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Category Archives: John Wayne

Wake of the Red Witch

Mention John Wayne and the tendency for most people is to think of his western roles. He has become so strongly identified with that particular genre in the public consciousness that it’s easy to forget how wide-ranging his career was. The many years Wayne spent at Republic Pictures saw him cast in a variety of genre pictures, some more suited to his talents than others. Aside from westerns, he tended to do well in adventurous pictures, if the setting happened to be an exotic one then so much the better. Wake of the Red Witch (1948) was one of Wayne’s more enjoyable non-western films of the 1940s, emphasizing his strengths as a performer for the most part. The movie itself is a reasonable effort, but is perhaps a little too dense in its plotting, and melodramatic in style, to be considered a complete success.

The story is adapted from Garland Roark’s bestselling novel, and it mixes in romance, high adventure and some pretty low skullduggery. Everything takes place in the South Seas, and opens on board the titular ship, The Red Witch. The crew are gathered on the deck to watch two of their shipmates beat each other into a bloody pulp, supervised by the vessel’s master. This is Captain Ralls (John Wayne), a grim, harsh figure who has ordered the two men to slug it out until he sees fit as punishment for their starting a fight on his ship. Right away we can see Ralls isn’t going to be an entirely sympathetic figure, and that initial impression is backed up by his subsequent actions: conspiring to cast doubts on the sanity of one of his officers, and then deliberately scuttling his own vessel. But why is Ralls doing such inexplicable things? We witness his drinking and the black rages that descend upon him, we hear allusions to a troubled past, but it’s only after his acquittal by a board of inquiry that the pieces begin to fall into place. By means of a couple of flashback sequences, it’s revealed that we’ve been seeing the fallout of a doomed love affair and the rivalry and thirst for revenge it inspired. As viewers, we’re seeing the tale develop through the eyes of Rosen (Gig Young), Ralls’ first officer. Rosen thought everything revolved around the millions in bullion lying in the belly of the sunken Red Witch, and the pearls they are currently seeking. However, these turn out to be merely side issues, and the real source of the mystery is a romantic triangle from the past. The side of this triangle are formed by Ralls, his former employer Sidneye (Luther Adler), and Angelique (Gail Russell). The aforementioned flashbacks show how greed brought Ralls and Sidneye together, and how their mutual desire for Angelique subsequently drove a wedge between them. Still, it’s no simple tale of revenge and thwarted love; the relationship between Ralls and Sidneye is extremely complex, and makes it clear that they still respect each other, while treating their quest for vengeance as a kind of grotesque game.

I think the biggest problem with Wake of the Red Witch is the complicated nature of the story, and the methods used to tell it. As a rule, I enjoy flashbacks in movies. They help reveal plot points to us slowly and allow a greater build up of mystery or suspense in the early stages. However, I feel they’re not always necessary, and can actually muddle a story. When you’ve got a fairly dense plot, with strong character interaction, there’s a good case for using simple and traditional linear storytelling. Honestly, this film has a lot going on, with various action sequences (including a fight with a giant octopus) running concurrent to the main drama. Now it’s all very entertaining, if a little heavy on the melodramatics at times, but it does tend to swamp you a little. The film was shot mainly on sets and in and around Californian locations but it still looks attractive. The lack of genuine location filming could be criticized, but movies with exotic settings were usually shot in this way at the time. Personally, I’m fond of these 40s pictures that recreate jungles and lost islands on the backlot; they have a look and charm all of their own and there’s a kind of artistry to their illusions. Edward Ludwig was never a top rank director despite a long list of credits and eventually moved into television. He does good enough work here though, especially in the action scenes. Also, Ludwig and his cameraman, Reggie Lanning, put together some nicely composed and atmospherically lit shots.

You still find plenty of people who will cheerfully declare that John Wayne wasn’t much of an actor, although that’s often accompanied by the sheepish admission that they haven’t seen that many of his films. I guess the whole larger than life persona of Wayne, the myth that seemed to grow up around the man is partially responsible for this. Of course he did make some eminently forgettable films too, but that’s something that can be said about almost any of the big stars of the studio system. Directors like Ford and Hawks were able to get the best out of Wayne, but it would be a mistake to think he only did good work for them. As important as the directors were, the quality of the role mattered too. In Wake of the Red Witch, Wayne got handed a strong part, and he ran with it. Ralls is a multifaceted character, a very three-dimensional figure. At times, he’s the expansive model of vigor – the kind Wayne could play with his eyes shut. And then there’s the darker side, the man of murderous rages and brooding intensity. It’s the ease with which Wayne managed to move between these contrasting aspects, and quite convincingly too, that makes his performance so memorable.

Gail Russell had a very fragile quality on screen, and for a good reason. That fragility was no affectation, it was a reflection of her own insecurities. Her film career was a short one, curtailed by her drinking and the premature death that came as a result. Nevertheless, she made some great films, particularly in the 40s, before her demons finally ran her to ground. She had already starred alongside Wayne with success in the charming Angel and the Badman, and their chemistry stands out in this film too. Most of her scenes in the movie are played with Wayne, and he seemed to bring out her warmth and vulnerability. Russell’s beauty is unquestioned, but the naturalism she displayed around Wayne only enhanced her screen presence. Forming the final side of the triangle was Luther Adler, an excellent character actor whatever the situation. The best screen villains are always the interesting ones, those who are more than flat cartoon figures. Adler nailed the malevolence and obsessiveness of Sidneye, and managed to make him curiously pitiful at the same time. One of the most fascinating things in Wake of the Red Witch is dynamic between Ralls and Sidneye – despite their enmity, they admire each other and actually appear to take pleasure in their mutual hatred.

