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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Blackthorn (16 production companies listed, 2011)

Butch Cassidy lives!


Of course Butch Cassidy didn’t die in that shoot-out in Bolivia at the end of the movie. He’s alive and serving behind the cold meats counter in my supermarket. Alongside Elvis.

We all love to speculate that Butch and Sundance weren’t the ones shot down by the Bolivian armed forces that day. Wikipedia tells us that there were claims, such as by Butch’s sister Lula Parker Betenson, that he returned to the United States and lived there anonymously for years. Various people, including Butch’s doctor, are said to have known him back in the States in the 1920s.


But the evidence doesn’t stack up to much, pards, I am afraid.  It really looks like Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh perished in November 1908 near San Vicente, Bolivia, after they had taken part in a mining payroll robbery.

Still, the notion that they got away lingers and many believe it. (Never underestimate people’s credulity). And the idea was strong enough to fuel a recent film, Blackthorn. I saw it at a movie theater (always the best way) when it came out last year and again the other night on TV.

It’s very good.

I would say that it’s a gritty modern Western in the proper tradition. Sam Shepard is excellent as the aging Parker/Cassidy, now going under the name of Blackthorn. Although Sundance didn’t survive that shoot-out (and his end is graphically and tragically described), Butch did and he is now living a quiet life raising horses on a hill farm, visited by a Bolivian lover but still nervously scanning the wanted posters and keeping his hat down over his eyes when he goes to the bank.

It’s well directed by Spaniard Mateo Gil, his only Western, and although the movie is certainly not fast-paced, being pretty much a chase yarn, it does build tension. So well done, Señor Gil. There’s another Spaniard, this time a Basque, Juan Ruiz Anchía, behind the lens (he also did September Dawn, not a great film but attractive visually) and the La Paz, Potosí and Uyuni locations are very fine indeed. We get a sense of arid beauty.

Of the supporting cast, Eduardo Noriega, another Spaniard (but playing a Spaniard) is alright. No complaints. Best by far, though, is Stephen Rea as the broke-down, worn-out ex-Pinkerton man Mackinley. He is magnificent. We understand his passion, almost obsession, with catching the bandit pair yet now, as an old, alcoholic honorary consul, when his nemesis finally arrives after all these years, he can’t cope. He is a genuinely tragic figure. Northern Irishman but Dublin resident Mr. Rea (you see it’s a pretty Eurowestern all in all) does, frankly, a wonderful job.

Padraic Delaney, guess what, another Irishman, does a fair job with his flashback-limited part as Sundance and manages to look a bit like young Redford (though not really much like Longabaugh).

There’s quite a good twist in the tale (or tail). Straight chase-stories can be a bit slow-moving (they go at the pace of a walking horse, mostly) and they need a little extra spice to pep them up. This story has that. So well done the writer, Miguel Barros.

I wonder where he comes from?

Anyway, pardners, if you haven’t seen Blackthorn, mosey along to your local movie theater, or if you have to watch it on TV get one of those big screens. You won’t regret it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Savage (Paramount, 1952)

Those forts again

Funny that in the very last post I should have talked about the popularity in Westerns of those big model wooden forts and then the very next day there’s a good example on TV again. They showed The Savage.

This is an earnest version of the old yarn in which a wagon train is attacked by Indians and all the settlers are killed except a small boy who is adopted by the Sioux and brought up by their chief, Yellow Eagle. The whites, in breach of treaties, move into the Black Hills of Dakota and the young man is now conflicted: where do his loyalties lie?

There were earlier silents based on this idea and later movies too, such as Alan Ladd being raised by Indians and later joining the Mounties in Saskatchewan (Universal, 1954). Little Big Man too. ‘The Savage’ is meant semi-ironically because in these movies the hero brings peace between the red and white peoples and sometimes shows more civilizational attributes than the hard-liners on each side.

The Savage, though, is a bit of a plodder in this line. Yes, there is action and Charlton goes Hestoning around the hills a lot with his shirt off showing how he has become the Alpha male of his Sioux tribe. The US Cavalry officers are quite dumb, as usual, but there are a few more enlightened men, also as usual, notably Milburn Stone (Doc Adams in Gunsmoke) who is rather good, in fact, as Corporal Martin. There’s also pleasant Black Hills location photography by John F Seitz (The Iron Mistress, Saskatchewan, The Big Land). So yes, it has its points.

The trouble comes with the script, uncredited on screen but in fact by Sydney Boehm and LL Foreman, which is stilted and over-earnest. The actors playing Indians keep their Californian drawls and make no attempt at ug-speak, which is good, but they are obliged to deliver ponderous, ‘noble’ sentiments in a mannered way. And we need some humor, don’t we? I mean 95 minutes without the hint of a smile is a bit tough going. And the actual root causes of the conflict aren’t really probed at all.

