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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Mr. Horn (CBS TV, 1979)


The best screen Tom Horn - and the best Al Sieber





 
 
Alan Bridger, a follower of this blog, read my plea about the TV movie Mr. Horn and how difficult it was to obtain, and thanks to his great generosity and kindness I have finally been able to view it. I am really glad I did because it is very good, and a worthy addition to screen Tom Horns – and screen portrayals of Al Sieber. In fact, judging by the first part anyway (it was a two-parter, designed to fit in to a total of three hours with commercials) the movie could just as well have been titled Mr. Sieber. A grizzled Richard Widmark does an excellent job as Al and in the story of the Apache wars it is he who dominates. Tom Horn (David Carradine, also first class) is Al’s young apprentice.
 
A TV movie, but the best Tom Horn there is
 
The Warner Brothers Tom Horn of 1980 with Steve McQueen concentrates only on the last part of Horn’s life, in Wyoming, and the trial for the murder of the lad Willie Nickell. Mr. Horn, on the other hand devotes about half the picture to the time in Arizona with Sieber and the other half to the Wyoming saga. It misses out the whole middle part of Tom’s career, as (allegedly) hired gun in the Pleasant Valley range war, as a Pinkerton man and as a soldier in the Spanish-American War. Well, fair enough, they can’t do everything. At least we get a good account of the Apache struggle and a good showing for Al Sieber. That alone makes the film worth it.

Mr. Horn opens with some evocative paintings of Western scenes by Petko Kadiev under the titles. The director is announced as Jack Starrett. Big and burly Mr. Starrett (1936-89) was a former actor who made a rep as director of low-budget drive-in movies and TV shows like Starsky & Hutch, The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard. Westernwise, he had only directed one, the Jody McCrea oater Cry Blood, Apache (1970) which was poppa Joel McCrea’s penultimate outing in the saddle, and I fear it wasn’t very good. So the omens weren’t all that promising when Starrett’s name appeared on the screen. Never fear, though: he does an excellent job on Mr. Horn. The picture is thoughtful and well-paced, and also visually attractive with Mexicali, Baja California locations standing in for 1880s Sonora and Arizona, shot by Jorge Stahl Jr., who had worked on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Garden of Evil (the latter, especially, a photographically very classy picture).
 
Jack Starrett
 
A limping Al Sieber, cantankerous and worldly-wise, with Widmark at his growliest, is a civilian Army scout with a low opinion of officers, whom he calls jackasses. Actually, although Sieber was wounded in the leg at Gettysburg, there is no evidence that he hobbled as a result in later life. He did limp after the Apache Kid incident in 1887, but this picture even has him on crutches at one point. Never mind, it adds color. Widmark plays Al with no German accent, probably a wise choice, though Sieber never really mastered English and always spoke in a heavily accented way. Tom Horn, though, is “the talking boy” who speaks Spanish and Apache fluently and acts as interpreter.
 
Sorry about the pic quality but it's the only image of Widmark as Sieber that I can find

Al Sieber after the Apache Kid incident
 
At one point Sieber asks Horn why no one likes him. It’s a telling moment. Horn says that he doesn’t know, but no one has ever liked him.

General Crook charges Al with bringing in Geronimo, which Sieber says is impossible to do. Director Starrett himself takes the role of Crook, and rather well, too. Crook was a great figure, with his bushy beard and riding his favorite mule, and a fine soldier, very different from the politically ambitious Nelson A Miles (Stafford Morgan) who replaces him, and whom Sieber cannot stand (especially when, later, Miles fires all the scouts, including Al and Tom). But first Sieber and Horn set out after Geronimo with Al cheerfully listing all the Apache leaders he and the cavalry have previously failed to capture.
 
General George Crook (1830 - 90)
 
Ambushes follow and mucho action, in which Horn learns the hard way how to fight Indians. The expedition is led by Capt. Emmet Crawford (Jeremy Slate) and Crawford too was a fascinating figure. He was a Civil War hero who gained Western experience in the Sioux wars under Crook in Montana and came south with the general when the 3rd Cavalry was transferred to Arizona to deal with the Apache, where he was appointed military commandant at San Carlos. He and Crook believed in using civilian scouts, especially Apache ones, men who knew the land and knew the people, a policy Miles was to reverse when he assumed command.
 