Wake of the Red Witch isn’t so hard to find on DVD, having been released in a number of territories. It had been released in the US by Artisan back when that company had distribution rights to the Republic library. Those Artisan editions were a hit and miss affair, with some transfers being acceptable while others were extremely poor. Wake of the Red Witch was one of their better releases, displaying some damage but looking sharp and clean for the most part. There are no extra features whatsoever on the disc. The Republic library is now being handled by Olive Films in the US and this title is due for release in April. It will be offered on DVD or Blu-ray, and I should imagine it will scrub up nicely for those seeking a HD copy. I like the movie quite a lot, in spite of its weaknesses. Apart from the fact it looks good and has that escapist quality that grabbed me when I first saw it on TV as a kid, there also a really fine performance by John Wayne to recommend it. Maybe it’s not a great film, but it certainly is great fun.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2013 in 1940s, John Wayne

 

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Ten of the Best – Western Stars

Well, the holidays are fast approaching, work is pretty hectic, and I didn’t feel like doing one of my usual reviews. So for a change, and a bit of light relief too, I’ve decided to do something a little different. Even the most casual perusal of this site ought to make my fondness for the western abundantly clear. I make no apologies for that; it’s far and away my favourite genre and the richness and variety contained within it mean that I continue to make new discoveries all the time. Yet for all that, there are the old familiar faces that turn up time and time again. I generally don’t bother too much with lists but thought I’d give one a go because…well, just because. Seeing as I mostly review films I reckoned I’d skip over a selection of titles and concentrate instead on the stars, the men who brought the cowboys to life. Bearing in mind that almost every major Hollywood star has at least one western to his credit, this could have been a potentially huge list. So, in the interests of brevity and sanity, I’ve pared it down to ten. I’m not placing them in any particular order, others may do so if they wish, nor am I going to claim that it’s any kind of definitive selection either. These are just ten guys who’ve lent their talents to the greatest genre of them all, and given me a lot of pleasure watching them over the years.

John Wayne

If you were to ask the average person to name the archetypical screen cowboy, then I’d lay odds Wayne would be the one most would mention. Ever since his iconic appearance in John Ford’s Stagecoach, it’s been hard to separate the man from the genre. His influence on the western is immense, and the popular conception of how a cowboy should walk, talk, shoot and ride a horse owes much to Wayne’s portrayals. You’ll often hear it said, not from me though, that the man couldn’t act but his work with Ford and Hawks in particular prove that assertion to be nonsense.

James Stewart

One of the nice guys, an apparently lightweight lead in the 1930s. Stewart seemed to undergo a transformation after his wartime experiences. The geniality was still there, but it was mixed up with a darker, more desperate quality too. Hitchcock managed to capitalize on that in his pictures with Stewart, though it was first used to great effect by Anthony Mann in the series of psychological westerns they made together during the 50s. From Winchester 73 through The Man from Laramie, Stewart and Mann produced a body of work that was and is of the highest quality.

Henry Fonda

One of the great actors of American cinema, a man whose long and distinguished career saw him excel in every genre. His partnership with John Ford saw him create some of the most memorable screen characterizations. His portrayal of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine is a beautiful blend of the diffident and the deadly. Although his relationship with Ford wasn’t always the smoothest, he went on to do notable work with Anthony Mann and Edward Dmytryk in the 1950s. Then, in a radical and chillingly effective departure from his noble image, he played the cold and heartless killer for Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Gary Cooper

Like Wayne, Cooper was another actor who has had his range as a performer called into question. And again this is a spurious allegation. Coop’s style was a subtle and naturalistic one – the fireworks may have been absent but his depth wasn’t any less in spite of that. His most famous part may well be as the increasingly isolated and desperate lawman in High Noon, and it’s a marvelous performance. However, we should not forget two late career roles that are perhaps as strong, if not stronger: the reluctant outlaw in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West, and the doctor with a dark secret in Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree.

Randolph Scott

Way back when I was a kid, it seemed like every Saturday afternoon saw the TV showing another western. And so many of them featured Randolph Scott. As such, Scott was an inseparable part of my earliest memories of the genre, and also one of my earliest heroes. More than anyone else, he represented the ultimate cowboy to my young self – strong, honorable and brave. As I got older, and saw more of his movies, my appreciation of his work only increased. If the years brought a greater understanding of characterization and theme to me, then it has to be said that time also brought a gravitas and greater nuance to Scott’s acting. He spent the latter part of his career exclusively in westerns and grew into them. His series of films in collaboration with Budd Boetticher, beginning with Seven Men from Now, are milestones in the genre, and his swan song in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country provided him with a stylish and fitting exit.

