Western movies

RIDERS OF THE BADLANDS. Columbia Pictures, 1941. Charles Starrett, Russell Hayden, Cliff Edwards, Ilene Brewer, Kay Hughes, Roy Barcroft. Director: Howard Bretherton.

   A fairly ordinary early 40s western, except for a few observations I thought I’d make, but in truth, the only reason I watched this one is that Charles Starrett is in it, and he’s one of my favorite western actors of the B-movie variety. I also thought The Durango Kid was in it, but alas, I was wrong about that.

   Among points of interest, though: Starrett plays both the good guy — a Texas Ranger — and the bad guy, two fellows who just happen to look exactly alike. So close are they that when Starrett the bad guy is wanted for murder the fellow who’s put in jail is Starrett the good guy. It takes some good camera work to get them to appear on the screen at the same time, and in fact, it was better than good.

   One surprising aspect of the story is that the story begins with Russell Hayden’s brand new wife being killed, just as they start out in a stagecoach on their honeymoon. I sort of knew that’s where the story was going to go, but it was still shocking when it really happened.

   Also interesting was the fact that the bad guy had a young teen-aged daughter (Ilene Brewer) who is crazy about him. You know he will be caught and hauled off to jail, and when he is, you have to wonder what will happen to her. I don’t suppose you will mind if I tell you that the movie ends with her going off to boarding school waving out of a stagecoach window.

   One last point. Every so often the story stops while Cliff Edwards is given an opportunity to play the ukulele and sing. It’s OK the first time, but by the third time around, the thrill has begun to fade.

   Otherwise, as I said up top, a fairly ordinary 1940s western of the B-movie variety. There wasn’t room in the story for Durango to appear, but now that I think about it, wouldn’t that have been something?


LAW OF THE PAMPAS. Paramount Pictures, 1939. William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Russell Hayden, Sidney Toler, Steffi Duna, Sidney Blackmer. Based on characters created by Clarence E. Mulford. Director: Nate Watt.

   Law of the Pampas is a Hoppy Western set mostly in Argentina (or some relatively convincing Burbank equivalent) with Sidney Toler, on temporary leave from the Chan films, as comedy relief.

   I never much liked Hopalong Cassidy as a kid, and as an adolescent I scoffed at his clean-livin’ ways and the lectures he gave kids on his TV show. In the wisdom of my advancing years, however, I’ve come to see him as a rather likable and even off-beat icon, more Symbolic than Real, but very warm nonetheless.

   The early Hoppy’s are very well produced as well, and a lot of fun to watch if you don’t take them too seriously. This one offers a mystery that would insult the intelligence of a five-year-old, but not, apparently, that of the Latin Americans who just naturally look to Hoppy for guidance in these matters.

   But that’s too serious. On its own level, for those who can take it that way, it’s still a fun movie.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #45, July 1990.


THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID. Universal Pictures, 1972. Cliff Robertson, Robert Duvall, Luke Askew, R.G. Armstrong, Dana Elcar, Donald Moffat, Elisha Cook (Jr.), Royal Dano. Screenwriter-Director: Philip Kaufman.

   Filmed in a style that approaches cinéma vérité, Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Road has a quasi-documentary feel to it, providing the viewer with an experience that’s almost akin to watching an historical recreation. The movie isn’t so much about plot as it is about atmosphere and, more significantly, about its portraiture of both outlaws and ordinary townsfolk.

   Indeed, when it’s at its best, the movie, with its naturalistic performances and lack of artifice allows the audience to be temporarily transported to a small, calm Midwest town in the year 1876 and the midst of great cultural and technological changes.

   Enter the outlaws who will wreak havoc in the town. Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall star, respectively, as Cole Younger and Jesse James in this superbly constructed feature about the Younger Gang’s last and final bank robbery that occurred in the town of Northfield, Minnesota. Both actors portray their characters as both instigators of events and as individuals able to make the most out of life’s circumstances and opportunities after the Confederate loss in the Civil War.

   The two are technically in cahoots, but they have very different personalities. Cole is the more introspective of the two; Jesse is the more reckless of the two and betrays a real hatred for the North. He’s also not fully to be trusted. Case in point: when Jesse learns that Cole’s sights are set on Northfield, he attempts to get there before Cole is fully recovered from being wounded in an ambush. Cole, for his part, seems just as intrigued by the societal and technological changes he witnesses in Northfield as he is by his upcoming final bank robbery.

   Be on the lookout for the beautiful sequence, filmed documentary style, in which he watches a rudimentary baseball game being played on the outskirts of town with Allen (Dana Elcar), one of the town elders. The message is delivered in a most subtle manner, but it’s abundantly clear. The era of gunslingers is fading away, the anarchic spirit represented by the Younger and James gangs will soon to be replaced by a new, more orderly national pastime, one that will eventually unite a formerly bitterly divided union.

