"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Spikes Gang (UA, 1974)


Old scoundrel mentors young boys - badly




 
 
By the early 70s Lee Marvin, pictured left, that great Western actor, was doing grizzled old-timer roles. The Spikes Gang was his penultimate Western – two years later he would do the rather unfortunate The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday. He started with the tiniest of parts, as the cheery train-driver stabbed in the back in Wyoming Mail in 1950, managing, though, to make an impression even with his 20-second uncredited and non-speaking appearance. By the time of The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), Don Siegel’s first Western, Lee was ninth-billed as saloon lowlife Tinhorn (his poker game with Audie Murphy is great) and he got bigger parts in The Raid (1954), Seven Men from Now (1956), and, most famously, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), in which he was Liberty Valance. He got to share the lead in Cat Ballou and The Professionals (1966), and finally topped the bill in both Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Monte Walsh (1970). I’ll do a Marvinorama at some point, for he sure deserves it, but for now just to say he was one of the most convincing Western actors around.

I like The Spikes Gang. Marvin is splendid as the old rogue Harry Spikes and the three lads he takes under his wing are, I think, endearingly naïve. It opens with a Great Expectations-ish scene as the three teenager friends Will, Les and Tod find the old man close to death after a bank robbery gone wrong, all shot up, and secretly nurse him back to health – secretly because their parents would not approve.

Marvin as Magwitch

The three friends, farm boys tired of being “treated like the farm mule”, decide to run away from home, and they set off for a life of adventure. But this is a realistic Western, not a glamorous one, and everything goes wrong. They are soon famished, and can either find no work or are really incompetent at the jobs they do get. They decide as a last resort to follow in the admired Mr. Spikes’s footsteps and rob a bank. Of course it goes really badly, they lose the money, a man is killed, and he turns out to have been a state senator. Oops.

It doesn't go well

The boys languish in jail for another, more minor misdemeanor, and Harry Spikes, now in fine fettle again, happens across them and gets them out. A prude might think that he then corrupts them, leading them into the ways of wickedness. And he does, in a way. The story is pretty well a wages-of-sin one. Before long the boys are committing armed robbery with their mentor.

He gets them out

But Harry has his code, even if it is a rough one. When Tod is fatally wounded in another bungled robbery, Spikes wants to leave him behind to die. The boys rail at this callousness but Spikes knows it is essential for survival. "I’m not a follower of the meek and lowly Jesus,” he declares, “and I never claimed to be.”

The boys are Gary Grimes as Will, Ron Howard as Les and Charles Martin Smith as Tod. All three had form as Western juveniles. Grimes had been very good as the lead as another youth who comes of age on the trail in The Culpepper Cattle Company two years before, when he was 17, and was then excellent as one of John Wayne’s sons in Cahill, US Marshal in ’73. Howard, before he became a big producer, 19 at the time of Spikes, was in his first big Western role but he would shine as the bolshie teenager Gillom, the would-be gunslinger, in The Shootist in 1976. And Smith, 20, apart from being Terry in American Graffiti with Ron Howard’s Steve, as a Western actor was also in Culpepper, and would be memorable as Billy the Kid sidekick Charlie Bowdre in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973. I think they all act really well in Spikes, moving from ultra-green country boys to bewildered adults, and in the end, bitterly disillusioned, all shot to death in squalid towns (sorry about the spoiler but there we are).

They think they'e men now

Arthur Hunnicutt and Noah Beery Jr have nice little cameos.

It was a Mirisch production, shot in Spain on a modest budget in the summer of ’73. You can always tell. I believe it to be the coloration. You can get away with Spanish towns if the story is set (as this one is) on the Tex-Mex border because the architecture has some verisimilitude. But the Almerian landscape couldn’t look like Texas if it tried. There were some decent American Westerns shot Andalusia, such as the excellent Valdez is Coming (1971) but they certainly needed capable directors of photography – Gábor Pogány on Valdez and Brian West on Spikes. West did Billy Two Hats the same year but they were his only Westerns.

