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

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bronco Billy (Warner Bros, 1980)

You can be anything you want

“Are you for real?” Antoinette Lily asks Bronco Billy. “I am who I want to be,” answers Billy. Later, the ‘Indian’ trouper Running Water tells Lily, “You can be anything you want.” And that, essentially, is the message of this rather unusual but amiable little film.
It is amusing that along the long trail ridden by Clint which led from TV cattle-drive sidekick to spaghetti grunter, Westwards to classy Western director, finally arriving at Fordian greatness with Unforgiven, he tarried a while at the end of the 70s to make this pastiche post-Western full of naïf charm.

Bronco Billy McCoy is a former shoe salesman from New Jersey and Folsom ex-con but now he roams the West with his traveling show. He has to recruit round-heeled gals in each town because his aim with gun and knife isn’t that good and they don’t last long. By accident he hires haughty heiress Sondra Locke and things start to go wrong. But of course now we are into classic ‘cowboy and the lady’ territory and the story takes off. As required by this theme, a tough Western man finally tames the uppity dude woman. Feminists beware.

The casting is exquisite. Scatman Crothers is the ringmaster, Doc, Bill McKinney the hook-handed Lefty, Sam Bottoms is the young roper and Dan Vadis and Sierra Pecheur are the troupe’s Indian couple. All are misfits and outcasts, intensely loyal to Billy, who took them in. Walter Barnes is splendidly menacing as the corrupt sheriff and Geoffrey Lewis hilarious as the crazed husband of convenience of the heiress. There’s even Hank Worden (aged 79) as a gas station attendant. Billy’s horse Buster nearly steals the show.

Eastwood is, as both director and actor, quietly superb.

There is a (one imagines deliberate) cheesy ballad over the titles but there are some decent Merle Haggard country tunes along the way (he leads the band in a bar).The David Worth photography of the Idaho locations is excellent in giving us the heartland West of 70s America as it really was – or ought to have been.

The Dennis Hackin dialogue is sometimes outstandingly good. The characters manage to speak almost entirely in clichés without ever seeming corny. How Hackin and the actors did that, I don’t know, but they managed superbly.

Bronco Billy is an often funny but also wistful and melancholy picture which plays on Western nostalgia and preaches motherhood and apple-pie virtues without pomposity or falseness. It was one of Eastwood’s own favorites and we can understand why. Most definitely worth a purchase.
And just for fun, here on the left is a picture of the real Broncho Billy.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Iron Mistress (Warner Bros, 1952)

That knife

If Jim Bowie had been an immaculately dressed New Orleans gambler with elegant manners, Alan Ladd would have portrayed him very well. Unfortunately he wasn't, and The Iron Mistress is little more than a top hat and sword romance.

The title of the film refers of course to the famous knife (forged with a substance from outer space – I kid you not) and we get the rigmarole about how the greatest blacksmith ever created this mythical weapon to Bowie’s design. The knife ends at the bottom of the Mississippi as Bowie renounces violence to marry the sweet daughter of the Vice-Governor of Texas. But the title also refers to Virginia Mayo, who is supposed to be Judalon de Bornay, the beautiful but scheming and faithless woman with whom Bowie is in love. In fact Mayo manages the scheming and faithless part quite well.

(Oh dear, I fear that was unkind).

Then we have horse races and New Orleans casinos and Mississippi river boats and duels. In fact, it’s not a Western at all. It’s an early nineteenth century costume drama.

Still, some attempt at accuracy is made. Bowie was indeed a land speculator in Louisiana, as shown, and did participate in a duel which degenerated into a brawl in which, shot and stabbed though he was, he stuck his famous knife in the sheriff. And he did marry the Vice-Governor’s daughter. It ends before the San Saba expedition, the Grass Fight or the Alamo, though, and historical accuracy isn’t taken too far.

I’ve spoken elsewhere of Ladd’s unsuitability for the Western genre and I won’t repeat it. Read my reviews of his other Westerns (or true Westerns) such as Whispering Smith, Branded or Shane. He comes across as such a nice man, gentle even, but about as far removed from a true Western hero as you can get.

