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Category Archives: Raoul Walsh

A Distant Trumpet

It’s been remarked on before how the 1960s saw a gradual change in approach adopted by the Hollywood western. And it was indeed gradual, up until the middle of the decade, and even a little further in some cases, the influence and sensibilities of the 50s could still be discerned. The change, when it did come, tended to be most marked in the work of the newer breed of directors. The old hands, the pioneers, remained closer to the traditional vision and portrayal of the west. Raoul Walsh, with his earliest directing credit stretching way back to 1913, was most assuredly of the old school, and his final film A Distant Trumpet (1964) has more of the feel of a 50s western than one from the mid-60s.

The film opens spectacularly with a clash between the massed forces of the US cavalry and the Apache. It then cuts swiftly to the academy at West Point where General Quait (James Gregory) is delivering a first hand account of those events to a class of cadets. Among his audience is a young lieutenant Matt Hazard (Troy Donahue), soon to be posted to the remote and undermanned Fort Delivery in Arizona. It’s through Hazard’s idealistic and ambitious eyes that the remainder of the story is seen. The slovenliness, incompetency and insubordination he encounters at the isolated outpost is an affront to the young man’s sense of military propriety. As he assumes the task of whipping the rag-tag detachment into something resembling a modern, disciplined fighting force we get a look at the day-to-day lives of cavalrymen that, in some respects, recalls the work of John Ford. Woven into this is a, not altogether successful, romantic subplot which sees Hazard torn between his betrothed, the General’s niece Laura (Diane McBain), and Kitty (Suzanne Pleshette), the wife of a fellow officer. The second half of the movie sees General Quait and his troops arrive at the fort, and the emphasis shifts to the military campaign to neutralize the threat posed by the renegade Apache War Eagle. Quait’s tactics prove only partially effective however, and achieve not much more than driving War Eagle back across the border into the safety of Mexico. Holed up somewhere deep in the Sierra Madre, War Eagle is at liberty to raid over the border whenever he feels like it. Unless of course someone is prepared to risk his neck going alone into the Apache stronghold to negotiate terms with the old warrior. All told, the latter half of the movie works a lot better, not least because the unsatisfying romance is sidelined for long stretches. Not only are action and spectacle brought to the fore, but there’s greater opportunity to highlight the inherent pro-Indian sympathies of the film.

Raoul Walsh brought a lifetime of experience to the shooting of A Distant Trumpet, and the staging of some of the later battle scenes has an epic quality, aided by the wonderful camerawork of William Clothier. Walsh was always a first class director of action, and location work suited his talents especially well. The wide lens is used very effectively to highlight the vastness of the landscape and, again in a way reminiscent of Ford, the relative insignificance of the tiny humans framed against the primal backdrop. It’s easy to forget though that Walsh had a flair for close-ups and more intimate composition too, and the film offers plenty of chances to sample that aspect of his skill. One of the other great strengths of the production is the score; Max Steiner’s pounding, martial theme adds drive to the film and powers it along. And that brings us to the script, so often the crucial factor when it comes to making or breaking a film. The basis for the movie is a novel by Paul Horgan (not having read it, I can’t comment on how true the adaptation is) and the script derived from this reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the finished product. To begin with the positives: the story told is in effect an account of the latter stages of General Crook’s campaign against the Apache, and Geronimo in particular. Right away we have both a compelling narrative and, just as important, a chance to cast a critical eye over government/army relations and policy towards the Indians. The script treats the Apache with the greatest respect – not phony sentimentalism or misplaced adulation – and adopts a mature and balanced stance. There’s no shying away from atrocities, nor is there any attempt to gloss over government hypocrisy and the shabbiness of broken promises. One could, I suppose, complain about the positive resolution that doesn’t take into account how events really played out, but overall the film pulls no punches in its portrayal of the situation. As for the negatives, the aforementioned romance, and consequent soapy elements, isn’t very well realized. It would appear to exist primarily as a means of fleshing out the character of Lt Hazard, however, it actually only serves to bog the picture down and dampen the pace in the first half.

