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

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Yellowneck (Republic, 1955)

Creepy-crawlies in the Everglades

We sometimes review on this blog – how can I put it? – oaters of a more modest kind. Well, today here’s one that will satisfy the lover of the most obscure B-Westerns, an Empire Productions picture released by Republic in the mid-50s.
It was written, produced and directed by R John Hugh, hardly a name to set the Western-lovers’ blood coursing hotly through her or his veins, and it starred the equally unstellar Lin McCarthy and Stephen Courtleigh, pretty well unknown to Westernistas and in their only leading roles in our noble genre.
Still, the true-hearted aficionado will not be put off by that.
It’s one of those plots in which a small band of men make an arduous trek, beset by Indians and the perils of raw nature. We know right away that one by one the party will be whittled down until the few survivors, or maybe even only one survivor, will finally win through. Probably the mean and low members of the group will expire first, deserving it, then a brave one will make a self-sacrifice, and it will be the innocent and/or young one who makes it through. It usually was. Often the hero and his gal (for they usually contrived to have a girl in the gaggle) won out but this time there is no female; there are only tough men.
The twist in this one is that it is set in the Everglades, and the hostile Indians are Seminoles. That was unusual but not unknown. There was a small sub-genre of Seminole Westerns. 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 Florida 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 early 50s big-studio 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 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 Earl Bellamy.
R John Hugh seems to have liked Florida settings, though, for he set several of his pictures there, and, though born in London, England, he died in Orlando, Fla. (where Yellowneck was premièred). One of his movies, a Western, was Naked in the Sun, another Empire Productions effort, this time released by Allied Artists, an 1830s story in which an unscrupulous slave trader captures the wife of Chief Osceola, setting off a war between the Seminole tribe and the U.S Army. We’ll review that another day.
Lin McCarthy plays a deserter, and the intro tells us that Confederates used the term yellowneck to describe runaways from the fighting. I’ve never really known why cowards are described as being yellow. The color has been associated with those whom society despises for some time: Judas is often shown in yellow in art, Cathar heretics were forced to wear yellow crosses, the Jews had to sew on yellow badges in the Middle Ages (and stars in the Nazi era), and it was Venetian prostitutes’ signal color. I am informed that yellow-bellied for cowardly was first seen definitively in English language print only as late as 1924, in Percy Marks’s The Plastic Age when he wrote about “yellow-bellied quitters.” See, I’ve done my research. Maybe it’s true that Reb deserters were called yellownecks. Or maybe it’s made up. Why their necks would be that color rather than their bellies is a mystery. Oh well. Where was I?

Sgt. McCarthy leads the band
Oh yes, Lin McCarthy. Pretty well an unknown, he was an unlikely Western lead. Although he did appear in a few Western TV shows, he had only been in one other feature oater, as the sheriff in Fred MacMurray’s 1959 picture Face of a Fugitive. In Yellowneck he plays the sergeant, leader of the small band of deserters down in Florida trying to get to Cuba. He is a slightly sympathetic figure, not a cowardly renegade but a brave man sickened by the slaughter and not able to cope with the bloodshed any more.
The three he leads are two reprehensible older men, lowlifes who will stoop to anything, and a green boy. These three have deserted for less noble motives. Plunkett (Berry Kroeger) has a pouch of gold he has stolen from the Confederate army which he believes will fund his old age in Cuba. Cockney, an Englishman (Harold Gordon, born not within the sound of Bow bells in East London but in Brooklyn, and with a Cockney accent that probably served as the model for Dick Van Dyke) is equally unpleasant. The two despise and goad each other. Bill Mason, in his only ever film, plays ‘The Kid’, although he looks a bit long in the tooth for such a role. None of these actors will be immediately recognized by Western fans.

The Kid, Cockney, the colonel, Plunkett, the sergeant
The quartet are joined by a lone wandering colonel (it is never explained quite what he was doing strolling about the Everglades alone) played by Stephen Courtleigh, another actor hardly famed for his Westerns, or indeed for anything else. Like McCarthy he popped up in the odd Western TV show. He had an uncredited bit part in North to Alaska and that was his only other big-screen Western. He is a noble colonel, though, unjustly maligned for drunken cowardice, it turns out, but rather decent, though he defers to the command of the sergeant. He bravely tackles a gator with his saber and is badly wounded by a Seminole arrow in the back. He manages to shame the others into behaving semi-decently when he stays behind to bury two other deserters they find who have been killed by the Seminoles, and the band eventually return to help him. He is the first to perish.

