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Category Archives: Tom Gries

Will Penny

It’s just a case of too soon old and too late smart.

Choices and chances – life offers its fair share of both to all of us as it meanders along, and the way we react to them is frequently determined by timing. This could be regarded no more than everyday stuff, but all good drama has such apparently mundane concerns as its foundation. In fact, the best examples of drama all have a timeless quality, containing some basic truth that transcends their age. Westerns, one could argue, are very much rooted in the time period they depict. Again though, the best western movies have at their core a theme that goes beyond time and place, one which addresses contemporary issues while also remaining relevant to modern life. Will Penny (1968) is one such film, focusing on a set of circumstances arising directly from its Old West setting, and also speaking to audiences of matters that are constants of the human condition.

Will Penny is a film that can be approached, and which works, on three different yet interrelated levels. It’s an absorbing adventure, an examination of a way of life approaching its twilight stages, and a tale about the power and promise of human relationships. Will Penny (Charlton Heston) is the archetypical western hero, a man alone, a self-reliant and capable character shaped by the landscape he occupies and the job he does. But Will is a man who’s growing old and, like the frontier itself, is fast approaching a point where he is going to be consigned to the past – tellingly, he’s the only rider at the end of the round-up who is illiterate to the extent he has to sign his name by marking a crude X in the ledger. Whatever the reality may have been, the fictional cowboy has always been a figure of nobility, a kind of latter-day knight bound by a personal code of honor. The first example of this, and also the first of a number of fateful decisions taken, comes when Will passes up the opportunity to move on to Kansas City and continued employment to make way for a younger man who wants to see his ailing father. Instead, Will sets off with two companions (Anthony Zerbe & Lee Majors) with only the slimmest of hopes of finding work to see them through the winter. In the course of their journey two significant events occur, one leading on directly from the other. Firstly, a fatal misunderstanding over the shooting of an elk sparks a feud with a crazed old man, Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence), and his degenerate family. This violent encounter leaves one of the men seriously wounded, and necessitates a stopover at a remote swing station. It’s here that the seeds of the second, and more interesting strand, of the story are planted. Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) is traveling west with her young son, and Will has his first, semi-comedic, meeting with this slightly prim woman as he tries to secure medical attention for his wounded companion. We come across all kinds of people all the time, and Will naturally thinks nothing more of it. However, having found employment as a line rider for a nearby ranch, Will chances upon the woman a second time, now occupying the cabin assigned to him for the long winter months ahead. Despite having explicit instructions to ensure that travelers must move on as soon as possible, Will lets his innate nobility get the better of him once again. His decision to let the woman and her son stay on till spring, coupled with the fact that the Quint clan remain loose and thirsty for revenge, is to have a profound effect on Will’s whole take on his life. As I said in the opening, everything boils down to chances, choices and timing.

Before 1968 Tom Gries worked extensively on television, and Will Penny – which he both wrote and directed – allowed him to break through into the cinema. It remains his best piece of work, mainly due to its authenticity. The movie capture the look and feel of its era very successfully – the loneliness, the drudgery of everyday life, and the sense of times changing fast. More significant than any of that though is the authenticity that Gries managed to draw from his characters and how they related to one another. It often feels like romantic sub-plots are injected into dramas almost as an afterthought, and consequently seem fake, forced and superfluous. Here however, the relationship that gradually builds between Will and Catherine, and her son, constitutes the beating heart of the picture. This touching and deeply affecting portrayal of lonely people glimpsing an opportunity for love and companionship is the factor that raises Will Penny up and lends it that timeless quality I referred to earlier. Historically speaking, Will Penny occupies that nebulous zone, as do many westerns of the 60s, straddling the classical and revisionist periods. The clear delineation of heroes and villains, and the focus on a kind of selfless nobility hark back to the likes of Shane and Hondo from the preceding decade. On the other hand, there’s also that melancholy feeling of a disappearing era that would be explored further in films such as Monte Walsh and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in the years to come.

