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

Friday, February 24, 2017

Westward the Women (MGM, 1951)


A great Western




 
 
Amusing, very skillfully directed, artfully photographed and with a strong cast, Westward the Women is a fine movie.

William A Wellman (left in 1937) was in many ways the director John Ford wanted to be. A dashing air ace of World War I, a bully on the set who held actors in contempt, a man who made Hollywood movies into art, he was Ford’s kind of guy. Wellman had pretty well started in Westerns, appearing with his mentor Douglas Fairbanks in The Knickerbocker Buckaroo in 1919 and later directing Dustin Farnum and Buck Jones silent movies for Sam Goldwyn. He worked (with others) on the Wallace Beery Viva Villa! in 1934, made a version of Call of the Wild with Clark Gable in ’35, and had fun with Warner Baxter as Robin Hood of El Dorado in ’36. The 1940s saw Wellman direct some fine Westerns, especially The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943 with Henry Fonda. His Buffalo Bill with Joel McCrea in 1944 was not perhaps the greatest of portrayals but Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck in 1948 was a taut noir with real quality. In the 1950s, earlier the same year as Westward the Women would come Across the Wide Missouri, again with Clark Gable, and in 1954 Wellman directed the superb Track of the Cat, with Robert Mitchum. It was a pretty damn good Western CV.

Robert Taylor (right) was more usually thought of as a romantic lead but he loved Westerns, had been Billy the Kid for King Vidor in 1941 and his career coincided with the high-water mark of the genre in the late 1940s and 1950s. The year before Westward he had starred in two outstandingly good Westerns, the gripping Sam Wood-directed Ambush, released in January, and the fine Devil’s Doorway, directed by Anthony Mann, in September. In Westward the Women he plays ruthless, rude, unshaven wagon-train boss Buck Wyatt (a classic Western hero name) who, though highly skeptical of the scheme, accompanies his friend Roy Whitman (a superb John McIntire) from Whitman’s valley in California to Chicago to recruit wives for the valley’s exclusively male settlers. Whitman is determined and visionary but Buck is very doubtful. He says, “Two things in this world scare me. And a good woman is both.”
 
More than a little skeptical
 
The idea was that of Frank Capra and it would have been interesting to see what he himself would have made of it as director (especially as he intended to cast Gary Cooper in the lead) but in the event Columbia wouldn’t play and he sold the project to Wellman, who would make a superb job of it. The genius director of It’s a Wonderful Life tragically never made a Western.

John McIntire (left), who had also been in Ambush, raised any Western he was in – not that this one needed much raising as it was already top drawer stuff. That crusty grit and rugged face ideally suited the noble genre and in Western after Western he took really memorable parts, so much so that he sometimes stole the show. Think of his sinister gambler/arms salesman in Winchester ’73, his villainous judge in The Far Country or his patriarchal doctor in The Tin Star. And he himself would eventually take over from Ward Bond bossing his own Wagon Train from 1961 onwards, so Westward must have been good practice.

Of course wagon train stories were far from new; indeed they were a staple of the genre, and there are scenes in Westward the Women that are very reminiscent of The Covered Wagon (1923), The Big Trail (1930), Wagonmaster (1950) and countless others. The wagons toil their laborious way across from Independence, Missouri, facing hostile terrain, illness, accidents, desertions, attacks by Indians, romances, births and deaths, thirst, and all the rest, punctuated by the occasional dance. Nevertheless, Wellman manages to make it all fresh. He pulls off quite a trick in that regard.

It’s quite a feminist movie for the early 50s in the sense that most of the protagonists are women, strong women, and they do everything the men can do and sometimes better. True, the instigator and leader of the train are dominant men but these men come gradually to appreciate and admire the women’s grit. The film is a sort of hymn to the virtues of the women, their heroism and endurance, their courage and their desire for freedom.

Fifi Danon, the French lady of uncertain virtue whom Whitman, in a scene of great subtlety, allows on the trip as a redemptive move for her, and who falls for Buck, gets the most attention, played by second-billed Denise Darcel (left), who would later star as the countess in the tawdry pot-boiler/farrago Vera Cruz. Ms. Darcel often appeared more of a buxom foreign siren in the Hollywood tradition but here she is vivacious and sparkling and she manages well the transformation from detestation of Buck to love. Of course John Wayne had fallen for glam French Marguerite while on The Big Trail and sultry blondes were necessary equipment on Hollywood wagon trains.