Col. Courtleigh
One of the Indians is played by Roy Nash Osceola, presumably a real Seminole, which is nice. The Indians, though, are only glimpsed here and there and occasionally seen to be shot down by the ex-soldiers.
Cockney is terrified of snakes and it is poetic justice when a rattler gets him. He dies immediately, unlikely from a rattler bite, but he was so afraid of the slithery reptiles that he probably had a heart attack. Plunkett sees the snake but doesn’t do anything to save Cockney, the swine.

Plunkett taunts Cockney with a snake
The trouble with these stories is that the rhythm of the picture moves along at the walking pace of the men staggering through the swamp. It’s hardly superfast breakneck action (though Cockney did try to break Plunkett’s neck by pushing him under a falling tree, the cad, so Plunkett was getting his own back with that rattler). You just get men trudging slowly, punctuated by soliloquies and the occasional flurry of danger.

They trudge on
Reduced now to just the sergeant and the boy, the survivors press on. The sergeant tells the kid, “Don’t run away from nothing, Kid. It don’t do no good.” Once you get through the brace of double negatives you feel he may be right. At any rate he it is who sacrifices himself, suffering a grisly fate in a quicksand (the scene showing his hand last to disappear is in fact quite powerful), to allow the young man to escape and reach the ocean, and thence, presumably, to Cuba.
The End.
Sometimes it reminds me just a little of movies like They Came to Cordura which examine the nature of courage and cowardice. Courage is defined by some as an absence of fear. It isn't, of course. It's being afraid and doing it anyway. This might have been explored further in the script, but wasn't, and anyway Lin McCarthy is hardly Gary Cooper.
Bill Mason is The Kid
It’s in color (Republic’s Trucolor process). An apparently knowledgeable reviewer on IMDb tells us that “The scenes that take place during a storm were actually shot during a hurricane that visited Florida during the shooting schedule. Snakes used in the scenes came from a local tourist trap called Alligator Farm. Many of the exterior scenes were made in Altamonte Springs area.”
It makes a change from some of the other Seminole Westerns in which sundry creepy-crawlies and wild critters are very obviously footage from other movies cut in. The reviewer adds:

“The quicksand scene was actually a pit that was dug about chest deep and filled with leaves, etc. The actor got in and faked the sinking part. The hand going down was actually a closeup of him just pulling down his arm (trick photography 50s style). The Florida panther that jumps out of the tree was a fake that was pushed from behind by a guy with a pole. Looks real though.”

The DVD is 72 minutes long but the full 83-minute version is on YouTube. Probably the shorter one is better.
Well, you could watch it, I guess.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Fort Osage (Monogram, 1952)

Another 'Fort' Western

How Hollywood loved ‘Fort’ titles! On this blog alone we have reviewed Fort Apache (RKO, 1948), Fort Bowie (UA, 1958), Fort Defiance (UA, 1951), Fort Dobbs (Warner Bros, 1958), Fort Massacre (UA, 1958), Fort Ti (Columbia, 1953), Fort Vengeance (AA, 1953), Fort Worth (Warner Bros, 1951), and Fort Yuma (United Artists, 1955), and Fort Invincible was an alternative title for Only the Valiant. Now we have another, Fort Osage.
They weren’t all cavalry Westerns about forts, though. Like Fort Worth, Fort Osage refers to the town, not the fort itself, and it’s a pretty standard skullduggery plot about the tough Westerner thwarting the nefarious schemes of the besuited town crook.
Fort Osage was one of the last pictures of good old Monogram. The studio merged into Allied Artists in September of that year. Monogram had a long and entertaining history of making B-Westerns. One thinks of all those 1930s and 40s black & white one-hour sagebrush sagas with the likes of Bill Cody, Tim McCoy, Tex Ritter, Bob Steele and John Wayne, among others. This picture was in color, though, a real step up. Maybe they already had Allied Artists pretensions.

