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

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Something Big (NGP, 1971)


Yawn




 
 
Jeff Arnold's West is having a bit of a Brian Keith-orama at the moment, a Western career retrospective looking at Westerns Keith was in. In the last one I did, Sierra Baron, I gave a potted bio of our star so click the link if you want to read that, but today’s episode is a 1971 comedy Western he did, Something Big.
 
Brian Keith

Honestly, it was a bit of a dud. Comedy Westerns are hard to do. So often they fall flat. Of course there are truly great ones, and some fine ones that hover on the Comedy but can also be seen as straight Westerns. But comedy-action-Westerns with stars like Dean Martin on autopilot risk being neither funny nor good action movies either, and such a one is Something Big.

'something big' written in lower case; ironic, huh.

One major problem it had (and I regret to say it) was its director Andrew V McLaglen. Though a John Wayne groupie and son of one of John Ford’s favorite actors (and of course the two things are not coincidental) McLaglen was basically a second-class director of feature Westerns. He did a competent enough job on TV – one thinks especially of Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel – but when you look at his record of big-screen oaters it’s undistinguished, to say the least. He started in 1956 with Gun the Man Down, almost a Gunsmoke spin-off, with James Arness, which looks like a TV movie; there were forgettable minor pictures like Freckles and The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come; he directed the worst Westerns of James Stewart, the soapy family saga Shenandoah and the perfectly dreadful The Rare Breed (also with Keith); then the stodgy and overlong The Way West, a flop; Bandolero! (also with Martin and Stewart); and, of course, various Wayne Westerns, the weakest ones, the unfunny and overblown McLintock!, Cahill, US Marshal (about the best he did) and Chisum.  No, sorry, but McLaglen Westerns are a big disappointment.

AV McLaglen

Dino was one of the loveliest men ever, no doubt about it, and he had the ability to be a great actor, but he also did a whole lot of junk. He started partnered with Jerry Lewis in the hilarious (not) Pardners (1956), became famous as the recovering alcoholic deputy to John Wayne in Rio Bravo, and then he did those slapdash, frankly lousy Westerns with Frank Sinatra, Sergeants 3 and 4 for Texas. He was one of The Sons of Katie Elder (supposed to be Duke’s brother), did Texas Across the River with Alain Delon, did his best Western as the bad guy in Rough Night in Jericho in 1967, followed by Bandolero!, and 5 Card Stud with Robert Mitchum (both sleepwalking through their parts), before the big yawn Something Big and his final oater, the unremarkable Showdown, with Rock Hudson. There were some big A-pictures here but there were very few good ones. In Something Big I think he is supposed to be charming but in fact he just seems tired.

Dino

Keith too, we know, would accept any old script that came along and was also capable of just going through the motions to get to the end of it. In Something Big he plays an aging Cavalry colonel on the verge of retirement, a (very) poor man’s Nathan Brittles. He was actually only fifty but relied on make-up to age him.

Col. Keith doing his Yellow Ribbon act

The worst thing about Something Big is that it is way too long. An action-comedy Western that becomes a bore is unforgivable. At one hour, 48 minutes it seems interminable.

The screenplay was by James Lee Barrett, who, with McLaglen, was also a producer. Best known probably for his work on In the Heat of the Night and Smokey and the Bandit, he also wrote Westerns, some rather second-rate ones, Shenandoah, Bandolero!, The Undefeated, and his best effort, The Cheyenne Social Club. The script of Something Big, however, is plodding, repetitive and in the last resort just not very funny (though I do understand this last is a subjective judgement). It is said, amazingly, that Barrett wrote the part for Peter O’Toole. The mind positively boggles.

Writer Barrett

One good thing about the movie, McLaglen got large numbers of Ford/Wayne stock company regulars in, often in little more than cameos but still entertaining. Denver Pyle is a filthy outlaw, Harry Carey Jr. is a cook with a wooden leg, Paul Fix is an Indian chief, Ben Johnson is an incompetent Army scout, and Bob Steele is a teamster, among others.

Ben Johnson the Great

The idea is that outlaw Joe Baker (Martin) is planning “something big” (a phrase repeated ad pretty well nauseam) and Col. Morgan (Keith) wants (a) to find out what and (b) stop it. That’s the plot.

Rascally Albert Salmi and his cadaverous gunman (and knifeman) sidekick Robert Donner (another Wayne regular) are ready to give Baker a Gatling gun for his “something big” but in return, sex-starved Salmi wants a woman. There are precious few in the territory. Now, it just so happens that the colonel’s lady is coming out West on the stage to join him, and she will do nicely. Mrs. Morgan is played by Honor Blackman, Brit actress who was both John Steed’s athletic partner in The Avengers and Bond girl Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. She had done a Western before, Shalako, with then-Bond Sean Connery, a picture that is oft derided but which in fact I don’t mind. She plays the colonel’s wife as a prim but in the last resort gutsy lady.

