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Category Archives: Rock Hudson

Bend of the River

You’ll be seeing me. You’ll be seeing me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back to the darkness and wonder if I’m there. And some night, I will be. You’ll be seeing me.

If you watch enough westerns, from almost any era, it soon becomes apparent that certain themes and subtexts crop up time and again. The one that I feel is the most constant, that seems to almost define the genre as a whole, is the concept of change. It literally pervades the genre: changes to the landscape, control of the country, the law, social organization, transport, the notion of freedom and opportunity, and so on. Of course some of these aspects either increased or decreased in popularity in relation to the time at which they were produced. So it’s no accident that the 50s, with that decade’s frequent meditations on the idea of personal redemption, should see a tendency to focus on changes in the hearts of men. Bend of the River (1952) concerns itself with atonement for the sins of the past and the desire to change the course of one’s life, along with the associated obstacles and prejudices that need to be overcome.

The Civil War has ended and the westward push is on, the drive to roll back the frontier and build something new and fresh. Over the opening credits a wagon train makes its way through the unspoiled beauty of Oregon. The settlers, headed up by Jeremy Baile (Jay C Flippen), are full of hope and a determined pioneering spirit. There’s a kind of wholesome enthusiasm that radiates from these people, and it’s reflected too in the man who’s guiding them, Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart). When he rides ahead to scout the trail we get the first indication that McLyntock isn’t the unsullied character his traveling companions believe. Topping a rise, he stumbles upon a nasty little scene in the clearing below. There’s a lynching in progress for a horse thief. Seeing as a man’s horse was often his most valuable possession and could mean the difference between survival and death in a hostile environment, frontier justice dictated that the rope was all one could expect for such a heinous crime. Still and all, lynching is a dirty little business, and it’s no surprise that McLyntock intervenes and saves the life of the condemned man. No, that in itself is entirely understandable – what is telling though is the reaction of McLyntock just before he draws his gun. His features register violent revulsion but there’s something of the hunted man that flashes briefly from his eyes. It transpires that the man at the end of the rope is Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), a former border raider whose name is familiar to McLyntock. It’s soon revealed that Cole has also heard of McLyntock, both of them having been in the same line of business so to speak. While these two men with a dark past may have some things in common, there is one crucial difference. The devil-may-care Cole has no regrets about his actions whereas McLyntock is a deeply troubled figure, a man trying to bury his unsavory deeds and make a new beginning among people who trust him. When the wagon train rolls into Portland Cole and McLyntock bid each other farewell – Cole thinking only of how best to make his fortune while McLyntock is bound for the clean air and anonymity of the high country. However, these two are destined to cross paths again. The settlers need supplies shipped to them to see them through their first winter and have paid for delivery in advance. As is often the case though, circumstances change dramatically when greed rears its ugly head. A trip back to Portland sees McLyntock and Cole renewing their acquaintance. But theirs is an uneasy relationship, their friendship balanced rather precariously at all times. The shadows of the past are never far away, beckoning enticingly to Cole while pointing accusingly at McLyntock. On the run from new enemies in Portland, it remains to be seen how fast the friendship of these men will be, and whether McLyntock will be allowed to prove to his companions and himself that a man can truly change his ways.

Bend of the River was Anthony Mann’s second western with James Stewart, continuing what was to become a highly influential cycle of movies and further developing the persona of the tortured lead. One of the key visual motifs in Mann’s work was the continual striving upwards of his characters, the drive to rise above base instincts and cares. Although this feature isn’t quite as pronounced in Bend of the River as it is in some of his other movies, it is still there. The wagon train, and most especially McLyntock, view the mountain country as a kind of promised land where social and spiritual rebirth are possible. Irving Glassberg photographed the stunning Oregon locations beautifully, and the contrast between the crisp freshness and purity of the mountains is contrasted strongly with the darker, more restrictive and corrupt feeling of the town gripped by gold fever. The central theme of a man desperate for change and redemption is well handled by Mann, working from a Borden Chase script. Additionally, there’s a fairly complex notion of duality at work too. In essence, Cole and McLyntock are mirror images. The inevitable confrontation represents McLyntock squaring off against his own darker nature as much as anything else.