But the other women moving westward are superb. Hope Emerson (right) in particular has a glorious part as the imposing Patience Hawley from Massachusetts with her nautical lingo. She becomes pretty well the matriarch of the train. Then Julie Bishop as Fifi’s friend Laurie is brilliant as the ultimately tragic figure who falls for one of the cowboys (Pat Conway in his film debut). Renata Vanni is also superb as the Italian mother who loses her young son in an accident and blames herself, suffers a temporary madness but eventually emerges as a woman of strength and integrity. Lenore Lonergan is Maggie, the woman who can ride, skin mules and shoot as well if not better than any man. Rose (Beverly Dennis) is pregnant and gives birth along the trail; she will find happiness with a young settler in the valley who will be a father to the baby and a loving husband to Rose. In fact the final scenes of the arrival and matchmaking are tender and moving, as well as sober and dignified.

The scene where Taylor smiles ruefully at the women with a mixture of pride, happiness and huge respect is truly memorable. It needed no words.

Wellman and his DP William Mellor often adopt low camera angles to show the women as grander figures, standing on a crest, for example. It adds to their stature, physical and moral.
 
We look up to the women
 
Henry Nakamura as Ito is the diminutive Japanese-American who is, finally, the only male survivor of the trek apart from Buck, and he is outstanding. The part could so easily have been overplayed as comic relief but Wellman and Nakamura crafted a touching performance as Ito becomes the conscience of Buck and softens him and makes him more human and forgiving. It was quite soon after World War II to be portraying Japanese-Americans in such a sympathetic way, and full credit to Wellman for that.
 
No mere comic relief
 
There is, though, a fair bit of humor, but far more subtle than Ford’s broad attempts, not only with Ito. My favorite part is when the Indians attack, the Italian mamma shoves the head of her young son down below the wagon, then the boy’s little dog pops up and is in his turn shoved down by the boy. It’s a delightfully funny moment. When the boy dies, the dog wants to remain lying on the lad’s grave. It is Ito who returns to the tomb to recover the mutt and then adopts it. It is a moment of pathos and power.
 
There are other parts which could have been mawkish or sentimental but which are instead moving and memorable, such as the moment when the wagon carrying the girl giving birth loses a wheel and the women together lift it level again until the baby is born.
 
They raise the wagon


The frequent lack of music and the simplicity and lack of glamor in the sets and costumes give almost a documentary feel to the picture and add to its realism and grittiness.

What should have been the climactic and long-threatened Indian attack is handled in a masterly way: by not showing it. In the story Taylor is away pursuing runaway Darcel and they return to find the aftermath of the attack – dead women, burning wagons and McIntire mortally wounded. Rarely can non-action have been so powerfully used.
 
She shoots out the eye of the sheriff in an election poster and you wonder why
 
There’s quite a lot of untranslated Italian and French from the women concerned. I speak both and I can tell you that the Hays Office evidently didn’t because they say things that would never have got by the office in English…

William Mellor photographed the movie in luminous black & white in Kanab, Utah and Death Valley, California locations in the summer of ‘51, and there are some stunning shots. He did not aim for the picturesque, as such, in the way that, say, John Ford and his cameramen did, but for scenery that highlighted the aridity and harshness of the terrain traversed. It is said that the two hundred women engaged for eleven weeks to make the movie had almost as hard a time of it on location as the people they were playing would have had going west. MGM produced a short, Challenge the Wilderness, about the making of the film.
 
Hostile terrain
 
It’s set in 1851 though the firearms are modern (Buck has a Peacemaker). That was normal for Westerns at the time.

The movie was budgeted at $2.2m and grossed $8m so MGM must have been pleased. Though it’s one of the very few of the studio’s movies in which Leo the Lion does not roar at the start.
 
Admirable
 
Really the early 50s were an astonishingly good time for the Western. When you think that in 1950 and ’51 alone Wellman, Ford, Henry King, Jacques Tourneur, Henry Hathaway, Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann all directed Westerns of real and lasting quality, you envy those times. These days a really good Western comes out once a decade.

