Laboratory) in Eindhoven. She even looked like her (same nose). So far, so good, but one element was very dubious. One of the members, the geologist Fifield, seemed mentally unstable. The mission those people are sent on, is a long, dangerous, and above all very expensive one, and no doubt the crew members were screened meticulously. A company like Weyland wouldn't ever take the risk of sending a mentally unstable person to another galaxy.

I also liked some of the performances. Rapace is no Ripley but otherwise she did her job very well as Shaw. Fassbender was a good android, and I wonder if he dreams of electric sheep. But the nicest surprise was Idris Alba, who plays a no-nonsense commander who tries to talk some sense in the egg-heads he's saddled with. It's a pity they killed him in the finale. He would have made a fine couple of explorers with Rapace in the inevitable Prometheus 2. In these films the wrong people tend to get killed (too soon). In the beginning of Alien3 they killed a child, at the end of Prometheus they kill a giant.

I had the idea Prometheus would've worked better as an independent fantasy movie, without this burden of being a prequel to an existing series, and without the religious, quasi-philosophical and quasi-scientific bombast. The alien series didn't need any 'explanation' (who cares where the aliens came from) and religion and science don't mix very well together. The narrative opens (let's forget the scene with the tumbling enactor) with a couple of archeologists discovering some paintings and carvings in a Scottish grotto, matching similar illustrations elsewhere. The illustrations show a stellar map of a galaxy far, far away, so the archeologists draw the conclusion that they were made by aliens, who must have also created us. It's the Von Däniken explanation: the Gods were cosmonauts. A large step for the Gods, but a small step for these scientists. When one of them is asked why she absolutely needs God for her explanations and why she believes in Him in the first place, she answers: "Because I want to do so." Nothing wrong with that answer, fine for her, scientist have the right (like any other people) to believe what they want, but in scientific discussions, personal beliefs or convictions are better neglected. "I chose to believe in God" is a religious argument, not a scientific one.

"What is your proof?" one of the scientists asks when Shaw and her partner explain their beliefs. Science, at least the experimental part of it we're talking about here, is not about 'proof'. A scientist collects data and tries to formulate a hypothetical theory, a hypothesis. A scientific hypothesis must be refutable (falsifiable), so we can test it by empirical experiments. The philosophical debates are often ridiculous. I don't know if there is a god after all, there might be one, but not for the reasons they come up with in this movie. The argument used in Prometheus, is the over-familiar one of the watch and the watch maker. It has popped up again and again in the course of the last few centuries; Richard Dawkins went through it again (once and for all, he hoped) in The Blind Watchmaker. The argument of 'who-created-us-and-who-created-our-creator' goes back as far as Aristotle and his 'unmoved mover' (the one who sets things in motion but isn't set in motion himself, has become the 'enactor' in this movie); it's a very dubious theory, basically linked with the Greek misconception that pure reasoning inevitably leads to the truth and their struggle with infinite progression.

If you read (or listen to) some of the Ridley Scott's recent interviews, you'll notice that most of his struggles with God and the Universe originate in similar misconceptions. For one thing, scientists are not so arrogant to think that we're alone in the Universe. This could all be pardoned, Scott is no scientist, he's a film maker, and he used to be a very good one. Some of this is still visible in Prometheus. As a horror movie it may be a bit slow, but some of tension-filled sequences are beautifully executed; the cesarean scene (those who have seen the movie know what I mean) will nail you to your chair. Unfortunately most of the dialogue is as lame as it is stupid, with Alba's commander being virtually the only one who talks some sense.

Bad science, bad philosophy, decent horror. What about the religious ideas in the movie? I read several articles written by a communicant Christians who were moderately positive about the movie. Some of them think it's offensive, but most of them also think of it as thought-provoking. As one of them, Daniel Thompson, explains: 'the film does not show God as the creator, but does make a strong argument, not only for intelligent design, but also for believing in something bigger than one's self'. I didn't notice these 'strong arguments', but then again I'm not a communicant Christian. Scott doesn't think of himself as a Christian either, but he's definitely influenced by Christian symbolism. What I personally interpreted as 'typically Christian' was this idea of the enactors wanting to destroy their own creation, and even more so the horrible method they have concocted for the occasion. They clearly want the human race to suffer, death by an alien is not a clean, quick death, but a painful one. According to the Christian faith God had his own son nailed to the cross to save mankind. Crucifixion is a horrible death; victims could live for days, hanging in the blistering son, suffering terrible pains, only to be released from their sufferings by carnivores gnawing their bleeding bodies. "What have we done wrong?" Shaw asks the surviving enactor. We'll have to wait for Prometheus 2 to get an answer to this burning question. It wouldn't surprise me if this horrible death of mankind serves a higher aim.

2012 - Dir: Ridley Scott - Noomi Rapace (Elizabeth Shaw), Michael Fassbender (David), Charlize Theron (Meredith Vickers), Idris Alba (Janek), Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland), Logan Marshall-Green (Charlie Holloway), Sean Harris (Fifield) Rafe Spall (Millburn)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The War Wagon (1967)


Dir: Burt Kennedy - Cast: John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Howard Keel, Bruce Cabot, Robert Walker Jr., Keenan Wynn, Joanna Barnes, Bruce Dern, Sheb Wooley

Unpretentious, tongue-in-cheek, this slam-bang action movie is one of the best vehicles John Wayne appeared in during the last two decades of his long career. The tone for the movie is set early on, with Kirk and Duke exchanging funny remarks after they have gunned down two opponents:

"Mine hit the ground first"

"Mine was taller."

