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

Friday, July 24, 2015

Quantrill’s Raiders (AA, 1958)

Quantrill rides again

William Clarke Quantrill, sometimes written as Quantrell (1837 – 1865) often appeared in Hollywood Westerns. Studios liked the subject of a vicious guerrilla leader attacking Lawrence, Kansas, and there was often a Confederate, er, confederate in the story who participated but was disgusted at the violence and looting and turns against the warlord. Think of Audie Murphy as Jesse James in Kansas Raiders, Alan Ladd in Red Mountain or Randolph Scott in The Stranger Wore a Gun. Yep, it was a tried and tested plotline. And Allied Artists got the slightly less stellar Steve Cochran to do the same in Quantrill’s Raiders in 1958.
Lurid potboiler but well, you can't help watching
And various Hollywood heavies were drafted to play Quantrill. Even in the silent days Otto Lederer and Harry Hall were playing him in 1914 and 1921 respectively, and after World War II there was a veritable flurry of talkie Quantrillistas: Ray Corrigan in Renegade Girl in 1946, Brian Donlevy in Kansas Raiders in 1950, John Ireland in Red Mountain in ’51, James Millican in The Stranger Wore a Gun in 1953, Bruce Bennett in a 1954 episode of Stories of the Century on TV,  Broderick Crawford in another TV show in 1959, Forrest Tucker in a 1967 Hondo episode, and plenty of more recent ones too. Donlevy, Ireland, Millican, Crawford, Tucker, these were high class Western heavies, ideally cast as the ruthless marauder. And none better than Leo Gordon the Great, the Quantrill in 1958.

Leo was a classic. Tough as old boots, 6’2” tall, gravelly voice, San Quentin ex-con, he was the ideal tough guy in oater after oater. He doesn’t get much to say in Quantrill’s Raiders, just grunt and shoot people, but he does it with aplomb. Leo Gordon did aplomb.
The ideal movie Quantrill: Leo Gordon
Sadly, Steve Cochran as the goody opposite him wasn’t quite so impressive. Husky and hirsute bad guy (usually), many ladies sighed for him. He was Mae West’s leading stud in her 1949 revival of Diamond Lil on Broadway. He was often a gangster, convict or thug. He only did six Western movies, all small-scale affairs. He was pretty awful in Sam Peckinpah’s first outing, The Deadly Companions. But in the late 50s he wanted to reinvent himself as a hero, so the role in Quantrill’s Raiders was ideal for him. Here he could be a pro-Union horse trader in Kansas romancing the dames, while in fact being an undercover Confederate officer bringing secret orders to Quantrill. Quantrill is to attack the US Army arsenal at Lawrence, but no looting, of course - Steve wags an admonitory finger at Leo. Then, when he learns that there are no weapons in the arsenal, he orders the guerrilla leader to cancel the mission, but of course Quantrill won’t; his blood is up and he ties Steve up and rides on the town. Heroic Steve must escape, warn the Lawrencians and save the day.

Complete balderdash, of course, all of it. But then movies about Quantrill usually were. He often dies in the Lawrence raid, and Leo is duly shot down by Steve in this one too (spoiler alert – oh, too late). In fact, of course, later in the war he and his men (about 400 at the height) quarreled and at the end he was leading a mere dozen in raids in western Kentucky. Finally, Quantrill was caught in a Union ambush, a full month after Lee’s surrender, and the guerrilla leader was shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down. He died from his wounds in a military hospital in Louisville in June 1865. He was only 27. (Most of the actors who played him were stocky men in their forties).

