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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Sons of Katie Elder (Paramount, 1965)

 
First of the 1960s Wayne Durango Westerns, and a lot of fun




 
 
In 1965 John Wayne was recovering from quite drastic cancer surgery. The Western-loving public was holding its breath. Would he come back as a Western star? Of course he would. With the strength and guts and work ethic he had, he’d be back in the saddle alright. The Sons of Katie Elder was the first in a whole series of big, commercial, well-made movies that he made down in his beloved Durango, Mexico, 1965 - 73. The others were The War Wagon, The Undefeated, Chisum, Big Jake, The Train Robbers and Cahill, US Marshal. The pictures were box-office successes and gave Duke weight and dominance. His then wife Pilar was dismissive of them:

Looking back, I can barely tell those Durango films from one another. They had a sameness of story, plot and location which seemed like a disservice to Duke’s fans. Different casts are the only thing which made them stand apart.

But in fact she was wrong. They had very different stories but similar casts. Wayne gathered his stock company about him and used them in successive movies. Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., Paul Fix, Bruce Cabot – the usual suspects. And he used favorites for the crew too. His son Michael as producer, Carl Anderson as art director, William Clothier and Lucien Ballard as cinematographers, Henry Hathaway, Burt Kennedy or Andrew V McLaglen to direct. And they did a good job; they were professionals. The films did well in the theaters; people liked them. And they fixed Wayne in the mind as a larger-than-life Western star. These were in many ways the golden years of the John Wayne Western.
 
The sons of Katie Elder: Wayne, Martin, Holliman, Anderson
 
Though Durango, Mexico locations were used, it is Durango, Colorado where the movie opens, as the Durango/Silverton railroad through the Royal Gorge is featured.
 
Royal Gorge in opening shot
 
Three sons of the late Katie Elder are at the Clearwater, Texas depot awaiting the arrival of the fourth, John. He isn’t on the train, though. It’s George Kennedy who gets off, all in black, a gunslinger if ever there was one, as Sheriff Paul Fix can tell right away. In fact the delayed entry of Wayne is rather well done: the public also awaits him, with bated breath. How will he appear after his surgery? Well, he appears monumentally when finally he is seen. Shot from below, standing on a crag, like a crag himself.

Lucien Ballard was the cinematographer, one of my all-time favorites. He really was an artist. Later he has some great shots of horses being driven, as there were too in another of these Westerns, The Undefeated (McLaglen/Clothier). There are also some fine landscapes, and the shoot-out among the tree roots is very well done. It's Technicolor and Panavision; no expense spared.
 
Sheriff Paul Fix
 
There is a slight problem with chronology: John (born 1907) is supposed to be the oldest brother of Bud (Michael Anderson Jr., born 1943). We are told their mother married in 1850, and there are 36 years between the brothers. It’s 1893 now… Oh well, who’s counting? John does rather look his age (well, he would) so it isn’t all that convincing but never mind.

The other brothers are Earl Holliman and Dean Martin, the latter reprising his co-starring role with Duke in Rio Bravo. Dino is also not convincing as Wayne’s brother but never mind that either. He plays the part as the roguish, ne’er-do-well son, Tom. John’s a gunfighter so he’s a not-often-do-well. Earl as Matt Elder is more respectable. I think he said he owned a store. Of course Holliman had parts in Broken Lance and Gunfight at the OK Corral to his credit so was well known to Western audiences. The kid brother Bud has been off to college, at his ma’s wish, so they have all been away and have ignored their poor widowed mother.

Yes, widowed: Pa was shot in the back. Now it occurs to the four to wonder who did that. As a bad guy has also taken Ma’s ranch, he’s a likely candidate. The bad guy is Morgan Hastings, who owns half the town and wants all the rest. He is James Gregory, usually a tough cop but equally good as a Western villain. He’d been in oaters since Gun Glory, a Stewart Granger B, in 1957, and was the Army general in A Distant Trumpet in 1964. He made many appearances in Western TV shows. His son is a scaredy-cat lowlife, Dennis Hopper. Father and son run a firearms business, so are well placed to bushwhack. Rodolfo Acosta is one of Gregory’s henchmen, though sadly has very few lines.
 
Bad man Gregory sights in his scoped Remington
 
Loads of other old-favorite character actors populate the town, which is nice. James Westerfield is the banker, John Doucette is the undertaker, Percy Helton is the storekeeper. Strother Martin has a comic role in the saloon. Fat Rhys Williams turns up in a buggy. John Qualen, an old member of John Ford’s stock company, is a deputy. Familiar faces. Very enjoyable.
 
