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Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Wonderful Country (1959)



Dir: Robert Parrish - Cast: Robert Mitchum, Julie London, Gary Merrill, Albert Dekker, Victor Manuel Mendoza, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Charles McGraw,  Chuck Roberson

An interesting movie, based on a novel by Texan author Tom Lea (1). It stars Robert Mitchum as an American called Martin Brady who once had to flee his home country after he had killed the murderers of his father. Today he's living in Mexico, making a job as a hired gun annex gun runner for a couple of local tyrants. When breaking a leg while on a business trip, he decides to recuperate on the American side of the border. 

He is held for a Mexican first, but when people find out he's actually an American, everybody's interested in hiring him. The US Army and the Texas Rangers are planning a mission against rebellious Apaches who have crossed the Mexican border and think Brady's familiarity with the local geography and language might be useful to them. Brady refuses and things are further complicated when he gets romantically involved with the wife of an army captain. 

Some have compared this movie to John Ford's The Searchers. To Brady Texas, the country he was forced to leave, is a sort of paradise, a promised land, but it's also a paradise that no longer exists: time has passed, things have changed, and when he forced to leave the country again (after shooting a man), he knows he will forever be wandering between the winds and the two countries. 

Watching the movie today, it's hard to believe that Mitchum wasn't the first choice for the role. He took his chance (he would even co-produce) after Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck had shown no interest (2). Mitchum also brought in director Parrish. The movie was received well by some critics, but others didn't like Michum's performance and thought his accent was horrendous. Today it's held in much higher praise; many think The Wonderful Country features one of Mitchum's most underrated performances, and it's also considered to be Parrish's best western (to large audiences he is probably best known for the far more violent, but erratic A Town called Bastard). 

This is a brooding, melancholic, beautifully shot western and both Leone and Peckinpah seem to have studied it. An yet there's something missing. Both the opening scene (Mitchum breaking his leg) and the ending (Mitchum walking back to Texas after he was forced to kill his favorite horse) are very well-handled, but the bulk of the movie is awkwardly paced, occasionally flirting with catatonia, and somehow this intricate script starts to work against the movie in the second half. The romantic subplot (involving Julie London) doesn't really help either. 

When released in Cuba, the film caused some controversy because two of the Mexican bandits were called "Castro"

Notes:

(1) For a note on the novel and the author, see Ron Scheer's website Buddies in the Saddle: Tom Lea, the Wonderful Country (1952)

(2) Roger Fristoe, The Wonderful Country, on: Turner Classic movies.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Gunman's Walk (1958)




Dir: Phil Karlson - Cast: Van Heflin, Tab Hunter, Kathryn Grant, James Darren, Mickey Shaughnessy, Robert F. Simon, Ray Teal, Edward Platt, Will Wright, Bert Convy

One of the many father-son western dramas made in the fifties, like most of them seasoned by Freudian overtones and influenced by Elia Kazan's adaptation of Steinbeck's East of Eden. Hunter and Darren are two brothers, Ed and Davy Hackett, one hot-headed and irresponsible, the other peace-loving and disciplined, both striving hard to gain the love and respect of their father, Lee Hackett, a former gunman and Indian fighter turned rancher. Both also have feelings for a halfbreed Sioux woman, Clee (Kathryn Grant, who would later become Mrs. Bing Crosby): Hunter lusts after her, Darren wants to marry her (1). 

Gunman's Walk is a relatively unknown movie, most probably because it lacks star power. Van Heflin and Tab Hunter are both excellent as, respectively, the troubled father and the hot-headed son, but there was no Lancaster, Douglas or - indeed - James Dean to attract large audiences. Director Karlson had done a couple of violent melodramas, most of them in the noir genre, but he wasn't a big name either and his inventive use of the widescreen must have suffered a lot when the film was shown pan & scan on television. The film isn't perfect, but it's actually one of the better adult westerns about a father son conflict from the period. 

Things escalate when Ed rides one of his father's men over a cliff when they're both vying for a white stallion (3). The man was half-breed Indian and also Clee's brother, and Ed probably acted out of frustration because she preferred Davy's company to his. He's brought to trial but is acquitted because a drifting horse trader testifies in his favor, and the man's testimony is valued higher than those of two Indian witnesses. Things go from bad to worse when Hunter shoots (and nearly kills) the very man who saved his neck at the trial (because he thinks he has stolen that beautiful white stallion) and breaks out of jail (killing an innocent man doing so) when his daddy is still busy covering up things for him ...

