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

Sunday, September 20, 2020

So long

So long, e-pards. I have decided to put an end to this blog. I’m sorry to do it because I have enjoyed these years of posting about Westerns, and the e-conversations that resulted. I have learned a lot from comments left by readers and almost feel I know some of the regulars! But Blogspot’s new system is so very bad that it has become too difficult to post new articles. It won’t accept livelinks, for example, I don’t know why, and those were an essential part of the blog. I can’t present the pages as I want with the paragraphing and spacing and font that I desire. Illustrations won’t go in. And so on. It really is very disappointing. Why they had to change a system that functioned perfectly well in favor of a dismally bad one that doesn’t is a mystery. I suppose they call it progress. I shall continue reading and writing about the world of the Western, and if I find a more serious blog service I may restart there. If so, I’ll try to put up a new post on Blogspot to tell everyone where. Meanwhile I’ll leave this body of work up and those who are interested can read back numbers, Blogspot permitting (not a given). If anyone from Blogspot is reading this, your new format stinks, and you’ve lost one customer at least, and his readers. So happy trails, dear e-readers, as your Jeff rides off into the sunset.

Friday, September 18, 2020

The Italian Western

They have removed the option to the revert to the 'legacy blogger' and so I am again hamstrung. The new one doesn't allow me to use illustrations or put in links. Very sorry. For the moment, this is all I can do. Blogspot has really let its users down.

Spaghetti sauce

Paul Simpson, in his Rough Guide to Westerns (Rough Guides Ltd, 2006) criticizes some of our key books on the genre (his own comes near to that definition but just misses) as not taking the Italian western seriously enough. Herb Fagen’s The Encyclopedia of the Western, for example, he characterizes as “generous” and “authoritative” but it “would be better still if it treated spaghetti Westerns more seriously”, and Brian Garfield’s great Western Films is “a good read, marred by a dismissive attitude to the Italian Western.” I don’t think Paul’s going to like this blog then.

At a time, the 1960s, when the American Western appeared to be in full decline, the Italian version did at least inject new blood into the genre (quite a lot of it, in fact). Movie theaters, in Europe certainly but even in the US, started to fill up again with people paying to watch guys in Stetsons shooting each other with six-guns. While this was clearly an exploitative commercial gimmick, aimed at making a fistful of dollars, the minimal-budget sword-and-sandal Italian ‘epics’ no longer selling well, many of the key makers of these cheap westerns were genuine admirers of the genre. The likes of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci had been brought up on American Westerns of the 40s and 50s, knew them well and they tried, in some ways, to copy them – or at least quote them.

Italy’s love affair with the Wild West goes way back. Buffalo Bill traveled Italy in 1890 and 1906, performing his show twice in Florence to ecstatic audiences, and 1910 marked the first performance of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), horse opera indeed. Sergio Leone’s mother, Edvige Maria Valcarenghi, known by her stage name of Bice Waleran, starred in what has been described the first ever Italian Western, La Vampira Indiana, directed by Sergio’s dad Roberto Roberti in 1913. A Fascist-era talkie, Una Signora dell’Ouest, was made in 1942, written and directed by German Carl Koch but shot in Lazio with Swiss and Italian actors.

It is perhaps not fanciful to suggest, as indeed Paul Simpson sort-of has, that guns for hire, bounty hunters and other assorted loners were in Italy inherently more interesting as heroes (or antiheroes anyway) than the lawmen or Army officers of the classic American Western. Italian society has traditionally and historically had a low opinion of the official state and prefers to get by, manage, cope with life, even if - or especially if - it means bypassing official channels. The supposed ‘frontier justice’ of the Wild West, when a man meted out his own kind of law, often at the point of a gun, struck a chord with millions of Italians. And this tradition seems to have fed into the spaghetti western genre.

Furthermore, some of the spaghetti directors and writers came from quite a left-wing, even Marxist tradition, and were happy to produce stories of semi-anarchic characters defying the state and its apparatus, and rebelling also against corporate exploiters, the railroads being a classic example. It was pretty one-dimensional or comic-book Marxism, but still.

The term spaghetti western, by the way, has been considered by some to be demeaning or even racist. I don’t think it is, and indeed the ‘standard’ and rather earnest text on the subject bears the title Spaghetti Westerns (it is by Christopher Frayling, IB Tauris, 2006). Of course many of the so-called spaghettis were not exclusively from the land of pasta but in fact international productions, with actors of a variety of nationalities (including American), often financed by Germans and shot in Spain, in the latter case sometimes being called paella westerns. By extension, we get matzo-ball westerns in Israeli locations, and I myself call British sagebrush sagas shepherd’s pie westerns, named for the stodgy fare beloved of Her Majesty’s subjects. It seems European oaters have to be named for foodstuffs.