Kennedy, Westerfield, Doucette, Qualen, Hopper, Helton, Williams - great!
 
I say it is 1893. Duke refers to the Daltons, who died the year before. He says they were “hung” whereas of course they were shot (or in the case of Emmet imprisoned) but who needs accuracy when dealing with the Old West? Wayne wears his usual rig, leather vest over a cavalry shirt, and that old yellow-handled 1873 Colt .44/.40 he always had, whether the story was set in the 1860s or 1900s.
 
Duke lets rip with his Colts
 
Gunman Kennedy is beating on Doucette when John comes along and whacks the bully in the face with a piece of hickory, like Clint in Pale Rider. That’s telling him. Mind, we see him soon after with no ill effects at all; you'd expect the make-up department to have made his face black & blue.

Martha Hyer (Rory Calhoun’s amour in Red Sundown and Jock Mahoney’s in Showdown at Abilene) is the love interest, kinda, Mary. She is at first scathing to the brothers who deserted their saintly ma, but comes round to thinking John a good egg when she receives Katie’s rocking chair as a bequest. She’s twenty years younger than John but well, that’s OK.
 
A lot of fun
 
The music is by Elmer Bernstein and excellent in that Bernsteiny way, stirringly orchestral and catchily whistlable. It gets you urging the good guys on.

There’s a choreographed final shoot-out in a gunpowder store and neat resolution of the crimes, and the baddies get their just desserts. Natch. The final shot is of the rocking chair rocking, suggesting future domesticity for John.

All good stuff, if you an undemanding Western-lover, and if you aren’t, why are you reading this blog?

The sons

Friday, May 29, 2015

Gunfight at Comanche Creek (AA, 1963)

 
Pretty ropey




 
 
As Audie Murphy’s contract with Universal came to an end in 1963, and before he started making Westerns for Columbia in ‘64, he appeared in a single oater for Allied Artists. It wasn’t very good.

Universal and Columbia Westerns may not have been big-budget A-movies but they were decently done, with competent directors and writers, and good cinematography of appropriate and attractive locations. Allied Artists grew out of Poverty Row studios Monogram, and while they did allot higher budgets than they had to their black & white Monogram C-movies, the results were hardly great artistic creations or even box-office draws. This one is at least shot in Panavision with color by De Luxe, by Joe Biroc, no less, so that’s something. But the direction and writing was pretty low-grade and the actors, apart from Audie, very much in the minor league.
 
What? Audie wanted? That can't be right surely?
 
The biggest weakness of the movie is that it can’t decide whether to be a detective story or a Western. It was in fact a straight (but unacknowledged) remake of AA’s 1957 George Montgomery picture Last of the Badmen. That was written by David Chantler and Daniel B Ullman but the 1963 effort is credited to Edward Bernds, with no mention of the Chantler/Ullman story. Bernds once received an Oscar nomination but it was a mistake. The academy got the wrong film. He still had the nomination framed and displayed it proudly. He had first written (and directed) a Western in 1945, the masterly epic (not) Pistol Packin’ Nitwits, a film you are doubtless desperate to see, and other dire Z-Westerns followed. His greatest triumph was probably the co-writing of the Elvis movie Tickle Me. How he got the job of doing the screenplay for Comanche Creek is a mystery.

The direction was similarly uninspired. Frank McDonald has been described as “not entirely comfortable as a director.” Evelyn Keyes once said, "I've never seen anyone as terrified of directing as Frank McDonald". McDonald churned out many a Roy Rogers and Gene Autry oater, and later buckets of Western TV shows, and in fact is credited with working on over 300 Westerns of one kind or another. But he wasn’t very good. This movie is stodgy, and it lacks pace and tension.
 
Plodding
 
The film copied from the George Montgomery one an annoying narrative voiceover (by Reed Hadley) designed, one supposes, to give it an Untouchables-ish crime drama-documentary tinge. It fails, because the plot is so utterly preposterous that it could never possibly have actually happened in real life. The commentary is annoying because it’s so pointless; it’s perfectly clear from the action what’s happening and you’d have to be a moron to need the voiceover. Which perhaps some of the original audience were, but I reckon not. The AA producers, however…

It’s the story of the ‘National Detective Agency’ operatives Audie, Jan Merlin and John Milford. They have the mission of infiltrating a gang led by evil DeForest Kelley. The MO of this gang is a bit bizarre: they bust criminals out of jail, use them as fronts to rob banks so that the reward on their heads goes up, then murder them and claim the reward money. It would have been a lot easier to just rob the banks.

