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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Man from FORT Laramie

No Hollywood fort.

And talking of Laramie, Fort Laramie, now, isn't at Laramie. In fact the Fort is about 100 miles NE of the town. Probably, the Man from Laramie came from the fort because he was a military man. Will Lockhart was undercover but he was a soldier alright.

Fort Laramie started as a private trading fort (Fort John) in 1834, became a military post in 1849 and was finally abandoned in 1890 after the Indian wars. It was the site of the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties with assorted tribes (promises, of course, later broken by the whites).

It never quite fit into the Hollywood image of a fort as it was never walled in and it remained open. Today it is still an open, remote, even tranquil place in summer, with the Laramie River meandering slowly around it. Restored buildings are dotted around the green fields.

The Bedlam House was the bachelor officers' quarters and no prizes for guessing how it got its name. You can see the cavalry barracks, all equipped, and have a drink at the sutler's. When I was there it was far from crowded and it was pleasant to stroll around the grounds and examine the buildings. You can't always imagine the past in these tourist sites but at Fort Laramie you just about can.

It's well run and cared for by the National Park Service. They have ‘docents’, volunteers who dress up and tell you what their life is like as a Mormon settler or cavalry officer’s wife. A bit cheesy but good for the kids.

Worth a visit, pards.

Write to 965 Gray Rocks Road, Fort Laramie, Wyoming 82212
Phone Park Headquarters (307) 837-2221

Friday, July 30, 2010

Laramie, WY

The man from Laramie
He was a man with a peaceful turn of mind
He was kind of sociable and friendly
Friendly as any man could be
But you never saw a man out-draw
The man from Laramie

The man from Laramie
He was a man with a warm and gentle heart
But when they'd start the arguing and fightin'
Frightenin' and lightning fast was he
There was no coyote who could outshoot
The man from Laramie
He had a flair for ladies
The ladies loved his air of mystery
The west will never see
A man with so many notches on his gun
Everyone admired the fearless stranger
Danger was this man's speciality
So they never bossed or double crossed
The man from Laramie

So I needed to go to Laramie to see if this was true.

Coming over the high land from Cheyenne in mid-August, we had snow.

Laramie is now a university town in SE Wyoming, with a population of about 30,000. It is rather pleasant.

It grew in the nineteenth century when the Union Pacific crossed the Laramie River here.

Spenser came from Laramie, of course. You know, Spenser the detective. Robert B Parker.

And it was about 12 miles from Laramie that the famed stage station lay. If you watched TV in the early 1960s you will know whereof I speak. If not, click the link. In fact, click the link anyway.
I was tempted in town by an excellent 1950s metal advertising panel in an ‘antique’ shop which showed a cowboy in one of those red John Wayne cavalry shirts (he looked very like Tyrone Power) with the slogan ‘Real cowboys smoke and drink’ but it cost $125 so I left it for the next sucker.

The Man from Laramie was also, of course, the last, best and most stirring of the long series of Westerns in which Anthony Mann directed James Stewart and one of the few not made by Universal. Click the link to read more about this fine movie. Although to be fair Will Lockhart came from Fort Laramie, which is different.

Excellent town, Laramie. I may have to live there.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Canyon Passage (Universal, 1946)

A very classy Western


Set unusually early, in 1850s Oregon, starting with pouring rain and a ship in the background, Canyon Passage is a holster-less Western in which guns are realistically stuck in pants and belts. It’s very good. A lot of the credit for that goes to the Ernest Haycox novel on which it is based, skillfully adapted for the screen by Ernest Pascal. The story is plausible, the relationships complex, the dialogue authentic and often moving.

Credit also has to be given to Jacques Tourneur for this, his first and best Western (he later did several others, working especially with Joel McCrea; see, for example, Stars in My Crown, Wichita and Stranger on Horseback). The direction is subtle and he draws underacted, powerful performances out of the cast, especially Dana Andrews, who is excellent.

Dana Andrews, very good

Andrews plays a successful store-keeper and freighter, a man who is restless, unsatisfied and doesn’t know really what he wants. His best friend is Brian Donlevy (one of his better Western parts), a compulsive gambler who embezzles to pay for his habit. The two compete for the affections of red-headed, fiery Lucy (Susan Hayward in her first of eight Westerns: she was always absolutely outstanding), yet Donlevy lusts after the wife of the consumptive gambler he loses to (Onslow Stevens, excellent) and Andrews has proposed to Caroline, an English rose (Patricia Roc). Andrews and Donlevy are more alike than at first appears. Both are gamblers (Andrews over-extends his business, Donlevy plays poker, badly). Both are rootless and have itchy feet. They do what they do but have not settled.

Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward

There are four excellent minor characters: odious bully Ward Bond, bushwhacker, rapist, killer; preacher Frank Ferguson; mob leader Lloyd Bridges out to hang Donlevy and anyone else he disapproves of; and cynical minstrel Hoagy Carmichael, wry observer, a one-man Greek chorus. All are very good indeed. There are also great performances from Andy Devine and Dorothy Peterson as a settler couple and their two sons (played by the Devine boys).

There are fearsome Indians on the warpath who burn a cabin (which we had seen raised by the community in a heart-warming scene) and murder the young couple of owners. Yet Andy Devine says at one point, “It’s their land and we’re on it.” This is not a one-dimensional Western like so many. It is lifelike. No one is all good or all bad, except perhaps Ward Bond who has very little to recommend him and eventually gets his just deserts at the end of a scalping knife, though we almost feel sorry even for him at the end.

Bad guy Ward Bond

The photography (by the really talented Edward Cronjager) and Oregon locations are beautiful. They make you want to go there. And the color of the Optimum Western Classics DVD print is warm, subtle and entirely fitting. The music is by Frank Skinner, often lyrical, and of course Hoagy contributes the occasional (rather 1940s) song. Everyone’s hairstyle is rather 1940s too, especially the women. Never mind.

This is a very classy Western.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A great Western museum

The Smithsonian of the West

Almost exactly a year ago, I was touring the magnificent states of Wyoming and Montana.

My pard-ess and I visited Yellowstone and were duly impressed, then leaving the great park (with regret) we descended the highway called by President Theodore Roosevelt “the most beautiful 50 miles in America”. He was wrong, actually (or he may have been right then). It was certainly beautiful but we were to see better. The road winds across the Shoshone National Forest down to the town of Cody.

In 1895 a group of entrepreneurs asked the great Col. William F Cody, Buffalo Bill, if he would be the patron of a new town which would be named for him. He took it seriously and helped in the town plan and built a fine hotel there which he named after his daughter, the Irma Hotel. The Irma is now a busy, thriving place, packed with bikers (when I was there) and other guests but retaining its 1890s charm and appearance, with tin ceiling and heavy rosewood fittings.
Cody is a good little town, an honest-to-god Western place, not the twee, chi-chi version of the West offered by Jackson Hole. People really do herd cattle on horseback and look natural in cowboy hats. There is an old town made up of cabins reassembled from parts of the region, including the cabin and saloon frequented by Butch Cassidy and his Hole-in-the-Wall gang (south west Wyoming was their stamping ground). The old town is well-presented, not touristy or falsely done up, just a street of rough wooden buildings with an air of authenticity.
After leaving, I read that the founder, a Mr. Bob Edgar, was a crack shot and had drilled the centre out of an ace of spades held by the guidebook writer. We had met a polite older gentleman there and I wondered, could that have been Bob? I wanted to buy a pack of cards and go back up and ask. How cool would that be, to go home with an ace shot through? Of course he might have missed and shot me through but heck, a Western fan’s gotta do what a Western fan’s gotta do. Anyway we didn’t go back. We went to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

.Called “The Smithsonian of the West” (though the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in LA would have something to say about that), it really is a splendid institution. Modern and visitor-friendly, it has a fine collection on display. It is really 5 museums in one because it has separate wings dedicated to Cody himself, Native Americans, the history of firearms, natural history and, the best in my view, a gallery of Western art of all kinds. All the great Western artists are represented, Frederic Remington of course (there is also his complete studio) but others too, such as Charles Russell. I chose (I always choose one item from museums to take away with me come the Revolution) a huge painting by Thomas Moran of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

.In the firearms section there was the Winchester used in Winchester ’73. In that film, you will recall, there is a shooting contest to win the great Winchester 1873 model and James Stewart has to beat his brother in marksmanship. Remarkably, there was a real sharpshooter just off camera who really did plug the coins thrown up by Will Geer as Wyatt Earp (no special effects in those days). The actual gun was there with the signatures of the cast members (“Jimmy Stewart”) carved into the stock. I think I may take that instead of the painting.


.I’d like to live in Cody. Have a ranch. Ride into town.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The 'Red Indians'

This post has been revised and updated.
Please click here for the new one.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Last Sunset (Universal, 1961)

This post has been revised and updated.
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Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Distant Trumpet (Warner Brothers, 1964)

Raoul Walsh's final trumpet



Raoul Walsh was 77 when he directed his last movie, A Distant Trumpet. It was fitting that the director of the rip-roaring They Died With Their Boots On should end with a cavalry Western. Sadly, though, it was a pale imitation.

Warners threw a big budget at it. It was nearly two hours long. It had a huge cast. William Clothier photographed it on location in Technicolor Panavision. It aimed to be a major Fordian classic.

