Western movies


Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:


VERA CRUZ. United Artists, 1954. Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Sarita Montiel, George Macready, Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Morris Ankrum, Charles Buchinsky. Director: Robert Aldrich.

   Films in which American or European mercenaries show up in Mexico at a time of revolutionary change and hire out their guns to one side or the other, or both simultaneously, can be considered a proper subgenre of the Western. Alternatively, they have all the hallmarks of adventure films: an exotic locale, a daring protagonist on a quest fraught with danger, a love interest that develops out of said journey, and, of course, some form of priceless object or treasure that the protagonist hopes to acquire.

   As fans of the Western genre know all too well, there are many – perhaps too many – Spaghetti Westerns, most of them made between 1965 and 1975, that fall into the “mercenaries in Mexico adventure film” subgenre. Released in 1954, the Robert Aldrich directed film Vera Cruz may rightfully considered a pioneer work in the aforementioned subgenre to which I just alluded.

   Both gritty and lavish, Vera Cruz takes some effort and patience to fully appreciate. Upon first glance, the rather cynical story isn’t particularly complex, but it’s got a lot going on underneath the surface that merits attention. Indeed, Francois Truffaut himself was both a critic and admirer of the film’s narrative structure in which motifs and sequences, such as Mexican revolutionaries surrounding the mercenaries and one partner rescuing another, are repeated throughout the film.

   In the wake of the American Civil War, former Confederate colonel and Louisiana plantation owner Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) ventures south to Mexico in search of profit. He’s willing to hire himself out to the highest bidder in the Franco-Mexican War in which Emperor Maximilian I (George Macready) is facing down a Juarista nationalist peasant revolt led General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum). Trane ends up joining forces with Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), a cynical, borderline nihilist gunfighter eager to double cross anyone who gets between him and his money.

   The plot follows the exploits of the two men as they guide a convoy filled with gold from Maximilian’s lavish palace to Vera Cruz. Along for the journey are a French princess (Denise Darcel) and a Maximilian loyalist (Cesar Romaro). Each is not exactly whom they seem to be, leading to a series of plots and double crosses, some of which do get a bit wearing on the viewer.

   What the film lacks in cohesion, it more than makes up for in sheer spectacle. There is something just so, well, cinematic about the movie. Indeed, the final battle sequence in which the mercenaries, along with their newfound Juarista allies, invade a government outpost is exceedingly well staged and photographed. The same goes for the final dramatic showdown between the two mercenaries. In a movie like this, there can only be one man left standing. One last matter for Western fans: look for Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and Jack Elam in supporting roles. They are great as expected.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


FIVE GUNS WEST. American Releasing, 1955. John Lund, Dorothy Malone, Touch (Mike) Connors), Bob (R. Wright) Campbell, Jonathon Haze, Larry Thor. Screenplay: R. Wright Campbell . Director: Roger Corman.

   A highly formulaic, but nonetheless perfectly watchable gritty Western, Five Guns West is perhaps best known – if it is known at all – as the first movie Roger Corman directed. Despite occasionally languid pacing, the movie has enough on screen tension and action sequences to keep the viewer engaged for the duration of the proceedings.

   Although Corman’s direction in this low budget production is hardly on par with Western auteurs such as Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann, it’s perfectly competent and as good as, if not occasionally better than, the output of the numerous Hollywood craftsmen who churned out oaters throughout the 1950s. If you go into the movie not expecting anything particularly creative or inventive, then it kind of works for what it is; namely, a slightly better than average B-Western.

   The plot isn’t particularly inventive, but it works. When Confederate leaders, already in tough straits, find out that one of their top operatives is about to turn state secrets over to the Union, they decide to “hire” a ragtag group of convicts to conduct a daring mission to intercept the would-be turncoat. Enter a bunch of criminal outlaws on horseback, each with their own agenda. There’s the authoritarian Gaven Sturges (John Lund), the scheming Hale Clinton (Mike Connors), the aging J.C. Haggard (Paul Birch), and the perpetually feuding Candy brothers (R. Wright Campbell and Jonathan Haze). One of them, it will be revealed, is not a criminal at all, but a Confederate officer in disguise tasked with keeping an eye on the men.