The screenplay (by John Ford regular Frank S. Nugent) tells the story of the family drama in a punchy, economic style, but the underlying theme of racial prejudice is elaborated in rather heavy-handed fashion; it's no doubt well-meant, but feels a little unwieldy. Characterizations might also feel a little schematic today. However, Karlson's direction is typically vigorous, marked by sudden outbursts of (quite brutal) violence, creating a brooding atmosphere of despair and doom. Long before Heflin accepts it, we understand that the outcome can only be tragic. This western deserves more attention, but please watch it in widescreen. 


Notes:

* (1) According to Wikipedia Grant married Bing Crosby in 1957, so around the time this film was shot. She largely retired from acting after her marriage and would appear on television under the name of Kathryn Crosby; since she's still listed as Kathryn Grant here, I suppose she was not yet Mrs. Crosby.

* (2) Karlson did a couple of violent crime thrillers in the 50s that were well-received by some critics but never hit the big time. He then did an Elvis movie, Kid Galahad, and a couple of Mat Helm movies in the 60s and finally hit the gold vein with his penultimate movie, Walking Tall, in 1973. The film made him a fortune because he owned a large percentage of it.

* (3) There have been discussions on the net whether they really sacrificed a horse in this magnificent, but truly horrifying scene. According to this site, a dummy was used:



Thursday, May 16, 2013

Comanche Station (1960)



Dir: Bud Boetticher - Cast: Randolph Scott, Nancy Gates, Claude Akins, Skip Homeier, Richard Rust, Joe Molina, Rand Brooks, Dyke Johnson 

This is the last of the Ranown Cycle, the series of low-budget westerns made in the second half of the fifties by director Budd Boetticher,  star Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown. It's a worthy conclusion of the series: while following the pattern of some of the best entries, it also deepens this theme of a lonely man's quest, inextricably linked to Boetticher's western universe.

In the opening scene we see a white man called Jeff Cody (Scott) riding into Indian territory, trading some goods in exchange for a white woman, Nancy Lowe, held captive by the red men. Knowing Boetticher's movies, and knowing Scott, we know Cody is determined to bring the woman back to her home in Lordsburg. When making a stop at a station, the Comanche Station from the title, Scott and the woman are joined by three men, who were persecuted by the Indians and needed Scott's 'fourth' gun to survive.

It soon transpires that the three men have been looking for the woman too, because her husband has promised a $5.000 reward for anybody who brings his wife home. When Mrs. Lowe is informed about this by the leader of the three men, Ben Lane (Akins), she thinks Cody has only saved her for the money. Lane now intends to kill both Cody and the Mrs. Lowe (her husband is willing to pay the $5.000 for her dead body too), but his two younger companions have second thoughts ...


It has often been pointed out that these self-imposed missions in Boetticher's movies are relatively insignificant. The revenge he was so determined to exact, often turns out to be futile, and if the fulfillment of a mission is beneficial, it's beneficial to somebody else. In Comanche Station this idea is even pushed further by doubling the theme of the lonely man's quest: we learn that Cody was looking for his own wife when he found her (in fact he had been looking for his wife  for a decade). After delivering Mrs. Lowe to her husband, Cody turns round and rides off alone, continuing is never-ending quest ...

Boetticher and his cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. make the most of the magnificent landscape; filmed in CinemasCope, the expertly staged action scenes are turned into overwhelming spectacles, set against the background of granite rocks and snow-capped mountains. Claude Akins is probably the least renowned actor playing one of those gang leaders who first cooperate with Scott but eventually turn against him (others were Lee Marvin, Pernell Roberts and Richard Boone), but he's an excellent villain, talkative but calculating, amiable but capable of shooting someone in the back. Thanks to the presence of Nancy Gates, Comanche Station is also the most sultry and erotic of the series, but her presence make the underlying theme in Boetticher's movies of sexual deprivation and the unattainable object of man's sexual desires more palpable than ever.

 
Comanche Station is closest to Ride Lonesome (even though the premise is different), but it's a bit darker and more pessimistic. In Ride Lonesome the confrontation between Scott and his alter ego is elegantly avoided, in Comanche Station it's inevitable.  There is some understanding between Scott's Cody and Akins' character of the amiable but nasty gang boss (like there was between Scott and Roberts in Ride Lonesome), but Lane flouts Cody's warnings to leave him alone and when he finally faces him between the rocks, he knows he can't back off because he has pushed things too far.