The director was Richard Fleischer, better known for sci-fi and historical dramas, I guess, but he also helmed Bandido! and These Thousand Hills. He manages to keep the pace up in Spikes, and draws good performances from the lead actors.

Producer, director and writers

It was written by husband-and-wife team Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr, from the 1970 novel The Bank Robber by Giles Tippette. Ravetch and Frank had worked on Hud and The Cowboys, so knew what they were doing, especially with adolescents in the West.

In this coming-of-age story, though in fact the boys don’t survive long enough to do that, they are on the one hand young men enjoying their new-found liberty, like coralled colts now galloping free, but on the other they are still kids, having nightmares and being homesick for their ranches, even though they were mistreated there. It’s rather touching.

The inevitable bath scene...

The ending is bloody, sad and, in the last resort, pathetic, in the proper sense of the word.

...and the equally inevitable shooting lesson

Not everyone liked it. Vincent Canby in The New York Times said, "It's a movie without a center, with no coherent tone. Mr. Fleischer is incapable of sustaining even minimal audience interest in the material."

Brian Garfield was also pretty down on it. He wrote, “Unfortunately, neither the dialogue nor the directing conveys any spirit of reality, passion or even interest; even the action scenes are boring. Paper-thin mod Western was filmed in Spain and does no justice to Tippette’s engaging novel.”

Myself, I think these criticisms too harsh. I consider it to be an intelligent and thoughtful Western with many qualities.

They plan the robbery

You can’t actually hate any of the characters. Even the reprobate Spikes has saving graces, and there are no real bad guys. It’s a tale of disenchantment and the death of hope – not the cheeriest, I grant you, but well done, I think, and definitely worth a look. It’s not as if the 1970s were chock-a-block with brilliant Westerns, and this one is better than many.

 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Railroads

All livelinks in this post are internal, i.e. they will take you to other reviews on this blog.


Lay them rails
 
 
Ever since The Great Train Robbery of 1903, considered by many to be the first Western movie, railroads have played a key part in the genre. Even before that, in fact, because all through the nineteenth century ballads, dime novels and plays had featured them. In The Fast Mail, a play of 1899, two trains chased one another across the stage. It must have been a remarkable sight. Buffalo Bill incorporated a train robbery into his Wild West spectacle. Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus is centered on conflict between farmers and the railroad.
 
Western movies started on the railroad

At first, railroads in Westerns were a symbol of progress and advancement. The shining example is John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), a monumental film of “manifest destiny” describing the spanning of the continent, and rich with Indian attacks, cattle drives to feed the workers, skullduggery by local land developers, the shenanigans at the ‘Hell on Wheels’ temporary towns, and even appearances by Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok. For Ford, the construction of the railroads symbolizes the unity of the nation, as desired by his great hero Abraham Lincoln.

He regards the Iron Horse with suspicion

Two years later, and in a lighter and less epic vein, Fox returned to the theme with its Tom Mix picture The Great K & A Train Robbery. Tom is a railroad detective, sent for by the company owner to investigate a series of pesky robberies. Naturally the railroad boss has a glam daughter, Madge (Dorothy Dwan, Dorothy in the silent Wizard of Oz the year before) – for it was compulsory in them days to have a glam daughter, and Tom duly falls for her. And of course there is much derring-do.

The proper way to board a train

One great thing about The Great K & A is that the exterior scenes are filmed on the great Durango-to-Silverton railroad in Colorado. Now, if, like me, you have ridden that train (now, sadly, no longer steam driven) you will revel in any movie that features it, and many do. Denver & Rio Grande, Santa Fe, The Lone Hand, The Maverick Queen, A Ticket to Tomahawk, Colorado Territory and Night Passage, to name but a few. And John Wayne used it for The Sons of Katie Elder (1965): now, Wayne was a Fox prop boy and uncredited extra on The Great K & A, so maybe that’s how he developed an affection for the Durango/Silverton line. But no matter how good or bad the Western is, it’s always enjoyable to see that train running up through that narrow gorge.

