Western movies

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE LAST OUTPOST. Paramount Pictures, 1951, Re-released as Cavalry Charge. Ronald Reagan, Rhonda Fleming, Bruce Bennett, Bill Williams, Noah Beery, Peter Hansen, Hugh Beaumont, Lloyd Corrigan. Screenwriters: Geoffrey Homes, Winston Miller, George Worthing Yates Director: Lewis R. Foster.

   The Last Outpost was Ronald Reagan’s first Western film and it’s a darn good one. Directed by Lewis R. Foster, the movie initially feels like it’s going to be just another B-Western about the U.S. Cavalry in the American Southwest. After all, all the stock-in-trade characters are there: the corrupt white man who runs the local trading post; the beautiful girl from back East who’s out of place in the sparsely populated desert; and the newly arrived U.S. Army officer.

   But if you’re just a little bit patient, you’ll find that The Last Outpost is a surprisingly charming, funny, and action-packed movie with a plot that’s complex, but never convoluted.

   Reagan portrays Confederate Army Captain Captain Vance Britton, a Baltimorean who signed up to fight for the Gray, rather than for the Blue. He’s in charge of a Confederate Cavalry brigade positioned out in Arizona. His task is to harass the U.S. Army posted out in the remote desert country. Things get complicated for the always affable Captain Britton (Reagan) once he learns that not only his brother, Col. Jeb Britton (Bruce Bennett) is now stationed at Ft. Gil, Arizona, but that his ex-girlfriend, Julie (Rhonda Fleming) is there too.

   As if that weren’t enough drama for one man to deal with, the Apaches are about to go on the warpath, threatening Whites from both the North and from Dixie.

   Can our hero successfully win back the girl, make amends with his estranged brother, and defeat the Apache? I think you know the answer to that one, but getting there is well more than half the fun in this altogether financially successful film from Pine-Thomas Productions.

HONG KONG. Paramount Pictures, 1952. Re-released as Bombs Over China. Ronald Reagan, Rhonda Fleming, Nigel Bruce, Marvin Miller, Mary Somerville. Director: Lewis R. Foster

   Before there was Indiana Jones, there was Ronald Reagan.

   That’s the impression I had watching Hong Kong, a rather middling adventure film starring the future President as Jeff Williams, an ex-GI turned arms merchant living in China during the Communist takeover. While on the run from the Reds, Williams takes a young Chinese orphan boy under his wing and teams up with the lovely schoolteacher, Victoria Evans (Rhonda Fleming), as the two make their way by plane to Hong Kong.

   Williams may not carry a whip and he’s no archaeologist, but he sports a leather jacket and has his eye on a priceless work of art. There are a couple of bad guys hot on his trail too.

   But while Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, another film with a leather jacket wearing hero, a Chinese boy, and a girl, had an edge to it, Hong Kong is a rather plodding affair with little tension and even less adventure.

   Reagan is a formidable screen presence, no doubt, but his character is just too nice for his own good. Even when he tries to be rapacious, he just can’t bring himself to go through with it.

   It’s not that I necessarily wanted the character he portrayed to be a bad guy or sell the orphan down the river, so to speak, as much as I wanted him to be a little more hard-nosed. It’s supposed to be Hong Kong in the late 1940s after all.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

WALK LIKE A DRAGON Paramount, 1960. Jack Lord, Nobu McCarthy, James Shigeta, Mel Tormé, Josephine Hutchinson, Rodolpho Acosta, Benson Fong, Michael Pate, Lilyan Chauvin, Don “Red” Barry and Lester Matthews. Written by James Clavell and Daniel Mainwaring. Directed by James Clavell. Yes, that James Clavell!

   Not entirely successful, but interesting enough to keep you watching, this plays out like an extended episode of Have Gun Will Travel; it even starts in San Francisco in the 1870s, as Jack Lord is touched by the sight of a Chinese girl (the talented and subtly touching Nobu McCarthy) being auctioned off in a slave market and impulsively buys her to set her free.

   Things of course just ain’t that simple; Nobu got no place to go to (see what I did there?) so Jack takes her back to his small town, where she encounters racial prejudice and slowly wins his heart — betcha didn’t see that coming, didja?

   But they’re only two sides of the equation; there’s another refugee Chinese in town (James Shigeta) trying to earn the respect of the white bigots around him. He loves Nobu too, and I don’t blame him, but he figures the way to go about it is to acquire prowess with a gun so he can face off against Jack Lord.