Basically John and Kirk are anti-heroes, thieves, villains, but apparently this was still a bit of a daring idea in '67 Hollywood, so the mine owner (Cabot) they try to rob, is a corrupt businessman, who stole the Duke's properties in the first place. In other words: the Duke is stealing his own gold back, and what is essentially a caper movie, is turned into a revenge movie.

The wagon from the title, is an armor-plated stagecoach, provided with a revolving turret with a fixed machine gun, in which Cabot transports the gold dust he has found on Duke's land. Apart from the armor and the machine gun, the wagon is protected by an entire army of heavily armed gunman. The war wagon is therefore told to be an impregnable fortress of a vehicle, but The Duke thinks he can take it with the help of Douglas (a professional gunslinger who was hired to kill him!), an alcoholic explosives specialist, a grumpy wagon driver (with a teenage bride) and a wise-cracking Indian, played by Howard Keel (in great form).

What makes this movie even more fun, is that it almost plays like a spaghetti western. There's this gimmick of the armored wagon, the edgy humor, the laughing Mexicans (torturing an Indian!) and even a silly brawl in the saloon. Like some have mentioned, it's surprisingly limited in scope for a John Wayne movie, larger than life, but far from the usual 'epic' approach of his productions. The sermonizing that plagues some of his later movies is also absent here.

The similarities to the Italian western, are most probably coincidental; when this film was made, comedy westerns were not yet dominant in Italy, so it seems unlikely that there was any real influence. Instead the movie might have influenced at least one spaghetti western, A man called Sledge, an Italian production made by a American director and starring American actors such as James Garner, Dennis Weaver and Claude Akins, about a gang of outlaws trying to intercept a shipment of gold protected by an army of gunmen.

Barquero (1970)

Dir: Gordon Douglas - Cast: Lee van Cleef (Barquero), Warren Oates (Jack Remy), Forrest Tucker (Mountain Phil), Mariette Hartley (Anna Hall), Kerwin Matthews (Marquette), Maria Gomez (Nola), Craig Littler (Reverend Pitney) Harry Lauter (Steele)

First of all: Barquero is not a spaghetti western. It's a full-blood American western, shot in Colorado, directed by a Hollywood veteran, Gordon Douglas, who had made several action packed westerns in the previous years, such as Rio Conchos (1964) and Chuka (1967). The presentation of its protagonist as a taciturn cynic surely bespeaks some influence of the Italian western, and so does the location, near the Mexican-American border. As Philip French put it, the Italian western had pushed the Hollywood western further south, and made the western hero more cynical, and less verbose.

Bandit leader Jake Remy (Oates) and his gang of cutthroats want to cross the Rio Grande as soon as possible after they have pillaged a town and massacred the entire population. Van Cleef lives in a small town near the river and is referred to by the townspeople as "barquero" (Spanish for boat man); he has built a barge to connect both river banks, and is captured by three members of the gang, sent ahead by Remy. But he is saved by a friend, Mountain Phil (Tucker). Since Remy needs the barge to bring a wagon load of silver to the other side, a psychological battle begins, with Van Cleef and the townspeople on one side, and Oates and his gang on the other.

Most probably Barquero was supposed to do for Van Cleef what had done for Eastwood: launch him as a star back home after a successful trip to Italy. For the occasion, some Italian aspects have been smuggled in. Oates' pot-smoking villain is reminiscent of Gian Maria Volonté's El Indio from For a Few Dollars More and with the priest being portrayed as the most irritating (and selfish) of the townspeople, even some of the typical anti-clerical feelings of the Italian western seem to shine through. But it's obvious that The Wild Bunch was a major influence as well. Not only Oates was one of the bunch, but with a bloodbath early on in the movie, a more subdued mid-section, and a particularly violent conclusion, Barquero's structure is also very similar to Peckinpah's movie.

Overall Barquero is a nice blend of Italian and American influences. Both large-scale action scenes are ferociously violent, and show some nice directional touches (Oates and Mathews having a relaxed conversation inside while outside the massacre goes on), but they lack some fluency, as well as the sense of immediacy Peckinpah created. The mid-section feels rather protracted, with most of the action (or the lack of it) confined to one spot on the Rio Grande, but the film redeems itself in the last twenty minutes, with an Oates losing both his patience and his senses, and a grand finale, played out more or less (I'm not joking) as a naval battle.

Barquero wasn't very successful at the box-office and critical reception was lukewarm. Unlike Eastwood, Van Cleef only became a real star (and eventually a legend) in the course of the years, with the revaluation of the spaghetti western genre. He's as unyielding as ever, but his taciturn character suffers a little from this static mid-section and Oates and Tucker seem to have more interesting roles as, respectively, the hallucinating maniac and the lively, ant-eating mountain man. There are two female roles too, for Marie Gomez and Mariette Hartley, and especially Hartley's character is interesting (if not particularly uplifting). She's one of townspeople and even though he has the lusty Gomez to sleep with, Van Cleef dreams of having a night with her. Hartley has noticed his attentions, and offers him her charms in exchange for his help (and boat) when her husband is captured by Remy. Van Cleef sees through her plans and rejects her, but then she becomes aware of the fact that she is attracted to him too. In the true style of the brute, the boatman takes her into the woods, and then rips off her clothes. Subtle it ain't, but it works, like the movie.