Fab

I couldn’t possibly list all the railroad Westerns that were made over the years. There are far too many. But I will mention a few key ones, and illustrate how the attitude to railroads changed.

Paramount’s Union Pacific in 1939, directed by Cecil B DeMille and starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, had much in common with The Iron Horse, above all its manifest destiny scope, and both pictures end with the famous meeting of the CPR and UPR at Promontory Point, modeling the scene on the famous photograph. DeMille’s picture, coming at the end of a decade of economic depression, concentrates on the construction giving work to ex-soldiers and boosting trade.

1869                                             1924                                        1939
Promontory Point, Utah
 
But by the time of Union Pacific the villains of the piece were no so much local crooks trying to make a fast buck, which they had been in Ford's picture, as scheming Eastern financiers, speculators who have bought stock in the Central Pacific and want the meeting point to be farther east. This ‘crooked railroad men’ aspect was even more evident in Fox’s Technicolor blockbuster of the same year, Jesse James.

All aboard
 
In this picture (and many subsequent Jesse James tales) the railroads are exploitative corporate Easterners oppressing decent Western folk, and the companies are legitimate targets. Their lackeys are the vile and murderous Pinkertons. The on-screen intro to Jesse James reads:

“The advance of the railroads was, in some cases, predatory and unscrupulous. Whole communities found themselves victimized by an ever-growing ogre - the Iron Horse.”

There is of course no evidence whatsoever that Frank and Jesse James were fighting on behalf of gutsy Western farmers against wicked capitalists, and certainly not that they distributed their ill-gotten loot to the poor. Actually, when they started robbing trains the target was the express companies transporting money, not the railroads themselves. But it became the standard thesis, and 'justified' the depredations of the James-Younger gang.

There were still Westerns that emphasized the march of progress. Warners’ Dodge City, another of the big Westerns of 1939, opens with a race between a train and a stagecoach. The train wins, and General Dodge, who is on board, declares, “Gentlemen, that’s a symbol of America’s future.” In the newly named Dodge City the general makes a speech about how the railroad will bring the blessings of civilization, and his discourse is studded with emotive words such as home, church and school. There is still, though, a whiff of regret that the stage lost the race; the old ways of the West are disappearing, like the buffalo. In a later picture too, The Professionals (1966) the ‘values’ of the railroad baron and Eastern corporate capitalism generally are contrasted with the decency, independence and do-the-right-thing grit of the Westerners, led by Lee Marvin.

The old races the new

In 1946 the blockbuster Duel in the Sun had a railroad theme, and once again it means progress. The Eastern-educated lawyer Joseph Cotten favors its coming while his old-fashioned and blustering father Lionel Barrymore wants to stop it at any cost.

In Johnny Guitar (1954) Vienna (Joan Crawford) has built her fancy saloon to profit from the railroad’s imminent arrival, but her bitter enemy, cattle-owner Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) spits at her that it will bring in “Dirt farmers! Is that what you want?” Nothing will do for Emma but to hang Vienna and burn her place to the ground. This theme was taken up by Sergio Leone in the following decade when, in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) he had Claudia Cardinale follow Vienna’s example. But this time there is no Emma ranged against her: there is instead the ice-cold killer Henry Fonda, brilliantly cast, a hired gun for the railroad who, in a shocking moment, kills a small boy. The railroad has become truly evil now: Fonda’s boss, Mr. Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a ruthless corporate baron of the worst kind, ready to go to any lengths to dispossess the farmers and run his line through. Leone seems to be questioning capitalism and even the idea of technological progress.

Claudia's waiting on the train...
 
...but she won't get it if Frank has his way

Randolph Scott loved building railroads, perhaps because as a young man he had trained as an engineer. He built the Canadian Pacific in 1949, and it is villain Victor Jory who describes how the new railroad will change their life for the worse and who whips up the Indians against it. It is taken for granted by the goodies that the railroad will bring peace, prosperity and a plethora of progress.
 
