Two Flags West

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Civil War films have a reputation for doing poor business, which is probably why the era tends to have been approached somewhat obliquely by Hollywood. There are plenty of movies which feature the war as a kind of background element, something always present in the minds of the characters yet rarely directly shown on the screen. Westerns, perhaps on geographical grounds as much as anything, often used the Civil War and its legacy mainly as a plot device to provide motivation. Students of literature, stretching right back to Aristotle, have recognized conflict as the mainstay of drama – the essential element if you like. Two Flags West (1950) is a film positively brimming with conflict, and not just the obvious Confederate/Union rivalry that is central to the story. That of course is interesting enough in itself, but it’s the personal antagonism among the leads (and indeed within their own hearts) that adds depth and substance.

Two Flags West is one of a small group of westerns – along with Escape from Fort Bravo and Major Dundee – which have soldiers of the Civil War’s two opposing sides forced to co-operate on the frontier. The story here is inspired by the proclamation which allowed Confederate POWs to gain a pardon and have their citizenship restored if they agreed to defend the frontier in the name of the Union. The controversial and divisive nature of this choice is made apparent right from the beginning, when the rebel cavalrymen under the command of Colonel Tucker (Joseph Cotten) are shown to be genuinely torn between the notion of betraying their homeland and remaining true to ideals that are slowly killing them. Faced with the prospect of succumbing to disease and malnutrition, these men narrowly vote to accept the Northern offer and move west to New Mexico where a different war is being fought. Asking a man to turn his back on a cause is one thing, asking him to turn his guns against it is entirely different. Therefore, it’s with the understanding that they will not be forced to take up arms against their former comrades that these men agree to wear the blue tunics of their enemies. The western frontier is virtually defenseless, its outposts manned by a rag-tag bunch of wounded and poorly trained troops. In contrast, the new recruits are skilled cavalrymen and hardened combat veterans.

One would think the presence of such seasoned troops would be welcomed by the men they are coming to reinforce. Indeed, that’s the early impression given by Captain Bradford (Cornel Wilde), the affable liaison officer who makes the initial offer and leads Tucker (now demoted to Lieutenant) and his men west. However, their new commanding officer, Major Kenniston (Jeff Chandler), presents a very different face. Kenniston is a man whose external wounds are as nothing compared to the scars he carries inside. Here is a tortured soul, a man consumed by hatred of the enemy, professional disillusionment and personal frustration. His open animosity towards Tucker and his men, and his frank distrust of their loyalty is immediately apparent. It’s only a matter of time before he forces Tucker’s hand by arranging for the new recruits to carry out the execution of men they later discover were actually Confederate spies. Tucker naturally sees this as a breach of the terms he agreed to, and sets in motion a plan to desert. Now, there’s plenty of dramatic conflict in play at this point, but that’s only one aspect of the story. While questions of loyalty, trust and honor are being thrashed out, there’s also the matter of the Major’s widowed sister-in-law to be considered. Elena (Linda Darnell) is a woman desperate to reach California and her relatives, but that desperation stems from her desire to escape the brooding obsession of her late husband’s brother. To complicate matters further, Bradford is clearly in love with Elena and so has an even more delicate balancing act to master. In short, this isolated fort is like a powder keg waiting to explode, and the fuse that will touch it all off is provided by the mass of hostile Indians raiding beyond its walls.

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In writing about Robert Wise’s first western, Blood on the Moon, some time back, I mentioned how his time spent working for Orson Welles and Val Lewton was reflected in the imagery he used. While Two Flags West has fewer overtly noir touches, both Wise and cameraman Leon Shamroy use light and shadow very effectively, especially in the interiors. The opening scenes in the prison camp are enhanced by this technique, although the atmospheric photography can be seen all through the movie. I think the image above is a pretty good example of the artistic lighting and composition which is characteristic of this film: the grim faces of Cotten and the prisoners dominate the frame, while the shafts of sunlight stabbing through the boarded-up windows in the background suggest rays of hope and salvation reaching out to them. However, the film offers more than just moody and suggestive imagery. The climactic Indian assault on the fort is excitingly filmed and gets across the frenzied determination of the defenders facing overwhelming odds, and their consequent sense of hopelessness. Earlier, I referred to Major Dundee as another film whose plot hinged on the uneasy alliance of former enemies facing a common foe. Aside from that similarity in the basic story, it’s also interesting to note that Two Flags West foreshadows Peckinpah’s later picture by featuring scenes where both the Confederate and Union troops sing their respective songs simultaneously. As far as the script is concerned, the writers credited are Casey Robinson, Curtis Kenyon and Frank Nugent. The latter ought to be a recognizable name for anyone who is familiar with the films of John Ford – Nugent was a writer on both Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. This movie doesn’t paint as intimate a picture of life in an isolated fort as Ford’s cavalry films do, but there are still some parallels to be seen.

