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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Man from FORT Laramie

No Hollywood fort.

And talking of Laramie, Fort Laramie, now, isn't at Laramie. In fact the Fort is about 100 miles NE of the town. Probably, the Man from Laramie came from the fort because he was a military man. Will Lockhart was undercover but he was a soldier alright.

Fort Laramie started as a private trading fort (Fort John) in 1834, became a military post in 1849 and was finally abandoned in 1890 after the Indian wars. It was the site of the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties with assorted tribes (promises, of course, later broken by the whites).

It never quite fit into the Hollywood image of a fort as it was never walled in and it remained open. Today it is still an open, remote, even tranquil place in summer, with the Laramie River meandering slowly around it. Restored buildings are dotted around the green fields.

The Bedlam House was the bachelor officers' quarters and no prizes for guessing how it got its name. You can see the cavalry barracks, all equipped, and have a drink at the sutler's. When I was there it was far from crowded and it was pleasant to stroll around the grounds and examine the buildings. You can't always imagine the past in these tourist sites but at Fort Laramie you just about can.

It's well run and cared for by the National Park Service. They have ‘docents’, volunteers who dress up and tell you what their life is like as a Mormon settler or cavalry officer’s wife. A bit cheesy but good for the kids.

Worth a visit, pards.

Write to 965 Gray Rocks Road, Fort Laramie, Wyoming 82212
Phone Park Headquarters (307) 837-2221

Friday, July 30, 2010

Laramie, WY

The man from Laramie
He was a man with a peaceful turn of mind
He was kind of sociable and friendly
Friendly as any man could be
But you never saw a man out-draw
The man from Laramie

The man from Laramie
He was a man with a warm and gentle heart
But when they'd start the arguing and fightin'
Frightenin' and lightning fast was he
There was no coyote who could outshoot
The man from Laramie
He had a flair for ladies
The ladies loved his air of mystery
The west will never see
A man with so many notches on his gun
Everyone admired the fearless stranger
Danger was this man's speciality
So they never bossed or double crossed
The man from Laramie

So I needed to go to Laramie to see if this was true.

Coming over the high land from Cheyenne in August, we had snow.

Laramie is now a university town in SE Wyoming, with a population of about 30,000. It is rather pleasant.

It grew in the nineteenth century when the Union Pacific crossed the Laramie River here.

Spenser came from Laramie, of course. You know, Spenser the detective. Robert B Parker.

And it was about 12 miles from Laramie that the famed stage station lay. If you watched TV in the early 1960s you will know whereof I speak. If not, click the link. In fact, click the link anyway.
I was tempted there by an excellent 1950s metal advertising panel in an ‘antique’ shop which showed a cowboy in one of those red John Wayne cavalry shirts (he looked very like Tyrone Power) with the slogan ‘Real cowboys smoke and drink’ but it cost $125 so I left it for the next sucker.

The Man from Laramie was also, of course, the last, best and most stirring of the long series of Westerns in which Anthony Mann directed James Stewart and one of the few not made by Universal. Click the link to read more about this fine movie. Although to be fair Will Lockhart came from Fort Laramie, which is different.

Excellent town, Laramie. I may have to live there.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Canyon Passage (Universal, 1946)

A very classy Western


Set unusually early, in 1850s Oregon, starting with pouring rain and a ship in the background, Canyon Passage is a holster-less Western in which guns are stuck in pants and belts. It’s very good. A lot of the credit for that goes to the Ernest Haycox novel on which it is based, skillfully adapted for the screen by Ernest Pascal. The story is plausible, the relationships complex, the dialogue authentic and often moving.

Credit also has to be given to Jacques Tourneur for this, his first and best Western (he later did The Flame and the Arrow and Wichita). The direction is subtle and he draws underacted, powerful performances out of the cast, especially Dana Andrews, who is excellent.

Dana Andrews, very good

Andrews plays a successful store-keeper and freighter, a man who is restless, unsatisfied and doesn’t know really what he wants. His best friend is Brian Donlevy (one of his better Western parts), a compulsive gambler who embezzles to pay for his habit. The two compete for the affections of red-headed, fiery Lucy (Susan Hayward in her first of eight Westerns: she was always absolutely excellent), yet Donlevy lusts after the wife of the gambler he loses to (consumptive Onslow Stevens, excellent) and Andrews has proposed to Caroline, an English rose (Patricia Roc). Andrews and Donlevy are more alike than at first appears. Both are gamblers (Andrews over-extends his business, Donlevy plays poker, badly). Both are rootless and have itchy feet. They do what they do but have not settled.

Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward

There are four excellent minor characters: odious bully Ward Bond, bushwhacker, rapist, killer; preacher Frank Ferguson; mob leader Lloyd Bridges out to hang Donlevy and anyone else he disapproves of; and cynical minstrel Hoagy Carmichael, wry observer, a one-man Greek chorus. All are very good indeed. There is also a great performance from Andy Devine and Dorothy Peterson as a settler couple and their two sons (played by the Devine boys).

There are fearsome Indians on the warpath who burn a cabin (which we had seen raised by the community in a heart-warming scene) and murder the young couple of owners. Yet Andy Devine says at one point, “It’s their land and we’re on it.” This is not a 2D Western like so many. It is lifelike. No one is all good or all bad, except perhaps Ward Bond who has very little to recommend him and eventually gets his just desserts at the end of a scalping knife, though we almost feel sorry even for him at the end.

Bad guy Ward Bond

The photography (by the great Edward Cronjager) and Oregon locations are beautiful. They make you want to go there. And the color of the Optimum Western Classics DVD print is warm, subtle and entirely fitting. The music is by Frank Skinner, often lyrical, and of course Hoagy contributes the occasional (rather 1940s) song. Everyone’s hairstyle is rather 1940s too, especially the women. Never mind.

This is a very classy Western.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A great Western museum

The Smithsonian of the West

Almost exactly a year ago, I was touring the magnificent states of Wyoming and Montana.

My pard-ess and I visited Yellowstone and were duly impressed, then leaving the great park (with regret) we descended the highway called by President Theodore Roosevelt “the most beautiful 50 miles in America”. He was wrong, actually. It was certainly beautiful but we were to see better. The road winds across the Shoshone National Forest down to the town of Cody.

In 1895 a group of entrepreneurs asked the great Col. William F Cody, Buffalo Bill, if he would be the patron of a new town which would be named for him. He took it seriously and helped in the town plan and built a fine hotel there which he named after his daughter, the Irma Hotel. The Irma is now a busy, thriving place, packed with bikers (when I was there) and other guests but retaining its 1890s charm and appearance, with tin ceiling and heavy rosewood fittings.
Cody is a good little town, an honest-to-god Western place, not the twee, chi-chi version of the West offered by Jackson Hole. People really do herd cattle on horseback and look natural in cowboy hats. There is an old town made up of cabins reassembled from parts of the region, including the cabin and saloon frequented by Butch Cassidy and his Hole-in-the-Wall gang (south west Wyoming was their stamping ground). The old town is well-presented, not touristy or falsely done up, just a street of rough wooden buildings with an air of authenticity.
After leaving, I read that the founder, a Mr. Bob Edgar, was a crack shot and had drilled the centre out of an ace of spades held by the guidebook writer. We had met a polite older gentleman there and I wondered, could that have been Bob? I wanted to buy a pack of cards and go back up and ask. How cool would that be, to go home with an ace shot through? Of course he might have missed and shot me through but heck, a Western fan’s gotta do what a Western fan’s gotta do. Anyway we didn’t go back. We went to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

.Called “The Smithsonian of the West” (though the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in LA would have something to say about that), it really is a splendid institution. Modern and visitor-friendly, it has a fine collection on display. It is really 5 museums in one because it has separate wings dedicated to Cody himself, Native Americans, the history of firearms, natural history and, the best in my view, a gallery of Western art of all kinds. All the great Western artists are represented, Frederic Remington of course (there is also his complete studio) but other “lesser lights” like Charles Russell. I chose (I always choose one item from muséums to take away with me come the Revolution) a huge painting by Thomas Moran of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

.In the firearms section there was the Winchester used in Winchester ’73. In that film, you will recall, there is a shooting contest to win the great Winchester 1873 model and James Stewart has to beat his brother in marksmanship. Remarkably, there was a real sharpshooter just off camera who really did plug the coins thrown up by Will Geer as Wyatt Earp (no special effects in those days). The actual gun was there with the signatures of the cast members (“Jimmy Stewart”) carved into the stock. I think I may take that instead of the painting.