   When the five outlaws – or more accurately, the four outlaws and the spy among them – stumble upon a homestead run by the aging Uncle Mike and his beautiful niece, Shalee (Dorothy Malone), you just know that trouble is going to ensue. Just when it seems that Gaven is developing romantic feelings for the young lady, the men get word that the California stage carrying the would-be Confederate traitor is en route with a good amount of gold in his stead.

   As you might well imagine, since outlaws will be outlaws and Confederate officers will be gentlemen, there’s going to be a final showdown and a fight to protect young Shalee from the ravages of a nation torn by war.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:


LUKE SHORT – Station West. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1946. Bantam #139, paperback, 1948. Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post from 19 Oct to 30 Nov 1946. Reprinted many times.

STATION WEST. RKO, 1948. Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Agnes Moorehead, Burl Ives, Guinn “Big Boy’ Williams, Steve Brodie, Raymond Burr and the ever-popular Regis Toomey. Screenplay by Frank Fenton and Winston Miller. Directed by Sidney Lanfield.

   Luke Short always had a way with gritty characters and down-and-dirty stories, and here’s one of his best. John Haven, a cavalry officer working undercover, gets dispatched to investigate the theft of Army Uniforms at the fort near the mining/logging town of South Pass Wyoming and quickly discovers that the quirky crime is merely a prelude to something much more grandiose and sinister.

   From this fairly conventional start, Short builds an atmosphere of pervasive evil and compulsive treachery, painting South Pass as a snowbound Western Gomorrah: a town run by corrupt bosses, rife with casual killings, where larceny is a way of life and life is nasty brutish and short, to coin a phrase.

   To be sure, there are some good folks here: the upright Cavalry Captain and his beautiful daughter; the hard-working widder woman working as Haven’s liaison; a few miners and freighters and cooks… but the impressive thing about Station West is how the author pushes his protagonist through a plot filled with a near-constant sense of danger and double-cross. Short keeps us guessing about the moves and counter-moves in a story that bucks and jumps like a toboggan on a bumpy slope — an apt comparison since he also evokes the chill of a Wyoming winter in a way that kept me shivering.

   As I watched the film made from this, it suddenly occurred to me that the TV character Peter Gunn must have been based on Dick Powell’s tough-guy persona; they show the same wry cynicism, share the lop-sided grin, are quick with a quip or a punch, and handy with the ladies as the plot requires. That has nothing o do with this review — just thought I’d throw it in here and look at the ripples.

   Anyway, the movie Station West works a few changes on the book. For one thing it swaps the frigid Wyoming locale for sunny, picturesque (and familiar) Red Rock area around Sedona Arizona. And they write in another character: where the criminal gang in the book is run by a couple of nasty tough guys, the outfit in the movie is headed by Jane Greer, who runs her unlawful enterprise with an iron fist, much as Barbara Stanwyck would do (more convincingly) a bit later.

   The Greer character lends a neat noirish tone to a film that carries it nicely; there’s enough night in this movie to put a Yukon winter to shame. We also get Raymond Burr as a crooked lawyer, Agnes Moorehead, and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams as a sadistic strong-arm reminiscent of his turn in The Glass Key (1935).

   The film carries over the fights, shootings and double-crosses from the book and carries them well, and it even makes room for a few brief and quirky turns by some good character actors, but one of these puzzles me:

   Burl Ives sings the song under the title credits and has a showy bit as a philosophical hotel clerk (you know the type) but he gets NO BILLING! His name never appears on the cast list or even in the musical credits. I did some research on this and found that Ives was blacklisted by the HUAC in 1950, which led to a rather controversial phase in his life and career, and I wondered if this might have something to do with it, which led to some deeper thought about the nature of hypocrisy and how one can deny the obvious simply by keeping a straight face…..

   But all that is mere idle speculation. And these thoughts passed like breeze, which man respecteth not. Station West is a fine book and a fun noir Western, and you should enjoy them both.