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Two Flags West is a movie with a very attractive headline cast. Despite stiff competition from his co-stars, I think Jeff Chandler makes the strongest impression. I suppose his early death is a contributory factor but I feel Chandler rarely gets much credit for his screen work these days. He wasn’t a particularly showy actor nor was he one for extravagant displays of emotion. Instead he was another of those brooding types who seemed to keep a lot locked away inside, only rarely letting his feelings bubble up towards the surface. The role of Major Kenniston was therefore an appropriate one for him. Chandler created a very convincing portrait of a man whose personal and professional failings are eating away at his soul, whose own self-loathing is weakening his judgement. Frankly, Kenniston is a martinet and there’s much to like about him. Having said that, Chandler invests him with great dignity, and his final scene is actually quite moving regardless of how poorly he has conducted himself up to that point. Cast against such an unsympathetic figure, Joseph Cotten’s Confederate officer ought to be the one we’re rooting for. And yet, that’s not really the case either. Cotten had a knack for playing disgruntled, troubled figures, and his portrayal of Tucker taps into that. Yet there’s a kind of sly ambiguity to his role, a slippery irony about him that means we can never be entirely sure of his motives. The result is that while he may be more sympathetic that Kenniston, the viewer can’t fully get behind him. All of this means that the audience is asked to identify most strongly with Cornel Wilde and Linda Darnell. I reckon Darnell’s part is the more successful one, not due solely to her acting talents – both Wilde and Darnell turn in good performances in my opinion – but perhaps as a result of Wilde’s being absent from the screen for long stretches. Among the supporting cast, there’s are nice turns from Jay C Flippen, Dale Robertson and Noah Beery Jr.

As far as I’m aware, the only DVD edition of Two Flags West currently available is this Spanish release from Fox/Impulso. It’s one of the label’s better efforts, boasting a generally strong transfer, although there is some print damage evident, generally confined to a kind of slight ripple or blur that appears sporadically on the right side of the frame. The release is English-friendly with the original soundtrack included and optional subtitles that can be deselected via the setup menu. The extra features consist of a gallery and a few text screens listing cast & crew. Anyone looking to pick up a copy of this movie might do well to hold off a little longer though. Koch Media in Germany are due to put the title out on both DVD and Blu-ray on July 26 – it’s worth bearing in mind that Koch’s products tend to be of very good quality. I like to highlight forgotten and/or neglected films whenever possible, and I think Two Flags West fits the bill. For one reason or another, it’s not a movie one hears about too often and that’s a shame. There’s a good plot with plenty of tension and a fair bit of depth, strong performances and fine visuals. Overall, it’s an enjoyable experience and a title deserving of some renewed attention.

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34 thoughts on “Two Flags West

  1. Count me as a Jeff Chandler fan. Oh, yes. An actor that doesn’t get the credit he deserves for a too short career. I hope to check out that Koch Media product. Fine review, Colin.

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    • Thank you Michael. Chandler seems to be regarded as one of those half-forgotten matinee idols of yesteryear. Personally, I feel he was a lot better than that and his best work is ripe for rediscovery.

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  2. I don’t recall ever seeing this one. I was going to order the Spanish copy but will do as you suggest and await Koch Media.
    Thanks for highlighting it.

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  3. New one for My List, thanks. As for Chandler, I agree, I thought one of the finest scenes I have seen him perform is in Pillars of the Sky when he stood over the body of Dr. Holden, IWard Bond), and spoke to the chiefs. Not saying all of his performance was outstanding, but that part seemed particularly good to me. Ward, as usual held the film together, Haven’t a CLUE how Jeff carried Ward that far even if they DID take breaks!

    Thought Horse Solders was a good Civil War one…….too bad Fred Kennedy was killed and they were never able to finish it as scheduled. He was one heck of a stunt man finally being talked into acting.

    Thanks again for one to add to the List. KEITH

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    • Keith, Pillars of the Sky is a pretty good movie in my opinion and I agree that Chandler does good work in it.

      I haven’t watched The Horse Soldiers for a long time, but it always left me a little underwhelmed. However, I’ve heard it said that the much improved Blu-ray adds a lot to the viewing experience so I hope to pick that up at some point and see if I still feel the same.

