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

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Bucking Broadway (Universal, 1917)

Early John Ford

For a long time it was thought that Bucking Broadway was lost, like so many other early John Ford silent Westerns, but happily in 1970 a copy was discovered in the archives of the Centre national de la cinématographie in France, and a restored print was the result. This is not (as far as I know) available on DVD, which is unfortunate, but you can watch it on YouTube, here, and if you see it on a biggish screen like a smart TV you will have a pleasant viewing experience. The print is good, with a yellowish tint.

The picture dates from Ford’s years at Carl Laemmle’s Universal, where the young Jack (he wasn’t yet the grander John Ford) followed in his brother Francis Ford’s footsteps and learned the motion picture craft. Released in December 1917, it was the last of seven J. Ford Westerns (that we know about) that year. The only other one that has survived is Straight Shooting, released in August ’17, in which Ford’s principal star, Harry Carey, also appeared as the good-badman Cheyenne Harry.
The young Jack Ford
The nearest Universal got to a big star, Harry Carey
It opens with nice landscape shots in ‘Wyoming’ (California, of course) and this aspect was already a key element of Ford Westerns. The setting became a key part of the movie in a time when so many Westerns (especially those with modest budgets) were confined to pretty basic and unconvincing studio sets. The cinematography was by John W Brown, whom Ford used on nineteen silent Westerns, and Ben F Reynolds, who shot thirteen oaters for Ford and later worked for Henry Hathaway on those Zane Grey adaptations at Paramount in the early 1930s.
Nice cinematography
We have a rather bucolic Western setting of a Wyoming ranch with its cowpokes, among whom of course is Cheyenne Harry (Carey), and the owner, good old Ben Clayton (LM Wells, in really quite splendid white handlebar mustaches) naturally has a glam daughter - it was obligatory in them days - Helen (Molly Malone: her name alone would have been enough for Ford to hire her), and equally naturally Harry pines for her. Indeed, he has even built a cabin for her, in which he duly proposes and she duly says yes.
She says yes
However (there’s always an however) a rich and elegantly attired horse-buyer from back East turns up in his (very handsome) motor car and the city slicker immediately starts chatting Helen up, then wooing her. This is Eugene Thornton (Vester Pegg, also the villain in Straight Shooting) and he will soon turn out to be a real cad. Harry tries to compete with Thornton by buying new clothes – there follows a comic scene in the general store – but Thornton proposes in his turn and is accepted by the faithless gal. Together, much to the chagrin of Harry and Helen’s pop, the couple elope to New York.
But then she falls for the city slicker
At this point, unfortunately, the music, already pretty dire sub-Morricone dross, becomes unbearable as a woman’s voice screeches, and you have to turn the sound down.

Well, while old Ben looks mournfully out of a doorway in a classic John Ford shot, Harry sets off for NYC to find his love. A smoothie urban couple of con-artists get hold of country-bumpkin Harry’s cash but one of them, the dame (sadly uncredited), takes pity on him, gives him back the money and tells him where Helen is. So Harry catches up with the unhappy couple (for Helen has now realized what a drunken slob she is engaged to) at the posh Columbia Hotel. There, Thornton is beating Helen up, the swine, and at this point Harry calls in reinforcements. You see, the Wyoming cowboys have all come to New York too (pretty improbable, I know, but you gotta have a plot) and they ride to the rescue. We get a splendid shot of the posse riding down Broadway among the motor traffic followed by a ‘saloon brawl’ in the five-star hotel.
It’s all rather silly, but in a nice way, and like all these early Ford Westerns we still have, it’s rather charming. The acting is not overdone, as it so often was in these early movies, but really quite restrained and understated. A must-see for all true Westernistas, especially if they are interested in John Ford.

The 'saloon' brawl


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Just Pals (Fox, 1920)

Lyrical and charming

As I said in my recent review of the Westerns of John Ford, there were three I hadn’t seen – a grave omission for the pre-eminent (hem hem) Western blog. They were Bucking Broadway (1917), which, criminally, isn’t out on DVD, Just Pals (1920) and 3 Bad Men (1926). I really think the entertainment industry conspires to make it difficult for us to see movies, mainly by its really stupid grip on technology: because some Westerns are only available in the US I had to buy a multi-region DVD player (there is no technical reason why they shouldn’t produce DVDs which you can play anywhere in the world, just a protectionist commercial one) and then Blu-Rays came along and some Westerns are only available on Blu-Ray and, naturally, Blu-Ray discs won’t work in an ordinary player, so I bought a new Blu-Ray player and ordered the Blu-Ray 3 Bad Men. But when it came it wouldn’t work because it was the wrong region. I had forgotten to buy a multi-region Blu-Ray player. Jeez. And they wonder why people download illegally.

