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

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ride, Vaquero! (MGM, 1953)

No wonder half the (male) world fell for her


I have just re-watched Ride, Vaquero!, an MGM offering of the early 50s.

Following one of the basic principles of this blog, namely Never trust a Western with an exclamation point in the title, this movie starts badly.

In fact, pards, it is not so much a Western as a heavy-breathing period Romance. Not a good sign, huh? At the centre of it there is a curious love triangle, or, thinking about it, a quadrilateral.

You see, Howard Keel loves Ava Gardner. They are rich ranchers in Texas just after the Civil War (although of course the costumes and guns and so forth are all, as always, 1950s-imitates-1880s). Robert Taylor arrives on the scene, looking curiously old-fashioned, like a cross between Rudolf Valentino and Tom Mix, over-made up and in dudish costume and gunbelt. Of course he falls for Ava. And vice-versa, let it be said. The trouble is, Taylor is already promised to Mexican bandit Anthony Quinn. Yes, it’s Warlock ante diem. Hollywood daringly suggests a homosexual relationship between Quinn and a famous star (Henry Fonda, of course, in Warlock). That’s how the triangle becomes a square.

So, will Robert remain faithful to Anthony or desert him for the (let’s be honest) stunning Ava? No contest, pards. Ava wins it hands down. What an actress she was! Far more than an actress, a presence, a power. No wonder half the (male) world fell for her. They were right to do so. The moment she appears, getting off the train in a dove-gray bolero with pointy breasts, you (if you are a man anyway) go, “Wow!” (Female readers, please excuse this excursion).

Howard Keel was MGM’s tame musical star and here he is totally out of his depth. Ava too, though ineffably Ava, is hardly convincing in a Western. Lucky, then, that Quinn and Taylor were on the set - Quinn because he had license to overact as dashing, debonair mustachioed bandit with vip and flair, and Bob as the strong, silent type. Matinée idol Taylor did a good line in tough Western good-bad man. Here he admirably offsets Quinn and, thanks to the classy writing (Brit Frank Fenton, later to do the seriously good Escape from Fort Bravo and Garden of Evil, so a real talent) Taylor delivers some terrific lines. He reminds me of what Lassiter should have been, if you have ever seen a version of or read Riders of the Purple Sage.

Let’s not forget Jack Elam. One-Reel Jack, as chief henchman of Quinn, survives this time into the last reel before Taylor guns him down. He looks rather dashing in a mustache, although Taylor rather unkindly, if accurately, describes his face at one point as, “The only place where a smile could be ugly.”

There’s a sickly-sentimental priest (Kurt Kasznar) who makes you want to throw up and a straight middle-aged sheriff (Ted de Corsia, one of my favorite Western character actors).

The music (Bronislau Kaper) is over-the-top and makes you think of corny 1930s King Kong-type capers.

However, one thing must be said: the movie is photographed by Robert Surtees. Now, that means that, a priori, it is visually beautiful. I have said elsewhere (and I daresay not only once) that in my view Bruce Surtees, the son, was one of the greatest of all Western cinematographers. He was a genius. Robert, the father, was sound and occasionally very good. There is quality. Utah locations, cavalry, buttes, ‘Rio Grande’, there's a John Ford look about it. There are some stunning shots.

Do not discount this film.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

The guns

Bang bang

One objection to Westerns I have heard, from modern liberals mostly (Charlton Heston didn't e-mail me about this) is that the whole genre is based on guns. Guns are intrinsic to the Western. They are not just a useful accessory; they are essential. You can’t have a Western without guns. How awful.

Is this true?

Surely not.

Well, I have racked (what passes for) my brains. But I can’t come up with a single Western without guns.

There was a pious 1950s b&w TV series called Man Without a Gun, long-forgotten by present-day TV viewers, which had a new angle at the time as a family show, and which tried, worthily, to tone down the violent aspects of Western stories and concentrate on how outlaws could be brought to justice just as well by the printing press as they could with a gun. The pen is mightier than the Colt and all that. But the other characters had guns.

In real history, ‘Bear River’ Tom Smith, Wild Bill’s predecessor in Abilene, tried to bring law ‘n’ order to the wild frontier without a gun. But he got killed, almost beheaded, for his pains.

