Western movies


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE FAR FRONTIER. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Gail Davis, Andy Devine, Francis Ford, Roy Barcroft, Clayton Moore, Robert Strange, Riders of the Purple Sage. Director: William Witney.

   With William Whitney at the helm, you just know you’re quite likely going to get a motion picture with some down and dirty fighting in it. While The Far Frontier has some well-choreographed fight scenes, it’s more notable for “death by oil barrel.”

   What’s that, you ask? Well, for starters it’s a particularly brutal way to kill someone. There’s a scene, early on in the movie, in which sadistic human traffickers toss oil barrels down a rocky mountain cliff. In the barrels are the very persons who have hired them to transport them illegally across the U.S.-Mexican border.

   That scene, along with Whitney’s name in the opening credits, gives the viewer the sense that this entry into the extensive Roy Rogers filmography isn’t going to be one of the more innocent, child-friendly ones.

   Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s some singing and lightheartedness and Andy Devine, with that goofy and innocent smile on his face, is there to provide some comic relief to the proceedings. But overall, this Rogers film has a slightly darker story. One that involves coldblooded murder, amnesia, and a blood feud that finally comes to a violent conclusion.

   A final note: there are a few un-credited “actors” in The Far Frontier who portray characters who become essential to the plot.

   I’m talking about pigeons, carrier pigeons to be precise. These little birds are the means by which the film’s primary villain communicates with his minions. Fortunately, Roy is able to get one of the pigeons on the side of justice. Who said birds didn’t matter?

PASSION. RKO Radio Pictures, 1954. Cornel Wilde, Yvonne De Carlo, Raymond Burr, Lon Chaney Jr., Rodolfo Acosta, John Qualen, Anthony Caruso. Director: Allan Dwan.

   A conflict over land in old Spanish California flares up into the deaths of several members of one homesteading family, and one of the survivors vows vengeance.

   Cornel Wilde and Yvonne De Carlo strike me as being a couple who are absolutely meant for each other, but surprisingly, in this movie they don’t even get to kiss. She’s the tomboy (!) sister of the woman who’s the murder5ed mother of Wilde’s son, and while she is obviously making eyes at him, he is so busy with revenge, he hardly notices her at all. A passionate affair it isn’t.

   Raymond Burr plays the officer of the police who must bring his old friend to justice. If it weren’t for him, I’d never even have considered saving this movie on tape. (And even so, I didn’t.)

COMMENT:  In Brian Garfield’s book on western movies, he calls what this film as a “Bob Steele” plot. If it weren’t such an obvious slur on Bob Steele, I’d agree 100 percent.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993 (slightly revised).


GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL. Paramount Pictures, 1957. Burt Lancaster (Wyatt Earp), Kirk Douglas (Doc Holliday), Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland (Johnny Ringo), Lyle Bettger (Ike Clanton), Frank Faylen, Earl Holliman, Ted DeCorsia, Dennis Hopper, Whit Bissell, DeForest Kelley, Martin Milner. Screenplay: Leon Uris. Director: John Sturges.

   I don’t think I’m exaggerating one iota when I say that there is an entire generation of Americans (mine) who grew up thinking they knew everything there was to know about the famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Well, as everybody knows now, and should have known then, there’s a lot more fiction than fact in the story of that gun battle, and what led up to it.

   I won’t go into that. I’m sure you can find plenty of sites on the Internet that go into that, in quite come detail,and it won’t take a lot of effort on your part to find one of them. Let’s suffice to say that for the most part the names are the same, although not always, and that Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), Wyatt Earp’s romantic interest, seems to seems to have made up out of whole cloth. [CORRECTION: See Comment #3.]

   What this is is a buddy film, with the often prickly relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday holding the various short episodes together. In one Wyatt saves Doc’s hide, in the next Doc is the only one to come to Wyatt’s assistance.

   It is therefore the performances of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, perfectly cast that makes this movie so memorable. Burt is tall and and as upright as if he were to preach a sermon, and Kirk so scruffy and so disreputable a scoundrel that the audience can’t help but love him.

   Rhonda Fleming is but an afterthought, but a most beautiful one, but for some reason Jo Van Fleet, as Doc’s lady companion/common law wife whom he treats as if with a combination of dislike and contempt, but who has no choice but to come back each time for more. For some reason this made an impression on me when I first saw this movie in my mid-teens that it came back to me immediately when I saw it again last week.