Pussy Galore out West

David Huddleston has a very short part, cut off in his prime. Joyce Van Patten and Judi Meredith are two very horny women who rather unfunnily set upon any man (even Salmi) who comes near.

The real star of the show, though, is Tuffy (Scruffy), the mutt which Baker takes everywhere with him in a special saddlebag. This megastar was wasted, though, given nothing to do. He just seems to be there.

Megastar

Surprisingly, the movie starts and ends with a Hal David and Burt Bacharach pop-ballad (60s and 70s Westerns felt obliged to, especially after Butch Cassidy) which is not sung by Dino. That was a disappointment.

In fact this picture seems to have been trying for the Butch Cassidy vibe, though it signally failed to find it.

It’s a big-budget affair with a large cast and shot in Technicolor down Mexico way (Durango, a favored Wayne/McLaglen locale) by Harry Stradling Jr., who did wagonloads of Westerns, from Sinatra’s The Kissing Bandit in 1948 to Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in 1975, was McLaglen’s go-to on Gunsmoke, did Cimarron Strip, those Support Your Local… pictures with James Garner, and whose best Western work was probably Little Big Man.

Harry Stradling Jr.

As a counterpoint to Honor arriving for Brian, Martin also has a shrewish fiancée heading inexorably West to get him, in the shape of Londoner Carol White, in her only Western. I do wish these actors wouldn’t try these “Scottish” accents though. Hers is as fake as it is overdone. Her brother Tommy (Don Knight) is Baker’s sidekick and he plays the bagpipes. He too was only relatively Scottish: born in Manchester, England, he studied for the ministry in Montreal.

There’s a sergeant, Fitzsimmons, who is fond of a drop, Merlin Olsen, who, though, is rather uncharismatic. You would have thought that the director, whose father was famed for such parts in those John Ford cavalry Westerns, might have gone to town a bit on that part. There is the (compulsory) saloon brawl the sergeant takes part in. Only mildly funny.

There’s a rather unsavory climax as Martin Gatling-guns to death countless Mexican bandidos. We’re tired of it and it wasn’t very enjoyable even the first time. But as I said, by then you have lost the will to live and are just praying for rain.

Been there, done that. Wasn't very good the first time.

No, I’m afraid it isn’t very good. Roger Ebert said, “It doesn't have a single surprise in its whole two hours.”

 

Monday, February 25, 2019

Sierra Baron (Fox, 1958)


Land-grabbers




 
 
Fox’s eleven Western offerings for 1958 (quite a normal quantity for those days!) were a mixed bag. There was a great one, The Bravados (four revolvers)and there were a couple of good ones, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, From Hell to Texas and The Fiend Who Walked the West (all 3), and a few OK-to-middling pictures such as Ambush at Cimarron Pass (2), Villa!! (to be reviewed soon), Cattle Empire (2), Blood Arrow and Flaming Frontier (to be reviewed one day) as well as, of course, a couple of duds, Showdown at Boot Hill (Charles Bronson's first Western lead) and Wolf Dog (a semi-Western with Jim Davis). Sierra Baron was in the OK-to-middling class.
 
 
 
It was a Brian Keith picture, and we’re going on a bit of Brian Keith outing for the next few posts, so brace yourselves. These introductory words will do also for the next couple of articles, therefore:

A keen Western buff, Keith (1921 to 1997) did a lot of oaters, big screen and small, notably of course as The Westerner on TV in 1960, though for a single series of 13 episodes. “Only four or five of these were really good,” he said. “But those four or five were as good as anything anybody has ever done.” (I think he meant the Sam Peckinpah ones). Keith rarely even watched his own pictures when they were finished (like Robert Mitchum) and he said, “I never gave a hoot, I just took what came along” (very similar to Mitchum’s famous dictum, “Baby, I don’t care”) and in some of his Westerns, that was rather evident.


He started very well, as the best thing in Paramount’s Arrowhead in 1953. Admittedly it wasn’t hard to be the best thing in that movie because it was a nasty, noxious film with a sour Charlton Heston in the lead. Still, Keith was memorable as the experienced Army captain. He was also impressive in The Violent Men two years later as Stanwyck’s slimy two-timing lover. Run of the Arrow, well, that was a pity (what a trashy picture), but I liked him as the gun-runner in Fort Dobbs, also in ’58 though for Warners, three months before Sierra Baron. He would go on to do Villa!!, our next-but-one review, and would be directed by Peckinpah again in The Deadly Companions, a film let down by a hopeless Maureen O’Hara, and that was followed by the disappointing The Raiders and a whole lot of Western TV shows and TV movies. The Hallelujah Trail and The Rare Breed were absolutely awful. It wasn’t really the greatest Western career but you get the sense that he could have been really good in the genre. If he’d bothered.