In Destry Rides Again, James Stewart tames a wild cow-town without a gun, but he has to resort to his daddy’s Colts in the final reel to eliminate the bad guys. So that doesn’t help. And later, as Ransom Stoddard, he at first refuses to confront Liberty Valance with a gun because he insists that civilization depends on law without recourse to deadly weapons. But we all know what happened to Liberty.

In some Westerns, the fact of owning or coming across a gun leads to all the mischief. See, for example Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, 1995. But they still have guns.

I therefore have a horrible feeling that guns are essential to the Western and that you can’t have a proper Western without them. I fear that this places Westerns firmly in the NRA firing-range.

In many movies, especially Wyatt Earp-based ones, cowpokes are obliged to hand in their guns at the sheriff’s office. Guns mean anarchy. See for example Winchester ’73 or Wichita. But the marshal always carries his, holstered proudly on his hip, and shootin’ always occurs.

The kid who hero-worships the famous gunfighter JB Books (John Wayne) in The Shootist kills the man who killed Books but then (in the film anyway) throws away the gun, never to fire one again. But the film is about a gunfighter and is called The Shootist. So I think it unlikely that you will accept that as proof that Westerns are not gun-reliant.

Occasionally you will get a film in which no gun is actually fired. It is rare but it can happen. See for example Four Faces West (lovely little film). But in the first reel of Four Faces Joel McCrea holds up a bank at gunpoint so I don’t think you’re going to let me have that.

There are, yes, no-gun Easterns, i.e. 19th century costume dramas, but they ain’t Westerns.

And of course many Westerns are specifically about guns. Even the titles,

Gun Battle at Monterey
Gun Brothers
Gun Fever
A Gunfight
Gunfight at Comanche Creek
Gunfight at Dodge City
Gunfight at the OK Corral
gunfights, in fact, all over the place,

The Gunfighter
Gunfighters of Abilene
Gunfighters of Casa Grande
Gun for a Coward
Gun Fury
Gun Glory
The Gun Hawk
Gunman’s Walk
Gunmen from Laredo
The Gun Riders
The Long Guns
Guns A’Blazin’
Guns for San Sebastian
Gunsight Ridge
Have Gun Will Travel
Guns of a Stranger
Guns of the Magnificent Seven
(naff sequel)

Guns of Wyoming
Guns of Honor
Young Guns and Young Guns II
Trigger Fast
Hair Trigger
this and that,

The Gun that Won the West
Springfield Rifle
Winchester ’73
Colt .45

to name but a lot.

Having a gun is important to a cowboy because he is on the wild frontier, far from official law, and he may have to shoot a rattlesnake but he may also have to shoot a human sidewinder in order to bring about justice where law is lacking. He will need his gun to fight off Indians and hunt animals to eat and, if all else fails, to gun down the bad guy.

The Colt .45 in particular is a must-have accessory for most film cowboys. If you don't have a Colt on your hip, you're nobody.

So hands up, this is a genre based on the gun.

And many Western writers, directors and properties experts knew a lot about guns and made sure that the right guns were used. Gun buffs are quick to spot an 1880s double-action Colt in a story set in the 1870s or a Peacemaker in the 1860s.

Even non-gun buffs can enjoy curiosities such as Arthur Hunnicutt’s 1850 Colt's revolving rifle in El Dorado (Marie Gomez also uses one in Barquero) or Clint in Pale Rider inserting a fresh chamber of cartridges into his 1858 Remington revolver with a .45 caliber conversion.

Specific guns are the source of interest in Westerns. Think of movies like Springfield Rifle, Winchester '73 or Colt .45.

I personally have rather a soft spot for the derringer. They were sneaky little pop guns used by slick gamblers and louche saloon women in Western after Western. Just occasionally the good guys used one, like Randolph Scott in A Lawless Street or Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset.

Other guns have a certain charisma to them such as the Sharps. Here, think Quigley, Valdez or the True Grit remake.

Then there were the specials or one-offs like Steve McQueen's 'mare's leg' cut-down Winchester in Wanted, Dead or Alive or the sawn-off provided by the Swede that James Caan uses in El Dorado.

