"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Two Rode Together (Columbia, 1961)


He only made it for the money (he said)

As we have already reviewed Paramount's 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we have now two final works of John Ford's Western oeuvre to look at. There's Cheyenne Autumn but today it's Two Rode Together.

James Stewart is a corrupt and cynical but sympathetic Tascosa, Texas marshal in this, probably the least of John Ford’s Westerns. Of course, the least of Ford’s Westerns is still good.

The theme owes something to The Searchers in that it deals with whites captured by the Comanche and ‘lost’, even when ransomed and returned. Society’s prejudice is faced full on. But unlike The Searchers, this movie is rather slow and has none of the power or the shock and awe. Stewart’s Guthrie McCabe has nothing of Ethan Edwards’s driven fury as portrayed by John Wayne. The film is weaker and more watered-down, although there is a grim lynching at the end (in which “civilization” barborously murders the “savage”).

The Two of the title are Stewart and an amiable, rather straight army officer, Richard Widmark (rather old for a young lieutenant) as they are obliged to ride together to rescue the captives from Quanah Parker (Henry Brandon, who was Scar in The Searchers). John McIntire is excellent as the tough cavalry major who sends them. Shirley Jones is weak as the settler girl for Widmark to woo and win, while Stewart finally falls for Señorita Linda Cristal, one of the rescuees, who is better. She is the woman of Stone Calf (an angry and muscular Woody Strode, who as a black man did a good line in Indians).

Annelle Hayes is feisty as the saloon madam with a stiletto in her garter who, nevertheless, loses Jimmy to Señorita Linda, and Andy Devine is great as the enormous Sergeant Posey (all Ford movies had to have an amusing sergeant character). The best acting apart from Stewart probably comes from Mae Marsh, ex young heroine of Intolerance and Birth of a Nation, here in a very short part as an old broken woman who is too afraid and ashamed to go back to the white world.

The usual rather unfortunate Ford slapstick is provided by her sons, the two hillbillyish brothers Ken Curtis and Harry Carey Jr., Ford stalwarts, of course. The dances, so crucial to Ford’s films as representations of the community spirit, are pale imitations, for there is no community to portray.

Stewart is outstanding and seems almost to ad lib, so natural is much of his delivery. The scene where he and Widmark sit on a log by the river bank (the camera was out in the stream) was a one-take semi-scripted masterpiece. Stewart himself was said to be disappointed that the more corrupt side of his character was not given more prominence. In fact, he is never quite convincing as the drunk who will do anything for money. He’s Jimmy Stewart, after all. It’s rather like Gary Cooper playing bad men. Can’t be done.

It’s shot on location in Texas in nice color by Charles Lawton Jr. The George Duning music is unobtrusive to the point that you don’t notice it at all. Frank Nugent wrote the screenplay from the Will Cook novel Comanche Captives.
The film was a critical and commercial flop and Ford himself said that he had only made it for the money and thought it was “crap”. Harsh judgements for what is still a Ford Western dealing with serious themes, and with James Stewart in it . It was the last film in which Stewart wore that manky hat.
In Cheyenne Autumn, mind, his hat, though different, was utterly splendid. But more of that film tomorrow.


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