Sierra Baron was one of those 1840s California yarns, though much of it was a pretty formulaic crooked-banker-has-treed-the-town plot which could have been set anywhere and at any time in ‘the West’. Keith plays hired gun Jack McCracken, in the pay of the banker, who changes sides to fight for the good guys.

It was directed by James B Clark (below), who was not the brightest star in the Western firmament. This was his first feature oater in the director’s chair. He would return to Keith with Villa!! in October the same year, and in 1960 would do the flawed One Foot in Hell with an aging Alan Ladd. Mostly though it was TV shows, especially The Monroes. The direction of Sierra Baron is pedestrian.

James B Clark
 
The writing was plodding too. The screenplay was by Houston Branch, who sounds like the office of a Texas bank. He was responsible for the perfectly dreadful Belle of the Yukon and the pretty poor River Lady, so he was no great shakes Westernwise.
 
The idea is that the Delmonte family have a huge ranch in California, part of a 1761 Spanish land grant, but gold is discovered on the land, rancher Delmonte is murdered and American prospectors flood in, followed by a motley band of hangers-on, inc. crooks. The good news: the chief crook, banker Rufus Bynum, who obviously ordered the death of the rancher, is played by Steve Brodie. One of the better bad-guys, Brodie did more Westerns than any other genre, from Badman’s Territory in 1946 right through to an episode of the TV How the West Was Won in 1979, almost invariably as villain. I remember him especially in Gun Duel in Durango. In Sierra Baron he has a great line in natty vests, all the colors of the rainbow. Sadly, though, he had no derringer, which I felt he needed. Derringers were pretty well standard equipment for crooked bankers. Naturally, he has the tame local judge (Pedro Galván) and sheriff (Reed Howes) in his pay.
 
Top bad guy Steve Brodie
 
Loyal Delmonte factotum Felipe (José Angel Espinosa, aka Ferrusquilla, whom you may remember from Two Mules for Sister Sara) goes down to Mexico to bring back the heir to the throne, young Miguel (New Yorker Rick Jason, doing his best to be Spanish, in his only ever feature Western) and of course Miguel will bravely resist the crooked bully Bynum.

José Angel Espinosa, aka Ferrusquilla

Miguel starts with an interesting combat, fighting Bynum henchman Goheen (Lee Morgan), who has brass knuckles, by taking off a Spanish spur and slashing Goheen’s face with it. Naturally, though Miguel won’t be able to beat Bynum alone. He will be aided by Bynum’s erstwhile employee McCracken. This was a standard ploy: Mexicans were quite incapable of winning without US advice, help and direction (see every American Western set in Mexico).

Gunslinger Keith helps out the ranchero
 
Miguel has a glam sis, natch (Rita Gam, no more Spanish than her ‘brother’, and equally unWestern, though she was Scott Brady’s love interest in Fox's Mohawk two years before) and of course now that McCracken has changed sides he falls for her, and, let it be said, vice versa.

It's lerve
 
Another strand of the plot now enters the story as Miguel rescues a deranged American wagon-trainer, Mrs. Russell, from the desert and saves her life. They too will fall in love, to complement the Keith/Gam romance. Sue Russell is played by Mala Powers, who had graduated from radio Westerns like Red Ryder and The Cisco Kid to big-screen B-Westerns and TV shows. Most notably she was Rose of Cimarron in 1952, and you may also remember her in The Yellow Mountain with Lex Barker and Rage at Dawn with Randolph Scott.

It's also lerve
 
The California senate unexpectedly recognizes the Spanish land grants, which undermines crooked Bynum’s stance. He raises a mob with flaming torches to go burn the Delmonte hacienda but the brave wagon-trainers, urged by Sue Russell, gallop to the aid of the Delmontes and a climactic showdown gun-battle ensues. You may guess the outcome, as it is rather predictable, like most of the movie, though you may not guess the fate of Brian Keith.

The picture was shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor in nice Mexico locations, so Fox didn’t do it entirely on the cheap. The DP was Alex Phillips, the Canadian-born Mexican cinematographer who shot quite a few Westerns in Mexico, both Mexican ones and American ones like The Last of the Fast Guns, the 1962 Geronimo, and The Glory Guys.

Cinematographer Alex Phillips
 
It’s not bad. It just scraped up to three revolvers for Brian Keith, who, even on auto-pilot, was quite good.

The costumes are interesting.

 

 

Friday, February 22, 2019

Apache Trail (MGM, 1942)


An early-40s MGM B-Western




 
 
One thinks of MGM putting out big A-pictures all the time but they had their own line in one-hour second-feature B-Westerns to fill out theater programs, just like the other studios, and such a one was their wartime black & white oater Apache Trail.
 