I think of Troy Donahue principally as the star of 50s and 60s soap dramas. I understand his performance isn’t all that well regarded in A Distant Trumpet, but I’ll break ranks here and say that he’s reasonable in certain scenes. He fares best in the latter stages where he’s called on to play the action hero for the most part. His deficiencies are far more noticeable in the intimate scenes though, and that makes the romantic stuff seem even more labored. I guess it doesn’t help any that the parts of Suzanne Pleshette and, more especially, Diane McBain are pretty much under written. Pleshette has the stronger, more sympathetic role, while McBain gets to look glamorous but is saddled with playing a stuck-up, unattractive character. To be honest, McBain’s part could have been cut from the movie and not harmed the narrative one iota. James Gregory is very entertaining and seemed to enjoy playing the Latin-quoting general. Every scene he’s in is all the better for his presence. Claude Akins is good value too as the Indian agent, and purveyor of anything and everything from whiskey and guns to loose women. Generally, the supporting cast is fine with small but memorable roles for Kent Smith, Judson Pratt and William Reynolds.

A Distant Trumpet is widely available these days via the Warner Archive and various European releases. I bought the French Warner Brothers DVD back when it was the only edition available. That’s more than a few years ago now but the transfer still stands up well in my opinion. There’s a nice, crisp and colorful anamorphic scope image that’s basically undamaged. French DVDs can be troublesome when it comes to subtitles, but I don’t think I’ve ever had any issues with Warner releases. The subs are easily disabled via the language menu on this one. All in all, the film is what I’d call sporadically successful; there’s a strong story in there with a message that’s subtly expressed and never feels forced. On the other hand, there’s flab in the script too that could and arguably should have been edited out. There’s an ambition to achieve something approaching the epic, but the scripting and some of the casting choices fall short. However, while I have some reservations, I feel the movie works reasonably well on the whole.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2014 in 1960s, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

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Pursued

Anyone who has visited this site a few times must be aware of my fondness for both film noir and westerns, and it shouldn’t therefore come as any surprise to learn that I find myself drawn to what we might call crossover movies. The noir influence that can be detected in so many 40s films is especially noticeable in a number of westerns, and Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947) is one example where this is very evident. Now this is by no means a perfect movie; I’m not convinced that the basic premise of the story, which isn’t fully revealed until the end, is all that logical or capable of bearing too much close scrutiny. However, film noir, regardless of its setting, was never heavily dependent on wholly logical motivation or reactions. In terms of appearance, tone and mood, Pursued is a very stylish piece of western noir that emphasises and revels in its more melodramatic aspects.

The opening has an edgy, breathless quality with Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) holed up in the ruins of a New Mexico homestead, waiting for some inevitable showdown. With the arrival of his girl, Thor (Teresa Wright), Jeb begins delving into their shared past in order to try to make sense of their current predicament. It’s abundantly clear that Jeb is in a heightened emotional state, and the lengthy flashback which occupies the bulk of the running time seems to take on the dizzying, disorienting characteristics of a fever dream at some points. The story traces Jeb’s life from childhood, from the point where he was found cowering and confused by Ma Callum (Judith Anderson) in his deserted home. She adopts the youngster and raises him as her own along with her two natural children, Thor and Adam (John Rodney). Young Jeb has no memory of his life before the night Ma Callum discovered him, and it’s clear that this is the result of some deeply traumatic events that occurred. The practice of employing Freudian theories about the roots of psychological issues and the whole process of memory recovery was woven into the plot strands of many a regular film noir, but it’s something of a departure to see it play such a prominent role in a western. Right from the beginning Jeb is seen to be a victim; not only does he feel a gnawing sense of self-doubt over his failure to fully recall his past, but his life is threatened on numerous occasions. Early on we learn that the principal danger is posed by Ma Callum’s brother-in-law, Grant (Dean Jagger), but the reasons for his apparent determination to see Jeb in his grave are only vaguely hinted at. Grant’s animosity stems from the existence of a vendetta between the Rand’s and the Callum’s and, like Jeb, the viewer has to wait and discover the meaning as the story unfolds. This element of mystery serves the twin purpose of maintaining our interest and also of emphasising the fatalistic nature of Jeb’s life – a man continually stalked by phantoms lurking in the shadows of his childhood.

