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

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mackenna's Gold (Columbia, 1969)



Verging on the turkey... .

I was tempted to call this one a turkey. It reminds me a lot of the meleagrian How The West Was Won with its bloated budget, its length (though cut from 3 hours, mercifully), its cast list led by Gregory Peck and a raft running the rapids. Columbia certainly put everything into it. .

 They chose a successful Brit director of big ‘exciting’ pictures (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear) to helm it, who, however, had no Western track record. They assembled a stellar cast: Peck, Omar Sharif as the Mexican bandit Colorado (well, he was foreign, wasn’t he?) to lead, and then in support Raymond Massey doing his overacting crazed preacher act, Edward G Robinson in blind man’s glasses, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Lee J Cobb (as “Samuel Fuller” - references, all these references), Anthony Quayle, all sitting round a camp fire waiting to get massacred. These famous support actors get one line bit-parts and thirty seconds’ screen time each.

The blonde love interest was provided by Swede Camilla Sparv, pretty much unknown and later to end up doing appearances in the Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, that kind of thing. Not exactly stellar, she, and Peck (running to flab) could have been her father, if not quite grandfather. Still, she was decorative. . ...
The Arizona and Utah locations are certainly spectacular and Joseph MacDonald photographed them in Panavision, so it’s quite something on the big screen, although there are a lot of trendy odd visual tricks (helicopter shots supposed to be a buzzard’s-eye-view, or the camera on Peck’s back as he is dragged along behind a horse, for example) and for such a lavish picture there’s a surprising number of people bobbing up and down on fake horses and studio shots. There’s also too much silly speeded-up film. It's very old-fashioned in this regard. ...

In the blessed days before special FX, the canyon was actually blown up for the earthquake scene. The pool where they dally and, of course, skinny-dip (funny how there’s always such a convenient pool in the desert in these movies) had to be man-made and the water trucked in. . ...

In some ways it’s a Western (man against nature, stunning shots of the West, guns, bandits and Apaches) but in fact it could have been set anywhere (Africa, for example) and it’s really just an adventure story of maps leading to secret treasure in a hidden valley of gold. Still, it was written by Carl Foreman of High Noon fame. .

Brian Garfield called it “a gargantuan dud of absolutely stunning dreadfulness”. So I don’t think he liked it. The New York Times reviewer was also stunned and in fact said it was “a Western of truly stunning absurdity”. Personally, I don’t reckon it’s that bad. A Foreman script, Peck as lead, Joe MacDonald behind the lens and Quincy Jones doing the music – they couldn’t make a total turkey. Could they?

Oh, alright then, they could. And I do admit, it isn’t very good. Sharif is just hopeless. Sparv couldn’t act. Telly Savalas as a crooked cavalry sergeant plays it like some B war film. It has OTT sound (Derek Frye) with mega stereophonic dubbed-on effects, probably influenced by spaghetti westerns (take earplugs if you see it in a big movie theater). In fact, it’s a clunker. . . ...

See it once (well, you gotta, it’s got Peck in it) but put that DVD back in the rack is my advice. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Shoot Out (Universal, 1971)


A very rare thing - a mediocre Gregory Peck

After the considerable and deserved success of True Grit (Paramount, 1969), Universal must have wanted to replicate that box-office potential Paramount had found. They got Henry Hathaway to direct Shoot Out. An older gunman played by a famous Western star finds himself teamed up with a young girl and they ride together through spectacular Inyo National Forest locations. Marguerite Roberts adapted a Western novel into a screenplay. Paul Nathan and Hal B Wallis produce. Sound familiar?

However, Shoot Out was very far from True Grit – not even in the same league as far as quality is concerned. It was one of Peck’s worst performances and he seems tired, unconvinced and therefore unconvincing.

Jeff Corey is quite fun as a saloon keeper in a Victorian wheelchair but he soon gets shot. The three violent yahoos, led by Robert F Lyons, who pursue the hero and the little girl, are frankly weak – it needed Bruce Dern to lead them. The three are accompanied for no apparent reason by a saloon whore (Rita Gam). Dawn Lyn, 7, is good as the child. Paul Fix and Arthur Hunnicutt are in it and that raises your hopes at the opening credits but they have micro-parts: blink and you’ll miss them. What a waste.