LAND RAIDERS. Columbia Pictures, 1970. Telly Savalas, George Maharis, Arlene Dahl, Janet Landgard, Guy Rolfe, Phil Brown, George Coulouris, Jocelyn Lane, Fernando Rey. Director: Nathan Juran.

   As far I call tell, the title of this European-filmed Western has nothing to do with the story, but it’s an entertaining tale that I enjoyed more than I do most of the so-called “spaghetti westerns” of the same era. Not that it’s without its flaws, but both the direction and the camera work show more intelligent thought went into the making of this movie than most low-budget westerns of the late 60s and early 70s.

   One visual point you may have to concede on, and admittedly it is a tough pill to swallow, is that Telly Savalas and George Maharis are brothers in this film, the latter embracing his Mexican heritage and the former doing his best to rise far above it. He is, even more than that, not only the richest land-owner in the area, southern Arizona, but he is also the greediest, with only the threat of the US Government taking his open land from him to use for an Apache reservation threatening his wealth and power.

   To that end, his primary obsession is that of fomenting war against the Apaches, whom he considers vermin who must only be exterminated. Threatening this, there is a feud between himself and his brother, which has something to do with the woman the latter intended to marry.

   Flashbacks, rather skillfully done, are therefore an important part of the way the story is told. On screen there is plenty of stampedes, runaway stages, scalping, pillaging, raping and even a bloody massacre to keep the action going in non-stop fashion. (Some of this appears to be stock footage from other films.)

   George Maharis acquits himself well throughout. Bald, without a hat, Telly Savalas is more than adequate as one of the most evil men in the West, but with a cowboy hat on, I’m sorry to say that he just looks silly.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


RAWHIDE. 2oth Century Fox, 1951. Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Hugh Marlowe, Dean Jagger, Edgar Buchanan, Jack Elam, George Tobias, Jeff Corey, James Millican. Director: Henry Hathaway.

   Tyrone Power isn’t exactly what you’d call a Western icon. He’s no Gary Cooper or a James Stewart, let alone a Joel McCrea or a John Wayne. But that doesn’t stop Henry Hathaway’s Rawhide from being an excellent, if not widely heralded, Western film about a man forced out of his daily life and into a dangerous maelstrom.

   Filmed in crisp black and white, in which many frames seem like exquisitely staged photographs, Rawhide avoids many of the melodramatic pitfalls that made far too many early 1950s westerns bland and altogether forgettable movies about good guys battling bad guys and love triumphing over hate. There’s not much in the way of lighthearted banter or comic relief in this film. The movie is brooding and claustrophobic, not lighthearted and warm. Romance takes a back seat to fear and violence. To that extent, the film can be seen as a precursor to Budd Boetticher’s dusty and gritty Westerns starring Randolph Scott.

   The plot is relatively straightforward. Power portrays Tom Owens, the educated son of an Overland Mail Company executive who’s learning the family business. To that end, he’s living and working at a relay station for the stage called Rawhide Station. Owens isn’t a particularly tough guy; he’s just there to learn the ropes. But when he learns that there are escaped convicts in the area, he becomes determined to make sure that stage passenger Vinnie Holt (Hayward) doesn’t fall into their grasp.

   A noble effort, but a failed one, given that pretty soon the outlaw escapee gang lead by Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) invades Rawhide Station and takes Owens and Holt captive. Making matters worse is the fact that one of Zimmerman’s partners in crime, Tevis (Jack Elam) has his predatory eyes on Holt. Elam plays the sociopath Tevis with such skill that it’s occasionally difficult not to like this rakish villain, even though you know better.

   Although set out West in the midst of solid desert and howling coyotes, Rawhide plays out less like a Western than a home invasion film, a story of a man and a woman who are forced to confront evil in the most domestic of settings. It’s a gripping portrayal of a man forced to his limits and one which ever so subtly asks the questions: What would you do in a situation like this? How brave are you?

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


LONELY ARE THE BRAVE. Universal Pictures, 1962. Kirk Douglas, Gena Rowlands, Walter Matthau, Carroll O’Connor, William Schallert, George Kennedy. Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on the novel The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey. Director: David Miller

   Although the film languished in relative obscurity for decades, the 2009 DVD release of Lonely are the Brave likely introduced a new generation to this remarkably effective modern Western.