Joel McCrea

Both McCrea and Randolph Scott hit late career highs in Ride the High Country, and that’s not the only parallel in their work. McCrea was another who became something of a genre specialist as the years wore on, and he carved out a comfortable niche for himself. If he’s not as celebrated as Scott, and I think it’s fair to say that that is the case, then it’s probably because he didn’t have Boetticher and the Ranown cycle forming part of his filmography. However, he appeared in a number of hidden gems, Andre de Toth’s Ramrod and Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory being just two.

Richard Widmark

Widmark started out in the movies as the giggling psycho in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death and carried over a little of that same character into his western debut in Wellman’s Yellow Sky. Still, he was nothing if not versatile and gradually broadened his range as he went along. Over the next twenty years, he played in an assortment of westerns, becoming more heroic all the time. I especially enjoy his take on Jim Bowie in Wayne’s production of The Alamo and his handling of a complex role in Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock is a fine piece of work.

William Holden

Making a name for himself with Golden Boy, Holden soon graduated to western parts and would return to the genre a number of times. Maybe he doesn’t initially seem a natural for frontier tales but, like others, age brought him more success out west. Having worked with John Sturges and John Ford, Holden landed one of his best roles as the aging outlaw Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s visceral and poignant The Wild Bunch. Even if it had been the only western he ever made, I feel that this film alone would be reason enough to earn his inclusion on this list.

Clint Eastwood

OK, I’m going to hold my hands up and admit that I’m not much of a fan of spaghetti westerns, at least not beyond those made by Sergio Leone. However, although Eastwood had already gone west on TV in Rawhide, it’s the Euro western that made him a star. He brought an Italian macho chic to the traditional image of the cowboy, and in so doing helped breathe new life into a genre that was beginning to look slightly jaded. Along with Wayne, Eastwood has come to define the popular image of the westerner.

Steve McQueen

“The King of Cool” didn’t make all that many westerns but he certainly made an impression whenever he strapped on a six-gun. Building on his success in the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive, he scored a hit in The Magnificent Seven. His scene stealing antics left director John Sturges bemused, co-star Yul Brynner fuming and audiences very satisfied. He returned to the genre only a handful of times, unfortunately, and his penultimate movie Tom Horn remains underrated to this day.

And there you have it, my “Ten of the Best” western stars. If I were to revisit this list tomorrow I’ve no doubt I would remove some names and add some others, but that’s the nature of such things. I would encourage readers to feel free to chip in and agree or disagree with whatever you like. It is, after all, a bit of fun and nothing more.

 

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Chisum

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Of the movies I’ve been looking at so far, and those I’ll feature next, Chisum (1970) is the only one where the Kid is not one of the main characters. That’s not to say he doesn’t play a significant role in the story, just that he’s not the one viewers are asked to focus on. First and foremost, this is a John Wayne film – he plays the title character, one of the prime movers in the Lincoln County War, and the plot revolves around him. I’ve always enjoyed this picture even though I’m aware it’s no classic – it’s solid, entertaining and, for the most part, well made.

The film tells its version of the Lincoln County War and, in particular, the role played by John S Chisum (John Wayne). The title character is presented here as a heroic pioneer whose patriarchal position sees him drawn into conflict with Murphy (Forrest Tucker) over not only the latter’s expansionist plans but also his casual disregard for the livelihoods of Lincoln’s less influential citizens. As the stirring opening credits fade there’s the image of Chisum sitting magisterially astride his mount and surveying all the vast territory he has conquered. All would seem well with the world, despite the dark mutterings of his old friend Pepper (Ben Johnson), as long as this weathered cattle baron holds sway over the territory. However, Murphy’s men are already stoking the fires by masterminding raids on Chisum’s herd. An early confrontation with a group of hired rustlers leads to a shootout and the first contact between Chisum and the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel). Billy’s reputation precedes him and Chisum regards him with wariness in spite of the hearty recommendation of fellow rancher Tunstall (Patric Knowles). Whatever reservations he may have are driven to the sidelines by the continued sniping attacks of Murphy and the corrupt lawmen and hired guns he’s got working for him. More men and guns are drifting into Lincoln and the scene seems set for all out war between the two factions. As the situation deteriorates the Tunstall/Chisum ranks are bolstered by the arrival of an ex-buffalo hunter named Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett). The movie doesn’t really lay out any specific rivalry between Garrett and the Kid – save for an insipid and wholly unnecessary romantic triangle involving Chisum’s neice – except to show that Garrett’s older and more experienced man has chosen a path that’s governed by caution as opposed to the Kid’s impulsiveness. When Tunstall is murdered by Murphy’s hirelings the fat is very definitely in the fire; Billy embarks on a killing spree to avenge his boss, and Chisum (who’s still shielding the Kid discreetly) sees himself pushed to the limit too. The climax comes with a potted and compressed version of the Battle of Lincoln that’s only brought to an end by the intervention of Chisum and a spectacular cattle stampede that he orchestrates.