The plot is a revenge one: Peck has been released from jail and goes after the accomplice who double-crossed him, shot him in the back and took all the bank loot. But oddly, this villain, Sam Foley (James Gregory) only appears briefly at the start and the end of the film, and even more briefly in a flash-back in the middle. The real enemy is the lout Foley sends to shadow the hero and the (uneven) contest is between them.

There’s a very Will Penny-like scene where Peck takes refuge with a single mother (Patricia Quinn) and son (Nicolas Beauvy, one of the kids from The Cowboys), and Peck duly has an affair with the mother and bonds with the boy, and then the house is invaded by the sadistic hooligans. Sounds familiar again, huh? Once again, though, this film does not have the quality of Will Penny.

There’s a William Tell bit running through the plot.

The Earl Rath photography is lovely and the Dave Grusin music more than satisfactory but the story is a bit of a dud and the direction at best bread-and-butter. The film is second-rate – a rarity indeed for a Western starring Gregory Peck.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Gregory Peck


A fine Western actor

Gregory Peck (April 5, 1916 – June 12, 2003) came from a Roman Catholic San Diego family of British/Irish ancestry and was educated at a Catholic military academy and San Diego High School, then majored in English at Berkeley, where he started acting. He took acting lessons in New York and appeared on Broadway.

His first film, Days of Glory, appeared in 1944. He was nominated for five Academy awards for Best Actor (he won once, for his role as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird), four of which came in his first five years of acting.

He made 11 Westerns. His height (he was 6' 3") and athleticism and quiet, stoical style suited Western roles very well and he was a fine actor capable of transmitting subtle nuances (only occasionally required in the genre…) He was not always lucky with his directors and scripts but even in the weaker vehicles he added class and in the better ones he was magnificent. The Gunfighter must rank as one of the best ever examples of the genre.

The 11 Westerns were:

1. Billy Two Hats (1974)

2. Shoot Out (1971)

3. Mackenna's Gold (1969)

4. The Stalking Moon (1968)

5. How The West Was Won (1962)

6. The Big Country (1958)

7. The Bravados (1958)

8. Only the Valiant aka Fort Invincible (1951)

9. The Gunfighter (1950)

10. Yellow Sky (1948)

11. Duel in the Sun (1946)

The best of them were certainly The Gunfighter and The Bravados.

Yellow SkyThe Stalking Moon and Billy Two Hats, were of high quality.

The Big Country and Duel in the Sun were epic sagas. 

Only the Valiant was a B Western, really, but had its points.

Shoot Out was a rarity for Peck, a mediocre picture.

Mackenna’s Gold was a big pot-boiler and How The West Was Won was a giant turkey but in general Peck ranks with Cooper and Fonda at the very top of the acting profession as far as Westerns are concerned.


Friday, March 25, 2011

The War Wagon (Universal, 1967)


Commercial Batjac


Back to John Wayne for a moment because when we were looking at those 60s Batjac productions we didn't watch The War Wagon.

The War Wagon was another 60s Western in which John Wayne, in exactly the same costume as about a million other Westerns, toughly righted wrongs, did away with the bad guys and got his ranch back at the end. Curiously, though, in this one he didn’t get the girl (Valore Noland). Robert Walker Jr did. Maybe Universal thought that at 60, Wayne was a bit past getting the girl.

The movie has high production values: Clothier photography of Durango, Mexico locations (supposed to be New Mexico but we’re not proud), Tiomkin music (pleasant, though with a quite ghastly title song), Clair Huffaker screenplay from his own novel, and direction by Burt Kennedy. So it should have been quite good. And it is. Quite good. But no more than that.

The story centers around bad guy Pierce (Wayne pal Bruce Cabot) who has “acquired” Wayne’s ranch and the gold that was on it. Wayne decides to hold up the armored stage with Gatling turret (the 2007 3:10 to Yuma copied it) which Pierce uses, in order to get the gold back. He is helped by a gang of Kiowa Indians led by Marco Antonio (these provide useful cannon fodder for the Gatling), the crooked freighter Keenan Wynn, a big Indian (Howard Keel), a former cellmate good at explosives, Robert Walker Jr., and, yes, safe-cracker extraordinaire and gun-for-hire Kirk Douglas.