Don't worry: Randy isn't hurt badly

Soon after, in Columbia's Santa Fe (1951), Randy was at it again. This time he is track boss of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe (AT&SF) and determined at all costs to drive his line Westwards through Kansas, Colorado and down into New Mexico. Naturally he has to face the opposition of outlaws, Indians and the rival Denver and Rio Grande RR but by grit, courage and resourcefulness he will, like the true Western hero he is, win out.

And as if that wasn’t enough, in 1952 there he was yet again, building a line up from Virginia City to Carson City. A banker and a railroad baron (Larry Keating and Thurston Hall), whom you obviously expect to be crooks, because they are a banker and a railroad baron, but amazingly aren’t, want, rather absurdly, to build a rail link to avoid the stage robberies plaguing the Comstock area (they don't say why the robbers wouldn't just start robbing the trains instead). They get happy-go-lucky railroad engineer Scott to build the line through mountainous terrain. Little does Randy know at the time (in fact it takes most of the movie before he works it out, doh) that slimy mine-owner Raymond Massey is the one behind the stage robberies all along. In this one the technology is well represented, with steam-driven drills cutting through the rock, so that's something.

Randy builds another line

Paramount's Denver and Rio Grande the same year had a similar plot to Santa Fe. It’s one of my favorite railroad Westerns of all time, in part because of the head on crash between two locomotives. These days steam trains are so rare and expensive that even railroad Westerns such as the 3:10 to Yuma remake (2007) have to fudge one with a hundred yards of track and fake smoke behind some buildings. The TV show Hell on Wheels (2011+) made a locomotive out of Styrofoam and wood. Disney did it in The Lone Ranger (2013) with computer graphics and special effects. But in the early 50s even mid-budget oaters could afford to crash two!

uh-oh

Santa Fe and Denver and Rio Grande concentrated on the railroad war of 1879 between the D&RG and the AT&SF to run a line up the narrow gorge (there was only room for one line) to the mining riches of Leadville. It was a great Western episode, with Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and the Dodge City Gang providing the guns for the AT&SF, though the D&RG finally won the war – in the courts. You can see how that would appeal to the writers of Western movies, though for some odd reason Bat and Doc were written out.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe received a lighter and more melodious treatment when Judy Garland sang about its glories in The Harvey Girls (1946), a movie I must get round to reviewing someday, despite its being a musical (ugh).

Folks around these parts get the time of day
From the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe

Kansas Pacific (1953) was yet another Western named for a railroad company. Sterling Hayden, who had been the bad railroad man in Denver and Rio Grande, is now a goody US Army captain undercover as railroad engineer, determined to build the Kansas Pacific line out to the West to provision forts for the coming Civil War. So it’s not one of those great Manifest Destiny continent-spanning railroad-building pictures. The railway isn’t being built to bring civilization to the West or tame the far frontier or anything; it’s more a necessity to beat the South. His opponent is future Confederate guerrilla leader Quantrill (Reed Hadley), determined to stop him at any cost.

[Mmm, just had a thought: Quantrill appeared in so many Westerns it could be time for a Quantrillorama, a ‘Quantrill in fact and fiction’ post.]

