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Category Archives: John Sturges

The Law and Jake Wade

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A brief forum discussion the other day on the critical reputation, or lack of it, of John Sturges prompted me to have another look at one of his films that doesn’t usually come in for a great deal of attention. The Law and Jake Wade (1958) was produced in the middle of the director’s most successful period, and the fact that it’s sandwiched between a number of his other better known movies may be partly responsible for its apparent lesser status. On viewing it again, I think it deserves better; it’s beautifully paced, visually arresting, and has a strong central conflict. It’s also one of those sub-90 minute films that I feel suited Sturges so well. The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape have an epic feel to them, both in terms of casting and running time, and although those two movies feature high among my favourites, I’m still of the opinion that Sturges did his best work when the scale was smaller and the material leaner.

It all starts with a jailbreak, Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) riding into a quiet town to set Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark) free. On the surface, it looks like an outlaw doing right by one of his own. As the story progresses though it becomes clear that there’s more to it. Firstly, Wade’s a lawman, a marshal in another town, and a highly respected one at that. Furthermore, there’s a complex history between the two men; they once rode together, initially as brothers in arms and later as partners in crime, before parting on bad terms. The source of antagonism between Wade and Hollister lies in the latter’s belief that his old friend betrayed him and made off with their takings. Wade doesn’t see it that way though – he’d merely grown weary of his lawless existence and, prompted by a tragic event he holds himself responsible for, decided on a clean break. So he buried the loot and forged ahead with a new life. As far as Hollister’s concerned, Wade crossed him, stole his money and ran out. As such, he wants closure (the jailbreak simply wipes off an old debt in his view), namely the money and a reckoning with Wade. To this end, he tracks down Wade, abducts him and his fiancee (Patricia Owens), and uses the woman as leverage to achieve his ends. I’m not giving too much away as all this happens early on in the movie, the bulk of the story being concerned with the long trek to the ghost town where Wade stashed the money. Along the way, we learn more details about both Wade and Hollister and their soured friendship. The background of the two leads, former border raiders in the Civil War who carried on with their mayhem after the surrender, carries some suggestion of the Jesse James story, but that’s as far as the comparison goes. Wade symbolically buried his past with the cash, but Hollister continues to nurse his bitterness and resentment. There’s also a kind of inadequacy needling Hollister, he knows Wade is the better man but he suspects he’s maybe the better gunman too. While he harps on the betrayal that he claims hurt him, what Hollister really yearns for is the opportunity to pit himself against Wade in classic western fashion.

Raking up the past - Richard Widmark & Robert Taylor in The Law and Jake Wade.

Of all John Sturges’ westerns, The Law and Jake Wade comes closest to the look and feel of the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher films. The majority of the action takes place outside in the desert wilderness (including Lone Pine), featuring a small cast of characters whom we get to know and sympathize with. Wade has a murky past and carries around a deep personal pain while his nemesis, Hollister, has a charming quality that belies his own flaws. And then there’s the secondary characters – the gritty woman who can take the hard going, and the henchmen who are a mixture of the dangerous and the personable. Sturges, as I’ve remarked in the past, was something of an artist with the wide lens and this movie, with its heavy reliance on location work, highlights his skill. The outdoors shots with the peaks of the Sierras forming the backdrop create a sense of vast space, while the interiors (especially when the gang is holed up and under siege in the ghost town) emphasise the stifling and tense atmosphere. Moreover, the Comanche raid on the town is a showcase for his action credentials, where shooting, editing and spatial awareness all play a part in ensuring that the scene remains exciting without losing any of its visual coherence. As for the cast, Richard Widmark was very good in these kinds of roles, his manner suggesting a brittle psychology masked by a cynical sense of humour. This type of villain is always much more interesting than pure, one dimensional evil as there’s usually some sneaking sense of admiration that the viewer feels. In a way, it’s helpful to the hero too, by shouldering some of the burden of satisfying the audience it frees up the lead a little. Robert Taylor was maturing nicely by this time and his experience in westerns meant he had acquired an easy confidence within the genre. His take on Wade is a deceptively laid back one, appearing cool and at ease despite the fact he’s working his wits overtime in an effort to find some way of wriggling out of his predicament. The two most notable supporting turns come from Henry Silva and Robert Middleton, the former as a dangerous psychotic and the latter as the one reasonable and humane member of Widmark’s gang – quite a contrast to his terrifying oaf in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours.