Pierce, on his side, has loads of henchpersons including Bruce Dern, sadly written out almost immediately when Wayne & Douglas gun him down, trooper Gene Evans as the corrupt Deputy, and others. Emilio Fernandez has a micro-part as a Mexican bandido leader who, when thwarted, throws down his huge sombrero and says Grrr in time-approved fashion.

The film is really a Western caper movie.

There’s a semi-comic saloon fight like 1 million others. Wayne said it was his 500th. He counted?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Last Hunt (MGM, 1956)


Posh Brit rides the range

Brit Stewart Granger (born in posh Kensington, London in 1913; died in rich Santa Monica in 1993) had a good line in adventure films and Scaramouche-type sword and cloak dramas. But he was also surprisingly good in Westerns.

One of his better efforts was co-starring with Robert Taylor (another matinée idol surprisingly convincing in Western roles) in The Last Hunt.

In reality, though, the tragic hero of this movie is neither Taylor nor Granger but the buffalo. To see these great shaggy, passive beasts, majestic on the big screen, dropped by rifleshot again and again until not a single one is left is heart-rending. There is a didactic strain to the movie, which sets out to show us how buffalo were hunted, and an ecological message quite advanced for its time - the mid 50s. All this and the fine Dakotas setting gives an almost National Geographic tinge to the film. But underneath that it’s still a good, gritty Western.

Robert Taylor was tough and hard. Stewart Granger could also handle being a hard-boiled Westerner. These two are complemented by a young ‘Indian’ kid, Russ Tamblyn, well known from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the year before, with bright red hair, who although not so Indian does a good job really. Better than the ghastly Seven Brides anyway, though that wouldn't be hard. There's also a cynical old one-legged skinner, Lloyd Nolan, boozily excellent.

Debra Paget is thrown in for the love interest and to give Taylor and Granger something to fight over. She does her Broken Arrow act (and come to think of it, the Granger role would have suited James Stewart “just fine”).

All in all, the acting is pretty good. Taylor's character is a good case-study for psychology 101 students working this week on paranoia and also displays symptoms useful for next week’s course on schizoid psychosis. Boy, he is mean. Granger's is sensitive, world-weary, conscience-stricken. The two pair off well and we know the final showdown is coming. It builds up all through the film.

The outcome is a cop-out on first impression but then we realize the rightness of it.

Granger did a couple of other Westerns - Gun Glory and North to Alaska with Wayne - which we'll look at one day, and was also Old Surehand in cinematic versions of three Karl May Eurowestern tales.

Taylor was of course Billy Bonney in the 1941 Billy the Kid and was pretty good as the killer in Saddle The Wind.

The Last Hunt contains some silly hokum about the bad karma that killing a white buffalo will bring but you can get past that OK. This film has a worthy message, teaching us the evils of blood-lust, indiscriminate hunting, Indian-hating and lack of respect for the environment.

It was directed and written by Richard Brooks, classy director of The Brothers Karamazov, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Lord Jim and so on, later to do The Professionals). Brooks used the long, rambling novel by Milton Lott but reduced it to the bare bones for this movie (and by the way, bare bones figure largely and prevent us forgetting the message).

Like all sermons, it does go on a bit but luckily the looming conflict between the two principals keeps us awake and it’s enough of a classic Western for us not to be overwhelmed by the earnestness.

There is some nice photography by Russell Harlan (although quite a lot of sound-stage shooting in the studio too) and I liked the dark music by Daniele Amfitheatrof (great name).

Definitely worth its three revolvers and maybe a DVD purchase too, but if you can’t see it on the big screen (admittedly unlikely these days) do at least buy one of those big TVs.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Catlow (MGM, 1971)

Shepherd's pie

Back to the British Western for a while:

In the tradition of the ‘shepherd’s pie’ Western (what I call British cowboy films; European westerns have to be named after a national dish) comes Catlow. British producer Euan Lloyd, who filmed various versions of Louis L’Amour Western tales, including Shalako, and Chicagoan (but British resident) director Sam Wanamaker put this spaghetti variant together.