The farrago was directed by Edward Bernds, a former sound technician who graduated to directing but probably shouldn’t have. He was once nominated for an Oscar but the Academy had mixed him up with another director. He still kept the nomination and displayed it proudly, framed.
The real William Clarke Quantrill
The movie was shot in among very unKansas-like Californian high rocks (I mean, have you ever been to Kansas?) by William Whitley, the Cowboy G-Men cameraman, and is in Color De Luxe and CinemaScope. AA were trying to produce big, color movies at the time. Mind, the budget still only runs to about 20 raiders: no 400 for Quantrill, I fear. And movies with Quantrill often have him burning the town down, with lots of looting and hinted-at rape, but in this one they just ride down the main street of the movie-set town and attack a barricade of wagons, get shot down, recoil and then do the same again. A bit dumb, honestly. In reality, they killed about 180 men and boys (some as young as 14) and did indeed leave many buildings in flames.

Capt. Cochran surrenders honorably at the end and is told that he will only be imprisoned for the war’s duration. “I’ll be back”, he tells Diane Brewster. She has a young nephew whom Steve has befriended and so they will form a family unit and settle down, à la Hondo, The Tin Star, Yuma, and about a thousand others.
Family unit
I have no objection whatsoever to historical bunkum in Westerns. It doesn’t worry me that Quantrill is killed in Lawrence in 1863, if it’s dramatically necessary. We don’t watch Western movies for history lessons. But if the film is a turgid clunker, now, that’s a different thing. And I’m afraid Quantrill’s Raiders is firmly in the Turgid Clunker category. Still, Leo is great, and Will Wright is the judge. Will was like an emaciated walrus. I always like him in Westerns. Better yet, Glenn Strange is Quantrill’s right hand man. Wasn’t Strange just marvelous? I mean, a guerrilla band led by Leo Gordon and Glenn Strange, now that would be scary.

Judge Will Wright

That's Glenn Strange on the right, riding as Quantrill's left-hand man


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (Columbia, 1953)

Tough and gritty

Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is an early-50s John Hodiak B-Western for Columbia. It’s actually quite good.
Nice color
Hodiak was one of those who in the 1940s filled a gap left by big stars serving in the armed forces. His early death in 1955, of a coronary thrombosis at the age of 41, meant that he did not become one of the really big Hollywood names and he was only in five Westerns: he was in the musical comedy The Harvey Girls in 1946, then rather good as the Army captain opposite Robert Taylor in Ambush, an excellent movie, in 1950. In ‘51 he appeared with Clark Gable in MGM’s Across the Wide Missouri and he finally topped a Western bill himself in two 1953 Columbia Bs, Conquest of Cochise, when he usurped Jeff Chandler’s pet part playing the Apache chief, and Ambush at Tomahawk Gap. He wasn’t bad. He looked tough and was well cast in Tomahawk Gap as the ex-con from Yuma determined to get payback for the years he had unjustly served (for he was innocent, naturally).

Hodiak is the tough hombre
The movie was directed by Columbia stalwart Fred F Sears, who acted bit-parts in 1940s Westerns, including in some Glenn Ford oaters. He appeared in a number of the Ray Nazarro-directed ‘Durango Kid’ oaters starring Charles Starrett (there were literally dozens through the late 40s and early 50s), and finally in 1949 made the leap to directing some. Sears excelled at churning out on-time and on-budget movies for Columbia and they loved him. Yes, he made some real junkers, sci-fi epics like The Giant Claw, but in fact some of his oaters were really rather well made: tough, gritty B-Westerns. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap was a good example.
Fred F Sears
The story starts in 1862 with four ex-cons (Hodiak, David Brian as ruthless thug, John Derek - Mr. Bo Derek, in his second Western - as the Kid, and the truly wonderful Ray Teal as the elder statesman con, Doc) released from Yuma Territorial Prison and arriving in Twin Forks, AZ. I like the way Brian spits at the name on the prison wagon. The four are immediately run out of town by the inhospitable sheriff (Trevor Bardette). I noticed that John Doucette was the barman in the saloon they head straight for. He often had barman roles, now that I come to think of it. Anyway, the men are after the loot from their stage hold-up, hidden in a cemetery in Tomahawk Gap, now a ghost town since the Apaches have run everyone out.
Right: my hero Ray Teal, kindly ex-con
They cross dangerous Indian territory to get there and pick up an escaped Navajo girl (Maria Elena Marques), who wounds the kid but then nurses him and – of course – it’s lerve.