.I’d like to live in Cody. Have a ranch. Ride into town.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The 'Red Indians'


We've looked at Western hats and guns and horses and women. What about the eternal foe?
‘Red Indians’, as they were first called, were an essential element of many Westerns, especially early ones. They were part of the danger that pioneers had to overcome and they could be portrayed as sufficiently violent and cruel to make worthy opponents. They had the advantage of being a nameless, faceless enemy that it was quite alright to shoot down in great numbers. They were also shown as stupid people: they spoke American in an “Ug, me big chief” way that could be mocked and they were shown as very poor tacticians and strategists who would ride endlessly round a circle of wagons allowing the pioneers within the circle to take pot shots at them. Indians were just half-naked savages.

In fact, it is sometimes forgotten that many of the very early Westerns went against this trend and showed ‘redskins’ as noble savages. In 1912 Thomas Ince had told the story from the Indians’ side in The Indian Massacre. Often-filmed stories like Ramona, The Half Breed or The Squaw Man were far from anti-Indian. The 1925 silent movie based on Zane Grey's The Vanishing American was a big hit.

Still, for much of the Western movie’s history, Indians were a fearful adversary to be shot down wherever possible and without compunction. Look at Stagecoach as a classic example. Fierce Apaches attack the stage and are shot down in droves by John Wayne with his Winchester.

In 1950 Broken Arrow showed a more sympathetic side of the American Indian and portrayed Cochise as a statesman. Delmer Daves, who directed Broken Arrow, did something very similar (though not nearly as good) soon after with Drum Beat, starring Alan Ladd. Actually filmed before Broken Arrow, though released after, was Devil's Doorway, directed by Anthony Mann, a more radical and uncomprimising picture about anti-Native American racism. 

Tomahawk in 1951 starred a Wise Jim Bridger (Van Heflin) who understood the Sioux and did everything possible to help them in the face of the corrupt and/or dumb white men. Apache did the same in 1954, with Burt Lancaster as star. Suddenly, pro-Indian movies were all the rage. Manifest Destiny still wasn't being denied but it was being questioned.

Vengeance Valley showed the visceral racial hatred of many whites towards the Indians. More modern Westerns such as Flaming Star (1960) also showed this but were notably more ‘pro Indian’. Later in his career John Ford also made an effort to portray Indians more sympathetically, perhaps with an element of mea culpa, in movies such as Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
In the 1970s a new Indian emerged: films like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man (both 1970) attempted to show how appallingly Native Americans had so often been treated. Suddenly the bluecoats were not brave soldiers arriving at the last moment to the sound of bugles to rescue beleaguered wagon trains; they were shown brutally massacring men, women and children in defiance of peace treaties. Indians became the goodies. In Dances With Wolves (1990) all the white men are evil except Costner, and the Sioux are noble and fine.
There were even Westerns that didn’t feature ‘cowboys’ at all, only Indians. See, for example, Indian Paint (1965). The 2007 HBO fictionalized documentary Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was, like the book it was based on, a passionate statement of the appalling exploitation so many Native Americans suffered.
As white men slaughtering Indians indiscriminately became politically incorrect, Indians were replaced as slaughterees by Mexicans. Many later Westerns showed Americans going south of the border and gunning down huge numbers of nameless and faceless Mexicans, usually bandits or soldiers. The Wild Bunch is only the most extreme example. Many other Westerns thought it was quite OK to turn Gatling guns on men in tan uniforms with droopy moustaches or ones with sombreros and ponchos, or lob dynamite at them. The justification was that the soldiers were the troops of corrupt or repressive generals and the bandits were degenerate and anyway unshaven.

It’s not surprising that Mexico got rather tired of this and Yankee film makers did not always find it easy to get permission to, er, shoot south of the border.
It is worth noting some outstanding American Indian actors. One thinks in particular of Chief Dan George in Little Big Man and The Outlaw Josey Wales. In recent times three people have dominated in lead Indian roles and they are all fine actors: Wes Studi, Graham Greene and Eric Schweig. Anything with them in it will be superior.

