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

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Pathfinder (Columbia, 1952)


George dons the coonskin cap





 
 
The French president has ordered us oldies to stay at home for the duration of this coronavirus crisis, so I am forced to watch more Westerns. Every cloud has a silver lining. Or a lead one.

As we are on a bit of a George Montgomery jag at the moment I thought I’d continue with one of his three oaters from 1952, The Pathfinder.

George wears the coonskin cap

Well, I say oater. It’s not really. They hardly have any horses to feed oats to; they seem to walk everywhere in this one, or paddle there in a canoe. I’m not normally too keen on these sword-and-tricorn-hat dramas. They’re Easterns more than Westerns. Though I guess they are still frontier tales. It was just that in those days the West began in upper New York State, or whatever it was called in 1754. One of the thirteen colonies, I suppose.

But many Western stars swapped their Stetson for a coonskin cap and their Winchester for a single-shot musket at one time or another. Henry Fonda was gallant for John Ford along the Mohawk, John Wayne was The First Rebel in Allegheny Uprising, and Randolph Scott was Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans. George did the same, also in a screen treatment of a James Fenimore Cooper tale.

Often, a movie compares unfavorably with a great novel. However good the films, Shane, True Grit, The Searchers and many more are never quite up to their source books. But in the case of Fenimore Cooper, the motion pictures are infinitely superior. This is because the books were so desperately long and boring, while the movies just took the best bits. And changed a whole lot too.

Miserable old codger by the look if it. No wonder his books were so boring.

The adaptation from book to screen was done by Robert E Kent, who had been tapping out screenplays for studios since 1937 (and would still be doing so in the 1970s) and had started penning Westerns with a John Payne logging picture in 1940. Some of them were a lot of fun, such as Bad Men of Missouri, Utah Blaine or Noose for a Gunman. Later he would move into producing, with his company Peerless Productions, and he worked quite a lot with Montgomery. Fort Ti in 1953 was another colonial drama, Seminole Uprising took us down to Florida, the excellent Gun Duel in Durango, reviewed the other day, was a more classic Western, then there was The Toughest Gun in Tombstone (another great title), and Badman’s Territory. Bob and George seem to have got on.

Bob

Another frequent collaborator was director Sidney Salkow. Three of Sid’s twelve Westerns were Montgomery pictures. He was no John Ford or Howard Hawks, to be sure, but he was a solid journeyman who could turn out a fast-paced picture with all the requisite action.

Sid

So with Sid at the helm and Bob at the typewriter things were looking good. And the great Sam Katzman produced the picture. He started as a prop boy at Fox in the year dot, worked his way up to assistant director on low-budget fare and would be a Hollywood producer for forty years. Westerns for minor studios were something of a specialty with him. Director William Castle wrote that Katzman “was a smallish man with a round cherubic face and twinkling eyes. Few people in the motion picture industry took him seriously as a producer of quality films, but to me, Sam was a great showman." Many Katzman Westerns were, ahem, at the cheaper end of the spectrum, but occasionally there was a darn good one – Utah Blaine, for example. He worked six times with Montgomery.

Sam

The story opens in 1754 with the French and the British both wanting to take over the Great Lakes area, and “the warlike Mingos” siding with the French while “the peace-loving Mohicans” back the British. It’s clear from the outset that the French are the bad guys. The Mingos slaughter the Mohicans, leaving only Chingachgook and his son Uncas alive – the last of the tribe. Well, apart from George. He’s a white man who was brought up by the people.

Good news: this Chingachgook is played by Jay Silverheels. You’d think Jay would have had enough sidekicking a bossy white man telling him wat to do all the time – he’d been Tonto since 1949. But I guess he just put up with it. When Katzman offered him the role he probably said, “Me do.”