Brian is the nastiest of the gang, Egan. The Kid is still save-able, thinks kindly Doc. Hodiak is innocent, of course, and just wants $1800 from the loot, which is the wages he would have earned as a cowhand in the years unjustly served in Yuma. Hodiak does the innocent cowhand toughened by prison time rather well.
John Derek is the Kid
Brian was always good as the blond bully. He’d been a doorman in New York and could handle himself. He was the megalomaniac blond villain in Fort Worth, the ruthless gang boss in Springfield Rifle and the crooked saloon keeper in Dawn at Socorro. He ws a sort of Lyle Bettger with muscle. He became a regular on TV Western shows. Here he is a nasty piece of work, until an Apache arrow in the back does for him. Interesting aside: blond men could be baddies - think of Dan Duryea, Bettger, et al - but were rarely Western heroes, or if they were, they were, like Alan Ladd, not very good ones. You had to be dark to be a Western lead. There are quite a few cases of blond actors dying their hair to act goodies, the James Arness Syndrome.

The movie is in bright Technicolor, shot by Henry Freulich in Simi Valley locations. It was written by David Lang, his third Western movie (he later went on to write a lot of TV shows). It’s quite a good screenplay – not especially original but quite tough and gritty.

There are two government agents following the baddies, hoping to recover the stolen Army payroll. The good news is that one of them is Percy Helton, a rather unlikely secret agent I suppose, and sadly he falls victim (off-stage) to the Apaches and is never seen again, which was a bit of a blow because I like Percy.
Left: secret agent Percy Helton - Apache victim
Well, it all comes down to a climactic showdown in the ghost town with the divided white men fighting off the attacking stuntmen Apaches (who stupidly ride up and down the main street allowing the whites to shoot them off their horses at each passage). One by one the white men succumb (Ray dies trying to save the Kid), until two survivors ride off into the sunset, but I shall not reveal which two: you must watch the movie to find that out. The last scene tells the fate of the loot.

You will definitely have seen worse, dear e-pards, and if I were you I would give this one a go.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Aces ‘N’ Eights (TV, 2008)

The early 21st century's answer to 1950s B-Westerns

Before his death in 2012 Ernest Borgnine acted in a number of made-for-TV Westerns and in them he became a lovable old man, often a rancher, grandfather or both. Aces ‘N’ Eights was his penultimate outing in the genre. The link between the title – referring to the famous ‘dead man’s hand’ held by Wild Bill Hickok on his last day – and the content of this movie is tenuous, to say the least. In fact there’s no link at all beyond one character ploddingly explaining about Wild Bill.
Ernest doing his loveable old man act
The only slightly unusual thing about the film is the level of violence, quite elevated for TV. It’s the old plot about a ruthless (but unnamed) railroad company hiring vicious gunmen to drive settlers off their land so the tracks can come through, and the thugs are indeed a bit on the ruthless side. Ernest, bless him, is one of the settlers and of course he won’t sell. He has a big shotgun to back up his argument, though curiously whenever he prepares to use it, the sound dubbers (the real villains of modern Westerns) preface his action with the noise of a Winchester round being levered into the breech.
The gunmen wear long dusters so they are obviously bad.