Capt. Emmet Crawford (1844 - 86)
 
In spring 1885 Crawford was sent out after Geronimo and took Tom Horn and Apache scouts with him (though not Al Sieber, as in Mr. Horn). In Mexico his party was attacked by Mexican regulars and when Crawford waved a white handkerchief and tried to negotiate he was shot in the head. An Apache scout called Dutchy (it is Horn in the movie) dragged Crawford to safety but the captain was mortally wounded and died later. Crawford’s second-in-command, Lt. Maus, did arrange a meeting between Crook and Geronimo and the Apache chief agreed to return to San Carlos but in fact he did not return. Crook resigned over the incident and was replaced by Miles.

Now relieved of their duties, Sieber and Horn go prospecting (in fact Sieber was a lifelong, if unsuccessful miner) where they are visited by Ernestina, the late Crawford’s sister (Karen Black), and the movie invents a romance between her and Horn. This Ernestina says her father and brother were both soldiers and both were killed. “All I want from a man is that he outlive me,” she rather poignantly tells Tom. Then Horn and Sieber are recalled when Miles’s campaign also fails. They must hunt Geronimo again. There is another long pursuit, well handled by director and cast, in which Al is shot again, making his bad leg now the good one, as he says. He is obliged to return home.

The movie has Horn give his personal word to Geronimo that if the Apaches surrender they will be allowed to remain in Arizona, but once at Fort Bowie Miles scorns this and exiles all the Apaches, including the scouts who had helped track Geronimo, to Florida, with Sieber raging at the injustice and Horn silently fuming. “I’m done being used,” he mutters.

Geronimo is played by Enrique Lucero (who was in both The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch) and he does rather resemble the photographs of the older Apache (Geronimo was probably 56 at the time).
 
The real Geronimo, Goyaałé (1829 - 1909)
 
OK, yes, this all does rather monkey about with historical fact, but I don’t think we should blame the film for that too much. These movies are dramas, not documentaries, and if the dramatic tension requires it, why not alter history a bit? If you want the true facts, read a history book, don’t watch a Western. And in my view the picture does capture the spirit of Tom Horn and Al Sieber, and rather well too.
One of the many fades-to-black that indicate a TV movie is more consequential, and now we see an older Horn, duded up in suit and tie and come north to Wyoming, and we see a horseless carriage to denote that time has passed and modern times are here, reminding us of The Shootist or Peckinpah pictures like Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Wild Bunch. In Cheyenne, who is the rather down-at-heel hotelier Tom comes across? Why, it’s Ernestina Crawford, now a widow as she hastily informs him. And drinking in the bar is a disillusioned George Crook. An even more elderly Al Sieber will soon re-appear too, and be present at Horn’s trial and execution. There is, I fear, no evidence for all these re-appearances (and in fact Crook had died a dozen years before) but they do provide useful dramatic continuity.
 
Tom Horn (1860 - 1903)
 
Horn is hired by the rich cattlemen under John Noble (Pat McCormick) who is presumably a reference to cattleman John C Coble who would later jointly author Horn’s autobiography, to stop the rife rustling. First Horn tries to do it legally but the courts immediately dismiss the cases he brings against the rustlers and so he turns to the gun. Noble is clear: though he will always deny hiring Horn as a bounty hunter, that is in reality what the job is. Kill rustlers to dissuade others. Horn is no sham. He tells how Buffalo Bill once asked him to join the Wild West and do his act. “My act?” Horn replied, incredulously. “My act? It ain’t an act!”

We see the death of the farm boy Willie Nickell but we don’t see who made the shot. The scoundrel Joe LeFors (John Durren) gets Tom drunk and then we see Tom arrested – we do not hear his ‘confession’. The trial, illustrated by a Harper’s Weekly artist in a wheelchair, goes badly and one evening Ernestina brings a file to Tom’s jail cell. She tells him that both the rustlers and the cattlemen want him dead. Next day, LeFors tells the court of his conversation with Horn which has been transcribed by a stenographer in the next room. An elderly Sieber as a character witness is passionate but rambling and ineffective. Horn is found guilty and sentenced to death.
 
Carradine as Horn
 
Horn escapes over the rooftops (rather athletically, and it’s Carradine, not a double) but realizes it’s hopeless and surrenders. The last scene is the hanging, with the cattlemen holding drinks looking on in a satisfied way.

