Western movies


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


APACHE. United Artists, 1954. Burt Lancaster, Jean Peters, John McIntire, Charles Bronson, John Dehner, Morris Ankrum, Monte Blue. Based on the novel Broncho Apache by Paul Wellman. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   You’d think that a movie starring Burt Lancaster with strong supporting roles by John McIntire and Charles Bronson (billed as Charles Buchinsky) would be more captivating and engaging than Apache, a mid-1950s film about the life and times of Massai, one of the last Apache warriors. The film is based on Paul I. Wellman’s novel, Broncho Apache and on fact as well as fiction.

   The story follows Massai (Lancaster) as he escapes a prison train meant to deliver him and other Apache prisoners, including Geronimo (Monte Blue) to confinement in Florida. Massai makes his way through the Midwest, encountering Whites in St. Louis and a Cherokee Indian man who teaches him about the Cherokees’ decision to grow corn and to adopt a non-warrior lifestyle. Initially, Massai, who really isn’t all that personable a fellow, thinks little of this approach to living, but eventually decides to crow his own corn when he arrives back in Arizona.

   There is, of course, a love interest. Massai falls for Nalinle (Jean Peters), daughter of an Apache man who betrays him to the White authorities. He is a fugitive, after all. On his trail are two men, Al Sieber (McIntire) and the Apache Calvary officer Hondo (Bronson). Both of them are excellent in this otherwise average Western.

   Apache often feels labored, almost soporific. It’s not that there isn’t any action. There’s actually action a plenty, but much of it seems so forced and downright tedious. There is, however, one notable exception. In a tense, beautifully filmed sequence, Massai and Al Sieber (McIntire) play cat and mouse in Massai’s small cornfield. For a moment or two, it’s not quite clear who is going to best whom and with what weapon.

   Unfortunately, too many of the other chase sequences just aren’t all that thrilling. And then there’s the unavoidable question of whether the casting of the blue-eyed Lancaster as an Apache warrior was a good choice. I’ll leave that to future viewers to decide.



CONQUEST OF COCHISE. Columbia Pictures, 1953. John Hodiak, Robert Stack, Joy Page, Rico Alaniz. Director: William Castle.

   On the other hand, for a Western/historical drama that isn’t all that, you know, historically accurate, Conquest of Cochise is nevertheless a fairly entertaining action packed little film. Like Masterson of Kansas, which I reviewed here, Conquest of Cochise is a William Castle/Sam Katzman collaboration that holds up to the test of time far better than many other similarly situated lower budget 1950s Westerns.

   Why is this the case? First of all is the strong cast. Although they may not have been the biggest box office stars of their time, both John Hodiak, who portrays Apache chief Cochise, and Robert Stack, who portrays U.S. Calvary Major Tom Burke, are both solid actors more than capable of delivering above average performances. The two men’s attempt to bring peace between the United States and the Apache Nation is repeatedly thwarted by events both in, and out of, their direct control.

   The film also benefits greatly from the presence of Joy Page in her portrayal of Consuelo de Cordova, a Mexican woman caught between her family, the Apaches, and Major Burke’s romantic advances. Rico Alaniz, who may be familiar to fans of 1950s TV Westerns, portrays Felipe, a hotheaded Tucson man seething at the Apaches for the murder of his wife.

   The film’s story line, if not true to history, is both fairly straightforward and (thankfully) without a lot of the forced, well meaning, anti-racist platitudes that ironically only served to categorize Indians as a people almost irrevocably culturally apart from broader American society. In Conquest of Cochise, the Apaches are neither presented as fundamentally misunderstood “noble savages,” nor as mindless brutes. They are a people caught between the Americans and the Mexicans, with their leader Cochise trying to make good decisions under difficult geopolitical constraints.

   Indeed, Conquest of Cochise is a surprisingly thoughtful Western with some breathtaking scenery to boot. Although it doesn’t have the cinematography and sentimentalism of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy or the star power of James Stewart (Broken Arrow), William Castle’s Conquest of Cochise, with a running time of around seventy minutes, nevertheless remains a worthwhile investment of one’s time.

   True, it’s no classic. But there’s action, moderately well developed characters, internal and external conflict, and romance. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t try to be a heavy-handed horse opera.