Guns are part of the mystique and how they are handled or worn is important. The gunbelts and holsters became more and more low-slung as the years went by. They became shiny and slinky and the more dudish were decked out in Spanish silver. Fonda’s twin gold-handled Colts in Warlock even earned the film the title L’Homme aux Colts d’Or in French. As for The Lone Ranger, his belt and pistols must have cost a fortune.

Hollywood adopted with enthusiasm the quick-on-the-draw nonsense that came from dime novels and later pulp novels, and holsters became more low-slung so that the gun could be pulled with lightning speed. Complete hooey, of course, but an essential part of the Western myth. try, as an example, The Fastest Gun Alive, with Broderick Crawford fanning his double-action Colts (you try it).

As the 60s came on, firearms became more brutal, and Gatling guns started mowing down countless Mexicans. Spaghetti westerns had a fetish about guns hidden in every conceivable place from guitars to coffins. Lee Van Cleef as Col. Mortimer in For A Few Dollars More unrolls his horse saddle blanket and assembles a long-range Buntline Colt (a gun which may never have existed in the Old West). It’s all part of the mystique.

Long-range marksmanship is a key feature of several Westerns. One thinks of Joe Kidd, Quigley Down Under or Valdez is Coming.

Lots of films are about selling guns, Winchester rifles usually, to the Indians. Think of Winchester ’73, The Man from Laramie or even The Paleface. This is considered a most heinous crime, situated somewhere on the scale of human wickedness between cannibalism and matricide, because these guns will be used to kill white men. Horrors.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid has a triste homage to the classic showdown when Billy faces off with Alamosa Bill (Jack Elam) in a ritualized duel that neither wants.

Later Westerns glorified in the gunshot and showed much spurting blood. Sam Peckinpah was probably the champion of this. Most recent Westerns care about realism and a film like Dead Man gives us a most accurate and grimly realistic form of gunplay. Revolvers were extremely inaccurate in reality at anything over a few feet. There were men with astonishing marksmanship skills who could hit what they aimed at over considerable distances, Wild Bill Hickok for one. And Wild West Show displays by Annie Oakley and the like were not faked. But for most of the history of the Western movie, gunmanship and the effects of gunshot wounds were laughably badly portrayed.

In several Westerns there is a discussion of the power for good or evil guns have. The otherwise rather weak Randolph Scott oater Canadian Pacific has what could have been (if developed) an interesting discussion on gun control.
Edith: My father was killed, Mr. Andrews, because he tried to use a gun against a man instead of reasoning with him. If he hadn’t worn a gun, he’d still be alive.
Tom: I’m sorry about your father. I’ve learned, though, that in this country if I draw faster, I keep living.

Very similar conversations take place between Amy and Kane in High Noon and Shane and Marian in Shane.

But the commonest view Westerns hold on guns can be seen in the opening screen of Colt .45:

A gun, like any other source of power, is a force for either good or evil, being neither in itself, but dependent upon those who possess it.

Guns, though, are essential to a true Western, like it or lump it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

They Came To Cordura (Columbia, 1959)

It ranks high in the Cooper canon.

This is far from an action movie. It’s not even certain that it’s a Western. Set in Mexico in 1916, during Pershing’s ill-fated expedition to punish Villa for his attack on Columbus NM, it tells of an increasingly tense expedition led by Major Gary Cooper in which it turns out that the men he is recommending for medals for bravery are less than model soldiers and he, Cooper, branded for cowardice at Columbus (for he yet again plays a man with a shady past), turns out to be the bravest of them all.

It’s a psychological Western and slow moving (they rode, they walked, then in fact they staggered to Cordura). These 'journey pictures' only work if the writing is top notch and the acting too. Happily, both conditions are met in this film.

Written by director Robert Rossen and Ivan Moffat (mostly a war film writer, and They Came to Cordura is in fact as much a war film as it is a Western), and based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, whose stories were also the basis for the pictures 7th Cavalry in 1956, The Shootist in 1975 and The Homesman in 2014, the screenplay is subtle and powerful at the same time. The characters of the men, ‘heroes’ and ‘coward’, slowly develop until they change places. Cooper is stunningly good (as he nearly always was) and of the medal nominees, Van Heflin stands out as the vicious sergeant. It is one of his finest roles. He had been very solid in 3:10 to Yuma and Shane but in neither Western did he achieve what he does here. He was under fifty but looks more, broad in the beam but tough as all get out.