References:
Richard T. Jameson, The Ranown Cycle
Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, Comanche Station
Paul Simpson, The Rough Guide to Westerns

Friday, May 10, 2013

Fort Apache (1948)




Dir: John Ford - Cast: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Ward Bond, John Agar, Dick Foran, Pedro Armendariz, Miguel Inclan, Irene Rich, Movita

Fort Apache is the first part of John Ford's Cavalry trilogy (it was followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande). The film tells the story of a cavalry officer, Owen Thursday, whose reckless tactics lead to the massacre of an entire regiment. It's best known for the controversial ending, in which Thursday's successor, his former lieutenant, not only covers up the man's folly, but even makes a hero out of him. 

Cast against type (1), Henry Fonda turns in a brilliant performance as Thursday, the cold army general, demoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and banished to the frontier. One of the first things he says after his arrival, is that he is not a martinet. But that’s exactly what he is, a martinet: he suppresses his daughter’s romance because the man of her dreams is socially unacceptable, and ignores York’s good advice because he is used to give orders, not to have discussions.

When a group of Apaches leave the reservation and attack an army patrol, Thursday sees a chance to redeem himself and regain his former rank of general. After a few skirmishes, the Apaches escape to Mexico, and Thursday sends captain York across the border to arrange a peaceful meeting. York's mission is successful, but when the Indians arrive on the spot, Thursday refuses to negotiate with them on equal terms, and simply orders them to return to their reservation, knowing they will never obey the order. But the Indians have set their own ‘trap’, and when Thursday attacks, his troops are annihilated, except for York and a few other men, who didn’t take part in the charge. 


Fort Apache is rather bleak and cruel for a western of the forties, but most story elements are classical western material. Renegade Indians, an arrogant cavalry commander, his knowing lieutenant, it all seems familiar western fare, and note that the film was made shortly after WWII, which might explain some of its bleakness. But then, all of a sudden, Ford comes up with this epilogue that puts things upside down and has puzzled critics as well as audiences ever since. It shows York, now commander of the fort, talking to some newspaper reporters. In front of a portrait of Thursday, he declares that ‘no man died more gallantly’ and that the men ‘are a better troop because of him’. Today it will remind most viewers of the famous ending of Ford's 1961 western drama The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, with the famous line (spoken by the newspaper man): "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." 

Like the other two parts of the trilogy, Fort Apache was based on a short story by James Warner Bellah (2). His story Massacre was based on Custer's Last stand at Little Big Horn and the Fetterman Massacre (1866), in which 80 US soldiers under the command of Captain  W.J. Fetterman were killed by Indians. Bellah was often called a hopeless romantic and authoritarian who was in love with the military and thought that the honor of a regiment was far more important than the individuals serving in it. The Indians in his cavalry stories are usually presented as uncivilized and cruel.


What Ford must have liked in these stories, was this idea of the cavalry doing a dangerous but necessary job in a hostile environment. But Ford had a far more humane vision than Bellah. To Ford the cavalry, or better: the cavalry fort, was a safe haven in the wilderness, a home and a hearth. There were no women in the original story, so Ford asked his screenwriters to develop a couple of female characters (the most important of them would be Thursday's daughter Philadelphia, played by a then 22-year old Shirley Temple). It wasn't the only change that was made. Fort Apache became the first of Ford’s films that is more sympathetic to the cause of the Indians; in the movie they’re no longer uniquely shown as a menace, but as human beings with legitimate complaints about the society of the white man. They're far removed from the cruel savages Bellah had created.

With much emphasis on daily life and the ceremonies and rituals within the confines of the army fort, the cavalry fort is almost treated as a family entity, with commander Thursday as the family father. There will be bad families, and bad family fathers, but in Ford’s vision the family is a sine qua non in the process towards civilization, with the father as an inevitable role model (3). Owen Thursday was not a good father (his stubbornness and lack of empathy ‘breaks’ the harmony of the army family), nor was he a capable commander, but at the same time was not a complete failure as either of the two: he loves his daughter and thinks he’s protecting her by suppressing her romance, and when all is lost, and he’s offered a horse (and a possibility to escape) by captain York, he returns to his men, proving that he at least is not a coward. In doing so, he indeed dies ‘gallantly’.

