Western movies

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

DRUMS ACROSS THE RIVER. Universal International, 1954. Audie Murphy, Walter Brennan, Lyle Bettger, Lisa Gaye, Hugh O’Brian, Mara Corday, Jay Silverheels, Regis Toomey, Morris Ankrum, Bob Steele. Story & screenplay: John K. Butler. Director: Nathan Juran.

   If you’re looking for a Western of economical running time that nevertheless manages to squeeze in a many of the genre’s most durable tropes, look no further than the little known Drums Across the River. You’ve got a father-son conflict; scheming bad men, working at the behest of big city folks, trying to stir up a race war between Whites and Indians; a town filled with people eager for quick and swift justice; a man bitter at the Indians, blaming them for the death of his mother; and a plot to steal a safe.

   All in less than 80 minutes. But you know what, for the most part it works quite well.

   Directed by Nathan Juran, this surprisingly effective Universal-International movie stars war hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy as Gary Brannon, a man caught up in a scheme to illicitly access gold mines on Ute territory. Against the wishes of his father, Sam, portrayed effectively by character actor Walter Brennan, Gary (Murphy) sets out with Frank Walker (Lyle Bettger) and his gang to get the gold, as it were. Soon enough, he realizes that Walker may not be all that he seems.

   The rest of the film follows Gary as he tries to rebuild his relationship with his father, make peace with the Utes, and stop Walker’s men from inciting racial violence. Look for Hugh O’Brien as Morgan, a truly evil henchmen and killer that Walker hires to threaten Gary. With some beautiful cinematography and outdoor scenery, this one is worth seeking out.

40 GUNS TO APACHE PASS. Columbia Pictures, 1967. Audie Murphy, Michael Burns, Kenneth Tobey, Laraine Stephens, Robert Brubaker, Michael Blodgett, Michael Keep. Director: William Witney.

   Although he wasn’t nearly the screen presence as was Randolph Scott, war hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy, particularly in his later films, began to emerge as a more than capable actor to portray a flawed protagonist or an anti-hero.

   That’s certainly the case for 40 Guns to Apache Pass, Murphy’s final movie appearance. Directed by William Witney, this surprisingly effective and visually captivating Western has Murphy portraying U.S. Army Captain Bruce Coburn, a man with anger issues and an impossible mission: secure the shipment of 40 rifles before the Apaches attack and kill every last settler in southern Arizona.

   Filmed almost exclusively outdoors, this taut and gritty Western dispenses with many of the lighthearted moments that permeated many of Murphy’s 1950s films. It’s a bloody and dusty world out West, and Bruce Coburn is more than willing to beat and berate his men into submission. Not only does he make an enemy in one of his subordinates, a scheming Corporal Bodine (Kenneth Tobey), he also ends up driving a young man into the ranks of outlaws and traitors.

   It’s Coburn’s impetuousness and his inability to think through how his behavior affects his men that ends up causing him the greatest amount of distress. As such, 40 Guns to Apache Pass can well be categorized as a minor classic in the psychological Western genre, an otherwise little known film that is skillfully directed and, while not having the most original plot in the world, is nevertheless a pleasure to watch.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

SEMINOLE. Universal International, 1953. Rock Hudson, Barbara Hale, Anthony Quinn, Richard Carlson, Hugh O’Brian, Russell Johnson, Lee Marvin, Ralph Moody, James Best. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   There’s a sequence in Seminole when U.S. Army officers are seen trudging through the hot, humid, dank Florida swamps in search of Seminoles to expel from their native lands. It’s incredibly gritty and well crafted and hints at a moral darkness in the heart of the soldiers’ commanding officer, a man gone mad by his hatred of Native Americans. To that extent, Seminole is very much part of the western genre, although the story takes place in Florida, not Arizona.

   Directed by Budd Boetticher, best known for his taut western films starring Randolph Scott, Seminole features Rock Hudson as Lt. Lance Caldwell, an upstanding young army officer who believes in peaceful accommodation with the Seminole tribe. At every turn, he is denigrated and opposed by his commanding officer, Major Degan (Richard Carlson), a scheming, duplicitous man consumed with hate and venom.

   The Seminoles also have their own internal disputes. The Seminole leader, Osceola (Anthony Quinn in a less than stellar performance), must face down the warmongers among his own people. To no one’s surprise, Osceola and Caldwell have known each other since they were children and are divided not just in political allegiances, but also by their affection for the same woman, Revere Muldoon (Barbara Hale).

   Altogether, Seminole is distinguished not so much by its cinematography or acting, but by its humanism. The Seminoles, who aren’t portrayed as mindless warriors, bend over backwards for peace with the U.S. Army. While at times the movie can at times feel just a tad too preachy, it’s nevertheless a welcome reminder that not all Hollywood films from the early 1950s portrayed Native Americans as nothing more than enemies in the way of white settlement. In this Boetticher film, the story is far more complex.