Nearing the end of friendship - Garrett (Glenn Corbett) & the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel)

Both the strengths and weaknesses of Chisum can be seen in the casting. Both Wayne and Forrest Tucker butt heads impressively as the two hard men at the centre of the storm. I remember hearing or reading a comment once that Tucker was one of the most graceful riders ever to mount a horse, but he does none of that here. He’s the manipulative businessman quietly pulling the strings and calling in favours, but he does so with a craftiness and cunning that’s a lot of fun to watch. Wayne, in contrast, is the typical outdoors individualist with a simple philosophy and a straightforward approach to dealing with problems. It’s one of Wayne’s most enjoyable late career roles; it may not be his best but his massive screen presence is used to great effect and he does bring real warmth to his character. On the other hand, the younger stars – Glenn Corbett and Geoffrey Deuel – are just about adequate as Garrett and the Kid. Corbett probably comes off better by being on the “right” side and getting the more sympathetic handling whereas Deuel’s Kid is little more than a cypher who flits in and out of the action to knock off whoever’s next in line. Once again the support cast, consisting of a virtual who’s who of western players, comes to the rescue. Ben Johnson’s part is not a huge one but his long acquaintance with the Duke means that the scenes they share have a kind of easy going charm and are full of good-natured humour. For the others, just reading through the list of names – Patric Knowles, Bruce Cabot, Richard Jaeckel, Ray Teal, Hank Worden et al – should give an indication of the depth of talent involved. Like many of Andrew V McLaglen’s pictures, Chisum is a mix of the good and the not so good. The action scenes are generally well handled but the tacked on romance is both poorly conceived and badly executed. There’s also an unwelcome tendency to indulge in cheap looking, TV movie style zooms at inappropriate moments. Having said that, William Clothier’s photography and Dominic Frontiere’s score help offset some of the other technical shortcomings.

The UK DVD of Chisum from Warners offers a nice, sharp anamorphic scope transfer that boasts strong colour and a clean image. The disc has a short feature on the making of the film and a commentary track with the director. The movie itself isn’t one of the great westerns and it has plenty of historical goofs – for example, Chisum’s fictitious stampede to halt the Battle of Lincoln, and the violent deaths of Murphy and Jesse Evans – yet it’s one with a high rewatch value. In fact, it’s one of those pictures that I used to test drive movie guides in the past. Reviews are, by necessity, subjective and it’s hard to lay your hands on those volumes that are likely to suit one’s own tastes. I once hit upon the method of browsing guides to see what they had to say about a selection of films that I knew were no classics but still pleased me. Chisum was almost always among the choices. If the reviewer trashed the movie then it wasn’t for me; if, on the other hand, it got a generally positive but guarded write up then it was probably one I could depend on. As such, that’s still more or less the way I view this picture – an enjoyable and competent mid-range western that’s worth seeing.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1970s, Andrew V McLaglen, John Wayne, Westerns

 

3 Godfathers

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There haven’t been too many westerns that are set around Christmas, in fact I’m struggling to think of any others apart from 3 Godfathers (1948) and the earlier versions of the same story. While it starts out as a fairly standard western it soon turns into a play on the nativity story and the journey of the three wise men. It’s one of John Ford’s more sentimental pieces and the symbolism is laid on a little thick at times, but the cast and visuals carry it through the sticky patches. I’ll grant that the whole thing can seem a bit contrived yet the story, and its message of redemption and the good that lurks within all of us, remains affecting.

The movie opens in fairly conventional fashion, with the three main protagonists Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro (Pedro Amendariz) and The Abilene Kid (Harry Carey Jr) surveying a town they’re about to enter and rob. Before they can get down to business, however, they get chatting to a local resident (Ward Bond) who turns out to be the local lawman. Thus far much of the action is played for laughs, and broad Fordian laughs at that, and the light heartedness even extends to the raid on the bank. The first really serious note is struck when The Abilene Kid takes a bullet to the shoulder as they attempt their getaway. As the three men race out into the desert with the law hot on their heels, one shot finds its target and punctures the vitally important water bag. Safe in the knowledge that no one is going to travel far in the parched wilderness with only a limited supply of water the lawman eases back and sets about laying a trap. That singe shot has essentially sealed the fate of the three outlaws, as they discover that the law (with the help of the railroad) is one jump ahead of them and bent on keeping them away from any source of water. In an effort to outsmart the authorities, the men double back but in so doing stumble upon a situation that will bring about profound changes within them all. They come across an abandoned wagon containing a pregnant woman who’s about to give birth. Their most basic human instincts are aroused by this pitiful scene and, after seeing that the baby is delivered, find themselves giving their oath to the now dying mother to protect her infant son. From this point on a gradual transformation takes place wherein each man suppresses his own selfish needs in order to ensure the fulfillment of their promise. As they trudge across the gruelling desert, shedding their possessions along the way, they come to view the protection of their new godson as the only purpose in their lives. As such, their trek turns into a kind of pilgrimage to cleanse themselves of the evil that had motivated them until that time. As I said the symbolism can be a little heavy handed (following a star to the town of New Jerusalem etc.) but the hardship of the journey and the fact that these hardened criminals are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of an innocent and a promise prevents the film from becoming a parody.