   With a screenplay adapted from Edward Abbey’s novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956) and penned by Dalton Trumbo, the movie stars Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns, a cowboy trying to make his way in modern industrial society. Burns is a charming anachronism, a rugged individualist who eschews automobiles for his horse and hates barbed wire fences and artificial borders.

   The crux of the story is two-fold. When Burns learns that his friend, Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) has been detained for helping illegal immigrants cross the border into New Mexico, he decides to ride – literally – to the rescue.

   Complicating matters slightly are his feelings for Bondi’s wife, Jerri (Gena Rowlands in an early film role). But what really gets the story moving is when Burns hatches a plan to break into jail so as to meet up with his friend Paul and help him escape. Needless to say, the plan falls apart and Jack ends up alone with his horse, a fugitive from the law.

   Hot on Jack’s trail is cynical world-weary Sheriff Johnson, portrayed by future Academy Award winner Walter Matthau. It’s a near perfect role for him, one accentuated by little personality quirks and tics that simultaneously give his character both an everyman and a larger-than-life persona. Johnson has the modern world at his disposal: a plane, a helicopter, and police radio. But as it turns out, they are simply of no real use when they clash with Jack’s stubborn nineteenth-century values of individualism and self-sufficiency.

   At times surprisingly humorous, Lonely are the Brave is also achingly sad. Douglas was exceptionally well cast; indeed, after watching the movie, it’s very difficult to imagine any other actor playing the part of Jack Burns. In many ways, it’s a very untraditional role for Douglas, an actor who has specialized in playing angry and intense men. His character in this film is surprisingly laid back, even more so in the face of nearly insurmountable challenges.

   There is, however, one pivotal scene in which Douglas’s intensity shines through; namely, a well choreographed bar fight in which Jack Burns fights with a one-armed man. (As recounted in one of the extras on the DVD: apparently, the scene made a vivid impression one a young Steven Spielberg!)

   While Lonely are the Brave will never likely achieve the same sort of canonical status as the work of auteur directors such as Budd Boetticher, John Ford, and Anthony Mann, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthy of such high aesthetic consideration. Indeed, the film holds up exceedingly well over fifty years after its initial cinematic release. Some may find the theme of the anachronistic cowboy to be overdone and trite, but in my estimation this generally unheralded film is able to both utilize, and build upon, this theme without falling into either pathos or cliché.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


WAGON MASTER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1950. Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Harry Carey Jr., Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Alan Mowbray, Jane Darwell. Director: John Ford.

   It suffices it to say, I’m not going to be breaking any new ground here with my thoughts upon recently viewing John Ford’s Wagon Master. Considered an excellent film by many, and one of Ford’s personal favorites, the black and white film features Ben Johnson as Travis Blue, a horse trader tasked with leading a Mormon wagon train across perilous terrain and toward the San Juan River in Utah.

   Riding alongside Blue is his friend, Sandy Owens (Harry Carey, Jr.). Leading the Mormons is the gruff, but lovable patriarch, Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond). Along the way, the group runs into whimsical fun with a medicine show group; danger in the face of a family outlaw gang; and cross-cultural understanding (and misunderstanding) with Navajos.

   Filmed on location in the American Southwest, Ford’s elegiac tribute to westward pioneers is both a compelling narrative and visual work of genius. The movie isn’t so much filmed as it is photographed, with perfectly framed portraits of the characters making an indelible imprint on the viewer. Add to that the music and the songs, performed by Sons of the Pioneers and you have yourself a classic.

   There are, however, some minor flaws in an otherwise extraordinarily solid work. For instance, the outlaws first appear at the very beginning of the film, only to reappear more than thirty minutes or so later. And there’s a marshal, tasked with hunting the aforementioned criminals, whose role in the film remains somewhat uncertain. But, as I said, minor flaws in an otherwise great Western, one that I suppose many readers of this review have themselves watched time and again.

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