All in all The Savage is a colorful US Cavalry-and-Indians romp of the period but with a message. Broken Arrow had come out in 1950 and started to correct in a more nuanced way the old stereotype of nameless yelping redskin savages attacking the fort, so more thoughtful pictures about Indians were in vogue.

George Marshall directed (he did 50 Westerns from Across The Rio Grande in 1916 to Hec Ramsey in 1972, including Destry Rides Again, When The Daltons Rode, The Sheepman and part of How The West Was Won) and he did it with brio. There’s one scene looking over the green Black Hills from the fort with very many extras in the distance, so the budget was there. Paramount brought it out while George Stevens was up in Wyoming shooting their Shane so big Westerns were in. Yes, it’s worth a watch alright.

Just don’t expect too much. Broken Arrow it ain’t.



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fort Yuma (United Artists, 1955)

Attack that fort!

Last night there was a pretty average but quite enjoyable Western on French TV, Fort Yuma. It stars the late Peter Graves, Peter Aurness (March 18, 1926 – March 14, 2010), Matt Dillon's brother, as it were. He was in 18 Westerns between 1961 and 1969 and so made rather a speciality of them in the 60s, like his elder brother. He wasn't bad.

I wouldn't call Fort Yuma much more than a minor Western, honestly. It's pretty standard stuff about a young(ish) Indian-hating lieutenant who comes to a more moderate view thanks to the missionary woman (Melanie Crowne) in his party. There's quite a bit of action as the Apaches dress up as cavalrymen and try to take the fort. There's some nice location scenery (Utah standing in as Arizona).

It was directed by the prolific Lesley Salander - not, perhaps, a name to rank with John Ford or Howard Hawks but he helmed no fewer than 123 oaters over a 43-year period. He knew a thing or two about Westerns, alright. Mind, he was in little danger of winning an Oscar and there isn't, honestly, an A-movie among them.

Still, I enjoyed Fort Yuma. A 1950s Western I hadn't seen: that's a (disgracefully rare) pleasure for me.

It got me thinking how popular movies about forts were. I guess it was the idea of brave heroes defying impossible odds in wild terrain. Westerns were made about Fort Apache (the greatest 'fort' picture of them all, of course), Fort Bowie, Fort Courageous, Fort Defiance (Graves was in that one too), Fort Dobbs, Fort Massacre (though that was just a nickname a trooper gave it), Fort Osage, Fort Ticonderoga, Fort Utah, Fort Vengeance, Fort Worth (more about the town than the fort) and Fort Yuma. Only the Valiant was also known as Fort Invincible (and has a proper wooden, Beau Gestey fort). Forts appeared in many other non-Fort-titled Westerns too, such as Fury at Furnace CreekThe Indian Fighter, Tomahawk or The Savage.

Of course, forts were usually shown as wooden pallisaded structures and Indians often attacked them. If you've ever visisted any real forts in the West you know they later-period Western forts weren't like that at all (though some of the early ones were). In the 1870s and 80s, the classic 'Western' era, forts were more open, adobe- or stone-built military bases. Fort Apache, NM or Fort Laramie, WY for example, are great places to visit today. You get a real sense of what it was like.

Forts became central to the Beau Geste genre (Saharan Westerns, really) and other types of film. Many were filmed at Kanab Movie Fort in Utah.

This was built in 1954 for The Yellow Tomahawk, a lowish budget United Artists Western with Rory Calhoun, and used for various movies afterwards, such as Duel at Diablo, The Plainsman (the 1966 one) and others, and some Western TV shows. During the filming in 1979 of The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, a junk children's Western by Disney whose only merit was having Jack Elam in it, a fire on the set got out of hand and burned a lot of the fort down, sadly.

Kanab Movie Fort in 2012 (photograph © Linda Smith)

There had been a real fort at Kanab.  Begun in 1864, under the direction of Jacob Hamblin as a protection from Indians and as a base to explore the region. Severe and frequent attacks made it impractical to maintain the fort and it was abandoned in 1866. It was reoccupied in 1870 by a certain Levi Stewart and his companions sent to do missionary work and to establish peace with the Indians. In December of that same year there was a fire in the fort that killed Levi's wife and five sons. So Fort Kanab burned down twice.

But the real Fort movie is like Fort Yuma: brave soldiers hold off Apache attack. See it if it comes on!

Jeff Arnold rides again

Howdy, everyone.

I'm back.

Sorry to have been away for so long.

But in the next few days I'll be posting again.

So long.