For many years Indians were played by white actors. Partly because there was no corps of Indian actors waiting in the wings to take such parts (plays and acting were not in the Native American tradition).but more because Hollywood producers preferred bankable 'name' stars, Anglo-Saxon 'Indians' were the norm. In Broken Arrow, for example, Cochise was played (very well, actually) by New Yorker Jeff Chandler and the Indian 'princess' who married the hero was Debra Paget. There was even an insidious kind of racism because the 'good' Indians were played by whites and the 'bad' (more militant) Indians by Native Americans - like Jay Silverheels as Geronimo in Broken Arrow. Australian Michael Pate also made rather a thing of playing Indian chiefs. Lately, however, that has changed and, happily, we are more used to Native American actors playing 'Indian' parts.

Suddenly it became infra-dig to refer to Red Indians at all. 'Native Americans' was the preferred term. I must say, though, that the 'Native Americans' I have met detest the phrase. They prefer 'Indian'. And indeed, the pc appellation is rather silly. As if those of Polish or Italian or Chinese extraction born in the USA somehow aren't native Americans.
Probably the subtlest and most interesting portrayal of an Indian/Native American is the character Nobody, played by Gary Farmer in Jim Jarmusch's unusual  but excellent Western Dead Man (1995). It is so good simply because Nobody is an outcast, just as the whiter hero played by Johnny Depp is. Nobody is a complex character and a fascinating one, but above all he is not simply 'an Indian', standing as a symbol for a whole tribe or race. He is a person. An individual. It's a great performance and a worthy corrective.

We'll see soon how Mr. Depp handles Tonto in the forthcoming Lone Ranger...
Well, I must be off. Hi Yo, Silver.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Last Sunset (Universal, 1961)

Averagely alright

Robert Aldrich only really directed one good Western and The Last Sunset wasn’t it. The likes of Vera Cruz and Apache were pretty average and the bratpack 4 for Texas was dire. Only Ulzana’s Raid was a powerful, tense and authentic Western.

Perhaps it was the writing. Dalton Trumbo had one of the best names in history (Dalton Trumbo) and did the wonderful Lonely Are The Brave (also with Kirk Douglas) but sadly, nothing else of much quality. He tried to go for the psychological Western but it didn’t come off. The Last Sunset is a romantic drama with a love triangle (Rock Hudson and Douglas are both after Dorothy Malone) rather more than an action Western. A daring hint of incest was written in. The coming showdown between the men is quite tense, as it builds, but before the end we know pretty much what the outcome is going to be and that rather takes the sting out of it. It’s not much of a plot really.

Douglas is OK, in his skin-tight black outfit, and Hudson is satisfactory (he could be surprisingly good in Westerns but is no more than average in this one) in his silly hat. Malone is blonde and curvesome (although hardly passionate) and Carol Lynley does a good job as her adolescent daughter. Joseph Cotten, a ham actor at the best of times, is the drunken and bitter Confederate husband, but he is soon written out and was wasted in the part. He was never any good in Westerns so isn't missed.

I have certainly seen worse cattle-drive movies (The Tall Men, for one, see post of 19 July) but I’ve also seen better. This is nowhere near in the Red River class, for example, or even Cattle Empire or Vengeance Valley.

Kirk’s derringer is rather good, and his justification for it. Derringers usually have a bad rep as gamblers’ sneaky hideout pieces or ladies’ puny purse guns but Douglas succeeds in making his menacing. Not that he would have been able to hit anything with it except maybe at the card table.

The main fault with this movie is that it is too talky.

There is nice Ernest Laszlo photography of the Aguascalientes locations and very little studio work, so the movie gets marks for that.

Neville Brand and Jack Elam make excellent badman brothers, though have too little to do or say, and their sidekick The Julesburg Kid (James Westmoreland) isn’t bad either. I liked the two Mexican musicians, sadly uncredited.

It’s not exactly a dull Western (probably such a thing is not possible) but it sure ain’t one of the rip-roaringest either.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Distant Trumpet (Warner Brothers, 1964)

Raoul Walsh's final trumpet



Raoul Walsh was 77 when he directed his last movie, A Distant Trumpet. It was fitting that the director of the rip-roaring They Died With Their Boots On should end with a cavalry Western. Sadly, though, it was a pale imitation.

Warners threw a big budget at it. It was nearly two hours long. It had a huge cast. William Clothier photographed it on location in Technicolor Panavision. It aimed to be a major Fordian classic.