Westward the Women is a must-see for all lovers of the Western.

One of the greats


 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Raiders (Universal, 1963)


Pretty weak




 
 
The Raiders, no relation to Universal’s 1952 color outing of the same name set against the 1849 gold rush in California, is a tale of post-Civil War Texans, reduced to penury by a corrupt Reconstruction government (a standard Western plot) and seeking the salvation of the Lone Star state by making a cattle drive up to the railroad in Kansas.

They are led by Brian Keith, who also narrates in voiceover. Keith had debuted, Westernwise, in the unpleasant Charlton Heston movie Arrowhead in 1953 (he was indeed one of the few good things about that picture) and he continued to do quite a few big-screen Westerns, with reasonably big parts in the likes of The Violent Men (1955), The Run of the Arrow and Hell Canyon Outlaws in 1957, and Fort Dobbs in 1958, before starting the same year to head the cast in Villa!! and Sierra Baron. But it was really as a TV cowboy that Keith was known, especially of course for The Westerner in 1960, when as Dave Blassingame with his dog Brown (left) he roamed the West. He does a good job in The Raiders as a tough Confederate, beaten but unbowed, determined to bring better times to his state even if it means breaking (Yankee) law.

Among his compadres on the drive are Harry Carey Jr. and Paul Birch (right), so that’s good. But it doesn’t go well at all. First Jayhawkers raid the herd, take half of it and kill three of their men. Then the Cherokees demand a dollar a head to pass through their lands, money the Texans simply don’t have, and when they try to turn west and go round, Pawnees attack too and take all the rest of the cattle. Hell, they even kill Paul Birch. Keith realizes that the only thing to do is to get the railroad company to build a spur down into Texas. So he drives the remainder of his men, sans steers, on to Hays City to persuade the authorities to do just that.

Based in Hays and working for the Kansas Pacific RR are Wild Bill Hickok (Robert Culp) and Buffalo Bill Cody (Jim McMullan). I didn’t know Mr. McMullan. He’d been in a few TV Western shows and Sam Peckinpah had screen-tested him for a part in Ride the High Country the year before. He’s OK as Cody, I guess, though nothing special and he certainly doesn’t try to look like Cody at all. He has a hard job fulfilling his railroad contract because though it’s only 1867 the buffalo are hunted almost to extinction. Mr. Culp on the other hand, two years before I Spy, had started leading in the successful Trackdown in 1957 as well as guest-starring on many other TV Western shows, so he was pretty well known by ’63. For both McMullan and Culp this was their first big-screen Western. Culp’s Hickok costume is pretty silly and he also goes for the cynical, wry, urbane approach that became a trademark, which also doesn’t suit the character.
 
Hickok and Cody
 
Of course where you have Hickok and Cody, you have to have Calamity Jane Cannary, and she duly appears in the shapely form of Judi Meredith, in the last of only three Western movies she did. It’s rather ironic because at one point in the script Cody advises her to use more make-up to attract Wild Bill. Cody doesn’t appear to have notice that she is already bullwhipping across the plains slathered in the stuff with especially bright scarlet lipstick.
 
Calamity Jane
 
All three, Hickok, Cody and Cannary, are absurd caricatures of the reality and, honestly, unworthy of the tradition of those figures on screen.
 
Not very good, I fear
 
There’s an idiotic pig in command of the Army post (Alfred Ryder) who not only won’t help the impoverished Texans but decides to hunt them down. And the railroad man (good old Addison Richards) won’t help either. He explains lucidly why building a line down to their home is impossible, but the Texans don’t do lucid, and they announce that if the railroad won’t build south, it’s not going to build west either. They will stop it. Hence they become raiders.

It’s all fairly implausible (I toyed with the word preposterous) but that’s Hollywood Westerns for you.

They do have a rather fine train (shots of the Sierra Railroad, Jamestown, California) but a lot of the staging is pretty basic, not to say low-budget. The buffalo hunt is especially phony. The director was Herschel Daugherty, a prolific TV show director who had directed Fess Parker in a movie for Disney in 1958 but whose only second – and last - big-screen Western this was. And in fact the whole show has the air of a made-for-TV Western.
 