The trouble was the much tinkered-with screenplay, which in the end bore almost no resemblance to the original Paul Horgan novel and contained every cliché under the Arizona sun. And it was not helped by the casting of low-budget movie and TV stars such as Troy Donahue, unconvincing as a tough lieutenant (a Mexican washerwoman has to say “Que hombre macho!” as he passes so that we know) and sub-Elizabeth Taylor starlet Suzanne Pleshette as the married lady he falls for. They are both weak.

Another fault is the brassy one-theme score by Max Steiner which after two hours’ repetition becomes plain irritating.

Visually, it’s a feast because Clothier was a fine craftsman and the Painted Desert and Red Rock State Park locations are wonderful. Happily, studio sets are kept to a minimum (though the hero Matt Hazard – who thinks up these names? – does find a convenient cave in a studio in which, daringly, to spend the night with Kitty).

James Gregory is the pompous, Latin tag-quoting ass General Quaint who patronizes everyone and lords it over the West and President Arthur. If he was supposed to be an unsympathetic oaf, he acts very well. Claude Akins is about the best of the cast (as he often was) as the odious Indian agent Seely Jones.

The Indians are caricatures and wear their war bonnets and paint all the time, even for lunch in their mountain retreat. The authenticity is down to “Military Consultant and Advisor Capt. J.S. Peters, USA, Retired”. He must have been very retired.

Kitty Mainwaring (la Pleshette) wears period costume. It looks late 50s. The trouble is, it’s the 1950s. And her make-up and hair are distinctly early 60s.

The language is anachronistic (“Every man will wash their barrack”).

The ‘prairie sweepstake’ is quite fun (though stolen from Destry) and there’s one good line. When Kitty and a furious Matt are watching the soldiers debauch themselves with painted harlots, whisky and dancing, she asks him if he is “burning while Rome fiddles”.

I keep imagining this film with John Wayne and Henry Fonda in front of the lens and John Ford behind it. It could have been fine. As it is, it’s worth a look but is very much second-league stuff.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Joe Kidd (Universal, 1972)

Bruce Surtees, Elmore Leonard, John Sturges - it's a great combination


Early 1900s, somewhere down on the Mexican border (“Sinola County”). Clint Eastwood as Joe Kidd is just emerging from spaghetti gruntings into real characters although director John Sturges has obviously been watching a few spaghettis because we have jangly Lalo Schifrin music and a band of spaghetti-esque killers (they are quite good, in fact).

The qualities of this film come from four things: the acting, especially Eastwood and Robert Duvall but also some of the minor parts; the directing (Sturges was a good, solid journeyman Western director, just occasionally going beyond that into the very good); and the wonderful scenery, filmed in Panavision in the Inyo National Forest along the California/Nevada border by Bruce Surtees, surely one of the greatest ever Western cinematic photographers.

That's three, you say. But of course the principal ingredient is the fact that it was written by Elmore Leonard and I don’t know of a bad Western by him. The story, characters and plot are gripping, authentic and, well, just right.

Only John Saxon as the “charismatic” revolutionary Luis Chama isn’t too convincing and he doesn’t endear himself to us with his comment to his woman, “I don't keep you to think. I keep you for cold nights and days when there's nothing to do”. The others do an excellent job. I like Saxon in Westerns normally - he could be excellent - but this isn't one of his best.

The killers are brutal and very expert with their ultra-modern weapons. Their boss, Duvall, is the most ruthless of all. He finally gets his day in court.

There’s an important question of land rights underpinning the tale.

An excellent movie, produced by Eastwood’s company Malpaso, not quite in the Josey Wales or Pale Rider class, and certainly nowhere near Unforgiven in quality (after all, Clint didn’t direct this one) but nevertheless by no means one of his worst and visually a treat.
It's must-see, pards.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Cowboys (Warner Bros, 1972)

Action, authentic cattle & roping scenes, fun, gunplay, some good lines


I like this movie. It was criticized by the liberal establishment at the time because it had John Wayne in it and portrayed innocent young boys being turned into hardened killers, and I suppose the liberal establishment had a point. But you can’t help cheering the kids on when they get revenge for the baddies’ perfectly beastly behaviour. And my excuse for liking the movie is that it was the 1870s and things were different then.
John Wayne plays a grizzled sixty-year-old cattleman with a beer gut and toupee (he was actually 65) whose cow hands desert him to look for gold. Saloon-owner Slim Pickens suggests he draft the male contingent of the schoolroom and it’s the story of how these young boys try to prove their manliness to Wayne and grow up in the process. Some people said it was a Vietnam allegory but it wasn’t.