Before Italian westerns came along, there had been a series of successful Eurowesterns based on the novels by Karl May, one of the best-selling German writers of all time with about 200 million copies sold worldwide. The first modern movie appeared in 1962, shot in the then Yugoslavia, and they went on till 1968. The Apache Winnetou was played by French actor Pierre Brice, who was usually teamed with Lex Barker as his Aryan pal Old Shatterhand. Barker, of course, as well as being Tarzan, had appeared in a whole series of American Westerns from 1947 on, leading in six.

By coincidence or not, the first internationally successful spaghetti western, Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) was released in the fall of 1964, the year of the last – and perhaps the poorest – of the big Hollywood Westerns by ‘old masters’, John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn and Raoul Walsh’s A Distant Trumpet. These Cavalry-and-Indian pictures were frankly tired, and seemed very old-fashioned to mid-60s theater-goers. Leone’s movie with TV-Western star Clint Eastwood (not Leone’s first choice: he wanted Fonda, then Coburn, but they were too expensive and Charles Bronson described it as the "worst script I have ever seen") was, if nothing else, startlingly new. Its impact wasn’t immediate, however: it wasn’t released in France till March 1966 and in the US till January ’67.

Through the late 60s spaghetti westerns were released in droves, on average one a week. Many were copies and rip-offs, re-using plots and character names – Django, Sartana, and so on. I’ve lost count (well, I never counted) how many titles included the word Django. The pictures were churned out on minimal budgets and shot in a matter of days. In fact they were in this respect (only) reminiscent of the second-feature and series Westerns that Poverty Row studios released in the 1930s, 40s and early 50s in the US.

Many of the patrons of Italian movie theaters of the time were not sophisticated cinephiles going to see art films; audiences were rowdy, noisy and smoked heavily (it was still like that when I lived in Italy in the 1980s) and they liked action and blood and not too much talking per favore.

In fact, though, spaghetti sellers did it to death. As quickly as it had mushroomed up, the craze faded away. The producers tried hard to invent later variations which might appeal to theater-goers, such as ‘comedy’ spaghettis. Venetian Mario Girotti (Terence Hill) and Neapolitan Carlo Pedersoli (Bud Spencer) were an especially popular duo, and they appealed to the long and noble Italian tradition of the buffoon. There were also kung-fu spaghettis and horror ones. Yet they only delayed the inevitable. The sub-genre was doomed.

But not before it had amassed large numbers of fans – and intellectual film-studies type scholars also. Still today spaghetti westerns are surprisingly popular.

There have, however, also always been critics. When Burt Kennedy told an incredulous John Wayne that the Italians were making Westerns (or westerns anyway) he described them as “no stories, just killing.” Brian Garfield, mentioned by Simpson above, wrote, “I acknowledge that these films have their apologists but I hope I may be forgiven if I express a deep disgusted revulsion toward them.”

Myself, i.e. your Jeff, I don’t feel that strongly about them. No deep disgusted revulsion for me. But I don’t like them. Actually, I’m not sure they were really Westerns at all. They were about Westerns. They are parodies, even, or maybe anti-Westerns. The article on the history of the Western in The BFI Companion to the Western suggests that in fact there was a continuity here, quite apart from the use of actors known for their traditional Westerns. “They took certain attitudes and themes which had emerged and pushed them further.” Leone was an especial admirer of Vera Cruz (1954) and it is true that in that Western Robert Aldrich and his writers spotlighted characters (Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster) who were cynical guns for hire. “The scene in which they demonstrate their shooting prowess to the Emperor Maximilian is a blueprint for all the show-offs in the Spaghetti Western.” In his sometimes perceptive book Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre (Carcanet Film, first published in 1973 but later reissued with revisions and addenda) Philip French says that “no American director influenced the Italians more than Robert Aldrich” and says that the climactic gunfight between Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset (1961) was the model for spaghetti high-opera shoot-out showdowns.

Mmm. I’m not so sure. Plenty of American Westerns, all through the glory years, had highlighted shooting prowess and had major climactic shoot-outs (that idea went right back to at least Owen Wister’s The Virginian of 1902). And guns-for-hire and bounty-hunters were standard Western characters long before spaghetti came along – though the American ones usually had a heart of gold.