The trouble was the much tinkered-with screenplay, which in the end bore almost no resemblance to the original Paul Horgan novel and contained every cliché under the Arizona sun. And it was not helped by the casting of B-movie and TV stars such as Troy Donahue, unconvincing as a tough lieutenant (a Mexican washerwoman has to say “Que hombre macho!” as he passes so that we know) and sub-Elizabeth Taylor starlet Suzanne Pleshette as the married lady he falls for. They are both weak.

Another fault is the brassy one-theme score by Max Steiner which after two hours’ repetition becomes plain irritating.

Visually, it’s a feast because Clothier was a fine craftsman and the Painted Desert and Red Rock State Park locations are wonderful. Happily, studio sets are kept to a minimum (though the hero Matt Hazard – who thinks up these names? – does find a convenient cave in a studio in which, daringly, to spend the night with Kitty).

James Gregory is the pompous, Latin tag-quoting ass General Quaint who patronizes everyone and lords it over the West and President Arthur. If he was supposed to be an unsympathetic oaf, he acts very well. Claude Akins is about the best of the cast (as he often was) as the odious Indian agent Seely Jones.

The Indians are caricatures and wear their war bonnets and paint all the time, even for lunch in their mountain retreat. The authenticity is down to “Military Consultant and Advisor Capt. J.S. Peters, USA, Retired”. He must have been very retired.

Kitty Mainwaring (la Pleshette) wears period costume. It looks late 50s. The trouble is, it’s the 1950s. And her make-up and hair are distinctly early 60s.

The language is anachronistic (“Every man will wash their barrack”).

The ‘prairie sweepstake’ is quite fun (though stolen from Destry) and there’s one good line. When Kitty and a furious Matt are watching the soldiers debauch themselves with painted harlots, whisky and dancing, she asks him if he is “burning while Rome fiddles”.

I keep imagining this film with John Wayne and Henry Fonda in front of the lens and John Ford behind it. It could have been fine. As it is, it’s worth a look but is very much second-league stuff.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Joe Kidd (Universal, 1972)


Bruce Surtees, Elmore Leonard, John Sturges - it's a great combination


Early 1900s, somewhere down on the Mexican border (“Sinola County”). Clint Eastwood as Joe Kidd is just emerging from spaghetti gruntings into real characters although Sturges has obviously been watching a few spaghettis because we have jangly Lalo Schifrin music and a band of spaghetti-esque killers (they are quite good, in fact).

The qualities of this film come from four things: the acting, especially Eastwood and Robert Duvall but also some of the minor parts; the directing (Sturges was a good, solid journeyman Western director, just occasionally going beyond that into the very good); and the wonderful scenery, filmed in Panavision in the Inyo National Forest along the California/Nevada border by Bruce Surtees, surely one of the greatest ever Western cinematic photographers.

That's three, you say. But of course the principal ingredient is the fact that it was written by Elmore Leonard and I don’t know of a bad Western by him. The story, characters and plot are gripping, authentic and, well, just right.

Only John Saxon as the “charismatic” revolutionary Luis Chama isn’t too convincing and he doesn’t endear himself to us with his comment to his woman, “I don't keep you to think. I keep you for cold nights and days when there's nothing to do”. The others do an excellent job. I like Saxon in Westerns normally but this isn't one of his best.

The killers are brutal and very expert with their ultra-modern weapons. Their boss, Duvall, is the most ruthless of all. He finally gets his day in court.

There’s an important question of land rights underpinning the tale.

An excellent movie, produced by Eastwood’s company Malpaso, not quite in the Josey Wales or Pale Rider class, and certainly nowhere near Unforgiven in quality (after all, Clint didn’t direct this one) but nevertheless by no means one of his worst and visually a treat.
It's must-see, pards.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Cowboys (Warner Bros, 1972)


Action, authentic cattle & roping scenes, fun, gunplay, some good lines


I like this film. It was criticized by the liberal establishment at the time because it had John Wayne in it and portrayed innocent young boys being turned into hardened killers, and I suppose the liberal establishment had a point. But you can’t help cheering the kids on when they get revenge for the baddies’ perfectly beastly behaviour. And my excuse for liking the movie is that it was the 1870s and things were different then.

