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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Two Rode Together (Columbia, 1961)


Ford only made it for the money (he said)

James Stewart is a corrupt and cynical but sympathetic Tascosa, Texas marshal in this, probably the least of John Ford’s Westerns. Of course, the least of Ford’s Westerns is still not really bad.

The theme owes something to The Searchers in that it deals with whites captured by the Comanche and ‘lost’, even when ransomed and returned. Society’s prejudice is faced full on. But unlike The Searchers, this movie is slow and has none of the power or the shock and awe. Stewart’s Guthrie McCabe has nothing of Ethan Edwards’s driven fury as portrayed by John Wayne. The film is weaker and more watered-down, although there is a grim lynching at the end (in which “civilization” barbarously murders the “savage”).

It is actually a very bleak film. As Donald Dewey wrote in his biography of James Stewart, “The Comanches are brutal opportunists, the army officers are crude, hypocritical racists, the civilians are a naïve conglomerate waiting only to become a rabid mob.”

However, Scott Eyman, in his biography of John Ford, wrote that Dewey’s description “promises something corrosive, but the film is actually a flaccid, mistimed dud.”

The Two of the title

The Two of the
title are Stewart (whom we meet in a Fonda-Earp/My Darling Clementine pose leaning back on his chair on the sidewalk) and an amiable, rather straight army officer, Richard Widmark (rather old for a young lieutenant) as they are obliged to ride together, a mismatched pair, as in The Searchers, to rescue the captives from Quanah Parker, played by Henry Brandon, who was Scar in The Searchers - and the connection with that movie is strengthened by the fact that the 1956 picture was, vaguely, based on the recovery of Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah Parker’s mother.
Cynthia Ann Parker
Stewart is outstanding and seems almost to ad lib, so natural is much of his delivery. The scene where he and Widmark sit on a log by the river bank (the camera was out in the stream) was a one-take semi-scripted masterpiece. Stewart himself was said to be disappointed that the more corrupt side of his character was not given more prominence. But in fact, he is never quite convincing as the drunk who will do anything for money. He’s Jimmy Stewart, after all. It’s rather like Gary Cooper playing bad men. Can’t be done. Stewart could do driven, almost manic characters for Anthony Mann but corrupt and cynical? Not really.

Quanah Parker and Henry Brandon impersonating him

Of the other parts, Shirley Jones, the least of Ford’s leading ladies, is weak as the settler girl for Widmark to woo and win, while Stewart finally and rather improbably falls for Señorita Linda Cristal, one of the rescuees, who is better. She is the woman of Stone Calf, an angry and muscular Woody Strode, Ford’s protégé and star of Sergeant Rutledge, miscast here but doing his best. John McIntire is excellent, as he always was, as the tough cavalry major who sends them.

Woody miscast

Annelle Hayes is feisty as the saloon madam with a stiletto in her garter who, nevertheless, loses Jimmy to Señorita Linda, and Andy Devine is entertaining as ever as the enormous Sergeant Posey (all Ford movies had to have an amusing sergeant character). The best acting apart from Stewart probably comes from Mae Marsh, ex young heroine of Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation, a Ford regular in small roles and here in a very short and sadly uncredited part as an old broken woman who is too afraid and ashamed to go back to the white world.

Mae Marsh fine
The usual rather unfortunate Ford slapstick is provided by her sons, the two hillbillyish brothers Ken Curtis (who did the oafish comic part for Ford in The Searchers) and Harry Carey Jr., Ford stalwarts, of course. Other members of Ford’s stock company present doing bit parts include Paul Birch, Willis Bouchey, Olive Carey, Anna Lee, OZ Whitehead, Danny Borzage, Chucks Roberson & Hayward, Cliff Lyons and Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan – the usual suspects, you might say.

The dances, so crucial to Ford’s films as representations of the community spirit, are pale imitations, for there is no community to portray.

On the set

It’s shot in Texas by Charles Lawton Jr. The George Duning music is unobtrusive to the point that you don’t notice it at all. Ford go-to Frank Nugent wrote the screenplay from the Will Cook novel Comanche Captives but Ford didn’t care for the script and made many changes as they went along.