* Philip French, Westerns, Aspects of a movie genre, Exeter, 2005

The Professionals (1966)

Dir: Richard Brooks - Cast: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Claudia Cardinale, Jack Palance, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Ralph Bellamy, Marie Gomez 

One of the most successful 'great' westerns of the mid-sixties, and with three Academy Award nominations also one of the critically most acclaimed. But its reputation has faded a little. It nevertheless seems to have it all: explosive action, a lot of tough and cool guys, and Claudia.  

The story is set in 1917. Lee Marvin is Fardan, a mercenary asked by a business man J.W. Grant to lead a small group of professionals into revolutionary Mexico, to rescue Grant's wife (Claudia), who has been kidnapped by revolutionary leader Raza (Palance). Both Fardan and explosives expert Dolworth (Lancaster) have a history with Raza, but decide to fulfill their task even when they discover that the lady prefers Raza to Grant and probably wasn't even kidnapped to begin with. 

The film is well-paced and beautifully shot (by Conrad Hall) on magnificent locations (among them Death Valley and the Valley of Fire), but the script is pretty thin (and also pretty implausible if you think about it). Brooks tries to intellectualize it with a curtain fire of grim one-liners and pedestrian philosophies, for instance (after a couple of horses are shot):

"People. We just killed ten men, nobody bats an eye. But when it comes to one of God's most stupid animals..."


"Maybe there's only one revolution, since the beginning, the good guys against the bad guys. Question is, who are the good guys?"

These one-liners are often funny and suggestive, but have little resonance throughout the movie and make it feel a little top-heavy, as if it tries to be more important than it really is. But it's a rousing adventure movie with some thunderous action moments and an incredible cast. Both Marvin and Lancaster get a lot of screen-time while Ryan (as the sensitive horse-wrangler) and Strode (as the stoic scout) are more in the background. In spite of the male star power, the film belongs to the women. Claudia is as sultry and seductive as ever and there's also Marie Gomez in a small but show-stealing role as Chiquita,  the woman who won't ever say no. Marvin's final riposte after the dirty businessman who hired him has called him a bastard, is a direct hit and has become a classic line:

"Yes, Sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, Sir, you're a self-made man."

Rio Lobo (1970)

Dir: Howard Hawks - Cast: John Wayne, Jennifer O'Neill, Jorge Rivero, Jack Elam, Christopher Mitchum, Victor French 

Hawks last movie, and also the third and final part of the Rio Trio, arguably the weakest of the lot. Actually there's no doubt that it can't hold a candle to either Rio Bravo or El Dorado, but it's still a Hawks movie and a pleasant ride (nearly) all the way.

At first sight, the story has little in common with the other two movies. John Wayne is Cord McNally, a Union Army colonel who is searching, in the aftermath of the Civil War, for the two men who sold information to the other side about a shipment of gold entrusted to McNally. The betrayal led to a raid in which a young loyal officer was killed. McNally is assisted by two ex -Confederate soldiers who were involved in the raid (he holds no grudge against them because they we're only doing their job) and a young woman who has her own personal score to settle with the traitors. 

It's a movie about reconciliation as well as revenge (traitors cannot be forgiven) and only when we arrive in the town of Rio Lobo, the film falls in the familiar Rio pattern. The Duke is in good form, Jennifer O'Neill runs around on high heels, lifting her skirts (but showing preciously little of her legs) and the ending is pretty violent, with some bloodspattered, gory killings. The film suffers from some tasteless jokes and lackluster performances, but there's also a viciously smiling Jack Elam (always a delight) and a funny scene with Big John going to the dentist.

El Dorado (1967)

Dir: Howard Hawks - Cast: John Wayne (Cole Thornton), Robert Mitchum (J.P. Harrah), James Caan (Mississippi), Arthur Hunnicut (Bull Harris), Charlene Holt (Maudie), Michele Carey (Joey), Ed Asner, R.G. Armstrong, Paul Fix, Christopher George 

The second of Howard Hawks' Rio Trio, the three movies with John Wayne battling the evil forces with the help of a friend, an old timer and a greenhorn. It's virtually a remake of the first movie, Rio Bravo, but some people think it's one of those remakes that are better than the original.

Duke is a professional gunfighter called Cole Thornton, who's asked by cattle baron Bart Jason to join his army of gunmen. But he turns down the job because his former friend J.P. Harrah, now the sheriff of El Dorado, has told him that Jason is a tyrant who drives farmers off their ranch. One of those farmers is the stubborn MacDonald and Thornton feels an obligation to him, because he has accidently killed his son. When Jason is arrested, Thornton joins his old friend (who has become a drunkard in the meantime) and defends the town with the help of the abovementioned trio of assistants.

El Dorado is better paced and more action oriented than Rio Bravo. While not particularly violent, the action scenes are also a bit more potent. At the same time it has been labeled as 'Rio Bravo played for laughs' (1). Maybe this label doesn't do the movie justice, but the comedy is definitely more accentuated here than in Rio Bravo. The treatment of Mitchum's alcoholism verges on parody and there's an awful lot of raillery about James Caan's strange hat and long name, Alan Bourdillion Traherne (that's why he's called Misssisippi). But Hawks was mighty good at comedy and some of the verbal disputes between Wayne and Mitchum are genuinely funny. There's a famous scene involving a young doctor who asks Mitchum to put a finger in a flesh wound still bleeding, while he's having a lengthy discussion with Wayne about a bullet in his back (put there by Macdonald's daughter Joey, who wanted to revenge her brother!). And then there's this amusing scene with a sobered up Mitchum asking for privacy while having a bath.