I think it’s impossible to overemphasize how instrumental Mann was in shaping James Stewart into one of the major post-war movie stars, although both Hitchcock and Capra had a hand in the process too. For much of the time Stewart is, superficially at least, in amiable mode, yet there’s always an unease there. This of course is entirely appropriate as his character is burdened by a tremendous sense of guilt and also a sort of slow burning dread that his past will be revealed and lead to his being rejected. As usual Mann managed to get Stewart to dig deep within himself and draw on his reserves. There are three notable occasions where Stewart’s consuming rage threatens to overcome him. The first is the momentary rush of emotion at the sight of the lynching. The next occurs when the rebellious laborers hired in Portland drop the full weight of a jacked up wagon on Baile – the startling intensity of Stewart’s fury rendering him speechless and inarticulate. However, it’s the final outpouring that carries the greatest impact. With the mutiny complete and Cole having shown his true colors, the emotionally distraught Stewart delivers those lines which I featured at the top of the article. Written down in black and white, they lack the power with which Stewart invests them in his cold, calculated and measured way. With his voice threatening to crack under the strain of maintaining self-control, no-one is left in any doubt that the gloves are off, the Rubicon has been crossed and there’s no going back.

Arthur Kennedy proved a splendid foil for Stewart; where Stewart was all inner conflict and suppressed emotion, Kennedy was a man very much at ease with his own villainy. However, that’s not to say his performance was one-note or lacking in nuance. He starts off as something of a rogue, but not an entirely unattractive one. It’s his innate greed and an inability to rise above his own self-interest that sees him develop into a fully fledged villain. As such, we don’t get the same shock as would be the case a few years later when Kennedy again teamed up with Stewart and Mann to make The Man from Laramie. Here, Kennedy’s character is clearly morally corrupted from the beginning and it’s only the extent that’s in question. The supporting cast in Bend of the River is a remarkably strong one starting with Julia Adams, Rock Hudson and the great Jay C Flippen. This was one of the star making roles for the rising Hudson, a vigorous, heroic part as the young gambler who signs on with the wagon train. Hudson’s good enough at what he’s asked to do, but really it’s not very demanding stuff and he makes only a limited impression. Julia Adams’ beautiful presence graced many a movie for Universal during the 50s and I always like to see her name in the credits. This film offered her a good part as the girl who initially falls for Kennedy’s charm before finally seeing him for what he is and switching her affections to Stewart. And there’s no shortage of familiar faces to add to the villainy ranged against Stewart – Howard Petrie, Royal Dano, Jack Lambert and Harry Morgan all put in good performances. And then there’s Stepin Fetchit, an actor whose characterizations remain controversial to this day. I think it’s worth noting that both Scott Nollen (whose latest book I reviewed last week) and Joseph McBride have interesting things to say about this performer, namely the way John Ford and he tried to actually subvert racial stereotypes in their work together.

I think Bend of the River is available on DVD pretty much everywhere these days – it’s certainly been out in both the UK and the US via Universal for many years now. The UK disc I have is a completely bare bones affair with nothing at all in the way of extra features. However, the transfer of the film is very good indeed, with excellent color and no print damage worth mentioning. In the past I’ve tried broadly rating or comparing the westerns that Mann and Stewart made together, but it’s essentially a pointless exercise. These are all strong and rewarding movies that can be watched repeatedly without losing any of their power or freshness. Let’s just say that this is one of the top-tier westerns from a great team and leave it at that.

I would just like to add a brief postscript here to let anyone who’s interested in such things know that this has been the 250th film which I’ve had the pleasure of writing about on this site.