John Wayne plays a grizzled sixty-year-old cattleman with a beer gut and toupee (he was actually 65) whose cow hands desert him to look for gold. Saloon-owner Slim Pickens suggests he draft the male contingent of the schoolroom and it’s the story of how these young boys try to prove their manliness to Wayne and grow up in the process. Some people said it was a Vietnam allegory but it wasn’t.

There’s nice Colorado/New Mexico scenery, lovely Bruce Surtees photography and a stirring sub-Bernstein score by John Williams. Wayne (who had to ask for the part, which was originally slated for George C Scott) puts in his best performance between True Grit and The Shootist. The other roles are good too: Pickens is sadly too soon written out but Roscoe Lee Browne is strong as the black cook with the right stuff (even if he does have a rather plummy accent), the children are excellent (not at all mawkish or slushy as so often in such films, and you have to admire their haircuts) and Bruce Dern is splendidly foul as the baddy, one of his very best roles. He'd learned how to scare the daylights out of poor little kids in Will Penny, four years before.  Boy, is he mean.

There’s a rather pointless short bit with Colleen Dewhurst as a madam that should have been edited out.

Clay O’Brien, 10, the littlest cowboy, went on to be excellent in Cahill, U.S. Marshal when he was a grown man of 11. He now stands six feet tall, is a rodeo star and has won seven World Titles in Team-Roping. Who would have thought it. Well, actually, you might. Those two films must have stood him in good stead.

The screenplay was written by William Dale Jennings (among others) from his own novel. The direction, by Mark Rydell, who had served his apprenticeship on Gunsmoke but whose only feature-length Western this was, is tight and professional.

The most stunning thing to viewers of this film at the time was that the Duke was killed. He had never died on screen before (except in The Alamo, where he had to) and the brutal shooting, by no means in the last reel (so I’m not giving away the ending), came as a real shock.

This is a good, well-acted Western which will stir you. It has action, authentic cattle and roping scenes, fun, gunplay and some good lines. Definitely one of the better products of the early 70s. Liberals notwithstanding.


Monday, July 19, 2010

The Tall Men (Fox, 1955)

The Quite Short Men.

Clark Gable was never good in Westerns. His whole persona was wrong. That brilliantined hair and caddish mustache would have made him a good Zorro, maybe, and he was at home in a frock coat on a riverboat or in a southern mansion, but as a Western hero he simply wasn’t convincing.

And sorry, but Jane Russell was a joke. Quite amusing in Son of Paleface as a sub-Johnny Guitar heroine in pants, she was just a sex symbol in the sleazy The Outlaw and as for Gable being unconvincing, she had no shred of the Western about her at all. I'm sure she was a nice person and all.

The Tall Men is a romance-drama which happens to be set in the West. It was a commercial Twentieth Century Fox 50s vehicle for these stars and nothing else.

It has other basic weaknesses: the plot is too thin to sustain such a long story, the dialogue at best indifferent, and the whole farrago is corny and trashy. The pace is painfully slow and at times you just long for it to be over.

The Victor Young music (much trumpeted in the posters) is in fact vin ordinaire and the Leo Tover photography not too bad when we are outside in ‘Montana’ (it was actually shot around Durango), but there are far too many static studio scenes (the whole first part of the film) for a tale that depends on the great outdoors and braving the elements. And much too much talking.

The movie was produced by Howard Hawks’s brother William, and maybe he was hoping either for Outlaw-type sex appeal or Red River-type grandeur and passion. He got neither. As for the sex, the unmarried Gable and Russell characters may have stayed alone daringly long (for the prudish 1950s) in a snow-bound cabin but they did nothing there but talk – for what seems like hours – in an interminable part of the film until, thank goodness, the US Cavalry arrives to put a merciful end to the dialogue. They are in this cabin talking for 17 minutes of screentime but it seems like an hour.

Surprisingly, it was directed by Raoul Walsh. You’d expect therefore dashing action and a cracking pace. Instead we get a tired, overlong film that has little charm and no Western flair. What was Walsh thinking? True, he was in his twilight years but how could the director of the rip-roaring They Died With Their Boots On have signed off this turgid tale?

And the tall men? Gable had to stand on a box in certain scenes.

La Russell has a trite song to sing about how tall men are preferable to short ones but she does it endlessly, until you are irritated by it, to say the least.

