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

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Gatling Gun (Broadway/Ellman, 1971)


Mowing down Apaches




 
 
Richard Gatling (left), a North Carolina inventor and doctor (though he never practiced medicine), was living in Indianapolis at the outbreak of the Civil War and devoted himself to improving firearms. In 1861 he invented the Gatling gun and a year later he founded the Gatling Gun Company. Later in life Gatling patented inventions to improve toilets, bicycles, steam-cleaning of raw wool and pneumatic power, among other gadgets, but he will forever be remembered as the inventor of the terrible engine of destruction, the precursor of the modern machine gun. It was used in the Civil War but not extensively, and it is interesting to speculate as to why.

There is not much (if any) evidence of these guns being used in the West against Indians after the war. Custer famously refused to bring Gatlings with him in his Little Bighorn campaign. Maxim guns, not Gatlings, were used at Wounded Knee. But the Gatling made a good story and Western movies featured them quite a bit. Gatling Gun was an alternative title for Siege at Red River. The War Wagon contained a Gatling in its turret. Dale Robertson did in Stephen McNally with one in Devil's Canyon. They attacked Billy the Kid in McSween's store with one in Young Guns. A Gatling was an important plot device in Something Big. And so on.

A Gatling at Fort Laramie

The 1971 Western The Gatling Gun really isn’t very good, though. It has all the look of a cheap spaghetti shot in Spain (though in fact it was filmed in New Mexico). Made by Broadway Enterprises and theatrically released in the US by Ellman Film Enterprises, it was directed by Robert Gordon, his second Western feature of only two (the other was Allied Artists’ The Rawhide Trail in 1958) and his final film.

It starred Guy Stockwell, Dean’s older brother. He had been Buffalo Bill in the 1966 remake of The Plainsman but that and this one were his only Western movies (though he spent more Western time on the small screen). He’s OK, I guess, though his hair looks more 1970s than 1870s.

Lt. Stockwell

The picture is in the public domain, which means that we often see copies of copies with dismal print quality shown by low-rent TV stations, as I did. The sound was muddy. Furthermore, the width was not adapted to my widescreen TV and so, in fashionable 1971 lower case, the credits told me that the movie starred guy stock, bert fuller, barbara lu and woody strod. Oh well.

It was made on a $275,000 budget, so don’t expect a cast of thousands or anything.

There will be blood

It’s a pretty standard (and pretty dull) cavalry/Apache Western, with Stockwell Sr. as brave Lieutenant Wayne Malcolm whose mission is to recover a stolen Gatling gun which is in danger of falling into the hands of fearsome chief Two Knife (Carlos Rivas, birth name Oscar von Weber, in his last Western) and his marauding followers. 1870s-ish, I’d guess. Second-billed Robert Fuller (who did fewer big-screen Westerns than you might think; this is the sixth of only eight) is the bad guy Private Sneed who conned well-meaning but foolish clergyman the Reverend Mr. Harper (John Carradine, nearing the end of his Western career, but still hamming it up as usual) into hiding the gun – the cleric cannot countenance its use against his beloved Indians. In a dramatic opening, the gun is recovered by Lt. Malcolm, though someone has removed the firing pin, so the device is useless. The Apaches attack so it would have come in handy, but nay.
 
Bobby Fuller is the bad guy
 
The Reverend Mr. Carradine

Also on the patrol are Corporal Benton, played by New Mexico bigwig moonlighting as actor Governor David Cargo, and the scout Runner (Woody Strode, in the eleventh of his nineteen feature Westerns). Woody’s son Kalai did the stunts and was 2nd Unit director, as well as being an Apache warrior. So he was quite busy.

Woody is the scout. But he doesn't have much to do or say.

They take refuge at a farm and join forces with its occupants, Luke Boland (Phil Harris), his bolshie Confederate son Jim (Patrick Wayne) and the handy cook-mechanic Tin Pot (Pat Buttram), and the latter sets about fixing that Gatling - otherwise it will be curtains for all the whites. Maybe it was a joke that they were Confederates because that was always part of comic Harris’s shtick. Mr. Harris didn’t do Westerns as a rule, though I can forgive him anything, even that, for his Baloo in The Jungle Book. Fellow-comic Buttram was of course one of Gene Autry’s sidekicks (replacing Smiley Burnette).

Phil 'n' Pat are father and son

He's graduated from sidekicking Gene to repairing Gatling guns

Naturally there are swell dames. You can’t have a Western without swell dames. Well, you can, but it’s rare. Third-billed Barbara Luna is the Mexicana Leona, and she soon proves to be less than saintly, ready to canoodle with Sneed, or anyone come to that, to advance her interests. Judith Jordan, in her only Western, poor soul, plays Jim’s sister Martha, and she will set her metaphorical cap at the lieutenant. The two gals will go at each other hammer and tongs, in what is often (rather disrespectfully, I feel) called a catfight.


Les filles

There’s the odd bit of trendy end-of-the-60s blood but in general the picture is done ‘straight’ and has little or nothing revisionist about it. I mean, Soldier Blue it ain’t. The Indians are the fierce enemy, whom it is perfectly acceptable to mow down in droves with the Gatling (once they get it working). One of the reasons that Govr. Cargo got into political hot water from the Native American and pro-Native American communities.

But it’s not that I found disappointing, really. It’s just that the whole thing is rather dreary. It just staggered from one revolver up to two but it was a close-run thing, and I may have been generous. If you want to see a cavalry Western with Apaches, go watch Ulzana's Raid (1972). That was seriously classy. This one? Uh-huh.
 



 

3 comments:

  1. Jeff, not directly related to your article - except for the cavalry-indians theme - I wanted to signal a brand new Blueberry bande dessinée called Amertume Apache - Apache bitterness - by Joann Sfar and Christophe Blain.the latter having already published a western serie, Gus, about 10 years ago. I have not read it yet but the critics are promising. Nice Christmas gift idea... JM

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  2. See for ex
    https://www.telerama.fr/livre/bd-blueberry-ressuscite-par-christophe-blain-et-joann-sfar%2Cn6577399.php
    But not sure you can read it in full

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