Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dark Command (1940)


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

"We gotta saying down in Texas ..."

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

(3) For Quantrills Raid on Lawrence see:

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Flaming Star (1960)

Flaming Star (1960, Don Siegel)

Flaming Star is arguably Elvis Presley’s best movie (most people will tell you Jailhouse Rock comes nearest in quality). The screenplay, by Nunnaly Johnson, was based on a novel by Clair Huffaker, but Johnson had written it with Marlon Brando in mind. When Brando dropped out, it was rewritten for Elvis by no other than Huffaker himself. Like John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960) it tells a story of a mixed (red-white) family torn apart when hostilities flare up between the Indians and the settlers.

Elvis Presley is Pacer, the half-breed son of a Texas rancher, Sam Burton, and a Kiowa mother. Together they live with Pacer’s white half-brother Clint (from an earlier marriage of their father) on a small cattle ranch. The family is accepted by the other ranchers, but things change rapidly when the Kiowa - under a new Chief - go on the warpath and attack the neighboring ranch of the Howard family, killing all but one. In a desperate attempt to avoid a massacre, Pacer’s mother has a powwow with the tribe’s wise men, but she is shot on her way back home, by the sole survivor of the assault on the Howard ranch. With his family being distrusted by the Indians and despised by the whites, Pacer is propelled into a maelstrom of conflicting feelings of loyalty, pride and passion.

Elvis was very keen on establishing himself as a serious actor and does a pretty good job here. With his dark hair and dark complexion he could well pass for a half-breed and the star vehicles he had appeared in, had told him how to move in front of a camera. He was also in very good shape and could therefore perform many of the stunts himself. But there were still doubts about his talents as a dramatic actor and when Johnson’s script was rewritten by Huffaker, the character of Pacer was brought less central to the events. It’s only during the final thirty minutes, when the violence erupts, that Elvis’s Pacer becomes the true pivot of all things happening. It neither hurts the movie nor his character; quite on the contrary, it makes his ‘explosion’ after the death of his mother only more convincing.

Flaming Star is not without flaws; the Kiowa dialogue sounds very unrealistic and some of the story elements (especially in the first half) could’ve been handled with more subtlety. But the film is crisply directed by Don Siegel and the grievances of the red man are presented in believable fashion. Pacer is rejected by the Whites and reclaimed by the Kiowa, but on both sides the message seems to be ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us’. The ending of Flaming star is bleak and may feel a bit forced, but in all its bleakness, it pays lip-service to the idea of the melting pot (*1). Like his mother earlier in the movie, Pacer has seen the flaming star of death, which means his days on earth are numbered. He asks his brother Clint to live in his place:

“You live for me, maybe they'll understand people like me some day.”

Dir: Don Siegel - Cast: Elvis Presley, Dolores Del Rio, Steve Forrest, John McIntire, Barbara Eden, L.Q. Jones, Richard Jaeckel, Rodolfo Acosta


* (1) The idea of the melting pot was a homogeneous society, the different elements "melting together" into a harmonious whole with a common culture (remember the Blue Milk song of the same title). We seemed to have abandoned this idea completely in favor of what is called a multicultural mosaic, in which the different cultures remain distinct in many (if not most) aspects.

What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough enough to take
The world and all its got 
And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee coloured people by the score

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Rough Night in Jericho (1967)


Director: Arnold Laven - Cast: Dean Martin, George Peppard, Jean Simmons, John McIntire, Slim Pickens, Don Galloway, Richard O'Brien, John Napier 

A bizarre western, if only for casting good old Dean Martin as a villain without any redeeming qualities. It was marketed with the tag line "Who says they don't make Westerns like they used to?" suggesting that this was an old school western with all the classic ingredients. The story about (the lack of) law and order in a small western town, sounds like a fifties western, but the level of violence is more in accordance with the early seventies. When a man in a white shirt is shot his blood runs on the shirt like wine on a napkin, another man is shot in the face, Jean Simmons is beaten up and almost strangled and a hand-to-hand combat between Peppard and Pickens is of a particularly nasty kind.

Martin’s character, Alex Flood, is an ex-lawman gone bad; he is determined to have total control over the town, and therefore wants to own at least 51% of every local business, including the stagecoach line conducted by Molly Lang (Jean Simmons), but Molly refuses. Hell breaks loose with the arrival of two men: Marshall John McIntire (called to town by Simmons) and his best friend, a former lawman turned gambler (George Peppard).

Rough Nigh in Jericho was written by Marvin H. Albert, who adapted his own novel to the screen. The script offers an interesting line-up of characters, played by first rate actors, but they remain largely underdeveloped. McIntire is shot in the leg early on and is therefore confined to a bed for most part of the movie and Simmons is only there because the movie needed a female character. Peppard is quite good as the ex-lawman gone astray, now looking for redemption, but Dino is simply not the right man to play a ruthless villain. Off-beat casting can be effective but it takes a director like Leone to turn a kind-hearted actor like Henry Fonda into the incarnation of evil. Arnold Laven is no Leone.

Nor is he a Peckinpah, for that matter. According to Peckinpah’s biographer David Weddle, Laven and Peckinpah were old acquaintances. Laven had been one of the producers of the TV-series The Rifleman (for which Sam wrote a couple of scripts and directed some episodes) and he had also directed The Glory Guys, scripted by Peckinpah. As far as I know Peckinpah had no hand in Rough Night in Jericho, but towards the end there’s a protracted action sequence with Martin’s men trapped in a town street by the townspeople waiting for them on the rooftops, that will remind many of us of the opening massacre of The Wild Bunch. I’m quite sure Peckinpah saw it and was inspired by it. But don't get over-exited. As said Laven is no Peckinpah. Rough Night in Jericho is an okay watch, but it's no Wild Bunch.


* Rough Night in Jericho is available on You Tube. Apparently the version is cut but oddly enough it seems to leave all the violence intact. I had not seen the movie in a while and have no idea what’s missing.

* For the Laven-Peckinpah connection see: David Weddle, If they move, kill ‘em, New York 1996, p. 136-138 and p. 146-154

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...