The movie’s title is highly appropriate, in both a literal and figurative sense, as Jeb spends almost all of his screen time on the run from a variety of perils. Raoul Walsh’s direction, helped enormously by the masterly photography of the great James Wong Howe, hammers the point home by reducing the wide open spaces of the frontier to a series of dark, claustrophobic compositions. Even the exteriors have a tight, constricted quality to them – the ruins of the Rand homestead with broken and burnt rafters clawing despairingly at the lowering sky, and the huge, featureless rock formations that seem to dwarf the tiny riders scampering across their face. In addition, the cramped interiors are often filmed from low angles and bathed in expressionistic shadows, thus enhancing the mood of doom and paranoia. The action scenes, for which Walsh earned a lot of praise throughout his long career, are infrequent but well-shot and jarringly effective. All told, Pursued is arguably one of Walsh’s most artistic and stylized pieces of work. I think the director’s own macho dismissal of pretentious theorizing about subtexts or the artistic value of his vision goes some way towards explaining why he remains an underrated figure, although his reputation has seen some steady growth and reappraisal. The only major weakness I can detect lies in the script, or the resolution to be more precise. Niven Busch’s writing holds out the possibility of a big reveal that ought to shock, although close observers should more or less work things out for themselves anyway, yet fails to deliver on that promise. As I mentioned above, there’s a certain lack of logic to the climactic revelations that I found mildly disappointing.

Pursued is probably the movie that saw Robert Mitchum really hit his stride as an actor, and his star was in the ascendancy from this point. His tough, laconic persona had already been put to use in westerns, and the underlying hint of vulnerability meant that he could move comfortably within the shadowy and uncertain world of film noir. This movie’s artful blending of the two filmmaking styles was therefore an ideal showcase for Mitchum’s talents. The sleepy-eyed passivity that he was able to project fits in with the fatalistic character who appears to have grown to accept the fact that life has and will continue to kick dirt in his face. As the architect of the ill-fortune that has dogged Mitchum’s footsteps, Dean Jagger makes for a formidable rival. He gives an electrifying performance as the driven man, consumed with hate for the Rand’s, who thought nothing of losing an arm to even up a score. There’s something chilling about the manic gleam that comes onto his eyes whenever the opportunity arises to compromise Mitchum further. Judith Anderson ought to be a cinematic legend if only for her turn as Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and she’s very good here too. She didn’t feature in too many westerns – this and Anthony Mann’s The Furies being the most notable – but her role as Ma Callum represents another memorable characterization. She’s a pivotal figure in the development of the story and brings a strong sense of believability to her part. I have to say I was less impressed by Teresa Wright, whose evolution from Girl Friday to femme fatale and back again lacked both consistency and plausibility. Again, this may be more the fault of the leaps in logic demanded by the script than any particular deficiency on the part of the actress.

The R1 DVD of Pursued from Artisan is a middling effort at best. The disc carries a note that the film was restored by the UCLA but there’s inconsistency in the presentation. Early on, there’s a short section that’s noticeably weaker than the rest of the movie, and the sharpness and clarity varies throughout. There are no extra features offered. The film belongs in the Republic library, the recent acquisition of which by Olive in the US has seen the announcement of a number of titles on Blu-ray. I don’t know if this movie is seen as a candidate for a future release in the HD format but it would need to undergo some additional work for that to be a viable option. All in all, I see Pursued as an interesting attempt to fuse the western with film noir and throw some Freudian psychoanalysis into the mix. Personally, I like it and I reckon it should offer something to fans of both types of movie.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2012 in 1940s, Raoul Walsh, Robert Mitchum, Westerns

 

Saskatchewan

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Cinema is action, action, action, but it must always be in the same direction – Raoul Walsh.

That maxim from the veteran director could be applied to many of the movies he made, and Saskatchewan (1954) genuinely lives up to it from beginning to end. In a lot of respects this is a routine film with no special message to sell. However, as with most of Walsh’s work, it remains enjoyable for it’s total lack of pretension and the pacy shooting style.