Cinecolor, as their system was called, was rather charming, I always thought, with highlighted blues (in this one we get azure Californian rocks and pastel blue shirts).
It was a Rod Cameron picture. In the 1940s Rod (right) joined the ranks of the B-Western screen cowboys. He had first led in Universal’s Trigger Trail in 1944 and after the war co-starred with Yvonne de Carlo in a couple of plodding but popular Universal oaters, Frontier Gal and Salome Where She Danced. Panhandle, Belle Starr’s Daughter for Fox and The Plunderers for Republic followed in 1948 before he teamed back up with de Carlo in River Lady back at Universal. Cameron was never in danger of winning an Oscar but he was truly “tall in the saddle” and had quite a good tough-guy look to him. In the four Westerns he made in 1952 he would be a wagon master twice for Monogram (the other time was in Wagons West, released in July, which we will perhaps review another day).
Walter Mirisch (left) was the producer. He with his brothers Marvin and Harold were one of the most successful producing teams in Hollywood history. They produced such 60s hits as Some Like it Hot, West Side Story, The Great Escape and The Pink Panther but in our great genre the Mirisch name deserves endless credit for The Magnificent Seven. However, Walter started as a producer for Monogram back in 1949 on very low-budget stuff, and Fort Osage, along with Cavalry Scout the year before (also with Rod Cameron), were his very first Westerns. Once Monogram merged into AA (Mirisch was one of the prime movers of that deal) he would move upmarket, producing the Jacques Tourneur-directed Wichita with Joel McCrea in 1955, the first of six oaters he did with McCrea, and he would also work with Gary Cooper. But back in the distant days of ’52 he had to be content with Rod Cameron B-Westerns.
And guess who was engaged to direct Fort Osage? None other than our old pal Lesley Selander (below), B-Western maestro extraordinaire, who helmed literally dozens of low-budget oaters and always got zip, pace and action into them.

The villains are Morris Ankrum and Douglas Kennedy. They have treed the town, a starting point for wagon trainers wanting to set out for the California goldfields, running a scam involving outrageous prices and a deal with the Osage Indians to let the settlers through unharmed – but they are welching on their part of the bargain and the Osages are not best pleased. The crooks have engaged tough Westerner Tom Clay (Cameron) as wagon master but on his way to Fort Osage Clay comes across settlers slain by Indians and knows it is far too dangerous for women and children to venture out now. So he turns the job down.

Rod confronts the bad guys
Ankrum and Kennedy were both stalwarts of the B-Western and can be seen in many a role, as goodies or baddies, in the case of Kennedy usually the latter. Little known fact: Kennedy’s very first Western was the same as Cameron’s. In North West Mounted Police in 1940 Kennedy was a constable and Cameron was a corporal. I tell you this on a need-to-know basis and doubtless your life has now been enriched by this knowledge.
Ankrum is only semi-bad; he suffers from remorse, partly because of his goody-goody daughter, and eventually repents. Kennedy, though, is an out-and-out rotter, shooting Ankrum in the back, emptying his safe and even slugging that poor defenseless daughter Ann (Jane Nigh, a less than brilliant actress who did a few Westerns and much TV work). Naturally, there will be a last-reel showdown between Rod and Doug and no prizes for guessing who will win.

Morris tries to talk his daughter round
Myron Healey is a Danish settler, Francis McDonald is the Osage chief and Iron Eyes Cody his right hand brave, and if you don’t blink you might catch Russ Conway, Franklyn Farnum and Buddy Roosevelt in bit parts.
Western specialist Daniel B. Ullman was the writer and he got some quite original material in, and produced some entertaining minor characters. He had started in the late 40s on Tim Holt oaters, often with Lesley Selander. He would later write Wichita for Mirisch and was no mug.

Rod does a deal with Chief McDonald of the Osages

Most of the classic Western ingredients are there (Selander saw to that) so we have the hero being nice to a kid in the first reel (that always established goody-credentials), a saloon brawl, horse chases, a dance, galloping posses and what have you. In the end there’s quite a good bit where the wagon master and the Osages join forces and together hunt down and dispose of the loathsome bad guys in a big shoot-out in the rocks.
The final scene was also entirely predictable: the wagon train sets out west and driving one of them is la belle Ann, obviously destined to wedded bliss in California with the wagon master.

Wedded bliss looms
Predictable, yes. Fun? Undoubtedly. It’s an example of how a low-budget B-Western can actually be an enjoyable 72 minutes of rootin’, tootin’ and let us not of course forget, shootin’. And when you think of how clunky and dull some early-50s A-Westerns were, Warners’ offerings, for example, I reckon this little B can hold its head up high.