The support acting is alright. Most of them are unremarkable stock studio character players. Joseph Calleia was the best (he was an excellent actor) as Juan Moreno, with third billing after Ladd and Mayo.

It was written by James R Webb from a Paul Wellman novel. Webb had specialized in low-budget Westerns like Jesse James at Bay or Bad Man of Deadwood. The script here is of a similar standard. Only the knife fight in the darkened room stands out.

Gordon Douglas directed it and he did some interesting stuff occasionally (though a lot of bread-and-butter work too).

The cinematography by John Seitz is quite good and the colors are brilliant.

You could do worse on a wet evening if it comes on TV. But...


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Thunder of Drums (MGM, 1961)

No thunder, no drums - otherwise quite an accurate title

An Apache/US Cavalry picture, A Thunder of Drums benefits from nice Arizona and California scenery (Old Tucson, Vasquez Rocks and so on) in good color, well photographed by William Spencer. It also has Richard Boone, always excellent as a tough nut, and there are nice minor-role performances from Arthur O’Connell as the crusty old sergeant and Slim Pickens (not slim even then) as a trooper. Charles Bronson is surprisingly good too as a cocky womanizing soldier who learns respect.

But that’s about it.

The screenplay is by James Warner Bellah but is far from his best, being predictable and commonplace. The casting is poor with George Hamilton as the young officer and Luana Patten as the love interest. Hamilton is a very pale imitation of John Wayne, and Patten had made something of a specialty of Westerns but only the TV kind. The worst aspect is the direction. Joseph Newman had been going since the early days of talkies and had made some low-budget Westerns, Fort Massacre being the only interesting one, really. His pacing was dire in A Thunder of Drums. Most of the film is a soap opera set in the fort. When the Indian attack finally comes, it is perfunctory and the foe are just Hollywood redskins to be mown down.

The music by Harry Sukman is also pretty standard TV soap opera stuff.

Studios liked the word thunder for titles and we had Thundercloud, -hoof, Mountain, Pass and Trail in 1950, ’48, ’47, ’54, and ‘37. There was Thunder over Texas (1934), over Arizona (1956) and over the Plains (1953). There was a Thundering Herd in 1933 and Thunder in the Sun in 1959. Plenty of thunder alright.

But A Thunder of Drums turns out to be very distant drums. In fact we don’t hear them at all. Boone is good, and so is Arizona but for the rest it’s not even a weak rumble.

Sorry, pards.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Drum Beat (Warner Bros, 1954) and Captain Jack and the Modoc War

Delmer Daves made the great Broken Arrow, then this dud

It’s a rather curious thing that Delmer Daves, who directed a film as good – and as influential - as Broken Arrow in 1950, could make such a weak ‘Indian’ movie only four years later.

I say Delmer Daves ‘made’ it: he both wrote and directed Drum Beat, so there are few others to blame. Excuses? It was made for Alan Ladd’s production company Jaguar, set up so that the sar could cash in on his Shane fame, so perhaps it was constrained by that. It was for Warners rather than Fox, so maybe the studio insisted on its being bad (most of its early 50s Westerns were). Another reason might be that Arrow was a distinctly liberal film and four years had passed since Broken Arrow, years in which McCarthyism had really taken hold: maybe now films in which liberalism is shown to fail (the peace council scene) and the necessity for war against the enemy is apparent (whoever the far right considered to be enemies at the time, communists, probably) were more likely to succeed. And 1950s Hollywood was hardly noted for its courageous stand in favor of minorities, or free speech.

Whatever the reason, Daves seems to have suppressed his pro-Indian sentiments and come up with an old-fashioned Western in which the Indians are the dumb bad guys.