As you can tell, I am a WOMBAT, a term I have just coined which means a Whining Old Man Battling Against Technology. You may be a WOMBAT too, or a WOWBAT, or even a WYMBAT. But boy, do they make it hard for us to buy and view their products.
A fellow-sufferer
Anyway, I did finally manage to see Just Pals, which is a non-Blu-Ray disc (which is anyway better).
Jack Ford, about the time of Just Pals
When Jack Ford (he wasn’t the posher John Ford yet) left Universal and arrived at Fox in 1920, the big star there was Tom Mix, with Buck Jones and William Farnum in the second rank. Ford’s first Fox Western was Just Pals with Jones. Buck was one of the great silent cowboys. Brought up (according to some) on a ranch in Indian Territory, he learned roping and riding early and after Army service he joined the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West show and became their champ bronco buster. He settled in Hollywood and got work on many Westerns, especially with Mix, then starred in his own. With his famous horse Silver, Buck was one of the most popular actors in the genre, and at one point, amazingly, he was receiving more fan mail than any actor in the world. He successfully made the transition to talkies and starred in nearly 150 pictures. He died aged 50 in 1942 after receiving horrific burns in a fire in a night club.
Buck Jones
Just Pals is rather a charming light Western which is a 50-minute delight. Buck plays Bim, the town bum, who protects Bill, a small hobo boy, from a villainous bullying railroad employee. Of course heroes very often protect children or animals in the first reel; it establishes their goodiness. The chivalrous act also impresses Mary Bruce, the local schoolmistress, for whom Buck pines – but of course a town bum cannot aspire to court such a lady, and Buck’s rival, Harvey (William Buckley), the boater-wearing cashier in the local express office, seems to take all her attention. Mary was played by Helen Ferguson, often Buck Jones’s leading lady, who later became a real power in Hollywood.
The cad Harvey courts Mary
Bim and Bill become the pals of the title and set up ‘house’ together in the local stable. The part of Bill was taken by child actor Georgie Stone, then eleven years old but already on his forty-first picture. He was very good, too, giving a Huck Finn side to the lad. Amazingly, Stone only died in 2010, aged 101.
The heroes
Unfortunately for Bill, though, the schoolma’am thinks he ought to attend classes, and Bim, as the boy’s unofficial guardian, reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, the rotter Harvey, Mary’s suitor, has being embezzling money from the express office and he inveigles Mary into loaning him school fund money to tide him over an audit. Mistake. For the school governors arrive and demand the cash and she can’t produce it, so attempts suicide by drowning.

It isn’t terribly Western so far, more of a 1920s small-town drama. It’s a contemporary setting and the opening scene shows us a motor truck and a horse-driven wagon, so the picture inhabits that twilight world that so many Westerns of the era did, where the Wild West seemed still to exist in ‘modern’ times.
Good quality print
But it gets very Western as the picture moves on, with mounted bandits robbing the express. The raid is a set-up, you see. Harvey is in on the hold-up, so that the losses will mask his theft. But Bim is determined to thwart the evil scheme, to protect the honor of schoolma’am Mary, who didn’t die but lies languishing in the doctor’s house.

Oh, and another thing (there’s a lot of plot in less than an hour): Bim gets a job offer (he has responsibilities now) but needs a uniform to work as a porter. Young Bill has a brainwave and steals a railroad man’s outfit from a train for Bim, but is injured jumping back off the cars. The doctor and his wife who treat him discover that there is a reward for the child and so pretend to be nice to the boy, and dismiss Bim. In so many Ford movies, the ‘respectable’ folk of a community are nothing of the kind and it is society’s outcasts who do the decent thing. This was most evident in Stagecoach, of course, but again and again in Ford’s movies this was the case. In Just Pals everyone in town except the schoolmistress is a hypocrite or crook. It’s the ‘town bum’ and the hobo boy who save the day.
Nice poster
Just Pals has another Fordian aspect about it: the film is notable for its gentle pans and tracking shots of the rolling hills of the Wyoming/Nebraska border country (really, California). Ford was already making the landscape a character, a feature he had learned from his brother Francis Ford. There is an understated lyrical quality and a sense of domestic detail. The small town and characters prefigure the Springfield prologue of The Iron Horse (1924).
They put poor Bill in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit
Jones is excellent, and there’s almost something Buster Keaton-ish about him. He seems hopelessly vague and fey. He comes up trumps, though, foiling the dastardly plot and (when goaded by the boy) winning the hand of the fair maid.