Jay sidekicks again

The ruthless leader of the Mingos, Chief Arrowhead, is our old pal Rodd Redwing. Rodd was (he said) a Chickasaw, and he was a gunsmith with Stembridge Gun Rentals, the largest and best known firearms rental company in Hollywood. He pioneered realistic shooting scenes and taught many actors how to draw. It was said that he could draw his gun out of its holster and fire it in two-tenths of a second, although he claimed that actual gunfighters in the West were slow on the draw and usually shot their victims in the back by waiting in ambush. But that was less Hollywood. He often appeared in Westerns too.

George challenges Rodd to hand-to-hand combat

Well, Pathfinder (he’s never called Hawkeye in this one) agrees to spy for the posh British colonel with a fake Scotch accent (Walter Kingsford) to get back at that swine Arrowhead. He is assigned an interpreter as he doesn’t speak the Frenchy lingo and wouldn’t you know it, it’s a glam dame, Welcome Alison (Helena Carter, whom you might also spot in Fort Worth, Bugles in the Afternoon and River Lady).

George and Jay agree to act as spies

Actually, it turns out that she doesn’t speak very good French either. Not even the French officers do. They are led by Colonel Brasseau (Stephen Bakassy, a Hungarian).

He doesn't speak French either. Oh well.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of the plot. There are many. But there’s much action. Pathfinder is suitably heroic and Chingachgook is frightfully supportive. Oh, there’s another baddy, I forgot to say, a renegade Brit, Captain Bradford (Bruce Lester), who is a bounder. He was the fair Welcome’s intended but he turned to drink, then deserted and collaborated with the Frogs. What a cad. Of course he gets his come-uppance in the last reel.

It will be lerve

A big-budget epic this was not, far from it, but it rattles along, and George is tall, tough and terrific, as per usual, even if he didn’t have that splendid Texan Stetson he so often wore.

There is some quite classy music by Mischa Bakaleinikoff with variations on the theme of the Marseillaise every time the French appear, though it’s padded out with a lot of stock music from other movies also.

George is suitably heroic

Anyway, you could watch it. It certainly wasn’t the best Western of 1952 and it wasn’t George’s best either, but well, you know, when you undergoing “self-isolation” (what a stupid term, as if there were any other kind of isolation; I even heard someone on the radio the other day saying “I’m going to self-isolate myself”, doh) you might as well give it a go.


That's a different kind of 1952 Pathfinder


 

12 comments:

  1. Your feelings about Cooper were shared by Mark Twain who wrote an essay tearing apart his frontier stories. If Twain had lived in a later century he might have made a great film critic of westerns.

    Richard

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    1. Yes, Twain was entertaining and right (as usual) on Cooper. His Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences(free on Gutenberg at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3172/3172-h/3172-h.htm) is amusing.
      "I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that Deerslayer is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detailthat goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me thatDeerslayer is just simply a literary delirium tremens."
      Jeff

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  2. Hi Jeff. If you want your period of 'self isolation' to be in any way fruitful then it's probably best to avoid the works of poor old George Montgomery. An actor, to whom the description 'wooden' is a slander to most trees. I have tried to love George and have probably seen most of his Westerns but, with the honourable exception of BLACK PATCH, they have never floated my boat. Speaking of boats, his hats (which resembled inverted canoes) also didn't do much to enhance his credibility. I had the misfortune to sit through DAVY CROCKETT, INDIAN SCOUT the other day and realised that this was eighty minutes of my life I would never get back. Avoid at all costs. Not even the excellent Ellen Drew could salvage this one (although her character did have the good sense to marry the Red Indian sidekick rather than George's Davy Crockett). I feel that George was at his best in an urban/noir setting. He made a decent low-rent Marlowe in THE BRASHER DOUBLOON, was excellent in CHINA GIRL with Gene Tierney but my favourite and my contender for his best picture would be BOMBER'S MOON. I'm also not in the first flush of youth and find stuck indoors myself mainly holed up with Jean-Paul Belmondo Dirty Harry-style policiers although there is always time for the odd Western and I am also trawling through the riches of the Tom Selleck Western. QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER, for example is a cracker. Very underrated is Selleck. His Jesse Stone TV movies are outstandingly good. Jesse being a character for whom self-isolation is second nature....