   One final thing to consider: although it can be said about nearly every film ever made, I do think that this movie in particular has to be far more enjoyable when watched as it was meant to be seen on the big screen. Maybe it has something to do with Castle’s unique, if not easily categorized, vision of how a film should be directed so as to captivate the viewer’s attention.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


STRANGER ON HORSEBACK. United Artists, 1955. Joel McCrea, Miroslava, Kevin McCarthy, John McIntire, John Carradine, Nancy Gates, Emile Meyer. Based on a story written for the film by Louis L’Amour. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

   Stranger on Horseback is perhaps one of director Jacques Tourneur’s least known films, one that was commercially unavailable for decades. Filmed on location in Arizona with a budget under $400,000, the film stars Western icon Joel McCrea as a federal circuit judge tasked with bringing an accused murderer to trial.

   Although the movie benefits from punchy dialogue and has some very fun, downright quirky moments (look for the cat in the sheriff’s office!), it is altogether a somewhat disappointing entry in the large corpus of slightly gritty postwar Westerns.

   The film’s plot, based on Louis L’Amour story, follows Judge Richard Thorne (McCrea) as he enters a small Western town, which he soon learns is basically run from top-to-bottom by land baron Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire). It also comes to his attention that Bannerman’s son, Tom (Kevin McCarthy), may have murdered a man.

   Despite entreaties from a charmingly serpentine federal lawyer (John Carradine), Thorne decides he is going to see that justice is done. He even convinces the local feline loving sheriff (Emile Meyer in a standout role) to join forces with him. Along the way, the upright judge gets into a little push and pull with the Bannerman’s ferociously exotic niece, Amy (portrayed by Czechoslovakian-born Mexican actress Miroslava). It’s one of the stranger romances I’ve yet seen depicted in a McCrea Western.

   Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t gel. In some ways, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is the case. There seem to be a lot of minor flaws that add up to weaken what could have otherwise been a quite strong picture. These include the fact that Stranger on Horseback was filmed in Ansco Color and that it ends way too abruptly, to put it mildly.

   Also, the final action scene is filmed in such a manner that it’s difficult to tell who is shooting at whom. It’s a much weaker film than Tourneur’s superbly crafted Wichita, also starring McCrea, which I reviewed here. Still, if you’re a McCrea fan, you might appreciate viewing this relatively short Western where, despite the film’s numerous flaws, he has a comparatively strong presence.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


UNDER CALIFORNIA STARS. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Jane Frazee, Andy Devine, George H. Lloyd, Wade Crosby, Michael Chapin. Director: William Witney.

   Don’t let the cowboy songs and the lighthearted Andy Devine comic antics deceive you. This William Witney-directed Roy Rogers movie isn’t entirely as innocent as you might think.

   In Under California Stars, Trigger is kidnapped and is nearly shot to death by a bunch of ornery horse traders. A criminal double-crosses his masters and, as payback for his deception, gets some lead in his chest. And Rogers aptly demonstrates that he can throw a mean punch or two, get scrappy in a fight, and roll in the dirt with the best of the brawlers, thanks in so small part to Witney’s excellent choreographing.

   But it’s not all mayhem in and around the Double R ranch. There are some fun characters too. Cookie Bullfincher (Devine) and his lovely cousin, Caroline (Jane Frazee) add a light touch to the story, as does Ted Carver (Michael Chapin), who portrays a young boy caught between his mean stepfather and his affection for Trigger.

   All told, this Roy Rogers movie is a better than average singing cowboy 1940s Western. Filmed in Trucolor, it’s definitely a step up from the lower grade black and white Western films from the same era. And you know what, the catchy title song, “Under California Stars,” isn’t all that bad, either.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


CARSON CITY. Warner Brothers, 1952. Randolph Scott, Lucille Norman, Raymond Massey, Richard Webb, James Millican, Larry Keating, George Cleveland, Don Beddoe. Director: André De Toth.

   Carson City is a good, albeit not great, Western starring Randolph Scott. Directed by Andre de Toth, whose The Stranger Wore a Gun I reviewed here, the film benefits from a solid, if standard, plot and the presence of a sinister-looking Raymond Massey as the main villain.

   Unfortunately, there just isn’t all that much in the way of outstanding cinematography or in-depth character development. That, and the fact that at times it feels as if Scott is merely going through the motions, makes Carson City less entertaining than it might have been.