Most people (even those who prefer Rio Bravo) think El Dorado has the better cast. I'm not sure about this. There's some wonderful interplay between Wayne and Mitchum, but Dean Martin was simply more effective as the inebriated lawman who needs a good friend to fight off his demons. James Caan is okay, but Charlene Holt is by no means Angie Dickenson. The film scores with a few supporting roles. Arthur Hunnicut - as the irascible old timer Bull Harris - is  refreshingly different from Walter Brennan's Stumpy (it's never a good idea to copy a type) and Christopher George is remarkable as Cole Thornton's colleague and opponent, a gunslinger who has been dreaming for years to beat the older man in a duel. George was a B-actor who was merely okay when he was supposed to carry a movie, but he could be extremely effective in smaller roles (he would play a similar role opposite Wayne in Chisum), especially when he was asked to play an ambiguous character: his black-clad gunman is a sort of dark knight, evil-minded, but with a strong sense of chivalry.

There's no doubt that El Dorado is a great movie, it's lively, colorful, exciting and often funny, but I still think Rio Bravo is the best of the Rio Trio.


(1) Paul Simpson, The Rough Guide to westerns, p. 66

The Man from Laramie (1955)

Dir: Anthony Mann - Cast: James Stewart (Will Lockhardt), Arthur kennedy (Vic), Donald Crisp (Alec Waggoman), Cathy O'Donnell (Barbara Waggoman), Alex Nicol (Dave Waggoman), Aline Macmahon (Kate Canady), Wallace Ford (Charley), Frank DeKova (Padre) 

The fifth and final collaboration between director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart, one of the best and visually most striking of the lot. Mann and his cinematographer Charles Lang capture the harshness and forlornness of the landscape masterfully, offering an image of people desperately trying to fulfill their mission in life, in a world that will eventually have the better of them.

Officially the movie is based on a story by Thomas T. Flynn, first published in the Saturday Night Post, but it owns as much to Shakespeare's King Lear. Mann had been thinking for years of a western version of Shakespeare's play and an earlier script by Philip Yordan was called The King, a man from Laramie. John Wayne was supposed to play the patriarch, but the project never came off the ground. The script was then rewritten as a Mann-Stewart vehicle, but Stewart does not play the patriarch, but a stranger, and his role is less prominent than in their earlier collaborations.

The old patriarch Alec Waggoman is preoccupied with the idea of what will become  of his empire after his death. He's going blind and can only see ten of the thousands of acres of land he owns. His son Dave is a weak-minded young man, and Alec tries to deal with him through Vic, his foreman and adopted son. Vic is loyal, but also afraid that his loyalty will not be awarded because blood will always be thicker than water. Waggoman is haunted by dreams of a man coming from far, with the intention to kill Dave, and is therefore alarmed by the arrival of Will Lockhard, a stranger from Laramie. Lockhard is searching for those responsible for the death of his brother, a soldier killed by renegade Apaches, armed with repeating rifles that must have been sold by them illegally. After a series of incidents involving Dave and Vic, Lockhard is hired by the only real rival of old man Waggoman, the widow Kate Canady ...

Mann's heroes are often stubborn, almost schizophrenic figures looking for peace but unable to repress their violent instincts when confronted with danger and injustice. Usually their direct opponent is a more extravert, more charming, but morally less conscious reflection of themselves. This typical Mann opposition, of people being confronted with their own alter ego, is still present in The Man from Laramie, but at the same time the situation is more complex: The five central characters (Waggoman, Dave, Vic, Lockhard and Kate Canady) are entangled in intricate plot in which none of them is genuinely 'good' or 'bad': even the psychotic Dave is presented as a spoiled, not-so-smart kid, who acts more out of frustration than pure wickedness. When the renegade Apaches finally show up, they hardly look like the terror-inspiring warriors of death from the stories told by people living in the region (among them a padre!), but more like a bunch of ravenous outcasts.

Visually impressive, the movie is also very physical. In an early scene Lockhardt is dragged behind a horse while his wagon is set on fire and his mules are shot, a fistfight with both of Waggoman's 'sons' has him sweat, grunt, gasping for breath, the camera closing in on his battered face, covered with dust. It all culminates in a scene in which Dave, the deranged son, deliberately puts a bullet in his shooting hand, an act that has been described as a symbolic castration

The Man from Laramie was one of the first westerns that were shot in CinemaScope and Stewart is often shown against the background of a wide-open spaces (the glaring white salt flats, where his mules are shot, the plains and slopes surrounding the mountain peak where the rifles are hidden) emphasizing his vulnerability and insignificance in a world that is both majestic and inexorable. When he finally meets the one who is responsible for the death of his brother, he's not able to shoot him. But in this cruel world no one can outrun his destiny.


* Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, London 2006
* Julian Petley, Mann of the West, in: They went that-a-way, London, 1982
* Phil hardy, The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of the Western, London, 1983
* Philip French, Westerns, expanded edition, Manchester 2005

Wild Rovers (1971)

A western directed by Blake Edwards, the man behind the Pink Panther movies? To some this may come as a surprise, but Edwards had a life-long penchant for the genre. With this bleak, melancholic movie he also wanted to prove that he was more than just a skilled entertainer, but his film was drastically cut by the studio and edited against his wishes. Most of the footage has been restored in the course of the years, but the longest available version, running 132 minutes, is still not the version Edwards had in mind. Compared to the theatrical release (109 minutes) the longer version solves a few problems, but creates a couple of others as well.

William Holden and Ryan O’Neal are two cowboys who realize they will be poor, hardworking cowboys forever, unless they take matters into their own hands. The only way out of the deadlock, seems robbing a bank, so that’s what they decide to do. But they’re destined to be cowboys, not bank robbers, and the robbery is the beginning of the bitter end.