The US DVD of The Law and Jake Wade from Warners isn’t really all that it could be. The image, despite being anamorphic scope, is just too soft and short on detail. It’s not exactly what I’d term a bad transfer but it ought to look better, and the stunning scenery and camerawork on view deserves something better and sharper. The only extra offered is the theatrical trailer – this movie was issued in the Western Classics box shortly before the Archive programme took off and points towards the pared down releases that Warners were moving towards. As such, I now tend to think I should be grateful this film got as good a release as it did, considering how many fine Robert Taylor movies have been shunted into the MOD line. I really like this film; it features good work from both Widmark and Taylor, has a tight script, an even and serious tone, and (thanks to both Sturges and cameraman Robert Surtees) looks wonderful. An easy recommendation, and a strong candidate for reassessment.

As an aside, this blog is 4 years old today. So, a big thank you to all those whose comments, visits and kindness over the years has contributed to its development.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2011 in 1950s, John Sturges, Richard Widmark, Robert Taylor, Westerns

 

Bad Day at Black Rock

 

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Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is what’s termed a modern western. Of course, from a strictly purist point of view, the western really ought to take place within a narrow time period and location. This film is certainly set in the correct location – the arid southwest – but the events take place not in the late nineteenth century, but immediately after the end of WWII. Still, even if the trappings belong to a later era, the basic themes of the classic western are present: a simple tale of good vs evil wherein a lone, righteous figure grapples with the hostility of both the environment and his fellow men. Despite the apparently straightforward nature of the plot, the film is a powerful one that tackles at least two major themes; one of which is very obviously presented, the other is less explicit and takes something of a back seat but it’s there all the same.

The opening is aggressive and dramatic, with a mean-looking black engine, hauling blood red carriages, hurtling through the desert to the accompaniment of Andre Previn’s ominous score. As this impressive and relentless juggernaut grinds to a halt outside the tiny, desolate town of Black Rock, it’s as clear to the viewer as it is to the awestruck locals (the train hasn’t stopped there in four years) that something important is about to happen. The figure that alights is an incongruous one, a middle-aged man with a stiff arm, clad in an austere, black business suit. He could be a businessman, a government man, a gangster – what he’s not is local. This man is John J Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), and the reactions provoked by his unexpected arrival progress from incredulity to suspicion and finally open hostility. Everybody he encounters is consumed with curiosity regarding his errand in their midst. However, this is not the normal sense of wonder that would occur in any small, isolated community when its members are confronted with the presence of a stranger. There’s fear in the air, fear of the man and what he might discover. As Macreedy finds himself repeatedly stonewalled when requesting even the most basic kind of assistance, he’s also on the receiving end of questions from the locals. But these questions have an edge, they’re of the cagey variety where the asker doesn’t really want to know the answer. What all this means is that fear has a companion in Black Rock – guilt. A great sin has been committed in this community and Macreedy has descended upon the residents like some instrument of judgement or retribution. It’s soon made apparent exactly what has happened, a Japanese farmer has died in mysterious circumstances, and who bears the responsibility. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) is the big man around town, and the one Macreedy must deal with. Perhaps more important than the violent climax is the verbal face-off between these two men outside the gas station. This scene highlights the two principal themes in the movie: the first is the ugly matter of racism, the second is the nature of the west itself. Of the two, I find the latter more interesting, mainly because it’s approached in a much more subtle manner. When Smith points out that suspicion of the unfamiliar is just a natural throwback to the old days, Macreedy observes that he always thought the old west was characterised by hospitality. And there’s the point, that the myth of the old west was subverted through time into the kind of small-minded defensiveness represented by Black Rock. To Smith, this new west has been neglected and forgotten, of interest only to academics or businessmen seeking a quick buck. Although it’s never explicitly stated, the inference is that the responsibility for the death of an innocent Japanese doesn’t rest merely on the shoulders of the bunch of ignorant rednecks who dealt the final blow. The suggestion is that these people have been bypassed by progress (the train that never stops) and abandoned to their own prejudices – an embarrassing by-product of the apathy in wider society.