There’s a comic-relief sheriff (Duke R Lee, much used by Ford from Straight Shooting in 1917 to My Darling Clementine in 1946) who had an oft-repeated tagline, “The law’ll handle this”. Even he is a scoundrel, though, showing his lawman’s badge to get out of contributing to the church collection. In the final scene he comically pops his head out of a hole in a tree, just as Harry Carey had done in Straight Shooting.
A Ford favorite
The DP was George Schneiderman, much used by Ford and one of the greats of silent cinematography. There are some notably well-composed scenes and attractive shots.
Schneiderman photography
The print of Just Pals is good, brownish in tint going to blue for the day-for-night scenes. My copy has suitable cheesy Wurlitzer organ music accompaniment.

Western fans will definitely want to see this picture. It’s amusing and very well done, and so few of Ford’s silent Westerns survive that when one does we feel obliged to see it. Make sure you have the right DVD player, though.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Mr. Horn (CBS TV, 1979)

The best screen Tom Horn - and the best Al Sieber

Alan Bridger, a follower of this blog, read my plea about the TV movie Mr. Horn and how difficult it was to obtain, and thanks to his great generosity and kindness I have finally been able to view it. I am really glad I did because it is very good, and a worthy addition to screen Tom Horns – and screen portrayals of Al Sieber. In fact, judging by the first part anyway (it was a two-parter, designed to fit in to a total of three hours with commercials) the movie could just as well have been titled Mr. Sieber. A grizzled Richard Widmark does an excellent job as Al and in the story of the Apache wars it is he who dominates. Tom Horn (David Carradine, also first class) is Al’s young apprentice.
A TV movie, but the best Tom Horn there is
The Warner Brothers Tom Horn of 1980 with Steve McQueen concentrates only on the last part of Horn’s life, in Wyoming, and the trial for the murder of the lad Willie Nickell. Mr. Horn, on the other hand devotes about half the picture to the time in Arizona with Sieber and the other half to the Wyoming saga. It misses out the whole middle part of Tom’s career, as (allegedly) hired gun in the Pleasant Valley range war, as a Pinkerton man and as a soldier in the Spanish-American War. Well, fair enough, they can’t do everything. At least we get a good account of the Apache struggle and a good showing for Al Sieber. That alone makes the film worth it.

Mr. Horn opens with some evocative paintings of Western scenes by Petko Kadiev under the titles. The director is announced as Jack Starrett. Big and burly Mr. Starrett (1936-89) was a former actor who made a rep as director of low-budget drive-in movies and TV shows like Starsky & Hutch, The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard. Westernwise, he had only directed one, the Jody McCrea oater Cry Blood, Apache (1970) which was poppa Joel McCrea’s penultimate outing in the saddle, and I fear it wasn’t very good. So the omens weren’t all that promising when Starrett’s name appeared on the screen. Never fear, though: he does an excellent job on Mr. Horn. The picture is thoughtful and well-paced, and also visually attractive with Mexicali, Baja California locations standing in for 1880s Sonora and Arizona, shot by Jorge Stahl Jr., who had worked on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Garden of Evil (the latter, especially, a photographically very classy picture).
Jack Starrett
A limping Al Sieber, cantankerous and worldly-wise, with Widmark at his growliest, is a civilian Army scout with a low opinion of officers, whom he calls jackasses. Actually, although Sieber was wounded in the leg at Gettysburg, there is no evidence that he hobbled as a result in later life. He did limp after the Apache Kid incident in 1887, but this picture even has him on crutches at one point. Never mind, it adds color. Widmark plays Al with no German accent, probably a wise choice, though Sieber never really mastered English and always spoke in a heavily accented way. Tom Horn, though, is “the talking boy” who speaks Spanish and Apache fluently and acts as interpreter.
Sorry about the pic quality but it's the only image of Widmark as Sieber that I can find

Al Sieber after the Apache Kid incident
At one point Sieber asks Horn why no one likes him. It’s a telling moment. Horn says that he doesn’t know, but no one has ever liked him.

