Western movies


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.

TRIGGER FINGERS. Monogram Pictures, 1946. Johnny Mack Brown, Sam Hurricane Benton, Raymond Hatton, Jennifer Holt, Riley Hill, Steve Clark, Eddie Parker. Director: Lambert Hillyer.

   By the time the 1940s came around and almost every movie that Johnny Mack Brown made was a western, and a B-western at that, he was not exactly fat, or perhaps even overweight, but he was, shall we say, chunky, and not exactly what a small kid’s idea of what a western star should look like.

   The small kid being me. My cowboy heroes were Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Lash LaRue and the Durango Kid. After that came a bunch of other fellows: Rex Allen, Monte Hale, Johnny Mack Brown and a few more. I won’t mention any that I omitted, so not to embarrass anyone, but I will point out another reason I might not have mentioned one of your favorites, such as the fact that Hopalong Cassidy’s movies never seemed to play in my small Michigan town.

   In any case, Trigger Fingers is the first movie starring Johnny Mack Brown that I’ve seen in maybe 65 years, and even though there wasn’t much a plot, nor even a lot of action, I enjoyed it.

   Turns out that someone wants some land owned by Raymond Hatton’s character, and when his son is framed for killing a fellow card player, that someone and his gang think they have a means of forcing a sale through a little judicious blackmail.

   Little do they know that Hatton has a good friend in Sam “Hurricane” Benton, who’s calm demeanor and soft Alabaman drawl belies a quick wit and even quicker trigger finger. I don’t know if that’s where the title of the movie comes from, but it works for me.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


MASTERSON OF KANSAS. Columbia Pictures, 1954. George Montgomery, Nancy Gates, James Griffith, Jean Wille, Benny Rubin, William Henry, David Bruce, Bruce Cowling. Story and screenplay: Douglas Heyes. Director: William Castle.

   Masterson of Kansas is, in many ways, a much better movie than it deserves to be. Let me explain. This Sam Katzman-produced film has little in the way of beautiful Western scenery, not all that much in the way of character development, and, with the exception of the final ten minutes or so, very little creative or unique cinematography or direction. Even so, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this highly fictionalized Bat Masterson lawman story.

   Directed by William Castle, who is now best known for his schlocky and gimmicky horror films, Masterson of Kansas is economical both with plot and time. It’s a short, fun-filled little film that benefits strongly from its casting of George Montgomery as Bat Masterson and veteran character actor James Griffith as Doc Holliday.

   Although Montgomery is definitely a presence in this film, it’s Griffith who steals the show as Holliday, depicted in this movie as a sickly, vengeful gambler who hates – I mean hates! – Masterson with a passion. Griffith simply shines as the irritable Holliday, a man torn between loving cards and loathing Masterson.

   The plot revolves around Masterson’s attempt to clear the name of a man falsely accused and convicted of murder. He does this primarily to help keep the peace between Kansas settlers and the local Indian tribes, one of which is lead by Yellow Hawk (Jay Silverheels). Bat may not be completely altruistic. Along the way, he seems to develop an interest the convicted man’s lovely daughter (Nancy Gates). Their supposed romance is more of a cliché than anything else.

   Truth be told, the storyline isn’t all that much. But there is enough action to keep the viewer engaged. The sequence in which Masterson, Holliday, and Wyatt Earp (Bruce Cowling) walk down the street together as comrades in arms is beautifully filmed, as is the scene of the hangman’s noose waiting for the falsely accused man.

   Masterson of Kansas is no brooding psychological weapon, nor is it an epic tale. But that doesn’t stop it from being fun. As escapist entertainment, this movie has a lot to recommend it.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE VIRGINIAN. Paramount, 1946. Joel McCrea, Brian Donlevy, Sonny Tufts, Barbara Britton, Fay Bainter, Tom Tully. Based on the novel by Owen Wister. Director: Stuart Gilmore.