Audie pretends to be a crook and gets himself arrested, waiting for the gang to break him out, which they duly do. They make him rob a bank, sans mask, armed only with a derringer. And an empty derringer at that. Audie with a derringer! Derringers were for saloon gals, gamblers and ne’er-do-wells. Still, it doesn’t count as he was forced to use it, and it was unloaded.

Audie is first seen canoodling with a girl and plays it throughout with a cynical smile and devil-may-care insouciance, which doesn’t quite come off.

DeForest Kelley is only the ramrod of the robbers, it turns out. There is, in town, a shadowy figure masterminding the gang. If you have a mental age in single figures you might not guess who it is, but everyone else will know very early on.
 
Bones in a Stetson
 
Most people can only think of Bones on the Enterprise when they see Mr. Kelley but actually he appeared in a great number of Western TV shows from 1949 onwards and the occasional big-screen oater (he was Morgan Earp in Gunfight at the OK Corral and Curley in Warlock). As for Jan Merlin, it’s unusual to see him numbered among the goodies (in fact he sacrifices himself to save Audie which was pretty noble). Most people will think of him as Lt. Colin Kirby in The Rough Riders. Ben Cooper, as the badman Carter whom Audie ‘turns’, had been Turkey in Johnny Guitar, and Adam Williams as the fellow gang member Hayden was in a lot of Western TV shows at one time or another. But really none of these was what you would call a top-drawer Western character actor.

Audie wears no hat throughout and for 99% of the movie doesn’t have a gun, so that’s unusual.

There is some love interest (Colleen Miller as a saloon gal and Susan Seaforth as a farmer’s daughter) but the only accurate word to describe it would be perfunctory.

The shoot out of the title in the main street in the last reel isn’t too bad but really this must be considered one of the weakest of Audie’s Westerns, if not the worst.

 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Forty Guns Redux


Forty more Guns

 
One of the earliest posts on this most epic of blogs (read of course only by the crème de la crème of Westernistas), which was published in the dim and distant days of July 2010, was about the movie Forty Guns (Fox, 1957). It was less than complimentary.

The Italians loved it

So many people praised Forty Guns and esteemed Samuel Fuller a genius, and still do, that I began to feel I must have been wrong. There must be hidden depths to what outwardly appears a trashy black & white B-Western. I do not care for cineastes and certainly do not consider myself one; such people seem pretentious to me and read too much into what are only movies after all, and they are often members of the dreaded tribe of auteuristes, who seem to think that the director of a film is the only one responsible for any artistic merit it may have. ‘Film studies’ lecturers are just as bad. I, instead, come from what might be called the Brian Garfield school of Western writers: call trash trash and praise Gary Cooper. But the aforementioned intellectual commentators adore Samuel Fuller and praise him to the skies. Bof, who knows, perhaps they are right.
 
Samuel Fuller: genius?
 
Anyway, I thought I better watch Forty Guns again.

The first thing I noticed on re-viewing that I hadn’t commented on before is that it was shot by Joe Biroc. Now Mr. Biroc was one of the great Western cinematographers. He had started as an assistant photographer on Cimarron in 1931 and had first been DP on a Western in 1949 on Roughshod. He worked well with Robert Aldrich, filming The Ride Back the same year as Forty Guns and Ulzana’s Raid in 1972. He did some Audie Murphy Westerns (always well photographed) and Cahill, US Marshal for John Wayne. Even bad Westerns he worked on like the Samuel Fuller-directed Run of the Arrow were finely photographed. He was a real talent. In Forty Guns, the opening shot of Stanwyck’s forty cowboys galloping past the brothers’ wagon is justly famous but there is also some other atmospheric photography, such as the dust by the telegraph office, and the twister and funeral scenes. Sometimes the townscape is positively luminous, like Charles Lawton Jr.’s cinematography in the first 3:10 to Yuma the same year. Visually, the film is better than I previously gave it credit for.
 
Joseph Biroc with award (not for Forty Guns)
 
However…

I suppose you can’t really blame a 1950s Western for being demeaning to women; nearly all films were. But the song that talks about Barbara Stanwyck’s character Jessica Drummond, which tells us that she was “a high-ridin’ woman with a whip” does grate a lot, at least to modern audiences, especially when we are told in the last line of the song that "after all, she was only a woman.”

For me, Stanwyck is another major weakness of this B movie: she was always very poor in Westerns, though “I own the valley” movies were rather her thing.
 
Stanwyck ridiculous. But after all, she was only a woman.
 
There are many presages of spaghetti westerns, from the garish title on. The zooming in on boots, for example, and the ultra-close-ups of faces. Italian westerns loved those shots and there is no doubt that Forty Guns was a progenitor of that genre. If, however, like me you have feelings towards spaghetti westerns that come close to contempt, that is hardly praise. I suppose the film’s violence and the fact that it is almost a commentary on the Western rather than actually being one really appealed to the middle-aged denizens of Cinecittà who had fond memories of the black & white B-Westerns of their youth.