General Crook charges Al with bringing in Geronimo, which Sieber says is impossible to do. Director Starrett himself takes the role of Crook, and rather well, too. Crook was a great figure, with his bushy beard and riding his favorite mule, and a fine soldier, very different from the politically ambitious Nelson A Miles (Stafford Morgan) who replaces him, and whom Sieber cannot stand (especially when, later, Miles fires all the scouts, including Al and Tom). But first Sieber and Horn set out after Geronimo with Al cheerfully listing all the Apache leaders he and the cavalry have previously failed to capture.
General George Crook (1830 - 90)
Ambushes follow and mucho action, in which Horn learns the hard way how to fight Indians. The expedition is led by Capt. Emmet Crawford (Jeremy Slate) and Crawford too was a fascinating figure. He was a Civil War hero who gained Western experience in the Sioux wars under Crook in Montana and came south with the general when the 3rd Cavalry was transferred to Arizona to deal with the Apache, where he was appointed military commandant at San Carlos. He and Crook believed in using civilian scouts, especially Apache ones, men who knew the land and knew the people, a policy Miles was to reverse when he assumed command.
Capt. Emmet Crawford (1844 - 86)
In spring 1885 Crawford was sent out after Geronimo and took Tom Horn and Apache scouts with him (though not Al Sieber, as in Mr. Horn). In Mexico his party was attacked by Mexican regulars and when Crawford waved a white handkerchief and tried to negotiate he was shot in the head. An Apache scout called Dutchy (it is Horn in the movie) dragged Crawford to safety but the captain was mortally wounded and died later. Crawford’s second-in-command, Lt. Maus, did arrange a meeting between Crook and Geronimo and the Apache chief agreed to return to San Carlos but in fact he did not return. Crook resigned over the incident and was replaced by Miles.

Now relieved of their duties, Sieber and Horn go prospecting (in fact Sieber was a lifelong, if unsuccessful miner) where they are visited by Ernestina, the late Crawford’s sister (Karen Black), and the movie invents a romance between her and Horn. This Ernestina says her father and brother were both soldiers and both were killed. “All I want from a man is that he outlive me,” she rather poignantly tells Tom. Then Horn and Sieber are recalled when Miles’s campaign also fails. They must hunt Geronimo again. There is another long pursuit, well handled by director and cast, in which Al is shot again, making his bad leg now the good one, as he says. He is obliged to return home.

The movie has Horn give his personal word to Geronimo that if the Apaches surrender they will be allowed to remain in Arizona, but once at Fort Bowie Miles scorns this and exiles all the Apaches, including the scouts who had helped track Geronimo, to Florida, with Sieber raging at the injustice and Horn silently fuming. “I’m done being used,” he mutters.

Geronimo is played by Enrique Lucero (who was in both The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch) and he does rather resemble the photographs of the older Apache (Geronimo was probably 56 at the time).
The real Geronimo, Goyaałé (1829 - 1909)
OK, yes, this all does rather monkey about with historical fact, but I don’t think we should blame the film for that too much. These movies are dramas, not documentaries, and if the dramatic tension requires it, why not alter history a bit? If you want the true facts, read a history book, don’t watch a Western. And in my view the picture does capture the spirit of Tom Horn and Al Sieber, and rather well too.
One of the many fades-to-black that indicate a TV movie is more consequential, and now we see an older Horn, duded up in suit and tie and come north to Wyoming, and we see a horseless carriage to denote that time has passed and modern times are here, reminding us of The Shootist or Peckinpah pictures like Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Wild Bunch. In Cheyenne, who is the rather down-at-heel hotelier Tom comes across? Why, it’s Ernestina Crawford, now a widow as she hastily informs him. And drinking in the bar is a disillusioned George Crook. An even more elderly Al Sieber will soon re-appear too, and be present at Horn’s trial and execution. There is, I fear, no evidence for all these re-appearances (and in fact Crook had died a dozen years before) but they do provide useful dramatic continuity.
Tom Horn (1860 - 1903)
Horn is hired by the rich cattlemen under John Noble (Pat McCormick) who is presumably a reference to cattleman John C Coble who would later jointly author Horn’s autobiography, to stop the rife rustling. First Horn tries to do it legally but the courts immediately dismiss the cases he brings against the rustlers and so he turns to the gun. Noble is clear: though he will always deny hiring Horn as a bounty hunter, that is in reality what the job is. Kill rustlers to dissuade others. Horn is no sham. He tells how Buffalo Bill once asked him to join the Wild West and do his act. “My act?” Horn replied, incredulously. “My act? It ain’t an act!”