   Although they appear into the movie only as the story needs them, there’s quite a supporting cast of cowboy actors who ought to be mentioned, particularly (and most recognizable) Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Dennis Hopper and DeForest Kelley

   I see that I have not yet mentioned the gunfight. I found it both highly choreographed and confusing, and way down on the list of reasons why I think you should see this movie, if you haven’t already.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


EYES OF TEXAS. Republic Pictures, 1948. Roy Rogers, Trigger, Lynne Roberts, Andy Devine, Nana Bryant, Roy Barcroft, Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers. Director: William Witney.

   Whitneyesque. That’s the term I coined in my mind while watching a fairly brutal– comparatively speaking — fight scene in Eyes of Texas, a Roy Rogers film directed by veteran director William Whitney. (Apologies to anyone who coined this term before, but it certainly fits.) There’s just something exceptional about William Whitney’s fight choreography. You can see it as much in the serial The Crimson Ghost, for example, as in this programmer in which Rogers portrays a marshal tasked with investigating a mysterious death and possible insurance fraud.

   True to the Roy Rogers formula, there’s some lighthearted comedy, songs by Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers, and the smartest horse in the movies — the one and only Trigger. But in Eyes of Texas, you also get a murder mystery, death by a pack of vicious dogs, a corrupt lawyer, and the rather lengthy Whitneyeque fight sequence referenced above in which Roy gets into an altercation with a gang of hired thugs in which he is bruised and battered, punched and roped. It’s gritty and set to the type of music that you’d expect to hear in an action-packed film serial.

   Of course, a Roy Rogers movie of this era wouldn’t be the same without Andy Devine. In this film, he portrays a doctor caught between townsfolk who have turned on Roy Rogers and his longstanding affection for, and friendship with, Rogers. His blend of physical comedy and general ability to convey pathos when needed works well in this particular entry in the vast Rogers canon. Eyes of Texas may not be the best Western ever made, and it might not even be the best Roy Rogers film, but it’s an entertaining movie from Gower Gulch that punches well above its weight.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


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

   Audie Murphy may have been the top billed star, but it’s Walter Matthau who steals the show in the 1958 Cinemascope western, Ride a Crooked Trail. The future Academy Award winner portrays Judge Kyle, a rough-around-the-edges, whiskey-drinking, and shotgun-toting small town magistrate.

   When outlaw Joe Maybe (Murphy) comes to town and falsely assumes the identity of a federal marshal, the ornery Judge Kyle takes the young man under his wing and makes him the town’s lawman. Little does he realize, at least at the beginning, that Joe Maybe, along with his “wife” Tessa (Gia Scala) have their eyes on the local bank vault.

   Leading the outlaw gang is the borderline sociopathic Sam Teeler, portrayed to the hilt by veteran character actor Henry Silva. Of course, there comes “the choice.” Does Joe Maybe decide to go straight and side with his newfound friend, Judge Kyle, or does he stay on a crooked path?

   Much of the film is typical Western fare and there’s not all that much in this one that you probably haven’t seen done better elsewhere before. Sad to say, the film’s direction and editing is really at times noticeably sub-par. Which is a shame, because it looks so good, with bright colors and distinctive hues.

   But as I mentioned before, Matthau gives a stand-out performance. It was a relatively early film for him, one made in the first several years of his long and illustrious career. If for nothing else, Ride a Crooked Trail is worth watching for him alone.


NOTE: Dan Stumpf has also reviewed Ride a Crooked Trail for this blog. See his comments here.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE TREASURE OF PANCHO VILLA. RKO Radio Pictures, 1955. Rory Calhoun, Shelley Winters, Gilbert Roland, Joseph Calleia. Director: George Sherman.

   When is a Spaghetti Western not a Spaghetti Western? When it’s a RKO color feature starring Rory Calhoun and Gilbert Roland. Filmed on location in Mexico, The Treasure of Pancho Villa is a structurally uneven, albeit thoroughly entertaining adventure film that predates not only the Italian Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, but also Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and the ultra-violent Spaghetti and Paella (Spanish) Westerns of the 1970s. The common theme running through all of these genres and subgenres, at least when pertaining to stories set around the time of the Mexican Revolution, is the tension between idealists and mercenaries.