 

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Tomahawk

Over the years I’ve tried to turn the spotlight where possible on those films which I reckon have either been unfairly maligned or, more commonly, just fallen between the cracks and slipped off the radar of movie fans. As a lover of westerns, I’ve found that the genre provides an especially rich vein to mine with respect to neglected gems. This is partly down to the sheer volume of pictures made during the western’s heyday, and also the gradual decline in interest in the genre, not least from a critical perspective. In my own small way, I’ve looked to draw a little attention back towards westerns and maybe encourage others to explore a little deeper. I particularly like the more socially aware pictures of the early 50s, those movies which did their best to offer entertainment and simultaneously encourage thought on the part of their audience. George Sherman’s Tomahawk (1951) is one such film – it’s a handsome looking, well paced work that not only contains a potted history lesson but also approaches the Indian Wars in a mature and intelligent way.

The film is bookended by one of those strident, self-important and frankly grating narrations that became fashionable in the documentary-style noir pictures of the post-war years. In many ways this is an inauspicious opening and one that doesn’t really blend in with the rest of the film. The time and context are established but I feel that this could have been achieved just as well, and with a good deal less piety, via the more traditional method of using rolling captions. Anyway, it’s Wyoming in 1866, at the time the Bozeman Trail is drawing in settlers and prospectors. The fact that this route west passes through Sioux hunting grounds, and violates previous treaty pledges, has the potential to spark off a major conflict with Red Cloud’s warriors. The problem is exacerbated by the government’s decision to build Fort Phil Kearny as a garrison to house an army detachment and offer protection to travelers. The construction proved a sore point with the Sioux, and the film concentrates on a compressed version of the bloody events that ensued, namely the Fetterman Massacre and the Wagon Box Fight. It includes all the major players in those battles and gives the story a new twist by adding in a revenge aspect. Everything unfolds from the perspective of Jim Bridger (Van Heflin), a trapper and former scout who allows himself to be coaxed back into service for personal reasons. Bridger is disparagingly referred to by some as a “Squaw Man” – a man who has taken an Indian girl as his wife – and it’s this status that forms the basis for his decision to return to scouting duties. The Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 is one of the most notorious atrocities to take place on the frontier, when Colonel Chivington led his irregular cavalry in a raid on a Cheyenne village, butchering and mutilating in the region of 150 of the inhabitants, the majority of whom were women and children. Bridger, who suffered a grievous loss in this massacre, has spent the intervening years hunting those responsible. When the young Cheyenne girl, Monahseetah (Susan Cabot), with whom he’s traveling believes she has recognized one of Chivington’s men among the troops detailed to the new fort, Bridger takes up the offer to scout for the army once again. At first, there exists an uneasy truce between the Sioux and the soldiers, Red Cloud being shown as a man willing to compromise so long as his people aren’t faced with aggression. However, the hotheaded hatred of the Indians by a young officer, Lieutenant Dancy (Alex Nicol), leads to an inevitable killing and matters start to spiral ever downward. The new fort soon finds itself under effective siege, with Dancy and Captain Fetterman (Arthur Space) seeking to discredit Bridger in the eyes of the garrison commander and downplay his estimate of the strength of Red Cloud’s forces. The movie covers the essentials concerning the build up to and aftermath of the Fetterman Massacre but alters some details for the purposes of storytelling – most notably by compressing the timeline and shifting some of the responsibility away from Fetterman himself.