The hero is an Indian fighter, which isn’t a terribly good start. True, Daves seeks to play this down. Johnny McKay (Ladd) is an ex-Indian fighter, charged in the opening scene by a peace-loving President Ulysses S Grant (Hayden S Rorke) with being a peace commissioner to tame the Modocs without gunplay. Yes, Modocs – we are on the California/Oregon border this time. Of course the Modocs are indistinguishable from Hollywood Apaches; they are kitted out by central casting with standard costumes and have the obligatory red headbands and Winchesters. They do that ug-speak, even when talking to each other. “Me want fight bluecoats”, that kind of thing. Oh dear. But McKay never quite manages this peace business, and under his watch Modocs are killed here and there (though he doesn’t actually shoot them himself). Finally he persuades Grant that this peace malarkey is not on, and he resumes Indian fighting.
Of course Ladd is one of the problems. In 1950 James Stewart had burst onto the screen with his new tough-guy image, all passion and grit, but Alan Ladd? He was just too soft, too short, too Beverly Hills to be convincing in the saddle. His Western clothes always looked like costumes. His hair was too blond, too coiffed. No, sorry, it just didn’t work.

The Indian chief isn’t a noble and statesmanlike Jeff Chandler, either. It’s Charles Bronson, in his first major role since leaving his Buchinsky moniker behind him, as Modoc supremo Captain Jack. He’s a one-dimensional Indian baddy, and the film essentially blames him for the trouble. Daves has McKay say to the chief, with breath-taking effrontery, “We could have saved a lot of lives, Jack, if you hadn’t grabbed country that wasn’t yours.” History is thus rewritten so that it was the Indians who took land that wasn’t theirs.

Daves wrote that the film was “almost a documentary about the wars conducted by the Modoc Indians, made in a manner which conforms totally to the truth.” Notice that it was a war “conducted by the Modoc Indians”, as if the whites had nothing to do with it. And if this film “conforms totally to the truth”, then I am a Dutchman. I don't mind Westerns that are historical hooey, that's part of their charm, but I do get annoyed when they claim to be factual and aren't.

Chapter 10 of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is entitled The Ordeal of Captain Jack, and while I am the first to admit that Dee Brown may not be primus inter pares when cold, dispassionate history is written, I nevertheless prefer to accept this version than Delmer Daves’s.

Now I don’t want to make this post too long but I do think it is worth a brief excursion to say a little about the life of the real Captain Jack. The true story (as far as one can glean it) would have made a much better movie than Drum Beat.

Apart from Dee Brown, there are other sources: Captain Jack was a central character in Terry Johnston's historical novel Devil's Backbone: The Modoc War, 1872-3 (1991); and in Arthur Quinn's non-fiction work, Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War (1997).

Captain Jack’s real name was Kintpuash or Strikes the Water Brashly and he was born c 1837, so would have been in his mid-30s at the time of the so-called Modoc War. He seems to have been quite pro-white in a general way, arguing for co-existence and trade. He reluctantly signed the treaty under which the Modocs were sent north from their homeland to the territory of their traditional rivals, the Klamaths. It was not a good place for them to be, and promised supplies did not arrive. In 1865 Kintpuash led his people back to their home, cautioning them, especially the hotheads, not to cause trouble with the whites. But the Army rounded them up and returned them to the Klamath lands with promises. Nothing improved.
Kintpuash, known to the whites as Captain Jack, in 1864
In April 1870 Kintpuash led a band of about 180 Modocs to the Tule Lake area. The Indian Bureau warned him to return. Kintpuash asked for a reservation in traditional Modoc lands and the Bureau thought this request reasonable but the local whites opposed granting any land at all to the Indians and the Army was assigned the duty of removing the Modocs back to the north by force.

In November 1872 cavalry under Major James Jackson ordered the Modocs, starting with their leader, to lay down their carbines, and Kintpuash hesitated but did it. The others followed, but one, known to the whites as Scarfaced Charley, refused to give over his pistol. Hot words were exchanged, Scarfaced and an Army lieutenant both drew and fired. Neither was hit but the Modocs made a rush for their piled-up guns and the cavalry commander ordered his men to open fire. There was a sharp fight and the cavalry retreated, leaving one dead and seven wounded on the field. The Modocs headed for sanctuary in the caves and ravines of the California Lava Beds.

There now enters the story Hooker Jim. He was one of the Modoc group that might be described as die-hards or even extremists, with little political sense or caution in him. On the way to the lava beds he and his band of about thirteen Modocs killed twelve white settlers in revenge for a lethal attack on his camp. Hooker Jim was defensive and truculent but Kintpuash now knew the soldiers would never leave them alone and indeed in January 1873 Bluecoats were sighted, a force of 225 regulars and 104 volunteers, with howitzers.