The plot concerns O’Rourke (Alan Ladd), a Mountie with close connections to the Cree due to his being adopted by them as an orphan. This affinity for the natives is made clear right from the start when O’Rourke and his Cree half-brother, Cajou (Jay Silverheels) are seen hunting together. Their sport is interrupted though when they stumble upon the site of an ambush by Sioux fleeing north after routing Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. There is only one survivor, an American woman called Grace (Shelley Winters), who escaped death by hiding herself at the onset of the attack. She proves reluctant to return to the fort at Saskatchewan with her rescuers, the reason being she’s wanted across the border in Montana for murder. With the threat of the Sioux forging an alliance with the Cree and fomenting trouble in Canada growing all the time, the Mounties are ordered to proceed south and link up their colleagues in an effort to drive the newcomers back to the US. That trek is beset with difficulties in the shape of constant Sioux harrying, a volatile and intolerant marshal bent on returning Grace to Montana, and a fresh off the boat commander with a firm grasp of regulations but woeful ignorance of the local conditions. As the possibility of the total annihilation of the command looms ever larger, O’Rourke has little choice but to stage a mutiny and try to get as many people as possible back to safety. All the while the Sioux and Cree are inching their way towards a pact that would surely guarantee war with the Canadians. There’s plenty of bad history in here, not least the fact that those Sioux who did run north had no intention of starting an uprising in Canada, but the sheer pace of the movie and the relentless action make it easy to ignore this and simply wallow in some of the stunning images on view.

The thin red line presses on in Saskatchewan 

Raoul Walsh had a real talent for making watchable and entertaining films from thin, and sometimes pretty trite, material. He was always at his best when filming on location and staging actions set pieces, and Saskatchewan offered ample opportunity for indulging in both. The Canadian scenery provided a breathtaking backdrop and the director’s sure touch meant that events rattle along, peppered with well staged battle scenes. I always find it odd that Alan Ladd’s greatest and most iconic role also signalled his decline. His post-Shane roles were a mixed bag ranging from mundane to reasonably interesting, with Saskatchewan falling somewhere in the middle. The part of O’Rourke doesn’t call for him to dig especially deep or stretch himself, despite the fact that the opening set-up suggests that there will be some inner conflict to deal with. The pull of conflicting loyalties is explicit enough in the script, but there’s never any real sense of the turmoil this must necessarily evoke in O’Rourke. Ladd’s performance is by no means bad, it’s just not particularly involving. The only female of note in the movie is Shelley Winters as the fugitive O’Rourke grows increasingly attached to. I’ve never been a fan of Winters – even when she got to play fairly independent characters such as Grace there was still that slightly whiny and self-pitying quality about her that turns me right off. As the marshal determined to extradite Winters back to the US, Hugh O’Brian makes a satisfying villain. He’s clearly burdened by some dark secret, and is suitably mean when shooting Indians in the back and slugging Winters. For me, the most enjoyable role in the movie was the one handed to J Carrol Naish. His buckskin-clad Frenchman has a good line in quick fire wit and it’s hard not to smile at his self-confessed ambition to start his own tribe, already producing six children in the first six years of marriage to a Cree squaw. Naish was one of those unsung character actors who turned up in countless movies and rarely disappointed.

There are DVD releases of Saskatchewan in Germany, France (although this is almost sure to have burnt-in subs) and Australia. I have the German edition from Koch Media and the transfer is a very pleasing one. The film is presented 1.33:1 and is generally clean with colours that really pop. There are no forced subs on the English track and extras consist of the trailer, a gallery and a booklet (in German of course). I’d describe the film as entertaining without being anything special. Both acting and direction are competent and professional and it’s a lovely movie to look at. This is a lower tier western that sets out primarily to offer pacy and colourful diversion – taken as such it delivers successfully.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in 1950s, Alan Ladd, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

Colorado Territory

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The sun travels west…and so does opportunity.

Are remakes ever better than the originals? The common consensus usually says no and there are countless ill-judged and frankly cack-handed examples that would seem to back that up. However, once in a while, it is possible to come across those rare exceptions to the rule. John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon is a notable case in point, although that movie had the luxury of building on two predecessors that were markedly inferior. What’s altogether more difficult is to improve upon something that was pretty good in the first place, and it’s inevitable that opinion is going to be divided over the alleged improvement – Hitchcock’s two shots at The Man Who Knew Too Much being a good example. Colorado Territory (1949) is in a similar position since it’s a reworking by Raoul Walsh of his earlier hit High Sierra, and in my opinion the remake comes out on top this time.

Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) is a notorious outlaw, languishing in jail and awaiting a date with the hangman. However, a visit from an old dear professing to be his aunt leaves McQueen in possession of the articles he needs to effect his escape. It turns out that this was all arranged by an old associate who has need of McQueen’s services one more time. Making his way west by stagecoach he finds himself sharing the ride with a new settler and his daughter Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone). A deadly encounter with a gang of thieves en route highlights McQueen’s particular skills, and earns him the gratitude and (perhaps) the friendship of his fellow passengers. This sequence also draws attention to the fact that here we have a man grown weary of his profession, who dreams instead of starting a new life and sees in Julie Ann a reflection of the woman he once loved and lost. If he’s ever to have a crack at that longed for new beginning though he must first get this final job out of the way. It soon becomes apparent to McQueen that he’s going to have his hands full just keeping his shifty cohorts in line, and it’s not made any easier by the presence of a sultry half-breed called Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo). The bulk of the movie’s mid section takes place in an old ruined town populated solely by the would-be robbers and the ghosts of the past. This bleak and desolate setting contributes enormously to the sense of doom and despair that hangs over the whole film, and it’s also a perfect backdrop for the escalating tension and jealousy among the characters. When the robbery does take place nothing goes according to plan (or at least not the way McQueen planned it) but it does give Colorado the chance to show her worth and her loyalty. Just when it looks like these two might have a chance to break out of the world they’ve spent so long locked into fate comes along and deals another blow, leading McQueen to comment: It means we’re a couple of fools in a dead village dreaming about something that’ll probably never happen. This leads to a powerful climax, atop a sun baked mountain and among the ruins of an ancient Indian settlement, that packs a real emotional punch and is sure to stick in the mind of anyone who’s seen it.

The calm before  the storm - Virginia Mayo & Joel McCrea in Colorado Territory.

Raoul Walsh’s direction is highly assured and tight as a drum right from the beginning. A good portion of the movie takes place outdoors and with a liberal sprinkling of action, both elements playing to the director’s strengths. His handling of the attempted stagecoach hold-up near the start and the later train robbery is exemplary with editing, camera placement and pacing all judged to perfection. With Walsh you kind of expect him to get those things right, but he doesn’t disappoint in the more intimate scenes either. It helps a lot that his principal stars were all on form, and I couldn’t fault any of the performances of McCrea, Mayo or Malone. Joel McCrea was great in stolid parts and he put his talents to good use in this anti-heroic role. He had that low key quality that usually shines in westerns and the part of Wes McQueen seemed to fit him like a glove. The scene where he finally tumbles to the true nature and motives of Julie Ann is a fine example of his underplaying, and it’s all the better for that. Which brings me to Dorothy Malone; her role is that of a grasping and shallow woman and if it’s compared to Joan Leslie’s in High Sierra it would be fair to say that Malone invested it with considerably more depth. However, Virginia Mayo is the one that acts everyone else off the screen with her blend of toughness, vulnerability and sensuality. She truly owns the climax of the picture but she has other memorable moments too, not least the aftermath of the robbery when she has to operate on the wounded McCrea. Comparing the performances of the three leads in Colorado Territory to those in High Sierra, I’d say that McCrea just about holds his own against Bogart’s more famous and more intense playing (both men brought very different viewpoints and styles to their work) whereas both Mayo and Malone outshine Lupino and Leslie respectively.

As far as I can tell, there are currently only two ways to obtain Colorado Territory on DVD. I viewed the Warner R2 release from Spain, and the transfer to disc is no more than adequate. There aren’t any major issues like tears or splices and the image is generally quite detailed with good enough contrast. Nevertheless, the print is clearly in need of a good digital scrub as there are speckles, scratches and cue blips all the way through. From the few comments I’ve seen the Warner Archive disc from the US sounds like it suffers from the same sort of problems, so it may be they both used the same master. The R2 disc is completely barebones, with English and Spanish audio. The subs on the English version can be switched off via the remote – the main menu seems to suggest that the subs aren’t optional but that’s thankfully not the case. Colorado Territory is another first class western from Raoul Walsh, and I feel it generally trumps High Sierra. I’m very familiar with the Bogart picture and I like it an awful lot, but I have to give credit to Walsh for revisiting his earlier work and tweaking it successfully. This is an even darker and bleaker film with performances that are at least equal or, particularly those of the two actresses, superior to the original version. I recommend this one highly.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1940s, Joel McCrea, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

Along the Great Divide

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-You’re new in the territory.