That undercover business of Sterling’s harks back to Tom Mix’s part in The Great K & A Train Robbery mentioned above, and it also refers to the various versions of Whispering Smith, because he was a railroad detective too. And don’t forget railway ‘tec Matt Clark in Stories of the Century, capturing every known outlaw ever seen in the West from before the Civil War to well into the twentieth century, and all without aging a year. Wish I had that knack. Whispering Smith was one of the great Western characters and he started life as the hero of a novel by Frank H Spearman in 1906. Spearman wrote a lot of fiction and non-fiction on the subject of railroads. His investigator was modeled on real-life Union Pacific detectives Timothy Keliher and Joe Lefors. Whispering appeared on the screen on no fewer than eight separate occasions, in four silent movies, in 1916, 1917, 1926, and 1927, and then talkies in 1930, 1935, 1948 and 1952. A remarkable record. The ’48 one was probably the most famous because it starred Alan Ladd in the title part, rather unconvincingly, if truth be told. He reprised it on the radio too. In the 1948 version, a “true story” (that's what they say), Ladd plays the railroad detective who, having dispatched two train-robber brothers, suspects his best friend (Robert Preston, full of vim as ever, the archetypal charming rogue) of harboring the third. Sure enough, Preston turns out to be leader of a gang of train wreckers who pillage the wrecks for loot. Then of course Audie Murphy assumed the mantle on TV in Whispering Smith (NBC, 1961).

He whispered many times

Train robberies were such a common occurrence in Western movies that you’d think you could hardly travel without being subjected to one. R Michael Wilson in Great Train Robberies of the Old West estimates that there were perhaps a thousand robberies or attempted robberies from the end of the Civil War to 1910. Spread out over the years and the thousands of miles of track that isn’t too many but it’s still an average of 22 a year, so that’s a not inconsiderable likelihood. Famous train robbers we love to see were the Reno brothers, the James Gang and the Daltons, as well as Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall gang. Of course ideally they would gallop alongside the speeding train and then leap aboard. Or their stunt doubles would.

Essential ingredient of the Western

Other ‘railroad’ Westerns you might want to look at include Buckskin Frontier (1943), in which, bizarrely, the railroad company is the goody; Wyoming Mail (1950), in which Lee Marvin makes his Western debut as the train driver stabbed in the back; A Ticket to Tomahawk (also 1950) in which they implausibly run a hugely heavy locomotive over a field without tracks; Rails into Laramie (1954), in which we almost get a D&RG-style head-on crash of two locomotives; Fury at Showdown (1957), in which farmers stand to gain if the railroad comes through but the inevitable crooked town boss is out to thwart them; Man from God’s Country (1958), in which this time the bad guy tries to stop the railroad bacause he owns a freight company that will go out of business; The Raiders (1963), in which Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane improbably help a Texas rancher against the railroad; and Wayne’s The Train Robbers (1973) obviously. But as I said before, there are so many that it’s really pointless to go on.

Marvin's (brief) debut

Of course many of the real railroad magnates were indeed far from honest upright citizens. There’s more than a germ of truth in the idea of the ruthless company boss. I mentioned the AMC TV show Hell on Wheels earlier. That has as a central character Thomas ‘Doc’ Durant, played by the excellent Colm Meaney. Durant gained a reputation for great ruthlessness. He is rumored to have made a fortune smuggling contraband cotton from the Confederate states during the war. It was said of him that "Like Samson he would not hesitate to pull down the temple even if it meant burying himself along with his enemies." And he was supremely good at raising money and securing favorable national legislation. He had no qualms about what today would be called insider trading, and he very profitably talked up the stock of the M&M by saying the Union Pacific would link to it but secretly bought shares in a competing line and then announced that the UPR would link to that. Durant covered himself by having various politicians, including future President James Garfield, as limited stockholders. Calling him a shrewd operator doesn’t really cover it.

Durant and Gould: they weren't saints

By 1879 Jay Gould controlled 10,000 miles (16,000 km) of railway, about one-ninth of the rail in the United States at that time, and he had controlling interest in 15 percent of the country's railway tracks by 1882. He was attracted to the construction and ownership of a railroad network not by the idea of running a passenger and freight service, on which the margins would be modest, but as a speculation, making the most of the huge government land grant that went with laying the rails and manipulating the price of company stock.

Many of these railroad companies were mired deep in graft, bribing all manner of local and national politicians. This led to a huge scandal, and a huge shock to the US economy, whose seismic effects reached as far as the White House itself.

Some of the railroad bosses were indeed dubious types, and Western movies had fun making them worse.