Three wise men? - Harry Carey Jr, Pedro Armendariz & John Wayne in 3 Godfathers

John Ford opened the film with an onscreen tribute to his departed friend Harry Carey Sr and then took the further step of casting the latter’s son in the pivotal role of The Abilene Kid, the conscience of the three bad men. However, that’s about as far as the old man’s sentimentality went for it’s well documented that he drove his cast mercilessly in the searing heat of Death Valley. Despite, or maybe because, of this the performances of the three leads are first rate. Carey in particular is touching as the callow youth who’s simultaneously running from and striving to retain some of his boyish innocence. The way he calmly accepts his fate before such thoughts enter his companions’ heads is a fine piece of acting. In fact, Ford granted the young man some of the best scenes in the movie: singing over the grave of the baby’s mother and then his own death scene. Both Armendariz and Wayne were handed more straightforward roles as the older and more experienced men and they don’t disappoint either. The part of Robert Hightower has none of the complexity of Wayne’s more famous and prestigious performances yet he does all the script and director ask of him, and carries the picture alone for a significant time. The bulk of the action takes place outdoors on location in Death Valley and Ford creates some beautiful and bleak images – the dust storm (with all its attendant symbolism) being a particular highlight. The support cast is filled up with all the familiar faces from the “Stock Company”, Ward Bond and Mae Marsh getting the lion’s share of the screen time.

3 Godfathers is widely available on DVD from Warner. I have the R2 disc, but I’ve heard that the US version is the same, and the transfer is a good one. Print damage is minimal and the colour is strong, the outdoor scenes faring best to my eyes. The only extra included is the theatrical trailer, and a variety of subtitle options. While this is not one of Ford’s very best, it remains a top film by anyone’s standards. In a way, it’s what you might call a typical Ford movie in that it contains most of his trademark visual and thematic motifs. All in all, it’s a satisfying and uplifting production that works well both as a seasonal film and as a traditional western.

Finally, as this will be my last post before the holidays I want to take the time to wish all those who have followed, commented or just stopped by a very happy and peaceful Christmas. Be seeing you again in the New Year.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1940s, John Ford, John Wayne, Westerns

 

El Dorado

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A while back I mentioned directors remaking their own movies, citing Hitchcock and Walsh at the time. However, they’re not the only ones; Howard Hawks reworked the same material that he originally used for Rio Bravo no less than three times. In this case, I think the law of gradually diminishing returns applies – although I’m aware that there are those who might disagree. Hawks’ second trip to the well resulted in El Dorado (1966), a film that improved on its predecessor in one or two ways but ultimately remains a less satisfying work. Ok, it’s not a straight remake of Rio Bravo since it opens the story up a little more in terms of people and locations but it does use the same core situation and characters. There’s the tough professional, the drunk, the old coot and the green kid all holed up in a dingy jailhouse and under siege.

Cole Thornton (John Wayne) is a professional gunman who hires his skills out to the highest bidder. After accepting an invitation from one of the parties involved in a range war he discovers that the job would mean facing off against an old friend. Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) is the lawman caught between the feuding factions, and it’s his presence that dissuades Thornton from signing any contract. However, before Thornton can take his leave an accidental shooting leads to an ambush that results in his getting a bullet lodged perilously close to his spine. When he returns some months later he finds that Harrah has taken to the bottle in the wake of an ill-judged love affair. To make matters worse, the nearly incapacitated sheriff is in no position to cope with the ongoing range war that’s about to come to a head. Therefore, it’s left to Thornton to take charge of a rapidly deteriorating situation provoked by an attempted murder and the subsequent arrest of one of the feud’s main players. Up to this point the plot has its own reasonably unique slant. However, once Thornton, Harrah et al find themselves barricaded in the jail it’s Rio Bravo all over again. Where the original had a gentle humour, a gradually built sense of camaraderie and a frisson of sexual tension (thanks to Angie Dickinson), El Dorado rushes things a bit and lays the humour on too thick. Actually, it’s the comedic elements that do the most damage in my opinion. Much of this is based around the character of Mississippi (James Caan) – in particular, his incompetence around firearms and his questionable taste in hats. What’s worse, though, is a cartoonish fight between Thornton and a drunken Harrah that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Three Stooges short. The climax is also disappointing, the pyrotechnics of Rio Bravo being replaced with a contrived showdown that’s not much more than a damp squib.

Even legends need a little support sometimes - John Wayne & Robert Mitchum in El Dorado

In a sense, if you’ve seen one Howard Hawks picture you’ve seen them all. The same themes crop up again and again, namely professionalism and loyalty to one’s comrades. El Dorado is no exception in this respect, we have the tight knit group defying the odds and getting moral support from no-nonsense women. However, there’s a certain flatness to El Dorado, both in the visuals and the reworking of a tried and tested story. The areas where it does score over Rio Bravo are a few of the performances. I can’t honestly fault Dean Martin’s Dude, but Mitchum does bring more weight to his take on the broken down drunk if only because he’s Robert Mitchum. The biggest improvement is the casting of James Caan as the young man taking his first steps in the presence of the big boys. Although the forced jokiness of his character does tend to grate a little after a while he is certainly an actor, something that couldn’t be said for Ricky Nelson. Wayne, of course, is Wayne and it matters not a jot whether he’s playing the sheriff or the hired hand, his star quality ensures that he dominates proceedings. It is interesting to note though that the plot device concerning the bullet in his back was a convenient way to make allowances for the effects of the passage of time and the major health problems he had endured. As for the others, let’s just say that Arthur Hunnicutt, Charlene Holt and Ed Asner were no match for Walter Brennan, Angie Dickinson and Claude Akins. While I’m drawing comparisons, I might just add that Nelson Riddle’s score isn’t a patch on Tiomkin’s – although the title song played over Olaf Wieghorst’s paintings is very memorable.