The beautiful, graceful Rita Hayworth, who had been acting since the late 1920s, is also very fine. She is a scandal-ridden American woman, alcoholic, accused of collaborating with the Mexicans. She detests the men, including Coop, but also gradually changes, or gradually has her eyes opened.

Rita Hayworth outstanding

It is a fascinating study of courage and cowardice. The men commit acts of extraordinary bravery in the heat of battle. Cooper is desperate to find out how and why, and he torments them with questions. They simply don’t know. They just did it. But what they don’t have is that other courage, the stamina to endure a long ordeal. And Coop has that in spades. In the end the heroic lieutenant makes a cowardly attack and the coward of Columbus shows them all what real courage is. It’s very moving.

It’s probably a man’s film, more of a macho war film than a Western, but with acting and writing of this caliber and being a picture as visually attractive as this one is (lovely Cinemascope photography of Mexico and Utah locations by Burnett Guffey), it ranks high in the Cooper canon. It was his last Western and he was to die in ’61. Cooper was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest of all Western stars and when you watch this film you see why. He was unwell during filming but did a great job.

They staggered to Cordura

There was supposed to be an implied homosexual relationship between the Cooper and Tab Hunter characters, an aspect that shocked and revolted John Wayne. I may be obtuse and I don't have very good what they call gaydar, but I didn’t see it. Actually, I don’t even think Coop saw it. It is said that he tried to get Tab Hunter to date his daughter. A less homosexual man than Cooper it would be hard to imagine. Wayne also disliked the “lack of patriotism” and indeed, there is something cynical about the medal ‘industry’ as portrayed. The cavalry charge early in the film is incompetently ordered. The army shouldn’t have been there anyway.

Writer Moffatt wanted Cooper to wear eyeglasses. Producer William Goetz looked at Moffatt and said, "Do you see that painting on the wall? It's a Picasso. I'd very much like to keep it. That's why Cooper won't wear glasses in the picture."
It’s a fine film and, Western or not, a magnificent picture.

See it.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Heaven's Gate (United Artists, 1980)

Oh, For Heaven's Gate


What to say about this famous multi-million dollar turkey? It is gigantic, it is famous, it is pretentious, it is visually beautiful. It nearly killed off the Western genre single-handed as studios shied like unbroken broncs at making another in fear of another huge loss. It almost forced United Artists into bankruptcy (UA was bought by MGM).

After The Deer Hunter Michael Cimino could do no wrong and he seems to have been given carte blanche to make the biggest Western of all time. But you know something’s wrong with a Western when twenty minutes in and we are still in the East (so far in the East, in fact, that the Harvard scenes were filmed in Oxford, England). Impressive, graceful, even beautiful as the endless shots of the class of '70 waltzing on the university grass are, you do kind of wonder. You think the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter went on too long? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The plot (written by Cimino himself) is meandering and slow. There is action, usually with a cast of thousands as extras, but it is episodic, explosive, insufficiently explained. There are gruesome instances of apparent cruelty to animals. I hope they were staged and not real.

The story is interesting in that it deals seriously with immigration and resistance to it. There are endless trails of immigrants walking or huddled on top of trains, as if Wyoming in the 1880s were like Europe after World War II. Much of the dialogue is German, Bulgarian or Ukrainian. The cattlemen are ludicrously evil. The resemblance to history is entirely coincidental.

The movie is miscast. New Yorker Christopher Walken and Englishman John Hurt emphatically do not convince in the West (the latter has nothing to do in the story but drink) and while Isabelle Huppert is attractive (and often without her clothes) she is inadequate as a frontier madam.

The film is interminable: the original was over five hours long and even in the cut-down version it lasts two and a half hours. It's a real test of stamina for the viewer.
The photography of Montana locations by Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) is stunningly good and I love the roller-skate ball with its marvelous music but otherwise, forget it. Of course the French auteuristes took it to their hearts and love it but hey, no accounting for idiocy. Most people in the world think Heaven’s Gate is a multi-million dollar clunker. Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges and one or two others think it’s a great movie.