-The law isn’t.

That exchange takes place during the tense standoff that opens Raoul Walsh’s Along the Great Divide (1951). This is a film that examines notions of law and justice and, like any quality western, also looks into the hearts of the characters and their motivations. The framework of the story is a fairly standard pursuit through vast open spaces but the fact that it’s got a relatively small cast allows time for the psychology of each of the main players to be thoroughly probed.

When Len Merrick (Kirk Douglas), a US Marshal, chances upon a mob of angry cattlemen bent on a lynching he’s duty bound to call a halt to proceedings. His dogged determination to see the law run its prescribed course will plunge him into a tangled mess of jealousy, revenge and violence. The man on the end of the rope is Pop Keith (Walter Brennan), a homesteader whose fondness for rustling has landed him in deep trouble. Keith has been accused of the murder of the local cattle baron’s son, and the father is keen to visit justice on the old man personally. With the reluctant help of his two deputies (John Agar and Ray Teal) Merrick takes the prisoner into custody and sets about escorting him back to what passes for civilisation, and a fair trial. However, the relentless pursuit of the lynch mob means that the lawmen, with Keith’s daughter Ann (Virginia Mayo) in tow, need to alter their plans. If their prisoner is to be delivered into the hands of the proper authorities then the only way to do so is by traversing the unforgiving desert in high summer. This punishing trek is further complicated by ambush, treachery and the psychological taunting of the marshal. Keith has stumbled upon a dark secret in Merrick’s past relating to his father, and baits him mercilessly every step of the way. The situation isn’t made any easier when Merrick not only finds himself becoming attracted to the daughter but he also realizes that his doubts regarding Keith’s guilt are growing by the day. By the time the climax rolls round, Merrick will have to face down both his enemies and the demons of his past before he can make peace with his own conscience.

Rattling the skeletons - Kirk Douglas & Walter Brennan in Along the Great Divide.

Along the Great Divide is typical Raoul Walsh fare, with hard men braving a hostile environment and battling both the elements and themselves. For the most part, the movie was shot outdoors on location at Lone Pine and the director made the most of what the landscape had to offer. The ambush among those familiar rock formations is skilfully handled, and the desert crossing has a realistically dusty and arduous feel. This was the first western role that Kirk Douglas took on and he seemed to slip very naturally into the genre. He portrays Merrick as a complex yet competent man who tries his best to do the right thing, even though he’s not always sure what that is. Walter Brennan is as reliable as usual as the wily old timer whose amiability and charm are undercut by a streak of malice that he freely indulges at Merrick’s expense. In the role of the tomboyish daughter Virginia Mayo is also highly effective, with her tough and feisty character giving a grittier edge to the romantic angle. As for the support cast, John Agar and Ray Teal are fine as Merrick’s deputies, the former loyal and steadfast while the latter is conniving and slippery.

This movie has made an appearance in R1 as part of the Warner Archive programme, but there’s an excellent pressed disc available in R2 from France. Warner obviously had a strong print to work with for that R2 disc presents the film very appealingly. The image is sharp and highly detailed (with the exception of a few zoom shots which are softer and have heavier grain) with little in the way of damage. Bearing in mind the short running time and the total absence of extras, it seems a bit odd that the movie has been granted a dual layer disc. However, this means that there’s no issue with compression. As with all Warner French releases I’ve seen, the subtitles are optional and can be switched off via the main menu. It’s hard to go wrong with a western directed by Raoul Walsh, and Along the Great Divide is one of his usual polished and well-crafted works. Recommended.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1950s, Kirk Douglas, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

Silver River

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What a difference a director makes. One of my gripes with San Antonio was the fact that it was made by a man who didn’t seem to be in touch with the genre. The western is one kind of film where such a lack of association is especially damaging. Despite the fact that it encompasses so many themes and types of story, the western has its own look, rhythm and ethos – that’s what makes it unique, in my eyes anyway. Silver River (1948) is an odd mix of western and slightly soapy melodrama but, at heart, it’s really an old-fashioned morality play. Raoul Walsh was very much at home making oaters and his steady hand on the tiller ensures that this movie holds true to its course. 