The hero is a certain Luke Rivers, who used to know one of the bad guys in the old days but has now hung up his guns, you know how they do. Naturally he will strap the irons on again and have a showdown; that’s an essential ingredient of this plot. He also dons, for the final shoot-out, a Clint Eastwood poncho, and unshaven and with a stubby cigar, he does look quite Clintish. Rivers is played by Casper Van Dien from Starship Troopers, who, as far as Westerns go, has only done this and two episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, so can hardly be accounted a specialist. He’s OK, I guess.
Going for the Clint look
The gang's redneck bad guy, the one our hero used to know, is named DC Cracker and is played by Bruce Boxleitner from Disney’s TRON. Mr. Boxleitner had started in Westerns in an episode of Gunsmoke in its final year (1975) and had then starred alongside James Arness again in the TV How The West Was Won. After that he made quite a thing of TV Westerns. He was Wyatt Earp in the TV I Married Wyatt Earp in 1983. In this one, he moves over from the dark side to the defenders of decency, because the real bad guy is too bad even for him, shooting down women and children and so forth, which is really rather naughty. This is the evil Tate (Jeff Kober, who has credentials as he was born and brought up on a ranch near Billings, Montana).
Bad guy Jeff Kober
A slightly unusual twist is that the bespectacled Eastern dude from the railroad company, Riley, is actually quite a decent fellow and tries to keep the murderous posse in check. Riley is played by the quite splendidly named Jack Noseworthy.
Railroad man with a conscience. Good lord, whatever next.
There’s also the standard loyal ranch hand (Rodney Scott) and impressionable young boy (Jake Thomas) and of course the woman. It’s good that women are feistier in Westerns these days but the danger is that they become tiresome nags and Deirdre Quinn as Jo Tanner falls into this trap. You wonder what on earth the hero sees in her.

It’s one of those movies which within 0.5 seconds of the first frame being shown you know is a TV one. It’s funny that, how you can instantly tell. I think it's something to do with the film stock.

Look, I have no problem with these TV Westerns. At least they are still making them and so (presumably) people still watch them. They are the modern equivalent of the 50s programmers that were churned out by Poverty Row studios. And what’s wrong with that?


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bullwhip (AA, 1958)

1950s male chauvinism in Wyoming

You might think of The Taming of the Shrew as a 1590s rom-com. Transpose the dates a little and really give your imagination a workout and you could think of Bullwhip as a 1950s version set in the Wild West. Sadly, Adele Buffington’s name doesn’t have quite the ring to it that William Shakespeare’s did. Ms. Buffington wrote Westerns with admirable dedication from 1925’s Love on the Rio Grande onward. The Cowboy and the Countess also sounds like a gripper. There wasn’t a single Western she did that was anything like an A-picture but she scribbled steadfastly on, churning out cowboy rom-coms, all though the talkie era, the 1940s and 50s. In fact Bullwhip was her last movie. I’m afraid it isn’t very good.
She tries whipping him but she gets whipped
Poor old Guy Madison was a bit on the wooden side and Western romantic comedies weren’t quite his thing. He plays it straight (probably the only mode he had). He was famous of course because of the long-running Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok on TV, which lasted most of the 1950s, but he also did big-screen B-Westerns such as Reprisal!, The Hard Man and The Command. He was the sensible Army captain in the AnthonyMann-directed The Last Frontier in 1955, the nearest he came to an A-Western. From 1964 on he did a lot of spaghetti westerns.
Guy Madison
Bullwhip has the curiously popular plot of a condemned man agreeing to marry to escape the noose (Goin’South was a more recent example). So Guy is in jail and crooked Judge Carr (Don Beddoe, wagonloads of Westerns from Union Pacific on) hitches him up to Rhonda Fleming. Now, let me see, get hanged or marry gorgeous Rhonda Fleming? Hmm, tricky decision.
Crooked judge Don Beddoe
There is much complex skullduggery, which must have kept Adele toiling over a hot typewriter. But of course finally, as we knew they would, the two parties to the marriage of convenience fall for each other and live HEA.

James Griffith is the hired gunfighter who takes money from two different villains, to kill Guy and to protect him. I like Griffith. He always looked cadaverous and sinister. Guy and Rhonda both have sidekicks: Guy’s is Podo (good old Dan Sheridan, who was in every TV Western you care to name) and Rhonda’s is the Indian Pine Hawk (Burt Nelson, only three Westerns, all B). Hank Worden is the cowboy Tex and as usual dutifully recites his lines.
Gunslinger James Griffith
The whole thing was directed by Harmon Jones, who had started as an editor at Fox, but when he turned to directing wasn’t terribly distinguished. He did mostly TV shows. Allied Artists were trying to produce A-pictures and so this one is in CinemaScope with color by De Luxe (rather pleasant pastels, actually, a bit like Trucolor). The DP was John J Martin (the Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok cinematographer) and there is the occasional good shot, such as the early one of cowboys on a skyline with Indians moving bottom right. The wagon train under the titles is seriously impressive but it is never seen again and I guess it must have been lifted from an earlier movie. The A-pictures really only managed 'big-B' status.