Two big men - Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan in Bad Day at Black Rock.

This is another of John Sturges’ tightly-paced, economical works, stripped down to the basics and direct. From the moment the train thunders into view at the beginning, until the circle is completed eighty minutes later with the same locomotive making another rare stop at Black Rock, the pace never slackens. Additionally, Sturges’s camera uses the wide lens to excellent effect, the dearth of close-ups serves to keep the characters at a distance and accentuates the isolation of both them and the setting. Despite the high proportion of outdoor shots, there’s still a claustrophobic atmosphere about the whole thing. It’s as though the frontier has shrunk and this western drama is played out within the stifling confines of a town that has ceased to look outwards and has turned its gaze in upon itself. The only time a sense of space is apparent is during the credits sequence, and when Macreedy drives out to the ruins of the Japanese property – the railroad and a murdered foreigner representing the openness that was once the mark of the west. Besides the visuals, this is also a film of words, and although it’s dialogue heavy there’s a snap and colour to the lines that make them instantly memorable. I’ve seen some criticism of Andre Previn’s score, citing its intrusiveness, but I feel that the urgent, driving quality of the music is the ideal accompaniment for the threatening uncertainty that unfolds on screen.

Spencer Tracy’s naturalistic style of acting was greatly admired at one time, but the rise of the method saw it fall out of favour and opinions are likely to remain divided to this day. Personally, I like it; there’s always the feeling that you’re watching a real person reacting in much the same way you might do yourself to the circumstances. The passage of time, and drinking, weathered his features and the bristling aggression that he displayed as a younger man gave way to middle-aged gravitas. Tracy could be seen as the face of moral America, not in a narrow, disapproving or prudish sense, rather the slightly imperfect conscience of everyman. As such, he was ideally cast as John J Macreedy – a man who’s trying to do one last decent thing before bowing out of life. There’s a certain ambiguity about what he means by that of course, I’ve seen it claimed that the character had been contemplating taking his own life until the challenge of exposing the rotten little secret of Black Rock reawakened his appetite. I’ve also come across the suggestion that Macreedy could be taken for a supernatural figure, the fact that Smith’s detective can find no evidence of his existence is the reasoning behind this. It’s an interesting idea, reinforcing the notion of his being the embodiment of a higher justice, but I’m not convinced that it’s actually the case. As Macreedy’s chief opponent, Robert Ryan represents a kind of distorted reflection – another craggy individual, but one whose motives are far from admirable. If Tracy stands for the kind of fundamentally right man we’d like to be, then Ryan is the total antithesis; a bullying, bigoted braggart who’s become twisted by his own inadequacy and a country that has rejected him on every level. Reno Smith is a man to be both pitied and despised in equal measure, and Ryan nailed that quality. Caught somewhere in the middle, like most ordinary people I suppose, are the supporting players: Walter Brennan’s Doc (I feel for you, but I’m consumed with apathy) and Dean Jagger’s sheriff might be jaded but still retain some ethical sense, while Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine are suitably menacing as the loutish sidekicks interested only in doing their master’s bidding. The latter pair refer to themselves as cowboys but there’s no sign anywhere of any ranching taking place – Black Rock isn’t so much a one horse town as a no horse town.

The R1 DVD from Warner Brothers has Bad Day at Black Rock looking great. The anamorphic scope transfer is clean and crisp, and the colours are rich and strong. The extras are a commentary track by Dana Polan and the trailer for the movie – it’s not what you’d call a stacked edition but there’s no reason for complaint either. The film is a very strong effort from John Sturges, both entertainingly tense and thought provoking. He did some of his best work through the 50s and this is right up near the top – a definite and easy recommendation.