At least they had a train
 
It all climaxes with the evil Army captain mounting a sneaky camouflaged Gatling gun on a train he knows the raiders are going to hold up, in order to massacre them. When decent sergeant Tremaine (Simon Oakland) refuses to fire, the captain shoots him dead. Cody and Hickok rebel, the captain is put under the arrest, the situation defused and they all live happily ever after. The Texans don’t get a railroad but they find that later and bigger cattle drives do get through to Abilene so all’s well that ends well.

And if you believe all this hokum, you’re a more gullible man than I am, Gunga Din.

Honestly, it’s all pretty low-grade stuff. If it hadn’t been for Keith, Carey and Birch the movie would have been less buoyant that the Titanic. They probably enjoyed it in Oakland.

Next.

 

 

Monday, February 20, 2017

My Pal Trigger (Republic, 1946)


The origin story




 
 
Right after the Second World War we got the Ur-Trigger story. Republic showed us how the smartest horse in the movies was born and raised by Roy and how he became such an equine genius. It must have been a relief after all that unpleasantness overseas.
 
 
Actually, My Pal Trigger is one of the better Roy Rogers pictures. I agree that isn’t saying too much, and Rogers Westerns were unlikely to be jockeying for Academy awards. But I can’t help it; I still have a soft spot for them. We oldies were all so much younger and more innocent then and while the movies come across now as patronizing and bourgeois, cheesy even, we thought they were great at the time, and secretly in my heart of hearts I still do.

All the classic ingredients are there: Trigger, Dale, Gabby Hayes, the Sons of the Pioneers; but this one is rather more somber in tone. Gabby (he’s Dale’s dad) keeps his antics in check and plays it (for him anyway) pretty straight. There aren’t even that many songs. Some of the story is quite tough.
 
Roy and Gabby don't hit it off at all at first
 
Gabby and his daughter Dale own and run The Golden Horse, a successful ranch raising palominos. Roy turns up on his mare Lady hoping Gabby will agree to a love-match between Lady and the prize stallion Golden Sovereign. “Golden horses,” Roy tells us in a voiceover intro, “that's what they call the palominos. And palominos have quite a history. You know, the history of my own palomino began right here at this ranch. If I hadn't-a gone through that gate a few years back, I'd never have gotten my pal, Trigger.”

But though welcomed by his chums the Sons of the Pioneers, who are the ranch hands, he gets short shrift from owner Gabby. Worse, when Golden Sovereign is killed, Roy gets the blame (highly implausible, I know) and is run out of the county. However, Golden Sovereign and Lady did get it together before Sovereign’s sad demise and Lady falls pregnant.

After the death of his prize nag Gabby goes downhill, losing interest in the ranch and gambling (and losing) too much at shady neighbor Jack Holt’s casino. Always good to see stocky Jack Holt (left), Tim’s dad, and he looks particularly smarmy and villainous here in that sleek suit and caddish mustache. Jack is casting covetous eyes over Gabby’s ranch and horses, and of course it was he who killed poor Golden Sovereign, not Roy at all.

Roy rides the West, through snow and ice, and eventually the foal is born. “Time to be here and there he is,” says Roy. “You're kind of quick on the trigger, son.” A man asks, “What are you going to name him, Roy?” and Roy answers, “I just did. It's Trigger!” So now you know.

Well, now young Trigger grows up and there are good lessons for the kiddies in the audience when disaster strikes, Roy has to shoot Lady after a mountain lion gores her, and Roy tells Trigger (really he’s telling us all) “It's like I told you, Trigger. Sometimes it's fun and sometimes it's tough. You got to take the breaks the way they come. Life is sort of like gambling. You can't always win.” Not sure the gambling metaphor was entirely suitable for the juvenile 1940s audience, but still.
 
 
There’s a climactic horse race with Gabby’s ranch riding on the result. Dale is racing for The Golden Horse and Roy is riding Trigger for Jack Holt. But Roy is conflicted. He wants to win, of course. But if he beats Dale (and he’s soft on her) her pa goes under. And villainous Jack Holt has got his henchmen jockeys to box Dale in and unfairly prevent her from getting ahead. Roy can’t stand that.