APACHE DRUMS. Universal International, 1951. Stephen McNally, Coleen Gray, Willard Parker, Arthur Shields, James Griffith, Armando Silvestre, James Best and Clarence Muse. Written by David Chandler, from “Stand at Spanish Boot” by Harry Brown (as stated in the credits; no record of publication known). Produced by Val Lewton. Directed by Hugo Fregonese.

   The last film and only Western of a legendary producer, this is more Val Lewton’s film than director Fregonese’s or writer Chandler’s. The whole approach — a mostly-unseen menace and gradually growing tension, punctuated by moments of shock and horror — harks back to classics like The Seventh Victim and I Walked with a Zombie.

   Which is a good thing, because as a Western, it ain’t much. Director Hugo Fregonese (Man in the Attic, Savage Pampas, etc.) was always a reliable craftsman, but not much more. In his hands, the fights, chases etc. are capably done but strangely unexciting. What makes Apache Drums memorable is Lewton’s feel for the characters and their growing sense of entrapment.

   And the characters are a well-realized lot. Stephen McNally headlines as a raffish gambler run out of town, who returns to warn the disbelieving townsfolk of imminent danger; Coleen Gray, memorable in Red River and The Killing, shows genuine indecision about her feelings for him, while Willard Parker projects stolid blandness as the thudding voice of authority.

   In the supporting cast, Arthur Shields plays yet another reverend, but more complex than usual this time, subject to serious errors of judgment balanced by acts of courage. James Griffith is fine as a smarter-than-usual cavalry officer, and Clarence Muse brings real dignity and pathos to a small part — as he always did.

   The solid characterizations keep Apache Drums watchable, even in the dull stretches, and when the scary parts come, with the townspeople trapped in an old church, unable to see the drum-beating attackers till they leap in from overhead like harpies, the tension really ratchets up. And there’s a truly nightmarish bit toward the end with Willard Parker a captive of the Apaches, locked outside the church, unseen from inside, screaming at everyone not to let him in!

   I guess Val Lewton will always be remembered for those remarkable films at RKO, but Apache Drums is a fitting, if minor, coda to a great career.

Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

TWO FLAGS WEST. 20th Century Fox, 1950. Joseph Cotten, Linda Darnell, Jeff Chandler, Cornel Wilde, Dale Robertson, Jay C. Flippen, Noah Beery Jr., Harry von Zell, John Sands, Arthur Hunnicutt. Director: Robert Wise.

   I watch a lot of movies. A lot. So it takes quite a bit for a film, or a sequence in a film, to really and truly stand out in my mind. You know what I’m talking about — those indelible moments when you realize that an actor has been perfectly cast and his character does something in a manner that takes you by surprise.

   There’s a moment like that at the tail end of Two Flags West, a thematically and visually captivating Western directed by Robert Wise. The movie, which takes place in New Mexico during the Civil War, tells the story of a formerly imprisoned Confederate Calvary unit which joins up with the U.S. Army. Leading the men, the so-called ‘Galvanized Yankees’ from Dixie is Col. Clay Tucker (Joseph Cotton) who, after rueful consideration, decided to take up an offer from Union Captain Mark Bradford (Cornel Wilde): in exchange for their liberation from a Yankee prison camp, Tucker and his men will serve out West with the U.S. Army and fight the Indians.

   As you might imagine, things don’t go so smoothly. Not only does Tucker butt heads with the acerbic and borderline sadistic Major Henry Kenniston (Jeff Chandler), he ends up developing romantic feelings toward Kenniston’s now widowed sister-in-law, Elena (Linda Darnell), a Spanish girl from California. Problem is: both Kenniston and Captain Bradford (Wilde) also have romantic inclinations toward her.

   Fortunately, this soap opera aspect to the film doesn’t overpower its other major theme, namely the reconciliation between North and South. Indeed, much of the film is best understood as a character study of two men — the farsighted Tucker (Cotton), a landowner from Georgia and the bitter, vengeful Kenniston (Chandler), a shortsighted man prone to rage.

   It’s not until the film’s very end, when Kenniston finally redeems himself, that one realizes that Two Flags West is no ordinary Western. Filmed in crisp black and white under the skillful direction of Wise, it’s definitely a minor gem that fans of the genre should seek out.


MARVIN H. ALBERT – The Law and Jake Wade. Gold Medal #553, paperback original, 1956; Gold Medal #756, 2nd printing, movie tie-in edition, 1958.

THE LAW AND JAKE WADE. MGM, 1958. Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, DeForest Kelley. Screenplay by William Bowers, based on the novel by Marvin H. Albert. Director: John Sturges.