Filmed in Spain - and the grayness of those Almeria locations is exaggerated by a very pale washed-out print - and with much spaghetti-esque dubbed-on horse clip-clops, the film is really little more than an early 70s late Italian western which just happens to be British.

It opens with much dust and many (expensively imported?) long-horned cattle, to the tunes of sub-Magnificent Seven music (by Brit Roy Budd). Richard Crenna (solid) is a tough but sympathetic US Marshal on the trail of rustler Catlow (a surprisingly bad Yul Brynner in 70s flared jeans and a stupid straw cowgirl hat).

However, on the trail of both is the sinister, evil Miller (Frank’s brother?) played by a quite splendid Leonard Nimoy. Of course you can’t help checking out his ears but once you get past that you realize what a great baddy he made. He carries a Steve McQueen-like cut-down Winchester in a holster on his flank. He also has a rifle with telescopic sights. And a beard. Tragic, therefore, that he has hardly anything to say or do apart from shadow the protagonists and his character cannot develop at all – but that’s the spaghetti genre for you.

The bath scene looks like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. ‘Abilene’ and ‘Nogales’ look very Spanish. Crenna looks like my Uncle Denis. In fact everything looks like something else. Again, that’s spaghetti for you.

There’s a typical early-70s slo-mo lerve scene with slushy music (yawn). There’s some tosh about Confederate gold (yawn). I can’t place the voice of the person who dubs the Mexican general but he did countless characters in spaghetti westerns.

The main trouble, though, with this film is that it can’t make up its mind whether to be a burlesque, a parody or a straight Western. The novel, ‘Catlow’, needless to say, was done straight and is all the better for that. The ‘comic' disposing of the soldiers guarding the mule train, for example, is woeful. Brynner tries hard to be charming and amusing but fails. Crenna goes for a straighter style but that doesn’t really come off either, with the lines he has to say. It’s really the fault of the director and writers (Scott Finch and JJ Griffith, the only film of the latter). Catlow just staggers to a two-revolver rating rather than the usual spaghetti one. It’s not complete junk. There is Mr. Spock with a Winchester, after all.

But it is, frankly, eminently unbuyable as a DVD.


Monday, March 14, 2011

How The West Was Won (MGM, 1962)


Total turkey

You can just imagine the moguls at MGM in 1961. The conversation went like this:

   "We’ll put together the biggest Western ever. Money no object."
   "John Ford, he’ll direct."
   "Why stop at Ford? Hathaway too."
   "And let’s throw George Marshall in. He was great on Destry."

Hathaway, Ford, Marshall

   "Now, stars. We’ll need them all. All! Peck, Stewart, Fonda, Wayne, Widmark, get ‘em on the phone right away."
   "Lee J Cobb. Malden. Robert Preston. Oh, and we better throw in a young handsome one. What about this young fellow Peppard?"

Stewart miscast. Like all of them.

   "Female lead?"
   "Debbie Reynolds. She’s still in her 20s. Just. And she did all those songs in Singin’ in the Rain. We’ll need songs."
   "Now, cinematographers: Charles Lang? Bill Daniels? Milton Krasner, maybe. How about Joseph LaShelle? Can’t decide? Have ‘em all."
   "Cinerama and Metrocolor, of course."

   "Music? Alfred Newman better do the score. Based on a cheery theme and something folksy like ‘Greensleeves’."
   "That corny?"
   "Sure, the public love corn."

   "Now, we need a story."
   "Well, we’ll start with a mountain man, obviously. Stewart’ll do for that."
   "Then a wagon train. That’s where charming gambler Peck can meet Reynolds. She’s maybe inherited a gold mine."
   "We’ll need some Civil War scenes. Ford, of course. Wayne as Sherman, that wouldn't be ridiculous, would it? He did it on TV in Wagon Train. Shock and awe in those scenes. Lots of cannons. 12,000 extras."
   "Then railroads. We'll need railroads. Widmark as ruthless rail boss."
       "Yes. Of course, we’ll have to have some outlaws and tough marshals to clean up the town. Eli could do the badman gunslinger."
   "It’s all coming together. Let’s have another martini."
   "Hey, I’ve got another great idea. We’ll get Spencer Tracy to do a voiceover narration. History of the West."