Well, that’s enough on railroads for now, e-pards. Back soon.

 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Brigham Young: Frontiersman (Fox, 1940)


A premake of The Ten Commandments





 
At the end of the 1930s big A-picture Westerns came back into fashion and Fox’s contribution was to put its major star Tyrone Power, who wasn’t accustomed to wearing a Stetson, in its Technicolor blockbuster Jesse James (1939), directed by big name Henry King, with Henry Fonda as brother Frank and Randolph Scott as a sympathetic lawman. It was a huge box-office hit. In 1940 the studio followed up with the Fritz Lang-directed The Return of Frank James, with Fonda again, but of course Tyrone couldn’t be in that, having been shot in the back by Bob Ford the year before (though he did a rehearsal of that bit as a cameo in the first reel of Return). So the big boss Darryl Zanuck decided to use glitzy star Power in another Western, alongside their female lead Linda Darnell, and he put together a biopic of Mormon leader Brigham Young.
 
Bromfield got the credit

It was to star Dean Jagger as Young. I am a big Jagger fan as far as Westerns go (in fact he was a fine actor all round), and I think he was outstanding in oaters such as Western Union (1941), Pursued (1947), Rawhide (1951) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), among many others. But those pictures were still in the future, and in 1940 Jagger was hardly a megastar. Zanuck thought the movie needed a more stellar line-up, and so cast Power and Darnell, in dramatically but not commercially lesser roles, to pep it up at the box-office. It worked. So much so that Zanuck paired Power and Darnell again later the same year to do a big Zorro picture.

Henry Hathaway (left) was to direct. Hathaway was by this time one of the biggest Hollywood names there was, rivaling John Ford, William A Wellman and Howard Hawks, and like them he was famously tyrannical on the set. One crew member said later that Hathaway was a little dictator. Everyone had to be very careful about everything to avoid his wrath. Working with him was “like having a rattlesnake in one's pocket”. Darnell said later that it was a far from happy set, and she felt ostracized by Hathaway and Power. Hathaway had cut his directorial teeth on Westerns, at Paramount in the early 30s, helming one-hour talkie versions of the Zane Grey tales the studio had bought the rights to, such as Heritage of the Desert, To the Last Man, The Thundering Herd and Man of the Forest. In 1936 he had done a bigger picture, with Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, though that was a semi-Western rather than a full-blown sagebrush saga. Other almost-Westerns followed, pictures like The Shepherd of the Hills and Ten Gentlemen from West Point, before he achieved real Western fame directing excellent oaters such as Rawhide (with Power again), Garden of Evil with Gary Cooper, From Hell to Texas with Don Murray, and several with John Wayne, most notably the great True Grit in 1969.

Curiously, in some ways, Brigham Young was shot in black & white. For such an expensive picture – it was budgeted at a then huge $2.5m – one might have expected it to be in Technicolor, as Jesse James and The Return of Frank James were. But in fact the picture was shot so artistically that the black & white because a plus point. The DP was Arthur C Miller, a master of monochrome, who won three Oscars and was nominated for no fewer than four other pictures. In the key of Western he photographed The Ox-Bow Incident and The Gunfighter, both in black & white and both superb pictures. Brigham Young contains some breathtaking shots, and while the film definitely has its weaknesses, as a visual spectacle it is truly remarkable, and worth seeing for this alone.

Miller a great talent

No expense was spared on the locations, the trek scenes being shot at Kanab, Utah, the cricket-infestations in Elko, Nevada (with quite brilliant filming) and Big Bear Lake, Mount Whitney and Lone Pine locations used for various other scenes.