   There’s also Mel Tormé as The Deacon, a black-clad philosopher-gunman (another nod to Have Gun Will Travel) who sometimes sings(?!) and undertakes to educate James Shigeta in the ways of the gun.

   Well it’s an earnest little film, and off-beat enough to keep the viewer alert, but the problem is that not much happens. People talk, they look askance, they talk a little more, go to Church, talk about going to Church, go shopping, talk about shopping…..

   You get the idea: no chases, fisticuffs, gun battles… not so much as a dogfight to liven things up till near the end, when we get a bit of nicely done and very dramatic gunplay. In fact, as the climax approaches and the three protagonists face off, all motivated by love, Walk achieves some real intensity as – for once in a gunfight — one doesn’t know what to expect.

   The acting is uniformly good here, or maybe it’s just that the characters are better-written than usual. Rodolpho Acosta, normally a villainous Indian or Mexican Bandit, makes a fine cynical lawman. Lilyan Chauvin is a rather complex “saloon gal” and Benson Fong (Tommy Chan in the Monogram Charlie Chan films) gives real depth to his subservient Chinese Laundryman.

   The only one I’m not sure about is Mel Tormé; he’s relaxed, self-assured and handles his lines capably, but he just looks like a jazz singer plunked down in a Western — sort of a cross between a hipster and a singing cowboy.

   This aside though, and if you make allowances for a rather quiet time of it, Walk Like a Dragon will hold your attention and even offer a few surprises.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

HIDDEN GUNS. Republic, 1956. Bruce Bennett, Richard Arlen, Faron Young, John Carradine, Angie Dickinson. Written by Samuel Roeca and Al Gannaway. Director: Al Gannaway.

   This ain’t much good, but it’s off-beat enough to keep you watching. Bruce Bennett stars as a slimy saloon owner, complete with fancy vest, a cadre of dog-heavies, and dreams of a western empire founded on the land he steals from honest folk. Richard Arlen is Sheriff Ward Young, trying to round up a witness to Bennett’s latest atrocity, and country singer Faron Young is his son Faron (get it?) Angie Dickinson is the pretty young heroine with not much to do.

   Plot-wise, there may be a few surprises tossed into the formula, but it’s still a western-by-rote. The stunt work is up to the classic Republic standard, and the only real irritant is an off-screen chorus occasionally bursting into doggerel to sing us what we already know, like,

“The Sher-riff had to find his man,
To tes-ti-fy,
And make a stand….”


   But Hidden Guns leaps out of the ordinary the minute John Carradine comes on, laughing it up as a hired gun named Snipe Harding, making corny jokes, bursting into song, and generally having a fun time, as in:

    “How old are you, sonny?”


    “You should be ashamed! At your age, I was fourteen.”

   Actually, some of Carradine’s dialogue is so good — and delivered with such relish — I suspect he may have written it himself (or borrowed it from his friend W. C. Fields) certainly nothing else in the writers’ or director’s oeuvre suggests such talent for bizarre zaniness.

   The rest of the crowd is nothing but solid. Richard Arlen, a western stalwart since The Virginian (1929) is reliably heroic as the beleaguered lawman, Faron Young makes an adequate juvenile lead, and Angie Dickenson fills her nothing part rather well. Bruce Bennett plays his raffish baddie like an actor who knows he’s stuck in B-mnovies, and it adds an edge of nasty desperation that works here.

   It’s Carradine’s show, though, and he makes a rather ordinary thing worthy of note.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

SANTEE. Crown International, 1973. Glenn Ford, Michael Burns, Dana Wynter, Jay Silverheels, Harry Townes, John Larch. Director: Gary Nelson.

   What do you get if you cross a Disney coming of age story with a Spaghetti Western revenge story and a 1970s video aesthetic?

   Santee, that’s what. One of the first American movies to be shot entirely on video, this quixotic movie features Glenn Ford as Santee, a bounty hunter who has never quite gotten over the death of his son at the hands of outlaws.

   But then he meets young Jody Deakes (Michael Burns) and takes the teenage orphan under his wing. Did I mention that Deakes is an orphan because Santee killed his outlaw father? So, there’s some suspense as to whether Deakes is going to seek revenge against Santee, despite their budding father-son relationship. And Jay Silverhills is around too, portraying ranch hand John Crow and dispensing words of wisdom to the boy.

   All told, Santee is more of an historical curiosity than anything else. It feels like a made-for-TV movie and plays as a psychological Western. There’s something very 1970s about it all, including an incredibly New Age theme song that is so horribly out of place that it actually fits. The movie ends on an extraordinarily downbeat note, washing away all the saccharine wholesomeness that has come before.