Then the reality.

Debbie Reynolds was hopeless. Couldn’t even sing. The songs were lousy anyway and there were too many.

Hardly anyone saw the movie in Cinerama and MGM couldn’t be bothered to film it simultaneously in normal format so we all have to watch it now in three sections with horses crossing the screen in a V-shape. Hathaway is said to have remarked, "That damned Cinerama. Do you know a waist-shot is as close as you can get with that thing?" In letterbox format, which is how 99% of people saw it, faces are indistinguishable in long shot. And the three cameras used shot actors separately so that when the montage was made they appeared to have no eye-contact with each other - because they had none. The movie was, thank goodness, one of only two made using the process.

Even Fonda no good

The James R Webb/John Gay script was a total clunker, full of corny clichés and lines like cement. Unbelievably, the picture won an Oscar for the screenplay. The action scenes, such as the Malden family on the raft, are all false. Where stuntpersons are used, they are too obviously men in dresses in the rapids. The movie is way too long (162 minutes, would you believe).

Harry Morgan was Grant! You can’t stop laughing throughout the scene. Chicago-born Malden was always completely hopeless in Westerns. Peck is miscast as a cad. In fact they are all miscast. Stewart, ridiculous as a mountain man, looks like his fiancée’s grandfather. Even Fonda can’t bring authority to the acting. He's a buffalo hunter.

It just goes to show: huge budget, top direction, mega stars, expensive locations, famous photography and what do you get? A lousy Western. This movie was one giant gimmick and artistically it was a total turkey. Anyway, Westerns shouldn’t be didactic.

I really don’t like this film. (You may have gathered).
Some people do, though. It was a massive commercial success. Produced on a then huge budget of $15 million, it grossed $46.5m at the North American box office, making it the second highest-grossing film of 1963, and it made $50 million worldwide. It won three Oscars. The score was listed at #25 on AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores. The picture gained a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In 1997, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The movie spawned an ABC TV series of the same name. Quite extraordinary. All for a bloated badly-written 'epic' of no discernible merit.

Henry Hathaway directed most of it, with George Marshall doing the railroad sequences and Ford the Civil War. I hope they were properly ashamed.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Two Rode Together (Columbia, 1961)


He only made it for the money (he said)

As we have already reviewed Paramount's 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we have now two final works of John Ford's Western oeuvre to look at. There's Cheyenne Autumn but today it's Two Rode Together.

James Stewart is a corrupt and cynical but sympathetic Tascosa, Texas marshal in this, probably the least of John Ford’s Westerns. Of course, the least of Ford’s Westerns is still good.

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

The Two of the title are Stewart and an amiable, rather straight army officer, Richard Widmark (rather old for a young lieutenant) as they are obliged to ride together to rescue the captives from Quanah Parker (Henry Brandon, who was Scar in The Searchers). John McIntire is excellent as the tough cavalry major who sends them. Shirley Jones is weak as the settler girl for Widmark to woo and win, while Stewart finally falls for Señorita Linda Cristal, one of the rescuees, who is better. She is the woman of Stone Calf (an angry and muscular Woody Strode, who as a black man did a good line in Indians).

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

The usual rather unfortunate Ford slapstick is provided by her sons, the two hillbillyish brothers Ken Curtis and Harry Carey Jr., Ford stalwarts, of course. The dances, so crucial to Ford’s films as representations of the community spirit, are pale imitations, for there is no community to portray.

Stewart is outstanding and seems almost to ad lib, so natural is much of his delivery. The scene where he and Widmark sit on a log by the river bank (the camera was out in the stream) was a one-take semi-scripted masterpiece. Stewart himself was said to be disappointed that the more corrupt side of his character was not given more prominence. In fact, he is never quite convincing as the drunk who will do anything for money. He’s Jimmy Stewart, after all. It’s rather like Gary Cooper playing bad men. Can’t be done.