Watch it. Maybe you’ll agree with them. Oh look, there goes a flying pig.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Along The Great Divide (Warner Bros, 1951)

Some interesting arithmetic

In the 1940s Raoul Walsh moved from the dashing oaters such as Dark Command or They Died With Their Boots On to a smaller, darker kind of Western, that one might think of as a psycho-Western or a Western noir. The most successful of these was the first, in 1947, Pursued, with Robert Mitchum. It’s a fine film. Colorado Territory also (1949) with Joel McCrea. Along The Great Divide continued in that vein and while it does not have the same power (probably because Kirk Douglas was no Mitchum) it still has qualities that make it worth seeing today.

Not that Douglas is bad. It was his first Western and he hadn’t really mastered the art yet. He also did not get on at all well with Walsh. He plays a man driven (always good in Westerns). Not a man driven to revenge but rather one desperate to expiate a tragic sin of his past. The drama, written by Walter Doniger, is tense and quite gripping. US Marshal Douglas saves Walter Brennan (excellent as an amiable rogue) from a lynch mob determined to hang him for the murder of a big rancher’s son, and then takes him across the desert for trial, pursued by said ruthless big rancher and crew.

Brennan’s daughter Virginia Mayo has to come along for the love interest. She plays a slightly tomboy type who is full of vim ‘n’ vinegar but she was rather an unconvincing spitfire. I always thought her too posh to do tomboys and saloon gals, although she was good as Colorado in Colorado Territory. Kirk is also accompanied by two deputies, John Agar (so-so, miscast, one of those Western actors who started at the top and worked his way down) and Ray Teal (excellent as always). Some interesting arithmetic takes place as this party of goodies and baddies in a ratio of 3:2 gradually changes. One deputy dies, another turns his coat. They capture the second son of the rancher (nasty James Anderson) until Kirk is outnumbered 1:4.

There is the classic ordeal of crossing the desert without water, another stock Western theme – man against nature. There’s some excellent black & white photography by Sid Hickox of the Lone Pine locations (it looks more like New Mexico), especially in the (obligatory) sandstorm. The music by David Buttolph is also quite powerful, suggesting danger and hardship. Sadly, though, part of the plot is that Brennan torments Douglas by endlessly singing a particular song. He of course also torments us, especially because he couldn’t sing worth a damn. It’s no better when Kirk joins in.

Morris Ankrum is good as the fanatical father crazed by his lust for revenge, a real swine. Like most movies directed by Walsh, this one moves along at a good pace (not easy to do when you are recounting a slow trek across a desert in which the characters are reduced to walking). The trial at the end is dispatched briskly in a series of rapid testimonies. It’s a travesty of justice. And there’s the dénouement we kind of expected after a shoot-out in a stable. All a bit predictable but quite well done.

There’s a hint at the ruthless cattle ranchers vs. plucky homesteaders theme but it’s pretty cursory. More interesting and better developed is the notion of law and justice and how they do not necessarily go together.

Not up there in the Parnassus of Westerns, not even at the top of Walsh oaters, Along The Great Divide (heaven knows why it was called that) is still worth a watch. Happy viewing, pards.

Movie directors

As we have been looking at the Western career of Raoul Walsh lately I thought it the right moment to say a word on directors and the habit many people have of referrring to films as their sole property, as in: "In Raoul Walsh's Montana..." I don't think this is right.

It comes from the French auteuriste school, which elevates movie directors into artists of Olympian stature. But referring to “Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James” or “John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” is not appropriate. While Mr. Lang and Mr. Huston were essential contributors to those movies and greatly influenced the way they are – of course they did - the actors, producers, studios, cinematographers, set designers, musicians, costumes persons and any number of others also share the credit (or blame) for the finished product, and referring to the film as the sole property of the director is demeaning to them and misleading to the viewer.

In any case many directors were hired guns, as it were, whose control over casting, screenplay or budgets was flimsy to say the least. They were obedient poodles who did what the producer or studio told them and were only on set to coordinate the action and get the actors to say their lines aright. Some directors had more power than this and were able to influence writing or casting. Some even produced their own movies or wrote them. But that was rare.