There’s a painful ballad to start proceedings, sung by Frankie Laine, the credits say, but whose the female voice was is not revealed. Could it have been Rhonda?

All in all, though, mes chers amis, you will have missed little if you miss this film. It's low on action and the 50s male chauvinism makes us cringe now.

Happily ever after

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bugles in the Afternoon, a novel by Ernest Haycox

A fine Western novel

My edition of Bugles in the Afternoon (University of Oklahoma Press, 2003) has a foreword by Richard Etulain and an introduction by Ernest Haycox’s son, Ernest Haycox Jr. If you want to read the novel, I suggest you get this edition. In 1989 Richard Etulain, always worth reading on anything to do with the West (see for example his Telling Western Stories or his life of Calamity Jane), wrote a biography of Haycox in the Western Writers series. Ernest Haycox Jr. also wrote about his father in On a Silver Desert, published in 2003. But it is chiefly reading the original Haycox tales that one really appreciates the mastery of the man. And Bugles in the Afternoon was perhaps the summit of his achievement.

Ernest James Haycox (1899 – 1950) was a son of Oregon and he always loved the North-West. Some of his best stories are set there. He came from a poor and broken family and, his son writes, “by his 12th birthday, perhaps earlier, was on his own.” He enlisted in 1915, was stationed on the Mexican border and then was sent to Europe during the First World War. On his return, he studied journalism and began writing.
Haycox as a young man
Altogether he wrote two dozen novels and about 300 short stories, some about his early interest, the American Revolution, but mostly Western tales. In the 1920s, 30s and 40s he was a leading contributor to top magazines and papers like Collier’s Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post. Admirers included Ernest Hemingway and Gertude Stein, and Hemingway once wrote, "I read The Saturday Evening Post whenever it has a serial by Ernest Haycox.”

Haycox really became famous in 1939 because that was the year in which John Ford adapted his short story Stage to Lordsburg into one of the best known Western movies ever, Stagecoach.
Haycox in his prime. He died sadly young of cancer at 51.
Bugles first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post (unaccountably, Collier’s rejected it) as a serial in 1943 and was published as a full novel the year after.

Haycox had ambitions, largely achieved, to elevate the pulp Western story into American literature. Certainly he had a wide and deep knowledge of the West, and he managed to apply that without being didactic; he wore his learning lightly. Bugles is a Custer story and you get a really interesting picture of life in the 7th Cavalry by reading it. The hero, Kern Shafter, is with Reno’s command. Haycox had always been interested in Custer and had an extensive library of primary and secondary sources on the general (now in the University of Oregon library). He also interviewed many elderly participants in the Indian wars. He knew whereof he wrote.
(Although his interviewees weren't all totally reliable. His son tells of one, a filthy tramp who spoke only in verse and said he was the Lone Ranger's brother).

But he also developed a literary style that combined elegance with pithiness and thoughtful observations, and his characters are convincing and interesting. It is no wonder Hemingway admired him.
Haycox wouldn't have approved of the cover. The sabers were left boxed at Fort Lincoln.
You really have to put the 1952 movie made from this novel out of your mind when you read the book. The film was stodgy, plodding and miscast. The book, however, is magnificent.

Haycox’s Custer is very convincing: a charismatic but flawed figure. His principal faults are arrogance and over-confidence. Haycox writes that Custer

scorned the cautions which held other commanders back; he had a blind faith in the naked power of a cavalry charge. On dash and surprise and swiftness he had made himself a general out of a boy lieutenant in four years and he would not change now.