It’s all well done, and Carradine is outstanding (he always was). In fact I would go so far as to say that Mr. Horn is the best screen Tom Horn there is, and, much as I like John McIntire in Apache and Robert Duvall in Geronimo: An American Legend, it is also the best portrayal of Al Sieber. Do see it if you get the chance.

Thanks, Alan Bridger. Any relation to Jim?

Horn soon before his death


 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Magnificent Seven (MGM/Columbia, 2016)


The not quite so magnificent seven







Now, before reviewing the new Magnificent Seven, I must declare an interest. You see the original The Magnificent Seven has been with me ever since I first saw it on its release in 1960, when I was twelve, and I have watched it countless times since, never tiring of it, in various countries I have lived in, and I pretty well know the dialogue by heart in at least three languages. When I was a boy I thought it was the best Western ever made and very likely the finest film in human history, and I was probably right.

So how could a remake ever live up to that? Well, of course it couldn’t, and for me the new one, just seen on DVD, was a disappointment. Not that it was bad. It just wasn’t as good.

Remakes can be OK, or even better than OK. I mean who remembers the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon? And Westernwise, the Coen brothers’ True Grit and the 50th-anniversary 3:10 to Yuma were very good efforts. But when you have so much memory invested in a film, pretty well any attempt to make it again is doomed.

Of course even the ‘original’ was a remake. We all know the story of how the plot of The Seven Samurai was, er, recycled. And, to be fair, this new Mag 7 is very different from the 1960 one.

Being the 21st century, we had to have a black actor in the Yul Brynner part, and they got Denzel Washington, so that was quite a coup. Fair enough. There were African-American lawmen in the old West, even if Hollywood has always pretty well ignored them. This leader of the seven is a sworn peace officer, you see, not just a freelance gunslinger like Chris. And the petitioner who seeks the help of the band for the beleaguered village cannot be a meek Mexican man but must be a feisty widow (Haley Bennett) with plunging neckline and a pistol on her hip. And of course the seven must include a Native American (‘Comanche’ Martin Sensmeier), an Asian-American (Byung-hun Lee, from The Good, The Bad, The Weird) and a Mexican-American or ‘Texican’ (Manuel Garcia Rulfo) too. So it’s ticking the PC boxes.
 
All in black, not just Yul
 
It is true that apart from Denzel the rest of the seven were pretty well unknowns (to me) but then we sometimes forget that in 1960 most of those seven were obscure young actors too. Charles Bronson would have been known to ardent Westernistas and they would have recognized Steve McQueen as bounty-hunter Josh Randall from TV but pre-UNCLE Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn, Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz were unknown quantities to many.

By the way, I once won a night’s free drinking for my friends in a wine bar by accepting the bet of the landlord (foolish man, little did he know he had Jeff Arnold in his bar) that I couldn’t name all seven of characters from the 1960 movie and the actors who played them. I went round the next day to apologize to the fellow (I think he had been fairly well oiled too) and met his wife, who was rather angry at how much alcohol we had got through. But as her husband said, a bet’s a bet. Anyway, where was I?

They got the rights to use the Elmer Bernstein music, though it was definitely underused, really just a quotation. Most of the score is by James Horner and much less stirring. Who can forget (well, I can’t anyway) the moment when Chris and Vin turn that hearse round and rattle back down the hill and the music surges in triumph? In fact that scene, among the very best in the John Sturges picture, is altogether absent from the new picture, sadly.

They re-used a couple of moments from 1960, such as the gun v. knife fight, but these scenes had little of the magic, I fear. A little of the 1960 dialogue pops up here and there too, such as Denzel saying he’d often before been paid a lot but never everything, or the man falling from a five-story building. There are some good new lines (Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto). “I gotta family, Mister,” pleads one character. “They’d be better off without you,” says the villain. Bang. Or when one of the seven promises to use one-syllable words from now on and elicits the response, “What’s a syllable?” But some of the dialogue is anachronistic or wrong, such as when the woman from the village says she was the only one with balls enough to seek revenge, or someone says that “Statistically speaking…” or “It is what it is.”

As for the seven, Denzel has Burt Lancaster teeth which he flashes in the occasional crocodile smile, blinding all around. He is named Chisum or Chisholm (in the credits it says Chisolm) so that’s a good Western name.
 