But yes, the spaghetti westerns certainly did stress those elements.

Another key and different element of the Italian western was the soundtrack. Italian westerns were post-dubbed. They were made almost like silent movies, with the director free to talk as much as he (it was always a he) wanted behind the cameras and with the actors, unencumbered by boom-mikes, saying their lines in their own languages, or in one case recounted by Christopher Frayling, simply counting earnestly up to ten. Then the dialogue would be recorded in a studio and added. Supporting actors were not well paid on movie sets but were well rewarded for studio recording, and were happier to do that. Usually it didn’t really matter whose voice it was anyway. There is a theory that because the Cinecittà movie studios in Rome were directly under the flight path to Fiumicino airport, the industry had learned to do without live recording of dialogue. Certainly the Italians developed sophisticated dubbing techniques. But you can always tell, and it always both sounds and looks false. And because these spaghetti westerns were usually very low-budget affairs and turned out so fast they did not receive the high-quality post-dubbing sound that bigger Italian movies did. Lip-synching was often perfunctory.

Another weakness (in my view) was the way non-dialogue sound was done. Spaghettis delighted in overloud gunshots and overdubbed clip-clopping hooves. We have all seen spaghettis in which the cowboy falls dead just before the gunshot rings out. And why did every shot do a ricochet whine even when it didn’t hit anything? Leone especially was a fan of so-called ‘sound design’ and loved to ornament his pictures with this kind of fakery. These days sound technicians are described as ‘Foley artists’ and a character can’t put a glass down or pull out a gun without hundred-decibel sound effects or twirl a knife without those stupid phew-phew noises. I blame Leone.

And don’t get me started on the music. Or do. Ennio Morricone, who died this July, was, Wikipedia tells us, “With more than 400 scores for cinema and television, as well as more than 100 classical works … widely considered as one of the most prolific and greatest film composers of all time.” Certainly he is greatly admired. But not by me. I find the music he did for spaghetti westerns trite and often downright annoying. I get that spaghettis wanted to move away from huge orchestral scores and lush strings, and preferred a more proletarian, humble soundtrack, such as a wailing harmonica, twiddly wooden flute, cracked whip, or human whistling (always, of course, absurdly amplified). A lot of the rationale was simply cost. Budgets did not allow for multi-musician recording. One guy with an electric guitar and someone shouting “Hoh, hoh!” into an echo-chamber would do just as well. I think it’s just awful. Still, whatever turns you on. I know many people like the music and probably have it on their iPods, or these days, phones. You can buy, if you like that sort of thing, a whole 2-CD album, with the inevitable title A Fistful of Sounds, which includes the complete soundtracks of three Leone westerns, “a haunting, surprising, satisfying experience”, according to Paul Simpson. Whatever floats your boat.

If you judge spaghetti westerns just by a few of the more famous pictures you may find them different but acceptable. Leone’s so-called dollars trilogy - Per un Pugni di Dollari (1964), Per qualche dollaro in più (1965) and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (1966) – Corbucci’s original Django (1966) and Il Grande Silenzio (1968), as well as Damiano Damiani’s ¿Quien Sabe? aka A Bullet for the General (1967) are all watchable and have certain merits. The last-named even got up to a Jeff Arnold’s West three-revolver rating. Amazing. But the vast majority of the ‘westerns’ that were churned out from the mid-60s to the early 70s were dire. Chief among their downsides were the bad sound, dubbing and music (as just mentioned), the lurid colors, the juvenile writing and repetitive plotting, the bargain-basement production values, and actually their lack of respect for the genre. They were really live-action cartoons.

But they did make some money, and they did have an impact. In a meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch way, American movie producers took note and began to incorporate spaghetti influences into their mainstream Westerns. More blood, antiheroes, sweaty and unshaven men characters and sleazy women ones (spaghettis were notably misogynistic or at least male-chauvinist), one-dimensional plots, huge close-ups of faces and, for some odd reason, a fascination with boots and horses’ hooves, as well as arsenals hidden in coffins, all started to feed into the Western. It was a process of reverse engineering.

 Take a movie like Barquero (1970) for example, perhaps the most Italian of American Westerns. It stars Lee Van Cleef with his curly pipe and contains many of the features just noted above. Its director, Gordon Douglas, had clearly seen a number of spaghettis and wanted to cash in on their commercial (if not artistic) success. Sam Peckinpah was also clearly influenced and his balletic and bloody final slaughter in The Wild Bunch (1969) probably would not have been possible without its spaghetti precursors. Leone and Corbucci claimed influence anyway. Leone said that Peckinpah told him “Without you I would never have thought of making the films I made” and Corbucci said, “Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch after thinking about the films of Leone and Corbucci.” To underline the point, the contents page of Frayling’s book Spaghetti Westerns has an illustration not of an Italian western but of the four Wild Bunch stars (Johnson, Oates, Holden, Borgnine) walking down to their dusty death.