We see the death of the farm boy Willie Nickell but we don’t see who made the shot. The scoundrel Joe LeFors (John Durren) gets Tom drunk and then we see Tom arrested – we do not hear his ‘confession’. The trial, illustrated by a Harper’s Weekly artist in a wheelchair, goes badly and one evening Ernestina brings a file to Tom’s jail cell. She tells him that both the rustlers and the cattlemen want him dead. Next day, LeFors tells the court of his conversation with Horn which has been transcribed by a stenographer in the next room. An elderly Sieber as a character witness is passionate but rambling and ineffective. Horn is found guilty and sentenced to death.
Carradine as Horn
Horn escapes over the rooftops (rather athletically, and it’s Carradine, not a double) but realizes it’s hopeless and surrenders. The last scene is the hanging, with the cattlemen holding drinks looking on in a satisfied way.

It’s all well done, and Carradine is outstanding (he always was). In fact I would go so far as to say that Mr. Horn is the best screen Tom Horn there is, and, much as I like John McIntire in Apache and Robert Duvall in Geronimo: An American Legend, it is also the best portrayal of Al Sieber. Do see it if you get the chance.

Thanks, Alan Bridger. Any relation to Jim?

Horn soon before his death


Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Magnificent Seven (MGM/Columbia, 2016)

The not quite so magnificent seven

Now, before reviewing the new Magnificent Seven, I must declare an interest. You see the original The Magnificent Seven has been with me ever since I first saw it on its release in 1960, when I was twelve, and I have watched it countless times since, never tiring of it, in various countries I have lived in, and I pretty well know the dialogue by heart in at least three languages. When I was a boy I thought it was the best Western ever made and very likely the finest film in human history, and I was probably right.

So how could a remake ever live up to that? Well, of course it couldn’t, and for me the new one, just seen on DVD, was a disappointment. Not that it was bad. It just wasn’t as good.

Remakes can be OK, or even better than OK. I mean who remembers the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon? And Westernwise, the Coen brothers’ True Grit and the 50th-anniversary 3:10 to Yuma were very good efforts. But when you have so much memory invested in a film, pretty well any attempt to make it again is doomed.

Of course even the ‘original’ was a remake. We all know the story of how the plot of The Seven Samurai was, er, recycled. And, to be fair, this new Mag 7 is very different from the 1960 one.

Being the 21st century, we had to have a black actor in the Yul Brynner part, and they got Denzel Washington, so that was quite a coup. Fair enough. There were African-American lawmen in the old West, even if Hollywood has always pretty well ignored them. This leader of the seven is a sworn peace officer, you see, not just a freelance gunslinger like Chris. And the petitioner who seeks the help of the band for the beleaguered village cannot be a meek Mexican man but must be a feisty widow (Haley Bennett) with plunging neckline and a pistol on her hip. And of course the seven must include a Native American (‘Comanche’ Martin Sensmeier), an Asian-American (Byung-hun Lee, from The Good, The Bad, The Weird) and a Mexican-American or ‘Texican’ (Manuel Garcia Rulfo) too. So it’s ticking the PC boxes.
All in black, not just Yul
It is true that apart from Denzel the rest of the seven were pretty well unknowns (to me) but then we sometimes forget that in 1960 most of those seven were obscure young actors too. Charles Bronson would have been known to ardent Westernistas and they would have recognized Steve McQueen as bounty-hunter Josh Randall from TV but pre-UNCLE Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn, Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz were unknown quantities to many.

By the way, I once won a night’s free drinking for my friends in a wine bar by accepting the bet of the landlord (foolish man, little did he know he had Jeff Arnold in his bar) that I couldn’t name all seven of characters from the 1960 movie and the actors who played them. I went round the next day to apologize to the fellow (I think he had been fairly well oiled too) and met his wife, who was rather angry at how much alcohol we had got through. But as her husband said, a bet’s a bet. Anyway, where was I?

They got the rights to use the Elmer Bernstein music, though it was definitely underused, really just a quotation. Most of the score is by James Horner and much less stirring. Who can forget (well, I can’t anyway) the moment when Chris and Vin turn that hearse round and rattle back down the hill and the music surges in triumph? In fact that scene, among the very best in the John Sturges picture, is altogether absent from the new picture, sadly.

They re-used a couple of moments from 1960, such as the gun v. knife fight, but these scenes had little of the magic, I fear. A little of the 1960 dialogue pops up here and there too, such as Denzel saying he’d often before been paid a lot but never everything, or the man falling from a five-story building. There are some good new lines (Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto). “I gotta family, Mister,” pleads one character. “They’d be better off without you,” says the villain. Bang. Or when one of the seven promises to use one-syllable words from now on and elicits the response, “What’s a syllable?” But some of the dialogue is anachronistic or wrong, such as when the woman from the village says she was the only one with balls enough to seek revenge, or someone says that “Statistically speaking…” or “It is what it is.”