Very impressive

There is quite a history of Hollywood movies featuring Mormons. It dates back at least to filmings of Zane Grey’s anti-Mormon novel Riders of the Purple Sage, though some versions, such as the Tom Mix silent of 1925, cut out any mention of the religion, presumably to avoid upsetting anyone (and perhaps to sell more tickets in Salt Lake theaters). Brigham Young, though, was a very pro-Mormon picture, almost hagiography, to be honest, and the Saints are all-American lovers of liberty who are only exercising their constitutional rights. They are persecuted by bigoted bullies. Most of the cast were not Mormon (though the doctor was played by Moroni Olsen, which might give a clue). Jagger in fact became a Mormon years later. The writers were Louis Bromfield and Lamar Trotti, though Bromfield got far more credit. It was Bromfield's only Western. Trotti would work for Wellman on Ox-Bow and Yellow Sky, and for Ford on Drums Along the Mohawk, so he knew a thing or two.

Writers Bromfield and Trotti

They had a slight problem with the plot, though. Driven out of Illinois by vicious thugs, Young leads his people to the safety of Mexican territory. Before getting to the Great Salt Lake, though (then part of Mexico), a faction doesn’t want to settle in that desert land but wants to go on to California because gold has been discovered there. OK, neat plot device. The only snag is that the Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847 (a date now recognized as Pioneer Day in Utah) while gold wasn’t found in California until January 1848 and news of it didn’t circulate widely until the summer of ’48. Oh well.

Amusingly, Jane Darwell, who had played Tyrone’s mother in Jesse James, was again his ma here. He probably ended up calling her Mom. Darwell would again join a Mormon wagon train, for John Ford, this time, in Wagonmaster, ten years later, another favorable portrayal of Mormons: Ford’s are cheery folk who stop for a dance every ten miles.

With his wheelwright mom

A major problem with the film is the pacing. Designed as a sweeping epic, it came in at 114 minutes, which was too long for the action. Brian Garfield described the movie as “turgid as molasses”. Myself, I’m not quite sure that turgid is the word, which I understand to mean over-ornate, bombastic or pompous. It isn’t really these things. But it is slow-moving and ponderous, and it is also piously sentimental – not a good combination. It is certainly far from Hathaway’s best picture, to say the least.

Hathaway himself thought the film very good. He said that the hardest kind of picture to make was the wagon train one, closely followed by the religious epic. Brigham Young combined the two. Not everyone agreed, however. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times opined, “Reluctantly, then, we must state that the picture is much more tedious than Brigham's life must have been … For pretty close to two hours the picture rumbles ponderously across the screen, groaning under the weight of much patient suffering on the part of all.” Crowther did add, “Considering the restrictions imposed by a heavy story and slow direction, the cast does uniformly well.”

The cast is strong, I will say that. Power is a Mormon scout, Jonathan Kent, while Darnell is Zina Webb, ‘The Outsider’, a non-Mormon who participates in the trek. They fall for each other, naturally, and provide the (monogamous) love interest. Daringly, they share a wagon, though their beds are curtained off one from the other. He proposes to her from one side of this floral curtain but she has dozed off and doesn’t reply. I don’t blame her too much. Kent isn’t exactly a firebrand, and Tyrone was not really at his zippy best. His ma, Darwell, is shot by an anti-Mormon lout and expires on the way, her son leaving her a carved wheel as a grave marker, probably worthy to be included in my Cemeteries, funerals and undertakers post.

Dramatically minor roles but big names on the lobby cards

Brian Donlevy has a part as the bolshie rival to Young. He wanted to become leader of the Mormons and regards Young as a usurper, and at every stage he is there to whip up opposition. Of course it is he who proposes to go for the gold.

He gets a bit tiresome and his part is repetitive

Vincent Price is rather good as Joseph Smith in the first reel.

Price rather good as Smith

He is most unfairly convicted of treason by a prejudiced jury, whipped up by a scurrilous rabble-rousing  lawyer (Marc Lawrence) but before the judge can sentence him a mob comes and shoots him to death in Carthage jail. The film makers missed an opportunity here because in fact Smith defended himself with a pepperbox derringer, so that would have lifted the picture, but he is shown as unarmed and mercilessly shot down, tumbling from the jail window. All the business of the split among the Mormons and the bitter factions is not mentioned at all. They are (apart from Donlevy) united in solidarity and Smith is basically a martyr.

