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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Westerns of Henry Hathaway

How the West was Filmed

Directors were clearly key people in the production of Western movies, as they have always been in every genre. The great directors have stamped their own character on their films and you can see a personal style in them. John Ford Westerns or Sam Peckinpah ones are usually recognizable as such. This was especially true if the director also had a role in production, writing and casting a movie. Some directors also had more of a say than others over the work of the director of photography, and visually their films are more ‘theirs’ – one thinks immediately of Ford. Still, I tend not to refer to “John Ford’s The Searchers” or “Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch”, as many do, because this plays into the auteuriste’s hands: as if one person, even a powerful director, were the only one responsible for the quality of a film. The Searchers was just as much a John Wayne Western as a John Ford one, and indeed it was just as much the film of its other actors, its writers, its producers, its DP, and so on, even of its crew.

Having said that, it’s interesting to look at the movies of one or other director, just as it is to discuss the work of one or other Western actor or cinematographer. In this blog I have already done an overview of the Westerns of directors such as Howard Hawks, John SturgesBudd Boetticher, Delmer Daves, John Ford, Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah. Others, I hope, will follow. Today it is the turn of Henry Hathaway.
Henry Hathaway (1898 - 1985)
True Grit

Mr. Hathaway will always be remembered as the director of True Grit. It was certainly his best Western and perhaps his best film altogether, and it won an Oscar for John Wayne (Duke's only Academy award). It is a perfectly splendid movie and an excellent treatment of a fine book. But Hathaway also directed many other Westerns, with a variety of stars, from 1932 to 1971. They weren’t all great; some in fact were pretty ropey. But there were some very good ones too, as we shall see.
Hathaway's masterpiece
Early career

Hathaway started his Western career in 1919 aged 21 as a propman on a Samuel Goldwyn-produced silent movie, Jubilo, starring Will Rogers. He propped on another Will Rogers flicker, Honest Hutch, in 1920 and on Paramount’s The Call of the Canyon and To the Last Man in 1923, which were directed by Victor Fleming. These last two were to be important because Fleming became Hathaway’s mentor and Henry learned his craft from the director of The Virginian. They were also Zane Grey stories (Jesse Lasky had bought the rights to Grey’s novels) and when Hathaway finally did get into the director’s chair, in 1932, it was to make another Zane Grey tale, Heritage of the Desert.  

Before then, though, in 1925 Lassky promoted Hathaway to be Second Unit Director on the silent The Thundering Herd, with Jack Holt, Noah Beery, Tim McCoy (so a very good cast) and a young Gary Cooper in an uncredited bit part. It was directed by William K Howard, who did a good number of commercially successful and often quite spectacular Westerns. Hathaway must have learned from him.

Hathaway then had the good fortune to be assistant director on the talkie The Virginian in 1929, followed by Redskin, The Wolf Song (with Gary Cooper again as lead) and, yet again with Coop in the lead, The Texan in 1930. It was an excellent apprenticeship.

Director at last

From 1932 to ‘34 Hathaway directed eight Zane Grey stories for Paramount, seven of them with Randolph Scott in the lead. They were one-hour talkie programmers, remakes of previous silent movies (and using some of the old footage), well made but with no pretensions, and quite a lot of fun. Yes, some were a bit on the clunky side, even for those early days, but overall they are still enjoyable today. Try To the Last Man (1933) or Wagon Wheels (1934) as examples.
Early 1930s Zane Grey pictures
Certainly we can say that by 1934 Henry Hathaway was an experienced Western director who had learned his craft.

He later wrote, “With Fleming I did ‘The Virginian’. I did all those early Westerns, all those Zane Greys, the ones I did over again. I mostly learned from them how to handle people. I would take a script home and think: what would I tell these people to do to make the scene, how would I start it, where would be the climax, how I could get out of it, how do I get rid of the people, where would I do it - in front of the fire or on the couch, what would I do? And I'd make up my mind, and I'd make a lot of notes and then I'd see what they did. Entirely different! But you'd learn! ”
A younger Hathaway
There was then a Western pause, and in the late 30s Hathaway made no Westerns but did some successful non-Western pictures like Peter Ibbetson and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (both with Gary Cooper). The latter got him Academy Award nominations for best director and best picture. In 1940 Hathaway directed the rather turgid biopic Brigham Young, if you call that a Western (I don’t, really) and in 1941 there followed another semi-Western (the best you can say), Shepherd of the Hills with John Wayne and Harry Carey. Then there was another pause, until 1951. So, with 17 years without a proper Western, it seemed almost as if Hathaway had forsworn the genre, the dolt.

The 1950s

In the early 50s, however, Henry Hathaway made two superb Westerns for Fox. The first is underrated, hardly known even by Western fans, yet is an outstandingly good noir (Hathaway had made some excellent non-Western noirs in the 40s). It was Rawhide, in 1951. It starred a surprisingly good Tyrone Power (not the most obvious of Western stars, despite Jesse James) and a first-class Susan Hayward, a fine Western actor. It’s a siege story, about bandits led by Hugh Marlowe who take over a remote stage waystation, killing the owner (Edgar Buchanan) and holding the others hostage. It’s dark, tense and very well done (and Jack Elam is superb as an absolutely manic gunman).

The other was Garden of Evil, in 1954, yet again with Gary Cooper in the lead. Hathaway had a rep for being hard on actors (“To be a good director you've got to be a bastard,” he said. “I'm a bastard and I know it.”) but he held Coop in high regard. He said, “Gary Cooper was the first actor to believe you didn't have to mug to act, if you thought of what you were doing, it showed -- and he proved he was right.” He also said that he thought Coop was the very best of all the stars. They worked on many films together. Hathaway was a pallbearer at Coop’s funeral.
Like Rawhide, Garden of Evil is also a tense and atmospheric film. It used exotic Mexican locations (Hathaway often used colorful settings in his films), it was the first Western in CinemaScope and was beautifully photographed (by Milton Krasner). These two early-50s Westerns are among Hathaway’s best.