 
 

Last Train from Gun Hill

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I love the complexity of westerns from the 1950s. Moreover, I love the fact that this complexity could be contained within the framework of relatively simple and compact stories and still lose nothing in the telling. Take Last Train from Gun Hill (1959): on the face of it we have a fairly standard pursuit and revenge tale, yet it successfully tackles the themes of racism, loyalty (both to friends and to family), justice and the father/son dynamic. Not only that, but it wraps the whole thing up in a run time of an hour and a half or thereabouts. The result is tight, intense moviemaking that draws you in from the very first shot and only relinquishes its grip when the final credits roll.

Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) is a US Marshal with a Cherokee bride and a young son. Within minutes of the opening Morgan’s wife has been assaulted, raped and murdered by two young thugs. This is a brutal and shocking way to begin any story, and despite the camera mercifully cutting away none of its power is diminished. The point is further hammered home when Morgan arrives to survey the terrible aftermath, horror, sorrow and outrage all flitting across his features. Morgan’s grief is compounded by his realisation that a saddle left behind at the scene of the crime points the finger of guilt at an old friend and comrade Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). Morgan doesn’t for one moment believe that Belden himself could have been directly involved in this heinous act, but the presence of the saddle means some member of his entourage must have been. The sting in the tail comes from the fact that the chief culprit is Belden’s son and heir Rick (Earl Holliman), a spoilt and inadequate young man living hopelessly in his father’s shadow. The perverse and damaging nature of this father/son relationship is eloquently summed up in a short scene at Belden’s ranch house. When the foreman ribs the boy about the reason for a cut on his face Belden goads him into fighting for the honour of the family name – Rick is soundly beaten, causing humiliation to him and disappointment to his father. When Morgan learns the truth the scene is set for a confrontation between the two old friends. The bonds between the two men are strong but the events that have taken place put an intolerable strain on them. Morgan is determined to take Rick back to stand trial while Belden is equally determined to stop him. As Morgan and his prisoner wait in a cramped hotel room for the arrival of the last train, Belden and his men lay siege outside. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma at this point, although Rick lacks the charm of Ben Wade and Morgan’s personal loss lends him more inflexibility than Dan Evans. As the clock ticks inexorably towards the arrival of that last train the pressure mounts on Morgan, and the issue is raised of whether he too might have to face the same situation as Belden somewhere down the line – for Morgan (like his former friend) is now a widower faced with the unenviable task of trying to raise a boy alone.

I am the law - Kirk Douglas in Last Train from Gun Hill.

John Sturges always knew how to shoot an action scene and there can be no complaints on that score here. However, this movie isn’t a string of back to back shoot-em-up set pieces, and it’s sometimes forgotten how good Sturges was at coaxing strong performances from his cast. Both Douglas and Quinn give convincing portraits of men unaccustomed to ceding ground to anyone and torn between conflicting loyalties. The few scenes where they actually share the screen are a pleasure to watch – the initial meeting at the ranch when both men realize who really killed Morgan’s wife, and what the consequences must inevitably be, contains some marvellous work with an enormous amount of feeling conveyed simply through subtle glances. As good as Quinn is, Douglas steals the show with his grim determination and suppressed fury boiling just below the surface. He’s playing a man for whom respect for the law and the badge he carries is paramount, even to the extent that his own personal grief is subordinated to duty. There are only two occasions when his professionalism is allowed to slip momentarily, both triggered by racial slurs directed at his murdered wife. The first is a reflexive burst of physical violence against a local loudmouth. The second, however, is merely vocal but has a sadistic quality that is quite chilling – his deliberate and detailed description to a shackled and cowed Rick of how the judicial process that will lead to his certain death will be as slow and protracted as any Indian execution is the only time he permits himself to savour the taste of revenge. Earl Holliman played Rick as a whining, craven creature who never elicits the least sympathy from the viewer. This seems to be largely down to the writing, and if any particular criticism is to be made of the film it’s that Rick’s character is just too unlikeable. If there had been something even vaguely attractive about him it would have added yet another layer to the story, but that’s really just nitpicking on my part. Carolyn Jones has the only female role in the movie (not counting the extremely brief appearance by Morgan’s wife) as the on/off lover of Belden. Aside from providing a counter to all the machismo on display, she occupies (for most of the film at least) a place similar to that of the viewer i.e. watching from the sidelines while feeling some sympathy for both the protagonists. In the end, it’s her respect for Morgan and his motivation, and her disillusionment with Belden and his son’s brutality, that leads to the decisive shift in the balance of power.