An MGM 'B'

Anything with Apache in it was a safe bet and Apache Drums, Apache Warrior, Apache Rifles, Apache Uprising, Apache Ambush, Apache Territory, Apache Fury, and so on pretty well ad infinitum show that the word had real mileage in a title.

This one concerns a stagecoach to Lordsburg through Apache territory and coming so soon after John Ford had adapted Ernest Haycox’s Stage to Lordsburg into Stagecoach, that was perhaps no coincidence. The subject was popular. In fact Apache Trail too was from a Haycox story, Stage Station (1939).

Lloyd Nolan topped the bill - unusually, for a lead, taking the part of the bad guy (it did happen but was relatively rare). Nolan had been a mainstay at Paramount for years and had a rep for gangster pictures, working a lot with James Cagney and George Raft. But in the 40s he started moving round the studio system and taking different roles. He had some track (or trail) record in our noble genre because he had been the bad guy Polka Dot in Paramount’s 1936 The Texas Rangers (the Fred MacMurray one) and he had also been fourth-billed in the studio’s big Wells Fargo in ’37, with Joel McCrea. But this was only his third feature Western of (depending on your definition of Western) four, so he was hardly an expert in the genre. And indeed, he didn’t seem very suited to the oater. In Apache Trail he does have rather gangstery diction.


Co-starring was Donna Reed, then quite new (she had been signed to MGM the year before) and this was her very first Western. You probably remember her in Hangman’s Knot, Gun Fury, They Rode West, Three Hours to Kill, The Far Horizons and Backlash. But I’m afraid she was very unconvincing in Apache Trail as Mexican maiden Rosalia Martinez, and, to be honest, she was rather wooden as an actress in the part too. Her screen ma, Señora Martinez was much better, played by the equally non-Mexican but rather lively Connie Gilchrist.

The señora approves

The good-guy part was taken by William Lundigan, another non-expert in Westerns (he had smallish parts in five) and in Apache Trail he is rather stolid and even dull.

Lundigan a bit stodgy

So I’m afraid the cast didn’t exactly sparkle, and the movie suffers as a result. Having said that, we do at least get Chill Wills in a colorful part and Ray Teal, as the stage driver. Grant Withers and Fuzzy Knight appear too. You can also spot Hank Bell’s mustache, with Hank Bell attached to it. So there is some interest.

Chill works at the stage station

The director was Richard Thorpe, an MGM stand-by on low-budget B-movies. Westerns had been his stock in trade since the silent days, when he helmed a lot of Jay Wilsey oaters. This was already his 68th Western, and he’d still be going into the late 60s. The IMDb bio says, “He had no particular style, directing mechanically on the premise of keeping the camera rolling until an actor blew a line--or a scene suffered a mechanical malfunction--and then going back and completing it with a close-up or reaction shot.” Certainly the direction on Apache Trail is uninspired but I suppose competent. How much that was down to him, though, is in some doubt because the director was to have been Richard Rosson, and indeed Rosson worked on the film from the pre-production stage starting December 1941 until early April 1942 but after 31 days of shooting, he became ill and was replaced by Thorpe, who received sole onscreen credit, despite working on the film for only two weeks.

Directors Thorpe and Rosson

Maurice Geraghty was the writer who cooked up the screenplay from the Haycox story. I can’t find the original story so I don’t know how faithful the movie is to it. Geraghty worked on Westerns more than on any other genre and had contributed to various Three Mesquiteers, Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy pictures. Later he would reach the dizzy heights of Tomahawk and Rose of Cimarron, before devoting himself to Western TV shows. Gordon Kahn also contributed to the screenplay, uncredited.

Haycox

Geraghty

Apache Trail has quite a snappy opening as a circuit judge (George Watts), who confides to a fellow passenger his principle of “When in doubt, hang ‘em”, doesn’t even bother to disembark from the stage but hears the case against Tom Folliard (Lundigan) in about thirty seconds and shouts his sentence from the window of the departing coach.

Tom was involved in a robbery organized by his bad brother Trigger Bill (Nolan) though he is a goody really and refuses his share of the loot. Despite the fact that Tom has served time, the manager of the stage company (Emory Parnell) give him a job managing the stage station in Apache territory because no one else wants it. It’s there that he meets the fair Rosalia and her feisty ma. Chill is an employee there too. Luckily, Tom is “the fastest man with a gun in the whole Southwest”. “Second fastest,” argues Trigger Bill.

As you may imagine, the stage to Lordsburg arrives with a variety of characters. One is a posh and rather snooty dame (Anne Ayars), who flirts with handsome Tom, much to the annoyance of Rosalia, who has set her cap at him. Then there’s an Army major (Frank M Thomas) and a married couple (Miles Mander and Gloria Holden). But then Trigger Bill turns up (as he was bound to do), the Apaches attack and things get complicated.

