"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.


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