There’s nice Colorado/New Mexico scenery, lovely Bruce Surtees photography and a stirring sub-Bernstein score by John Williams. Wayne (who had to ask for the part, which was originally slated for George C Scott) puts in his best performance between True Grit and The Shootist. The other roles are good too: Pickens is sadly too soon written out but Roscoe Lee Browne is strong as the black cook with the right stuff (even if he does have a rather plummy accent), the children are excellent (not at all mawkish or slushy as so often in such films, and you have to admire their haircuts) and Bruce Dern is splendidly foul as the baddy, one of his very best roles. He'd learned how to scare the living daylights out of poor little kids in Will Penny, four years before.  Boy, is he mean.

There’s a rather pointless short bit with Colleen Dewhurst as a madam that should have been edited out.

Clay O’Brien, 10, the littlest cowboy, went on to be excellent in Cahill, U.S. Marshal when he was a grown man of 11. These days he stands six feet tall, is a rodeo star and has won seven World Titles in Team-Roping. Who would have thought it. Well, actually, you might. Those two films must have stood him in good stead.

The screenplay was written by William Dale Jennings (among others) from his own novel. The direction, by Mark Rydell, who had served his apprenticeship on Gunsmoke but whose only feature-length Western this was, is tight and professional.

The most stunning thing to viewers of this film at the time was that the Duke was killed. He had never died on screen before (except in The Alamo, where he had to) and the brutal shooting, by no means in the last reel (so I’m not giving away the ending), came as a real shock.

This is a good, well-acted Western which will stir you. It has action, authentic cattle and roping scenes, fun, gunplay and some good lines. Definitely one of the better products of the early 70s. Liberals notwithstanding.


Monday, July 19, 2010

The Tall Men (Fox, 1955)

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Forty Guns (Fox, 1957)

After all, she was only a woman


Forty Guns is a rather trashy 1950s black and white, directed by Samuel Fuller. Fuller is admired by many Western fans, especially in Europe. I’ve never understood why. This movie is poorly written and directed.

Some say it was a prototype of the spaghetti Western. Not easy to see that but there certainly are some shared pulp qualities. It stars Barry Sullivan and Gene Barry as US marshal brothers in “Tombstone”. These two Barries wear frock coats and have a rep with a gun. They have a younger brother, Robert Dix, who longs to kill people too and finally gets his way by shooting a baddy in the back of the head, getting a frock coat and becoming town marshal.

Barbara Stanwyck is frankly ridiculous as the leader of a forty-gun band of desperadoes, although it is said that she allowed herself to be dragged down the street by a horse when her stuntperson refused to do it because it was too dangerous. Sounds a bit like a studio story to me. The Barries try but can’t do much with a wooden script and corny plot. John Ericson is Stanwyck’s loutish kid brother who keeps killing people in town. Hank Worden is about the best in a too-short part as ‘Marshal John Chisum’ (what?).

There are a few cheap double-entendres, salacious for the 50s. This kind of thing: Stanwyck, talking of Barry’s gun: “I'm not interested in you, Mr. Bonnell. It's your trademark. May I feel it?” Barry: “Uh-uh. It might go off in your face”. Stanwyck: “I'll take a chance”. You get the idea.
The songs are utterly dire and the main one sounds like variations on a theme of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain’. It finishes with the memorable words, “After all, she was only a woman.”

The Joe Biroc photography, much of it rather dark, is good but the score (Harry Sukman) sucks.

The movie was not only directed but also produced and written by Fuller so there’s no one else to blame. He had a rather tabloid style suited to tough-guy war films or pulp underworld dramas but not right for Westerns. Forty Guns and his 1949 I Shot Jesse James are pretty lurid.

There are only two good bits in this film: the opening shot, where the forty thieves thunder past the lawman brothers’ wagon on their black horses, and the part towards the end where one of the Barries (I forget which; they’re interchangeable) shoots Barbara Stanwyck. Unfortunately she survives and chases his wagon as he is leaving town for California and, doubtless to Barry’s later undying regret, catches him up. OK, so I’ve spoiled the ending for you. But you won’t want to see the film anyway as (debit where debit’s due) it’s rubbish.

French auteuristes, of course, love it. To give you a flavor, look at the drivel on the review below. You probably can't read it but it says: "In this Western, which reminds us of Corneille and Shakespeare, Barbara Stanwyck incarnates a Citizen Kane of the prairie. Love is confronted by violence in a singular combat and in an aesthetic of fist-fighting particularly dear to the director Samuel Fuller. With, first and foremost, plastic virtuosity." I ask you. What total tosh. Do you think someone actually got paid for writing that?

NB I watched this again more recently and have written a revised post on this movie, Forty Guns Redux, which you can read by clicking the link.