The R1 DVD from Paramount has Last Train from Gun Hill looking just great. The vistavision elements have been transferred beautifully at 1.78:1 anamorphic, with colours looking rich and saturated. I can’t say I noticed any damage or flaws worth mentioning and the image is sharp and detailed. There are no extras whatsoever on the disc, and that’s a pity as this is a movie that would seem to be just begging for an intelligent commentary track. This is a movie – like many by Sturges in fact – that knows how to keep the tension simmering and the viewer hooked. There’s no preaching or tiresome moralising yet the messages are all communicated clearly and seamlessly without impeding the narrative or the entertainment. In short, it’s a high class film.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1950s, Anthony Quinn, John Sturges, Kirk Douglas, Westerns

 

Backlash

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Backlash (1956) is one of those films that seems to have slipped through the cracks. I’m not sure if it would be correct to call it a forgotten film, but it’s certainly not one that you hear mentioned much when the genre’s notables come up for discussion. It fits neatly into the “psychological western” category due to its less than perfect hero and mature themes. At first glance it may appear to be just another tale of a man seeking revenge (not that that’s a bad thing in itself), but as the story develops it becomes clear that this is a film which is going to dig a little deeper.

The opening shots of the film, with a lone rider traversing a rugged landscape to come upon a man filling in a grave, set the tone for the movie and establish the isolation of the two principal characters. The fact that both of them are soon under attack from a gunman perched in the rocks high above underlines the danger of the quest they are about to set out upon. There is also an undercurrent of suspicion and mistrust that will follow them now as neither one can be sure that the other isn’t responsible for setting the ambush. The rider is Karyl Orton (Donna Reed) and the gravedigger is Jim Slater (Richard Widmark); both are in search of the truth, and maybe $60,000 in gold. Years before, five men died at this spot at the hands of the Apache but one other escaped with his life and the gold, leaving his partners to their fate. Slater believes the father he never knew was one of the five, and Karyl believes her estranged husband to be another. With Slater seeking vengeance and closure, and the woman with her eyes on the gold they set out to identify and track down the mysterious sixth man. The manhunt pitches both these characters into one perilous situation after another, from a murderous Apache raid to a range war. Along the way their relationship slowly develops, although it’s no smooth ride for either of them – at one point Slater hauls off and belts Karyl full in the face for putting his life in danger, and she later takes an almost perverse pleasure in sealing up his wounds with a heated blade. By the end of the movie both these people will have to face down their own personal demons and maybe take something of real value away from the experience.

Richard Widmark - digging into past secrets.

Backlash was made at a time when Sturges’ and Widmark’s stars were on the rise. John Sturges had just come off the magnificent Bad Day at Black Rock and would shortly go on to make Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He was close to his peak at this point and handled just about every aspect of the picture perfectly. Action and suspense blend seamlessly together and the Arizona locations look particularly fine through the wide lens. Widmark was also doing some of his best work around this time and this film must have helped him along nicely. His bony features and distinctive nasal giggle had landed him plenty of villainous roles but they were also ideally suited to playing the kind of damaged men that psychological westerns thrived on. He turns in a great performance here, obsessively digging into the past, searching for the truth and searching for himself – all the while fearing what he might learn yet unable to stop himself. Conversely, Donna Reed’s movie career was soon to end and she was close to moving into a successful run on television. With an impressive list of credits behind her she does well as the feisty, courageous woman-with-a-past. The support cast are solid too with Barton MacLane and an eye-rolling John McIntire standing out especially. A good screenplay is key to the success of any film and having Borden Chase’s name attached never hurt any. It struck me that the episodic structure and the underlying theme bore at least a passing resemblance to the writer’s earlier Winchester 73.