In 1958 Hathaway directed another oater, again for Fox, From Hell to Texas (an oddly titled movie for it has nothing to do with Texas, or Hell for that matter, and is set in New Mexico). It’s a ‘small’ film, by which I mean it has a modest cast and has a confined plot (Robert Buckner and Wendell Mayes screenplay from a Charles O Locke novel) about few people. That was also true of Garden of Evil. It is an economical story with a spare, hard plot. It could have been by Luke Short (it’s that good). It is also extremely well directed and finely acted. Hathaway did an excellent job of reduction and Johnny Ehrin also edited tightly and effectively.
Good movie
The acting is top notch. You wouldn’t automatically put Don Murray in the highest league of Western actors. Up till then he had been a TV and B-movie character actor. Still, in From Hell to Texas he is very good. He underplays and succeeds in projecting in a convincing way as a young, rather naive but still courageous loner.

In the movie the young Dennis Hopper tried to assert himself artistically on the set. He forced Hathaway to shoot more than 80 takes of one scene before he agreed to Hathaway's demands. This was a mistake. After the shoot, Hathaway reportedly told the young actor that his career in Hollywood was over. Hopper was forced to make a living doing TV for the next few years. It was not until 1965 that Hathaway forgave him and he landed another movie role, in The Sons of Katie Elder.  Hopper also worked on True Grit. Hopper later admitted he was wrong to have disrespected Hathaway as a youth and called him "the finest director I have ever worked with".

John Wayne

After From Hell to Texas Hathaway made a picture with John Wayne, North to Alaska in 1962. It was a 'lusty' gold-digging comedy with semi-Western credentials. It’s far from special but Hathaway went on to use Wayne a lot. Duke was General Sherman (but in the John Ford-directed part) in How the West Was Won, and Wayne pictures Circus World (1964) and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) followed, as well as True Grit in 1969.
Hathaway with Duke
Three directors were used on MGM’s galumphing How the West Was Won, which may best be described as a gigantic turkey - though a big hit. Hathaway, however, was responsible for more of it than John Ford or George Marshall, and to him therefore goes more of the credit/blame. It wasn’t all Hathaway’s fault: the studio insisted on every conceivable addition and inclusion. They wanted a truly epic and seminal picture. They got something to feed a very large family at Thanksgiving. The less said about the movie here, the better.
Circus World was not really a Western (John Wayne takes his Wild West show to 1900s Europe) but The Sons of Katie Elder was. It was the first of the series of big commercial Westerns that Wayne made down in Durango and it’s fun. Clearly Wayne had a lot of input but you can see Hathaway touches too. The cast list is also a roll-call of great Western character actors and this alone makes the movie worth a watch. (But not a Rolex).

Late 60s

Katie Elder was, sadly, followed by three very ordinary late-60s Westerns, Nevada Smith with Steve McQueen, extrapolated, as it were, from a segment of Harold Robbins’s potboiler The Carpetbaggers; then An Eye for an Eye, a revenge story (as the title gives away) starring Robert Lansing in his only Western movie (though he had been in many TV oaters, including being Custer in Branded) and Duke’s son Patrick; and 5 Card Stud, in which both stars, Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum, sleepwalked through the whole shoot. These movies were undistinguished, which is the best we can say, really. In fact the last really good Western had been back in 1958 and one had to wonder if Hathaway, now 70, was, Westernwise, washed up.

Nay, for then came True Grit, back at Paramount, a veritable marvel of a Western. How I love this movie. If Hathaway had made nothing else he would still have gone, on departure (he died in 1985) straight to the Western Mt Olympus, somewhere up in the Rockies. Really, there’s nothing wrong with this picture. Glen Campbell, maybe, but I forgive even him and his song. It showed that Hathaway was a Western lover; that much is clear.
A great creation
It’s a pity, in a way, that Hathaway tried to remake it, for Universal in 1971, his last Western. Shoot Out wasn’t bad – it couldn’t be bad because it starred the great Gregory Peck. But when you get an aging gunman paired up with a young girl, hunting the bad guys, filmed in Inyo National Park locations, you do kinda get the sense of been there, done that. It might have been better to finish on a high, with Duke (or his double anyway) freeze-framed leaping the wall on his hoss. Still, Shoot Out is OK, and most definitely (mos def, as they say nowadays) watchable.

So there we have it, the Western career of the Marquis Henri Léopold de Fiennes (Hathaway inherited the title from his maternal grandfather). 20-odd Westerns directed (depending on your definition of a Western), some good, some ordinary and one great, but all, I would say, showing an enjoyment in the genre and the love of telling a Western tale.

So long, e-pards.



  1. What a great post about a great director. Some of my favorite westerns (Grit, Elder, Evil) are Hathaway pictures. A much-needed corrective to those of us who forget him!

    How is Circus World? I confess I've never heard of it. When is it set...?

    1. Yes, Hathaway is sometimes overlooked.
      I saw Circus World years ago and don't remember that much but it has John Wayne running a Wild West show which goes to Europe in the 1900s and various love affairs happen... It's not a Western at all. And therefore unworthy of outr attention.

  2. Katie Elder was definitely not made by Batjac; it was produced by the team of Hal Wallis (and his long-time silent partner Joseph Hazen) & Paul Nathan for Paramount - same team that outbid Wayne/Batjac for rights to True Grit. And thank goodness for it - as Batjac productions starring Wayne, neither would've been near as good.

    1. Thanks for the correction. I have changed the text.