El Dorado got a 2-disc release not long ago in the US as part of Paramount’s Centennial Collection. I never bothered to pick that one up so I can’t comment on the picture quality, but I do know it offered a variety of extras. The old UK R2 that I have presents the film 1.78:1 anamorphic and it’s not a bad transfer. The image could, I suppose, be a little sharper but there’s really not much to complain about. Image quality aside, the big difference between the old and new releases relates to bonus features, with the earlier disc boasting nothing but a theatrical trailer. Reading back through this, I might seem a little hard on El Dorado. The truth is it’s not at all a bad western and makes for entertaining viewing – the problem is that it’s damned near impossible not to compare it to Rio Bravo, and that’s where it comes up short.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1960s, Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Westerns

 

Dark Command

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William Clarke Quantrill was one of those controversial figures who gained fame or noteriety, depending on where one’s sympathies lay, as a result of his activities during the Civil War. The nature of those activities has ensured that his character and associates have continued to appear on screen on a fairly regular basis, right up to Ang Lee’s much maligned Ride with the Devil. Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command (1940) takes Quantrill, changes his name to Cantrell, and adds a written caveat at the beginning to explain that certain liberties have been taken with the truth. As such it’s not a biopic of the man in the traditional sense; it merely uses the character and a few events from his life to tell a standard western story. Taken on this level it works very well, but then I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film by Walsh that didn’t work on some level.   

Dark Command opens in Lawrence, Kansas on the eve of the Civil War, with Bob Seton (John Wayne) arriving in town in the company of perennial sidekick ‘Gabby’ Hayes. Seton is an uncomplicated Texan who’s in the process of working his way across the country. In making the acquaintance of banker’s daughter Mary McCloud (Claire Trevor), he also meets local schoolteacher Cantrell (Walter Pidgeon). Both men clearly have romantic designs on Miss McCloud, and their rivalry later extends to the political arena when they run for the newly instituted position of town marshal. It is Seton’s victory in this election that proves the catalyst for Cantrell’s abandonment of civic duty in favour of a much more lucrative career as a guerilla raider. Actually this brings about a change in the two lead characters; Seton becoming tougher and more assured once the weight of responsibility falls on his shoulders, and Cantrell revealing his venal nature in his quest to attain “greatness”. This personal animosity is played out while, all around, the town divides itself along pro-Union and pro-Confederacy lines. The wider national conflict is referred to only through dialogue and one of those, now cliched, burning map shots.

As I said before the film isn’t a straight biopic and never claims to be giving all the historical facts. Having said that Quantrill did work as a teacher in Lawrence in the years preceding the Civil War, although I’m not aware of his running for marshal or other elected office. It has been said of Raoul Walsh that his idea of humour was burning down a whorehouse; in Dark Command he goes one step further by burning down a whole town, although not for comedic value. The sacking of Lawrence by Quantrill is a known historical event and the film duly acknowledges this. However, this set piece, which forms the climax of the story, doesn’t dwell on the gory excesses of Quantrill’s men. Instead it uses it as a means of neatly wrapping up the personal battle between Seton and Cantrell. One could pick out all kinds inaccuracies relating to timelines, weaponry, the ultimate fate of Quantrill and so on, but I’ve never felt that this serves much of a purpose. Movies are a means of telling stories, and if this requires the makers to play a little fast and loose with the facts, well, so be it.

John Wayne and Walter Pidgeon

John Wayne made Dark Command one year after Stagecoach, the film which offered him a way out of the cycle of B westerns he’d been doing since the failure of Walsh’s The Big Trail. It’s a little ironic that the man who first introduced Wayne to the cinema-going public should again feature at the rebirth of his career. The Duke is still not the finished product here, although he’s not far away; audiences wouldn’t really see his fully formed western character until Tall in the Saddle, a few years later. There’s a bit too much mugging in the first half of the picture, although the easy, confident Wayne we’re all familiar with starts to emerge as the story moves along. Walter Pidgoen was an actor I’ve never really warmed to, but he was capable of turning in good performances as men carrying around a lot of internal baggage – How Green Was My Valley would be a good example of this. His Cantrell is never all that convincing as an out-and-out villain but maybe that’s just the way the part was written. Where he’s at his best are those private moments when he gives vent to all the pent up frustration that comes from thwarted ambition. Claire Trevor, who received top billing here, was a fine actress and does well as the conflicted woman at the centre of events. In Stagecoach she showed good chemistry with Wayne and that spark continues to be evident in this film. Romantic interludes were never Wayne’s strong suit but the tough Miss Trevor manages to draw out her co-star quite successfully.