Silver River is a tale of one man’s rise, fall and ultimate redemption. It opens towards the end of the Civil War, when Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) deliberately disobeys an order, for the best of reasons, and is subsequently court martialled and cashiered. This has the effect of hardening his resolve to succeed at all costs in civilian life, and look out solely for number one. The first half of the movie charts his seemingly unstoppable rise both socially and financially, as he acquires capital, transport, a gambling house, interests in the mining business, and another man’s wife in rapid succession. As we follow each step of McComb’s progress, the script throws in one reference to the classical world after another (ranging from Julius Caesar to King David) to draw parallels with the character’s actions. McComb’s ruthless pursuit of power and glory drives him right to the brink of moral bankruptcy, but results in the financial bankruptcy that is necessary if he is to avoid slipping into the abyss. The aptly named Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell) is on hand all the while to act as the voice of conscience. The drunken lawyer first assists McComb in his meteoric rise and then presides over his downfall, knowing that he must destroy his friend in order to save him.

Ann Sheridan casts a distrustful glance at Errol Flynn.

Silver River is one of those movies that was almost perfectly cast. Flynn, nearing forty and with a few rough years behind him, is fine as the man still young enough for grandiose dreams but tinged with the kind of realism that comes from having lost a few rounds. His own personal troubles and the knowledge of what he was doing to himself at this point must surely have coloured his performance. Some of the scenes in the latter half of the film, where he is confronted with the ugliness of his actions and the prospect of abandonment, really ring true and one can read the resignation and despair in his eyes. Ann Sheridan is wholly believable playing the tough as nails frontier woman who first rails against Flynn before finally succumbing. Sheridan was one of those actresses who brought a lot of honesty to her playing and I thought she was especially convincing in the early scenes where she eschewed all of the usual Hollywood glamour to portray a woman who was the equal of any of the men around her. I always enjoy seeing Thomas Mitchell in anything and, although some may have a problem with his admittedly hammy style, find he brings an enormous amount of pathos and humanity to every part. His role in Silver River is a pivotal one and it’s entirely to his credit that it would be hard to imagine anyone else playing it. As I said earlier, Raoul Walsh holds everything together expertly and succeeds in preventing the melodrama from becoming too suffocating. The outdoor scenes and the action are everything you would expect from a director of Walsh’s calibre, and the more dramatic indoor confrontations are well shot with plenty of emphasis on the actors’ faces – something of a characteristic with this director.

Silver River was a surprise omission from Warners Errol Flynn western package, but it is freely available on DVD from them in France. The image quality looked pretty good to my eyes, save for a little softness in the first ten minutes or so. Thereafter the picture remains clean, sharp and quite consistent. The disc has removable French subs and is completely barebones but, on the positive side, it’s not all that expensive. I think this is a bit of an undervalued film that deserves to be rediscovered, so I’d recommend it. I’ll be looking at Montana next.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2011 in 1940s, Errol Flynn, Raoul Walsh, Westerns

 

They Died with Their Boots On

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“What do you Yankees think you are? The only real Americans in this merry old parish are on the other side of that hill with feathers in their hair”

If most old movie fans were asked to name their favourite Errol Flynn picture I think that a significant majority would probably plump for The Adventures of Robin Hood. I couldn’t really fault that choice as it comes in near the top with me too, but it’s still not my favourite. That honour would have to be reserved for They Died with Their Boots On (1941). I don’t know if it’s Flynn’s best film but it is up there and must surely be seen as one of the high points of his career. The character of George Armstrong Custer is one that Tasmania’s most famous son must have seemed ideally suited to playing. When the film was made Custer’s reputation as one of America’s greatest military heroes was only beginning to be reassessed, so there’s no axe-grinding revisionism to be found. Judged as a faithful biopic or character study, the movie is open to all sorts of criticism; but that’s not really what They Died with Their Boots On is all about, and it would be doing it a great disservice to treat it too harshly on those grounds. No, this is a Boys’ Own adventure of romance and daring, of guts and glory – and taken as such, it works perfectly.