In fact Frayling’s book carries a long appendix, The Impact of Spaghettis on the American Western. Some of it is written in film-studies jargon, aka gobbledygook, but it also has some interesting info. He says that Oscar-nominee and Emmy-winning director Ralph Nelson was an early influencee. Certainly Duel at Diablo with James Garner and Sidney Poitier, shot in the fall of 1965 and released in May ’66, has spaghetti influences. Frayling calls Nelson “the closest American director, in terms of technique, to Sergio Leone.” I’m not sure that’s high praise, though. In fact Nelson’s other two Westerns, Soldier Blue and The Wrath of God, were really bad.

Eastwood’s post-spaghetti career clearly shows that spaghetti blood (or sauce) now ran freely in his veins. In interviews Don Siegel expressed his appreciation of Leone’s work, and some scenes in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) with Eastwood are clearly nods to Sergio. The Civil War in the Siegel/Eastwood The Beguiled (1971) is not that far from Leone’s in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Eastwood’s soldier in that is completely cynical about his part in the war. Clint made quite a thing of the spaghetti ‘man with no name’ (though in fact he was named in Leone’s pictures). The superhuman stranger riding into Lago and meting out vigilante ‘justice’ in Eastwood’s first Western as director, High Plains Drifter (1973), is very spaghetti-ish and indeed the opening scenes, in which Clint rides into town, seem to be a straight copy of those in A Fistful of Dollars when he rides into San Miguel. In some ways Clint was still doing that as late as Pale Rider (1985), though one difference is that in these post-spaghetti American pictures he was, vaguely, righting society’s wrongs, even if in a somewhat extra-legal manner, while in the Dollars movies he couldn’t give a damn about righting society’s wrongs because he was too busy exploiting them.

Later Western makers, Tarantino especially, are spaghettisti. Django Unchained (2012) – Franco Nero even appeared in it - pays obvious homage to Sergio Corbucci and The Hateful Eight makes specific references to Il Grande Silenzio.

Well, you’ll find quite a few spaghettis reviewed on this blog (click on aaa WESTERN MOVIES AND TV SHOWS REVIEWED at the top of the sidebar on the right of the homepage). They all get at least one revolver in the universally admired JAW ranking system, because after all, they made a Western. But very few get more than that. Caveat lector, Simpson.

Maybe pastiche is the word that best describes these movies. Webster’s defines pastiche as “a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work”, with a secondary meaning of hodgepodge, potpourri. There’s maybe a hint in the word of the cheap fake. At any rate, like ‘em or love ‘em, a Western fan can’t really ignore ‘em (however much you’d like to).

 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Naked Hills (AA, 1956)


"You got a sickness, Tracy."





 
 
 
The Naked Hills tells of two partners (David Wayne and Denver Pyle) who become forty-niners. One, Bert (Pyle, who also has a narrative voiceover) will see reason and become a successful storekeeper while the other, Tracy (Wayne) gets a bad case of gold fever and wastes his life forever trying and failing to strike it rich. Denver offers the sage if a tad ungrammatical opinion that "A man don't need no mountain to live out his life happy."

The picture was directed, produced and written by Josef Shaftel, so there aren’t many others to praise or blame. Shaftel was also co-producer of a much better picture, another Naked one, The Naked Dawn (1955) with an excellent Arthur Kennedy. Bogdanovich thought The Naked Dawn was a classic and its director, Edgar Ulmer, a great talent. The Naked Hills, however, is weaker, partly because Wayne, in the lead, had little of the charisma of Kennedy and in the gold fever scenes falls into overacting.

Producer/director/writer Shaftel
Historic Images

Brian Garfield called it “an oversimplified vest-pocket movie - a saga on a ‘B’ budget – and the greed-for-gold theme is threadbare” and I think he had a point.

There are also pantomime villains, in the shape of the dastardly banker Haver (Jim Backus) and his thuggish henchman Wilkins (Kennan Wynn). Mind, there were plenty of bad bankers with henchmen in other movies, and we don't hold that agin 'em.