   That said, the plot is easy enough to follow. Scott portrays Jeff Kincaid, an adventurer and an engineer who is tasked with building a railroad between Carson City and Virginia City, both in Nevada.

   Unfortunately, the good townsfolk of Carson City are divided on the wisdom of constructing a rail line through their small city. Local newspaper owner, Zeke Mitchell (Don Beddoe) is strongly opposed. His daughter, Susan (Lucille Norman) seems more ambivalent. Susan also figures in some family drama: Kincaid’s half-brother, Alan (Richard Webb), has romantic feelings for her, feelings that aren’t reciprocated.

   But as it turns out the real drama in this movie isn’t so much about the railroad. It’s about bandits, particularly a group called the Champagne Bandits, so named for their propensity to serve their victims bubbly. Leading these gourmand outlaws is no other than the character portrayed by Raymond Massey, Jack Davis. It’s really Massey, more than Scott, who makes this film worth watching. Massey, who like Scott served during the First World War (some historical trivia), is quite good in this film. One only wishes that the final showdown between Scott and Massey’s characters wasn’t so brief.

   While Carson City isn’t nearly among the best Western movies from the 1950s, it’s not the worst either. It’s just somewhere in the vast middle or maybe just slightly better than average.

MYSTERY RANCH. Fox Films, 1932. George O’Brien, Cecilia Parker, Charles Middleton, Charles Stevens, Forrester Harvey, Noble Johnson, Roy Stewart, Betty Francisco. Based on the novel The Killer, by Stewart Edward White. Director: David Howard.

   The best line in this antique and in many ways very Gothic western comes very near the end, as the villain in the piece comes to realize that the jig is up, standing at the edge of a cliff: “Young man, if you want to serve that on me, you’ll have to do it in Hell!” And off he jumps, tumbling hundreds of feet down to his death, and a well-deserved one at that.

   It’s the end of a very satisfying, and for a western made in 1932, quite sophisticated film, a watching experience best enjoyed in the company of other western fans, as was the case for me last weekend in Walker Martin’s living room the evening before Rich Harvey’s pulp and paperback show the nest day.

   IMDb describes the plot thusly, and I can’t improve upon it in terms of either brevity or accuracy: “An undercover ranger investigates a deranged rancher who acts as a law unto himself, finding a girl held as a prisoner until she agrees to marry the madman.”

   George O’Brien is the hero, stalwart and strong. Cecilia Parker plays the girl held against her will by deceased father’s business partner, Henry Steele, played by a gaunt but still powerful-looking Charles Middleton, who first claims that Jane Emory is his niece, but then reveals his true plans: to marry her, carried away both by lust and to take full control of the former partnership.

   On her own, Jane would be no match for the mad, piano-playing Henry Steele, who vows to eliminate any living person near his ranch who will not bow down to him. It is up to Texas Ranger Bob Sanborn (George O’Brien) to save the day.

   Besides the ending, which I apologize for revealing, just in case you decide obtain this movie on DVD and watch it for yourself, there was one other scene that I found extremely striking. Toward the end of the movie, Bob and Jane are trying to make their escape, and they find themselves trapped atop an old Apache stronghold in the hills. Bob is firing a rifle down upon their pursuers, while Jane, a mere slip of a girl, is cowering against his back. It’s straight from pulp western cover. If only it had been in color!

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


DRUM BEAT. Warner Brothers, 1954. Alan Ladd, Audrey Dalton, Marisa Pavan, Robert Keith, Rodolfo Acosta, Charles Bronson, Warner Anderson, Elisha Cook Jr. Screenwriter-Director: Delmer Daves.

   If you’re not a Charles Bronson fan, you’re probably not going to care for Drum Beat all that much. If you are a Bronson fan, however, you’re in for a real treat in this extraordinarily scenic CinemaScope Western. Most of the movie is filmed outdoors and there are some great naturalistic settings.

   Directed by Delmer Daves, the film’s top billed star is Alan Ladd, who portrays Johnny MacKay, an “Indian fighter.” His mission: bring peace between white settlers and Indians in southern Oregon, not far from the California border. His opponent is Captain Jack (Bronson), a renegade Modoc warrior whose arrogance, intransigence, and ruthlessness is on full display.