Haycox underlines that this rashness and self-belief would have been acceptable if it had led only to his own demise. But more than 250 white American men and their families were to suffer the terrible consequences.

He was a simple man so hungry for greatness that he could ride roughshod over the personal feelings of other men and not be aware of it; he was so naïve in his judgments that even as he knew his enemies, he treated them in a manner of one who knows them to be entirely wrong and therefore to be treated charitably. … All these things he was – an elemental complex of emotions and hungers and dreams never cooled, nor disciplined, never refined by maturity; for he had never grown up.

There is a ‘small’ but powerful personal tale within the broader historical picture of the campaign. The story opens with Kern Shafter, a classic Western hero, traveling by stage and train to Bismarck and meeting, on the journey, the beautiful and lively Josephine, whom he protects from the dangers and coarseness of rough Western men. We learn that he was a lieutenant, cashiered from the Army after a quarrel with a senior officer over a woman. He now re-enlists as a private in the 7th. Here he finds that the officer with whom he had fought, the dastardly Capt. Garnett, is also at Fort Lincoln and, worse, has set his cap at Josephine (among other ladies). This then is the heart of the plot.

Particularly gripping are the account of Shafter’s winter journey by sleigh on the mail trip to Fargo, when he is caught in a blizzard, and the attack of Company A under Major Reno by the Sioux. The book therefore carries you along, turning the pages.

Bugles did very well commercially. It received critical acclaim and sold strongly, more than any other Haycox novel. Many still regard it as the best novel about Custer.

As Richard Etulain writes, “Bugles in the Afternoon remains Ernest Haycox’s best novel … More than half a century after its first appearance, the work maintains its strong appeal as a smoothly written historical Western about Gen. George Custer.” I concur. I love the 'pulp' Western novels of Luke Short and Glendon Swarthout, and the nostalgic old-West feel of Jack Schaefer, and the sweeping epics of McMurtry, and the gritty frontier tales of Elmore Leonard, and the comic genius of Charles Portis and Thomas Berger, and the intense literary works of Cormac McCarthy, but do you know, I have a sneaking suspicion that Ernest Haycox may be the best of them all.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Captain Apache (Scotia International, 1971)

Junk, but ever so slightly better than most spaghettis

While still very bad and only worth a one-Colt rating, Captain Apache is perhaps at the more salubrious end of the swamp of searing dreadfulness which usually spawns spaghetti Westerns. I say this because while it has the hallmarks of spaghetti (an amusing metaphor), i.e. lousy acting, worse sets, appalling writing, bad photography, awful music, dire dubbing and so on, it is at least slightly more American than some Eurowesterns were.
Lee in full spaghetti mode, early 1970s
The director was American for one thing, even if very much from the second tier (New Yorker Alexander Singer, TV Western director) and amazingly, astonishingly, jaw-droppingly, one of the writers was not only American but also good – Philip Yordan. Yordan, you doubtless know, wrote or co-wrote Westerns of the caliber of The Man from Laramie, Johnny Guitar, Broken Lance and The Bravados. What on earth was he doing bashing this junk out on his typewriter? But then I suppose that question could be put to many of the people involved with the movie.

And there are a couple of aspects which stir a modicum of interest in it. For example, the bad guy is Stuart Whitman, in early-70s hair and a frock coat, a gun runner to the Indians, or is it the Mexicans, I forget, or I may have been asleep. And with Whitman is British B-movie actor Percy Herbert, so we have a sort of Cimarron Strip reunion, with Marshal Crown and deputy McGregor roaming thru Arizona, Spain. However, this time Percy has lost his cod Scottish accent in favor of an even less convincing ‘American’ one.
Far from the Cimarron Strip, Stuart Whitman is the bad guy,
while (below) Percy Herbert is not McGregor but Moon
The star is Lee Van Cleef, so that’s good. He plays an Apache who has become a captain in the Union Army. All the whites refer to him as “red ass”, not a term I was familiar with. The Apache don’t like him either, though, seeing him as a renegade who has sold out to the enemy. He is obliged, when going to meet the chief Diablo (Vito Salier), to strip off and negotiate wearing nothing but a Tarzan loincloth. Actually, though, in his make-up Lee did look just a little Native American, with that gaunt face and all. His other costume is hilarious, a sort of slinky leather jacket with feather boa collar.
Slinky costume
Hardly a costume at all
And there’s a third good thing: it’s a two-derringer picture. Besuited badguy Stuart Whitman has one, appropriately, one of those sleeve types that dashes the popgun into your hand, and one of the dames, I forget which (Carroll Baker or Elisa Montés) also uses one. You know how besotted I am with derringers.
So it isn’t all bad.