   I’ve never been a big fan of Marvin H. Albert, but this ain’t bad. Like all the best Gold Medal originals, it starts with a crackle of mysterious action as Marshal Jake Wade travels to a nearby town to break Ben Swift, a condemned killer, out of jail. The jailbreak is handled with the terse violence one expects in a Gold Medal, and we soon learn that Marshal Wade himself used to ride what they call The Outlaw Trail, and he’s repaying Swift back for saving his life back in those days. Been me, I’d a let him hang, but that wouldn’t have made much of a book, I guess.

   It seems Wade hates and fears Swift, who has been trying to find him for more than a year — the result of a misunderstanding over the loot from their last job together, which was last seen in Jake’s possession. Jake buried the loot in a fit of remorse, and has built himself a decent life, as they say in westerns, complete with a career as an upright lawman and a fetching fiancée named Lorna, but none of this makes a damn to Ben, and soon we’re off on a long, punishing ride to recover the loot, with Jake and his bride-to-be the unwilling captives of Ben and his henchmen.

   The ensuing action is pretty gripping, what with raiding Comanches, blizzards, rugged mountains, and the ever-present tension as Jake works to maneuver his captors to destruction. But the real emphasis is on the relationships between the characters, as it quickly becomes apparent that our hero won’t get away from these owlhoots until he understands them.

   And likewise, he won’t be able to rescue Lorna until she understands him. A nice touch this, and it lifts the story a bit out of the ordinary — as does the climax, when Jake realizes he can’t really escape at all, and calmly waits for his fate to overtake him.

   Albert evokes some fine tension by concentrating on the small stuff: the effects of having one’s wrists tied for days on end, the constant attention to keep Jake and Lorna secured and apart, and the careful cat-and-mouse maneuverings of Jake and his captors. But this is primarily a book about the characters, and he does an exemplary job of balancing thought, feeling and action…. plenty of action.

   When they filmed this in 1958, MGM and producer William Hawks did well by it: they got director John Sturges, back when he was lean & fast, Robert Surtees to photograph it, and William Bowers to fashion the script. Bowers specialized in comedy-westerns, including Alias Jesse James and The Sheepman, and he even injected some humor into Henry King’s fatalistic The Gunfighter. Here, he imparts a laconic lilt to the proceedings that makes the action scenes somehow more intense and brutal by way of contrast.

   The blizzard is omitted, probably for reasons for reasons of economy and expeditious film-making, but they don’t stint on the wide-open scenery and they even provide a highly cinematic ghost town for the Comanche fight, and the final showdown—possibly borrowed from Yellow Sky, but no less exciting for that. And the acting….

   The acting is what academics call top-notch, with the performers slipping easily into their parts. Robert Taylor plays the marshal Randolph-Scott-style: tight-lipped and square-jawed, the perfect foil for Richard Widmark’s talkative and brutal bad guy. Patricia Owens (who starred in The Fly that same year) has little to do as the fiancée, but she does it capably. And Widmark’s gang includes Henry Silva, Robert Middleton and DeForest Kelly, who had a nice line in smiling cowboy bad-guys in those pre-Star Trek days.

   The only thing that puzzles me is why they changed so many names: Ben Swift becomes “Clint Hollister;” Lorna becomes “Peggy” and Henry Silva’s character, named “Henry” in the book, is now “Rennie.” Most puzzling of all, a major character named “Otero” in Albert’s novel is listed as “Ortero” in the credits.

   I guess it’s just one of those unsolved mysteries of The Cinema. Don’t let it spoil the movie.

Editorial Comment:   It wasn’t planned; it’s only one of those great cosmic mysteries of the universe called a coincidence. But Jonathan reviewed this same film on this blog exactly one year ago today.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

TWO-GUN MAN FROM HARLEM. Merit Pictures, 1938. Herb Jeffrey, Marguerite Whitten, Mantan Moreland, Clarence Brooks, “Stymie” Beard, Spencer Williams, Mae Turner. Screenwriter-Director: Richard C. Kahn

   An all-black Western from the 1930s, beneath contempt for most critics, but I enjoyed it.

   Now I know many of you out there hang on my words with slavish devotion, but I should warn potential viewers that Two-Gun has its short-comings: bad script, bad acting, low budget, insipid stunt work and continuity gaffes that could give you whiplash — the usual results of a lack of time and money. There is, however, a magic in the movies that can transcend these things for those who are spiritually attuned or simply deficient in critical judgment, and I must be one or the other.

   Star Herb Jeffrey has real screen presence; and I mean when he walks in, he dominates the tawdry screen around him just as Bogart, Gable and Flynn ruled their more sumptuous surroundings. In his flashy cowboy-hero garb or “disguised” as a bad guy, he moves with that natural assurance that distinguishes the Western Hero, and he carries a tune (yes, this is a singing western) as well as any of them.