The real Fort Osage, photographed in the same year the movie was made



Friday, May 25, 2018

China 9, Liberty 37 (AA, 1978)

Monte Hellman and Warren Oates bid adieu to the Western

I don’t like spaghetti westerns but I thought I’d better review this one because it does have some historical and other interest.

For one thing it was the last spaghetti filmed in Almeria. I’ve been there and a lot of the site is all broken down now, though some is doing its best to be a tourist attraction. In its heyday it hosted Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy among other movies.

The Andalusian Hollywood in its prime

For another, it was the last ever film released by Allied Artists. AA (formerly Monogram) filed for Chapter 11 in October of ’78 and its back catalog passed to Lorimar/Telepictures and thence to Warners.

Adieu, Allied

It was a Monte Hellman picture, his last Western – he is given as both as director and one of the producers, though Tony Brandt is also credited as director on some European prints. (Despite his American-sounding name, Mr. Brandt came from Lazio. I think he was second unit director.) Hellman, you may know, studied drama at Stanford and film at UCLA and hooked up with famous B-movie maestro Roger Corman in the late 50s. His oeuvre (posh word, oeuvre) has developed ‘cult’ status, or at least a rep for artiness. He worked a lot with Jack Nicholson and made those two moody Westerns in the mid-60s The Shooting and Ride In the Whirlwind, which we reviewed not that long ago. In 1971 he directed probably his best-known picture, Two-Lane Blacktop with Warren Oates. And he chose Oates again for the Italian-Spanish Western China 9, Liberty 37 in 1978.

Monte Hellman (born 1932)

Oates made more Westerns than he did any other genre, though mostly they were TV ones – that was a product of the age he worked in. He appeared in pretty well every Western TV show you care to name at one time or another. His first big-screen Western was a small part as a corporal in the 1959 Clint Walker picture Yellowstone Kelly and that seemed to be that but then he struck gold with Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in 1962. Doubtless you remember him as one of the five murderous and repulsive white-trash Hammond brothers with a raven on his shoulder.

Warren in 1963

He stayed with Peckinpah for Major Dundee and of course would feature memorably in The Wild Bunch, and he was Alfredo Garcia, whose head was so sought after, in 1974. He was in The Shooting and also in Peter Fonda’s Western The Hired Hand. He was the crazy guy in Barquero in 1970 and in fact Hellman quotes Barquero when he has Oates’s character shoot into the water in China 9. It was a notable Western career in a time when the genre was in full decline. China 9 would be his last Western and he died in 1982 of a heart attack, aged only 53.

Oates in China 9

The other star is Fabio Testi. One good thing about this spaghetti is that the dialogue was not post-dubbed, though the sound effects were – stupidly loud clip-clops and so on. The downside of that is that Sig. Testi’s Italian accent when speaking English is so strong (and the sound so poor) that you occasionally need subtitles. Testi was famous for his part in Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in 1970. Before China 9 he had appeared in twelve spaghetti westerns, leading in five of them. Testi’s hat is a bit Buck Jones-ish.

Fabio Testi is renowned gunman Clayton Drumm

Talking about the sound, it is pretty awful on China 9. Italian film-makers tended to rely on post-dubbing (reputedly because Cinecittà lay under the flight-path of Fiumicino Airport) and when they recorded direct with boom mikes and so on (at least if this picture is anything to go by) they were hopeless at it. In addition, often the music drowns out the dialogue.

The music is lousy too, cheesy 70s pop ballads bellowed into the microphones and slushy ‘film music’ (more like elevator muzak) of the worst kind. And of course we have a ghastly wailing harmonica in the opening scenes as a hangman makes his way to China (population 132) pretending to play the harmonica, very unconvincingly. All this ‘music’ is ‘credited’ (debited, I’d say) to Pino Donaggio and John Rubinstein. Still, it’s not as bad as Morricone. The best musical part came when the actors have a rather inebriated sing-song at the dinner table outside the ratty ranch house. They weren’t very good singers but why should they be? And it gives the scene added charm.