As for the seven, Denzel has Burt Lancaster teeth which he flashes in the occasional crocodile smile, blinding all around. He is named Chisum or Chisholm (in the credits it says Chisolm) so that’s a good Western name.
Not quite so magnificent
Ethan Hawke (I’d heard of him at least) was a character with another famous Western name, Goodnight, though that’s his first name apparently; he’s Goodnight Robicheaux. He’s alright, I guess. He is the pardner of the Korean chap, Billy Rocks, who is suitably adept with his knives.

The Vin character is named Josh (in-joke for Western fans) and is played by Chris Pratt, rather blandly, I thought. He does card tricks. He also has a mare’s leg cut-down rifle, for the cognoscenti.

Colorful was a sort of mountain man figure, Tom Horn I first heard, but it turned out to be Jack Horne, played by Vincent D’Onofrio.

And like the Korean fellow the Indian is suitably silent and lethally effective with his chosen weapon, the bow. He is named Red Harvest, presumably a reference to Dashiell Hammett’s story adopted by Kurosawa for another Japanese ‘Western’.

The Garcia character is supposed to be charming, though he rather spoils the effect by telling the woman that he is “Enchanté, mon cher.”
There is no ‘kid’ part as such and no love-interest in the village for the kid to fall for and remain there at the end of the battle.

This picture is more of a shoot-em-up than the first one, and the bad guy has far more than forty men (mind, in the 1960 picture too, though Calvera is said to have forty bandidos in his band, well more than forty are shot, should you be pedantic enough to count them, which I’m not, obviously). But this time they have dynamite and a Gatling gun so it’s a bigger and louder affair.

The bad guy was quite good. He is Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and he has a good entrance as he and his henchmen burst into the church where the townsfolk are gathered. He looks like Vincent Price on a bad day playing Richard III. He terrifies a child in the first reel, a sure sign of baddiness. Then he murders a man who protests and burns the church down. He really is very naughty. He is a corporate villain, not a roving bandit chief, and he argues that democracy equates with capitalism and capitalism is Godly, so anyone who opposes him must be an undemocratic heathen. The town, Rose Creek, is firmly in the US, not in Mexico. The idea of the hero(es) using guns to rid a treed town of its crooked boss is one of the oldest plots in the Western book but that’s OK.

It’s set in 1879 and there is none of the ‘end of the West’ tinge to the picture, or the sense that the gunslingers are dinosaurs doomed to extinction. In 1960, when the Western genre was in decline after the glory days of the 50s, it was common to have this theme, and the likes of Sam Peckinpah continued it through the 60s with pictures like Ride the High Country or The Wild Bunch, introducing automobiles as symbols of the modern age which will render the horse obsolete. But The Magnificent Seven is played ‘straight’ and harks back to the less self-doubting days of the horse opera.

The producer and director of the movie is Antoine Fuqua, known for Training Day (with Denzel) and for music videos. Surprising then that he didn’t make more of the music, though I suppose it wasn’t quite in the vein of Heavy D & the Boyz or Coolio’s Gangsta Paradise. Still, he does a competent job, I guess.

Like most Westerns these days it is high-class visually, this time with Mauro Fiore of Avatar fame photographing Louisiana and lovely New Mexico locations.

There are occasional references (Mr. Fuqua says in the making-of part that he grew up with the Western). I thought the final show-down slightly Silverado-ish and there’s a rope-burn scar as has been done before. There’s almost a derringer. A pocket pistol anyway. There are the usual ridiculous credits which go on longer than the movie.
Curious that both MGM and Columbia should be responsibe. That would never have happened in the old days.

The whole thing is agreeable enough and you definitely need to see it, just as you should watch the 1998-2000 TV series. But I don’t think any twelve-year-olds will be bowled over, learn the dialogue by heart and never forget the experience for the rest of their natural born days.