Kintpuash was for negotiating but Hooker Jim and his crew spoke out loudly for attack, and carried the day. In the ensuing fight the soldiers were routed. The Modocs recovered valuable arms, ammunition and rations from the field.

At the end of February Kintpuash’s cousin, Winema, who was married to white man Frank Riddle and called herself Toby Riddle (played by Marisa Pavan in the movie) came to the lava beds and she brought her husband and other whites to arrange a parley with the peace commissioners.

The members of the commission were Alfred B Meacham, who had once been the Modocs’ agent in Oregon (not in the film), a California clergyman named Eleazar Thomas (Richard Gaines in Drum Beat, played as rather a simpleton), and LS Dyar, a sub-agent from the Klamath reservation (the excellent Frank Ferguson on celluloid). Overseeing the whole affair was General ERS Canby (Warner Anderson), who had fought Manuelito’s Navajo band twelve years before.

The Modocs were assured that Hooker Jim and his group would be arrested but not hanged; rather, they would be sent to Indian Territory in the south. They surrendered. But once in the Army camp, Hooker Jim was threatened with hanging by settlers and it appeared that the commission had exceeded its authority by amnestying his men; the Indians fled back to the lava beds. Sherman was in no mood to compromise. He ordered Canby to use force so “that no other reservation for them will be necessary except graves.” That’s Sherman for you.
Delmer Daves: why did he make such a bad film after such a good one?
Now I really must cut a long story short: Hooker Jim and Co. continued to press for fighting, Kintpuash for talk. In a famous scene, one of Hooker Jim’s men threw a woman’s shawl over Kintpuash, calling him a “fish-hearted woman.” He was forced to agree to try to kill Canby. On Good Friday, 1873 a final parley took place, in which all parties were supposed to be unarmed, though the Modocs had pistols concealed and Meacham and Dyar had derringers in their pockets. No progress was made in the talks, both sides grew exasperated, Kintpuash drew his pistol, and although the gun at first misfired, the second shot killed Canby outright. One of Hooker Jim’s men killed Mr. Thomas. Winema/Toby saved Meacham’s life by knocking a Modoc pistol aside. Dyar and Riddle escaped in the confusion.

Three days later mortars pounded the lava beds but when the soldiers overran the stronghold they found it empty. Kintpuash and his band had slipped away in the night. The Army employed 72 mercenary Tenino Indians to track them, but Kintpuash ambushed the advance guard and nearly wiped it out. Still, it was only a matter of time.

Hooker Jim, evidently a bad egg, then abandoned Kintpuash, leaving him with 37 warriors to fight off a thousand soldiers, and surrendered to the Army, agreeing to help track Captain Jack down in return for amnesty. Kintpuash was finally cornered with the last three braves who had stayed with him to the end.
Captain Jack or Kintpuash, on the eve of his execution
There was a ‘trial’, though the Modocs had no legal counsel and could speak little or no English. The gallows was already being built as the trial went on, so there was no doubt as to the outcome. Captain Jack/Kintuash was hanged on October 3. His body was secretly disinterred afterwards and embalmed, and became a fairground attraction, admission ten cents. Hooker Jim and the rest of the band were sent to Indian Territory. Most of them, including Hooker Jim, were dead before, in 1909, the government relented and the survivors were allowed back home. There were 51.

Well, sorry to have been so long-winded but I thought you’d like the story. It isn’t very much like the one we get in Drum Beat

Getting back to that film to conclude, it could have been set up for Ladd to fall for Toby (though she’d have to die of course) but ‘miscegenation’ was not on the cards this time, as it had been in Broken Arrow, so a white woman is invented for the love interest, Nancy Meek (Audrey Dalton). There’s a quite hilarious scene in which the couple embrace and Nancy has a daring speech full of double-entendre. She proposes obliquely to McKay and says she needs someone who knows how to plow, and how to plant seed, nudge nudge. It’s all too much for Ladd, who could never do physical romance scenes, and he is rescued by someone calling him to HQ.