As for the rest of the cast, we have Jenny Agutter as Oates’s wife, frightfully English but now and then trying out an ‘Irish’ accent (but failing to disguise her cut-glass vowels). She was decorative, in an era when such things were still permitted, and her nude scenes were quite daring for the 1970s. Her character does develop somewhat, as she stabs her husband in the back and leaves him for dead, runs off with glamor-boy Testi (several almost soft-porn love-scenes) but then at the end seems resigned to reconciling with hubby, who somehow survived and seems now curiously solicitous of her welfare. “I ain’t gonna hurt you. Not no more.” Actually, I think it’s quite a romantic film.

Agutter takes a bath

And we have Sam Peckinpah, as a dime novelist, giving the public “the lies we all need” and casually stealing a cigar from a blind man. He didn’t appear often as an actor but it had been known. He had been an uncredited bank teller in Wichita, an equally uncredited man in a bar in his Junior Bonner, and was briefly memorable as the undertaker in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. There was quite a tradition of a dime novelist/observer appearing in Westerns – one thinks of Saul Rubinek’s WW Beauchamp in Unforgiven, Hurd Hatfield’s Moultrie in The Left-Handed Gun and of course Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. I liked Sam’s hat in China 9.

Sam is a dime novelist giving us the Western myth

I didn’t know the rest of the cast. Perhaps they are famous in Europe.

The title is an odd one. Perhaps its oddness was the only point. It is simply what is written on the signpost seen in the first frame which indicates that it is nine miles to China and thirty-seven to Liberty. The story is supposed to be set in south Texas. Liberty is in Missouri and China is in, well, China. But that’s spaghetti westerns for you. In Italy it was known as Amore, Piombo e Furore (Love, Lead and Fury). That was more spaghettiesque. That’s a good word, spaghettiesque.

There are some quotations from old Westerns, such as the scaffold, the condemned man spinning cards into a hat in the jail, the scene in the whorehouse, an evil railroad company hiring killers, a derringer in a boot. I enjoyed those bits.

There’s a dwarf and a circus. For some odd reason Italians couldn’t make a Western without acrobats.

A Sharps plays an important part and just occasionally, when wearing his blue shirt, Testi looks a bit like Tom Selleck when using it.

The movie is too long, though (even in the cut version, which is better – though some of the editing is clumsy) and too slow. But that’s Hellman. He didn’t go for shoot-‘em-up action, more for ‘atmosphere’, I’m afraid. Sigh.

On the set: Peckinpah, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, Leone, Hellman

To be fair to China 9, and I do try to be fair (not always succeeding), it is vastly better than the run of spaghetti westerns. Of course the brief heyday of that genre was the late 1960s, then they gave way to those early 70s slightly more mainstream Terence Hill-type junk (which were even worse in my opinion) before dying altogether. By 1978 the boom was long over, and in fact some reverse engineering had taken place whereby spaghetti-influenced American Westerns were being made – the aforementioned Barquero was an example. By the time of China 9 the spaghetti western had nothing more to say, and maybe (though this is stretching it and we don’t want to be pretentious, do we?) the fact that Tesi and Agutter walk away from the dime novelist and his myth-making suggests that the Western as myth was also gone. (It wasn’t, of course). China 9 has some decent acting and makes an attempt at mood and subtlety here and there. I still don’t think it’s a good film or anything like that but well, you know, we’ve definitely seen worse.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Far Horizons (Paramount, 1955)

All a bit perfunctory

Some would say The Far Horizons is more of a historical drama than a Western and they’d probably be right but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt today and review it on this Western blog. After all, it is set in the nineteenth-century far West and does have attacks by Indians.

Paramount splurged a bit on this picture with big stars, VistaVision and Technicolor (though it was later re-released in black-and-white) and handsome Wyoming locations. That’s about where the spending stopped. Still, the movie did create a stir as a ‘big’ picture.

It is, as you are doubtless aware, the Lewis and Clark story – surprisingly perhaps the only big Lewis & Clark feature film to date. But it’s 1950s Hollywood, so don’t expect historical accuracy. Not at all. In fact it’s a lot of hooey, though factually an improvement on Charlton Heston’s take on the Pony Express of two years before, one of the most egregious travesties of historical truth ever committed to celluloid.

Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark Hollywood style

Heston, sour as ever, is William Clark. For such a macho gun-loving type I wonder that Heston didn’t do more Westerns, really. He appeared in ten, which was not a great number for the 50s and 60s he worked in. Many of them were poor or very poor (The Savage, Arrowhead, Pony Express). Major Dundee and The Big Country were potentially good but flawed films, and not helped by his performance in them. Far and away Heston’s best, in fact for me the only Western I think he was really good in, was Will Penny in 1967. He always came across as a bitter or downright unpleasant character, except for his Will Penny. Anyway, in The Far Horizons he is portrayed as the friend of Lewis who unwittingly steals away Lewis’s girl (Barbara Hale) and then falls out with Lewis, partly because of this, on the expedition.

Not the most cheerful or charming chap on screen. I am sure he was very nice really.

Fred MacMurray is the more optimistic and commanding Meriwether Lewis (it is said that he was third choice for the role after Gary Cooper and John Wayne, who both turned it down). Unlike Heston, Fred has a fan in me. I always thought he was good – I’d even say surprisingly good – in Westerns. He made, depending on your definition of a Western, about fourteen, from The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (more of an adventure/romance really) in 1936 to The Oregon Trail (his worst Western) in 1959. Fred was often excellent in the genre, though.

Fred being frightfully fair

Despite Fred's getting top billing and being in command of the Corps of Discovery Expedition, it’s really Heston who gets most screen time.

Rudolph Maté (left) directed. A cinematographer, he had been an uncredited cameraman on The Westerner in 1940, presumably learning from William Wyler, and had started directing Westerns in 1950 with Branded, an Alan Ladd picture for Paramount, following that with The Mississippi Gambler with Tyrone Power in 1953 and probably his best Western (though it’s only relative), The Violent Men with Glenn Ford, Edward G Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck the year after. The year before Far Horizons he had done the stodgy Siege at Red River with a miscast Van Johnson. It was not a very distinguished Western record. The following year Maté would work with Heston again on Three Violent People, also not very good. He only does a fair job on Far Horizons, trying to keep the pace going (not always succeeding) and endeavoring to make the hokum romance vaguely interesting (an effort destined to fail).

At least the Hans Salter score is occasionally vigorous and stirring. You sometimes think it’s only the music that is.

Maté used Daniel L Fapp (right) as cinematographer. Fapp spent most of his career at Paramount though would win an Oscar for best cinematography on United Artists’ West Side Story in 1961. He also did the visually superb stark black & white noir The Big Clock in 1948. He didn’t do many Westerns (though he was apparently one of the cameramen on the lost 1930 version of The Spoilers, the Gary Cooper one). He made the most of the Jackson Hole and Grand Teton locations on The Far Horizons, though of course a fair bit of the movie was shot on studio sound stages too.

The farrago (for it is a farrago, e-pards) was written by Winston Miller with Edmund North from the 1943 novel Sacajawea of the Shoshones by Della Gould. North is most famous for The Day the Earth Stood Still but did contribute to Westerns, some goodish ones: Destry, Cowboy, Only the Valiant and Colorado Territory for example. Miller, however, was a bigger figure in our noble genre: he had been a child actor in The Iron Horse, had penned B-oaters for the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, had written and/or produced some excellent little Westerns such as Station West and Fury at Furnace Creek but earned undying Western fame for his screenplay for John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946. It was a great Western career.



Fred has to appear in his first scene in very silly silk britches, like grandma’s bloomers, but he soon gets over that. He is the secretary of President Jefferson (Herbert Heyes) at a posh party at the Hancocks and he wants to propose to Julia Hancock (Hale) but Lt. Bill Clark (Heston) arrives and beats him to it. Still, Fred is frightfully decent about it, the best man won and all that. Commissioned by the president to explore the new Louisiana Purchase (it’s 1803), Lewis asks for Clark to accompany him and requests equal rank and joint command of the expedition, I’m not quite sure why. A recipe for disaster, I’d say. But the prez agrees.

That's Sgt. Demarest in the middle, trying to keep the peace

They have Sergeant William Demarest for a bit of color and semi comic-relief. He is a relief too, now and then, for the principals are a bit on the earnest side. The expedition sets off up the Missouri on their riverboat and they all change into buckskins. It’s getting a bit more Western now. They come upon the village of the Minnetaree Indians whose chief is Ralph Moody.