The racy-for-the-time language, full of double-entendres, is all rather tame these days but still comes across as frankly cheap and tawdry. Fuller wrote it, of course, and was the producer of the movie, so there is really no one else to blame.

I also missed in the first review the Earpishness of the story. The Bonnell brothers are clearly Earps by any other name, and Sheriff Logan (Dean Jagger, always worth watching) is evidently a sort of Johnny Behan figure. La Stanwyck as Ike Clanton is a bit harder to swallow.
 
Bonnells as Earps
 
Hank Worden was a great character and always entertaining, in those John Ford, then John Wayne Westerns, but you know, he really was a very ham actor. And he is dreadful here as the town marshal ‘John Chisum’ (I ask you).
 
Good old Hank. But I don't think he ever held his breath when the Oscars were announced.
 
Barry Sullivan as the leading brother Griff, on the other hand, is probably better than I first gave him credit for. I was probably influenced by The Tall Man, the TV series in which he reduced the great Pat Garrett to little more than a character in a soap, and I didn’t like The Road West. To me Sullivan was an actor in below-average TV Westerns and such big-screen Westerns as he did tended to be definitely on the B side. But in fact he could act and there are moments in Forty Guns when he is quite impressive. In that scene in the cabin he almost looks like Coop in a certain light. Almost.

Dennis Schwartz has written that Forty Gunsdefies psychological interpretation except as a marvelously inventive gun-crazy blast at the genre” but if that’s true there has been no shortage of attempts at psychological interpretation. The Europeans loved it, especially in France. Godard waxed lyrical about it, but I have always trusted the maxim that it is wiser never to take notice of anything to do with cinema put out by someone named Jean-Luc.
 
Some fine photography
 
You know, if Forty Guns is “a unique work from one of the masters of American cinema”, then I’m a Dutchman. I prefer Brian Garfield’s view that the movie is “banal, brutal, dehumanizing trash.”

So in the last resort I have re-evaluated the picture but my basic view hasn’t changed. Convince me I’m wrong. Leave a comment, o ye defenders of this film, and point out what I have missed.

 

Monday, May 25, 2015

A Man Alone (Republic, 1955)


Somber, visually impressive, not at all bad




 
 
‘A man alone’ is a concept that in many ways distills the very essence of the Western story. We have discoursed elsewhere on the notion of lone-ness and its importance in the genre. Click the link to ponder further. But it gives the title of this 50s B movie a certain resonance, anyway.
 
Worth a watch
 
A Man Alone stars and was the directorial debut of Ray Milland. For me, Mr. Milland never quite convinced in the saddle, though I will say that this film was his best in the genre. Britisher Milland had become one of Paramount’s most bankable stars in the 1940s and had a suave aspect to him that made him very good as a posh chap getting a pal from Cambridge to murder his wife for Hitchcock in Dial M for Murder or as charming cynic Alan Howard in French Without Tears in the movie version of Rattigan’s play, but as Wes Steele the Texas gunman? Hardly.
 
Posh Brit as Texas gunfighter: he almost carries it off, too
 
He had a go at Westerns, though. After all, Stewart Granger, another posh Brit, made a good fist of them, so why not Ray? He appeared with Barbara Stanwyck in the semi-Western pot-boiler California in 1947 and then got a Western lead role in 1950 in Copper Canyon, both directed by John Farrow (and both pretty weak). Then came the (I’m sorry to say it) unconvincing Bugles in the Afternoon, in 1952, a travesty of a fine novel of the same name by Ernest Haycox. A Man Alone, three years later, was his last crack of the Western whip (aside from a couple of TV movies in ’63 and ’71). As I say, though, A Man Alone is his best Western and the film is directed and shot interestingly enough to make it definitely worth a watch.

Milland went for a somber atmosphere, and succeeded. The John Tucker Battle screenplay from a story by Mort Briskin (producer of Sheriff of Cochise) was inherently a bit on the dark side, about a lone gunman, Wes Steele, whose horse breaks a leg in the Arizona desert land and who is obliged to walk. He comes across a stagecoach whose occupants have been massacred. In the nearby town of Mesa he is blamed for the massacre, though he overhears the true perpetrators confabulating. They are, pleasingly for us Western fans, Raymond Burr as crooked banker Stanley and his henchman Clanton, Lee Van Cleef. Of course these names are clear signal to all proper Western fans: a Texas gunman has to be named Wes in honor of JW Hardin and ‘Steele’ has a good hard ring to it, and a man named Clanton is automatically branded a baddy. ‘Stanley’ was a bit disappointingly bland, though.
 