Wild Rovers shares its elegiac tone with Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962) and William A. Fraker’s Monte Walsh, made one year earlier. But it’s not really about the end of the West. Late into the movie, Holden has a speech about predestination and man being unable to change his fate. He realizes that their efforts are futile, and that he and his young pall will never reach the promised land, Mexico. The low camera-angles, showing the magnificent landscape as if it were reaching for the sky, underline the futility of impotent creatures living in a cruel world that will always have the better of them.

Both Holden and O’Neal are magnificent and the longer version works in their favor. But if it makes some of the good things better, it also makes some of the bad things worse. The longer version is more coherent, but slows an already slow-moving movie further down. There are only a few sparse action scenes; they're in slow motion and rather bloody, but one of them (Malden ending a long dispute with his neighbor in violent fashion) isn’t well integrated into the movie. Malden’s character of the unflinching patriarch is part of the film’s Freudian subplot about Malden’s son – played by Tom Skerritt – who refuses to give up the chase even though he knows the man who has ordered it, his father, is dead. This aspect of the movie never comes to life, it feels forced, and the final scene – Skerritt being deserted by his younger brother (Joe Don Baker), and talking to his late father – is dreadful.

Wild Rovers is by no means a bad western, it's a good one; it’s thoughtful, but it’s also self-indulgent and too conscious about its own high aspirations. There’s a lot to admire, but ultimately the movie aims too high for its own good.

Dir: Blake Edwards - Cast: William Holden, Ryan O'Neal, Karl Malden, Tom Skerritt, Joe Don Baker, James Olsen, Lynn Carlin, Victor French, Rachel Roberts, Moses Gun

The Unforgiven (1960)

Director: John Huston – Cast: Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, John Saxon , Charles Bickford, Lillian Gish, Albert Salmi, Joseph Wiseman, Doug McClure, Carlos Rivas

The Unforgiven is an adaptation of a novel by Alan Le May, who also wrote The Searchers, the source novel for John Ford’s famous movie. Both novels were supposed to be ‘adult’ western stories about racial hatred and tension.

The story is about a young girl, Rachel, who was adopted as a child by the Zachary family. This is stipulated early on in the movie, most probably to avoid suspicions of an incestuous love affair. The point is that Rachel (although she is courted, more or less successfully, by the neighbors’ son) adores her older ‘brother’ Ben, and we soon understand it’s not just sisterly love. There’s also a mysterious old man who claims the girl wasn’t a foundling, as stated by her ‘mother’, but was stolen from the Kiowa. When this tribe is on the warpath, Rachel’s fiancé is killed, provoking a burst of anti-Indian sentiments among the settlers. Her identity is now revealed to all concerned and Ben’s younger brother Cash leaves the family because he doesn’t want to live under one roof with a dirty Indian.

And then the Kiowa attack and claim the girl ...

The Unforgiven was a troubled production. Director John Huston wanted to make an strong anti-racist statement, but was constantly at odds with his producers, who preferred a more audience friendly western. The works had to be postponed because Audry Hepburn was severely hurt when she fell off a horse. In the end Huston almost disowned the film, calling it one of his least accomplished works. 

Admittedly, the movie has its flaws, especially on script level. To avoid problems, Rachel’s foster parents have always sustained that she was a foundling, a girl who’s real parents were killed by Kiowa. We're supposed to believe that her friends, and even some of her relatives, have never noticed that Rachel was an Indian. In one particular scene Hepburn paints a red line on her fore-head, apparently to underline the idea that she has become aware of her descent. This all feels forced, the more so since Rachel is played by an actress like Audrey Hepburn; she tries hard and she’s not a bad actress, but it's not easy to accept her in this role. 

But if the movie has its shortcomings, it has its strong points too. The intricate story of white people stealing an Indian child without even considering the feelings of her relatives, is compelling and incisive. The haunting atmosphere of family secrets and the mysterious messenger threatening to reveal them, give the film an almost biblical aura of doom; there are also strong similarities to Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, the classic gothic story about an adopted child (in that case a boy called Heatcliff) who disrupts the harmony of a seemingly happy family. On a different level, the film also manages to transmit the spirit of the settlers, living in the middle of a hostile nowhere. And the Indian attack which concludes the movie, is mesmerizing, one of the best ever filmed.

The Deadly Trackers (1973)

Dir: Barry Shear - Cast: Richard Harris, Rod Taylor, Al Lettieri, Neville Brand, William Smith, Paul benjamin, Pedro Armandariz Jr., Isela Vega

This movie falls into that special category "Not great, but not as bad as it's reputed to be". It was started by one director, the notorious Sam Fuller, in Spain, but finished by another, the less notorious Barry Shear, in Mexico.  The footage shot by Fuller was not used, and his original script was entirely re-written. Officially Lukas Heller was credited for it, but according to Rod Taylor's website, large parts of the script were written on the spot, by Harris and Taylor, who both were very dissatisfied with Heller's work.

In spite of all these rewritings, some of Fuller's original ideas about a once peaceful sheriff who becomes a renegade after the violent death of his wife and child, still shine through. The opening scene with Harris as the legendary sheriff of the town of Santa Rosa, is quite good. Harris has become a legend because he has been able to keep the streets of Santa Rosa clean without using any violence. But his pacifism is one of a peculiar kind: instead of wearing a firearm himself, he has armed all citizens of his community, turning the town into a bunker with one way in, and no way out for those who dare confront its peaceful sheriff. But Taylor finds a way out: while his men are being disarmed, he kidnaps Harris' son, forcing the townspeople to lay down their arms. While the villains ride out off town, the whole affair turns into a tragedy ...

