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Friday, March 28, 2014

The Train Robbers (1973)




Dir: Burt Kennedy - Cast: John Wayne, Ann-Margret, Ben Johnson, Rod Taylor, Christopher George, Ricardo Montalban, Bobby Vinton, Jerry Gatlin

In the opening scene a man called Lane (John Wayne himself) arrives in the town of Liberty, Texas by train, accompanied by a woman, a real lady, who hired him for a job. Lane has asked a few old friends to assist him and they are waiting for him at the train station. Men waiting for their boss on a railway station: it could be a reference to High Noon, but the scene is filmed in the style of Once upon a Time in the West, with a lot of dust, prolonged silences, a creaky water mill and close-ups of faces and hand guns. It's a nice, ironic scene, John Wayne, the Duke, in the final stages of his career, making a wink at Mr. Leone.

Things quickly change after this opening scene. Big John confirms his authority, the lady changes clothes (and turns into the buxomous Ann-Margret), all mount their horses and off they go. Ann-Margret is the widow of an outlaw and she hired Wayne to retrieve the gold - worth half a million dollars - that her late husband has stolen in a train robbery and buried in a place only known to her; she wants to return the gold to the Railroad, in order to clear her husband's name and give their son a fresh start. Wayne and his men are attracted by the reward of $50,000 ("It ain't half a million but it ain't stolen either"), but a mysterious group of riders is hot on their trail and there's also a well-dressed man, who's having an eye on both groups ...

The Train Robbers is reminiscent of the series of low-budget (now classic) westerns director Kennedy scripted for the couple Bud Boetticher-Randolph Scott, but the atmosphere is more light-hearted, and the emphasis is on cameraderie rather than tensions within the group. Occasionally it feels a little like a caper movie in the style of that other Italian director, Enzo G. Castellari; the surprising twist ending - the lady having the better of all these tough guys - could easily have been the icing on the cake of a sharp-witted Castellari movie.

But there's more ... The Train Robbers can also be interpreted as a PG version of the R-rated The Wild Bunch: some visuals of men riding through the desert evoke similar scenes in Peckinpah's movie and there are also several similarities on script level; it is a chase movie, many sets are set around the camp fire and - like William Holden's Pike Bishop - John Wayne's group leader delivers a few speeches, to boast moral or teach his men a lesson. John Wayne had publicly criticized Peckinpah's movie for 'destroying the western myth' and his speeches echo those of William Holden, but these guys are no thieves and murderers, they're honorable men who even try to spare the life of a mule and wouldn't ever rob a train unless they're pushed to the limit. Well ... they are.

With its vistas of rippling sand dunes and the image of a deserted train, half-buried in the sand - as if it were a carcass of a deceased animal - the movie has a glorious look. At the same time the compositions are austere, almost Bressonian as some critic noted (1), the town of Liberty, Texas consisting of no more than a couple of buildings, far apart. The riders chasing Lane and his men are seen from a distance, remain anonymous, and the identity of the mysterious stranger is only revealed in the final scene. Compared to the revisionist movies that were in vogue in the early Seventies, The Train Robbers must have felt simplistic; it was largely overlooked and the few critics who were more receptive, saw it as good old-fashioned entertainment. Roger Ebert called it 'pretty good in a workmanlike manner' (2).

In recent years the movie has received a couple of more favorable reviews; it's not the greatest of westerns, but in retrospect those winks at Leone and Peckinpah work better and so does the twist ending. Many thought it was stupid and destroyed the mood of this movie 'full of understanding, fellowship and reconciliation' (3). Instead of destroying anything, it rather illustrates the idea that not only those winks at others, but also the movie itself should be taken with a pinch of salt. Like in (the far more violent) Big Jake, John Wayne is poking fun at himself, or rather: his screen persona of the indestructible, unmovable hero. He's more vulnerable than ever and his scenes with Ann-Margret seem to underline the idea that the only thing that can beat an unbeatable man, is a woman.