Banker Burr
 
Henchman Van Cleef
 
Somber
 
The sheriff of Mesa is Ward Bond, so that’s good, but he is holed up at home, quarantined with yellow fever, muttering deliriously for the first two reels, and so his even corrupter deputy is in charge. Luckily, for it’s a very good cast, this stand-in lawman is Alan Hale Jr. Alan often played the good guy but when a baddy, boy, was he bad. An excellent Western actor in every way. Ditto for Van Cleef, obviously, the archetypal henchperson really, and Ray Burr, pre-Perry Mason, did a lot of crooked banker parts in Westerns, and was very good at them. Think of Station West or Horizons West.
 
Sheriff Ward Bond and gunslinger Ray Milland: Mary Murphy comes between them
 
The DP was Lionel Lindon, who with director Gordon Douglas had done a similar job of shooting a noirish, sinister setting (on a minimal budget) in Only the Valiant. Much is done at night. It might have been better in black & white than in Republic’s patent Trucolor, although there are some almost Dutch interiors improved by the dark palette of colors. The score is by Victor Young and also adds to the somber tone. No words are spoken in much of the first reel, as Steele shoots his crippled horse and finds the stage full of corpses. In town, he hides in the cellar of what turns out to be the sheriff’s house (doh) and is nice to some kittens, so we know he is a good guy really. But 30 minutes in and Ray still hasn’t said anything.
 
Fine composition, almost Dutch interiors
 
Of course Sheriff Ward Bond has a glam daughter, ça va sans dire, and she is Nadine, played by Mary Murphy. Ms. Murphy was the waitress who fell for Marlon Brando in The Wild One two years before but Westernwise she had been one of the Women who went Westward with Robert Taylor in 1951 and was Dale Robertson’s squeeze Kathy in Sitting Bull in 1954. This was her third Western, and her last until she was excellent for Sam Peckinpah as Ruth Bonner in Junior Bonner in 1974. In between she appeared in a lot of TV Westerns. In A Man Alone she is a strong, even feisty woman who in a way acts as her father’s conscience.
 
Mary Murphy
 
Ray is one of those gunfighters trapped by his reputation into conflict with the next punk aspiring to be “the fastest”. We have seen these since The Gunfighter in 1950 and well before, and we were still seeing a gunfighter trying to throw off his past in Unforgiven in the 1990s.

There’s a lynch mob, always an ugly scene. There’s an earnest speech about hardship which ought probably to have been cut. I liked the saloon.

At the end, Ray announces, “I’m stayin’.” This seems to be, though, not from any great passion for Nadine or love for the town, just an idea that nowhere else would really be any better.

All a bit gloomy, then, and a bit slow too, it must be said. Variety damned it with faint praise as “an okay offering”, adding that “Ray Milland turns director with Man and acquits himself fairly well in the new chore.” But I think it’s all rather better than that and if I were you, e-pard, I’d give it a go.

 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Undefeated (Fox, 1969)

 
One of Wayne's big commercial 60s Westerns





The Undefeated came right after True Grit in the chronology of John Wayne Westerns but actually it is much more like the earlier El Dorado or The War Wagon, that is a big, commercial 60s crowd-pleaser aimed at the fans and able to fill theaters all over the world, especially in the Mid-West. Which it did.
 
Blockbusterette
 
Duke got Rock Hudson to star with him. Hudson was good at Westerns, rode well and looked the part. He’d started with minor roles in Winchester ’73 in 1950 and Tomahawk in ’51, had graduated to a second-billed part after James Stewart in Bend of the River and, after Horizons West with Robert Ryan in 1952, he had led for the first time in an Western, Scarlet Angel, later that year. There followed his implausible ‘biopic’ of John Wesley Hardin, The Lawless Breed, in 1953, Gun Fury and Seminole later the same year, and he was an Indian again, Taza, in Taza, Son of Cochise in ’54. In the early 60s he had co-starred with Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset. So he was used to ‘big’ Westerns alongside other big stars. And he carried them off.
 
Wayne and Hudson bonding
 
Wayne gathered round him his usual cronies, in force. Andrew V McLaglen, who died last year, directed. In my view he was never one of the great Western directors but he certainly was able to produce a box-office hit in the genre, no doubt about that. His very first work on a Western had been on a Wayne one, when he was production assistant on the rather turgid Dakota in 1945, and his first as director had been Gun the Man Down, with James Arness (another Wayne pal) in 1956. He famously directed Arness in many episodes of Gunsmoke (Wayne had toyed with being Matt Dillon but decided not to; he did have an interest in the series, though, and introduced the first one). McLaglen also worked on other series, notably Have Gun – Will Travel, and was, really, principally a director of TV Westerns.