George Sherman has never really got his due as a director; he worked in a variety of genres but his westerns for Universal in the 1950s in particular constitutes a strong body of work. His movies tend to be well paced and, more often than not, play around with interesting themes. Tomahawk packs a lot of story into its 80 minutes yet, despite moving at a fair clip, never sacrifices coherence. Aside from the standard cavalry versus Indians stand-off at the heart of the tale, there’s a revenge story and a commentary on the dubious treatment of the Indians blended in too. I think it’s a credit to Sherman’s skill that all these elements are handled well, and that the finished film is never less than entertaining. The majority of the action takes place outdoors, with Sherman and cameraman Charles P Boyle making the most of the Dakota locations. Sherman manages to convey the beauty and expansiveness of the landscape, leaving the viewer in no doubt why men like Red Cloud were prepared to fight and die if necessary to safeguard their ancestral lands. The film makes no bones about where its sympathies lie; the character of Bridger is as much of a guide for the viewer as he is for the army. It’s through his eyes that we’re invited to see things, and this allows us to experience the personal conflict of a man torn by his love for and understanding of the Indian way of life, and his sense of duty to the country of his birth. As such, the film never shies away from depicting the duplicity and inherent racism of Indian policy at the time, yet does its best to address the complexity of the situation too. I feel it slots nicely into that cycle of early 50s westerns that tried to come to terms with a particularly tumultuous period of US history.

Van Heflin’s stoic presence is the glue that holds the picture together. He had that lived in look that was just right for playing a toughened frontier scout, and the necessary physicality to make the action scenes seem authentic. I think one of his strengths as an actor was the thoughtful, introspective quality that he was able to bring to his roles, and the character of Bridger allowed him to explore that. You could argue that the revenge motif that runs throughout the movie was a tacked on extra, but it’s very important in helping to flesh out the character of Bridger and explain his motivation. Without the whole Sand Creek back story, Bridger would be just another westerner with a fondness for Indians. The scene where he explains his background to Yvonne De Carlo not only provides something for Van Heflin to get his teeth into, but it also makes it clear to the viewer where his passionate advocacy of the Indian stems from. Heflin rarely gave a poor performance in any movie, and Tomahawk saw him touch on grief, compassion, love and fury convincingly – a real three-dimensional figure rather than a caricature or stereotype. Yvonne De Carlo always brought a kind of tough glamour to whatever part she played, and some of the technicolor movies she made in the late 40s and 50s really highlighted her beauty. Although she was essentially playing the love interest in this film, her character’s real purpose was to draw out Heflin. Therefore, the romantic aspects never actually overwhelm the main focus of the story, serving to complement it instead. The chief villain of the piece was Alex Nicol as the sneering racist. He always seemed at his best playing the bad guy (check out The Man from Laramie for another performance that’s certainly interesting), and Tomahawk gave him the chance to indulge in some great rodent-like nastiness. The film boasts an extremely strong supporting cast, including a small part as a trooper for a young Rock Hudson. Susan Cabot met a very tragic end in real life but she was a very attractive screen presence in her time. I thought she brought a really sweet allure to the role of Monahseetah. In addition, there are well-judged turns from Jack Oakie, Preston Foster and Tom Tully.

Tomahawk is available on DVD in a number of territories, including the US (as part of Universal’s MOD programme) and the UK. Before those editions were released Mondo Entertainment in Germany put the title out as part of a licensing arrangement with Universal, and that’s the copy I have. I have to say that the transfer on that disc is fantastic – it’s sharp, clean and has the kind of eye-watering colours that show the cinematography off to great effect. The film is offered with a choice of the original audio or a German dub, and no subtitles of any kind are present. Extras are confined to text biographies of Yvonne De Carlo and Rock Hudson (Hudson’s name gets prominent billing on the cover too despite his minor role – no mention of Heflin at all) and advertisements for other titles in the range. All told, I feel Tomahawk is an excellent little film that rarely seems to get a mention. Sherman paints some lovely images, packs in the action, tackles tough themes, coaxes solid performances from his cast and entertains all the way. Frankly, this really ought to be better known and more widely seen. It’s definitely a movie to check out if you get the opportunity – I don’t think it will disappoint.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2013 in 1950s, George Sherman, Rock Hudson, Van Heflin, Westerns

 

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The Last Sunset

Poster

The Last Sunset (1961) is a film that seems to have all the credentials, all the ingredients that go towards making a top flight production: a highly talented director, a fine cast, and a script by a top writer. In spite of all this the final result is a movie that doesn’t quite gel and one that delivers a lot less than it initially promises. As is usually the case when a film proves disappointing, the fault lies with the script. There are some interesting elements which are introduced and then disposed of before they’ve had a chance to play out fully. Generally, this leads to both clutter and a lack of focus. In the end, we’re left with a film that’s not exactly bad but one that could and should have been a whole lot better.  