   Some might argue that such a sequence takes the viewer out of the film and that it is unnecessary to the plot. But it’s moments like these –and there are a few of them scattered throughout the picture—that are what makes The Great Northfield Minnesota Road stand out from the rather bloated pack of cinematic representations of Cole Younger and Jesse James.


WILD BILL. United Artists, 1995. Jeff Bridges, Ellen Barkin, John Hurt, Diane Lane, Keith Carradine, David Arquette, Christina Applegate, Bruce Dern. Director: Walter Hill.

   It’s not exactly as if Will Bill Hickok was an unfamiliar figure in history or that his story hadn’t been told before. So one reason why Walter Hill’s frustratingly uneven, yet compelling Wild Bill bombed at the box office might have been that it was a case of the public being generally uninterested in yet another cinematic study of an Old West dime novel legend.

   Another may have been that the film isn’t exactly a Western. It’s more of a character study, one that was based in part on playwright Thomas Babe’s “Fathers and Sons” (1978). This gives the film, especially in the last half hour, a stagey feeling. What begins as an action film with Wild Bill (Jeff Bridges) blowing away men who dare touch his hat ends on an elegiac note, reflective and somber with lots of subtext buried in Wild Bill’s recollection of his legendary status.

   Indeed, Wild Bill works best when its focus is on Wild Bill’s burden. He realizes that his fame is based on his prowess for killing and little else. What does this do to a man’s psyche? If Hill’s film is any indication, he takes comfort in drink and opium.

   Although Wild Bill didn’t deserve to fade away at the box office, it’s not as though the movie isn’t without its noticeable flaws. There are moments when the cinematography gets too ambitious and ends up looking artificial. Three fine character actors familiar to genre fans – Bruce Dern, Keith Carradine, and Marjoe Gortner – appear in the film, but for such limited running time that the viewer ends up feeling a little bit cheated. And Ellen Barkin seems out of place as Calamity Jane. And John Hurt, as Wild Bill’s friend Charley Prince, seems bored.

   But don’t let this stop you from watching this ambitious, downright quirky, biopic about a man’s last days. It’s not a great film, but it’s one that deserves a wider audience and is ripe for rediscovery.

   When this happened before, I called it “one for the books.” This is Steve. It has happened again. Two days after my son Jonathan wrote up a review of this movie, I received an email from Dan Stumpf containing his comments on the same film. So here you are. Two reviews of Two Rode Together, totally independently of each other, two for the price of one. As before, I’ll let Dan go first.

TWO RODE TOGETHER. Columbia, 1961. James Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, Linda Cristal, Andy Devine, John McIntire, Henry Brandon, Woody Strode, Harry Carey Jr. Ken Curtis. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent. Director: John Ford.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:

   This sees Ford gliding toward the bitterness of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but in a showmanlike way.

   Actually, the westerns of John Ford had grown increasingly disenchanted since Wagon Master (1950). After Rio Grande, made the same year, he didn’t make another western till The Searchers in 1956. Then another long pause before the cavalry pictures The Horse Soldiers (1959) and Sgt. Rutledge (1960) both of which have their pessimistic aspects… and then this.

   Perhaps the defining thing about Two Rode Together is its cheerful cynicism. The West here may be filled with suckers and con men, where even the Noble Savage plays politics and keeps an eye out for the main chance, but that doesn’t keep its heroes from going about their business with professionalism and a wry smile. Jimmy Stewart lends his easy charm to his role as a corrupt lawman and Indian Trader, and Richard Widmark plays it knowing and sincere as a cavalry lieutenant who still has some sense of commitment, even if he isn’t sure to what.

   In fact, Stewart and Widmark play brilliantly off each other, almost as if they’d been acting together for years, and writer Frank Nugent, who worked steadily with Ford from Fort Apache onward, gives them some cherce material: the scene at the river bank should be studied and cherished by lovers of acting, writing, directing, and just plain damn-fine movie-making.

   There is surprisingly little action in Two Rode Together, yet it seems to move at a brisk pace, and the prevailing sense of humor breaks naturally for moments of keen drama. What struck me most, though, was the pervading sense of optimism in what is essentially a bleak tale.

(SPOILER ALERT!) This film ends with the mission a failure, a heroine ostracized and Jimmy Stewart out of a job, but the characters have grown and changed in important ways. Or as Widmark puts it, “I guess old Guth found something he wanted more than ten percent of.” Whatever the case, there is a gentle debunking of Western Legend here conveyed with a charm that Ford somehow never found again.


   What does it mean to be civilized and what does it mean to be a savage? Can one be a civilized person in the midst of savagery? Or a savage living in civilized “polite” society? These are the philosophical and moral questions at the heart of John Ford’s Two Rode Together, an unintentionally quirky Western with strong comedic overtones and a strong romantic element.