Fort Apache is not without flaws. Some of the more light-hearted scenes are more appropriate to vaudeville than serious filmmaking, but Ford uses them to illustrate the joyful atmosphere of daily life within the fort and luckily the more dramatic moments of the film are free from silliness. They’re also free of Ford’s (sometimes quite obtrusive) sentimentality. In Bellah's story, the twist ending is rather cynical. In Fort Apache it is repentant, contrite. We see bitterness in the face of Kirby York – who knew Owen Thursday personally – when he tells the newspaper men about the idealized image history has made of him. It’s as if Ford himself was surprised by the movie's bleakness; the other two parts of the Cavalry triptych, She wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande (although excellent films in their own right) would be more sentimental and traditional.

Fort Apache is the first of Ford’s truly reflective movies, in which he examines the great myths of the West (and the films made about it): people need myths, he seems to say, but they also need insight in the way these myths were created. Therein lies the greatness of this movie, one of Ford’s richest and finest. 


Notes:

* (1) Some sources mention that Fonda was offered the York part first, but yielded the more sympathetic part to his co-actor, preferring the more complex part of Thursday. See for instance: Allen Eyles, A Man a horse and a Gun, in: They Went That-A-Way, London 1982.

* (2) For Bellah and the differences between the story and the movie, see: Gary Willis, John Wayne's America, 1997, New York, p. 165-176

* (3) See: William T. Pilkington, Fort Apache, in: Western Movies, edited by W.T. Pilkington and Don Graham, 1979, University of New Mexico press. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Charro! (1969)



Dir: Charles Marquis Warren - cast: Elvis Presley, Victor French, Ina Balin, Solomon Sturges, James Sikking, Paul Brinegar, Barbara Werle, Harry Landers, James Almanzar, Tony Young

Some of us will watch this movie because they're Elvis fans, others will probably watch it out of curiosity. According to Wiki it's the only role that didn't feature Elvis singing on-screen (he sings the title-song though) and also the only time he appears with a beard in any of his films. I'm not a true Elvis fan (although I don't dislike him either) and haven't seen all of his films, so I can't say if this is true.

The stubbly beard is probably a reference to Clint Eastwood's No Name, the famous character from Sergio Leone's Dollar Trilogy. According to Elvis Encyclopedia by Victor Adam the role was in fact offered to Eastwood first. Jeff Wade (Elvis) is invited by a former friend, the no-good Vince Hackett, to a border town, not knowing that Hackett wants to frame him for the theft of a gold-encrusted Mexican cannon. Rumors have been spread that the thief was a dark-haired young man with a visible neck-scar, so when Wade is disarmed by Hackett's men, they burn a scar in his neck with a branding iron.  Wade must now hide for the law on both sides of the border, but an old friend, the sheriff of a small border town, gives him the chance to redeem himself and get even with the Hackett gang.

Elvis liked westerns but by 1969 he had become tired of wasting his talents to subpar movies and he looks a little absent-minded in some scenes. He made Charro! (1) between the hard work on his famous '68 ComebackShow and his return to stage one year later, and his mind was clearly on other things. This doesn't mean that Charro! is a bad movie. It has a promising start, with this rather brutal branding scene, and a few good moments along the ride; the supporting cast is very fine, with  Victor French and Solomon Sturges (Preston Sturges' son) turning in energetic performances as the Hackett brothers. The main problem is the script; the story has little momentum and just seems to lurch towards a finale in which the bandits siege a town with their cannon, in order to free the gang leader's younger brother, thrown in jail by deputy Wade. After a few explosions things are settled in a shootout - set at night - in the hills outside of town, where the bandits have positioned the cannon.

Elvis and Sturges have a funny scene together in which Elvis makes some remarks about a bump on the other one's head; when Sturges' says he has no bump on his head, Elvis smacks his head to the prison bars, saying: "Now you have." Ina Balin is eye-candy and unfortunately a nudity scene (2) was cut from the theatrical version in order to avoid an R-rating (and still missing from most versions). Several violent scenes were also dropped to this effect. 

Director Charles Marquis Warren is not one of the great western directors, but he's quite an illustrious name in the world of TV westerns. He created Rawhide and adapted the radio series Gunsmoke for TV. No wonder Charro! of has a definite made-for-TV look and feel. Another remnant of his work for television, is the presence of Paul Brinegar, known to most of us as the cranky cook Wishbone from Rawhide


Notes: 
* (1) The title Charro! is a little erratic. Charro refers to a Mexican horsemen or cowboys, notably those who participate in rodeos. Elvis' character is not Mexican.  
* (2) Here's a photo link. The writer of the article thinks a double was used for Balin. I've studied the pics over and over again, but I'm not sure.