But he also did some big-screen ones. He helmed the rather dire but energetic Wayne vehicle McLintock! in 1963 and directed James Stewart in the so-so, rather soapy Shenandoah in ’65 and the perfectly dreadful The Rare Breed (one of the worst Westerns ever) in ’66. The Douglas/Mitchum/Widmark The Way West in 1967 was not terribly good and Bandolero! with Stewart again, and Dean Martin, wasn’t any better. In the 70s he would do the big Wayne Westerns Chisum and Cahill, US Marshal, which were about his best work, or maybe that was the Brian Garfield-written The Last Hard Men in 1976. Anyway, Duke liked him and McLaglen had the knack of handling the aging star in some big, and successful, theater-fillers. If you count all those TV shows, The Undefeated was his 255th Western!
 
Not my favorite Western director but he brought in the $$$
 
William Clothier, a favorite Wayne cinematographer, was behind the camera and, as ever, did a good job of the Durango locations beloved by Wayne. It’s in Panavision with color by De Luxe and looks big and glossy. There are some lovely shots of running horses.

As for the cast, it was a case of the usual suspects. Wayne is Col. John Henry Thomas, a Union cavalry man, and in his command are Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., obviously, but also in the cast are Bruce Cabot, Pedro Armendariz Jr. and Paul Fix, among others. These members of the Wayne stock company, many ex-John Ford (Ford was still alive; he died in 1973 but his last Western had been the Wayneless Cheyenne Autumn in 1964), were all stalwart Western actors, and a joy to see. When you see their names in the opening credits, you say “Oh, good.”
 
Ben the Great
 
An equally bearded Dobe
 
The movie was written by James Lee Barrett, another Wayne/McLaglen partner, who had done Shenandoah and Bandolero! and who would later do The Cheyenne Social Club. However, the writing is one of the weaker aspects of The Undefeated. Basically, there isn’t enough plot. The movie is two hours long but you get the feeling that more should have happened.

It’s a symmetrical story of two Civil War colonels and patriarchs (Wayne and Hudson) whose lives run on parallel lines but then these lines converge. Hudson is the patrician James Langdon, Southern gentleman in a frock coat and planter’s hat who, after the defeat in 1865, prefers to burn his old house rather than let carpetbaggers have it and sets off with his whole clan (Bruce Cabot is his sergeant) for Mexico to make a new home and fight in the service of the Emperor Maximilian. First he pays off his force of Negroes by giving one of them his granddaddy’s watch, so doubtless they were very satisfied.
 
Wayne wins the war before conquering Mexico
 
As for Col. John Henry Thomas (Wayne), after winning an engagement against one-armed Confederate Major Royal Dano, as it turns out three days after Appomattox, but who knew?, he hands his resignation in to General Paul Fix and is asked by Short Grub (Ben Johnson), “Where to, John Henry?” to which the reply is “West!” They aim to round up wild horses in New Mexico and Arizona and sell them to the Army. They duly capture a large herd, allowing for some pretty photography and mucho ropin’ and ridin’ by Ben and Dobe, but the Army buyers are crooks and two of Maximilian’s agents offer him much more, so John Henry agrees to drive the steeds over the border.

Both Langdon’s and Thomas’s men cross the Rio Grande in the teeth of Yankee opposition and there, in Mexico, they meet, when Thomas warns Langdon of a gang of robbers under Pedro Armendariz who are about to attack him. Of course the two colonels bond right away and together foil the wicked bandido.
 
Bandido Escalante
 
There has to be lerve interest, also symmetrical, so Hudson’s daughter Charlotte (Melissa Newman, not Paul’s daughter but the other one, in her only Western) spurns suitor Lt. Jan-Michael Vincent (in his third of six Westerns) and instead falls for Wayne’s adopted son, the Cherokee Blue Boy (Roman Gabriel, also in his only Western). This match is daringly interracial and does not please the Southerners, though both dads seem very relaxed about the affair.

Dub Taylor is the obligatory dirty old cook and he has what he calls a mangy old cat, though the puss looked quite sleek to me. Sadly, both are casualties of the trip.

The music by Hugo Montenegro verges on the extraordinary, with one long scene played against an interminable sustained single note, perhaps to suggest tension, which, though, it doesn’t.
 