Cameron Mitchell plays Gable's younger brother (they are ex-Quantrill guerrillas, as if that were a recommendation) and Mitchell was always good, so that was something anyway. He comes to a St. Sebastianish end. Emile Meyer was in it too, though he makes one brief speaking appearance and is then written out; I don't know why they bothered. Will Wright is the (rather surly) bartender, which is nice.

Fox certainly threw budget at it. It's a big cast and in bright Color De Luxe. Such location shooting as we get is rather fine. At one point they lower a wagon down some bluffs as if it were a Oregon Trail epic. Heaven knows why because the cattle just streamed through a gap in the cliffs beside the wagon.

No, sorry, this is no good. Even the fact that Robert Ryan is in it couldn’t save it (though he was 6 foot 4; they should have called it The Tall Man). He looks bemused throughout and never gets a chance to shine. One of the best ever Western actors was confined to a minor badman role in expensive clothes with lousy script. No, it really won’t do.



Monday, July 12, 2010

Forty Guns (Fox, 1957)

After all, she was only a woman


Forty Guns is a rather trashy 1950s black and white, directed by Samuel Fuller. Fuller is admired by many Western fans, especially in Europe. I’ve never understood why. This movie is poorly written and directed.

Some say it was a prototype of the spaghetti Western. Not easy to see that but there certainly are some shared pulp qualities. It stars Barry Sullivan and Gene Barry as US marshal brothers in “Tombstone”. These two Barries wear frock coats and have a rep with a gun. They have a younger brother, Robert Dix, who longs to kill people too and finally gets his way by shooting a baddy in the back of the head, getting a frock coat and becoming town marshal.

Barbara Stanwyck is frankly ridiculous as the leader of a forty-gun band of desperadoes, although it is said that she allowed herself to be dragged down the street by a horse when her stuntperson refused to do it because it was too dangerous. Sounds a bit like a studio story to me. The Barries try but can’t do much with a wooden script and corny plot. John Ericson is Stanwyck’s loutish kid brother who keeps killing people in town. Hank Worden is about the best in a too-short part as ‘Marshal John Chisum’ (what?).

There are a few cheap double-entendres, salacious for the 50s. This kind of thing: Stanwyck, talking of Barry’s gun: “I'm not interested in you, Mr. Bonnell. It's your trademark. May I feel it?” Barry: “Uh-uh. It might go off in your face”. Stanwyck: “I'll take a chance”. You get the idea.
The songs are utterly dire and the main one sounds like variations on a theme of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain’. It finishes with the memorable words, “After all, she was only a woman.”

The Joe Biroc photography, much of it rather dark, is good but the score (Harry Sukman) sucks.

The movie was not only directed but also produced and written by Fuller so there’s no one else to blame. He had a rather tabloid style suited to tough-guy war films or pulp underworld dramas but not right for Westerns. Forty Guns and his 1949 I Shot Jesse James are pretty lurid.

There are only two good bits in this film: the opening shot, where the forty thieves thunder past the lawman brothers’ wagon on their black horses, and the part towards the end where one of the Barries (I forget which; they’re interchangeable) shoots Barbara Stanwyck. Unfortunately she survives and chases his wagon as he is leaving town for California and, doubtless to Barry’s later undying regret, catches him up. OK, so I’ve spoiled the ending for you. But you won’t want to see the film anyway as (debit where debit’s due) it’s rubbish.

French auteuristes, of course, love it. To give you a flavor, look at the drivel on the review below. You probably can't read it but it says: "In this Western, which reminds us of Corneille and Shakespeare, Barbara Stanwyck incarnates a Citizen Kane of the prairie. Love is confronted by violence in a singular combat and in an aesthetic of fist-fighting particularly dear to the director Samuel Fuller. With, first and foremost, plastic virtuosity." I ask you. What total tosh. Do you think someone actually got paid for writing that?

NB I watched this again more recently and have written a revised post on this movie, Forty Guns Redux, which you can read by clicking the link.



Sunday, July 11, 2010

The settings

The scenery is a vital part of a Western. Much of the mystique of the genre depends on the great outdoors. Westerns are stories of the frontier, in that narrow band of time when settlers and miners and railway builders were moving West to extract, fight, conquer, settle, build.