Not quite so magnificent
 
Ethan Hawke (I’d heard of him at least) was a character with another famous Western name, Goodnight, though that’s his first name apparently; he’s Goodnight Robicheaux. He’s alright, I guess. He is the pardner of the Korean chap, Billy Rocks, who is suitably adept with his knives.

The Vin character is named Josh (in-joke for Western fans) and is played by Chris Pratt, rather blandly, I thought. He does card tricks. He also has a mare’s leg cut-down rifle, for the cognoscenti.

Colorful was a sort of mountain man figure, Tom Horn I first heard, but it turned out to be Jack Horne, played by Vincent D’Onofrio.

And like the Korean fellow the Indian is suitably silent and lethally effective with his chosen weapon, the bow. He is named Red Harvest, presumably a reference to Dashiell Hammett’s story adopted by Kurosawa for another Japanese ‘Western’.

The Garcia character is supposed to be charming, though he rather spoils the effect by telling the woman that he is “Enchanté, mon cher.”
 
There is no ‘kid’ part as such and no love-interest in the village for the kid to fall for and remain there at the end of the battle.

This picture is more of a shoot-em-up than the first one, and the bad guy has far more than forty men (mind, in the 1960 picture too, though Calvera is said to have forty bandidos in his band, well more than forty are shot, should you be pedantic enough to count them, which I’m not, obviously). But this time they have dynamite and a Gatling gun so it’s a bigger and louder affair.

The bad guy was quite good. He is Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) and he has a good entrance as he and his henchmen burst into the church where the townsfolk are gathered. He looks like Vincent Price on a bad day playing Richard III. He terrifies a child in the first reel, a sure sign of baddiness. Then he murders a man who protests and burns the church down. He really is very naughty. He is a corporate villain, not a roving bandit chief, and he argues that democracy equates with capitalism and capitalism is Godly, so anyone who opposes him must be an undemocratic heathen. The town, Rose Creek, is firmly in the US, not in Mexico. The idea of the hero(es) using guns to rid a treed town of its crooked boss is one of the oldest plots in the Western book but that’s OK.

It’s set in 1879 and there is none of the ‘end of the West’ tinge to the picture, or the sense that the gunslingers are dinosaurs doomed to extinction. In 1960, when the Western genre was in decline after the glory days of the 50s, it was common to have this theme, and the likes of Sam Peckinpah continued it through the 60s with pictures like Ride the High Country or The Wild Bunch, introducing automobiles as symbols of the modern age which will render the horse obsolete. But The Magnificent Seven is played ‘straight’ and harks back to the less self-doubting days of the horse opera.

The producer and director of the movie is Antoine Fuqua, known for Training Day (with Denzel) and for music videos. Surprising then that he didn’t make more of the music, though I suppose it wasn’t quite in the vein of Heavy D & the Boyz or Coolio’s Gangsta Paradise. Still, he does a competent job, I guess.

Like most Westerns these days it is high-class visually, this time with Mauro Fiore of Avatar fame photographing Louisiana and lovely New Mexico locations.

There are occasional references (Mr. Fuqua says in the making-of part that he grew up with the Western). I thought the final show-down slightly Silverado-ish and there’s a rope-burn scar as has been done before. There’s almost a derringer. A pocket pistol anyway. There are the usual ridiculous credits which go on longer than the movie.
 
Curious that both MGM and Columbia should be responsibe. That would never have happened in the old days.

The whole thing is agreeable enough and you definitely need to see it, just as you should watch the 1998-2000 TV series. But I don’t think any twelve-year-olds will be bowled over, learn the dialogue by heart and never forget the experience for the rest of their natural born days.

 

 

 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Red River (United Artists, 1948)


Hawks's Western masterwork
 





Red River was the only Western in which Howard Hawks matched the work of John Ford. It is a mighty film. One thinks of Ford while watching it not only because Hawks elicited a stunning performance from John Wayne but also because of the epic grandeur of the movie, the noble themes and the fact that each shot is framed as a work of art.
 
John Wayne and Howard Hawks, mutual admirers
 
Ford does seem to have had some input to Red River. Tag Gallagher, in his book John Ford: The Man and his Films (University of California Press, 1984), suggests that Ford assisted Hawks on the set and made numerous editing suggestions, including the use of a narrator. It may have been so. Certainly Ford wrote to Hawks asking him to “take care of my boy Duke”. Hawks did say that he often thought of Ford when shooting, particularly in a burial scene when ominous clouds started to gather. Hawks later told Ford, "Hey, I've got one almost as good as you can do - you better go and see it."
 