Well, you’ll have to watch it to see the outcome. Though I think you may have a shrewd idea even before you do.

It was directed by Frank McDonald, who did a lot of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry oaters for Republic, with 2nd Unit director Yakima Canutt also apparently contributing a lot, uncredited. It’s 79 minutes of acceptable black & white, though the movie now being in the public domain means that there are several shorter and less good quality versions out there.

Enjoyable in a nostalgic way.

 

 

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Copper Canyon (Paramount, 1950)


You'll find it in the Clunker rack in DVD stores




 
 
OK, yes. In the 1950s all film stars had to climb into the saddle at some point, even if they hated horses. Westerns were a studio staple and actors’ agents had little choice but to accept such parts. Some of these glitterati enjoyed the experience (hell, I would) and donned the Stetson and a gunbelt with alacrity. Others, however, were simply miscast in the West.

Such was the case of Ray Milland (left). Mr. Milland, one of Paramount’s most bankable contract players in the 1930s and 40s, was doubtless excellent as a posh Londoner getting his Cambridge pal to murder his wife for Alfred Hitchcock, but as a Western gunman he was plain ludicrous. They always had to invent a part for him which could present him as a ‘gentleman’ – in this case a former Confederate colonel – and that helped a bit, but it not really. He was only in four big-screen Westerns, luckily, but not convincing in any of them.

Hedy Lamarr was no better. Central European Ms. Lamarr was certainly glamorous, and indeed notorious (because of her Nazi past and the shocking nude scene in Ecstasy in 1933) but once again in a Western role she lacked credibility on a monumental scale. Apparently she and Milland hated each other viscerally and could barely act together.
 
You can sense the antipathy
 
So the picture suffers from a major handicap right at the outset.

Bosley Crowther in his review for The New York Times, rather perceptively wrote, “There is something slightly appalling about beholding Mr. Milland, a first-rate dramatic actor, engaging in saloon repartee and going through the conventional exercises of cowboy actors with horses and guns. And Miss Lamarr's top-flight luxuriance in a typical frontier-charmer role—the lady who switches from the villains to the hero—is patently absurd. If the whole thing were done as a travesty, it might be something else again. But Jonathan Latimer has written it without humor and John Farrow has directed it that way.”
 
John Farrow. Shoulda stuck to exotic dramas.
 
For yes, there was another snag: it was directed by John Farrow. Farrow, a screenwriter who penned Tarzan pictures and married Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) didn’t understand Westerns at all. He only directed four and even of these a couple (Red Mountain with Alan Ladd and Hondo with John Wayne) he did not complete, other directors being drafted in. His first had also been with Milland, the turgid 1947 potboiler California.

Mona Freeman is ‘the other woman’ but far too treacly to be believed. Fortunately the cast benefited from the likes of Harry Carey Jr. as an Army lieutenant, Macdonald Carey surprisingly good as a corrupt deputy, Frank Faylen in a colorful part and good old Percy Helton in an unusually prominent role. Without them, the picture would have sunk without trace.
 
Carey good anyway
 
We are in a copper boomtown in Arizona. Milland is a trick shot taking part in a vaudeville act under an assumed name. His shooting skills will come in handy, though he says he deplores violence. There’s a rarely seen evil mastermind, Henderson (Ian Wolfe) who has corrupt law officers carry out his dirty business, e.g. murder. They are managed bossily by saloon dame Lisa (Lamarr).
 
Not the ideal combo
 
The persecuted miners seek Milland’s help, especially because they are generally Southerners and the crooked town bosses are Unionist. He declares himself unwilling to commit – the war is over, he says – but actually does, behind the scenes.

There’s nothing original or different at all here and it isn’t even well executed. The script is pedestrian. Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer wrote some good noirs like The Glass Key but he too didn’t ‘get’ the Western. The action climax is as banal as the rest of the story.

Visually the picture is enjoyable. DP Charles B Lang shot some lovely Sedona locations in bright Technicolor. There’s also a good score by Daniele Amfitheatrof.
 
Pretty picture
 
But all in all, I fear it’s a clunker.
 
Of course I enjoyed it. It's a 1950s Western, so I would.
 