   Similar to Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the plot revolves around two men’s quest to rescue White captives from an Indian tribe. Riding with Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) on his mission is a army officer portrayed by Richard Widmark.

   When we first meet him, though, Marshal McCabe is an amoral lawman living a fairly ordinary life in a small Texas town where law and order seems to be primarily a matter of dealing with the town drunks. He’s got his hand in many pots, taking a ten percent interest in numerous town establishments. Then First Lieutenant Jim Gary (Widmark) rides into town with his Cavalry troop, the portly Sergeant Darius P. Posey (Andy Devine in a comedic role) by his side. His mission is to bring McCabe back to the Army camp for a yet undisclosed reason.

   Soon enough, McCabe realizes that he’s been tasked with a dangerous mission: to bring back White captives held by the Comanches. One reason that Major Frazer (John McIntire) has chosen him for this role is because he’s not an Army officer. But that doesn’t stop him from assigning Gary with an unofficial role of accompanying McCabe on his quest.

   What happens at the Comanche camp becomes the focal point for McCabe’s other journey, his internal one from selfishness and amorality to completeness and an ethical life. The catalyst for his transformation is none other than Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal), a Mexican girl held captive by the Comanches. When McCabe is able to see the world through her eyes, it begins to change him.

   Things get even more complicated when he brings her back to the Army camp and sees how the gossipy older White women treat Elena. As in many of Ford’s films, there is a dance. An Army dance at an outpost of civilization out in the midst of a contested territory. But it’s at this civilized dance that McCabe and Gary witness some deeply uncivilized behavior on the part of the attendees.

   What’s most intriguing about Two Rode Together is that it often feels as if Ford didn’t know exactly what he wanted the movie to be. A gritty Western? A comedy Western? A romance? But by the time the film ends, one gets the sense that sometimes not choosing allows the movie to be all of those things and somehow more. Not an excellent film, but it is quite a good one, largely thanks to Ford and Stewart.


CLAIR HUFFAKER – Seven Ways from Sundown, Fawcett Crest #398, paperback original, 1960. Pocket, paperback, 1975. Cover art by Robert Maguire.

SEVEN WAYS FROM SUNDOWN. Universal, 1960. Audie Murphy, Barry Sullivan, Venetia Stevenson, John McIntire, Kenneth Tobey. Screenplay by Clair Huffaker, based on his novel Directed by Harry Keller.

   I rather suspect Huffaker wrote this book in close conjunction with the film, as part of a package deal, but neither of them is the worse for it. The book is compact and fast-moving as anything from Fawcett, but rich with colorful description and action in the Gold Medal style, spiced with bits of genuine cowboy humor.

   The story is a Western Staple: A lawman (in this case a green Texas Ranger named Seven Ways from Sundown Smith) brings in an outlaw (legendary gunman Jim Flood) across miles of dangerous country, and as the two are forced into an uneasy alliance, a mutual respect forms and grows into friendship.

   Huffaker has a deft way of putting across a months-long trek in a very few pages as the journey across four states and back again spins out in less than 130 pages, yet never seems rushed. We get a real feel for the toil of men and horses across snow, mountain and plain. And he doesn’t stint on the action either; Smith and Flood run into nasty Apaches, bounty hunters, bored roughnecks, plain ol’ owlhoots , and a conniving fellow Ranger, all handled with a pace and economy you just don’t see in great literature anymore.

   Over at Universal Studios, producer Gordon Kay had figured out how to make a good Audie Murphy movie: hire a strong character actor, give him all the good lines, and let Audie carry the story.

   In this case, they had one of the best in Barry Sullivan, who could look deadly just by shrugging his shoulders. It helps too that Murphy is cast as a neophyte lawman; like many other war heroes, he never projected toughness onscreen.

   Perhaps best of all though, Seven Ways from Sundown was directed by Harry Keller, who cut his teeth on fast-moving catch-penny Westerns at Republic, the best school of all for this sort of thing. Keller never made a great Western, but he never made a dull one either, and he moves Seven Ways from Sundown along with grace and vigor that make it a pleasure to watch.


FURY AT FURNACE CREEK Fox, 1948. Victor Mature, Coleen Gray, Glen Langan, Albert Dekker, Reginald Gardiner. Written by Charles G. Booth, Winston Miller and David Garth. Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone.

   An unexpected delight from a team of generally undistinguished writers and a director best known for his work on Charlie Chan and Tarzan movies.

   FaFC starts out with both barrels blazing, as a mysterious order from General Blackwell reroutes a cavalry patrol, leading to the destruction of a nearby fort by hostile Indians in a well-staged melee. Fast-forward a few months, there is now a boom town near the site of the massacre, General Blackwell has died in disgrace, and his wastrel son (Mature) hits town, out to prove his dad never gave the disastrous order.

