Western movies

JANE GOT A GUN. 1821 Pictures / The Weinstein Company, 2016. Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Ewan McGregor, Noah Emmerich. Director: Gavin O’Connor.

   Some people blame the lack of success of this recent western movie epic — its first weekend’s gross was a paltry $865,572 with a per theater average of $691 — on the problems in production: too many last minute changes in the cast and crew, including the director. Others have suggested that modern day audiences aren’t able to handle sophisticated story-telling devices, such as the extended use of flashbacks in revealing the history of the characters gradually and only in bits and pieces.

   Or maybe westerns have fallen out of favor with movie-going audiences in general, with only a few exceptions making any noise at the box office. Lots of reasons, in other words, but personally, I enjoyed this one.

   Which tells the life story of Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman), whose husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) comes home to their New Mexico ranch one afternoon badly wounded and telling Jane that the Bishop gang is coming. Leaving their young daughter with a neighboring family, Jane goes to Dan Frost, another neighbor (Joel Edgerton), for help. He refuses, but it is clear that there is a history between the two.

   And what that history is is where the flashbacks come in, and the whole purpose of the movie — to tell us one of hundreds of similar stories of the real Old West, a time and place that was often brutal and uncaring. This is not as much a story of a woman’s quest for revenge (as the title might suggest) as it is one of a woman making some tough choices in life and then having to live with them as life goes on.

   The photography is often strikingly beautiful, and that of course includes Natalie Portman, who stands out and steals every scene she is in. Of course we the viewer also realize that she is more beautiful than any other women in the real Old West ever was, but instinctively we also place such thoughts into a category called the magic of movie-making.

   The movie is rated R for the occasional horrific scenes of violence, making the (Spoiler Alert) the happy ending a bit too saccharine and therefore out of place in comparison, but once again, speaking personally, I didn’t mind at all.


RIDE A CROOKED TRAIL. Universal, 1958. Audie Murphy, Gia Scala, Walter Matthau, Henry Silva. Written by Borden Chase. Directed by Jesse Hibbs.

   Someone at Universal figured out how to make a decent Audie Murphy Western: hire a strong character actor (such as Barry Sullivan, Dan Duryea…) a good writer (such as Clair Huffaker, Burt Kennedy…) and build the movie around the character actor, with Audie moving the plot along.

   Ride a Crooked Trail offers the formula at its best, with Walter Matthau as a shotgun-totin’ judge and a script by Borden Chase, who penned classics like Red River and Winchester 73. And if this isn’t exactly his best work, it still ain’t bad.

   Audie sort of stumbles into the proceedings as an outlaw on the run who picks up a dead sheriff’s horse and is mistaken for the lawman when he rides into Matthau’s town. Forced to adopt the false identity, he finds himself unwillingly adopted by the boozy old judge, but things get complicated when an ex-girlfriend (Gia Scala) comes along and ends up posing as his wife… to be followed in turn by nasty Henry Silva, the current man in her life and head of an outlaw gang with eyes on the local bank.

   It’s all very pat, fast-moving and family-oriented. Henry Silva is convincingly nasty, in a Jack Palance kind of way as the bad guy, though there isn’t really much for him to do. But it’s fun watching Matthau ham it up as the old reprobate judge, and the whole thing is done up in that lush Technicolor used by Universal in those days. In short, easy to watch and easy to forget.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

ONLY THE VALIANT. Warner Brothers, 1951. Gregory Peck, Barbara Payton, Ward Bond, Gig Young, Lon Chaney, Neville Brand, Jeff Corey, Warner Anderson. Based on the novel by Charles Marquis Warren. Director: Gordon Douglas.

   For a movie that, truth be told, isn’t structurally all that sound, Only the Valiant remains overall quite entertaining. Adapted from the eponymous 1943 novel by Charles Marquis Warren, the movie, while far better than many other Westerns released in the same era, suffers from the same ailment that afflicts far too many Westerns based on novels: namely, it tries to do too much.

   Rather than condense the backstories and numerous subplots, the film keeps them in, but in such an abbreviated manner that they all become muddled, leaving the viewer to wonder exactly what is motivating different characters.

   Gregory Peck, who apparently later considered Only the Valiant to have been his least favorite film project, portrays Captain Richard Lance, a hard-nosed U.S. Army Cavalry officer posted in the New Mexico Territory. And with New Mexico comes Apache warriors ready to fight the newly arrived White settlers. After Capt. Lance and his men capture Apache leader, Tucsos (Michael Ansara) at an Army fort decimated by Apache violence, a debate erupts as to what to do with the captive. Lance, known for being by the book, rejects the suggestion that they should kill Tucsos outright.