The best other part was John Carradine as Porter Rockwell. Carradine was of course one of the greats of the Western, starting in the genre in one of those Hathaway Paramount Zane Grey pictures, and being very memorable as the gambler Hatfield in Stagecoach, assassin Bob Ford in Jesse James, Old Tom in Johnny Guitar, and Major Cassius Starbuckle in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, to name but a very few. Rockwell is a juicy part, of course, and Carradine gives it his all.

Probably the best part

We briefly meet Jim Bridger too, played by Arthur Aylesworth, not a great star, I fear. So often the great Bridger is only allotted a tiny cameo, and this is another of those occasions. Porter Rockwell and Jim Bridger have a frog race.

Stanley Andrews is Joseph Smith’s brother Hyrum, also killed in Carthage jail, Fuzzy Knight is in charge of the Mormons’ music, Tully Marshall is the lugubrious judge (he should have been Jim Bridger, as he was in Fighting Caravans), Russell Simpson the Great has a ride-on bit-part as an Army major, and Hank Worden is listed as “Mormon Cheering Porter (uncredited)”, though I didn’t spot him.

Jagger impressive as a Mosaic Brigham Young

Some scenes are frankly superb, especially the “wolf hunt” at the beginning when a crazed mob hunts the Mormons, the attack on the jail, the crossing of the frozen river, some of the wagon train shots on the long trek, and the extraordinary plague of locusts and the miraculous arrival of seagulls to destroy them.

The movie was a sort of premake of The Ten Commandments, with Jagger as Moses receiving the word of God and leading his oppressed people into the Promised Land.

The mob come for the Mormons

Nearing said Promised Land, the Mormons meet up with some potentially hostile Indians, but the chief, Big Elk (Chief John Big Tree) assures them that his people too have been unjustly persecuted, so the Mormons are brothers, and welcome to stay. Young makes the most of this, telling the Mormons that the land is theirs and that they can hunt the game to their hearts’ content, which wasn’t really what the chief had said, but, well, the Mormons are white.

Polygamy is hardly mentioned. At Fort Bridger there’s a brief exchange when Jim asks, “How many - ?” and Young promptly replies, “Twelve.” We must imagine the end of the question and the uxorious answer. But the picture stresses the devotion of Young to his No. 1 wife, Mary-Ann (Mary Astor), presumably to satisfy the Hays Office. Clearly the film makers didn’t want to frighten the horses, so little else is said. It was difficult to have polygamous goodies in 1940. The creed of Smith and Young is quite communalist. All land must be held in common. This too wasn’t terribly American (the Soviets weren’t yet the good guys in the world war) but it’s glossed over.

They cross the frozen river

It all ends with a view of the modern Salt Lake City, to show how the pioneers had succeeded and American civilization had been established thanks to their efforts (a scene ‘borrowed’ for the later How the West was Won).

According to a MovieTone newsreel the Salt Lake City opening, a month before the New York one, was the largest première in film history. 215,000 people crowded the streets to watch a massive parade, planned by Zanuck, complete with floats and race cars with the stars riding in them. The Mayor named that August 23rd 'Brigham Young Day'- the first and only. Originally, one movie theater in Salt Lake City was to show the film, but the demand for seats was so high that eventually seven theaters in the city ran it.

It didn't do spectacularly well at the box-office though. The top ten grossing movies that year were dominated by Disney (it was the year of Fantasia and Pinocchio) and MGM (Rebecca, Boom Town and The Philadelphia Story) and Fox didn't get a look in.

As I mentioned above, the critical reaction was fairly negative too.

Myself, I don’t care overmuch for this picture. I have nothing against Mormons per se but a lot of it definitely sticks in the craw. Visually it’s very fine, and the acting is on the whole pretty good, so it’s probably worth seeing once, but honestly, that’s it.