Just most of it.

Yordan based his screenplay on “a novel by SE Whitman”. Do you think that was Stuart? He was actually SM Whitman. Still, …

There’s a trendy LSD sequence where Lee goes on a trip. Psychedelic, man.

The worst/funniest thing about the picture is Lee’s embryonic 1970s rap at the start, where he recites doggerel to electric guitar backing, and then he actually ‘sings’ (flat) at the end. Singers often tried acting in Westerns and with very few exceptions (Johnny Cash quite good in A Gunfight, Dean Martin wonderful in everything, even though many of his films were junk, Elvis very good in Flaming Star) they were pretty hopeless and they should have stuck to singing. Similarly, actors who try singing really should have thought again. Think of Robert Mitchum in Young Billy Young. Oh dear. I make an exception for Chill Wills; he had a nice voice.

You can safely skip this movie, though. Unless you have a morbid interest.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Seminole Uprising (Columbia, 1955)

Standard central-casting Indians

The story of the Seminoles is a very interesting one. Related to the Creek, they became increasingly independent of that people, establishing their own cultural and linguistic identity in Florida. In the eighteenth century the tribe was augmented by free and escaped black people. Indeed, the word Seminole is a corruption of cimarrón, Spanish term for ‘runaway’ or ‘wild one’.

When the now independent United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1819, its settlers increased pressure on Seminole lands. During the period of the Seminole Wars (1818–1858), the tribe was first confined to a large reservation in the center of the Florida peninsula by the Treaty of Moultrie Creek (1823) and then evicted from the territory altogether under the Treaty of Payne's Landing (1832). By 1842, to the lasting shame of the US, most Seminoles had been uprooted and forced to move to poor land in Indian Territory, west of the Mississippi River.
During the Civil War, most of the Oklahoma Seminole allied with the Confederacy, after which they had to sign a new treaty, including freedom and tribal membership for the Black Seminole.

Perhaps fewer than 200 Seminoles remained in Florida after the Third Seminole War (1855-1858), but they fostered a resurgence in traditional customs and a culture of staunch independence. In the late nineteenth century, the Florida Seminole re-established limited relations with the US government and in 1930 received 5,000 acres (c 20 sq km) of reservation lands.

In the early 1950s, Hollywood, tired perhaps of traditional non-specific ‘Indians’ in standard attire from central casting’s costume department, suddenly developed an interest in the Seminoles, and Westerns started to appear featuring them. Or rather, Hollywood rediscovered an interest, for there had been silent movies about the people, such as The Seminole’s Trust (1910), The Seminole’s Sacrifice (1911) and The Virgin of Seminole (1923).