I’ve already alluded to the fact that Raoul Walsh’s sense of humour tended towards the broad, and that’s certainly the case in the scenes with ‘Gabby’ Hayes. In much the same way as with Walsh’s contemporary and fellow Irish-American John Ford, audiences either get this kind of humour or they don’t. Superficially, one could see similarities in the styles of these two directors, but Ford was the better film-maker. That’s not to say that Walsh was some kind of hack, mind; he was every inch the professional and turned out some of the finest films of classic era Hollywood. However, if anything, the films of Raoul Walsh (which are actually some of my favorites) lack the grace moments that can be found in the best work of Ford. It should also be mentioned that Dark Command contains some top class second unit work from the great Yakima Canutt. There’s a spectacular wagon jump from atop a cliff, and another outing for his patented under-a-moving-wagon escape ala Indiana Jones. Today’s climate of clumsy editing and overused CGI makes this viewer yearn for the era when there was genuine creativity and artistry in the second unit.

The movie is available on DVD in both R1 and R2. I have the old R1 from Artisan and the picture quality is quite good. Like all those Republic pictures released by Artisan there hasn’t been any restoration done, so there are instances of speckling and the odd cigarette burn. However, the print remains in pretty good shape and is always watchable. The R2 comes from Universal UK, and while I don’t have it to compare I would be wary of its quality considering its source. Dark Command is a fine western with an epic feel that comes partly from the bigger budget that Republic granted it. I’d recommend it to the general western fan and anyone with an interest in the Civil War era, or the development of the Duke’s career.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2008 in 1940s, John Wayne, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

Hondo

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There’s a small, isolated western homestead looking out over the harsh wilderness. A lone figure appears in the distance, and slowly makes his weary way towards the house. As he does so, the inhabitants watch his advance warily; does this figure represent hope or danger? While that may sound a whole lot like the opening of 1953’s Shane, it is actually from the same year’s Hondo.

The stranger who appears from the desert turns out to be Hondo Lane (John Wayne), part Indian and a former scout for General Crook’s cavalry. He tells the homesteaders, Mrs. Lowe (Geraldine Page) and her boy Johnny (Lee Aaker), that he  lost his horse a few days before while running from Apaches. He plans to buy a replacement and be on his way, but when he sees that the man of the house is absent, and Mrs. Lowe’s story about his being away in the hills for the day is patently a lie, he tries to make himself useful chopping wood and shoeing horses. He also happens to be carrying dispatches to the effect that the Apache under Vittorio (Michael Pate) are gearing up for war, and tries to impress upon the woman the dangers ahead and the necessity to move out. However, his appeals fall on deaf ears and, being a man who believes in letting people follow their own judgement, he takes his leave the following day. But something about the courage and character of the woman has impressed this fiercely independent man and you know that it’ll only be a matter of time before he returns. Soon after, the farm is visited by Vittorio’s war party, and the Apache chief is so impressed by the grit of little Johnny that he takes a special interest in him. Like Hondo, he feels the woman has no business raising the boy on her own and hands her an ultimatum that unless her man returns by the next rains she must become the squaw of one of his warriors.

By the early 50s, westerns had begun to portray Indians as more than just faceless bogeymen. Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway (both 1950) are generally credited with starting this trend, though you could argue that John Ford had already made moves in that direction a few years earlier with Fort Apache. Although Hondo is certainly no revisionist western it does show the Apache as two dimensional people. The film doesn’t shy away from their brutality with plenty of references to massacres and scalpings, and a scene where the captured Wayne is tortured with burning coals. Nevertheless, Vittorio is shown to be a man of honour who respects guts and, above all, honesty. This essential honesty of the Apache is juxtaposed with the whites’ tendency to be less than truthful in their dealings with friend and foe alike. In fact the issue of truth and lies runs all through the picture, with Wayne’s Hondo emphasising its importance again and again. Of course by the end of the film Vittorio is dead, and the last scene brings home how futile the Apache’s struggle would ultimately be as Wayne laments the passing of their way of life.

John Wayne

Hondo Lane is one of Duke’s better roles; he starts out as a man alone who values integrity and self reliance more than anything. Little by little we learn bits and pieces about him and how he came to this point in his life. There’s a nice scene where he talks about his dead wife, an Apache woman, and tries to express in English exactly what her name meant. It’s a simple little scene but Wayne manages to get across not so much the loss his character felt at her passing, but the wonderful memories that he was left with – memories that might be evoked just by the act of saying her name. Although it’s never directly stated, the inference is that his aloof manner is the result of his grief, and it’s only when he sees something of his late wife in Mrs. Lowe that the cracks begin to appear in his armour. There’s no schmaltz in the scenes with Gerladine Page and Lee Aaken, instead there seems to be a real chemistry. Page was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as the abandoned wife and her performance justifies that; there’s nothing whiny or hysterical about her, just a kind of quiet acceptance. She wasn’t the most striking woman you’ll ever see but I think that’s as it should be for a character who has been dealt a fairly lousy hand of cards by fate and must play them as best she can. The other notable performance is that of Michael Pate. His Vittorio, as I said above, is more complex than many of the stereotypical Indian characters of the time. This is a man who boasts proudly of the number of white men he’s killed yet is human enough to feel protective towards a boy without a father. Hondo was shot in 3D and this obviously influenced the way John Farrow directed the picture. Action and fight scenes in particular are used to highlight the process, with guns fired directly at the screen and arrows and knives thrust dramatically in your face. (I suppose it should be mentioned that a few bits and pieces during the climax were actually shot by John Ford.)