Wayne superb

It made Wayne a major star. The Big Trail (1930) for Raoul Walsh and
Stagecoach (1939) for John Ford had both turned out to be false starts as far as ‘A’ Westerns were concerned. It was really Hawks who made John Wayne into the cowboy megastar he became. Red River was filmed in 1946, i.e. well before Ford’s cavalry trilogy, though it did not come out until 1948 for various reasons. Hawks wanted endless editing and there was also an absurd claim by Howard Hughes that the picture was similar to The Outlaw (it was nothing like it; for one thing, Red River was good). If anything, the plot was a Western Mutiny on the Bounty, as writer Borden Chase admitted. In any case, the picture wasn’t released until August 1948, after John Ford’s Fort Apache.


Dunson like an aging Bligh

Wayne must have hesitated to take the part of Thomas Dunson. To play a much older man (he was 39 then) losing his grip, with no female partner (Joanne Dru’s Tess was destined for Montgomery Clift as Garth) wasn’t an obvious step for him. But it was a great part and Wayne carried it off supremely well.
After seeing Wayne's performance in the film, John Ford is quoted as saying, "I never knew the big son of a bitch could act" – which was a bit rich after Stagecoach, in which Wayne had pretty well outshone all the rest of the cast. Wayne would also play an older man for Ford, in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949, and would do that part too with great skill.

Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, some of the best Westerns ever made, were all released in the space of three years (1948 - 50) and Wayne was superb in all of them.

In a 1974 interview, Hawks said that he originally offered the role of Thomas Dunson to Gary Cooper but Coop declined it because he didn't believe the ruthless nature of Dunson's character would have suited his screen image. Interesting idea, though.
 
Brennan doing his cranky old-timer act

Hawks seems to have borrowed a good number of other Ford stock company members as well as Wayne because Walter Brennan, Harry Carey Sr. and Jr. (
this was the only film in which father and son both appeared, although they have no scenes together), Paul Fix, Hank Worden and others are all on the cattle drive as they make their weary way through fine Western locations (Arizona, mostly) to the studio sound stage where they camp each night.

Brennan as Wayne’s sidekick and crusty cook Groot, Noah Beery Jr. as decent cowhand Buster and John Ireland as Cherry Valance, the leering gunman rival to Montgomery Clift’s Garth are all particularly good (amazingly, even Cary Grant was considered for Valance). Joanne Dru (soon to be Mrs. Ireland and also to star in Yellow Ribbon for Ford, as well as Wagonmaster) is pretty but you get the impression that her part has been artificially grafted onto the story for some love interest. That sometimes happened with Hawks (and Ford too).


Monty Clift in his debut is excellent as the adopted son of the Bligh-like Dunson who finally rebels, in a Fletcher Christian way, takes over the herd and sets Dunson adrift. He is small and sinewy, not at all like the beefy Wayne (how to make the final fistfight convincing was a real problem for Hawks, who evened the odds by having the gunman Cherry wound Dunson just before the fisticuffs), yet he conveys power and even a growing authority. Wayne and Brennan didn’t care for Clift, who was left-wing and a homosexual. In an interview with Life magazine, John Wayne described Clift as "an arrogant little bastard". He would have preferred Burt Lancaster for the Clift part but Lancaster turned down the role to star in The Killers. Still, though they shunned Clift socially, Wayne and Brennan worked professionally enough with him.
 
Great debut, and he knew it
 
And among the bit parts you can spot Glenn Strange the Great as a cowboy and Shelley Winters as a dance hall girl.

The tension builds and builds towards the final reckoning that we know must come. The plot came from The Chisholm Trail, a story by Borden Chase in The Saturday Evening Post, though Hawks made many changes, often while shooting.

