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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Two Rode Together (Columbia, 1961)

Ford only made it for the money (he said)

James Stewart is a corrupt and cynical but sympathetic Tascosa, Texas marshal in this, probably the least of John Ford’s Westerns. Of course, the least of Ford’s Westerns is still not really bad.

The theme owes something to The Searchers in that it deals with whites captured by the Comanche and ‘lost’, even when ransomed and returned. Society’s prejudice is faced full on. But unlike The Searchers, this movie is slow and has none of the power or the shock and awe. Stewart’s Guthrie McCabe has nothing of Ethan Edwards’s driven fury as portrayed by John Wayne. The film is weaker and more watered-down, although there is a grim lynching at the end (in which “civilization” barbarously murders the “savage”).

It is actually a very bleak film. As Donald Dewey wrote in his biography of James Stewart, “The Comanches are brutal opportunists, the army officers are crude, hypocritical racists, the civilians are a naïve conglomerate waiting only to become a rabid mob.”

However, Scott Eyman, in his biography of John Ford, wrote that Dewey’s description “promises something corrosive, but the film is actually a flaccid, mistimed dud.”
The Two of the title

The Two of the
title are Stewart (whom we meet in a Fonda-Earp/My Darling Clementine pose leaning back on his chair on the sidewalk) and an amiable, rather straight army officer, Richard Widmark (rather old for a young lieutenant) as they are obliged to ride together, a mismatched pair, as in The Searchers, to rescue the captives from Quanah Parker, played by Henry Brandon, who was Scar in The Searchers - and the connection with that movie is strengthened by the fact that the 1956 picture was, vaguely, based on the recovery of Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah Parker’s mother.
Cynthia Ann Parker
Stewart is outstanding and seems almost to ad lib, so natural is much of his delivery. The scene where he and Widmark sit on a log by the river bank (the camera was out in the stream) was a one-take semi-scripted masterpiece. Stewart himself was said to be disappointed that the more corrupt side of his character was not given more prominence. But in fact, he is never quite convincing as the drunk who will do anything for money. He’s Jimmy Stewart, after all. It’s rather like Gary Cooper playing bad men. Can’t be done. Stewart could do driven, almost manic characters for Anthony Mann but corrupt and cynical? Not really.

As for talented Widmark, he had had a pretty glittering start to his Western career with Yellow Sky, Garden of Evil, Broken Lance, Backlash, The Last Wagon, The Law and Jake Wade and Warlock rapidly succeeding each other (that's a hell of a list and he had been directed by William Wellman, Henry Hathaway, Delmer Daves, John Sturges and twice by Edward Dmytryk) but the 60s had dawned with him being Jim Bowie in Wayne's elephantine The Alamo. And now Two Rode Together was also one of his worst Westerns. 

Quanah Parker and Henry Brandon impersonating him

Of the other parts, Shirley Jones, the least of Ford’s leading ladies, is weak as the settler girl for Widmark to woo and win, while Stewart finally and rather improbably falls for Señorita Linda Cristal, one of the rescuees, who is better. She is the woman of Stone Calf, an angry and muscular Woody Strode, Ford’s protégé and star of Sergeant Rutledge, miscast here but doing his best. John McIntire is excellent, as he always was, as the tough cavalry major who sends them.
Woody miscast

Annelle Hayes is feisty as the saloon madam with a stiletto in her garter who, nevertheless, loses Jimmy to Señorita Linda, and Andy Devine is entertaining as ever as the enormous Sergeant Posey (all Ford movies had to have an amusing sergeant character). The best acting apart from Stewart probably comes from Mae Marsh, ex young heroine of Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation, a Ford regular in small roles and here in a very short and sadly uncredited part as an old broken woman who is too afraid and ashamed to go back to the white world.

Mae Marsh fine
The usual rather unfortunate Ford slapstick is provided by her sons, the two hillbillyish brothers Ken Curtis (who did the oafish comic part for Ford in The Searchers) and Harry Carey Jr., Ford stalwarts, of course. Other members of Ford’s stock company present doing bit parts include Paul Birch, Willis Bouchey, Olive Carey, Anna Lee, OZ Whitehead, Danny Borzage, Chucks Roberson & Hayward, Cliff Lyons and Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan – the usual suspects, you might say.

The dances, so crucial to Ford’s films as representations of the community spirit, are pale imitations, for there is no community to portray.
On the set

It’s shot in Texas by Charles Lawton Jr. The George Duning music is unobtrusive to the point that you don’t notice it at all. Ford go-to Frank Nugent wrote the screenplay from the Will Cook novel Comanche Captives but Ford didn’t care for the script and made many changes as they went along.

Scott Eyman summed up Two Rode Together:

…the film has a loose, jocular tone that doesn’t jibe with its theme; everything seems pitched a little too high – voices are too loud, actors are too broad, lighting is too bright. The film feels physically slack; the images are recessive, the locations are scrubby and uninteresting, there are mismatched cuts and the whole thing lacks any kind of dramatic tension. There could be no doubt no that the director’s gift was beginning to recede; the hand that had once been capable of the most finely filigreed detail was now working with a much broader brush.

Tough words. But actually I think that gift had receded before. The Horse Soldiers, three years after The Searchers, was a run-of-the-mill Western at best, and all Ford’s later Westerns, including The Man who Shot Liberty Valance were far weaker than those of the great period of the later 1940s and early 50s.
The riverbank scene
The film was a critical and commercial flop. Ford himself said that he had only made it for the money and it was “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years”. Harsh judgements for what is, after all, still a Ford Western dealing with serious themes, and with James Stewart in it. Harsh, but maybe justified.

Ward Bond had a fatal heart attack while Ford was on the set of Two Rode Together and the director went off for the funeral. On his return he walked up to Andy Devine and said, “Now you’re the biggest shit I know.” It was typical Ford black humor.
At the end of shooting Ford left for Honolulu on the Araner and went on an extended drunk, finally checking into Queen’s Hospital for alcoholic dehydration.

It was the last film in which Stewart wore that great hat. Stewart told a long amusing story at Ford’s funeral about how after a long battle Ford allowed him to wear it, saying, “If, by chance, you ever work for me again, I want you to have in your contract a clause that states you have hat approval.” Of course Stewart did work for him again, on Liberty Valance, but in that he didn’t wear a hat at all.

Stewart's hat


  1. Jeff, thanks for the reviews of these Fordwesterns.
    Maybe not Ford at his best but still better than most westerns.
    I wish I could find 'Sergeant Rutlegde' on dvd. This is one gap in my Ford-collection, at least in the westerns...

    1. Hi Bart
      Thanks. One more late Ford to do (Liberty Valance) then I will have covered all his extant Westerns and will sum up with a survey of his (Western) work.
      Sgt Rutledge is a must-see, even if not the greatest of his films, so I hope you find it!
      Best wishes;