   If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry too much.

   Santee, as a film, doesn’t make all that much sense. Why was this made? Why Glenn Ford? And why on video? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it was made and that, while the 1970s gave us a lot of cheap forgettable features, it also was a time when filmmakers and big name stars had a lot more license to try bizarre things than they do today. And that’s got to count for something.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

THE LAST CHALLENGE. MGM, 1967. Glenn Ford, Angie Dickinson, Chad Everett, Gary Merrill, Jack Elam, Delphi Lawrence, Royal Dano. Screenplay: John Sherry, based on his novel Pistolero’s Progress (Pocket, 1966). Director: Richard Thorpe.

   Late 1960s oaters don’t have all that much to recommend them. Made at a time when the Spaghetti Western was reinventing and reinvigorating the genre, many of these films are more compelling as cultural artifacts than as compelling movies in their own right. Such is the case with The Last Challenge, a mediocre and formulaic Western featuring Glenn Ford as an outlaw turned lawman.

   Directed by Richard Thorpe, who had a long career at MGM, The Last Challenge was the veteran director’s final film. Unfortunately, it has almost nothing in it that you haven’t seen before. Ford portrays Dan Blaine, an aging gunfighter and former bank robber who installed himself as marshal in a small town. He’s also shacked up with the local brothel owner, Lisa Denton (Angie Dickinson). Then along comes upstart gunman, Lot McGuire (Chad Everett) who challenges Blaine to ascertain who is the better pistolero.

   At a running time of just over ninety minutes, the film offers up the typical – one might say even say stereotypical – tropes of 1960s B-Westerns: a crooked poker game, violent Indians, a man unable to fully escape his past. Truth be told, Glenn Ford, a presence in his own right, is just about the only thing that makes The Last Challenge worth watching. As for Dickinson, she looks completely bored, which is understandable when comparing how uninteresting her character is in this altogether forgettable film.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

ARIZONA RAIDERS. Columbia Pictures, 1965. Audie Murphy, Michael Dante, Ben Cooper, Buster Crabbe, Gloria Talbott. Director: William Witney.

   To enjoy Arizona Raiders, you’ll just make it past the first ten minutes or so. Then you’re free to discover that you’ll find that it’s pretty decent, if formulaic, Western. But first you’ll have to put up with an on-screen narrator breaking the fourth wall, as well as voice-over narration, all designed to provide the viewer with historical background about Quantrell’s Raiders. It’s all highly unnecessary and honestly one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a film of this nature.

   But don’t let me give you the impression it’s not worth watching, because the movie has quite a bit going for it.

   Directed by William Witney and shot in Technicolor and Techniscope, Arizona Raiders features Audie Murphy as Clint, a former member of Quantrell’s Raiders, now working for the Arizona Rangers. He’s tasked with rooting out the remnants of his former gang, which has holed itself up in a Yaqui village in preparation for a raid on a gold shipment.

   Legendary serial film star Buster Crabbe portrays Captain Andrews, Clint’s nominal boss. With Witney at the helm, there’s plenty of action, including some beautifully choreographed fight sequences. Murphy wasn’t the greatest of Western actors, but he more than holds his own here. He certainly does appear tired and world weary, something that only adds to the film’s rather downbeat, pessimistic tone. There are a couple of particularly bloody scenes in Arizona Raiders, further delineating how much Westerns had changed since the time of Roy and Trigger.


THUNDERING HOOFS. FBG, 1924. Fred Thomson, Fred Huntley, Charles Manes, Ann May, Carrie Clark Eard, Willie Fung, Silver King. Director: Albert S. Rogell. Shown at Cinefest 18, Liverpool NY, March 1998.

   Fred Thomson films are rare indeed. Thomson was married to noted screenwriter Frances Marion and died before the advent of sound films. Willie Fung is a familiar face from sound films, but the real co-star is Silver King, Thomson’s horse.

   In addition to the superb action sequence in which Thomson stops a runaway stage (and injured himself so severely by falling under the horses that the film was completed by stunt man Yakima Canutt), a sequence shows Thomson’s character’s father slipping from Silver King and dying, with a quick cut to a staged shot of Silver King kneeling by a roadside grave marked by a crude cross.

   A good friend’s unforgettable comment was his curiosity about why the footage showing the horse burying the father was cut. In spite of this irreverent comment that broke me up, the film is a top-notch western. I am convinced that had Thomson made more surviving films, he would have made it to the pantheon that includes Tom Mix, Tim McCoy and Buck Jones.

Next Page »