Scott Eyman summed up Two Rode Together:

…the film has a loose, jocular tone that doesn’t jibe with its theme; everything seems pitched a little too high – voices are too loud, actors are too broad, lighting is too bright. The film feels physically slack; the images are recessive, the locations are scrubby and uninteresting, there are mismatched cuts and the whole thing lacks any kind of dramatic tension. There could be no doubt no that the director’s gift was beginning to recede; the hand that had once been capable of the most finely filigreed detail was now working with a much broader brush.

Tough words. But actually I think that gift had receded before. The Horse Soldiers, three years after The Searchers, was a run-of-the-mill Western at best, and all Ford’s later Westerns, including The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (review coming Friday) were far weaker than those of the great period of the later 1940s and early 50s.
The riverbank scene
The film was a critical and commercial flop and Ford himself said that he had only made it for the money and it was “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years”. Harsh judgements for what is, after all, still a Ford Western dealing with serious themes, and with James Stewart in it. Harsh, but maybe justified.

Ward Bond had a fatal heart attack while Ford was on the set of Two Rode Together and the director went off for the funeral. On his return he walked up to Andy Devine and said, “Now you’re the biggest shit I know.” It was typical Ford black humor.
At the end of shooting Ford left for Honolulu on the Araner and went on an extended drunk, finally checking into Queen’s Hospital for alcoholic dehydration.

It was the last film in which Stewart wore that great hat. Stewart told a long amusing story at Ford’s funeral about how after a long battle Ford allowed him to wear it, saying, “If, by chance, you ever work for me again, I want you to have in your contract a clause that states you have hat approval.” Of course Stewart did work for him again, on Liberty Valance, but in that he didn’t wear a hat at all.

Stewart's hat

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sergeant Rutledge (Warner Bros, 1960)

The black sergeant



Very soon after the run-of-the-mill and non-great Western The Horse Soldiers (1959), John Ford began work on another oater, Sergeant Rutledge.

This began life as an original story entitled Buffalo Soldier by Willis Goldbeck. Goldbeck took it to short-story and script writer James Warner Bellah, a John Ford regular, and together they prepared a treatment for Ford. Ford took the project on quite willingly but he was, frankly, in decline. His former professionalism, last seen on the set of The Searchers, was on the wane. He seemed almost to have lost interest, and some of his pictures between The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers were downright bad – the stodgy British police procedural Gideon of Scotland Yard, for example. Westernwise, he never made a really great picture after The Searchers. Bellah said, “[Ford] had always been a real tyrant in story sessions, needling and picking away at you.  … But on Rutledge he was awfully mild. Whenever an important subject came up, he just said, ‘Whatever you think is fine,’ or ‘Just write it as you see fit, and I’ll get it on film.’ This wasn’t the Jack Ford that I knew.”

Warners were interested in the project but Jack Warner was insisting on Poitier or Belafonte as star and Ford wouldn’t play ball. “They aren’t tough enough!” Ford wanted an ex-UCLA football player named Woody Strode, who couldn’t act and couldn’t ride. Strode was a splendid physical specimen said to do a thousand sit-ups, a thousand push-ups and a thousand knee-bends every morning (he can’t have had time for much else). He had just finished fighting alongside Kirk Douglas as Draba in Spartacus but Ford knew him because his Hawaiian wife went to school with Ford’s children. Jack Warner finally backed down and Ford got his way. Woody it was.
 Jack Warner wanted Sidney or Harry

Ford acted out every one of Strode’s scenes himself first, to show the actor what to do, and often even went back to the silent-movie technique of calling out instructions during the scene. He bullied Strode unmercifully, as he often did with a chosen victim on the set, verbally and even physically abusing him, kicking him and throwing rocks at him. He was a very unpleasant man. But it got the results. Strode put in a magnificent performance as the buffalo soldier accused of raping a white woman.