The most entertaining presence was probably that of third-billed James Barton, who also sings the ballad under the opening credits, as the amusing old-timer Jimmo. He certainly makes the most of his part.

Barton, Wayne

There’s some love interest in the curvaceous shape of Julie (Marcia Henderson) but she overacts too.

All a bit static

Fuzzy Knight had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role as a conman salesman and you might (or might not) also spot Paul E Burns and Kermit Maynard in bit-parts.

Erick Maurel gave his opinion thus: “Routinier, mollasson, sans aucun rythme ni la moindre action... on peut aisément passer notre chemin et moi ne pas perdre plus de temps à en parler!

It is a (very) poor man’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in some ways, with Wayne as Bogart and Barton in the Huston part. But it didn’t have anything like the writing, directing and acting of that great movie, or the production values either. It has its moments and is not a total dud but I wouldn’t pine away if you never get to see it.

 

Gordon Douglas


A worthy contributor to our genre


Gordon Douglas (1907 – 1993), pictured left, was one of those directors who made a number of bread-and-butter pictures of no special merit but who sometimes rose above that norm to put out an interesting one. In the world of the Western (the genre that counts) he made a handful which were really good.

He himself said, “I have a large family to feed and it's only occasionally that I find a story that interests me.” And self-deprecatingly, even rather sadly, he commented, “Don't try to watch all the films I've directed; it would turn you off movies forever.”

I reckon you could watch all his Westerns, though. He directed 17, two with Randolph Scott, two with Alan Ladd, three with Clint Walker and one each with a variety of Western leads such as Gregory Peck, Lee Van Cleef, Hugh O’Brian, Rod Taylor, James Garner, Richard Boone and Guy Madison. A few were a bit ho-hum, some were very competent and a few were cracking good pictures.

French film boffin Bertrand Tavernier described Douglas as “a part-time auteur”, by which I think he meant that Gordon cheerfully did a lot of the routine stuff the studios handed him, putting up with the one-take trash Sinatra kept churning out and doing many less-than-epic comedies, but he had a vision and occasionally was able to stamp his personality on some quite interesting films.

As a teenager he got a job with Hal Roach, working in the office and appearing in bit parts in various Roach movies. He was ‘student drinker, uncredited’ in the WC Fields comedy Western A Fatal Glass of Beer in 1933. Well, we all have to start somewhere. By 1934 he was working as assistant director on a couple of Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang two-reelers. From 1936 he graduated to directing Our Gang shorts himself. One of them even won an Academy Award, for live action short film. When Roach sold the Our Gang franchise to MGM, Douglas moved there but didn’t like the big-studio ambiance and quit.

In 1942 he went to RKO, concentrating on low-budget comedies including, in 1944, his first picture which could (just possibly) be defined as a Western, the comedy Girl Rush. But it was at Columbia, where he went in 1948, that he first made his mark in the noble genre, by directing first The Doolins of Oklahoma (1949) and then the excellent The Nevadan (1950), both with Randolph Scott. In fact the latter was the first Western to be released that year and thus had the honor of ushering in what was to be the greatest ever decade for the genre. And it was a worthy pathfinder.

Hollywood outlaw gangs such as the Doolins are, naturally, misunderstood goodies. Directors and screenplay writers (in this case experienced hand Kenneth Gamet) dipped their very broad brushes in copious quantities of whitewash to paint a picture of Robin Hood-like social bandits driven unwillingly into crime by force of circumstance. So the story was nonsense, really. But the movie is a brisk actioner, with Yak Canutt masterminding the stunts and Jock Mahoney standing in for Randy. The Doolins is a professional, tight Western with much in its favor.

Nice cinematography in The Doolins

The Nevadan was better still. It’s a very well directed picture which moves along at a cracking pace. Note, for example, how much action takes place under the opening credits, so that by the time the movie starts we are already well down the trail of the plot. It was produced by Scott’s partner Harry Joe Brown and shot in a very nice Cinecolor by the talented Charles Lawton Jr up at Lone Pine (thus anticipating those splendid late-50s Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher).

Malone riders through Boetticheresque landscape in The Nevadan

Now James Cagney was making a (non-Western) picture for Warner Bros with his brother William, and they hired Douglas to direct. Douglas signed long-term deals with Cagney Productions and Warners, and would produce some of his best Westerns there.

But first he did a non-exclusive deal with Paramount to make two movies, one of which was the Jesse James Western The Great Missouri Raid (1951) – the other was never made. It was another well-directed picture. It suffered a little from Wendell Corey and Macdonald Carey as Frank and Jesse; they weren’t Western specialists and weren’t suited. But the supporting cast was high quality and the Technicolor photography (Ray Rennahan) very good. And once again it rattles along at a good pace. Click the link for a full review – the same applies to other movies mentioned.