Notes: 

(1) DVD Beaver, John Wayne, Legendary Hero Collection, DVD Review
(2) Roger Ebert, The Train Robbers - http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-train-robbers-1973 
(3) Roger Greenspun, Train Robbers, Burt Kennedy keeps it traditional, The New York Times, February 8, 1973

Thursday, March 27, 2014

King Boxer (Five Fingers of Death, 1972)




After writing a review of The Stranger and the Gunfighter, also starring Lo Lieh, I thought it was a good idea to revisit this groundbreaking movie - groundbreaking in the sense that it was the first movie of its kind to get a proper US release and the one that opened up the market and paved the way for Bruce Lee and all others.

In King Boxer Lo Lieh is a young man called Chi-Hao who was adopted, after the death of his parents, by Wu Yang, the owner of small martial arts school in the countryside, who introduced him to the noble art of Kung Fu. Chi-Hao has also fallen in love with the master's daughter, Ying Ying. When the master thinks he's no longer able to teach Chi-Hao anything, he sends him to the big city, to study under a more qualified master, Hsin-Pei. Chi-Hao soon becomes Hsin Pei's best student and is selected to represent his school in a major tournament. Hsin Pei is keen on beating his major rival, the evil school owner Tung Shan, and therefore introduces Chi-Hao to his most precious secret: the dead palm technique.

The story of King Boxer1 is very pedestrian2, it's the usual stuff about two martial arts schools fighting each other (to the death if necessary) in the face of an important tournament, one school good, the other school pure evil, the good guys very noble, the evil ones fighting dirty and collaborating with the Japanese. There's one traitor among the good guys, who's jealous of Chi-Hao and lures him to a place in the woods, so two hired Japanese thugs can crush his hands. To restore the balance between good and bad, one of the evil guys eventually changes sides.

Unstoppable forehead
I saw King Boxer for the first time in 1972, along with several hundreds of excited teenagers in a cinema in my hometown Eindhoven. More than forty years later, some scenes bring back vivid memories: the deadly hands turning red, the eerie music playing over those scenes, the guy with the unstoppable forehead ... This guy, and his forehead technique, inspired Dutch censors - usually very lenient - to make a few cuts: they were afraid young people would imitate them. A few weeks after the release of the movie, a football player was knocked out with the technique by his opponent in a Dutch premier league game ... Not only teenagers watched those movies and were inspired by them.

Before joining the Shaw brothers studio, Lo Lieh had attended acting school and his rather laid-back acting style compared favorably to the jittery style of most of his colleagues; on the other hand he had only started the study martial arts at adult age, and as a martial artist he was no match for Bruce Lee or Chen Kuan Tai (the hero of Chang Cheh's classic The Boxer from Shantung). Apparently Warner Brothers were very careful in selecting which film they were going to use to introduce the genre to western audiences and Lo Lieh's charisma and natural acting style were no doubt reasons to pick this movie. Anyway, King Boxer was a good choice. The fisticuffs are short and intense and dialogue is always to the point. The script may be a bit simplistic, but the storytelling is fluent and characterizations are colorful: that unstoppable forehead must be one of the most memorable villains in the history of the genre.

But what made King Boxer so special in those days, was of course the level of violence, never seen before in western cinemas. There's spurting blood, hands are crushed and eyes are gouged out (!). Apart from the violence, the rather virulent anti-Japanese message caused some frowning; it would be interesting to know if these movies were shown in Japan, and if so, in what form. It's by the way quite hard to understand why those censors cut the scenes with the forehead technique, and let some extremely gross scenes intact. All censors are equally foolish, but some equals are more censor than others.


Deadly palms


Notes:

(1) The original title of the movie is Tiānxià dì yī quán (天下第一拳) literally The World's Number one Fist, which could indeed be read as 'king Boxer'; the title was changed into Five Fingers of Death for the US market. Some prints in circulation were titled The Invincible Boxer, which was misread by the Dutch distributor and translated as De Onzichtbare Bokser (Onzichtbaar = invisible !)

(2) According to the Hong Kong Movie Database, the script is a reworking of Jimmy Wang Yu's The Chinese Boxer (1970) 


Friday, March 21, 2014

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)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Firecreek (1968)




This movie has been called High Noon on geriatrics because of the aging cast and the premise of a lone sheriff standing up against a group of ruffians terrorizing his town, but the similarities to Zinneman’s movie are superficial and (more important) rather deceiving. Firecreek is a cerebral, literate western, far from perfect, but intriguing and above all misunderstood.