Backlash has had a number of releases on DVD in R2 but the UK disc appears to be the only one with a proper widescreen image – there’s a R4 available but I’m not sure how it’s presented. Optimum’s UK disc has the movie looking very nice in a 2:1 anamorphic transfer, and I’ve been reliably informed that this is indeed the correct ratio for the film. There’s very little damage to be seen and colours and detail all looked excellent to my eyes. Surprisingly, for an Optimum release, the theatrical trailer is included but that’s it as far as extras go. However, when the main feature is there in OAR and looking good then I’m not about to complain. Backlash is a good example of a high quality mid 50s western – one that I rate and recommend.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1950s, John Sturges, Richard Widmark, Westerns

 

Escape from Fort Bravo

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Often a film will stick in one’s mind because of a certain scene or sequence. That’s certainly the case with Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), a movie I first saw many moons ago but whose climax lingered on as a fond memory down through the years. Under such circumstances revisits are a delicate matter, best approached with caution as disappointment is always ready to pounce. When I eventually got the chance to see this western again last year I was pleased to find that my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me – I enjoyed it immensely. Digging it out and giving it a spin the other day, for the purposes of this piece, allowed me to recognise some of its weaknesses more clearly but still didn’t dilute any of the punch of the ending.

The action takes place in Arizona during the Civil War, where a group of Confederate prisoners are cooped up in the dusty Fort Bravo. Among the jailers is Captain Roper (William Holden), a hard-bitten man who thinks nothing of marching a recaptured prisoner back through the blazing desert heat as an example to the others. While such actions naturally stir resentment among the southerners, his own commander and peers don’t shirk away from expressing their disapproval either. The tensions within the stockade are only one aspect of the problem though, as the fort is right smack in the middle of hostile Mescalero territory. The threat posed by the Apache is an ever present one and is highlighted early on when a detachment is sent out to locate a delayed supply convoy, finding only burned wagons and dead drivers. On the return leg the troop encounter a stage and escort it back to the safety of the fort. This stage contains one Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker), who’s using the cover of a wedding invitation to facilitate the escape of the Confederate OC, Captain Marsh (John Forsythe). This leads into an unconvincing and undeveloped love triangle which, in combination with the less than riveting escape plan, could well have sunk the picture. Fortunately, the addition of some ripe dialogue and good support playing (William Demarest in particular) just about keep things afloat. The resulting escape and pursuit get things back on course again, and by the time Roper, Marsh et al find themselves surrounded by some of the most cunning Apaches ever seen on film the tension has been wound tight. Those scenes in the latter half of the film are worth the price of admission alone. Watching the small, isolated group, huddled in a desert crater, move from defiance to fearful realization and back again is quite powerful stuff. Adversity is said to bring out the best and the worst in men, and the sight of Roper striding out at dawn, a revolver in both fists, to meet fate head on is a marvellous image.

William Holden takes a lonely walk.

William Holden was arguably in his prime when Escape from Fort Bravo was made (the same year as Stalag 17) and he gave a very strong performance as the practical and ruthless Roper. He was ideally suited to playing tough cynics with a deep set yet true sense of personal honour. Watching Holden’s honest, warts-and-all portrayal of Roper really shows up the inadequacies of his co-star. John Forsythe is a likable enough actor but there’s a lightweight quality about him (it worked well enough in a movie like The Trouble with Harry, and Hitchcock obviously thought enough of him to cast him again in Topaz and in his TV show) that’s not quite right for the part of a tough veteran. I’ve always enjoyed watching Eleanor Parker, she had a sassiness that suggested she could hold her own in any company and give as good as she got. However, she’s poorly served by her role here and the aforementioned “love triangle that really isn’t” is largely responsible for that. It seems odd to refer to a director’s twentieth picture as his breakthrough, but in this case I believe that’s actually the case. John Sturges would go on to make a string of ever more successful films after this and showed that he was highly capable when it came to action. His best work is in the early and latter stages, when he made effective use of the Death Valley locations and avoided the studio mock-ups. It’s also notable that he wisely chose to shoot the key scenes without any musical accompaniment and they’re all the better for it.