   Such is the case in The Treasure of Pancho Villa. Calhoun portrays Tom Bryan, a somewhat unpleasant, rakish American mercenary working for revolutionaries in the Mexican Civil War. He’s a coldhearted sort, mainly interested in money. And he means business in more ways than one. He carries with him a Lewis machine gun that calls “La Cucaracha” and employs it numerous times throughout the story in order to mow down Mexican troops.

   This violence – death at the hands of mechanized warfare – was a hallmark of many of the Mexican Revolution themed Euro-Westerns produced in the 1970s. In many ways, it represents Bryan’s personality perfectly. For him, killing Mexican troops is just a job and “La Cucaracha” is just useful tool at his disposal.

   In direct contrast to Tom Bryan, Colonel Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland) is an idealist. He’s fighting for his ideals and believes strongly in Pancho Villa. He’s not on the take, can’t be bought or bribed, and is willing to use violence when necessary. He, however, seems not to get too much of a thrill out of it and certainly doesn’t strut around with a Lewis machine gun like his “ugly American” counterpart.

   For a time, the two men find themselves on the same side, both fighting for Pancho Villa. Together, they rob a train carrying gold and begin the process of transporting the loot across rugged terrain in order to deliver it personally to Pancho Village. But when the Mexican revolutionary leader fails to show up, things fall apart between the two men, leading to a series of twists and turns that eventually has them joined together again against a common foe. As I mentioned, it’s a plot that would be followed time and again in Spaghetti Westerns that were set during the Mexican Revolution.

   Spaghetti Westerns, for the most part, didn’t often have unnecessary romantic subplots that only served to distract from the action at hand. Unfortunately, that is not the case in The Treasure of Pancho Villa with the introduction of the character of Ruth Harris (Shelley Winters), an American schoolteacher living in Mexico who has fallen in love with the revolution’s ideals. Bryan’s romantic feelings for her never seem real, nor despite what he says at the end of the film, is it believable that Juan Castro could have seen himself with her.

   That said, The Treasure of Pancho Villa was a surprisingly enjoyable action adventure film. Gilbert Roland was perfectly cast as Juan Castro and [spoiler alert], despite the fact that his character doesn’t end up surviving the onslaught of the Mexican Army, the story told in the movie is about his impact on Bryan’s worldview. For it’s only through his encounter with a man who believed in something more than money, in something greater than enriching himself, that Bryan learns what honor and loyalty are.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


GHOST TOWN. Empire Pictures, 1988. Franc Luz, Catherine Hickland, Jimmie F. Skaggs, Penelope Windust, Bruce Glover. Director: Richard McCarthy.

   I’ve always been a fan of the Weird West, that sub-genre that blends elements of horror and the supernatural with Western themes. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to pull off a really cohesive mash-up of the horror and Western genres. There’s always something that just doesn’t quite gel the way it should.

   Maybe it’s because the “rules” of the Western genre are so rooted in human nature and, for the lack of a better term, reality. Maybe it’s because we associate horror with nighttime, rather than with the blazing hot sun. No matter what, I often come away from my excursions into the Weird West with a sense of what might have been, how the proverbial visit might have gone better.

   That’s basically how I felt after watching Ghost Town, a Charles Band production from 1988. Screened in very limited release, this horror Western is better than you might expect, but it’s hardly what you might categorize as a great Western.

   Lead actor Franc Luz, while solid in the part, doesn’t ever seem totally comfortable in his role as Deputy Sheriff Langley, a lawman tasked with locating a missing woman. This quest – the hero’s quest – mysteriously takes him out of the present and into an Old West netherworld, somewhere between heaven and hell.

   Apparently, an entire town is being held hostage from moving onto the afterlife by an undead outlaw named Devlin (the late Jimmie F. Skaggs in an standout role). Truth be told, there’s not a whole lot of logical coherence in the plot. This is unfortunate. It’s almost as if the filmmakers decided that because the supernatural was at work in the story, there need not be an internal logic that would explain how Devlin was able to stay alive past death and hold a whole town in a void.

   Yet, despite my criticisms, I have to admit that I enjoyed watching Ghost Town. The cinematography is quite good. Better than in many horror movies from the 1980s in fact. Most significantly, it’s a fun movie. Not a good movie. But an enjoyable one.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


LES SAVAGE, JR. – Return to Warbow. Dell First Edition #65, paperback original; 1st printing, 1955.