The opening credits play over a dogged pursuit across a southwestern landscape, down into Mexico where the bulk of the action will unfold. O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is the black clad fugitive, a killer who carries a derringer instead of a six-shooter. Hot on his trail is Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), a lawman with a personal interest in seeing his quarry brought back to Texas to hang. O’Malley is heading for a ranch run by a faded Virginia gentleman with a fondness for the bottle. The rancher, Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten), happens to be married to O’Malley’s old sweetheart Belle (Dorothy Malone) and it’s soon evident that he’s continued carrying a torch for her for years. The two men strike a deal whereby O’Malley will help Breckenridge drive his herd up to Texas, but he also claims he’s going to take his new partner’s wife off him. That in itself could have provided an interesting scenario, but the script has no intention of remaining so simple. Stribling’s arrival leads to an uneasy truce with hunter and hunted agreeing to pool their talents in order to ensure the success of the cattle drive before settling their own scores. With both newcomers being clearly interested in the charms of Belle the scene looks set for a juicy three-way contest for her affections. However, that’s not to be for Breckenridge soon departs the scene after being gunned down in a cheap cantina. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that moments before his death the audience is treated to revelations about Breckenridge’s shameful past. So, two potentially rich plot veins are left unmined. Instead we’re treated to the seemingly interminable drive to Texas with too much talk and too few sparks. It seems that the producers were aware that they were in danger of bogging the plot down, so three shifty and unscrupulous cowboys, who plan to get in on the white slavery racket, are introduced (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and James Westmoreland) to try to spice up proceedings. Again the opportunity is lost as these characters are killed off before they have the chance to make an impression. The script still has one hole card in reserve though, and it’s a real stinger. Nevertheless, in keeping with the rest of the picture, this gets handled poorly too. The problem is not with the nature of this final reveal, it’s suitably shocking, but the fact that we learn about it too soon. I won’t go into details here lest I spoil things for anybody, but the timing really draws all the tension and drama out of the climactic duel and leaves us with a flat and predictable ending.

Kirk Douglas

With a combination of Robert Aldrich directing and Dalton Trumbo writing, I don’t think it’s unfair to have high expectations. For whatever reason, neither man was at the top of his game on The Last Sunset. Trumbo’s script meanders all over the place and flatters to deceive, with too many plot turns and too many undeveloped ideas. Aldrich allowed the momentum to flag after the first half hour or so and he never really recovered it after that. There are some nice shots, a well filmed sequence during a dust storm, and an attempt to claw back some tension in the climax through quick cutting but none of it adds up to enough to save the film. On top of all this the performances of the two leads are nothing to write home about either. Douglas seemed to be trying for the kind of deadly rascal that Burt Lancaster pulled off in Aldrich’s Vera Cruz but it doesn’t really work for him. Hudson just didn’t convince at all as the driven lawman and he comes across as merely bland. Dorothy Malone and Joseph Cotten were altogether more successful as the Breckenridges; the former exuding a worldly sexuality that made the attention of her various suiters highly credible, while the latter provided a fine portrait of a broken and guilty man. Maybe if Hudson’s character had been the one to snuff it in the cantina we would have got a more compelling film. It’s also a shame that Jack Elam and Neville Brand had to disappear so soon since such character actors were capable of raising the quality of any production.