When Warner released Escape from Fort Bravo in their Western Classics box there was a good deal of griping about the quality of the transfer. It seemed to be the general consensus that much of the blame could be laid at the door of the poor condition of the Ansco Color elements. In truth, the transfer isn’t that bad and the colour is actually fairly strong. The real problem is that the print used is very dirty and obviously had little or no work done on it. It’s available in the R1 box (probably the best value), and individually in both R1 and continental R2. Escape from Fort Bravo belongs to that small category of westerns, along with Two Flags West and Major Dundee, that has Yankees and Rebs fighting side by side against the Indians. I think it’s a fine little western whose strong opening and blinding finish certainly shore up a slightly sagging middle section. Recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1950s, John Sturges, Westerns, William Holden

 

Hour of the Gun

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Ten years after making Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Director John Sturges paid a return visit to Tombstone. Where his earlier film drew to a close with the shootout of the title, Hour of the Gun takes it as the starting point and proceeds from there. Although the 1967 movie is more or less a direct sequel, it is a very different production. Those intervening ten years had seen the western evolve away from a brighter optimism to become something much darker. The Wyatt Earp of Hour of the Gun is far removed from the upstanding representative of justice and honour that had previously been the standard. This is a driven, vengeful man who manipulates the law more than he upholds it. 

The first half of the film sticks pretty close to the known facts and it is only towards the end that it drifts off into the realm of fantasy. It opens at the O.K. Corral and is quite accurate in depicting what actually happened; all those involved in the real incident are shown to be there and, for the first time, behave in the way that history has recorded. The story continues with the trial of the Earps and what would come to be known as the Earp vendetta. It is only the ending, where Wyatt and Doc Holliday track down Ike Clanton in Mexico for a final confrontation, that departs radically from the truth. However, aside from greater vercity, the most distinctive feature of this film is the way Wyatt Earp is portrayed. In all the previous versions he was a man whose primary motivation was the service of justice and the badge of office that symbolised it. In Hour of the Gun he starts off in much the same mode, but the attacks on his family bring about a rapid and drastic change. This Wyatt Earp is an anti-heroic figure paying only lip service to the law as he takes advantage of his position to exact a cold and bloody revenge on those he holds responsible for the shootings of his brothers. Although he carries arrest warrants, it becomes increasingly clear to his companions on the posse, and to the viewer, that he has no intention of ever serving them. One by one, the hired gunmen are shot down in what amount to legal executions. 

Jason Robards & James Garner

If you’re only familiar with James Garner as the easy-going Jim Rockford, then his work here is a revelation. His Wyatt Earp doesn’t indulge in shy romances or offer fatherly advice to wayward teens – he is instead the angel of death. For the most part he comes across as aloof and unemotional, yet there is a maniacal, almost psychopathic, gleam in his eyes in those scenes where he blasts away his enemies. Jason Robards was frankly too old to play Doc Holliday although he brings a world-weary cynicism to the part that is attractive. The script makes a number of references to his deadly reputation but his main function in the film is to act as the conscience to Earps dark avenger, taking him to task for using the law to his own ends. Robert Ryan was always good value in any film which he graced with his presence, and his Ike Clanton is more of a politically savvy string-puller than an out and out gunslinger. There’s also a small role for Jon Voight (his big screen debut) as Curly Bill Brocius. The direction from Sturges is a solid, professional job and the story moves along at a nice pace. I’ve become very fond of Sturges as a director; he was no groundbreaker or innovator like Ford, Peckinpah or Leone but he almost always turned out strong, quality product. The film also benefits from a fine Jerry Goldsmith score, downbeat and relentless like the story itself. 