RETURN TO WARBOW . Columbia, 1958. Philip Carey, Catherine McLeod, Andrew Duggan, William Leslie, Robert Wilke, James Griffith and Jay Silverheels. Written by Les Savage Jr from his novel. Directed by Ray Nazzaro.

   I was mildly impressed by Les Savage’s novel for the efforts it took to be a bit different; the film he wrote from it impressed me too, but for all the wrong reasons.

   To start with the novel — well actually, before the novel starts, a small-time rancher named Elliot Hollister needed money for his sick wife, but he was already deep in debt and the only friends he had in the town of Warbow were the drifters and low-lifes he met in saloons where he drank to drown his troubles.

   One of these reprobates roped him in on a stagecoach heist, but a third party horned in, killed Elliot’s partner and a popular local businessman and left Elliot holding the bag — but not the loot. So as the story starts, Elliot has served his time and returns to Warbow, where he is universally reviled and suspected of having stashed the haul, and he means to figure out who the killer really was.

   Got all that? Well pay it no mind, because the central character here is Clay Hollister, Elliot’s adult son who has grown up, got out from under the onus of his father, built up the ranch, and bids fair to marry the daughter of the man his daddy is thought to have killed. When his father hits town Clay feels compelled to take him in and the two begin an uneasy relationship punctuated by violent encounters with the locals who still hate Elliot for that killing he never done, plus those who think he can lead them to a fortune in stolen gold, and the mysterious third man, who simply wants him silenced in the surest way possible.

   Savage gives the thing a bit of emotional complexity, particularly as some of Elliot’s persecutors see the results of their work and waver a bit, and he sets the tale in the nasty midst of a Montana blizzard, lending a welcome edge of realism. None of this makes Warbow a great novel, but it does lift it a bit out of the ordinary.

   You can imagine my surprise then, when I watched the film version, also written by Les Savage Jr., and found he had leeched out just about everything that made the book worthwhile.

   The film eschews the wintry setting of the book in favor of that perpetual sunny summertime of just about every other Western ever made. And in this version there’s no Elliot; Clay Hollister (Phil Carey) is an unrepentant robber who breaks from a chain gang with a couple of other bad guys and returns to his home town to recover the loot he left with his weakling brother (a fine performance from James Griffith).

   There are the usual complications: Hollister’s new partners want more than their share of the loot (a wrinkle that recalls Big House U.S.A., reviewed here not long ago) his ex-girlfriend has married upstanding Andre Duggan, and they are raising his son as their own; there’s a posse on his trail; and that brother of his is awfully evasive about where he hid the dough.

   Which is pretty much where things just stop and pot around for awhile. Everyone chases everyone else around the Columbia Western Town set and the familiar environs of Simi Valley. We get a few fights, a bit of shooting, and no real sense that anything’s going anyplace very much. Ray Nazarro was always a competent director, but that’s all he was, and he never enlivens the rather stale proceedings.

   As for the script, well I have never seen an author trash his own work so completely, and I just hope Savage got well paid for it.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


A. B. GUTHRIE, JR. – These Thousand Hills. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1956. Pocket/Cardinal C-267, paperback, 1957. Bantam, paperback, 1976, 1982.

THESE THOUSAND HILLS. Fox, 1959. Don Murray, Lee Remick, Richard Egan, Patricia Owens, Stuart Whitman, Albert Dekker. Screenplay by Alfred Hayes, based on the book by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Directed by Richard Fleischer.

   The novels of A. B. Guthrie are intimate epics, encompassing a broad sweep of history and geography over the course of years, yet never losing the personal focus of characters who grow (and sometimes diminish) into complex individuals, at once larger than life and all too human.

    Perhaps that’s why they’ve never been successfully adapted to the screen — Oh, I’m not saying there haven’t been some good movies made from them, but none ever captured the sense of progress and loss so essential to Guthrie’s style, and These Thousand Hills shows why.

   As the story opens, Albert “Lat” Evans is a farm boy with ambitions who joins a cattle drive to Montana and becomes a cowboy with ambitions. After the drive he convinces his wastrel friend Tom Ping to spend the winter hunting wolf hides (a harrowing profession as Guthrie describes, not to be confused with hunting wolves) which leads to their capture and eventual release by a tribe of nomadic semi-outlaw Indians –an episode that will come to define Lat’s future.