   But make no mistake about it: Bronson steals the show in this one. He is a wild man, nearly as untamable as the natural settings in which he lives and breathes. But if anyone can break Captain Jack’s reign of terror it is going to be MacKay. So we know from the get go we’re in for an eventual showdown between the two men. And what a showdown it is! The two rivals eventually go at it in hand-to-hand combat as they cascade down a river. It’s but one extremely well filmed action scene in a movie replete with harrowing, often quite shockingly violent, action sequences.

   Skilled character actor Robert Keith, who was simply brilliant as a criminal in The Lineup, which I reviewed here, portrays a settler seeking vengeance against the Modocs, while Irish-born actress Audrey Dalton portrays Nancy Meek, Johnny MacKay’s love interest. Their romance just doesn’t feel all that real, but is in many ways, a necessary ingredient in the overall plot.

   Drum Beat isn’t without its flaws. The film does at times feel just a bit too predictable. At times, it also seems to borrow too heavily from John Ford’s classic, Fort Apache (1948). There’s even a scene in which MacKay tells a Calvary officer that, even though they aren’t visible, the Indians are certainly hiding in the rocks. John Wayne’s character famously said almost exactly the same thing to Henry Fonda’s character in that earlier film. There’s also the matter of the double cross, although in Drum Beat, it’s the Indians, not the Whites, who are the duplicitous ones.

   All that being said, Drum Beat is a certainly an above average Western. The film’s best moment is when MacKay and Captain Jack meet in a Modoc dwelling early on in the film. It’s an exceptionally well-filmed scene and is an example of great staging. It certainly places the emphasis on these two characters. The struggle, tension, and grudging admiration between these two fighters make this somewhat lesser known Western worth a look.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


OAKLEY HALL – Warlock. Viking, hardcover 1958. Bantam, paperback, 1959. University of Nebraska Press, softcover, 1980. New York Review of Books Classics, softcover, 2005

WARLOCK. Fox, 1959. Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Malone, Dolores Michaels, Wallace Ford, Tom Drake, Richard Arlen, Whit Bissel, Donald “Red” Barry and DeForest Kelley. Screenplay by Robert Alan Arthur. Directed by Edward Dmytryk.

   I’ve been pleased to read a few truly great Westerns this year, and this was one of them, a Pulitzer nominee that can stand right up there with The Big Sky, The Last Hunt and The Stars in Their Courses as a great novel and a great Western.

   Author Oakley Hall takes the basic elements from the Earp-in-Tombstone saga (events that have already become an American Iliad) and uses them to create his own Epic Ballad, much as John Ford did in My Darling Clementine.

   But where Ford turned heroes into legends, Hall transmutes the legends into role-players, fictionalizing them to give himself the poetic license he needs. Thus Wyatt Earp becomes Clay Blaisdell, Doc Holiday is Tom Morgan, Ike Clanton turns into Abe McQuown—and Tombstone becomes Warlock.

   What emerges is a complex, fast-moving and vivid drama-cum-folk-tale punctuated by shoot-outs, hold-ups, bar fights and lynch mobs, in which characters sometimes stand impressively against the tide and sometimes get swept along or even drowned by it. Hall has a nifty trick of showing how the players we admire most can be capable of cowardice and treachery, yet somehow never lose our esteem. And in all the complexity of character he never lets go of the narrative reins, keeping the tale moving nicely at all times. Hall can write actions scenes with the best of them, but it’s his feel for people and place that make the tale so memorable.

   I saw the film shortly after reading the book, and I guess I’ll have to wait a couple years and see it again so I can judge Warlock the movie on its own terms. As it was, the story seemed too simple and too hurried, and the characters unconvincing or simply unappealing. Richard Widmark isn’t bad as the outclassed Deputy trying to do his duty, but I never got a feel for the character, and I’m not sure he did either. Henry Fonda, once a memorable Wyatt Earp, looks a bit podgy as Blaisdell, and Anthony Quinn plays Morgan/Holliday as a prissy mother hen — one critic called it “the most open depiction of homosexual love in the classic western.”

   The supporting players come off a bit better, including DeForest Kelley in the Curly Bill part, and Frank Gorshin (!) as Widmark’s hot-head kid brother, but again the film simplifies them into non-existence. Or at least it did to me, seeing it when I did. The film has its fans, and perhaps I’ll like it better a few years hence. Meanwhile, let me say again that the book is one that Western fans should treat themselves to.

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