Snooty dame and Mexican maiden

Geronimo leads “the whole Apache nation” in the assault but sadly he is never seen. For some reason the Apaches wear those Plains-Indian feathered war bonnets (probably the props & costumes dept. at MGM wanted to get some use out of them). There is an Apache boy, Cochee (Tito Renaldo) who works at the station (Tom befriended him) and is attached to the whites. He makes a noble self-sacrifice and dies saying, “Cochee good Indian” before expiring, which was a bit sickly.

There will be another self-sacrifice at the end.

The Apaches attack

There’s some nice saguaro-studded terrain round Old Tucson, though most is shot cheaply on sound stages in the studio.

Mostly in the studio

The picture ends with a message urging us to buy war bonds.

All in all I didn’t mind it. It’s standard B-Western fare but no worse than many others of the period. Only the leading players let it down a bit.

MGM remade Apache Trail ten years later as Apache War Smoke, with Gilbert Roland, but sadly this is not available on DVD or even on YouTube so I can’t tell you much about that right now.

Arty, man


 

 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The American Western north of the border


The Hollywood Mountie always gets his man


Just as Hollywood liked Mexico as a setting for Westerns, as I was waffling on about the other day in The American Western south of the border, so too Canada had its allure as a scenario for the oater. Hollywood had its own vision of what Canada was like, though as with Mexico it was often just another theater for the derring-do of the classic Hollywood Western star.

There were slightly fewer Hollywood ‘Canadian’ Westerns, though, than ‘Mexican’ ones. That will make this article shorter, you will be relieved to hear.

Coop in Canada

A classic example will do to start us off: Paramount’s turgid North West Mounted Police, a 1940 Cecil B DeMille-directed picture starring Gary Cooper. This was notionally a story about the so-called North-West Rebellion of 1885, led by Louis Riel (Francis McDonald in this movie). Louis David Riel (1844 – 1885) was a Canadian politician, founder of the province of Manitoba, and a leader of the Métis people of the Canadian prairies. Riel sought to preserve Métis rights and culture as their homelands in the Northwest came progressively under the Canadian sphere of influence. He led two resistance movements against the Canadian government. The first was the Red River Rebellion of 1869 - 1870; during this Riel was forced into exile in the United States (Montana). But he returned in 1885 and renewed his opposition to the Canadian government, and this was known as the North-West Rebellion of 1885, in which he urged the Indians to rise in revolt. (In the movie the Indians are all ‘Ug’ stereotypes, as DeMille's Indians usually were). It ended in Riel's arrest, trial, and execution on a charge of high treason.

The real Riel and the reel Riel

Now, when revolutions and rebellions occurred south of the border, Hollywood was usually more or less on the side of the revolutionaries. Juárez v. Maximilian? Warners’ Juarez was very pro- Juárez. Pancho Villa v. President Huerta? In all those movies Pancho was the good guy (or at any rate the one in the right). Fox’s Viva Zapata! had quite a left-wing slant, directed as it was by Elia Kazan and written by John Steinbeck (MGM had been going to make it but studio execs reckoned that Zapata was “a goddamn Commie revolutionary” and sold the project to Fox).

However, Cecil B DeMille was not Kazan and his writers Alan Le May and Jesse Lasky Jr. were no Steinbecks. DeMille shot the picture as a straight ‘Redcoats v Redskins’ drama in which Riel and his supporters are unmitigated evils. There is no hint that they might actually have had some right on their side. Well, you couldn’t be against Queen Victoria, could you? That little old widow in Windsor. Of course Hollywood studios weren’t exactly paragons of liberal politics and they were happy to toe the pro-government line, and Cecil B DeMille wasn’t exactly the most assiduous presenter of historical fact. In fact his films are historical bunkum. Laughably, he cultivated a reputation for doing detailed research.

Gary Cooper played the ‘gringo’ figure. Just as he would later cross the Rio Grande to fight in the likes of Garden of Evil and Vera Cruz, so now he would be a Texas Ranger gone north to bring back a criminal (George Bancroft). Hollywood was generally happier with a true American hero in these alien contexts.

Two-Gun Tex: Coop in Canada

Being DeMille, huge swathes of the movie were shot on those enormous studio sound-stages that he liked (he hated going on location) and the outside shots that he had to do were filmed in California. No one actually went to Canada.

Tyrone in Canada

This choice of locations reached its reductio ad absurdam in Fox’s Pony Soldier in 1952, in which the sunny sandstone of Arizona did duty for Canada. It is actually very attractive terrain, shot by Harry Jackson, Oscar nominee for another picture, but it’s hardly Canada. Never mind. This one starred Tyrone Power, who, unlike Coop, didn’t really do Westerns as a rule. He was Jesse James in 1939 and he was also very good in Fox’s smaller but very good (and underrated) Rawhide in 1951, but he only did six cowboy films in total and apart from Jesse James and Rawhide, two were Canadian Mountie pictures, one was a Brigham Young biopic and in the other he was Zorro; they hardly count as Westerns at all.