Noble profiles
 
There’s a fourth of July shindig in which both sides put up a dumb-ox prize fighter for a bout, which of course degenerates into a McLintock!-style free-for-all supposed to be highly amusing. You do get the feeling right about now that the writers and director were searching about for something to fill in the minutes, which are rather beginning to drag.

Normally in Hollywood movies Maximilian and his foreign forces are the baddies and the Juaristas are noble freedom fighters but here the Juaristas under General (pronounced Heneral, natch) Rojas (third-billed Antonio Aguilar, the famous Mexican singer-actor who was to write and star as Zapata in 1970) are rotters, stealing the horses and shooting people with a firing squad. Of course at the end the two colonels join forces and get the horses to Rojas before he can execute anyone else but suddenly the movie ends and you are left unsatisfied. The two ought certainly to have beaten Rojas and got their nags back.

Still, the lovers go off happily ever after and all’s well that ends well.

It’s a sort of Major Dundee without the quality. I prefer Chisum.

 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Walk the Proud Land (Universal, 1956)



 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
John Clum in fact and fiction
 

 


 
 
John P Clum (1851 – 1932) was a most interesting figure of the old West and we know quite a lot about him. Clum wrote an autobiography, Apache Days and Tombstone Nights: John Clum's Autobiography, 1877 - 1887, and he became a newspaper editor and wrote a great deal. His son Woodworth produced a biography of him, Apache Agent, in 1935. A major modern two-volume life written by Gary Ledoux, Nantan: The Life and Times of John P. Clum, Volume 1 Claverack to Tombstone and Nantan: The Life and Times of John P. Clum, Volume 2 Tombstone to Los Angeles, came out in 2007 and 2008.

Clum is quite well known to Western fans because he appeared often in movies and on TV, usually in the context of Tombstone because he became editor of The Tombstone Epitaph, mayor of the town and a lifelong friend of Wyatt Earp. In both versions of Frontier Marshal he appeared, thinly disguised, played (as ‘Editor Pickett’) by Russell Simpson in ’34 and by Harry Hayden (as ‘Mayor Henderson’) in ‘39. Emmett Vogan played the part of ‘Editor John Clum’ in Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die in 1942. Roy Roberts was the unnamed Tombstone ‘Mayor’ in My Darling Clementine in 1946 and Whit Bissell was ‘John P Clum’ in Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957. Stacy Harris was ‘Mayor John Clum’ in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp on TV. In Hour of the Gun (1967), Doc (1971), Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) Clum was played by Larry Gates, Dan Greenberg, Terry O’Quinn and Randall Mell, respectively. That’s a lot of Clums.

But the only movie portrayal to concentrate on Clum’s work (which he considered his chief achievement) as Indian Agent on the San Carlos Reservation was Walk the Proud Land, in which he was played by Audie Murphy.

John P Clum, known to the Apaches as Nantan Betunnikiyeh, or chief with high forehead, because of his incipient baldness

Audie Murphy as Clum
 
The movie opens with the pronouncement “The story you are about to see is true” so of course alarm bells ring and we brace ourselves for a lot of historical tosh. As I have often said before, I do not expect accurate history from Western movies; that’s not what we watch them for and I am perfectly happy to put up with a lot of bunkum from a factual point of view. But movies that claim that they are historically accurate must expect to get it in the neck when, as is nearly always the case, they are not.

In many ways this is a classic 1950s Universal Audie Western. High production values belie a slight ‘B-ness’: Cinemascope color with appropriate Old Tucson locations nicely shot by Harold Lipstein (5 Audie Westerns but also Pillars of the Sky, Wichita and Chief Crazy Horse, all visually excellent), a screenplay by Jack Sher of Shane fame based on the Woodworth Clum bio, and all directed by Jesse Hibbs, who helmed the 1950s version of The Spoilers. Audie is noble and decent, as ever, gaining the day and getting the girl.
 
Earnest, slightly plodding perhaps but in the last resort a good film
 
But in other ways, Walk the Proud Land is a bit different from the run-of-the-mill usual Audie oater. It is a biopic, and the most ‘historical’ of Murphy Westerns, even if it takes considerable liberties.

We start in Tucson, Arizona in 1874, with a respectable Eastern Audie in a suit and a derby. Though not a minister, he has been nominated as a leading member of the Dutch Reformed Church to become Indian agent. This was in fact the historical case: the San Carlos reservation had been established in 1872 but had already had a number of corrupt agents who lined their own pockets at the Indians’ expense. After an investigation of political abuses within the Office of Indian Affairs, the government of President US Grant gave religious groups (Protestant ones, of course) the responsibility for managing the Indian reservations, and the Dutch Reformed Church was given charge of San Carlos.
 