Corey 'n' Carey as Frank 'n' Jesse

Later that year, though, Douglas worked with Gregory Peck to make his first Warners Western, Only the Valiant, aka Fort Invincible. This was probably his lowest-key oater yet, a 105-minute black & white cavalry-and-Apaches picture mostly shot on studio sets and going for the noir and ‘psychological Western’ vibe. The screenplay (Charles Marquis Warren among others) is humdrum. Peck said it was his least favorite movie. Certainly it would have been weak without his contribution. It’s not a dud, but it wasn’t the equal of those zippy on-location Columbia pictures.

Peck was the steely commander in Only the Valiant

1952 was the year of The Iron Mistress, with Alan Ladd miscast as Jim Bowie and Virginia Mayo as the titular dame (the title refers equally to Bowie’s knife and his woman). I don’t know what it was about early-50s Warner Westerns. They tended to be clunky. This one had horse races and New Orleans casinos and Mississippi river boats and duels. In fact, it was almost not a Western at all, more of an early-nineteenth-century costume drama. It was written by James R Webb from a Paul Wellman novel. Webb had specialized in low-budget Westerns like Jesse James at Bay or Bad Man of Deadwood. The script here is of a similar standard. Only the knife fight in the darkened room stands out.

If Jim Bowie had been an immaculately dressed New Orleans gambler with elegant manners, Alan Ladd would have portrayed him very well

1953’s contribution to the great genre was The Charge at Feather River. After a promising start in Westerns, debuting with his friend Rory Calhoun in Massacre River in 1949, Guy Madison spent most of the 1950s on radio and the smaller screen as Wild Bill in the astonishingly successful series Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok.  Feature-film Westerns were relegated to a sideline, though he did the occasional one all through the 50s, and Feather River was one. It was shot in 3D, then all the rage, and in Warnercolor. It also had the studio's snazzy new 4-track stereo, with the ‘WarnerPhonic/RCA Sound System’. So there was more budget available this time. It was scheduled for André De Toth but for some reason he didn’t or couldn’t do it (he already helmed three Westerns that year, as well as the hit horror House of Wax) and it went to Douglas. It’s a tried-and-trusted plot (James R Webb again), nothing much original here. A ‘man who knows Indians’ leads an Army patrol to rescue two white women from the Cheyenne. Except maybe in one respect it might be original: I’m not sure when the Dirty Dozen plot was first used. Is this perhaps the first example? A reader might know. You see, Guy recruits his men from a punishment squad, using drunks, deserters, thieves and brawlers. He whips them into shape with a rigorous training regime, then they come good in action, developing an esprit de corps and acting gallantly. Of course we are very used to this story now, not only in war films, but I wonder when it was first done? Though now that I think about it, Douglas’s earlier Only the Valiant did that a bit too.

Dramatic stuff

There was a Western pause for Douglas then. Between June 1953 and February 1957 there were no oaters. Of course he was busy with the likes of Them! (1954). And maybe Warners weren’t that keen on Westerns for a bit. But next for Douglas was another Alan Ladd/Virginia Mayo sagebrush saga, The Big Land. It was a production of Ladd’s company Jaguar. Edmond O’Brien as an alcoholic goody and Anthony Caruso as the chief heavy were both impressive. We are just after the Civil War and, as every Western fan knows, “the East needs beef.” Ex-Reb Chad Morgan (Ladd) drives two thousand head from Texas to the railhead in Missouri. Crooked cattle dealer Brog (Caruso), the only one with access to the railroad, offers an absurdly low price for the beef. Teaming up with Joe Jagger (O’Brien), whom he has saved from lynching, they meet up with some farmers who can’t ship their wheat East either. In his sober past, Joe used to be an architect and they decide to build a town to attract a railroad spur. It was another Frank Gruber effort. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “There is nothing particularly scenic in all of this hackneyed live-beef film.” Brian Garfield later called it an “overblown pulp-formula meller”. It got nowhere at the box-office. It isn’t bad, but…


The following year, however, produced two of Gordon’s best Westerns. Fort Dobbs (released in April) and The Fiend Who Walked the West (August) were intensely enjoyable. Dobbs would not be his last Warners Western, he’d be back, but The Fiend was a Fox picture.