It’s shot on location in Texas in nice color by Charles Lawton Jr. The George Duning music is unobtrusive to the point that you don’t notice it at all. Frank Nugent wrote the screenplay from the Will Cook novel Comanche Captives.
The film was a critical and commercial flop and Ford himself said that he had only made it for the money and thought it was “crap”. Harsh judgements for what is still a Ford Western dealing with serious themes, and with James Stewart in it . It was the last film in which Stewart wore that manky hat.
In Cheyenne Autumn, mind, his hat, though different, was utterly splendid. But more of that film tomorrow.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sergeant Rutledge (Warner Bros, 1960)

The black sergeant

Because there’s too much studio recording and too little Monument Valley location work, and because so much of the action is set in the court room, this Western is static and slow. There are action flashbacks but the ensemble is really little more than a Western Perry Mason.

Woody Strode is splendid as the noble, unjustly impugned soldier. But the rest of the acting is so-so, descending to the downright amateur when Lucy (Toby Michaels) is talking to the store boy (Jan Styne). There is the usual Ford attempt at broad humor, largely inappropriate in a case of this kind. It is thought amusing that the officers of the court martial drink while court is in session or adjourn to play poker. Willis Bouchey doesn’t quite cut it as the president of the court. It needed Ward Bond. Jeffrey Hunter is handsome as the defending counsel but little more. Constance Towers as the love-interest (returning from The Horse Soldiers the previous year) does not convince either. So this movie is by no means top-drawer Ford. Like the fine cavalry westerns, it was written by James Warner Bellah and the fault is not in the dialogue, although it does end very melodramatically. Perhaps the courtroom/flashback format was doomed to failure from the start.

Even as late as 1960 the idea that a white girl may have been raped by a Negro was still deeply shocking (the color of the assailant’s skin was the shocking part) but the film prefigures the 60s civil rights movement by suggesting the prejudice and skirting round the issue and the terms. It’s a serious film which deals with serious issues. For once, the French film title may have been better: Le Sergent Noir.

The civilians who want to lynch Rutledge even before the trial and the officers’ wives who are titillated by the ‘spicy’ affair are both shown as overtly racist and rather repellent. To the Colonel’s lady (Billie Burke), Rutledge, whom she cannot even name, is nothing but a dangerous sexual animal. Then there is the institutional racism of the court (who are surprised by the ‘not guilty’ plea; they assumed Rutledge had done it). Then, most troubling of all, there is the internalized racism that Ford shows in us, the (white) viewers. Ford sets the scenes so that we all assume too much, though this, of course, only works on the first viewing. It is interesting, perhaps, that in the publicity still for the movie (above right), Rutledge himself only appears in third background.

When Rutledge is under suspicion, early in the film, he is photographed (Bert Glennon) in dark flickering shadows. When he bravely and self-sacrificingly saves his fellow soldiers he is filmed in blazing sunlight. It’s a much darker film than The Horse Soldiers but it still elevates the community of the cavalry, where these ‘buffalo soldiers’ find a kind of freedom they would not have elsewhere.

Sergeant Rutledge is essentially a 1950s Western in its look and acting. When you consider that it came out in the same year as The Magnificent Seven, for example, you realize how old-fashioned it was. Yet its theme of racial discrimination is very much a 1960s one.

This film is an essential part of the Ford canon and needs to be seen at least once. As we have said, The Searchers was the best of his Westerns but it was also the last really good one. The Horse Soldiers of 1959 and this picture the following year were followed by the flawed Two Rode Together and the dull-in-parts and over-talky The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in succeeding years, and finally the rather overblown Cheyenne Autumn in 1964. None of these, Sergeant Rutledge included, was anywhere near the quality of The Searchers.

Nevertheless, none was really weak. Had Ford not made The Searchers, My Darling Clementine or the cavalry trilogy in the post-war period we would remember these later Westerns as outstandingly good. They only suffer by comparison.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Wagonmaster (RKO, 1950)

This post has now been revised and updated. Please click here for the new one.

Post-war John Ford


After the three surviving silent Westerns discussed yesterday, there was a twelve-year gap before John Ford's first talkie Western appeared, Stagecoach, in 1939. That was followed the same year by the semi-Western Drums Along The Mohawk. After the Second World War, Ford directed My Darling Clementine (1946), the first of twelve post-war Westerns (thirteen if you count the Civil War episode of How The West Was Won).