Will Penny features a first-rate cast, and I don’t believe there’s a poor performance anywhere – Ben Johnson, Donald Pleasence, Slim Pickens, Bruce Dern, Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe all do good work. Having said that, both Charlton Heston and Joan Hackett seem to connect with their respective roles in a way that elevates them far above those all around them. There are those who would assert that Heston wasn’t much of an actor – similarly ill-informed accusations are often leveled at John Wayne and Gary Cooper – and was more of an icon than a performer. In Heston’s case, this probably comes from his frequent casting as larger than life heroic figures. Will Penny saw him playing a simple human being though, the most reluctant of heroes, and was reportedly his favorite role. Heston gets deep inside his character here, investing him with an astonishing level of credibility. There’s genuine modesty on display, a kind of faltering fallibility about this performance that can be seen in all kinds of ways – the barely concealed shame over his illiteracy and lack of education, the physical suffering he undergoes, and his struggle to come to terms with an emotional awakening that has taken him completely by surprise. Joan Hackett didn’t possess traditional Hollywood glamor, but she too reached inside to find an inner truth that characterizes her performance. The fact that Heston was able to produce something so touching is largely down to Hackett’s playing opposite him. For me, there are two standout scenes: that sweet and beautiful business involving the Christmas tree and the boy; and the climactic scene in the cabin where Hackett and Heston bare their souls and break your heart. The resolution of the movie could be seen as a firm rejection of the standard happy ending, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a downer. Personally, I like to think of it in positive terms; the overriding message for me is that there’s always hope for even the loneliest and unhappiest individuals. Whether one seizes that hope is, of course, another matter entirely.

Will Penny is a Paramount picture and the UK DVD, despite being released a long time ago now, is still a very strong disc. The film is given an excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer with natural colors and was obviously taken from a very clean print. There are two short features included on the casting and making of the film, with contributions from Charlton Heston and Jon Gries, the director’s son who also played Joan Hackett’s little boy in the movie. Will Penny probably represents Charlton Heston’s finest screen work, and the film is an immensely satisfying experience. It’s thoughtful, mature, at times exciting, and always affecting. For anyone who has yet to see the film, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2013 in 1960s, Charlton Heston, Tom Gries, Westerns

 

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Breakheart Pass

 

Poster

A Charles Bronson western written by a Scotsman and combining elements of a whodunnit and an espionage thriller sounds very much like a recipe for disaster. Despite that, Breakheart Pass (1975) actually works quite well; it’s never going to be considered a classic but it is wonderfully entertaining and looks great. A fine cast and some first class talent behind the camera have a lot to do with this of course. For me, the fact that a significant part of the action takes place aboard a train adds to the pleasure, as I’m a huge fan of anything that exploits the dramatic possibilities of having a group of suspicious characters all cooped up together and denied the opportunity to escape. 

A military train carrying reinforcements, and medicines is bound for Fort Humboldt, where a diptheria epidemic is raging out of control. Aside from soldiers, there’s a number of civilian passengers aboard, all with official reasons for being there. Their numbers are swollen right at the beginning though when Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) muscles his way through the protocol in order to get both himself and his newly acquired prisoner, a wanted murderer and arsonist, John Deakin (Charles Bronson) a couple of berths. Before the train has even pulled away from the halt two army officers have mysteriously vanished, and it’s clear from the shifty behaviour of practically every passenger that nothing is quite as it seems. While the locomotive chugs its way towards the stricken fort the unexplained incidents, and the bodies, start to pile up ominously. The senior army officer, Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), is growing uneasy while the Marshal and the most prominent passenger, Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna), seem reluctant to treat matters as anything more than ill fortune and coincidence. All the while, Deakin moves surreptitiously from carriage to carriage pursuing some undefined agenda of his own. It’s only when the troop cars are sheared off and sent careening away into mid-air and subsequent carnage that it becomes clear to everyone how grave the danger is, and that a ruthless killer is in their midst. The movie trades heavily on the fact that all the passengers are potential suspects; it’s a constant guessing game for the viewer to try to figure out who’s behind the ever increasing mayhem. Just about everyone appears to have something to hide yet it’s difficult to see how any individual could wreak such havoc. Of course all is eventually revealed before a slam bang finish draws the curtain on an hour and a half of solid entertainment.

Ben Johnson and Charles Bronson are among those doing the fencing on the way to Breakheart Pass.