Lewis gives the chief a medal as compensation for taking over all his lands

The chief is rather ambiguous about these American arrivals, fearing they are the precursors of many white-eye invaders to come (and he is not wrong). He listens to the counsel of evil, sweaty and unshaven French-Canadian Charbonneau (Alan Reed, no relation to Donna, described by one reviewer as “Fred Flintstone in buckskins”), who also fears Yankee traders and convinces the chief to attack the expedition. The chief contemptuously throws the medal Lewis had given him from the president in the dirt. He’d probably seen High Noon.

A splendid picture of the real Charbonneau

It’s at this village that they meet Sacajawea (as she is called here), blue-eyed Donna Reed in unconvincing heavy make-up, doing her Debra Paget act. She is a Shoshone, captured and working as a slave. She offers to guide the expedition as a way to get back to her people. She falls for Lt. Clark (he’s still a lieutenant, the War Department having lost his promotion) and Clark, despite the glam Julia back home who has accepted him, finds himself reciprocating. Such shocking miscegenation! Once he spots this, Lewis disapproves highly (but then he still holds a candle for the fair Julia). Of course Hollywood taboos on interracial romances doomed the love affair at the outset; we know it will not end well. And given that Maté and the producers (William H Pine and William C Thomas, who together produced 81 pictures for Paramount) decided to make this romance the very heart of the film, it rather doomed the movie too.

Reed a token Indian maid

Now all this is baloney. Sacajawea was not a guide; in reality she was little more than an interpreter and reassuring presence. And there is no evidence whatsoever that she had an affair with Clark. Later, the movie Lewis conveniently tears the relevant five pages out of his journal to keep the affair all decently under wraps, so that’s why there’s no record of it, you see. But Hollywood had to have a bit of romance, n’est-ce pas?

It's lerve

Toussaint Charbonneau was in fact a member of the expedition, not its enemy, and Sacajawea was his woman. Shortly after joining Lewis and Clark she gave birth to a baby, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Clark referred to Charbonneau and Sacajawea in his journal dismissively as “Interpreter & Squar”. In the movie, after the expedition Sacajawea accompanies Clark to Washington DC (which she did not), is presented there to President Jefferson in what they call "the White House" (it wasn't known as that then) and it is the president who arranges her discreet departure back to her people, provoking much boo-hooing from (now) Capt. Clark. The future of sad Julia, disillusioned by her former beau, is not mentioned (in fact Clark married her and they had five children).

In 2011, Time Magazine rated The Far Horizons as one of the top ten most historically misleading films, and they had a point. Still, we don’t watch such movies for historical accuracy. You want history? Read a history book.

Believe it if you will

There’s some movie action, with various Indians attacking, a desperate fight in canoes, natural hazards, fever and so on. Various expedition members are killed (in fact only one died, and that from a ruptured appendix three months after the departure). Lewis is especially brave and resourceful. But there are definitely tedious bits. And some pretty clunky dialogue:
"Look at all the elk!"
"Sure are a lot of 'em!"
(Shot of about five distant elk).

There’s no sense of wonder or of the new. They just seem to take everything as normal. It is instead a perfunctory manifest destiny statement, with Lewis blandly assuming sovereignty for the United States of the whole continent. “This is a picture of my chief,” he says at one point to an Indian. “He’s your chief too, now.”

In no time they get to the Pacific. Peezy. Right, back to Washington, they seem to say, as if Maté can’t wait to return to drawing rooms and tailcoats. Lewis and Clark are back in DC in a trice, looking as if they have just been out for an afternoon stroll, with no signs of fatigue at all.

If you’re not too fussy you might enjoy it.

The New York Times was uncomplimentary: “A surprisingly dull account of the Lewis and Clark wilderness trek, Paramount's ‘The Far Horizons’ landed at the Criterion yesterday with a hollow thud.” French critic Erick Maurel said it was “un film non seulement paresseux et ennuyeux, platement filmé et mal rythmé, mais également plutôt réactionnaire (a film that is not only lazy and boring, flat in its filming and with bad rhythm, but also rather reactionary.”)

Given the astonishing achievement of the expedition one feels that a film of it ought to have been grandly epic. The Far Horizons is, however, all rather turgid.

All in all you might prefer Ken Burns's 1997 documentary Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. It’s actually more dramatic. Or, if you want something more Western, The Big Sky, which was (vaguely) inspired by the expedition, Elizabeth Threatt’s Teal Eye character being more than a little Sacajawea-ish.