The DVD from Paramount is presented flat in full screen, although I understand it was intended to be projected in 1.85:1 widescreen. It looks then like the transfer is an open matte one as I couldn’t detect any noticeable cropping at the sides. Generally, the image is a very strong and colorful one with only a few shots, especially near the end, looking a bit ragged. The disc is packed with extras: a commentary, a number of featurettes etc. This was one of the Batjac titles which the Wayne estate had kept out of circulation for years, and so the reputation of the film may have suffered a bit. I think it’s a great movie and would rank it as one of Wayne’s best, right alongside his work with Ford and Hawks.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2008 in 1950s, John Farrow, John Wayne, Westerns

 

Rio Bravo

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“A game-legged old man and a drunk. Is that all you got?”

“That’s what I’ve got.”

When Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne) hands that laconic reply to the question from his friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), it more or less sums up what the whole film is trying to say. Anybody who has ever seen a few Howard Hawks movies will know just how much store he set by the idea of professionalism. The small group of self-contained professionals is a recurrent theme in his work, and Rio Bravo may be the best example of this.

I won’t go into the plot in great detail here since it is, frankly, a little thin for a film with a running time creeping up towards two and a half hours. Chance arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder and must hold him in the town jail until the Marshal arrives. All the time, the town is under a virtual state of siege from the hired gunmen of Joe’s brother, Nathan (John Russell). Throw in a typically Hawksian romance between Chance and a poker playing drifter called Feathers (Angie Dickinson), and that’s it. However, this is really a character driven movie, and the plot functions mainly to provide the necessary circumstances to allow the characters to interact. It is this interaction that elevates Rio Bravo to the status of one of the great westerns. I’d challenge anyone to sit through this and not feel for these people by the end; more than that, you actually get the sense of coming to know them. Think about Chance’s coolly competent lawman who’s reduced almost to an awkward schoolboy when confronted with a sassy, attractive woman; Dude’s (Dean Martin) drunken deputy who must face down his personal demons if he’s ever to retrieve his self-respect from the whiskey bottle where he left it; and let’s not forget Stumpy (Walter Brennan), the trigger-happy cripple whose cackling and complaining adds so much warmth and humour to it all.

Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne).

John Wayne gives one of his most relaxed performances in this film and while this has been criticised by some, I think it fits the pace of the piece. The acting is understated and just plain likable from a man whose talents many are quick to criticise and slow to acknowledge. It’s hard to imagine any other actor playing this part with the natural confidence displayed by Wayne. Dean Martin’s Dude remains convincing as the character gradually transforms himself from a pitiful rummy fishing for drink money in spittoons into a man proud enough to enter by the front door once again. When the doubts and temptations assail him and threaten to haul him back into oblivion, you can’t help rooting for him. The great Walter Brennan has a high time with his role as Stumpy and manages to steal nearly every scene he appears in. The only weak performances come from Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson. But if you remember that Dickinson was meant to provide eye candy, Nelson was there to draw in contemporary youth, and that the real focus was on Chance, Dude and Stumpy then it doesn’t seem so important. 

While most western directors liked to get out into the wide open spaces, Hawks opted to shoot the entire film within the confines of the town. This has the effect of creating both a claustrophobic tension and a comfortable coziness. In keeping with the theme of professional lawmen, the film itself exudes a slick professional feel. The maturity of Hawks direction can be seen in the first five minutes of the movie, when the status of the main characters and the basis of the plot are presented clearly and explicitly without one word of dialogue being spoken. The script by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett may develop at a leisurely pace, but it’s always logical and it’s packed full of memorable lines. Mention should also be made of the score by Dimitri Tiomkin; it complements the action perfectly and the use of the Deguello is yet another of the joys the film has to offer. 

Didn't spill a drop. Dude (Dean Martin) fights off the temptation.

I can’t finish this piece without referring to the fact that Rio Bravo was Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon. Hawks took exception to the idea of a lawman running around town desperately seeking help from a scared and apathetic citizenry. This was anathema to a man who worshipped at the altar of the professional ethic. To Hawks, a man ought to play the cards dealt to him regardless of the odds stacked against him. Now I have no interest in discussing the politics, either implicit or explicit, of these two films but I do find myself drawn more often to Rio Bravo. While I like and admire High Noon, it concentrates on the selfish fears of men where Rio Bravo celebrates the camaraderie and warmth of humanity – I know which I find more appealing. 

For a long time Rio Bravo was only available on DVD on a bare-bones edition. Last year saw the release of a 2-disc SE with a commentary and lots of special features. Initial reports were that the transfer was significantly darker than the old version and I was wary of the upgrade. However, I eventually decided to take a chance and was pleasantly surprised. The new transfer is darker but then the old one was too washed out and faded anyway. It’s not perfect but I do feel it’s an improvement on the original and I have no regrets whatsoever about purchasing it. Maybe Rio Bravo isn’t the best western ever made but, if not, it’s only a few paces behind. Over the years, I’ve probably viewed this film more than any other and I continue to enjoy it – that’s as good a recommendation as I can offer.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2008 in 1950s, Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Westerns

 
 
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