Canada, AZ

Pony Soldier is supposedly based on a true story (but we all know how that goes in Hollywood) about a young, inexperienced Mountie named Constable Duncan MacDonald. It’s 1876. The RCMP has only being going for three years and no one has yet told Duncan that the Mountie always gets his man. As a result, he returns to base having let the fugitive he was pursuing escape. After this faux pas he is assigned to bringing the whole Cree tribe, which has fled its "reserve" over into the US, back into Her Majesty’s domains, as well as rescuing two captives that the Cree have taken. To achieve this mission he only has one helper, the comic-relief fat half-breed sidekick Natayo Smith, played, with gusto, by Thomas Gomez. New Yorker Gomez is one of the highlights of the movie, in fact. He brings life to what otherwise risks being a rather plodding ‘Western’.

Power and Gomez wear the red

The other Mountie movie Tyrone appeared in? It was a tiny (uncredited) part in a forgettable small-studio B-picture, Northern Frontier, in 1935. This was a low-budget Poverty Row effort starring Kermit Maynard as a Mountie who gets his man. It was shot round Big Bear Lake, California, that being Canadian enough for the producers.

Of course Coop and Tyrone weren't the first to don the scarlet tunic. William S Hart had done it right back in 1921 in O'Malley of the Mounted, and doubtless there were others silent Mounties too.

Bill Hart wore it too (though in black & white)

Alberta puts the West in Western

It was perhaps ironic, given that these ‘Canadian’ stories were filmed in the US, how many later ‘true’ Westerns, i.e. stories set in the United States and Territories, would later be shot up in Canada. The Snake, Bow and Maligne Rivers were the ones Robert Mitchum rafted down with Marilyn Monroe (when they weren’t being filmed back at the Fox studios with a back-projection screen) in River of No Return.
 
Canadian river in back-projection

Last of the Dogmen, Mustang Country, Brokeback Mountain, Unforgiven, Open Range, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, all set in the US, and even some scenes of The Searchers were filmed up in Alberta, and this list is certainly not exhaustive (nor will it be continued now).

Alan Ladd in Canada

One thing about Raoul Walsh’s Canadian Western, though, two years after Pony Soldier, was that it was actually shot in Canada. Saskatchewan, aka O’Rourke of the Royal Mounted, was filmed in the Banff National Park, and stunningly beautiful it is too, shot in Technicolor by John F Seitz, a seven-time Oscar nominee, no less, who, however, never actually won one.




It is 1877, in Saskatchewan. Alan Ladd (Whispering Smith in red) has been brought up by the Cree and become a policeman. He does everything to prevent the Cree allying with post-Little Big Horn Sioux, who have come north into Her Majesty’s domains, wanting to wipe out as many redcoats as they had bluecoats. Ladd has his own Tonto in the shape of Jay Silverheels, his blood brother, but Jay is a bit cross at being disarmed by a mule-headed and insensitive British RCMP officer (Robert Benton) and so he sides with Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.
 

In a Bountyesque episode, Ladd mutinies against Benton and leads the party bravely to safety. In the group is Shelley Winters, a large saloon gal, who is distinctly out of place. She is accompanied by an Earpish US marshal (in fact it’s Hugh O’Brian so no wonder he looks Earpish) who is taking Shelley back to Montana to stand trial for murder, though really he is in love with her. So once again we had a Canadian version of the gringo.

There is loads of action as the Sioux attack a lot. Well, it was Raoul Walsh picture. There’s a high-speed canoe chase, obviously the prototype for Bullitt or The French Connection (not). It’s really a straightforward cavalry Western that just happens to be set in Canada and the soldiers have red uniforms instead of blue. Ladd isn’t very good (he never was as a Western action man) and the part cried out for Errol Flynn but I suppose the female fans were happy either way.

Robert Ryan in Canada

Talking of the Sioux, in 1961 Fox produced The Canadians (yet to be reviewed) in which the Sioux, led by Michael Pate (obviously - he was the specialist at Indian chiefs) come to Canada after Little Bighorn, and Mountie Inspector Robert Ryan permits them to stay if they live by Her Majesty’s laws.

Ryan gets his man too

However, Montana rancher John Dehner and his gun-thugs kill all inhabitants of one of their villages. The question is, as per usual, will the Mountie get his men? It was Burt Kennedy’s directorial debut and is supposed to be based on a true story.