Hawks was perhaps attracted to it because of the male triangle at its heart. Garry Wills, in his biography of Duke, John Wayne, The Politics of Celebrity (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997), makes the point that all Hawks’s Westerns had this trio. In
The Outlaw, Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) and Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) were rivals for the affections of Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel). In Rio Bravo you have John Wayne as the sheriff, Dean Martin as the alcoholic deputy and Ricky Nelson as the pretty-boy gunman Colorado (place names for Western characters were traditionally a female preserve). In El Dorado, Robert Mitchum takes the drunk lawman part while James Caan becomes the younger man, Mississippi (though hardly a gunman in this case). The male trio is usually complemented and hovered over by a cranky old mother-hen figure: Walter Brennan in Red River and Rio Bravo, Arthur Hunnicutt in The Big Sky
and El Dorado. In Red River, of course, you have Dunson, Matt and Cherry (Wayne, Clift, Ireland) with Brennan as the mother-hen.
Essentially a male film

You don’t have to have read much Freud to smile at the scene in which Cherry Valance and Matt Garth exchange guns and have a shooting match.

Cherry: That’s a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? (They swap guns) Maybe you’d like to see mine. (Cherry examines Matt’s pistol). Nice, awful nice. You know there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?
 
Freud 101

Only the showdown at the end comes over as a compromise. It’s marvelous as Wayne walks, blazing with anger, through the cattle and disposes of the top gun with a dismissive shot. Here comes the clash with Clift! But in no time at all Dru, in a rather silly speech, has Dunson and Clift making up and it all peters out. Dunson has been so driven, so indomitable, that almost no ending would have worked, except perhaps his death. The same is true of The Searchers when Wayne’s film-long fury dissipates in a short scene and he takes Debbie ‘home’. He should really have died, as in the book. It is said that Hawks himself scripted Dru's speech, in a fit of pique against John Ireland (Hawks was, it is alleged, a rival for the favors of Ms. Dru). Clift's character was to have shot Dunson fatally, then faced a showdown with the gunman played by Ireland. Dramatically, that was necessary as the two young guns had been locking horns, more or less playfully, throughout the story. But it was fudged.

It almost convinces

In a way, the male triangle resolves itself at the end, with Cherry out of the way, into a familial/generational one, with grandfather Brennan, father Wayne and son Clift. Garry Wills even talks about them as Laertes, Odysseus and Telemachus but I think we’re getting a bit hi-falutin’ here. It’s only a Western, after all. Hawks himself had no time for over-intellectualizing his films. He made straightforward pictures with a good story.

Red River is an unusually long film for the time (125 minutes) and Wayne thought it too long, but it never drags. Throughout, it is dusty and smells of cattle. It’s a huge picture with thousands of head of steers and a half-million dollar budget which grew to $3.2m. Scenes like the beeves going down the main street of ‘Abilene’ are still impressive today. See it on the big screen if possible.


Early in the story
 
The picture made the investment back, though. It was 1948's third-highest grossing film at $4.15m. Only Road to Rio and Easter Parade made more.

The music (Dimitri Tiomkin) is powerful and memorable. Western buffs will sing “My rifle, pony and me” to the theme tune, Settle Down, because they will be
Rio Bravo fans – and Settle Down was later adapted by Tiomkin for use there. Not that other Hawks Westerns, Rio this or Rio that, were a patch on this great work.

The greatness of the film is also largely down to Russell Harlan because the black & white photography is simply stunning – not only the famous 360° shot at the start but throughout. Hawks had wanted the super-talented Gregg Toland, and Harlan had really been confined to B-Westerns previously (Hopalong Cassidy flicks and the like), but Hawks and Harlan worked outstandingly well together and made a visually great picture.

Russell Harlan

The importance of Red River as a Western can be judged by the number of times it is mentioned in reviews of other films and used as a comparison. It is a touchstone.

It’s curious in a way that Hawks made it at all. It was his attempt, a risky one, to become an independent producer but why choose a Western? He was much better known for slick, urbane movies with clever dialogue. But he did have some Western track record. He had started as production manager and editor on 1920s silent Westerns for Paramount, been fired as director from Viva Villa! in 1934, had helmed the semi-Western Barbary Coast in 1935 and he had contributed to the dreadful The Outlaw earlier in the decade but was fired by Howard Hughes after two weeks. He was hardly a Western expert. But Red River made him one.

The story

Hawks never again did anything as good, certainly not a Western anyway (you might like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). His four later Westerns, The Big Sky (1952) with Kirk Douglas and those three commercial ‘bankers’ with Wayne, had nothing like the artistic merit or scope. Red River remains one of the top ten best Westerns in the history of the genre, one of Wayne’s very greatest portrayals and it is unchallenged as the finest cattle-drive movie ever.