Monday, April 10, 2017

Red River (United Artists, 1948)

Hawks's Western masterwork

Red River was the only Western in which Howard Hawks matched the work of John Ford. It is a mighty film. One thinks of Ford while watching it not only because Hawks elicited a stunning performance from John Wayne but also because of the epic grandeur of the movie, the noble themes and the fact that each shot is framed as a work of art.
John Wayne and Howard Hawks, mutual admirers
Ford does seem to have had some input to Red River. Tag Gallagher, in his book John Ford: The Man and his Films (University of California Press, 1984), suggests that Ford assisted Hawks on the set and made numerous editing suggestions, including the use of a narrator. It may have been so. Certainly Ford wrote to Hawks asking him to “take care of my boy Duke”. Hawks did say that he often thought of Ford when shooting, particularly in a burial scene when ominous clouds started to gather. Hawks later told Ford, "Hey, I've got one almost as good as you can do - you better go and see it."
Wayne superb

It made Wayne a major star. The Big Trail (1930) for Raoul Walsh and
Stagecoach (1939) for John Ford had both turned out to be false starts as far as ‘A’ Westerns were concerned. It was really Hawks who made John Wayne into the cowboy megastar he became. Red River was filmed in 1946, i.e. well before Ford’s cavalry trilogy, though it did not come out until 1948 for various reasons. Hawks wanted endless editing and there was also an absurd claim by Howard Hughes that the picture was similar to The Outlaw (it was nothing like it; for one thing, Red River was good). If anything, the plot was a Western Mutiny on the Bounty, as writer Borden Chase admitted. In any case, the picture wasn’t released until August 1948, after John Ford’s Fort Apache.

Dunson like an aging Bligh

Wayne must have hesitated to take the part of Thomas Dunson. To play a much older man (he was 39 then) losing his grip, with no female partner (Joanne Dru’s Tess was destined for Montgomery Clift as Garth) wasn’t an obvious step for him. But it was a great part and Wayne carried it off supremely well.
After seeing Wayne's performance in the film, John Ford is quoted as saying, "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act" – which was a bit rich after Stagecoach, in which Wayne had pretty well outshone all the rest of the cast. Wayne would also play an older man for Ford, in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949, and would do that part too with great skill.

Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, some of the best Westerns ever made, were all released in the space of three years (1948 - 50) and Wayne was superb in all of them.

In a 1974 interview, Hawks said that he originally offered the role of Thomas Dunson to Gary Cooper but Coop declined it because he didn't believe the ruthless nature of Dunson's character would have suited his screen image. Interesting idea, though.
Brennan doing his cranky old-timer act

Hawks seems to have borrowed a good number of other Ford stock company members as well as Wayne because Walter Brennan, Harry Carey Sr. and Jr. (
this was the only film in which father and son both appeared, although they have no scenes together), Paul Fix, Hank Worden and others are all on the cattle drive as they make their weary way through fine Western locations (Arizona, mostly) to the studio sound stage where they camp each night.

Brennan as Wayne’s sidekick and crusty cook Groot, Noah Beery Jr. as decent cowhand Buster and John Ireland as Cherry Valance, the leering gunman rival to Montgomery Clift’s Garth are all particularly good (amazingly, even Cary Grant was considered for Valance). Joanne Dru (soon to be Mrs. Ireland and also to star in Yellow Ribbon for Ford, as well as Wagonmaster) is pretty but you get the impression that her part has been artificially grafted onto the story for some love interest. That sometimes happened with Hawks (and Ford too).

Monty Clift in his debut is excellent as the adopted son of the Bligh-like Dunson who finally rebels, in a Fletcher Christian way, takes over the herd and sets Dunson adrift. He is small and sinewy, not at all like the beefy Wayne (how to make the final fistfight convincing was a real problem for Hawks, who evened the odds by having the gunman Cherry wound Dunson just before the fisticuffs), yet he conveys power and even a growing authority. Wayne and Brennan didn’t care for Clift, who was left-wing and a homosexual. In an interview with Life magazine, John Wayne described Clift as "an arrogant little bastard". He would have preferred Burt Lancaster for the Clift part but Lancaster turned down the role to star in The Killers. Still, though they shunned Clift socially, Wayne and Brennan worked professionally enough with him.
Great debut, and he knew it
And among the bit parts you can spot Glenn Strange the Great as a cowboy and Shelley Winters as a dance hall girl.

The tension builds and builds towards the final reckoning that we know must come. The plot came from The Chisholm Trail, a story by Borden Chase in The Saturday Evening Post, though Hawks made many changes, often while shooting.