Jimmy Stewart is John Cobb, an aging farmer living in the sleepy town of Firecreek; he has two young sons and his wife is pregnant of a third child. To most inhabitants he is still a relatively young man and is therefore called Johnny by them; for this reason they have also asked him to be their part-time sheriff. The job only pays two dollars a month, but so far he has never been forced to use his gun (he keeps in a drawer back home!). Things change radically when a group of returnees from a range war decide to spend some time in town because their leader, Larkin (Henry Fonda), suffers a small but painful wound. While Larkin is being treated in a hotel room (by an attractive widow, played by Inger Stevens), his men start harassing the local women - notably a full-blood Indian woman who might be Cobb's mistress - and their behavior eventually leads to mayhem and murder ...


To start with these misleading similarities to High Noon: Stewart is not begging for help in this movie, the people are begging him to do something, and it’s in fact he who is acting like a coward. The 'bad guys' in the movie are no real outlaws, and they behave more like hooligans than traditional western villains; during the shootout near the end they seem to fear for their lives instead of showing the usual bad man's bravura. All things considered, the story is closer to Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (made a few years later) than to High Noon: it’s about a ‘normal’ situation that gradually deteriorates and eventually discharges into violence. Like Hoffman’s behavior in Straw Dogs, Stewart’s behavior seems irrational: when he finally acts, there’s not too much left to defend, he has given up hope for the town and its losers of people, but he feels a line has been transgressed. His actions are not those of a hero, but rather those of a madman. He knows he should have acted earlier and is appalled by the fact that he behaved like a coward, and therefore loses all self-control.

The script is also full of references to bigotry and repressed sexuality (also Peckinpah themes), but at this point it doesn’t fulfill its promises. Fonda’s character works old and tired, and in the course of the movie we get the idea that he’d rather stay in this 'cemetery of a town' (as he characterizes it), 'in which people are not asked to compete with each other' (as one of the other characters describes it), but in the end he decides to side with his hooligans of men. He wants to leave Firecreek, simply ride out of town after he has restored his authority by giving his men permission to hang a slow-witted young man. His aborted romance with Inger Stevens seems to be at the base of this decision, but this but this story element should have been treated with more care, especially since Stevens plays a key role in the film’s conclusion.

"A cemetery of a town"

With this premise, this couple of great actors and these complex characters Firecreek should have been a classic, and it isn't. It's intriguing, but it's also plodding, especially in the second half, and the script is needlessly verbose, with characters starting to speechify instead of simply explaining themselves in a few words. Director McEveety mainly worked for television, and it shows: there’s a certain Gunsmoke or Bonanza (or even The Little House on the Prairie) feeling hanging over the movie; it works a bit claustrophobic, with too many static indoor shots, but there are also a few nice camera angles, especially during the protracted action scene near the end (probably due to the keen camera eye of experienced cinematographer William Clothier).

When Firecreek was released, the Hollywood western was struggling; the genre would soon get a new impetus, but movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch would create a new context in which Firecreek must have looked old-fashioned, even obsolete. True Grit, the movie in which John Wayne reshaped his movie character, showed an aging star tall in the saddle, not limping - with a bullet in his leg - through the dusty streets of a western town. The movie never got a fair chance. I like films that try to do something different, and this certainly is a different western. The supporting cast is very fine, especially Gary Lockwood, as the most fearsome of the hooligans, and Dean Jagger, as the town's part-time philosopher. The climactic shootout is a long, long time coming, but it's as different as the movie itself, showing the hero in a frantic frenzy and his opponents as panic-stricken. Firecreek is a bit of a sleepy movie too, but patient viewers will be rewarded. 


*
1968 - Dir: Vincent McEveety - Cast: James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens, Gary Lockwood, Dean Jagger, Robert Porter, James Best, Jack Elam, Jacqueline Scott, Barbara Luna, Jay C. Flippen, Brooke Bundy, Ed Begley