The Last Sunset was given a release a few years back by Universal in R1 in the Rock Hudson – Screen Legend set. The transfer is a fine anamorphic one and, apart from the odd speckle, there’s not much wrong with it. Colour and sharpness are both strong with good detail. There’s a trailer for the film provided but that’s it as far as extras go. This movie couldn’t be classed as anyone’s finest hour but it’s not a complete dud. There are a handful of worthy performances and the adult theme that becomes apparent as it draws to a close mean that it deserves a look. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t be an ideal introduction to the work of any of the principals

 

Seminole

Poster

Budd Boetticher is celebrated, and rightly so, for the seven westerns he made with Randolph Scott in the late 50s. Seminole was produced just a few years before those collaborations and, while it’s a satisfying enough picture, it’s not quite up there with his best. One could, I suppose, quibble about its credentials as a western due to the setting (Florida) and the time period (1835) but I feel it’s as near as makes no difference.

The story, most of which is recounted in a long flashback sequence, follows the newly appointed Lt. Caldwell (Rock Hudson) who is travelling back to his birthplace in Florida to take up a position at Fort King. His arrival coincides with the beginnings of an uprising among the Seminole, provoked by a government plan to uproot the tribe and move them west to prevent their presence slowing down the nation’s expansion. Within this framing story there’s further conflict due to the revelation that Caldwell’s boyhood friend, the half breed Osceola (Anthony Quinn), is not only the chief of the Seminole but is also vying for the affections of his sweetheart Revere Muldoon (Barbara Hale). While Revere shuttles back and forth in the role of intermediary between the Seminole and the army, a plan is set in motion by the fort’s commander, Major Degan (Richard Carlson), to strike at the enemy in their Everglades homeland and thus preempt any further threat.

The film raises a number of issues, only a few of which are fully explored. The main conflict is the internal struggle which Caldwell experiences between his loyalty to the army and his inherent sympathy for the Seminole he has known all his life. This leads to his being suspected of treachery by his superiors and his eventual court martial. The film tries hard to show the Seminloe in a positive light (mostly due to the performance of Anthony Quinn) but generally takes the middle way, since the army is portrayed as being reasonably even-handed with the exception of the uptight martinet Major Degan. This leads to a bit of a pat, upbeat ending. Much stronger is the middle section where Degan leads his troop on a disastrous march through the steamy swamps with a huge cannon in tow, all the while insisting they keep their tunics buttoned to the collar as per the regulations. One of the more interesting themes, and the film really only touches on it, is that of miscegenation. It is quite clear that Revere has been involved in a long-term relationship with Osceola but, after a brief mention by the chief of how white society would frown on this, she quite happily drops him and contents herself with a future by Caldwell’s side.

Seminole - an early role for Lee Marvin

Rock Hudson is just about adequate in his role as the new officer forced to make war on his one time friend but his acting is a little too wooden to do justice to a part which requires him to experience a good deal of inner turmoil. Anthony Quinn fares better as the reluctant war chief whose living in both the white and Seminole cultures has afforded him an understanding of both. However, the role, as written, calls for a little too much nobility on his part and so weakens the chracter. Richard Carlson’s Degan is a very one dimensional portrayal which consists of much manic ranting and petty spitefulness, still he makes for a good hissable villain. As for Barbara Hale, she hasn’t a lot to do except act as a plot device and provide  some decoration. Lee Marvin shows up in one of his small early parts as Sergeant Magruder and adds a touch of class to the proceedings, as he always did. Boetticher directs the whole thing at his trademark brisk pace, and does his best work when he moves out from the confines of the fort into the swamp scenes and the ensuing battle at the Seminole camp. As I said earlier, his finest work would come a few years later but Seminole remains an entertaining little piece.

Now for the DVD. Seminole is available in R2 in the UK from Optimum and the transfer can best be described as weak. The picture is very soft and muddy throughout, and the colours are extremely faded – a real shame since this is a movie that would benefit enormously from strong, vibrant colours. The only bonus included is the theatrical trailer. There are editions of the film available from France and Germany but I have no idea if they look any better. All told, I would recommend the film – pity about the DVD.

 
 
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