Of course Harris goes after Taylor and his cutthroats, even crossing the border and chasing them into Mexico, where he teams up - every now and then - with a local officer (Al Lettieri) who's also after Taylor. Within the story's framework, the two men are each other's moral counterparts: violent by nature, Lettieri is now forced to work within the law, while the once peaceful lawman Harris only respects his violent instincts. It's one of those hints at character depth, but Harris change from a pacifist into a madman is much too abrupt and far too soon the story turns into a straightforward, bloodthirsty revenge tale. It's only during the finale that the movie seems to recover some of the glory of that remarkable opening scene. In it, the now demented Harris is confronted with a desperate Taylor, who has found his daughter (the only creature in the world he really cares for). The actual Harris is beyond help, but by saving Taylor, he could have saved the image of the man he once was, but instead Shear and his screenwriters opt for a melodramatic, violent conclusion.

As said, the deadly Trackers is not great. It has a few good action scenes, quick and bloody, but the story lacks momentum, especially in the protracted second half. The movie's malignant reputation was probably enhanced by Harris' acting style ('pastiche Brando' as some have called it). Other performances vary: Neville Brand and William Smith (as a lunatic knick-named 'Schoolboy') are always good value, but their parts are either too short (Smith) or ill-defined (Brand) and Al Lettieri is miscast as the Mexican lawman; without a steady directional hand, he turns out to be no more than mediocre actor with a great face. Taylor's casting as a sadistic (but deep down inside vulnerable) villain was surprising, even daring, but he does a fine job, almost singlehandedly saving the movie. Nobody was credited for the score, which is no surprise: it's simply Jerry Fielding's score for The Wild Bunch (1969).

MacKenna's Gold (1969)

Dir: J. Lee Thompson, Cast: Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas, Camilla Sparv, Julie Newmar, Ted Cassidy, Eli Wallach, Edward G. Robinson, Burgess Meredith, Lee J. Cobb, Keenan Wynn, Anthony Quayle - Narrated by Victor Jory 

I wouldn't call this a great movie, but it was the first western I ever saw in cinema so it has a special place in my heart. It must have been an Easter or Christmas holiday, since the cinema was filled with boys of my age, about thirteen or fourteen years old. Temperatures rose to tropical heights when Julie Newmar took off her clothes and jumped into a mountain lake, and I guess temperatures weren't the only things rising. 

Mackenna's Gold was released in 1969, a remarkably good year for the American western. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, The Wild Bunch and True Grit were all released in this pivotal year,  but these westerns were all events in their own very special right: True Grit was Duke's Oscar winning movie, Butch & Cassidy managed to touch the strings of a generation and Peckinpah's 'dirty western' seemed to rephrase the western vocabulary in answer to the Italian western. Mackenna's Gold just looked old-fashioned. It was based on a 1963 novel (by Henry Wilson Allen), but with its story about a treasure map, a canyon of gold, a noble hero, treacherous villains, a blond innocent girl and a dark witchy bitch, it almost seems closer in spirit to the old-time serials than to the Crazy Sixties.

The story, loosely based on the legend of the Lost Adams Diggings, is relatively simple: Marshal Mackenna from Hadleyburg is forced to shoot an old Indian who tried to bushwack him. He subsequently comes in possession of a treasure map indicating the location of the legendary cañon de oro of the Apaches.  Mackenna doesn't believe in the map and therefore burns it, moments before the arrival of a group of bandits, led by a Mexican called Colorado. The bandit reckons Mackenna has memorized the map before burning it, and forces him the lead the group to the canyon. Also after the gold are a group of gold-hungry citizens from Hadleyburg, while things are complicated by a small group of cavalry men chasing Colorado.

One look at the cast will tell you that this movie was an ambitious affair. Producer and screenwriter Foreman and director Thompson had collaborated on The Guns of Navarone and were probably thinking of copying its success, but Mackenna's Gold turned out to be a very troublesome production. It was years in the making, some of the original plans were frustrated by Columbia, and it was also drastically cut from three hours to a little over two hours, leading to a couple of inconsistencies. The original choice for the Mackenna part, was Clint Eastwood, who chose to do Hang 'm High instead. Gregory Peck does a decent job, as always, but he looks a bit tired in a couple of scenes. Omar Sharif (an Egyptian cast as a Mexican!) turns in a nice, if mannered performance as Colorado. None of the other actors gets much chance to show what he's capable of, with the exception of Newmar, who buns the screen as the evil Hesh-ke.

Mackenna's Gold still offers some of thrills of the true adventure movie (I loved it as a kid, and not only for Julie),  but it's betrayed by a couple of awful special effects and annoying rear projections. The combination of (often breathtakingly beautiful) location work and scenes shot in the studio is downright embarrassing. There are also several goofs and silly story elements. As the sun rises, shadows grow shorter, not longer, and during the finale the two main characters climb a impossible vertical ridge for no discernable reason, have a fight on a halfway ledge, then climb down again. Pure madness!

The movie was almost entirely forgotten when somebody discovered that a young George Lucas had been on the location in Utah to shoot a documentary about the making of it (as part of his studies for USC). Ever since then it has become a sport to trace similarities between the movie and Lucas' scripts for the Indiana Jones trilogy. There are a few, and discovering them may add to the corny fun of this movie.