   This decision sets in motion a series of events that leads Capt. Lance and a handpicked crew of misfits from within the ranks back to the destroyed Army fort. There, the men will make a final stand both against the Apaches and themselves. In the course of their suicide mission, some men will all but crack under the pressure. Others will lash out against the hated Capt. Lance. Sergeant Ben Murdock (Neville Brand), for instance, loathes Lance for denying him a promotion.

   On the other hand, Trooper Kebussyan (Lon Chaney), a soldier of Arab descent, loathes Lance for reasons never satisfactorily explained. The same could be said for Trooper Rutledge (Warner Anderson) and Trooper Saxton (Terry Kilburn), both whom seem to want to kill Capt. Lance. But the backstories why are so condensed that it leaves the viewer a bit puzzled as to what Lance has done to earn so much enmity.

   Muddying the waters even more is the fact that Only the Valiant does not do a particularly good job in introducing other important characters to the audience. Case in point is Captain Eversham (Hugh Sanders), father of Lance’s love interest, Cathy Eversham (Barbara Payton). One again suspects that the movie leaves out important details found in the book, a work that I admittedly have not had the chance to read.

   Despite these flaws, however, Only the Valiant ends up being a perfectly watchable movie. Ironically, a lot of this stems from the fact that one often doesn’t have a clear idea of what direction the plot is going to go. Is it going to be a film about a doomed romantic relationship on an Army outpost, a movie about men bonding in the heat of battle, or something completely different?

   In retrospect, I actually enjoyed watching the movie as the story unfolded more than I find myself appreciating it as a final product. Make of that what you will.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE GUN THAT WON THE WEST. Columbia Pictures, 1955. Dennis Morgan, Paula Raymond, Richard Denning, Chris O’Brien, Robert Bice. Director: William Castle.

   The gun may have won the West, but the movie quickly lost my interest.

   I won’t go so far as to say that the William Castle’s The Gun That Won The West is the worst Western I’ve ever seen, but it’s probably the most lackluster and altogether uninspiring. The characters are poorly drawn, there’s a fair amount of what appears to be stock footage of marauding Sioux on horseback, the fight scenes are poorly choreographed, and the ending is … well, let’s just say the ending leaves you wondering what the point of it all was.

   Here’s the thing. It didn’t need to be this way. Sure, Castle is known more for his later horror/schlock films, but he was certainly capable of competently directing a slightly quirky B-Western such as Conquest of Cochise that I reviewed here. As for Dennis Morgan, he’s not the best actor ever cast in Westerns, but he was more than competent in the surprisingly enjoyable Cheyenne, which I reviewed here.

   But in this tired affair, the real star of the film was the shiny and new Springfield rifle that allowed the film’s protagonist and his allies to defeat the Sioux. Trust me when say that unless you are a William Castle completest, there’s no reason to go out of your way to watch this forgettable matinee Western.


WILL C. BROWN – The Border Jumpers. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1955. Dell #878, paperback, 1956. Reprinted as Man of the West, Dell #986, paperback, 1958.

MAN OF THE WEST. United Artists, 1958. Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord, John Dehner, Royal Dano, Robert Wilke. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, based on the novel The Border Jumpers, by Will C. Brown. Directed by Anthony Mann.

   Lincoln Jones, on an uncomfortable train journey from Crosscut to Fort Worth, finds himself beset by Beasley and Billie: a tin-horn gambler and a saloon chanteuse trying to separate him from $600 the citizens of his small town have scraped together for him to hire a schoolteacher. But that’s the least of his worries as the train is robbed at a wood stop, speeds off, and he finds himself abandoned in the wilderness with the two con artists.

   Even that pales, however, when it develops that the train robbers, still close by, are the remains of an outlaw clan run by the notorious killer Dock Tobin — Linc’s uncle.

   We quickly find that Linc was raised by his Uncle Dock; raised to be a killer like the rest of the family, until the day he escaped and started making what’s known in Westerns as a decent life for himself. That life is shattered now as the demented (and still very lethal) old man takes him back into the fold, despite his glowering cousins Claude and Coaley, who would as soon kill Linc and Beasley (“I say we open ‘em up and leave ‘em here.”) and indulge themselves with Billie.

   It’s a situation rife with tension and dramatic potential, and author Brown develops it with the speed and precision of an able pulp-writer, fleshing out characters and background colorfully and adding bits of unexpected excitement to keep us off-balance — there are two brutal and unsettling strip-tease scenes — until he wraps the thing up a bit too patly. But it’s even more fascinating to see how director Anthony Mann and screenwriter Reginald Rose turned it into a piece of Pure Cinema.