Even as late as 1960 the idea that a white girl may have been raped by a Negro was still deeply shocking (the color of the assailant’s skin was the shocking part) but the film prefigures the 60s civil rights movement by suggesting the prejudice and skirting round the issue and the terms. It’s a serious film which deals with serious issues. For once, the French film title may have been better: Le Sergent Noir.
John Ford
The civilians want to lynch Rutledge even before the trial. The officers’ wives (who include Mae Marsh) are titillated by the ‘spicy’ affair. Both groups are shown as overtly racist and rather repellent. To the colonel’s lady (Billie Burke), Rutledge, whom she cannot even name, is nothing but a dangerous sexual animal. Then there is the institutional racism of the court, who are surprised by the ‘not guilty’ plea; they assumed Rutledge had done it. Then, most troubling of all, there is the internalized racism that Ford shows in us, the (white) viewers. Ford sets the scenes so that we all assume too much, though this, of course, only works on the first viewing.
For them it is a titillating entertainment
Strode was fine. But paradoxically the rest of the acting, from the professional cast, is so-so, descending to the downright wooden when Lucy (Toby Michaels) is talking to the store boy (Jan Styne). Willis Bouchey doesn’t quite cut it as the president of the court - it needed Ward Bond. Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley in The Searchers) is handsome as the defending counsel but little more.
Some of these studio publicity stills were really very silly
Constance Towers as the love-interest (returning from The Horse Soldiers the previous year) does not convince any more than she did in The Horse Soldiers. Judson Pratt, who had assumed the role of comic drunken Irish sergeant after Victor McLaglen died, is back, promoted to lieutenant. Carleton Young, who would feature later in the year in the episode of TV’s Wagon Train that Ford directed, is a captain. Really, the cast was much less than stellar and some of it wasn’t even competent. Hunter and Towers got top billing, rather shamefully, with Strode only fourth. In the publicity still for the movie (below), Rutledge himself only appears in third background.
Woody overshadowed in the casting and publicity
There is the usual Ford attempt at broad humor, clumsy and inappropriate in a case of this kind. It is thought amusing that the officers of the court martial drink while court is in session or adjourn to play poker.

So this movie is by no means top-drawer Ford. The fault is not really in the dialogue, although it does end very melodramatically. Perhaps the courtroom/flashback format was doomed to failure from the start. Because there’s too much studio recording and too little Monument Valley location work (only nine of the forty-three days were on location), and because so much of the action is set in the court room, this Western is static and slow. There are action flashbacks but the ensemble is really little more than a Western Perry Mason.

Or perhaps Ford just had lost his grip.

We are led to assume too much

Visually, it’s quite interesting. When Rutledge is under suspicion, early in the film, he is photographed (by Bert Glennon, a Ford go-to, especially for black & white but this time working with color) in dark flickering shadows. As shot by Glennon it’s almost more a noir than a Western. When Rutledge bravely and self-sacrificingly saves his fellow soldiers he is filmed in blazing sunlight. It’s a much darker film than The Horse Soldiers but it still elevates the community of the cavalry, where these buffalo soldiers find a kind of freedom they would not have elsewhere.

Sergeant Rutledge is essentially a 1950s Western in its look and acting. When you consider that it came out in the same year as the brash actioner The Magnificent Seven, for example, you realize how old-fashioned it was. Yet its theme of racial discrimination is very much a 1960s one.
A fine shot of Woody
It did miserably at the box-office, grossing less than $750,000. Though it did better abroad, it was still a financial failure. Ford blamed Warner Bros. for not promoting it. “Warners sent a couple of boys on bicycles out to sell it.” Suddenly Ford found himself with no offers. At a loose end, he went down to ‘help’ John Ford on the set of The Alamo.

Ford and Strode became good friends. The director (mis)cast Woody as an Indian chief in the later Two Rode Together and a Mongol warrior in 7 Women. For Strode the abuse he had received on Sergeant Rutledge was all worth it. “It had dignity. John Ford put classic words in my mouth. … And I did it all myself. I carried the whole black race across the river.” Strode spent time at Ford’s bedside when he was dying.

None of Ford’s later Westerns, including Sergeant Rutledge, was really weak. Had Ford not made The Searchers, My Darling Clementine or the cavalry trilogy in the post-war period we might remember these later works as outstandingly good. Maybe they only suffer by comparison. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Ford was churning out pictures because that’s what he did, and he needed the money, and the passion for the Western had departed.



Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Horse Soldiers (UA, 1959)

Not a dud but hardly recognizable as a John Ford Western


The Horse Soldiers was difficult from the start. Producers John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin also wrote the screenplay and Ford’s reaction to it was to say, “If you think I’m going to photograph that goddam script, you’re mistaken.” He also told the producer-writers, “You know where we ought to make this picture?”
“No, where?”
“Lourdes, because it’s going to take a miracle to pull it off.”

The actual locations, in Mississippi and Louisiana rather than Lourdes, were unpopular with Ford and in the still-segregated South African-American members of the cast would not even be allowed to share accommodation with white cast members. Casting was problematic. John Wayne was preoccupied with setting up his mega-project The Alamo and William Holden, fine actor that he was, was a red rag to the bull John Ford. Holden was fond of the bottle and either didn’t know or ignored Ford’s rule about no booze on the set. Altogether it was unhappy project.
On the set
And whatever feel-good there was on the set was dashed one day when stuntman Fred Kennedy was killed. Kennedy hadn’t worked for some time, after breaking his neck, but Ford kindly hired him for The Horse Soldiers because he needed the pay. It was a relatively simple fall from a horse but it went wrong. Ford was devastated and blamed himself. Scott Eyman, in his fine biography of Ford, says that “there are those who believe that Kennedy’s death drained the last ounce of joy Ford found in the filmmaking process.”
The original
It is a Civil War story, loosely based on Grierson's Raid (1863), the Battle of Newton's Station (1863) and the Battle of New Market (1864). Union troops go behind Confederate lines during the siege of Vicksburg. Colonel Marlowe (Wayne) leads the force and Duke gives us his by now habitual gritty cavalry commander act. He stands for no nonsense and barks at his men, though of course beneath the crusty outer shell beats a heart of Jell-O. Holden is an army surgeon who falls out with the commander. Thanks to Wayne and Holden, the interaction of the commander and doctor is sparky. The film comes across as a sort of anti-buddy movie. They eventually come to mutual respect, of course.
They eventually respect each other
Constance Towers is southern belle Hannah Hunter who comes across as Marie Antoinette but coarse. Offering Wayne chicken and showing her cleavage, she asks, “What was your preference, the leg or the breast?" Quite daring dialogue for the 1950s. Wayne’s character falls for her (difficult to see why) when she is obliged to accompany them on the raid – this is one of the more improbable parts of the story.
A cheesy still of Wayne and Towers
Various members of the Ford stock company accompany Wayne on his raid, including Hank Worden and Ken Curtis, although Victor McLaglen’s role (he died that year) as comic drunken sergeant-major was taken by Judson Pratt. No Ben Johnson or Harry Carey either, sadly. Denver Pyle and Strother Martin, colorful as ever, get bit parts. Good old Russell Simpson is Acting-Sheriff Goodbody. Veteran screen cowboy Hoot Gibson is a sergeant too, in his last picture. Ford had made silent Westerns with Hoot in the old days and generously gave him the part aged 66.
Duke jokes with Hoot
Some of the Ford ingredients are there: pugnacious patriotism, low comedy, cavalry songs, symbolic moments (a white Union soldier dies while a Negro child is born into freedom with the help of the Army doctor), drunken Irish sergeant. In some ways it’s quite formulaic. A reprise.
Russell, Denver and Strother
But there is little of the old Ford magic. There is no Monument Valley and there are no Indians. It is extraordinary how different this rather ordinary (and rather old-fashioned for 1959) Western was compared with The Searchers only three years before. Some would say it was sad how far Ford had sunk.

The movie is mealy-mouthed about the slave issue, as most Westerns were. Maybe we had to wait till Django Unchained addressed that.
The film is well photographed, as any Ford movie had to be, by William Clothier, who became Ford’s stand-by cameraman and almost assistant director. But Ford himself seemed to have lost interest and it was often Clothier who had the creative input.