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    1. A bit harsh, Nick? Slander to most trees? Come on, he wasn't that bad. I grant you he was not the most fluent or natural of actors but he kinda suited Westerns, with his tough-and-taciturn persona. I do agree that DAVY CROCKETT, INDIAN SCOUT is pretty weak, and given that Crockett died at the Alamo, it was a bit dodgy to have him in a story set in 1848... But they cheated. He is the nephew of the famous Davy.
      I agree about Selleck. QUIGLEY is a fine Western and I also liked those TV movies he did, THE SHADOW RIDERS, MONTE WALSH, CROSSFIRE TRAIL and LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER (see reviews).
      Jeff

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  3. Jeff, a favorite actor of mine and many others passed away. Stuart Whitman, who portrayed US Marshal Jim Crown on CIMARRON STRIP(1967-68). Whitman was a fine actor and leading man of both movies and television. My first memory of the ruggedly handsome gravelly voiced actor was as Paul Regret in THE COMANCHEROS(filmed 1960, released 1961).

    STUART WHITMAN R.I.P.

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  4. Hi Walter
    I hadn't yet heard about Stuart Whitman. In his early career he appeared as a uniformed cop in countless episodes of "HIGHWAY PATROL". No sign then that he would later be a star.

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  5. Jerry, I think Stuart Whitman was really a good Western Star and if he had come along sooner, he would have made more Westerns. I like him in THESE THOUSAND HILLS(filmed 1958, released 1959), THE COMANCHEROS(filmed 1960, released 1961), and RIO CONCHOS(1964).

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  6. Yes, farewell, Stuart.
    66 of his 361 appearances (according to IMDb) were Westerns of one kind or another. That’s about 18%.
    I always liked CIMARRON STRIP. I thought it was one of the classier Western TV shows. And he was good as tough Marshal Crown. See https://jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.com/2015/06/cimarron-strip-cbs-tv-1967-8.html
    He guested on other Western TV shows too.
    He also appeared in 14 big-screen Westerns, starting with a small part in a Gene Autry oater in 1952.
    You can spot him in THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO the year after that.
    SILVER LODE, 7 MEN FROM NOW, WAR DRUMS, THESE THOUSAND HILLS (all reviewed; click on the titles in aaa WESTERN MOVIES AND TV SHOWS REVIEWED in the sidebar on the home page).
    He reached his peak as far as feature Westerns were concerned when he was second-billed to the star in THE COMANCHEROS (with John Wayne) in 1961 and RIO CONCHOS (with Richard Boone) in 1964.
    In 1971 he appeared as the bad guy, a gun-runner, in the pretty dire Lee van Cleef spaghetti, CAPTAIN APACHE, alongside McGregor (Percy Herbert), so it was a kind of CIMARRON STRIP reunion.
    Some of his later ones, such as THE WHITE BUFFALO, are better forgotten.
    Yet another of the Western actors from the great days leaves us. Sigh.
    Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.
    Jeff

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  7. Hi Jeff

    Long live the quarantaine... also in Belgium. Great opportunity to see some westerns e.g. my darling clementine... great review...
    Stay healthy

    Bart

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    1. Hi Bart
      It could well be a case of 'long live'. Quarantine was traditionally 40 days (you are a Latinist so you know that) but I fear this one may well be longer…
      Jeff

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  8. I didn't know about Stuart Whitman. I just saw SilverLode where he had a bitpart...
    I liked him in Rio Conchos

    RIP Stuart

    Bart

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  9. Jeff, here is an article based on an interview with Stuart Whitman from 2013.

    https://www.seniorvoicealaska.com/story/2013/09/01/columns/stuart-whitman-a-class-act/236.html

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