Most of Alistair MacLean’s books which were adapted for the big screen have something to keep you interested. While his writing was fairly formulaic, it’s not hard to see why so many of his stories ended up being filmed; they tend to have a cinematic quality in that the plots are definitely to the fore and the characters usually have a shadowy aspect that’s only gradually revealed. The biggest failing tends to be in the dialogue, his later work suffering especially. Breakheart Pass has a few such instances, when characters come out with lines that just don’t ring true in any way. Director Tom Gries had already directed a couple of very enjoyable westerns, the one of particular note being Will Penny with Charlton Heston. His shooting of the action scenes is hard to fault and, apart from the free-for-all finale, the fight atop the moving train is one of the best parts of the movie. Bronson and former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore get to slug it out in an excellently choreographed scene that’s tense, exciting and real looking – no doubt the presence of the great Yakima Canutt, as stunt coordinator had something to do with it too. Of course, the aforementioned crash of the runaway troop cars is another of the big set pieces that’s both mesmerizing and horrifying. Furthermore, Lucien Ballard was on lens duty and, as you would expect, the photography of the outdoor scenes is quite spectacular. And rounding out the crew is Jerry Goldsmith, who provided another of his memorably upbeat scores that draws you in from the moment the title credits roll. As far as the acting’s concerned, Bronson is his usual laconic self, speaking only when there’s a need to but holding off on the physical stuff for long stretches. His character is no brainless lug and he plays him with restraint and enough thoughtfulness to make him believable. Although the wife was also in the cast there’s, mercifully in my opinion, no contrived romance to take the attention away from the twisty plot. Ben Johnson is always a pleasure to watch and just got better and better with age. His character isn’t the best defined one that he played but he still manages to make his mark on the movie – all his little gestures and his characteristic delivery keep reminding you that you’re watching a genuine westerner in action. Richard Crenna and Ed Lauter, as the Governor and the Major, have just enough oily charm and nervy anxiety respectively to keep the viewer guessing about their motives too.

MGM’s UK DVD of Breakheart Pass is a reasonably good effort. The anamorphic transfer is the kind that’s not especially remarkable but doesn’t have any major issues either. The colour looks true enough to my eyes and there’s no notable damage to the print – the image doesn’t pop off the screen but nor does it disappoint. The only extra included is the trailer, along with a variety of subtitle options. So, we’re talking here about a movie that’s best described as good, competent entertainment. It doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking but there are far worse ways to spend an hour and a half. It’s the kind of film that will obviously grip the viewer more the first time it’s seen, however, there’s enough in the action scenes, acting and visuals to ensure it’s worth revisiting.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1970s, Charles Bronson, Tom Gries, Westerns

 

Breakout

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Some movies just can’t seem to decide what they want to be, and that’s pretty much the case with Breakout (1975). Charles Bronson made a string of pretty good and entertaining movies through the 70s, none of which were ever going to draw too much critical acclaim. Breakout boasts an embarrassment of talent both in front of and behind the camera, but never manages to make the best use of it. The main problem lies with the script, which lurches from near farcical comedy, to drama, then on to action, and back again without ever really succeeding at any of them. In the end, the movie tries to be too many things and just loses its way.

Jay Wagner (Robert Duvall) is a wealthy American who finds himself kidnapped in Chile, hauled off to Mexico to face trumped up charges in a rigged trial, and sentenced to 28 years in a prison run by Emilio Fernandez (General Mapache of The Wild Bunch). It’s never made clear exactly why Wagner needs to be subjected to this treatment; all we know is that both his powerful grandfather (John Huston) and a rogue CIA agent wish to see him safely out of the way. Only Wagner’s wife Ann (Jill Ireland) seems intent on proving his innocence or, failing that, breaking him out of jail. It is to this end that she comes to hire Nick Colton (Bronson), a less than successful charter pilot. As Wagner begins to decay physically and psychologically, a number of attempts are hatched to spring him from his incarceration. A combination of poor planning and betrayal ensures that they fail, until Colton decides to take the bull by the horns and do what no-one expects. This is another problem with the film; after the total incompetence of the first couple of botched jailbreaks, we are suddenly presented with an operation that’s planned and executed with military precision.