Once again Daves’s beloved rivers are used as settings for key scenes, such as when the stagecoach is attacked by Modocs (the same setting was used when Geronimo attacked the stage in Broken Arrow) or the climactic hand-to-hand fight between Captain Jack and McKay.

J Peverell Marley photographed Drum Beat in CinemaScope color and he was the equal of Ernest Palmer in Broken Arrow. Both were shot in Arizona - rather curious in the case of Drum Beat because the story was all about the Modocs in Oregon, but there we are. Visually, the film is superb.

Victor Young did the score of the movie and pretty standard it is, not to say corny. “Indian” music greets every appearance of a Modoc and there is slushy stuff for the Ladd/Audrey Dalton scenes.

Strother Martin is in it. Elisha Cook Jr. is the wicked gun-runner and Robert Keith and Rodolfo Acosta have bit parts. But with Ladd in the lead and Bronson as Captain Jack the picture was pretty well doomed from the start.

Stick to Broken Arrow, pards.




Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The community of the Western

Kindred spirits

It's great, isn't it, when you realize that you are not alone in the universe. That there are others out there, life-forms that breathe and think. You are at a party or a conference or a business meeting and you suddenly discover that someone else likes Westerns too.

You only discover this by chance because of course you don't actually come out and admit upfront that you are weird. You might just drop a reference to a movie and it's picked up and returned. And before you know it you are discussing the merits of Bruce Surtees as a photographer of Western films or what a fine Western actor Glenn Ford was. You talk admiringly about The Searchers, obviously, but might also admit to a sneaking delight in a commercial vehicle like The Magnificent Seven. Or the Italian Western.

It happened to me last year. I was at a conference in Cambridge, England and met a charming Italian lady, Marina, and in the time it takes to draw a sixgun, i.e. lightnin' fast, we were communing, man.

Earlier this week I had to go to Bologna, Italy for work reasons and whoa, pardner, there waiting for me was a package. A present of two DVDs, "classics of the Western all'italiana," as Marina said in her kind accompanying card. Che gioia!

Marina's gift got me thinking about the Italian Western again. Many of us buffs use the term spaghetti western quite pejoratively. Some of us (and I have to admit I do share this view somewhat) think of late 60s and early 70s Westerns made in Italy (or more usually in Spain but by Italian or Italo-German companies) as not really Westerns at all. They are to the Western what Twenty/20 is to a Test Match, more commercial interpretations of the genre but, well, "not quite cricket".

Movies directed by Leone or Corbucci or a hundred other (even) lesser mortals were about Westerns rather than being Westerns. They were full of references. Leone adored the classic American Westerns of the 50s and it shows. His movies are full of affectionate quotations which a Western buff loves to spot. They might even have been post-modern deconstructions, athough I wouldn't know because I have never really understood what they are. And when the glory days of 50s Westerns were over, Westerns were in full decline in the US and studios were hesitating to make them at all (TV series like Gunsmoke and Maverick taking over), the "spaghetti westerns" gave the genre a new lease of life. Suddenly people were in the movie theaters again watching gunmen in Main Street showdowns. No small achievement, pards. Italian westerns were full of life (and death, of course), vigorous, fun, and they didn't take themselves too seriously. And they filled the theater seats.

But to be perfectly honest, in many ways a lot of these movies were pretty trashy. End-of-career American stars or minor character actors fronted a cast of Cinecittà stalwarts. It was OK usually because their parts only required them to grunt.

And even that was dubbed on afterwards.

Cinecittà was directly under the flight path to Fiumicino so live sound recording was out. Actors could speak their own languages and the soundtrack would be dubbed on later in whatever language was required. This gave them some freedom. They weren't tied down by boom mikes or sound stages. And Italians are technically extremely proficient at dubbing, the best in the world, probably - if they have the budget for it, which in the case of the 'westerns', they didn't.

But you know, the sound is always false. It was always overdone. Leone believed in "sound design" and he is partly to blame for the absurd situation now when every sound effect has to be mega-amplified through ultra-high spec sound systems in modern cinemas. Nowadays, an actor can't put a cup down or pull out his wallet without 150 decibel FX. Foley men have become 'artists'. And if the actor actually draws and fires a gun, well, you need earplugs. It's spaghetti westerns' fault.