   Gary Cooper brings his graceful authority to the role of Linc, along with a certain aging melancholy perfectly suited to the situation. He’s matched evenly with Julie London, projecting that sexy disenchantment she could do so well. Surrounded by murderous degenerates, she shoots them a look that seems to take it as just another bad hand in a crooked game. Arthur O’Connell, on the other hand, is delightful as a scrabbling, scheming angler, frightened and desperate, his agitation pitched perfectly against Ms. London’s weary composure.

   Among the bad guys, Lee J. Cobb has the showiest part as mad Dock Tobin, but I prefer the typecast meanness of Robert Wilke, Royal Dano’s off-beat lunatic and Jack Lord’s wolfish juvenile delinquent. Best of all though is John Dehner as Claude, the smartest and most dangerous member of the clan. There’s a really fine scene where Linc and Claude have a quiet talk and Coop tries to make him see the insanity of living like this while Dehner insists on loving and protecting the crazy old man. It’s a moving and sensitive moment (much like the one between Robert Ryan and Terrence Stamp in Billy Budd a few years later), and it lends dramatic weight to the shoot-out when the characters have to confront each other.

   Said shoot-out is a high point in the work of a director who excelled in complex action scenes, as the characters maneuver through a ghost town, running, jumping and throwing shots back and forth as they jockey for position until, weary and near death, they pause for a final sad exchange before finishing it off.

   This confrontation is set in a ghost town, the perfect visual metaphor for the waste and emptiness confronting our hero. And where the book wraps things neatly, the movie leaves a lot of emotional loose ends to dangle intriguingly in the viewer’s mind. Indeed, as the two survivors make their way to the fade-out through a bleak landscape, one recalls the tension, brutality and emotional rawness of this thing and asks, “What the hell just happened?”

   What happened was a great movie.


SABATA. Produzioni Europee Associati, Italy, 1969, as Ehi amico… c’è Saba Hai chiuso! United Artists, US, 1970 (dubbed). Lee Van Cleef, William Berger, Ignazio Spalla, Aldo Canti, Pedro Sanchez, Nick Jordan, Franco Ressel, Anthony Gradwell, Linda Verasta. Director: Gianfranco Parolini.

   Don’t watch Sabata, the first of the Sabata Trilogy, for the plot. Because, truth be told, the plot is neither particularly interesting, nor is it central to the movie. Holding this enjoyably silly movie together are the following three key ingredients: Lee Van Cleef’s role as the title character; the Spaghetti Western visual aesthetic replete with wild zoom-ins; and, of course, distinct music that would be completely out of place anywhere but a late 1960s Italian western.

   Who is Sabata? He’s first and foremost a character portrayed by Lee Van Cleef. He’s also a drifter, gunfighter, friend, schemer, and vigilante who, one day, rides into a small Texas town. Lo and behold, the town just happens to experience a bank robbery soon upon Sabata’s arrival. He’s not responsible for the crime, however. The culprits are a ragtag group of outlaws and acrobats (just go with it). Sabata decides that he’s going to take it upon himself to bring the perpetrators to justice; well, his brand of justice anyway.

   After receiving a reward for retrieving the loot and returning it to its proper owners, Sabata soon discovers that the elite townsfolk are the ones really behind the crime. What’s a man like Sabata to do? Blackmail them, of course. This leads Sabata into an unlikely partnership with a drunken war veteran named Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla) and a mute Indian acrobat named Alley Cat (Aldo Canti). These two misfits become not just his partners, but also his hangout buddies. It also leads him headlong into a confrontation with a former associate, the mysterious banjo player named . . . Banjo (William Berger). He’s a gunfighter just like Sabata and he’s no pushover. So you know it’s going to be a fight to the finish.

   As I mentioned before, the plot is really secondary to the film’s aesthetic. If you don’t care for Spaghetti Westerns, Sabata isn’t going to work for you. If you do like them, you may agree with me that this is actually nifty little film that doesn’t require much from the viewer. What it lacks in coherence it more than makes up for in slightly off kilter visuals and well choreographed gunfights, all set to a remarkably effective soundtrack that really propels this buddy movie forward.


SHOTGUN. Allied Artists, 1955. Sterling Hayden, Yvonne De Carlo, Zachary Scott, Guy Prescott. Screenplay: Clark E. Reynolds & Rory Calhoun. Director: Lesley Selander.

