Heaven with a Gun + Santee

Glenn Ford

It's said that Glenn Ford could draw in 0.4 seconds, faster than John Wayne or James Arness.  Relaxed, vigorous and versatile, he could have been one of the greatest western stars in history, but somehow he never reached superstar status. As a promising young actor he made a couple of memorable appearances - alongside that other relaxed and handsome young man William Holden - in westerns such as Texas (1941, George Marshall) and The Man from Colorado (1948, Henry Levin). The fifties were very much his golden era; in the first half of the decade he became a household name with appearances in movies like The Big Heat and Blackboard Jungle, and in 1957 he made the movie that seemed to catapult him to the eternal hall of fame of western stars: 3.10 to Yuma.

Some think his career was blighted by his appearance in the prestigious flop Cimarron (1960, Anthony Mann); there might be some truth in it, but history itself seemed to work against him: the mid-sixties weren't exactly a golden period for the American western; it all happened on the other side of the globe, in Europe, where Sergio, Clint and Ennio were redefining the western idiom. When Hollywood finally went back to form, Ford was past his prime; the future belonged to a new generation of charismatic actors and the great character parts went to others. Between 1967 and 1973 he appeared in six westerns; in most of them he was appropriately cast as an aging gunman, still quick on the draw, but struggling with his history of violence. Two representative westerns of this period, are the tongue-in-cheek Heaven with a Gun (1969) and the more serious Santee (1973).  

Heaven with a Gun (1969, Lee H. Katzin)

In the opening scene, Ford buries an Indian who was killed by two cowpokes in a conflict over water rights between sheep herders and cattlemen. The powerful ranch owner Asa Beck (John Anderson) thinks Ford is hired by the sheepmen, but in reality Ford is a reformed gunslinger turned preacher who has registered a mental vow to put an end to the hostilities. He's a man of peace, but one who reasserts his message with a six shooter and a few strong one-liners:

"There will be no killing around this church, unless I do the killing."

It has been noticed that for a movie with a peaceful message, Heaven with a Gun is quite violent and sadistic. It opens with a lynching scene and some fifteen minutes into the movie, we get a pretty nasty torture scene with shears, in which one of the sheep herders (caught by Beck's men while trespassing the range) is treated as if he were a sheep himself. There's also a rape scene involving a young Barbary Hershey, who plays the halfbreed daughter of the Indian buried by Ford in the opening scene. She thinks she now 'belongs' to Ford - the man who was good to her father - but Ford feels he's too old for her. The person who rapes her, is by Beck's son (played by David Carradine), the person who killed her father.

The natyness is somehow mitigated by tongue-in-cheek humor and an offbeat finale with Ford and the townsfolk (women included) organizing a march to the water hole used by both groups, in order to prevent a massacre, but the humor isn't always subtle, occasionally even tasteless (the saloon lady dressing the innocent Indian girl up like a prostitute) and some may get the idea that the movie is robbed from a shootout ending by this march for peace. Heaven with a Gun is not a misfire, it has an excellent cast (apart from those already mentioned, there's a great performance by J. D. Cannon as a hired gun), but it's uneven and it's also quite hard to take anything of it seriously.

Dir: Lee H. Katzin - Cast: Glenn Ford (Jim Killian), Carolyn Jones (Madge), Barbara Hershey (Lelupa), John Anderson (Asa Beck), David Carradine (Coke Beck), J.D. Cannon (Mace)

Santee (1973, Gary Nelson)

Santee, on the other hand, is often called one of the more interesting westerns of Ford's later period. It's a violent melodrama, telling the story about a man called Santee, a horse breeder turned bounty hunter, who adopts a boy called Jory, the son of an outlaw he was forced to shoot before the young man's very eyes. Feeling responsible for the inexperienced boy, Santee invites him to stay on his ranch, even though the young man has sworn to avenge his father. Jory is told, by Ford's Indian ranch hand, that the relentless bounty hunter is in fact a tormented man, whose son was killed by a gang of marauding outlaws. Soon Jory and Santee grow towards each other, but then rumors are spread that the outlaws who have killed Santee's son, are back in the region. Once again Santee must take up his guns to protect his family, and once again he will fail ... 

The film is a sort of three act drama. The first part, with Ford in hot pursuit of a small group of outlaws, is atmospheric and strong; it's also helped by a strong performance by Robert J. Wilke as the outlaw father (Wilke is one of those supporting actors who can bring a subplot to live). The problem is that the movie has trouble to live up to the expectations created in these first thirty minutes. The mid-section, set on Santee's Arrow ranch (one of the three arrows symbolically missing), is concerned with the growing relationship between the boy and the foster father, but the central problem - can they overcome their differences and forget the past? - isn't handled with enough care - it all feels a little too smooth. The film returns to the violent antics of the first thirty minutes in the final act, but with a couple of actions scenes that are less convincing than the initial chase sequence.

Director Gary Nelson had mainly worked for TV and was probably chosen because he had been assistent-director (uncredited) to John Ford on The Searchers and had directed several episodes of the TV series Have gun, Will Travel. His direction seems competent in most scenes but is marred a by his over-reliance on graphic violence; his movie is strongly influenced by the excessive bloodletting that had pervaded the genre in recent years; the final shootout, set in a brothel, with horses entering the building while the men shoot it out, looks quite chaotic. Don Randi's score is a mixed bag too: it occasionally works - notably during the chase sequence - but more often it's overbearing. On the plus side we have good performances. Ford is excellent as the tormented man and it's a true pleasure to see Jay Silverheels - Tonto himself - as Santee's ranch hand John Crow.

Santee was also one of the first motion pictures to be shot electronically on videotape and then transferred to film. It was shot with Philips Norelco video cameras and Ampex 2 videotape recorders, both powered via batteries while shooting on location.

Dir: Gary Nelson - Cast: Glenn Ford (Santee), Michael Burns (Jody), Dana Wynter (Valerie), Jays Silverheels (John Crow), Harry Townes (Sheriff), Robert J. Wilke (Deake)


  1. I guess I was one of the few that actually liked Cimarron.


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