There have been numerous portrayals of Custer on screen, dating back to Francis Ford in 1912, but I doubt if any have imbued the man with the glamour that Flynn brought to the part. The film traces his life and career from his entry into West Point up to his final moments at the Little Big Horn. Custer’s arrival at the US military academy, in all his gold-braided glory with a pack of hunting dogs in tow, is largely played for laughs, although it does set up a simmering rivalry with fellow cadet Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy) that’s crucial to the plot’s development. In fact, this is a film of two distinct parts; the first hour or so is mostly lighthearted knockabout stuff with only the occasional foray into more serious matters, while the second half takes on a decidedly darker and moodier tone. Therefore, we get to see Cadet Custer as a kind of fun-loving prankster who liked to ride his luck and chance his arm with authority, which, by all accounts, wasn’t too far from the truth. When the Civil War intervenes and necessitates his early graduation, Custer finds himself torn between pursuing his interest in the love of his life, Libby (Olivia De Havilland), and his enthusiasm to get into the thick of the action. Naturally, the pursuit of glory and honours wins out, and this leads to a nice little scene in Washington with General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet). Interestingly, Custer did have a fortuitous meeting with the Union commander on arrival at the Adjutant General’s office which led to his first active posting – albeit without the business with the creamed onions. The war, which ironically brought enormous fame to Custer, is given only minimal attention but it does show his rapid rise through the ranks. While all this is presented in a highly entertaining fashion, you still get the sense that we’re only marking time until we get to the real meaty stuff – the move west and the Indian Wars.

Last man standing - Errol Flynn as Custer

With the action shifting to Dakota, the whole feel of the film changes and raises it up to a different level. There’s still time for the odd lighter moment but it’s quickly apparent that this new war is no gentleman’s affair. Custer almost immediately clashes with his old foe Sharp who’s running a saloon and trading rifles with friendly Indians from within the fort. The first order of business is to end the drinking and whip the drunken recruits into some sort of fighting force. This is achieved via a wonderful sequence whereby Custer adopts the old Irish drinking song Garryowen and uses it as a means of instilling a sense of pride and unity into his ragtag 7th Cavalry. There’s also the first view of the red men, and in particular their chief Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn). One notable aspect of this movie is the respect afforded to the Sioux; at no point are they portrayed as anything less than a disciplined fighting force with legitimate grievances. The real villains of the piece are the corrupt officials and their businessmen backers from the east. The point is made very clear that the Sioux are left with no choice but to rise against the whites when treaties are broken and their shrinking homeland is further encroached upon. When Custer leads out his last fateful expedition he does so in the hope of earning more personal glory of course, but it’s also obvious that his political masters and their moneyed allies have left him with no other option. So, he leads his 7th to the Little Big Horn – to hell…or to glory, depending on one’s point of view.

Flynn gave one of his better performances in They Died wth Their Boots On, particularly in the second half. You can see the character gradually mature as the story moves along, his youthful optimism giving way first to disillusionment and then, finally, to a perversely jaunty death wish. If you wanted to stretch a point, it’s possible to see parallels in the course of Flynn’s own life. There’s also much more maturity in the relationship between the characters of Flynn an Olivia De Havilland; this would be their last film together and that fact adds considerable poignancy to their farewell scene, which is pitch perfect in its playing. However, even though the film marked the end of one partnership, it would signal the beginning of another – this was the first movie that Flynn made with director Raoul Walsh. If the star’s relationship with Michael Curtiz was a less than happy one, his collaboration with Walsh was much more congenial. These were two men who were much closer in temperament and Flynn seems to have felt a lot more comfortable in the company of the buccaneering old director. Walsh was one of those directors who was always in his element shooting outdoors on location. I’ve already made the point that when the film switches to the west it moves up a gear, and I think that’s due, in part, to Walsh’s affinity with the outdoors. The last half hour or so has a dreamy, poetic quality that’s the equal of some of John Ford’s best work – and that’s no mean feat. It should also be pointed out that the movie benefits enormously from one of Max Steiner’s finest and most memorable scores, which is built around the rousing yet vaguely melancholy Garryowen.

Warner’s R1 DVD (I believe the R2 is the same transfer) of They Died with Their Boots On is quite fabulous, clean and sharp with barely a damage mark in sight. It has a good selection of extras though it lacks a commentary, which I feel this movie deserves. OK, maybe this isn’t the best western you’ll ever see but it’s right up there among my all time favourites – one of those films that unfailingly pushes all the right buttons on every viewing. Next up, San Antonio.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2009 in 1940s, Anthony Quinn, Errol Flynn, Raoul Walsh, 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

 
 
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