   The Virginian has many of the elements one would expect to find in a solid Western that, all things considered, stands the test of time. This postwar film adaptation of Owen Wister’s 1904 iconic tale of the Old West has romance, a dastardly villain, cattle rustling, a genteel New England woman adapting to life on the frontier, and a friendship strained by one man’s poor decisions.

   Directed by Stuart Gilmore, who is perhaps better known by cineastes for his editing work, The Virginian stars Joel McCrea in one of his earlier Western features. He portrays a man simply known as “The Virginian,” a Wyoming cowhand originally from the Old Dominion who is making a new life for himself out West. He’s playful and stoic, laconic and willing to speak his mind. The Virginian isn’t a man of formal education, yet he has a solid grasp on the way of the world. And he knows the difference between right and wrong.

   The plot isn’t particularly complex. But it doesn’t need to be. It’s 1885, and a Bennington, Vermont, schoolteacher by the name of Molly Wood (Barbara Britton) is restless. She simply doesn’t want to get married and stay put in that small New England town. So she decides to take a train to Wyoming, where she plans to work as a teacher.

   Soon upon arriving out West, Molly encounters two cowhands, the overly enthusiastic Steve Andrews (Sonny Tufts) and The Virginian (McCrea). In a plot device not unusual for Westerns, the story’s primary male and female protagonists, Molly Wood and The Virginian, don’t exactly start their relationship off on the best foot. But it’s the palpable tension between the characters that allows the story to move forward.

   The Virginian is also a story about friendship in a society where law and order have yet to be firmly established. The Virginian and Steve Andrews have seemingly known each other for a long time. They have worked and gone drinking together. When Steve falls in with a cattle rustler named Trampas (a well cast Brian Donlevy), the two men’s friendship comes under great strain. The Virginian may be a bit of a prankster, but he won’t abide cattle rustling.

   The Virginian repeatedly warns Steve against allying himself with the devious Trampas, but his protests are repeatedly ignored. It’s a fatal mistake for Steve, whose hanging at the hands of The Virginian, although it occurs off screen, is nevertheless poignant. There’s a beautifully sad bird song that accompanies the hanging. It’s a truly haunting moment.

   Although The Virginian doesn’t have much in the way of particularly unique cinematography, it does make very good use of color to convey meaning. Early on in the film, Molly sports a bonnet with lavender feathers on top. These blend seamlessly with the couches and curtains of a saloon front room, demonstrating that she fits in more with the domestic, more sedate part of the saloon, than with the rowdy bar area.

   There’s also a scene in which the conflict between The Virginian and Steve is foreshadowed. Both men are standing at the bar, drinks in hand. They are discussing Steve’s plan to get to New York City and to leave the cowhand life behind him. The Virginian bets his friend that he’ll never make it to the Eastern metropolis. In the background during this whole scene, although visible only briefly at the beginning, is a decanter of an unknown bright red liquid. It’s noticeably out of place, even at a bar. The symbolism is clear. There will be blood between these two friends.

   Trampas is also a study in color. He has a dark heart and he wears it on his sleeve. Literally. He’s one color from head to toe, including a black hat and a black gun belt. The contrast between The Virginian and Trampas is best seen in the famous scene in which The Virginian presses his gun into Trampas’s gut and says, “When you call me that, smile.” In every way, The Virginian is of a lighter hue than the villainous cattle thief.

   In conclusion, The Virginian, even if not worthy of critical acclaim, remains worth a look. In some ways, it’s a somewhat mature Western for its time. There are no goofy sidekicks or saloon girls. It’s as much a study of human nature as it is a frontier tale. Best of all, McCrea demonstrates that he is a natural in the saddle. No wonder why his career flourished as he went on to make so many fine Westerns.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE BARON OF ARIZONA. Lippert Pictures, 1950. Vincent Price, Ellen Drew, Vladimir Sokoloff, Beulah Bondi, Reed Hadley, Robert Barrat, Tina Rome, Margia Dean, Jonathan Hale. Written and directed by Samuel Fuller.