Fort Dobbs starred Clint Walker, who was doing well on ABC’s Cheyenne, started in 1955, but who had big-screen ambitions. It’s a Hondo-esque plot. Gunman on the lam (or so we think) Clint comes upon a lonely ranch where live a handsome woman (Virginia Mayo again) and her young son (Richard Eyer, soon to be Davy in Stagecoach West). The husband is absent (killed, as we later learn) and Clint becomes the surrogate husband/father. The acting is good. The direction is fast-paced, builds tension and while it may not, these days, have you on the edge of your seat, it probably did then and is still quite exciting today. It was written by Burt Kennedy, so that certainly helped. It was photographed by William H Clothier, no less, in a luminous black & white and the beautiful Moab and Kanab UT locations are very classily shot. So Fort Dobbs is definitely one of Gordon Douglas’s better Westerns.

Clint paired with Mayo in Fort Dobbs

The title The Fiend Who Walked the West might lead you to think you are in for a low-budget horror flick but actually it’s a Western classic, a must-see for any self-respecting amateur of the genre. It’s a straight crime/thriller, a remake of Fox’s 1949 Henry Hathaway-directed Kiss of Death. Fox gave it budget and did it in CinemaScope. There was quite a trend of remaking noirs as Westerns. One thinks of Raoul Walsh remaking his High Sierra as Colorado Territory in 1949, House of Strangers becoming Broken Lance in 1954, or Delmer Daves transposing John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle to the West in The Badlanders, released the month after Fiend in '58. But this one is brilliantly done. Douglas went for low-key cheap interior sets to enhance the horror vibe. He played it straight – there isn’t a hint of self-parody or send up. The writers were top hands. Novelist, poet and screenwriter Harry Brown had contributed to Only the Valiant for Douglas. Philip Yordan had worked on Johnny Guitar, Broken Lance and The Man from Laramie. They had Ben Hecht’s screenplay for Kiss of Death as a starting point. Clearly they understood the vibe Douglas was going for and they managed creepy-crime with aplomb. And I’m sure you agree, there’s nothing like the odd spot of aplomb.


That year too he did The Burning Sky, an episode (S1 E22) of Maverick. It starred Gerald Mohr. James Garner as Bret introduces the episode, in which Bart (Jack Kelly) is one of a group of six ambushed stagecoach passengers. While the six strangers are under siege, it becomes clear the ambushers have targeted this specific stagecoach because one of the six passengers must be secretly carrying something valuable—but who, and where could it be hidden? One might have expected Douglas to do a lot of TV Western shows: most other slightly lesser film directors did. But he only did this one – and a later TV movie.

But back on the big screen two more Clint Walker Westerns came next, Yellowstone Kelly (1959) and Gold of the Seven Saints (1961).

The first was enjoyable, and was again written by Burt Kennedy, using a Heck Allen novel. It is (freely) based on the life of Luther Sage Kelly (1849 – 1928), chief of scouts for General Miles, expedition guide in Alaska, captain of volunteers in the Philippines, trapper, hunter and explorer along the Yellowstone River and general all-round action man. That’s Clint, of course. Curiously, for a Yellowstone film, it was all shot in Arizona and it shows, especially the parts around Sedona. But they are very attractive locations which usually manage to suggest Montana OK. I like this picture (but then I was always a Walker fan), and if you watch it I reckon you’ll find acting, direction, writing and photography well up to scratch.

The real Yellowstone Kelly

I shall be reviewing Gold of the Seven Saints next month so hold your breath for that exciting moment. Here, just to say it co-starred Roger Moore, future James Bond, and was a sort of poor man’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Brian Garfield rated it “two-karat at best”. Oh well. Maybe Jeff will be politer.

Douglas helmed three more feature Westerns in the 1960s, the exciting actioner Rio Conchos (1964), the ho-hum remake of Stagecoach (1966) and the Rod Taylor picture Chuka (1967).

I’m quite a fan of Rio Conchos. It’s quite ‘modern’ as a Western, i.e. 60s, with a sort of post-spaghetti look, but Richard Boone, the year after Have Gun - Will Travel finished, is excellent, as he almost always was, and the picture races right along. It was football star Jim Brown’s debut, and he walks about shirtlessly and hunkishly. To be brutally frank, he wasn’t much of an actor but if you needed a big man of color in an action film (The Dirty Dozen, say) or indeed any of the many cheap blaxploitation movies of the 70s, Brown was your chap. Edmond O’Brien, enjoying it, I'd say, is the crazed Confederate officer who wants to arm the Apaches with state-of-the-art rifles and crush the bluecoats with them. It all ends with mucho fireworks, Douglas and the cast and crew evidently having fun.