There were three mainstream full-budget films about the whites’ wars against the Seminoles, all historical bunkum. They were Warners’ Distant Drums in 1951, Universal’s Seminole in 1953 and Columbia’s Seminole Uprising in 1955. The first was directed by Raoul Walsh, written by Niven Busch and starred Gary Cooper, so it ought to have been the best, but it was a farrago, a typical stodgy Warners early-50s dud. The second, helmed by Budd Boetticher and starring Rock Hudson, was probably the best, though hardly great art. The last was a poorly cobbled-together B-movie with George Montgomery in the lead, and directed by Rin Tin Tin helmsman, the uninspired Earl Bellamy, and it is that one we are going to talk about today (sorry about the overlong intro).
The middle one was about the best, but...
The first thing you notice about Seminole Uprising is that it is two films crudely stitched together and presented as one. Mostly shot on the Corrigan and Iverson ranches in California in quite pastel colors, Columbia then intercut footage of what looks like Arizona locations from some older movie, with a very different film stock and colored garishly. It becomes laughable when the bluecoats are holed up in gray Californian rocks surrounded by green hills and trees, firing at their Seminole enemies in an orange desert landscape a hundred yards away. And it’s supposed to be Texas. Why? The editing (Jerome Thoms) and continuity are absolutely dire. The DP was undistinguished Henry Freulich who worked on a long line of Columbia B-Westerns from 1948 on, including George Montgomery ones.

Then, while the other movies made some attempt to dress the Seminole in their traditional and colorful costumes, very different from Plains Indians or Apaches (Anthony Quinn was very dashing as Osceola in Seminole), in Seminole Uprising the Seminoles look like Cheyennes, with fringed buckskins and war bonnets, perhaps in order that the old film stock could be used. They aren’t Seminoles at all.
Anthony Quinn as Seminole chief in Seminole
Steve Ritch as Seminole chief in Seminole Uprising
We open the story with brave Lt. Cam Elliott (George Montgomery) reporting to Col. Robert E Lee (Richard H Cutting, in many a Western from 1953 on) at Fort Mason in 1855. Lee tells Lt. Elliott that he, Elliott, grew up with Seminole chief Black Cat, a fact Elliott was presumably already aware of. In fact, everyone says that both Elliott and Black Cat are of mixed race, half-breeds as they are called, though later in the movie Mr. Cat denies this, declaring that as a child Elliott had been found by the Seminole in a wagon train. This of course clears the way for Montgomery to marry the heroine, the colonel’s daughter (Karin Booth) for the very idea of the blonde maid wedding a half-breed would deeply shock the sensitivities of 50s Hollywood – that dreaded miscegenation they went on about. I mean, think of the children!

Anyway, Elliott is sent to the Puertocitas Mountains to track down Black Cat (Steven Ritch, who though not exactly of Native American heritage – he was from Rhode Island – made quite a thing of playing Indians in Westerns) and get him “back on the reservation,” though which reservation, where, is not stated.

So off George rides, accompanied by his crusty old sidekick Cubby, a sort of Gabby Hayes/Walter Brennan part, though played straighter and less for old-timery humor. As George is an Army officer, sidekick Cubby is a civilian scout. Cubby was played by William Fawcett, a PhD and former professor, not the most common background for old-timer sidekicks in Westerns but well, why not? Fawcett was in literally hundreds (nearly 400) B and TV oaters and was always rather professional in them. He’s a cut above the usual comic sidekick.
William Fawcett, PhD, is sidekick/scout
The colonel’s daughter (I should have said, the colonel is played by B-movie actor and serial bridegroom Howard Wright, bit parts in most Western TV shows) is a dumb blonde. It wouldn’t be PC to call anyone that now but this was 1955 and she, Susan, is doll-like, over made up and plain silly. And rather wet. She gets herself kidnapped by Black Cat, which helps the Hollywood plot but is otherwise all rather tiresome. Ms. Booth (five B-Westerns and a couple of TV ones) isn’t a very good actress and the part she is given is lamely written, so all in all it doesn’t work out too well.
Unluckily for him, he finally gets the gal
The screenplay, by the way, is by Robert E Kent (28 very B-Westerns) from a Curt Brandon novel, and it’s clunky and ponderous.

Susan used to be in love with George, and still flirts with him though engaged to rotter/cad Capt. Dudley (Ed Hinton). We immediately know that Capt. Dudley will be killed and Susan will go off with our hero, and this duly occurs in the last reel, about the last 30 seconds in fact.

This film really isn’t very good. Montgomery did some reasonably good oaters for Columbia. But this isn’t one of them.