What follows is more than an hour of fast-paced action, mystery, and noirish cat-and-mouse as Mature maneuvers with and against the ruthless town boss (Albert Dekker), plots with a nervous witness marked for a quick back-shooting (Reginald Gardiner, very effective in an off-beat part for him), and faces down Dekker’s hired nasties (Roy Roberts, Fred Clark, Charles Stevens) — and then there’s Jay Silverheels as a murderous renegade circling around the scene……

   I don’t want to over-praise this thing, so let me hasten to add that Furnace Creek has none of the emotional resonance of a John Ford movie. Visually however, it’s right up there with Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine, particularly in a nighttime chase through the dark back alleys of a seamy mining town, a horseback pursuit across the plains, and a fine shoot-out in the ruins of the fort where it all started, as the wounded Mature crawls after the bad guys like a limping dog looking for the man that shot his paw.

   Two other things I want to mention: Coleen Gray, an actress who went from Red River to The Leech Woman, with stops along the way for Kiss of Death and The Killing, does remarkable work as the feisty heroine, and Charles Kemper (Uncle Clegg in Wagonmaster) contributes enjoyable comic relief as a guy who carries a tree trunk around with him.

   And finally, I just love the way gunshots always sounded in the old Fox Westerns; they had a flat, authoritative bang that was somehow evocative of danger and sudden death. Listen for them.


APACHE TRAIL. MGM, 1942. Lloyd Nolan, Donna Reed, William Lundigan, Ann Ayars, Connie Gilchrist, Chill Wills, Ray Teal, Grant Withers, Fuzzy Knight, Trevor Bardett. Based on the short story “Stage Station” by Ernest Haycox (Collier’s, 22 April 1939). Director: Richard Thorpe.

   Lloyd Nolan is miscast as a no good rascally outlaw in MGM’s Apache Trail, a surprisingly effective, if not overly memorable, programmer. Directed by Richard Thorpe, who had a long career at the studio, the film stars William Lundigan as Tom Folliard, a stagecoach station manager who must contend not only with his criminal brother Trigger (Nolan), but also Apaches on the warpath. Given how much of a scoundrel Trigger is, it comes as no real surprise to him that the Apache uprising is due, at least in large part, to Trigger’s subterfuge.

   There’s also a romantic subplot that revolves around the unrequited love that Rosalia (Donna Reed), a Spanish employee at the station has for Tom. Her competition is war widow Constance Selden (Ann Ayars), who is guarding a secret about her late husband’s death. Then there’s a small amount of comic relief and music thanks to Chill Wills who portrays a worker at the station.

   All told, Apache Trail isn’t anything that one need to go seeking out. But it’s a decent enough Western, albeit one that features a formulaic plot about white people trapped inside a station in the Southwest with marauding Indians on the outside, one that would be repeated time and again throughout the next two decades. But with Thorpe’s craftsmanlike direction and a decent soundtrack courtesy of Sol Kaplan, Apache Trail works well for what it is. Still, one wonders who made the decision to cast Lundigan and Nolan as brothers?

BLACK SPURS. Paramount Pictures, 1965. Rory Calhoun, Linda Darnell, Terry Moore, Scott Brady, Lon Chaney [Jr.], Richard Arlen, Bruce Cabot, Patricia Owens, James Best, Jerome Courtland, DeForest Kelley. Screenplay: Steve Fisher. Director: R. G. Springsteen.

   Let me explain the title first. Anxious to earn some money so he can get married, a ranch foreman (Rory Calhoun) goes after a bank robber named El Pescadore, and along with the $3000 reward money, he also earns the right to wear the outlaw’s trademark spurs. He also loses the girl he was going to marry in the process, and soon, as he captures bad guy after bad guy, he crosses the line and (ta-boom), he’s a Bounty Hunter.

   Which apparently is one rank lower than a scumlord, though it’s not clear from the move exactly why. We soon see that he’s crossed another line, however, as we find him promising to turn the small settlement of Lark, Kansas, into a helltown, forcing the railroad to move its forthcoming spur somewhere more profitable for the man he’s working for.

   Guess who’s married to the sheriff of Lark, Kansas? (If you don’t know, go back and read the first paragraph again.) Guess who gets religion fifteen minutes before the end of the movie? (Aw, you’ve seen it before.)

   Steve Fisher, who wrote the screenplay, was one of the better pulp writers of the 1930s before going to Hollywood, so the story is actually pretty good. It is certainly a step above the average Gene Autry picture, say, but it’s no classic either. The cast of veteran actors seem to know what they are doing at all times, but it’s a downright shame that Linda Darnell had to end her career as the madame of a traveling group of bordello girls — this was the last film she made before she died.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24, August 1990 (slightly shortened and revised).

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