Pure gold.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The heroes and their horses


Ride ‘im, cowboy!


A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty "Hi-yo Silver" - the Lone Ranger!
 
Speed of light, eh?
 
Yup, horses were far more than the basic means of transport in the West and in the Western. There is a whole myth attached to them.

In many movies, certain Western actors used the same horse again and again and they became part of the mystique. Everyone knows that Roy Rogers’s horse was Trigger (who was so ‘intelligent’ that he could rescue Roy from scrapes), and The Lone Ranger’s horse was Silver and Tonto rode Scout – as did Johnny Mack Brown, for a while. Buck Jones had a Silver, too (the animal died in a tragic fire in 1942).
 
The smartest horse in the movies
 
William S Hart started it all. He had his pinto Fritz, right back in the 1910s, so it’s a long tradition. Tom Mix’s steed was Tony (though in fact he used Blue for many of his Westerns and Tony Jr. or Tony II for the later ones). There’s a good in-joke in Django Unchained (2012) when Schulz introduces himself and his partner, as well as their horses, Fritz and Tony.
 
They both aged, sadly
 
Matt Dillon and his alter ego James Arness rode Buck, not just on Gunsmoke but in big-screen outings like Gun the Man Down in 1956. John Wayne had Duke – and Tim Holt had a Duke too - and in fact most of the cowboys of the silver screen had a named horse, often a flashy white one, whose names the juvenile audiences all knew - Tex Ritter’s White Flash, for example, or Fred Scott’s White King.
 
White Flash (left)
 
Hopalong Cassidy may have dressed all in black, unusually for a goody, but Topper was bright white. These mounts were characters, and enormously popular, in their own right. There were spin-off comics for the beasts and some, like Gene Autry’s Champion the Wonder Horse, even got their own shows – though Autry had several different horses with that name. No wonder Westerns are sometimes called horse operas.
 
Hoppy (right)
 
There were even talking and singing horses - unfortunately.

One of the best mounts was Pie, James Stewart ’s horse. Pie appears again and again and even gets a mention in The Far Country (1954) where he wears a little bell on the saddle horn. Pie was a beautiful sorrel, intelligent, perky and adorable. In fact Pie didn’t belong to Stewart at all but the relationship was so close that the director of many fine Westerns with Stewart, Anthony Mann, said, “I swear the horse looks back at him and smiles.” Stewart’s friend Henry Fonda did a water color of Pie, treasured by Stewart, on the set of The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), just before Pie died.
 
Real pals
 
Randolph Scott’s Palomino Starlight was also a gorgeous looking horse. Many of the horses, like Starlight, were lovely creatures. Some Westerns concentrate on the sheer beauty of running horses with scenes of running herds, swirling and galloping. Try The Violent Men (1955) or Broken Trail (2006), for example. It’s a joy to watch the horses run.
 
Pardners in Western after Western
 
But they weren’t all oil paintings, these cowboy horses. In the Audie Murphy Western Tumbleweed (1953) Audie acquires the sorriest looking nag you’ve ever seen. But Tumbleweed saves the day in the last reel by being the fastest horse in the West.
 
Beauty isn't everything (luckily)
 
It is amusing to compare actors in their horsemanship. Just watch Ben Johnson, say, or Glenn Ford riding: it’s poetry in motion. Others actors were hopeless. Jack Palance in Shane was famously so bad he had to lead his horse on his first entry; he couldn’t ride it. Stuart Whitman, riding in the title sequence of Cimarron Strip (1967), all arms and elbows, is such a bad rider it’s hilarious. An amusing story is told of Ernest Borgnine, on the set of the André De Toth-directed The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953). One day De Toth asked Borgnine if he could ride.
‘Can I ride? Like the wind!’ the actor replied.
Borgnine mounted a horse and with a band of other riders, did a scene in which they had to come galloping down a hill. According to De Toth, Randolph Scott’s double, who was riding next to Borgnine, missed his mark.
‘Once more, please,’ De Toth said.
‘Why? Didn’t I ride like the wind?’
‘You did great. Ride like the wind again.’
‘Yeah?’ Borgnine replied incredulously. ‘Well, I have no idea what I did that was great. This is the first time in my life that I was on a damned horse.’