Hawks was perhaps attracted to it because of the male triangle at its heart. Garry Wills, in his biography of Duke, John Wayne, The Politics of Celebrity (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997), makes the point that all Hawks’s Westerns had this trio. In
The Outlaw, Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) and Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) were rivals for the affections of Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel). In Rio Bravo you have John Wayne as the sheriff, Dean Martin as the alcoholic deputy and Ricky Nelson as the pretty-boy gunman Colorado (place names for Western characters were traditionally a female preserve). In El Dorado, Robert Mitchum takes the drunk lawman part while James Caan becomes the younger man, Mississippi (though hardly a gunman in this case). The male trio is usually complemented and hovered over by a cranky old mother-hen figure: Walter Brennan in Red River and Rio Bravo, Arthur Hunnicutt in The Big Sky
and El Dorado. In Red River, of course, you have Dunson, Matt and Cherry (Wayne, Clift, Ireland) with Brennan as the mother-hen.
Essentially a male film

You don’t have to have read much Freud to smile at the scene in which Cherry Valance and Matt Garth exchange guns and have a shooting match.

Cherry: That’s a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? (They swap guns) Maybe you’d like to see mine. (Cherry examines Matt’s pistol). Nice, awful nice. You know there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?
Freud 101

Only the showdown at the end comes over as a compromise. It’s marvelous as Wayne walks, blazing with anger, through the cattle and disposes of the top gun with a dismissive shot. Here comes the clash with Clift! But in no time at all Dru, in a rather silly speech, has Dunson and Clift making up and it all peters out. Dunson has been so driven, so indomitable, that almost no ending would have worked, except perhaps his death. The same is true of The Searchers when Wayne’s film-long fury dissipates in a short scene and he takes Debbie ‘home’. He should really have died, as in the book. It is said that Hawks himself scripted Dru's speech, in a fit of pique against John Ireland (Hawks was, it is alleged, a rival for the favors of Ms. Dru). Clift's character was to have shot Dunson fatally, then faced a showdown with the gunman played by Ireland. Dramatically, that was necessary as the two young guns had been locking horns, more or less playfully, throughout the story. But it was fudged.

It almost convinces

In a way, the male triangle resolves itself at the end, with Cherry out of the way, into a familial/generational one, with grandfather Brennan, father Wayne and son Clift. Garry Wills even talks about them as Laertes, Odysseus and Telemachus but I think we’re getting a bit hi-falutin’ here. It’s only a Western, after all. Hawks himself had no time for over-intellectualizing his films. He made straightforward pictures with a good story.

Red River is an unusually long film for the time (125 minutes) and Wayne thought it too long, but it never drags. Throughout, it is dusty and smells of cattle. It’s a huge picture with thousands of head of steers and a half-million dollar budget which grew to $3.2m. Scenes like the beeves going down the main street of ‘Abilene’ are still impressive today. See it on the big screen if possible.

Early in the story
The picture made the investment back, though. It was 1948's third-highest grossing film at $4.15m. Only Road to Rio and Easter Parade made more.

The music (Dimitri Tiomkin) is powerful and memorable. Western buffs will sing “My rifle, pony and me” to the theme tune, Settle Down, because they will be
Rio Bravo fans – and Settle Down was later adapted by Tiomkin for use there. Not that other Hawks Westerns, Rio this or Rio that, were a patch on this great work.

The greatness of the film is also largely down to Russell Harlan because the black & white photography is simply stunning – not only the famous 360° shot at the start but throughout. Hawks had wanted the super-talented Gregg Toland, and Harlan had really been confined to B-Westerns previously (Hopalong Cassidy flicks and the like), but Hawks and Harlan worked outstandingly well together and made a visually great picture.

Russell Harlan

The importance of Red River as a Western can be judged by the number of times it is mentioned in reviews of other films and used as a comparison. It is a touchstone.

It’s curious in a way that Hawks made it at all. It was his attempt, a risky one, to become an independent producer but why choose a Western? He was much better known for slick, urbane movies with clever dialogue. But he did have some Western track record. He had started as production manager and editor on 1920s silent Westerns for Paramount, been fired as director from Viva Villa! in 1934, had helmed the semi-Western Barbary Coast in 1935 and he had contributed to the dreadful The Outlaw earlier in the decade but was fired by Howard Hughes after two weeks. He was hardly a Western expert. But Red River made him one.

The story

Hawks never again did anything as good, certainly not a Western anyway (you might like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). His four later Westerns, The Big Sky (1952) with Kirk Douglas and those three commercial ‘bankers’ with Wayne, had nothing like the artistic merit or scope. Red River remains one of the top ten best Westerns in the history of the genre, one of Wayne’s very greatest portrayals and it is unchallenged as the finest cattle-drive movie ever.

Pure gold.