Agent Audie
 
From the start Clum shows himself to be on the Indians’ side and willing to treat them with respect and as fellow humans. In the semiotic way Westerns have, Audie’s Clum is shown being friendly to first some small boys, then some dogs, so is clearly a goody. This brings him into conflict with the Army in the form of a General Wade (Morris Ankrum) a two-dimensional villain as scowling as he is short-sighted. Clum’s no pushover, though. When he finds the Apaches brewing tizwin he kicks over the cauldron and gets into a fistfight with good old Anthony Caruso. He changes his Eastern suit for Western duds and gradually adapts to the 1870s Arizona way of life.
 
In slightly more action-hero mode
 
He sets up an Apache tribal council and an Apache police force. “I’m not here to rule the reservation but to help you rule,” he tells Chief Eskiminzin (Robert Warwick, who had first appeared in a Western in 1914 and often played Indian chiefs, though sometimes changed sides and donned a blue uniform). So far, so quite factual.

But of course there has to be love interest and so Eskiminzin provides an Indian maid, Tianay, to, er, cater to his needs. But Audie is Audie and this was the mid-1950s, so no hanky-panky, obviously, though Clum’s fiancée Mary arrives from the East and suspects both hanky and panky. She should have known.  Mary is played by Pat Crowley, ‘safe’ and respectable actress who had nevertheless appeared in Red Garters with Rosemary Clooney a couple of years before; these were to be her only big-screen Westerns, though she appeared in many TV oaters. Tianay is Anne Bancroft, no less, getting second billing after Audie. This was her third Western, after co-starring with Van Heflin in The Raid and then playing Robert Preston’s Army wife but falling for Victor Mature in the Anthony Mann-directed The Last Frontier. The year after Proud Land she starred with Scott Brady in The Restless Breed. That was about it as far as Westerns were concerned (she was pipped at the post by Debra Paget for the part in The Last Hunt), and she didn’t always shine in the ones she did do, but well, she is Anne Bancroft after all and so definitely worth a watch.
 
Anne Bancroft as the Indian maid
 
Pat Crowley as the posh Eastern fiancée
 
Charles Drake is entertaining as ex-Sergeant Sweeny who becomes Clum’s right-hand man, though really prefers to be fighting in a saloon.

Clum is given a saloon fight and wears buckskins and much is made of his capture of Geronimo. Well, it is a Universal Audie Western, so what did you expect? Everyone’s pants are belted just under their armpits, in that 1950s way.

“Geronimo, you’re under arrest!” trumpets Clum to the Apache leader, and the agent claps the chief in chains. Geronimo is played by the excellent Jay Silverheels and he did rather corner the market in playing that Apache renegade, having portrayed him in Broken Arrow in 1950 and The Battle at Apache Pass in 1952.

The Governor of Arizona Territory, Anson Safford (Addison Richards, another old hand), sees the wisdom of Clum’s ways and comes round to supporting him. But the Army remains resolutely antagonistic.

The film is definitely in keeping with the Broken Arrow-style of pro-Indian movie of the 50s and is worthy for that reason. Indeed Clum is a sort of Thomas Jeffords figure in the story. It’s not action-packed but that’s good: we wouldn’t have believed a Clum winning the West with sixguns. Murphy’s Clum is sober and dignified.

Well, a state of emergency is declared and the Army is back in charge. In reality, Clum got support from hardly anyone. The government did not back him up, and certainly not the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Army hated him and many Arizonans mistrusted such an “Indian lover.” In the movie Clum quits but Eskiminzin tells him, “If you go, we are lost,” so Clum changes his mind, and he and wifey, who has seen the error of her ways, resume the Agent’s life. (He would have been better off with la Bancroft but we can’t change things that much). In fact, of course, he left San Carlos in July 1877, three years after his arrival, and moved to Florence, AZ, editing a newspaper, then went to Tombstone, and the rest, as they say is, if not history, then Hollywood history anyway. Clum’s successors as Agent at San Carlos were the corrupt men of the bad old days.
 
Clum as postmaster in the 1890s
 
In 1898 Clum was appointed Postmaster in the Alaska Territory. While in Nome, Alaska, in 1900 he met up with his old pal Wyatt Earp, who was running the Dexter Saloon there. Like Earp, Clum eventually retired to the Los Angeles area and like Earp, he died there an old man, in Clum’s case in 1932 at the age of 80. It was a fascinating career.
 
Clum (right) with Wyatt Earp in Nome, 1900
 
You do need to see Walk the Proud Land, despite its lack of historicity, but anyway, though some facts are distorted, you do get the feeling that they got the overall tone right. Clum really was a gutsy and decent man who did his best for the Apache.