(Julie Newmar)
(Lost Adams Diggings)

Joe Kidd (1972)

Knowing that the movie was directed by John Sturges, also stars Robert Duvall and was scripted by Elmore Leonard, it may come as a surprise that Joe Kidd is often called Clint's dullest western. It is probably best known for a scene in which Eastwood runs a railway engine through a bar. Some have noticed similarities to Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence ('that western in the snow'). A persistent rumor says Clint once bought the rights to a remake of Corbucci's movie (which was never released in the US), but then decided to do this movie instead. There are couple of similarities (locations, weapons) but they're rather vague and they might as well be totally coincidental.

The premise sounds very interesting: at the end of the Mexican-American war, Mexico has ceded a part of its territory to the US (1). The local Mexican population are being systematically cheated of their land rights by American land barons. One of the locals, a farmer called Chama, has started a riot that is quickly spreading. The most powerful of the landowners, Harlan, organizes a manhunt and offers Joe Kidd, a former bounty hunter, $ 500 to track down Chama. Joe first refuses, but then hears that Chama has raided his farm ...

The conflict between Spanish and English language citizens is an interesting subject, not often treated in westerns, and  Joe Kidd starts off well, with a stoic Clint reluctantly choosing sides in the conflict, but it loses momentum along the way and comes up with a particularly disappointing conclusion. Some think Elmore Leonard was one of America's finest (screen-)writers, but I have never been a fan of his work. His script for Joe Kidd lacks insight, both in the characters and the conflict. Eastwood's character is ill-defined and Duvall's land baron is too much typified as a nazi avant-la-lettre. Overall the action scenes look good. However, I do not like this scene with rail way engine. It is funny, but it's also a bit ridiculous and ultimately it looks as uninspired as the movie itself.

Joe Kidd in a rather one-dimensional action movie, watchable, but not living up to its expectations. There are enough 'Eastwood moments' to keep his fans interested and Bruce Surtees' cinematography gives the film a glorious look, but with this cast and this director, we would've expected a bit more.

Dir: John Sturges - Cast: Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, John Saxon, Don Stroud, Stella Garcia, Paul Koslo, James Wainwright 


Monday, March 25, 2013

Hang 'em High (1967)

Dir: Ted Post - Cast: Clint Eastwood,  Inger Stevens, Ed Begley, Pat Hingle, Ben Johnson, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, L.Q. Jones, Bob Steele, Charles McGraw

The first western Clint made back in his home country after his Italian adventures, often called the first stateside spaghetti western. It was produced by his own Malpaso Company and he knew both director Post and composer Frontiere from his Rawhide days. According to some sources he co-directed it, and this wouldn't surprise me a bit. Hang 'em High announces some of the rather complex ideas about personal revenge versus legal justice, that would become a recurrent theme in Clint’s movies.

Set in 1899, at the brink of a new millennium and era, Hang 'm High depicts a West in which personal revenge is gradually being replaced by a still rudimentary legal system. The process is presented as ‘natural’, as ‘in the line of things’, so when Clint survives his own hanging by a blood-thirsty lynch mob, and wants revenge, it seems only natural that he picks up the Marshal's star, offered to him by a hanging judge. He reckons that as a Marshal he can work within the law, but still wreak vengeance upon the men who wanted to hang him without a precess. But the times they are a' changing, and he'll have to learn that legal butchery is unacceptable.

At the same time we see the first signs (and drawbacks) of bureaucracy, when ‘the system’ shows no mercy for two young men, who would have been pardoned by the classical, ‘personal’ avenger. It doesn't even help when Clint pleads for their lives in court. There’s also a hanging sequence that shows the procedure in all its grimness and brutality. It's a bizarre, unsettling scene, most probably conceived with the famous public hangings of the French Revolution in mind, creating an almost carnival-like atmosphere including communal hymn-singing to get the crowd in the right mood.

Although a revenge story lies at the base of it, it’s a typical American western. However, visually it is indebted to Leone in a couple of scenes, and the loud, obtrusive score by Dominic Frontiere is an example of what critic Philip French has called an 'overloaded soundtrack', and one of the things the Italian film industry gave in return for the myth they took (1). Clint is surrounded by a fine ensemble of veteran character players like Ed Begley, Pat Hingle and Ben Johnson, and there also a few newcomers (who would soon become familiar faces) such as Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper, but the movie never lives up to its full potential. It is interesting, but it's also flawed. The story is too drawn out and the script too episodic. Unlike some other critics (for instance Phil Hardy) I don’t think the uneasy relationship between Eastwood and Inger Stevens does the film any good. Stevens suffers from frigidity after being gang-raped and therefore rejects Clint's advances, but one stormy night is enough for our hero to cure her - not very subtle, if you ask me. With all this attention for hanging, the movie's also a bit short on real western action.


Philip French, Westerns, p. 106 : "What [the Italian film industry] returned to Hollywood, was a taste for ultra-violence, a strong line in calculated sadism, a penchant for over-emphatic images and overloaded soundtracks (...)"

Rio Bravo (1959)

Dir: Howard Hawks – Cast: John Wayne (John T. Chance), Dean Martin (Dude), Angie Dickinson (Feathers), Ricky Nelson (Colorado), Walter Brennan (Stumpy), Ward Bond, John Russell, Claude Akins, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Harry Carey Jr. – Music: Dmitri Tiomkin

Rio Bravo usually is interpreted as a riposte to Fred Zinneman’s High Noon. The stories are different, but like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, John Wayne’s character is a lawman under pressure. He has arrested the brother of a wealthy rancher and must now defend himself against the hired guns sent to free the prisoner. But whereas Gary Cooper begs for help and gets none, sheriff John T. Chance does not ask for help, and gets some. Two people offer their assistance: his former deputy, now an alcoholic, and a crippled old timer. A fourth person joins this club of old pals, a young man who is quick on the draw, but has not yet put his abilities into practice. Again Chance doesn’t ask him to join the club, he smoothly walks in, apparently because he simply feels he should do so.