 

 

 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Jayhawkers! (Paramount, 1959)


For once, Jeff is neither an Indian nor an Army man




 
 
Regular readers of Jeff Arnold’s West, both of them, will be aware of the ALEPH, the Arnold Ludicrous Exclamation Point Hypothesis, which, well, hypothesizes that any Western with an exclamation point in its title is ipso facto suspect. Producers added the punctuation mark to make a bland title (and by extension probably a bland film) apparently more exciting. It rarely worked. So when I saw that this Paramount offering of ’59 was named The Jayhawkers!, well, I had my doubts.

However, while I would certainly not go so far as to say that this movie proves the ALEPH false (for The Jayhawkers! is a distinctly B-Western), I will at least concede that it is one of the better exclamation-pointed Westerns (he admitted, grudgingly).
 
Bonanza-ish titles
 
It’s not low-budget, being shot (by Loyal Griggs, no less) in color and VistaVision and with a large cast. The headliners are Jeff Chandler and Fess Parker, and while Chandler was perhaps sound but not at the very top of the Western tree, Parker was, then, enormously popular because of Disney’s Davy Crockett series, which had debuted in 1955. The hit song The Ballad of Davy Crockett, the Davy Crockett bubblegum cards and the Davy Crockett coonskin caps for kids were flooding the market. Fess could do no wrong, and he began to star in big-screen Westerns, for Disney but also for other studios. In March of ’59 he had co-starred with Robert Taylor in The Hangman, and he stayed with Paramount for The Jayhawkers! later that year. It didn’t stop there, of course, because in the 60s he became Daniel Boone too.
 
Fess sans coonskin cap
 
As you imagine, it’s a story set in Kansas just before the Civil War. Evil but charismatic Luke Darcy (Chandler) is a megalomaniac “backwoods Napoleon”, as the governor calls him (and indeed Darcy has a bust of Napoleon in his study) who dreams of transforming Kansas into a country. Nay, he has plans of empire building on a Napoleonic scale, so look out the whole USA. He has a devious scheme whereby he and his followers dress up as masked Missouri Redlegs and raid towns with mucho rape ‘n’ pillage, then they doff the maroon leggings and masks and present themselves as saviors and bringers of (rough) justice, being thus welcomed in town after town. Cunning plan, huh.
 
Backwoods Napoleon
 
However, the aims of the guerrilla bands are never addressed in the script and we don’t know if they are abolitionists, free-staters or what. The Jayhawkers here are just a gang.

Fess is Cam Bleeker, an escaped convict who discovers that it was Darcy who used and discarded his wife while he had been in the pen and the poor woman is now buried on the ranch, which has been appropriated and sold on to a glam French widow, Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey) - and we sense within a microsecond that said widow and Cam will soon be getting it on and forming a new family with the widow’s two young children (they’ll probably go to California at the end of the movie). So when the Govr. proposes a deal to Cam, bring in Darcy in return for a free pardon, well, he goes for it.
 
He finds a French widow in his house. Some people have all the luck.
 
That’s the basic plot. Though pretty two-dimensional, it’s reasonably interesting because along with being evil and mad, Darcy is also magnetic and charming, and despite the past hist., Cam can’t resist being drawn to the bandit leader, as a moth to a flame. So will he fulfill the bargain and deliver Darcy to the hangman’s rope? I wouldn’t say that there’s great suspense exactly, but there’s enough subtlety and ambiguity to give the story some spice.

Burly New Yorker Chandler had of course debuted, Westernwise, as the statesmanlike Cochise in Broken Arrow in 1950, and he returned as Cochise in The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) and, briefly (he dies in the first reel) in Taza, Son of Cochise (1954). When he wasn't an Apache, he was an Army man, as in Two Flags West, War Arrow, Pillars of the Sky and (in plain clothes) The Great Sioux Uprising. The Jayhawkers! was his eleventh Western. The Plunderers the following year was his last. He died aged only 42, during a routine operation for a slipped disc.

The picture was co-written, co-produced and directed by Melvin Frank. Frank and partner Norman Panama had a good contract with Paramount, working especially on Bob Hope movies and other comedies. The two didn’t dabble much in Westerns and those they did tended to be at the comedy end of the Western spectrum (A Southern Yankee, Callaway Went Thataway and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox). The Jayhawkers! was their only ‘straight’ Western.
 