Westerns that take place entirely or largely on studio sound-stage interiors are often doomed. Not always: sometimes the small intensity of the interior suits the theme. The Ox-Bow Incident and The Gunfighter are good examples of this. The black & white and the closed-in intensity add power. High Noon too.

But more usually, sweeping vistas are needed and dramatic scenery, be it desert or mountain.

John Ford knew this, which is why he filmed so often in Monument Valley, in the Utah end. Even in the days when location shooting in distant places was logistically so difficult (and correspondingly expensive), Ford knew the value and power Monument Valley would bring to his films. There was no electricity there and precious little water. It didn’t matter. Everything would be shipped in by truck: tents, food, water, generators, camera equipment, everything. The almost lunar landscape with its arid beauty served as a stupendous backdrop to the action. It didn’t matter where the story was nominally set, Monument Valley was the archetypal Western location. Tombstone (in southern Arizona near the Mexican border) was there in My Darling Clementine.

Many other film directors followed. Monument Valley became an emblem. It still is. If you see photographs of the Mittens, the Three Sisters or other buttes, you immediately think ‘Western’.

One of the great ambitions of Sergio Leone, who so adored 1940s and 50s Westerns, was to film in Monument Valley. He finally did so, when spaghetti came to Hollywood in Once Upon A Time In The West. Much of that movie was filmed in Spain but the key parts are in Monument Valley. To the point where at a grave scene filmed in the olive-gray Almeria, orange Monument Valley dust is thrown onto the coffin.

The very early Westerns were filmed in the East. New Jersey was the movie capital of the world. (Really). But it didn’t take long for California to take over. It was cheaper, the weather suited open air filming and there were more power-line-free spaces. ‘Colonel’ William Selig was the first to establish his studios there and early Tom Mix oaters were filmed there. Soon they were all doing it.

And to this day many Westerns set in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico or wherever are in reality California, on the Warners Ranch maybe, or somewhere up behind the back lot. Once Hollywood started to be built up, wild locations were harder to find and national parks were an obvious location, if permission could be got. Very many Westerns were shot in the Inyo National Forest, up at Lone Pine and the Joshua Tree on the edges of the Sierra Nevada, and very beautiful some of them are.

The best of all Westerns, visually speaking, were shot on location. There are ‘hot’ Westerns and ‘cold’ Westerns. Hot ones are shot in New Mexico or Arizona, especially around the convenient Wild West town of Old Tucson and in the adjacent Saguaro National Park. There you get lots of that tall cactus with arms, saguaro, as emblematic of the Western in its way as the buttes of Monument Valley. As even this area became built up, Mexico was a favored location, especially around Durango. Sometimes there were political problems: the Mexican government, not always on the best of terms with Washington, sometimes didn’t care for the representation of Mexicans in Yanqui films. Vera Cruz almost caused a diplomatic incident in 1954. Mexican audiences threw theater seat cushions at the screens. Sometimes there were problems of water and food for the cast and crew. But the settings did very well for the Wild West.

‘Cold’ Westerns were at first set in Oregon and Washington State or up in the Rockies. Pale Rider, visually superb, was filmed in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho. It’s magnificent. As time passed and it became harder and harder to find a location free from jetstream contrails and power lines, crews moved into Canada. Alberta, around Calgary, was and still is a favorite. It is ironic perhaps that films about the American West had to be set in other countries, but that was the reality.

Sometimes whole ‘old’ towns were built from scratch in Alberta, as for McCabe & Mrs. Miller. (It was built largely by young American Vietnam draft dodgers taking refuge in Canada).

Many early silent Westerns were shot down around Cañon City, Colorado, Prescott, AZ, and also Las Vegas, NM. Lately there has been something of a renaissance in New Mexico locations for Westerns. A good thing too.
Production directors and set designers are an often overlooked but in fact vital part of a film-making team. William S Hart’s obsession with authenticity, which was abandoned in the 20s and 30s, and also through much of the 40s and 50s as well, has come back to haunt us. Now enormous pains are taken with sets, costumes and props to make the Western look right. Vast sums are spent on this and the crew responsible are beginning to be interviewed on DVD ‘making of’ special features and get the credit they deserve.

But wherever they are filmed, Westerns depend again and again on their locations, and how much the cinematographers make of those locations. That is why an artist like Bruce Surtees is right at the top of the list of photographers. He excelled at landscapes.