The greatest directors did put their own stamp on movies and often had close control of many aspects of the film, especially the photographic side. Most John Ford or Sam Peckinpah Westerns, for example, are recognizably Ford and Peckinpah and would have been different films if made by another director (though they were sometimes ‘mutilated’ by the studios in the final cinema version). Even with these, though, it is dubious to use, as the French Cahiers school does, adjectives like “Hawksian” or “Mannian” as if there are qualities only to be found in films by Howard Hawks or Anthony Mann.

Take a noted director such as Nicholas Ray: you find that he alternated the making of real, distinctive works or art, such as Johnny Guitar, with hack work of ineffable mediocrity. I defy you, if you have never seen The True Story of Jesse James before and did not know Ray directed it, to say, "Ah, a Nicholas Ray film." It is simply wrong to refer to it as "Nicholas Ray's The True Story of Jesse James." And "Edwin Sherin's Valdez Is Coming" or "Martin Ritt's Hombre"? No.

So even with the greatest of Westerns I tend not to refer to them with the director's name as an introductory possessive. I might make very rare exceptions and talk about John Ford's The Searchers or Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch but even then I don't think it's entirely right.

Studio and year usually define a Western better and next I shall be posting some comments about Along The Great Divide (Warner Bros, 1951). Starring Kirk Douglas. Directed by Raoul Walsh.

So long, folks.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Raoul Walsh

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They Died With Their Boots On (Warner Bros, 1942)



This was a real Raoul Walsh film, dashing, macho and boisterous. He did a good line in whitewash biopics (look at his absurd treatment of John Wesley Hardin in The Lawless Breed, for example). But all his films are huge fun and full of zip. Errol Flynn was the ideal star for him (they were alike in many ways) and while Flynn never really convinced as a Westerner in the way that Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck or Henry Fonda did, still he carried off this kind of role with aplomb. Actually, Flynn did aplomb.

It’s a very long film, 134 minutes, and it tells the whole career of George Armstrong Custer from his wild West Point days, through the Civil War and up to his death at Little Big Horn. Along the way he falls for Elizabeth Bacon, soon to become Mrs. Custer. That’s Olivia de Havilland, of course. This was their eighth (and final) partnership. She was Errol’s Ginger Rogers.

The movie is fast-paced and does not drag, even at two and a quarter hours. There’s lots of action and even in the talky bits there seems to be movement and energy.

Of course, it’s total bunk historically. Custer can do no wrong. He gives his word that no white man shall invade the sacred Black Hills but behind his back the villains falsely claim that gold has been found there so they can run their railroad through (railroad barons are always safe to cast as villains and these ones not only sell whisky and rifles to the Indians, they have caddish mustaches too). Custer knows he is going to his death in ’76 but he does it anyway to buy time for the Army to bring up its infantry. But as I have said before, Westerns should not be criticized for historical inaccuracy, except when they claim historical accuracy.

This is a romantic, swashbuckling, dramatic spectacle and it charges along at a gallop. The black & white photography by Bert Glennon is fine and the Max Steiner score is stirring. The locations are evidently Californian but an attempt is made at Dakota and Montana. The support acting is excellent and one particularly notices Sydney Greenstreet, ideal as the hugely fat General Winfield Scott. Arthur Kennedy is a hissable villain who nevertheless redeems himself in the end, dying bravely at Little Big Horn. Monocled GP Huntley is entertaining as the British Lt. Butler (he was about as British as a Bostonian can be) and Charley Grapewin has the amusing old timer role as California Joe (a sort of Walter Brennan/Arthur Hunnicutt part). Anthony Quinn is suitably noble as Crazy Horse (he'd started Westerns as an Indian, for Cecil B DeMille in The Plainsman).

This is one movie where you already know the ending so I don’t feel guilty about letting the cat out of the bag. But guess who is the last man standing and guess who is the one who shoots him down?

The scene where Custer says goodbye to his wife is actually rather moving. Perhaps Flynn and de Havilland knew it was their last pairing.

They Died With Their Boots On (great title!) is preposterous twaddle but hugely entertaining. Flynn’s best Western, it is a classic of the cavalry genre and a worthy depiction of the mythologized Custer. Compulsory viewing.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Dark Command (Republic, 1940)

Wayne gets to ride in a buggy with Trevor again.