The surviving Western oeuvre of Ford, therefore, consists, effectively, of seventeen movies.

We looked at Stagecoach in January and Drums Along The Mohawk the other day. Drums Along The Mohawk was frankly average, despite the work of Henry Fonda, while Stagecoach might best be described as an important, even seminal Western but far from the greatest Western ever. It has been termed the best B Western ever made.

That great interpretation of the Wyatt Earp myth My Darling Clementine would have stood as Ford's masterpiece had it not been for The Searchers.

The cavalry trilogy of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) was also a magnificent achievement and it would be hard not to put any or all of the three films into a 'top ten', or 'top twenty' anyway.
The immediate post-war period was an astonishingly prolific one for Ford. At the same time as he made these three cavalry pictures, he found the time to do two lesser but still interesting Westerns, 3 Godfathers and Wagonmaster. In Three Godfathers, it is true, Ford came down with a case of terminal treacle but Wagonmaster was a better Western. Let's look at that one today:
Wagonmaster was certainly not the strongest of the John Ford Westerns of the post-war period and it suffers from a slow, wagon-like pace, some corny humor and a lot of sugary sentiment. Still, it is visually fine, with luminous black & white photography of Utah locations by Bert Glennon and it has top-notch performances from the amiable horse dealers Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., and especially from a mighty Ward Bond.

It’s a Mormon wagon train but the Mormons have a folksy charm and like to sing and dance (no September Dawn or ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’ Mormons these). Actually, there’s too much singing and that’s another weakness of the film. The songs and instrumental music seem very dated now and they are too obtrusive.

Johnson is yet again ‘Travis’ and all these Ford Westerns could almost be seen as the further adventures of Travis. He and Carey are very likeable as the wagon train guides and of course they save the day finally. Travis is like Ringo in Stagecoach or York in Fort Apache, the brave leader outside the social unit.

The Indian threat is fairly low-key (the Mormons have yet another dance with them) and thirst doesn’t trouble them that much. It’s outlaws who make difficulties, Charles Kemper as Uncle Shiloh with Hank Worden and James Arness, among others, as heavies. Donald Pleasance and his odious sons in Will Penny may have been modeled on them. Everything changes when they arrive, including the lighting, which becomes sinister.

There’s a girl each for Johnson and Carey to fall for, Joanne Dru in Ben’s case. She plays Denver, a character similar to Dallas in Stagecoach. When girls were named after towns it was a sure sign that they were disreputable. Alan Mowbray, the actor in My Darling Clementine, is Dr. “Locksley Hall”, no relation to Tennyson I think, manager of a traveling “hootchy-cootchy show”. It is my dream to work in a traveling hootchy-cootchy show. Jane Darwell, the unforgettable evil fat lady from The Ox-Bow Incident, is a plump Mormon matron with a twinkling eye and a rather vacant expression. And a horn. Good old Russell Simpson is wheeled out again as a Mormon elder and does it amusingly. Francis Ford is here too. The usual suspects, you might say.

Ward Bond is by far the best. Pity he didn’t keep on the frock coat he appears in at the start. He looks splendid in it. But he has power and force and is just dandy as the Elder. Bond went on, of course, to be the wagon master on TV in Wagon Train one episode directed by Ford) and make the role his own.

It is extraordinary that with Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande succeeding each other in 1948, ’49 and ’50, Ford had time to make this movie in between. Wagonmaster is not as famous, and justly so, but it’s still John Ford and part of the canon, so a must-see.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

John Ford/The Iron Horse (Fox, 1924)

John Ford

This post has now been updated. Please be kind enough to click here for new one on The Iron Horse.
There will be another post on the career of John Ford inthe near future.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Billy the Kid gets everywhere

I've just been in the Netherlands for a few days and what did I come across in the small town of Delft, famous for Vermeer and its blue china?

You see, Billy the Kid gets everywhere.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Drums Along The Mohawk (Fox, 1939)

This post has been revised and updated. please click here for the new one. Thanks.