An illuminating treatment of horses and their importance and the way people treated them is in the book Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and the wonderful TV movie made from it, Lonesome Dove (1989). Captain Call’s mount, the Hellbitch, or Newt’s, Mouse, become essential characters of the story. When Call gives the Hellbitch to Newt it is a pivotal moment of the story.
 
You can even get a Hellbitch miniature
 
In The Misfits (1961) horses are a tragic symbol of the end of the West as mustangs are rounded up for slaughter.

Many Westerns center round the catching of a wild stallion, which the heroes track and do everything they can to lasso. Look at Black Horse Canyon (1954) as just one of many examples. Watching, though, you might hope they don’t catch the splendid beast. You want the wild horse to stay free. They rarely do.

How many Westerns have you seen that featured a bronc-busting scene? There are hundreds and hundreds of such movies. In Western Union (1941), The Unforgiven (1960), The Electric Horseman (1979) and countless others horse-taming scenes are a key moment in the picture. In cheaper movies this scene was fudged with the actor riding a fake horse but in better pictures they used a stuntman and it looked real. Busting a bronc was a symbol of taming the wild frontier, which was a central theme to so many films, and it also proved the prowess and skill of the hero. Sometimes bronc busters are the heroes, as in Monte Walsh (1970, 2003), for example. Just occasionally there is a mythic horse that cannot be broken. And talking of broken horses, The Horse Whisperer (1998) cured psychologically damaged beasts as they gradually responded to his gentleness and care.
 
Ride 'im, cowboy!
 
Of course in the real West horse stealing was a hangin’ matter. Many films have more or less (usually less) official stringings-up because of horse theft. The most violent vigilante campaign in Western history, in Montana in 1882-3, happened when men rounded up over a hundred bandits for horse theft. It was a capital offence alright, far worse than stealing a car today. Of course leaving a person afoot in much of the West was likely to kill him. Still, they do seem to have over-reacted…

One major problem for any horse lover, or indeed anyone with any sensitivity to the plight of animals, is the brutal abuse of horses in so many Westerns. Early Westerns had no compunction at all about killing horses for a more dramatic scene. Cecil B DeMille was especially guilty. Horses were spurred over cliffs or through shop windows. They were brought crashing down with trip wires. Some of the wranglers were very expert and managed to give the appearance of horses being killed or maimed without harming the animals. But so many horses died.
 
'Acceptable'
 
William S Hart was an exception. In Singer Jim McKee (1924) there was a scene in which Hart rode Fritz off a cliff into a river. But Hart didn’t want to hurt Fritz, or another stunt horse, so a fake Fritz was constructed. Hart was filmed galloping to the edge on Fritz, but then, on cue, the horse did a fall to one side. The mount was led away and replaced by the fake Fritz, held up with wire. When the wires were cut, both ‘horse’ and rider fell into the gorge. Hart was badly shaken by the fall, but the footage, once edited, was frighteningly realistic – so much so that the Hays Office called Hart in to explain why he had been so cruel to Fritz.

But Hart was a rare exception. Countless horses died or were maimed in filming early Westerns. It came to a crisis in the filming of Fox’s Jesse James (1939) when director Henry King allowed horses to wear blinkers with eyes painted on them and then they were ridden over a cliff, 75 feet into white water. They were killed, of course. There was an outcry and the Hays Office worked with the American Humane Association to produce rules for future animal performances. So while the Hays Office was notorious for its over-fussiness (insisting, for example, that Betty Boop be dressed more modestly) they did a great service in the case of Hollywood horses. Since the 1940s Western movies have been monitored by the AHA or SPCA and carry the statement that “No animal was harmed in the making of this film”. Thank goodness.
 
Times change. But not a cowboy's love for his horse.
 
Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave (1962) could have escaped the law but to do that he’d have to desert his capricious mare, Whiskey. That ain’t gonna happen! The cowboy and his horse were often pals and the relationship was closer than that with any durned gal. In Son of Paleface (1952) Roy Rogers spurns the ladies in favor of his horse. After all, he croons, the four-legged friend with two honest eyes will ask no questions and tell you no lies. I’m afraid the singing cowboys of those days weren’t militant feminists…

But the horse was more than a mount, much more.

Bob Allen rode Pal. The name said it all.