Hour of the Gun seems to be the Wyatt Earp film that no one remembers, and that’s a pity. I think it’s a little hidden gem of a movie that deserves much more recognition. MGM have had this out on DVD in R1 for a few years now in a mediocre interlaced transfer. It’s recently had a R2 outing in what looks like the same print but this time it seems progressive – at least it runs a lot smoother on my system. All things considered, I’d say this is a worthy addition to the Earp canon and a film that I’m more than happy to have in my collection.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2008 in 1960s, James Garner, John Sturges, Robert Ryan, Westerns

 

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

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With Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) John Sturges took his turn at putting Wyatt Earp’s story on the screen. When this film is compared to those which went before, there can be no doubt that it does come closer to the truth. There are more characters represented who actually played a part in the real events, small incidents which have a basis in fact are shown, and a little back story is provided. Having said all that, there are still lots of inaccuracies with names being changed and things not happening as they really did. Still, this is not a documentary, it’s a movie – and a highly polished and entertaining movie at that. 

Frankie Laine’s rendition of the title song opens the movie as Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) rides into Fort Griffin, Texas in pursuit of Ike Clanton. During his stay he meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), whom he subsequently saves from an angry mob intent on lynching him. This places Holliday in his debt and provides the basis for the two men’s friendship. As the film proceeds we see Earp and Holliday cross paths again in Dodge City before moving on to Tombstone, and the famous showdown. The fact that each segment is both punctuated and linked together by the theme song gives the film a slightly episodic feel. Mind you, that’s not a criticism; Laine’s vocals work almost as well as Tex Ritter’s do in High Noon (both of which, coincidentally, were scored by Dimitri Tiomkin). There are romantic sub-plots thrown in for the two leads – the one involving Earp and a lady gambler (Rhonda Fleming) is mostly superflous, while the stormy, abusive relationship between Holliday and Kate (Jo Van Fleet) works better since it does serve to drive the narrative forward.

Doc Holliday and the Earps on the way to the O.K. Corral

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was the second film that Lancaster and Douglas made together and they work well in tandem, each playing nicely off the other. Lancaster’s Wyatt has more of a hard, grim edge to him than was seen in previous incarnations. At one point Holliday tells him, “You know Wyatt, you and I are pretty much alike actually. Both of us live with a gun – the only difference is that badge.” However, Sturges doesn’t explore this side of things too much, and it would be left to later films to point out the fact that Earp’s badge might have been used as a mere convenience. Kirk Douglas’ Doc Holliday follows the usual pattern of presenting him as a tortured and volatile soul, but his self-loathing has a greater pathos than either Romero or Mature brought to the role, and it’s a vast improvement. John Ireland makes his second appearance in an Earp film, playing Johnny Ringo (he was Billy Clanton in My Darling Clementine) and again comes to a sticky end. In fact there are lots of familiar faces: Dennis Hopper, Kenneth Tobey, DeForest Kelley (Star Trek’s ‘Bones’), Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam etc.

Now a word about those items the movie got right, and those it didn’t. On the plus side we get a full complement of Clantons and McLaurys, Doc’s woman Kate is present, and Bat Masterson appears in Dodge City. Earp and Holliday are shown to meet in Fort Griffin and later in Dodge, where Doc saved Wyatt’s life as he attempted to stop a fight in a saloon. There’s also a brief reference to Old Man Clanton being shot dead as a result of his rustling activities. As for the negatives, James Earp is again falsely portrayed as the youngster of the family whose death is the catalyst for the gunfight – in truth he was the eldest and lived to a ripe old age. Ike Clanton and Johnny Ringo didn’t die at the O.K. Corral, Ringo wasn’t even there. Also, the corrupt County Sheriff has his name changed from Behan to Wilson. 

The film is out on DVD from Paramount in R1 in a wonderful looking widescreen transfer. I haven’t seen the R2 to compare but I imagine it uses the same transfer. There is only very minor damage to the print and the colors are strong. Unfortunately, the disc is utterly barebones with not even a trailer present. The lack of supplements aside, this a great example of a 50’s western and one of the better movies about Wyatt Earp.

 
 
 
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