Silva is Fierro-like executioner
 
Henry Silva is Darcy’s chief henchman and killer, with hints of Pancho Villa’s Rodolfo Fierro. He faces off against Fess but is humiliated so spends the rest of the movie trying to get even. Much good will it do him. Leo Gordon the Great is a gang member whom Fess saves from being lynched. But he breaks a cardinal rule by bringing Fess to Darcy’s hideout. And rule-breaking is not permitted…
 
Take me to your leader. Fess saves Leo from the rope. But it only delays the inevitable...
 
And then in uncredited bit parts we have Glenn Strange, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan and Harry Dean Stanton.

The music, by Jerome Moss a year after he scored The Big Country, is nice, sort of Coplandesque. In fact one reviewer has gone so far as to call it “one of the finest and least-acknowledged Western scores that Hollywood has ever produced, filled with the leaping fourths and fifths that are the musical equivalent of the open Western lands, and about as thrilling and beautiful as has ever been written to accompany a picture.” Well, I didn’t think it was that good. But whatever turns you on.

The picture is all rather long at 100 minutes. I won’t say it drags, exactly, but the director needed a little more zip and pace. At least it ends with a climactic quick-draw showdown in a saloon.



 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Chuka (Paramount, 1967)


Low budget and it shows




 
 
Chuka (pronounced with a short u, like the polo boot) is a man, one of those brave, savvy tough types, a man who knows Indians, smoldering you might say, taciturn but with deep passions beneath. Portrayed by Rod Taylor, who also produced the picture, he is a Shalako-like scout in buckskin, wise in the ways of the West. Mr. Taylor, who heads the cast, was an Australian, quite famous as George in The Time Machine and Mitch Brenner in The Birds, but he was in fact a good actor, as John Ford understood (he was Young Cassidy), and an intelligent and thoughtful person. He didn’t do a lot of big-screen Westerns but his rugged looks suited the roles. He started with a small part in Top Gun in 1955 and Chuka was his second (true) Western and first as lead. Later he would be the star of The Oregon Trail and Outlaws on TV. He is more than competent in Chuka, it must be said, and probably the best thing about the movie.

The rest of the casting is verging on the bizarre. A very isolated US Army fort lies in the middle of a plain in Spain, besieged by Arapahos, and its commandant is posh Brit Sir John Mills. South African Louis Hayward is an unpleasant and corrupt major who secretly keeps an Indian girl as a sex object. Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi is a Mexican countess (well, Italian, Mexican, it’s all the same; they’re both Latin, ain’t they?) and Ernest Borgnine is a German sergeant. Only James Whitmore as the post scout really convinces.
 
Whitmore's good anyway
 
It’s one of those traditional plots were the knowing Westerner comes up against the rigid by-the-book martinet commander from the East (in this case very far East), a bit like John Wayne and Henry Fonda in Fort Apache, except that Fort Apache was a good film. This commandant is impotent and a drunkard (they are related matters) and also pretty damn stupid. (It’s one of those Roger Ebert ‘Idiot Plots’ where the whole mess could have been avoided if only the characters hadn’t acted like complete imbeciles.)
 
He tries in vain to convince idiotic by-the-book commandant to do the right thing
 
It’s a flashback movie which starts with an officer dictating a letter to his superiors recounting the mystery of the burned, empty and abandoned fort. Then the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, and we get the events which caused the disaster.
 
Rod as the man-who-knows-Indians
 
The very improbable story was written by Richard Jessup from his own novel, his only big-screen Western screenplay. The budget was minimal and the fort looks like a papier maché toy. The director was Gordon Douglas, who did direct a few fun Westerns (I like Yellowstone Kelly, The Nevadan, Fort Dobbs and Rio Conchos) and his Only the Valiant with Gregory Peck in 1951 had certain aspects in common with Chuka, but who also churned out some pretty low-grade ones, and I fear this one belongs in the latter category.

You could watch it – well, you gotta – but probably only once.

It ought to have two K's in it, I feel

Saving her from a fate worse than death by, er, death. This scene was an oldie - used by Francis Ford in The Invaders, John Ford in Stagecoach, Cecil B DeMille in Union Pacific, and so on ad infinitum.