And that ghastly music! It was either amplified whistling or choirs shouting "ho, ho". Many people most unaccountably think of Ennio Morricone as a great artist. Nonsense. His scores are cheap, jangly and jarring.

No, sorry, but all those rip-off flicks churned out weekly like one-reelers in the 1910s, most with Django or the word dollari in the title, in which superheroes pulled firearms out of the most unlikely places (usually coffins or musical instruments, for some reason) and mowed down fifty men while chewing on a cheroot, they don't do it for me. And the trouble is that they weren't affectionate hommages or even amused parodies but exploitative junk.

The very best of them were better than the worst of the Hollywood versions. A Western like A Bullet for the General is actually quite a good film (and better than any of the Dollars trilogy, by the way). And there was a school of Italian western with a left-wing political agenda that is worth thinking about. But then they ran out of steam and became just too repetitive and people tired of them; spaghetti westerns had said what they had to say and could depart unlamented.

They left a mark on the mainstream Western, though, for good or for ill. 70s American Westerns definitely showed the signs and it was fascinating to watch this 'reverse engineering' going on.

Spaghetti westerns (I give them a small w) were, however, only a small part of Italy's love affair with the Western (W maiusculo), as Marina will know. Westerns (I mean proper Westerns) were adored by Italian cinema audiences. Leone wasn't the only fan to grow up with them.

In Marina's package was Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo (interesting change of order from the American version - The Good, The Ugly and The Bad) as a classic example of the period I have just been discussing, and usually considered a great work. You can still see it in a grainy print in Paris art cinemas. Personally I always thought the second part of Leone's trilogy the best. Clint had got confidence to actually act, but hadn't become jaded, which he was in Il Buono. Il Buono was a bit too big-budget, too long, a bit too Hollywood. But Marina was right to choose it. Many would say that it is the spaghetti western.

But she also included Soldati a Cavallo, a shrewd move. The Horse Soldiers was far from being John Ford's greatest work (although personally I do think William Holden one of the greatest of all Western actors). This was not an Italian western, of course, but is a good example of how Italians saw Westerns. I said their dubbing is outstanding and when I lived in Italy and watched Westerns in Italian, I was really impressed by the sheer quality and appropriateness of the voices. Glauco Onorato did a superb John Wayne. Actually, I think he was better than John Wayne. (And Paolo Poiret was so good that he made it seem that Arnold Schwarzenegger could act). I loved watching Ford movies in Italian. The language just seems to suit them somehow. (Whereas I can't seem to accept Wayne speaking French. Too effete. Clint is OK grunting in German.) I have an ancient VHS of Red River recorded from Italian TV and still occasionally watch it, just for fun. It's nostalgia really. (Although you know what they say about nostalgia: it's not what it was). The appalling Italian adverts every 15 minutes (it was recorded from a Berlusconi crap channel) have ceased to be an irritation and have become hilarious.

Thanks to Marina I will now watch not The Horse Soldiers but Soldati a Cavallo. It will give new spice to the movie and it will make me think more and see it from a different angle. It will be un'intensa pellicola di John Ford. (It must be, it says so on the cover).

By the way, you are reading a person who knows the script of The Magnificent Seven by heart in three languages. I have watched it so many times in the US and in the European countries I have lived in. So trust me, I know what I'm talking about. I'm thinking of buying the DVD in Spanish.

And by the way again, DVDs are a disappointment in this regard. They were supposed to offer the movie in a choice of languages but if you buy one in France you usually only get the choice of VO or Frog. Why can't I see it in Czech? To do that, I have to go and buy it in Prague. What's the Czech for Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo? (Hodný, Zlý a Ošklivý, apparently).

Anyway, thank you, Marina. Era un gesto molto gentile e ti ringrazio veramente. La prossima volta che tu sei a Parigi, vieni a trovarmi e si va a vedere Il Buono... a un cinema nel quartiere latino. La qualità della pellicola sara pessima ma chi se ne frega. On sortira après et on parlera des Westerns, on échangera des opinions and we'll commune, man.