   When I recently discovered a DVD copy of Shotgun at a used record store, my first thought was: count me in! After all, I’m a fan of Sterling Hayden and definitely appreciate Zachary Scott’s presence in Westerns, particularly those where he portrays a slimy, half-good, half-bad character. Plus with Yvonne De Carlo as the female lead, I thought I’d stumbled upon a minor gem that I hadn’t heard of before.

   Alas, it was not to be. Shotgun is, in many respects, a complete misfire. It’s not that the movie doesn’t have some solid acting, and it’s not as if the script is a total disaster. It’s just that the film really has no particular cinematic presence, aside from being just another mid-1950s genre movie with mid-level star power. Simply put, there’s nothing new under western skies in this movie that you haven’t seen before.

   Hayden portrays the laconic Clay Harden, outlaw-turned-lawman. After his the shotgun-wielding outlaw named Ben Thompson (Guy Prescott) mows down his friend and colleague, Harden takes it upon himself to exact bloody revenge. He sets out, shotgun in hand, to Apache Territory to find Thompson.

   Along the way, he encounters the enigmatic but sexy wildcat Abby (De Carlo) and bounty hunter Reb (Scott), a man he knows from his past. There is romance, Apaches on the warpath, gun running, and a final duel. Some of it’s worth watching, but a lot of it feels like it’s all by rote and checking off boxes. Western tropes come flying like a shotgun blast in this one.


HANNIE CAULDER. Tigon British Film Productions, UK, 1971. Paramount Pictures, US, 1972. Raquel Welch, Robert Culp, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Strother Martin, Christopher Lee, Diana Dors. Director: Burt Kennedy.

   Hannie Caulder is the type of movie that could only have been made in the 1970s, a time of comparably anarchic freedom for directors, producers, and screenwriters. Take a few well known characters actors and cast them as buffoonish rapists, add a strong willed feminist protagonist to be portrayed by a leading sex symbol, and then cast Robert Culp and Christopher Lee as a bounty hunter and a gunsmith, respectively, and you’ve got yourself a Western cult classic in the making.

   But wait, there’s more. While a Spaghetti Western aesthetic, replete with notably fake red blood, gives the film a gritty edge, a mysterious character, a gunslinger dressed from head to toe in black, adds a quasi-mystical element to the proceedings.

   Raquel Welch stars as the film’s title character, a woman who is savagely raped and beaten by three outlaw brothers portrayed by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin. After that experience, Hannie Caulder sets out on a course of revenge against the men who attacked her and murdered her husband.

   Soon enough, she comes under the tutelage of bounty hunter Thomas Luther Price (Culp), a solitary man who – not surprisingly – begins to develop romantic feelings toward Hannie. Price is a man torn. On the one hand, he’s willing to teach Hannie the art of gun fighting; on the other, he doesn’t want Hannie to become a killer like he is.

   All told, Hannie Caulder is a solid revenge Western. Look for Christopher Lee in his portrayal of Bailey, a boutique gunsmith camped out in Mexico. The interactions between his character and Price and Hannie Caulder are among the best in this truly unique Burt Kennedy film. It may not be among the best Westerns ever filmed, but it’s certainly a spunky little 1970s meditation on violence that isn’t easily forgotten.


FORTY GUNS. 20th Century Fox, 1957. Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix. Director: Samuel Fuller.

   Written, directed, and produced by Samuel Fuller, Forty Guns is an emotionally stormy, visually captivating “noir” Western. It’s one of those many mid-to-late 1950s Westerns with a script, had it been in the hands of a studio craftsman, would have produced just another generic movie about a gunman turned lawman facing off against a power hungry cattle baron. But in the hands of the Fuller, an auteur known for his work in Westerns and the war film genre, the movie rises above its recycled cinematic tropes and becomes something far more unconventional.

   Filmed in Cinemascope in black and white and replete with extremely well-staged sequences, Forty Guns stars Barry Sullivan as Griff Bonnell, a gunfighter who realizes that his kind’s days are numbered. With the lawless frontier dying, Bonnell decides to become a lawman and signs up as a federal marshal in Cochise County, Arizona. Along for the ride – both figuratively and literally – are his two brothers: Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix).

    While Wes romances a local woman who just happens to be the daughter of the local gunsmith, Griff confronts with local cattle baroness Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck), a headstrong woman whose hotheaded brother Brockie is responsible for terrorizing the local townsfolk.