   Vincent Price, as an actor, had unforgettable charm, an unmistakable voice, and an uncanny ability to convey meaning through an over-exaggerated posture, a wry knowing smile, or, better still, the raising of an eyebrow. Indeed, there are some movies that it is difficult to imagine working at all were it not for Price’s singular presence.

   The Abominable Dr. Phibes, which I reviewed here, is one such film. Samuel Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona, based on the true story of a notorious Old West con artist, is another. In this early Fuller-directed project, Price portrays James Reavis, the self-styled Baron of Arizona, a man who devised an elaborate scheme to defraud the United States government into transferring title of the Arizona Territory to him and his wife. The best scene, bar none, in The Baron of Arizona involves a conniving Reavis gleefully sitting at his desk in front of a gigantic Arizona map ensconced on the wall behind him.

   The plan, at least as depicted in this film, involves him forging land grant documents dating back to the mid 18th century and King Ferdinand VI of Spain. His scheme hinges upon his marrying a peasant girl, Sofia (Ellen Drew), whom he successfully convinces is the direct descendent of Spanish nobility and the legitimate titleholder to the Arizona Territory. Reavis shrewdly cultivates the young Sofia into seeing herself not as a dirt-poor peasant girl who grew up in a shack, but rather as the graceful and sophisticated Baroness of Arizona.

   Along for the wild ride in this unconventional movie is Sofia’s adoptive father Pepito, portrayed with tenderness by veteran character actor, Vladimir Sokoloff. Pepito is smarter than he looks and ends up playing a pivotal role, albeit not in the way you might think, in the unraveling of Reavis’s scheme.

   Reed Hadley, well known to Western fans for his distinctive voice, plays an unusual, slightly jarring, role in the film. He portrays Griff, an Arizona politician celebrating the entry of his State into the Union. His character is film’s narrator for the first thirty minutes or so of the film, recounting the story of Reavis from the perspective of 1912.

   It’s a narrative technique that really doesn’t work and is by far the weakest aspect in this otherwise well-crafted quixotic Western.

WESTERN UNION. 20th Century Fox, 1941. Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger, Virginia Gilmore, John Carradine, Slim Summerville, Chill Wills, Barton MacLane. Based on the novel by Zane Grey. Director: Fritz Lang.

   I don’t know if you spotted it right off, without my pointing it out to you, but if you did and it took you aback, just a little, I don’t blame you. But yes, indeed, Robert Young got top billing in this colorful tale of a crew of Western Union workers constructing a telegraph line from East to West across the United States, mile by mile.

   The movie is based on the novel by Zane Grey from 1939. The story is told in first person by Wayne Cameron, a tenderfoot fellow from Boston who has made his way west to make his way in the world. In the movie his name is Richard Blake, and naturally enough, he’s the fellow that Robert Young plays.

   But neither the top billing (in the movie) or the primary protagonist (in the book) make a bit of difference. This is Randolph Scott’s film all the way, from beginning to a somewhat quizzical end. Scott plays a cowpoke named Vance Shaw in both book and movie, but in the film he’s an outlaw, making his first appearance sitting in the saddle against a clear blue sky before making his escape from a posse on his trail by riding through and scattering a large buffalo head, filmed in beautiful closeup Technicolor.

   From here the book and film diverge considerably, although the head construction engineer for the crew working for Western Union and the new telegraph line is named Creighton in both (Dean Jagger in the movie) and both Scott and Young sign up. In the movie a rivalry between the two is fanned by their mutual interest in Creighton’s sister (Virginia Gilmore), complicated by the fact that Shaw’s brother (Barton MacLane) is still on the outlaw trail and determined to prevent the telegraph line from going through.

   Personally I think the movie would have been a lot better without the comedy antics of Chill Wills and (especially) Slim Summerville, but otherwise there’s action aplenty, and some very good acting on the part of Randolph Scott, torn between his loyalty to his brother and getting the telegraph line through. This wasn’t his first western role, but the many closeups he has this film show him well on his way to becoming the hard-bitten icon of the West he was soon to be.

   I’d also have preferred a different ending. Not that there’s anything wrong with the one we have, but this one jarred me a little, and it may you as well.

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