Charles Bronson - clearly not happy with the choice of curtains in this scene

Bronson is about the best thing in the film and obviously enjoyed the opportunity to indulge in some lighter moments. However, those moments of clowning around with Randy Quaid and Sheree North sit a little uncomfortably with the sombre tone of the prison scenes where Duvall is slowly disintegrating. Director Tom Gries and the writers didn’t seem to know whether they wanted to make a serious prison movie or a spoof caper, and ended up falling between two stools. Thus we get the startling sight of Quaid dragged up as a Mexican whore juxtaposed with scenes of Duvall breaking down and assaulting his own wife. I don’t think I’ve seen Duvall give too many bad performances and I couldn’t fault his playing here. He’s pretty convincing as a man who goes from being strong and self-confident to a character whose health and will are gradually broken. As for Jill Ireland, the less said the better. She was a fairly limited actress whose blank countenance was ill-suited to playing the kind of emotional role this film called for. John Huston has a small cameo role that’s really wasted as it goes nowhere. In fact, his character simply disappears about half way into the story and is never mentioned again. Emilio Fernandez is similarly underused, and doesn’t have much more to do than leer sadistically in his bogeyman part.

Breakout has been given a nice anamorphic transfer to DVD by Columbia. The disc in R2 is a barebones affair, but it can be picked up for next to nothing. When you get a movie with a cast like this, a score by Jerry Goldsmith and cinematography by Lucien Ballard, it’s not unreasonable to expect something more satisfying. On top of all the other issues there are some exceedingly poor effects shots; notably a man falling to his death through a tiled roof that looks suspiciously like it’s made of canvas, and the appalling demise of another guy who’s supposed to get minced by a plane propeller. I wouldn’t call Breakout a total failure, it does have a few entertaining turns and Bronson is always watchable, but it could have been a whole lot better. This one’s pretty much for Bronson completists – I guess I’m guilty on that score.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2009 in 1970s, Charles Bronson, Robert Duvall, Tom Gries

 

100 Rifles

100 Rifles

1969 saw the release of two westerns that featured Americans dabbling in the Mexican revolution. Both pictures involved hijacked arms shipments, trains, advancing technology, European military advisers and elaborately staged shootouts with the Federales. One, of course, was Sam Peckinpah’s seminal, genre-defining masterpiece  The Wild Bunch – the other was Tom Gries’ popcorn entertainment 100 Rifles. Since copious amounts of scholarly writing has already been devoted to the former, I’m going to look at the latter.

A year before, Tom Gries had directed the thoughtful and elegiac Will Penny – his next project was a distinct departure. 100 Rifles tells of Lyedecker, an American lawman (Jim Brown), who ventures south of the border in pursuit of Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds) who has stolen a consignment of weapons – the hundred rifles of the title. The guns are to be presented to the Yaqui Indians to assist them in their struggle against the Mexican authorities. Naturally, the Federales – led by a thoroughly sadistic Fernando Lamas – are keen to acquire these rifles for themselves. And there you have it. Will Lyedecker carry out his sworn duty and bring Joe back for trial? Will he be seduced by the plight of the Yaqui? Will the Federales beat them all to the chase? By the time the movie hurtles along to its grandstand climax all those questions have been resolved.

A helluva way to run a railroad!

All the main players give amiable performances here with likable heroes and hissable villains. Burt Reynolds may not be the greatest actor in the world, but it’s hard not to like him on screen. Jim Brown is merely passable and Fernando Lamas is suitably vile. Dan O’Herlihy is always watchable as the railroad boss with shifting allegiances. But the real standout here is Raquel Welch as the revolutionary, Sarita. The scene where she stops a whole trainload of Federales as she takes a shower under a water tower is reason enough to see this film on its own!

OK, so this isn’t the best western you’ll ever see but its heart is in the right place, there’s more than enough action to satisfy, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score suits the mood of the piece perfectly. Available in a great looking anamorphic transfer from Fox in R1.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2008 in 1960s, Actors, Burt Reynolds, Directors, Tom Gries, Westerns

 
 
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