In 1939, after Stagecoach, John Wayne was a star, and Herb Yates at Republic, who had Wayne under contract, decided to cash in, wheeling out the big guns and putting together a mega-budget blockbuster for him. Stagecoach lead Claire Trevor was booked to play the love interest and big name Walter Pidgeon borrowed from MGM to give weight, alongside Republic’s hot property Roy Rogers as the ingénu. Victor Young did the classy score and Jack Marta provided top class black & white photography. Raoul Walsh, just off the set of Warners’ The Roaring Twenties, was hired to direct. Walsh had of course given Duke his first big role (and the name John Wayne) in The Big Trail in 1930. At $750,000, Dark Command was the biggest Republic picture to date.

It’s a dramatic tale of Civil War Kansas. Wayne is a young illiterate Texan who rides with Gabby Hayes, traveling dentist. Wayne loosens teeth by punching men and Hayes whips them out. They arrive in Lawrence, where “Willliam Cantrell” (Pidgeon) is the schoolmaster, in love with la Trevor, who, however, likes but does not love him. Pidgeon is solid and authoritative in this (free) interpretation of William Quantrill. Marjorie Main is his rather sinister mother, like something out of The Turn of the Screw.

Educated Cantrell runs for election as marshal of Lawrence but is beaten by young Wayne, full of folksy wisdom. This turns Cantrell bitter and violent.

Trevor is the daughter of rich banker Porter Hall, with a Scotch accent right out of Cincinnati, and Roy Rogers is Hall’s son, Trevor’s bro. He wants to tote a gun and this gets him into big trouble when he shoots a Yankee in the barber’s shop. However, Cantrell brutally intimidates the jury to get into Trevor’s good books and Roy is acquitted. Cantrell runs slaves, then guns and once the war comes, he becomes a bloodthirsty looter. The young Texan hero Wayne leads the Northerners against him.

Most of Republic’s writers seem to have worked on it. Four are credited for the treatment of the 1938 WR Burnett novel The Dark Command: A Kansas Iliad. The script ended up not bad, and it moves along at a good pace, but it is larded with quite a few patriotic lines suitable to 1939 and ‘40.

There are some pretty brutal stunts, including a wagon and horses driven over a cliff. Casual cruelty to animals was the norm then.

Towards the end Wayne gets to ride in a buggy with Trevor again but this time she won’t go with him to his ranch. She’s quite a lot posher than she was in Stagecoach, of course. To be brutally frank, my friends, in Stagecoach she was a whore (gasp).

The movie climaxes with the pretty spectacular raid on Lawrence and we get the final showdown between Pidgeon and Wayne (the real Quantrill was killed in a raid at the age of 27 more than two years after Lawrence but never mind that). Claire holds Duke’s hand and smiles. She doesn’t seem to mind a bit that her husband has been killed and Lawrence burned to the ground.

Republic was aiming to show that they could make A-pictures and fill movie theaters. They did, too, and the movie was a critical and a commercial success. But it still does look like a slightly 'lesser' Republic oater and is hardly a work of art. Still, it’s fun, action-packed and races along. Rogers is weak (they were trying him in a more serious role but it didn't gel) but the other actors are more than satisfactory.

Bung it in the DVD player, e-pards.


Gun Fury (Columbia, 1953)

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Pursued (Warner Bros, 1947)

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The Lawless Breed (Universal, 1952)

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Howdy, pards! Welcome to this new blog.

Howdy, pards.

Friday 5th March 2010, half past nine in the evening here in Paris, France, and I am launching a Western blog. A big day!

My name's Jeff Arnold. I read, write, watch and talk about Westerns when I'm not doing anything else. Like working. Sometimes even then.

Like so many people, I love Westerns and everything to do with them, movies especially.

This blog will contain jottings and rambling observations of anything to do with the American West: a movie I've just seen again or (sadly rare, but it happens) I've just seen for the first time. A trip I've just taken to New Mexico or Wyoming. A novel I'm reading. Some history. Whatever.

I'd like to hear from you too, dear reader.

You'll probably disagree with much of what I write. The opinions expressed will be, ahem, idiosyncratic. Contradict me, do. You have the right to your opinions. Anyone has the right to be wrong.

Later this weekend I'll start the ball rolling with a review of the latest Western I've just watched on DVD.(The Lawless Breed, in fact).

So long.