   Guthrie does an intelligent and strikingly original job of detailing Lat’s rise to prosperity and fame, distinctive enough to be worth mentioning. Most stories about the rise of the rich become Faustian parables of compromise and corruption, but Lat simply realizes that if he wants to get anyplace, he’ll have to estrange himself from his loyal but disreputable companions. He’s honest, even generous with everyone he deals with, but as Hills draws to a close, and his old friends come to the bad end that was always waiting for them, he realizes that the people he owes the most to won’t even turn to him when they need his help.

   It’s a delicate point to make dramatically, and Guthrie handles it splendidly, as Lat and his old buddy meet one final time in a saloon, both armed, and These Thousand Hills seems headed for Tragedy… but turns to Drama of a very high sort, and one I won’t forget.

   Well, when they made a film of this, they felt like they had to ditch the Delicate and keep the Drama, and they didn’t do a bad job of it. The film doesn’t measure up to the book by a long ways, but it ain’t bad at all. Don Murray plays Lat with just the right amount of strength and naiveté, Stuart Whitman as his ex-pardner gone bad projects the right mix of strength and instability, and Lee Remick is simply splendid as the vulnerable prostitute who loves him.

   In lesser parts, Richard Egan and Albert Dekker portray opposite sides of an unflinching moral code, and we even get some fine turns from Old Western stalwarts like Royal Dano, Fuzzy Knight and Douglas Fowley.

   Director Richard Fleischer handles all this quite capably, and if he and writer Alfred Hayes fumble the whole point of the thing…. Well they made a decent movie out of it anyway, and one that’s worth your time. But take a look at the book if you can.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


THE SHIP OF MONSTERS. Producciones Sotomayor, Mexico, 1960. Columbia Pictures, US, 1961. Originally released as La Nave de los Monstruos. Eulailio González, Ana Bertha Lepe, Lorena Velázquez, Manuel Alvarado. Directed by Rogelio A. González.

   From the land of robot-fighting Aztec Mummies, and monster-battling masked wrestlers, comes their strangest contribution to cinema yet, Ship of Monsters, a UFO, alien monster invasion, Western, singing and dancing cowboy and alien, Mariachi-singing robot and computer console, kid and his robot pal, science fiction adventure.

   Let’s just say if it didn’t exist, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would have had to invent it. There used to be a Science Fiction Western comic book from Charlton, but it was never this weird.

   It all starts when Gamma (Ana Bertha Lepe) and Beta (Lorena Velázquez) land on Earth with a ship load of monsters who escape and have to be rounded up with the help of their robot Tor. Unknown to them they are observed by Lauranio (Eulailio González) a singing and dancing, fast on the draw cowboy who no one in the local cantina will listen to about his UFO sighting. Well, he does drink a little, so they can be excused.

   So of course Lauranio goes back out and runs into Gamma and Beta, gorgeous flimsily clad redhead and blonde, and agrees to help them round up the escaped monsters, enlisting the young Rupert who soon becomes pals with Tor.

   As if that wasn’t enough, Beta becomes jealous of Gamma and Lauranio and turns evil, sending the monsters out to capture or kill Gamma and Rupert. Lauranio then has to seduce Beta, singing and dancing seductively with her in the monster’s cave, while Rupert sneaks on the ship and saves Gamma. It is easily the most awkward dance scene in the history of film with Beta resembling nothing so much as a cheap Burlesque Queen and Lauranio looking more like he is fighting a bull than seducing a beautiful blonde alien.

   Beta discovers, as all must, monsters can’t be controlled, leaving Lauranio, Gamma, and Rupert to stop the monsters, and the film comes to a romantic end as Gamma decides to stay on Earth with Lauranio and Rupert while Tor pilots the monsters back home singing a Mariachi duet with a mobile female computer console he has a crush on.

   I kid you not.

   You can watch it in Spanish on YouTube if you want. In its own insane way it is entertaining, however strange, but you have to wonder at the mind that came up with it and try not to boggle your mind wondering what Roy Rogers and Gene Autry would have done with this one. Compared to it Gene’s Phantom Empire serial is downright tame: none of his robots even hummed.

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