Randy in Canada

Another Hollywood Western star who went to Canada, Randolph Scott, went there quite a lot. In 1939 he allowed himself to be upstaged by eleven-year-old Shirley Temple (already a wizened old hand at the movie business) in Susannah of the Mounties. This not quite unwatchable picture (though there are moments when you have to turn away) had Randy as an Inspector (a sort of colonel, I think) in the Mounties. He looks rather daft in his ‘British’ mustache and red uniform with silly bell hop's cap. And I didn’t know Her Majesty’s officers rode mustangs with Texas saddles or spoke with Virginia accents. A couple of his brother officers were actually English anyway, so at least central casting got that right.

Yes, well

The Indians (it’s an Indians-against-the railroad plot) are even more “Ug, me big chief” than was usual for this time and the script is very weak despite (or because of) the fact that no fewer than nine writers contributed to the screenplay from a Muriel Denison novel. There were even two directors. The Indians also wear their feathered war bonnets and paint all the time, rather like you and me wearing our tuxedos or long dresses to wash the car.

Randy was back north of the border in 1949 for Fox’s Canadian Pacific. Canadian Pacific is certainly not one of Randolph Scott’s better Westerns. In fact it is one of his weakest. In his very good book The Films of Randolph Scott (McFarland & Company, 2004) Robert Nott is particularly down on it and goes so far as to call it “abysmal”. Nott says, “It may not be Scott’s overall worst film, but I rate it as his overall worst Western.” He adds, “Randolph Scott or no Randolph Scott, it stinks.” Myself, I think that’s going a bit far. It does have action, color, and Victor Jory as villain, after all. But I do admit, it’s pretty weak generally.

Randy built the Canadian Pacific

It’s just the generic American railroad Western transposed to Canada, one of those UnionPacificky nation-building stories. Scott would something similar in Santa Fe (1951) and yet again in Carson City (1952). It starts with politicians afraid that if no railroad is built over the Canadian Rockies, British Columbia might secede, obviously a fate worse than death. But never fear, Canadian Pacific boss Cornelius Van Horne (Robert Barrat, rather good) assures the parliamentary committee that his man Tom Andrews (Scott) is on the job, and if anyone can find a pass over the mountain range, he can. And, then, as expected, the film goes all fuzzy and we morph to the (Canadian) Western frontier and there’s surveyor Randy, duly gazing at majestic peaks and mapping a route.

It was at least shot in Canada and is very attractive visually. It was photographed by Fred Jackman Jr. (201 silent, B-movie and TV Westerns including six Randolph Scott oaters) up in the Banff National Park again and round Lake Louise in Alberta, even if a lot of scenes are shot on sound stages.

And the following year he was back

Scott obviously got the taste for the Canadian lifestyle (there definitely is one) because in 1950 he was back for The Cariboo Trail, again directed by the solid but uninspired Edwin L Marin and again with Victor Jory as the bad guy. This time it’s not railroads but gold and cattle, in British Columbia. Canadian Pacific had suffered from poor writing (Jack De Witt and Kenneth Gamet) but Cariboo was written by Frank Gruber, a B-Western specialist, certainly, but experienced (this was his fifth oater) who went on to do some excellent little pictures like Denver and Rio Grande and a few more Randolph Scott movies. Gruber could do pace but also managed some (limited) character development. The story was provided by Scott’s friend John Rhodes Sturdy (splendid British Empire name) who had worked as technical advisor on Canadian Pacific. It’s about gold discovered in British Columbia and how Randy and his partners drive cattle up there from Montana to settle in the Chilcotin country, “a cattleman’s paradise”. In fact, though, it could have been set anywhere and is a pretty generic Western, with standard elements such as a town owned by the bad guy, rustlers stampeding the herd and the like.

Jimmy Stewart went there too

Borden Chase’s story and screenplay for The Far Country (1955), the fourth of the Westerns James Stewart made with Anthony Mann, has adventurer Jeff Webster (Stewart) locking horns with crooked Judge Gannon (a splendid John McIntire) on both sides of the Canadian border.

Excellent Western

It’s a gripping tale shot in the rugged scenery Mann loved to use in spectacular Athabasca Glacier and other Jasper National Park locations. It is definitely Hollywood’s idea of 1896 Canada, with the townsfolk of a very Wild West Dawson electing a marshal with a tin star. But it’s a great movie.

Bob Steele, James Craig, and so on. They were all Mounties.

Loads of other Western stars made ‘Canadian’ Westerns, often about as Canadian as I am (i.e. not at all). Try Bob Steele, for example, in Northwest Trail (1945). It’s a contemporary Western (another reason purists will discard it) from a Poverty Row studio in which Mountie Bob, on a fancy Palomino, comes across an annoying and rude woman (Joan Woodbury, who took roles as an ‘exotic’ woman in various Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and Johnny Mack Brown oaters) in her stranded convertible, which he politely repairs notwithstanding her facetious and irritating remarks. Then he finds that he is ordered to escort the tiresome dame up to a remote camp. The car is soon left behind, though, and it becomes a straight Western from there on in, with horses, guns and a gang of bad guys illegally mining gold.