   Although they are on opposite sides of the law, Griff and Jessica Drummond find themselves attracted to one another. Both know that they are the last of dying breed, strong willed people who have risen far above what the world expected from them. Any chance of rapprochement is forever shattered when Brockie murders Wes in cold blood on his wedding day.

   While there are some gritty action sequences, Forty Guns is a richly textured film overall. It’s a Western that’s also a Gothic romance, a drama rich in Freudian subtext, and an occasionally subversive take on the Western genre itself. Pulpy to the core, Fuller’s film doesn’t seem to have garnered the same critical attention as Anthony Mann’s grittier Westerns.

   That’s unfortunate, particularly given how natural Barry Sullivan seems in his role as an aging gunfighter who, in the name of family loyalty, is willing to turn his back on what is perhaps his last chance at love and a normal life.


TOM LEA – The Wonderful Country. Little Brown, hardcover, 1952. Bantam Giant, paperback, A1190, 1954. Reprinted many times since.

THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY. DRM Productions/United Artists, 1959. Robert Mitchum, Julie London, Gary Merrill, Albert Dekker, Pedro Armendariz, Jack Oakie, Charles McGraw, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Victor Mendoza, Chuck Roberson and Chester Hayes. Screenplay by Robert Ardrey, based on the novel by Tom Lea. Directed by Robert Parrish.

   One of those instances where seeing the movie prompted me to read the book, which I found very different but just as fine.

   As the novel starts, Martin Brady enters the story as an unlucky rider who breaks a leg while on a gun-running errand in a Texas border town. As he spends months recovering, surrounded by curious townspeople and shifty business associates, we learn that when he was a boy of fourteen in Missouri he murdered the man who killed his father and fled to Mexico where he has made his living for the last fifteen years as a pistolero for a wealthy Mexican land-owner.

   We also learn about the citizens of the town and the soldiers at the nearby Army Outpost: Gruff & thoughtful Doc Stovall who sets Brady’s leg; Major Colton, the new Post Commander and his tearful, unhappy wife; Captain Rucker of the Texas Rangers and his fiercely loyal men; the shopkeepers and soldiers in and around the town…. Lea takes time to evoke them all but manages it without slowing his story down.

   Ah yes, the story: As Brady recovers he finds himself growing closer to the community. It seems no one is interested in the unsolved murder of a no-good years ago in Missouri. The townspeople are warming to him, and Captain Rucker would like to recruit a man who knows Mexico and can speak the language. Brady seems set to rejoin the human race…. until he kills a man in a fight and has to flee back south of the border again where more grief awaits him till he can find a way back into humanity.

   Lea has his own unique way of recounting Brady’s labors as a hired pistolero; he gives us the expected bursts of terse action, quite well handled, but what he concentrates on is the ordinary unglamorous hardship of getting around in a hostile land. He makes us feel the heat, the cold and the ache in your bones crawling through wet grass on a cold night, or the saddle-soreness of long, long rides and the gritty business of pursuing and fighting hostile Apaches, lending a tactile realism to things most Western writers just ignore. He also does a skillful job of keeping his bad guys off-stage, lowering like clouds gathering at the edge of the story, then thundering in for a torrential impact. The result is a book I’ll come back to again.

   They couldn’t capture all of this in the movie; the film is set in that perpetual sunny Summer that seems a staple of the Western; characters are changed around, the plot is simplified, but The Wonderful Country is a film to treasure.

   Robert Mitchum, a great actor who phoned it in too often, gives himself fully to the part of Martin Brady: scruffy and unshaven for most of the movie, he evokes that kicked-around look he did so well in Out of the Past, combined with the leathery toughness you need in a Western.

   He’s supplemented with a worthy cast. The movie doesn’t have time to for all the personal details in the novel, but makes up for it with sharp performances from memorable actors.

   Charles McGraw evokes Doc Stovall in a few telling lines and gestures; Pedro Armendariz and Jack Oakie strut their arrogance and cupidity; Albert Dekker, Satchel Paige and Gary Merrill make tough fighting men, and even bit players like Chuck Roberson and Victor Mendoza (both as local bullies) stay in the memory long after their brief time on screen has flashed by. And the nasties kept off-page in the book are given a few memorably menacing shots early in the film so they seem to come out of the story naturally when it’s time to bring them on.

   Best of all is Julie London as the unhappy officer’s wife. No tears for her, though; Julie plays it with a sexy toughness that seems to bubble up out of the Texas heat and spread across the screen. Add to that a manner of frank self-appraisal, and we get a characterization of unusual depth and a few surprises.

   Director Parrish handles the action well enough, but this is basically a film about the characters. And it’s a memorable one.

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