Action-packed

Stagecoach was probably no worse than many other Westerns of the period and better than many but it was really too hard an act to follow. Douglas’s version did have some plus points. Bing Crosby, in his last movie, was entertaining in the Millard Mitchell drunken doctor part. Slim Pickens was at least as good as Andy Devine as stage driver, and Van Heflin was stocky and solid in the George Bancroft marshal-cum-shotgun messenger role. Furthermore, there’s very good William H Clothier photography and it's in color. They have shifted the setting of the story from New Mexico to Wyoming, so they filmed it in Colorado. If you see what I mean. Anyway, there’s nice mountain scenery. But, and it’s a big but, we had Ann-Margret as Dallas and Alex Cord as Ringo. Well, I want to be as polite as I can here but… They both just say their words and there is no magic between them. Mike Connors was also unconvincing as the Southern gambler Hatfield and Red Buttons as the whiskey drummer Peacock was a bit bland. Robert Cummings as Gatewood? Cummings was a wisecracking, amiable TV personality and doesn’t carry off the sly, crooked banker at all. No, I’m afraid the cast just wasn’t up to it. Because it was such a straight remake, even re-using some of the dialogue, you are bound to think of their predecessors when they speak. Still, it was ten times better than the spaghettis going around then, and also a lot better than the later country-singer made-for-TV Stagecoach.

Norman Rockwell painted some fine portraits of the cast

As for Chuka, a Paramount picture, it was so-so. Rod Taylor, an Australian, was quite famous as George in The Time Machine and Mitch Brenner in The Birds, and he was in fact a good actor, as John Ford understood (Taylor 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 was the best thing about this picture. The rest of the casting is, er, unusual. 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. Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi is a Mexican countess and Ernest Borgnine is a German sergeant. Only James Whitmore as the post scout really convinces.  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. All in all, a bit on the iffy side, this one. With the fort and so on it had echoes of Only the Valiant.

Whitmore was good but

Barquero (1970) on the other hand, I think is rather good, despite its definite spaghetti sauce. Barquero is perhaps the most Italian of American Westerns. It has Lee Van Cleef with his curly pipe as cynical tough guy doing good despite himself. It has garish color, corpses a-go-go and lots of close-up squints and grimaces. But unlike spaghetti westerns it has good acting, interesting characters, some thoughtful moments, Colorado scenery and tension. It’s actually quite a good Western. The picture had been slated for Robert Sparr but went to Gordon Douglas instead when Sparr was killed in a plane crash scouting Star Trek locations. Say what you like about the spaghettis (and I do), they did inject some new blood (rather a lot of it, in fact) into the mainstream Western and anti-heroes like Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates replaced the noble Pecks and Fondas and Coopers.

Van Cleef does American spaghetti

Gordon Douglas was nearing the end of the Western trail he had moseyed down for so long. There remained but two more sorties in the genre, Skin Game in 1971, with James Garner, for which Douglas received credit as co-director with Paul Bogart, and in 1975 a TV-movie version of Nevada Smith with Cliff Potts doing the Steve McQueen part and Lorne Greene impersonating Brian Keith. Neither has yet been reviewed by your Jeff but while there’s life there’s hope.

Here, suffice to say that if you go by Brian Garfield (I often do) you might be encouraged by his opinion that Skin Game “is delightful; minor comedy is much warmer-hearted than most of the farce Westerns of the 1970s. Quite good.” Tony Mastroianni in The Cleveland Press wrote that it was “a winner” - adding “if you are willing to judge strictly on its own merits and not compare it with obviously better pictures.” He thought “The film's particular merit is that it is designed for laughs and in this it succeeds.” Well, that’s not bad press. As for Nevada Smith, Douglas’s penultimate job as director, I know nothing about it, I’m afraid, and don’t know if it’s good, bad or indifferent. Perhaps a reader who has seen it can enlighten us.

Lorne was Cord in the TV Nevada Smith

And that was all she wrote.

After helming in 1977 the doubtlessly epic Viva Knievel!, an autobiopic you might say, Gordon Douglas retired, and died of cancer on September 29, 1993 in Los Angeles, at the age of 85. I can’t judge his non-Westerns, not having seen most of them, but I would say that his essays in our noble genre (the one that counts, after all) are not universally excellent but they are generally not at all bad, and occasionally darn good. That’s not a bad epitaph, is it?