The best scene in the picture was not in the rather second-rate script but was improvised by Ford, namely when the boy pupils of a Confederate military academy, led by an elderly parson, march into battle against the Union troops and a mother (Ford’s old friend Anna Lee) grabs her young drummer-boy son and drags him back home. It was genuinely moving.
Child soldiers
The Horse Soldiers was not a dud but it was nowhere near the quality of Ford’s previous cavalry Westerns. All of Ford’s late Westerns were weaker than those of the glory days that started with Stagecoach in 1939 and ended with The Searchers in 1956.




Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Searchers (Warner Bros, 1956)


The greatest Western of all time?

Many regard The Searchers as the greatest Western of them all. Western buffs, certainly, will often put this film at the very top of their lists, and sane human beings too rate it very highly. In 1989, it was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress. The American Film Institute rates it as the twelfth greatest American film ever made and the best Western. Many opinion polls and surveys put it at the top.

Its influence was huge. Later film makers were moved to imitate or cite it. It is said, for example, that David Lean watched it repeatedly to learn how to shoot landscape, and desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia illustrate that. Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard and George Lucas have all spoken about how it influenced them. Buddy Holly used Ethan’s catchphrase That’ll be The Day for a song and a British rock band called themselves The Searchers. Brian Garfield (praise be to him) in his outstanding guide Western Films wrote of it, “The Searchers is undeniably, and wonderfully, a masterpiece.”

Perhaps curiously, although it did well at the box-office, it didn’t win prizes at the time and was ignored by the Academy Awards. Critics, too were lukewarm rather than full of praise. Bosley Crowther, the hugely influential New York Times critic, called it only “the honest achievement of a well-knit team”. Variety said that it was handsomely done in the manner of Shane and "The John Ford directorial stamp is unmistakable. It concentrates on the characters and establishes a definite mood.” But the review added, “It's not sufficient, however, to overcome many of the weaknesses of the story."
But nowadays The Searchers is regarded as John Ford's masterpiece and John Wayne's too.

From the famous (and very beautiful) opening scene of Monument Valley framed by the doorway of the homesteaders’ cabin to the similar final view, we, on the inside looking out, see Ethan Edwards (Wayne) as the outsider, the man excluded from family and society. And indeed throughout this powerful film, he is exactly that. In his finest performance, Wayne shows us a complex character. He is the true Westerner: he is strong, individualistic and self-sufficient. Yet he is brutally racist, probably criminal (his illegal activities after the war are hinted at), and seeks an almost crazed revenge. He is one of the most savage Western heroes in any film. He is capable of slaying wild animals just so that Indians starve or shooting out the eyes of an Indian corpse so that “his spirit wanders forever between the winds” and he finally scalps his quarry. His aim is not really to recapture the white girls (one has been killed; the other ‘contaminated’) but to get his mad revenge.
He is actually very like Scar, his Indian enemy (Henry Brandon). When they face off and trade insults they are alike. They speak each other’s languages and have suffered from each other’s brutality.
And yet, and yet... Ethan Edwards is also an enormously sympathetic character, full of courage, ability and even nobility. He is implacable yet curiously vulnerable.

There is, too, the theme of repressed sexuality. When Ethan finally comes back three years after the war it is clear that he loved and loves his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan). He can't break up the marriage any more than Shane could with Marian. This too keeps him out of the home. Has he even cuckolded his brother in the past and might Debbie (Natalie Wood) even be his own daughter? There are only hints in the film but enough to make you wonder.

Ethan invades the social rituals of which Ford was so fond. He interrupts the wedding and brutally cuts short the funeral (“Put an Amen to it”) so that praying can give way to vengeance. On both occasions he turns “the reverend” (Ward Bond in one of his finest ever roles) back into the Captain of Texas Rangers.

But it is Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), an eighth Cherokee, who is the most civilized of all the men and who kills Scar in legitimate defense of himself and Debbie, not, finally, Ethan, and not for blood revenge.
At the end Ethan excludes himself and it is he who is condemned to wander forever between the winds.