Bob gets his man

Or try Fort Vengeance (1953). It’s set in 1876. We know this because a line of the dialogue tells us that Custer has been killed at Little Bighorn “a few weeks ago.” In this version of ‘history’ Sitting Bull (Michael Granger) raced for the Canadian border with his braves right after the battle, where he immediately started stirring up trouble, trying to persuade the peaceable Blackfoot under sage Chief Morris Ankrum that the redcoats are just as perfidious as the bluecoats and the warpath is the only answer. James Craig will save the day though. The Mountie Inspector is frightfully, frightfully English, played by Reginal Denny, from Surrey, who would be the dastardly Sir Harry in Cat Ballou. It’s all in a quite nice Cinecolor, in Corrigan Ranch, California locations. Good old Lesley Selander was at the helm. He was good at action so there’s a fair bit of gallopin’ and shootin’. There’s a villainous French-Canadian, Luboc (Peter Camlin), who takes Carey in on his scam, which causes all the trouble. There’s a last-reel brotherly showdown, enabling Chief Ankrum to announce sonorously that “There will be peace!” Phew.

All those Yukon/Klondike pictures

The gold strike in the 1890s was manna from heaven for Hollywood. Of course a lot of the activity was on the Alaska side of the border and since the Tsar’s basement sale, when Mr. Seward picked up the territory for 2 cents an acre, Alaska was American. We can’t count those movies as Canada Westerns. All those different versions of The Spoilers, for example. Or John Wayne going North to Alaska in 1960. Mae West was Klondike Annie for Raoul Walsh in 1936 and there were many Klondike movies set in Alaska.

But the Yukon itself, the Canadian province hived off from the Northwest Territories in 1898, that was a magnet for Hollywood too. There was Sergeant Preston of the Yukon on TV but big-screen Westerns or semi-Westerns were abundant. Charles Starrett went North of the Yukon in 1939. Monogram put out several Yukon pictures starring Kirby Grant, like Trail of the Yukon (1949), Yukon Gold (1952) and Yukon Vengeance (1954). The studio also had Queen of the Yukon in 1940, and in 1944 RKO gave us Belle of the Yukon, Randolph Scott’s worst Western. And so it went on.

Then there were all those White Fang movies. Jack London’s mutt first came to the screen in a 1926 silent but he has been back often since. Decidedly, there has been a call of the wild going on as far as the Yukon is concerned.

Jack's book was often filmed

Canadian Canada

Of course Canadians have made Westerns too, not just Hollywood oaters pretending to be there. Dan Candy’s Law (1974) aka for some odd reason Alien Thunder was an all-Canadian affair. It had Donald Sutherland, 39, post-MASH, pre-Day of the Locust, as Constable Dan Candy, determined to hunt down a Cree, Almighty Voice (Gordon Tootoosis, whose first film this was) who had shot down Candy’s pardner, Kevin McCarthy. Sutherland, in his first ever Western, is at full steam. And Chief Dan George is in it, as Almighty Voice’s leader, Sounding Sky. This was after Little Big Man and he hasn’t aged a bit. He looks well under 100. He was a Canadian, of course. We have Québécois Jean Duceppe as the Mountie Inspector, or Inspecteur, wiz a vary Franche accsont. His boss, the Brit General, is a complete idiot. The direction, by another Quebecker, Claude Fournier, is, however, very leisurely, not to say plain slow. Pursuit movies are hard to pace and this one often moves slower than a walking horse. Really, Dan Candy’s Law is a Canadian attempt at a real Western. We are in the West of North America at some time in the 1890s and it is a straight revenge/chase plot in which a loner hunts an Indian. But as the subject of this article is the American Western north of the border, we had better not dwell on it.

A Western, withowt a dowt

Or the likes of The Grey Fox (1982), based on the true story of Bill Miner, who staged Canada's first train robbery in 1904, or the comedy Gunless (2010) in which American gunfighter the Montana Kid arrives in Canada where the code of the West is not quite understood, or The Mountie (2011), a sort of Canadian spaghetti, if that’s not too implausible, or Six Reasons Why (2007), another spaghetti or post-spaghetti, or indeed several others. They are beyond my current remit.

Refuge

Mexico was sometimes used as a refuge for outlaws and such, and it was also a place where the classic Western idea of the “little piece of land” could be found, that new frontier where you could settle down and run a ranch unmolested. That wasn’t quite the case with Canada. Yes, sometimes badmen did cross the northern border, or head for it, in an attempt to escape the law but I have never seen a Western in which the hero and heroine set off for Her Maj’s domains to start anew. They got close – you know, Montana and such – but cowboys don’t really go any further.

Well, that’s all I have to say about Westerns north of the border. Thanks for reading, if you got this far.