As an ‘answer movie’ to High Noon, Rio Bravo falls short. Apparently Wayne and Hawks couldn't stand the image of a lawman begging for help, but High Noon was not a western about a sheriff, it was a western about townspeople. Not the sheriff was at the center of the narrative, but the townspeople who preferred to look the other way when things became ugly. Rio Bravo is a town western in the sense that it’s largely set in a western town, but it doesn’t focus on the community. It’s above all a movie about friendship and self-respect, about trust and loyalty: all John T. Chance has, is a barfly, a cripple and a greenhorn, but it’s all he needs. That is the 'message' of this movie: Three people you can trust, count more than a dozen that might let you down when things become serious.

This is of course all classical western stuff: the silent, infallible hero, the hero’s fallible friend, the comical sidekick, the ambitious newcomer. What sets Rio Bravo apart, is the rich character study Hawks somehow manages to concoct out of these simple ingredients. Stumpy, the talkative old timer, is far more than the standard comic relief type of character we meet in many a western movie; we gradually find out that he’s a vulnerable old man, who uses his verbosity to prove that he’s still alert, that he can still be of use in a world in which crippled men aren’t wanted. But the best example is Dude, played by Dean Martin. Like the character he plays, Martin had a mighty drinking problem, and Hawks uses this circumstance masterfully. A few scenes with Martin fighting his demons, are a bit painful to watch. Rio Bravo is above all his movie, probably his finest hour as an actor.

Rio Bravo is not perfect, but its imperfection often seems to contribute to its appeal. It is way overlong, but when it's over you feel sorry and would like to watch it again. It is slow-moving, but the slow pace offers you the opportunity get familiar with the various characters. Exactly for this reason, Quentin Tarantino has called it his favorite western along with The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: to him it's a perfect 'hangout movie', a film that gives you the opportunity to really ‘hangout’ with these guys, and become friends with them. Some critics have criticized Hawks for paying too much attention to Angie Dickinson's 'tart with a heart', the gambler Feathers, who falls for sheriff Wayne.

I had forgotten how hot Angie Dickenson was in ’59, so in this aspect her scenes were a nice surprise. They also provide the movie with some very funny moments – Angie reducing the Duke to a harmless teddy bear – and also with a typical Hawksian female character – as Hawks devotee Robin Wood put it: as strong as any man, yet not in the least like one of them. It’s always good to have a strong woman in a western, but Angie's scenes with Duke often feel artificial, a bit out of place. Duke never was a ladies' man and it’s hard to accept that Angie would fall head over heels in love with a man old enough to be her father. It’s sometimes suggested that Hawks, like Hitchcock, had a desperate (and inevitably unanswered) passion for the young actresses in his movies. In Rio Bravo John Wayne is 52 and actually looking older, probably because the movie offers him a lot of screen-time, but gives him not enough to do. There are too many scenes with him walking down the main street, to or from the saloon annex hotel where Angie is staying, and he cannot hide his age with his usual bravura.

Some people prefer El Dorado, Hawks’ first (sort of) remake of Rio Bravo. El Dorado better paced and grittier, but when watching it, I miss Nelson and (especially) Martin, even though he’s replaced by Robert Mitchum. Of the two, Mitchum is no doubt the better actor (Dino's of course the better singer), but he fared best in westerns of moral ambiguity with a dark, sultry atmosphere, and Hawks’ westerns are none of these things. Rio Bravo is not totally unpretentious, but it's essentially a light-hearted movie (note that most characters have 'funny' names: Feathers, Stumpy, Dude, even Chance sounds like a knickname). It was Hawks who said: Ford is better at westerns, but I am better at comedy. The action scenes are few and far between, but once you’ve seen them, they’ll always stay in your mind: the explosive finale, with Dino and Claude Akins having a fistfight in the middle of a shootout, Nelson throwing a Winchester to un unarmed Wayne, and above all this wonderful scene with Martin entering a saloon, looking for a fugitive villain … suddenly dripping blood tells him the man is right above him … Martin turns on his heels, and shoots the man down … That is wonderful. Memories are made of this.

Hawks loved his own movie so much, that he remade it twice (albeit loosely), first as the tough, but slightly less memorable El Dorado, then and as the unmemorable, but perfectly enjoyable Rio Lobo. It also inspired younger film makers, notably John Carpenter, who updated the story to modern day Los Angeles, in Assault on Precinct 13. Sergio Leone was impressed by Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, influenced by Mexican folk songs. Ennio Morricone recalled Leone requesting him to write a ‘Dimitri Tiomkin kind of score’ for A Fistful of Dollars. The Italian title of the movie was by the way Un Dollaro di Onore (Onore = honor). Probably just coincidence, but what a nice coincidence.


* Garry Willis, Rio this and Rio that, in: John Wayne’s America, the politics of Celebrity, 1997, New York

* Robin Wood, Rio Bravo, in: Western movies, edited by W.T. Pilkingtn and Don Graham, 1979, University of New Mexico Press

* Rio Bravo (film), Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

* Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, British Film Institute, London, 2006

More Dead than Alive

More Dead than Alive (1969, Robert Sparr)  The title and the poster of the movie may give you the impression that this is a spag...