The story is thus subtly woven and interesting. The characters are immensely strong. The Frank S Nugent screenplay (his sixth for Ford) from the 1954 Alan Le May novel is powerful, memorable and carries the action along skillfully - no easy feat to telescope years of pursuit into 120 minutes. You can read the Nugent screenplay here. The novel was said to have been inspired by real events: in 1836 the Comanches abducted one Cynthia Ann Parker, who became the mother of Quanah Parker. 
One interesting change that Nugent and Ford made, and a key one for the motion picture, is that Le May’s central character and hero was Martin Pawley, who had no Indian blood. Le May’s Amos Edwards is ‘softer’, much less dark and driven. Ford and Nugent invented the idea of Ethan wanting to kill the ‘defiled’ Debbie, and Le May’s Debbie is Scar’s adopted daughter, not his wife.

Ford was captivated by the novel and very eager to make another Western. After a prolific period of five Westerns in three years, 1948 – 50, he had concentrated on his beloved project of The Quiet Man and a series of less-than-wonderful pictures like Mogambo. But he loved Westerns: “I’ve been longing to do a Western for quite some time,” he wrote to a friend. “It’s good for my health, spirit, and morale.”

It may have been John Wayne’s finest performance. “When I looked up at Duke during rehearsal,” remembered Harry Carey Jr., “it was into the meanest and coldest eyes I have ever seen. I don’t know how he molded that character. Perhaps he’d known someone like Ethan Edwards as a kid. … He was even Ethan at dinner time. He didn’t kid around on The Searchers like he had done on other shows. Ethan was always in his eyes.” We don’t think of Wayne as a method actor but in The Searchers he came close to that.
At one point Ford was stung by a scorpion and there was a panic that he might die. Duke checked on him and emerged saying, “John’s fine, it’s the scorpion that died.” A good line. Ford was at his most professional, concentrated, single-minded, subtracting dialogue, doing fifteen to twenty set-ups a day, often single takes, and with an eagle-eye that took in every detail, no matter how small.

Camera movement is limited and there is nothing flashy about the shooting. Ford preferred to put a camera in the right place and leave it there. So when he tracks rapidly in to Ethan’s face, for example, we really notice it. And there we see the face contorted with hatred. It was the obverse of the famous shot which introduced a boyish and optimistic Wayne in Stagecoach back before the war.

Visually, this film is majestic. Its wide screen VitaVision epic grandeur must be seen at the cinema. Even our new big-screen TVs don’t do it justice. Every frame designed by Ford and Winton C Hoch (who had won an Oscar for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) is flawlessly created and full of subtle imagery. The decision to shoot a West Texas story in Monument Valley was thoroughly vindicated.
The original music by Max Steiner swirls and rolls around the buttes. IMDb tells us that the melody behind the opening credits is Lorena, written in 1857, a song best known for being favored by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, while the tune playing as Wayne approaches at the beginning of the film is a slow version of The Bonnie Blue Flag, which, along with ‘Dixie’, was an ‘anthem’ of the Confederacy. These establish Ethan as a Confederate finally coming back from the war.

There are weaknesses to the movie, such as Ford's usual low and rather clumsy comedy interludes, which do detract from the quality of the picture. Ken Curtis’s part is irritatingly gauche and overdone. The fight between the rivals is slapstick. The treatment of Martin’s Indian wife Look is coarse, unfunny and unpleasant. The performances of Vera Miles as Laurie and Natalie Wood as Debbie are pretty banal. Director and critic Lindsay Anderson, in many ways a great admirer of Ford, had a long list of objections to The Searchers and he summed up his views by calling it “a handsome film … self-conscious and unconvincing,” which rather damned it with faint praise. So not everyone thinks the film a masterpiece.
But certainly nowadays most agree that the frailties can’t seriously damage the sustained power and fury that carries the film along. Ford gave us the conflict between wildness and settlement like never before, and this is so often the central theme of the Western movie. Ethan Edwards is a character far more complex than we are used to in Western heroes. The Searchers is a grown-up Western, and it’s a film rather than a movie. You can watch it again and again (I have!) and see something new and wonderful each time. John Ford made some perfectly splendid Westerns, pictures as good as the cavalry trilogy or My Darling Clementine, but he never made one better than The Searchers, and maybe no one else did either.