   Two-Gun is actually a re-make of a 1931 film, Two-Gun Caballero, a film now considered lost, though it may simply be hiding. Whatever the case, it’s B-Western boiler plate about a man accused of murder who flees the scene, assumes a new identity, and returns in disguise (not terribly convincing, but it seems to fool even those who knew him well) to sort things out.

   If you were charitable or trying to sell the film, you might refer to it as “noirish” since the killing in question is of a rancher done in by his wife’s lover — the old Postman Rings Twice thing — in her presence. The wife (Mae Turner) frames the hero to clear her paramour, but when she starts pressing her boyfriend for a commitment, he contracts with a local outlaw (Spencer Williams) to have her killed. Which is when our hero re-emerges, disguised as a notorious killer from Harlem—hence the title of the piece.

   But this flick is not so much Noir as simply Black. Academics might call it an attempt to translate the prominent cultural iconography of its day into distinctly ethnic terms. To the rest of us, it’s just a B-western made primarily by African-American actors, aimed at that segregated niche market in its day.

   Mantan Moreland is (surprise!) the comedy relief here, and at first I thought his capable talents were going to be wasted in an unrewarding part as Jeffrey’s side-kick with very little screen time and no worthwhile dialogue at all. Then, late in the picture, Jeffrey warns the local outlaw to get out and “…Don’t look back; remember what happened to Lot’s wife.”

   A few minutes later we’re back in the Outlaw Hideout, where Mantan has infiltrated the gang as a cook (?!) and bad-guy Spencer Williams pauses in the middle of some trifling skullduggery, turns to Mantan and says, “Hey. What happened to Lot’s wife?”

   Which is all the excuse this veteran funnyman needs to launch into an extended biblical riff about how Lot’s wife was running around on him “…and the neighbors started scandalizin’ on her (You know how they do.) and one day she was leaving her boyfriend’s place….. ‘Your husband’s coming, Honey!’…. commenced to running…. and it rained 40 days and 40 nights… and she sat down to rest and couldn’t move because she was turned to salt… more rain… salt melting…and that spot where she sat down is where Salt lake City is today.”

   And I guess it’s moments like that which will keep Two-Gun Man from Harlem on my mind long after much better films have been forgotten.

Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         

HIGH LONESOME. LeMay-Templeton / Eagle-Lion Films, 1950. John Barrymore Jr., Chill Wills, John Archer, Lois Butler, Kristine Miller, Basil Ruysdale, Jack Elam and Dave Kashner. Written and directed by Alan LeMay.

   Alan LeMay is best remembered as the author of the novel basis for The Searchers (1954) but he started writing Westerns in 1927 and did his first Western (sorta) screenplay in 1940: Cecil B. DeMille’s Northwest Mounted Police. In between times he authored or co-authored screenplays for Along Came Jones (1945), The Walking Hills (1949), and others worthy of note, and in 1950 he turned his hand to directing as well as writing High Lonesome.

   LeMay’s direction is serviceable, but it’s not the sort of work that would worry John Ford. His story, on the other hand, is definitely intriguing. The movie opens with young Barrymore pursued by two shadowy figures on horseback who (we learn later) involved him in a murder. Caught pilfering a cookhouse, he’s tentatively adopted/detained by rancher Basil Ruysdale and his daughters (Butler & Miller) and nick-named “Cooncat” which is the only name we ever know him by, and surely the most unlikely moniker ever given a Western hero.

   No one completely trusts him though (and with good reason: Barrymore’s playing verges on hysteria) and when he tells them about the killing (now about a week old) they take him to the scene of the alleged crime, only to find it deserted, disused and dust-covered. Moreover, when he describes his shadowy pursuers, the others immediately recognize the description as that of two local outlaws—who were killed in a range war fifteen years earlier.

   Well that’s a nice creepy start, and LeMay builds on it well; when a real murder is discovered, Cooncat is naturally blamed and almost lynched. The mysterious dead men (Jack Elam and Dave Kashner) flit about in the shadows while prairie discord and ranchland romance spread across the plains in equal measure and we get a couple more murders, one of them pretty shocking even by today’s standards, whatever those are.

   The acting here is uniformly good, but it’s mostly a case of able players taking advantage of well-written character parts. John Drew Barrymore (billed here as John Barrymore Jr.) goes over the top too often, but he’s got that Youthful Angst thing down nicely, and he even looks a bit like young Sean Penn. Basil Ruysdale (you might remember him as the Confederate reverend leading his child-soldiers against John Wayne’s cavalry in The Horse Soldiers — or the befuddled detective who loses his shirt to Harpo in The Coconuts) projects real authority as the rancher/patriarch; Lois Butler conveys vulnerable adolescence nicely, and it goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that Jack Elam creeps around with appropriate loathsomeness.

   Hey! Come to think of it, howcum nobody ever made a movie where Jack Elam and Peter Falk played brothers?

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