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  4. Colin,
    you have provided us with an interesting contrast in the roles played by Linda Darnell in the film-noir “Fallen Angel” and the western “Two Flags West”. She was convincing as a “sultry and seductive” woman of dubious character in the former, but presented a rather more restrained performance as a woman manipulated by the male characters, in the latter. – impressive in both films.

    I recently had the pleasure of viewing Linda Darnell together with Rex Harrison in Preston Sturges’s clever and humorous “Unfaithfully Yours” and, once again she showed both her beauty and her acting versatility in this critically and publicly well-received 1948 comedy.

    Thank you for drawing attention to Miss Darnell who seems to have been inexplicably almost “forgotten”, despite some memorable work, especially in her early films.

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    • Yes, Linda Darnell, like Jeff Chandler, is another of those performers who has slipped off the radar. Again, perhaps her early, and tragic, death has something to do with that. She was a talented actress who almost always produced good, watchable work.

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  5. I consider myself a huge Robert Wise aficionado but I’ve never seen this one Colin – sounds great and very typical of his fascination with stories of alienated people who feel trapped in their surroundings. That is great news about the Koch release – I’ll definitely make a beeline for that. Cheers mate, great review.

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    • Thanks Sergio. I guess this is one of Wise’s lesser known movies, so it’s not altogether surprising that you’re unfamiliar with it. As a western fan, I feel it’s a pity Wise didn’t work more in the genre as his handful of efforts are all very good.

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      • I try not to be too auteurist and certainly with a cast like this one there is a lot to get stuck into and Jeff Chandler would also be a big plus for me as a viewer. Having a quick look at IMDb and I realise that long with this one, from Wide’s output I have also somehow managed to not see THIS COULD BE THE NIGHT (1957), SOMETHING FOR THE BIRDS (1952), MYSTERY IN MEXICO (1948) and CRIMINAL COURT (1946) – I’d rather pay to see these than have to sit through ROOFTOPS again (once a quarter of a century ago was quite enough).

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        • I’ve never seen Criminal Court myself.
          In fact there are quite a few of Wise’s movies I’d like to view. A Game of Death, being a remake of The Most Dangerous Game, sounds intriguing, even if it doesn’t seem to have much of a reputation. And I must pick up The Captive City some time.

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          • Worth knowing about CAPTIVE thanks as I only knew about the MGM MOD (ages since I saw it) – thanks chum. MEXICO is also available in Spain and France I see … but that will have to wait!

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              • I just keep adding to them and then cave when I can take it no longer – just ordered the Blu-ray of THE GREAT ESCAPE, which has had mixed reviews but a strong defender in Robert Harris (my suspicion is that the colours are going to be a bit dull and the bit rate a smidgen lower than I’d like), but at that ultra low price and with all the audio dubs (perfect film to watch in Italian with my Da) I just couldn’t help myself … Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

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  6. Sorry Colin,this film never really worked for me.While a fine looking film,to me its one of
    those big-budget Westerns that promises a whole lot more than it delivers. I much prefer
    the other Robert Wise Fifties Western TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN which I rate very highly.
    Still it does show Jeff Chandlers attraction to dark,complex characters.
    The reason he is not remembered today as much as he should be is because his stardom only
    lasted little more than a decade due to his untimely passing.
    Furthermore there are some interesting sounding Chandler movies on the missing list which I
    hope will surface over time.
    Joseph Pevneys FOXFIRE where he is teamed with Jane Russell and Dan Duryea sounds
    really interesting.THE TATTERED DRESS is top-drawer Jack Arnold;a very complex legal
    drama,in dire need of a DVD release.DRANGO from Hall Bartlett is a dark brooding post Civil
    War drama which I certainly prefer to TWO FLAGS WEST.
    THUNDER IN THE SUN is not great but fun,also Jeff is teamed with Susan Hayward,so whats
    not to like..TEN SECONDS TO HELL is a joint effort between Robert Aldrich and Hammer Films,
    of all people;never seen it but would sure like to. I understand there were lots of behind the
    scene problems with this film but it does have Jeff again teamed with Jack Palance.
    The Koch release of TWO FLAGS WEST will be as good as it gets;I love the way they
    package their DVDs in slimline “hardbound book” type packs.

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    • John, I know you’re more into the smaller scale films, and this is a fairly expensive production. I suppose it could be argued that there’s almost too much going on in this one. Still, I think all the major themes are explored satisfactorily so it doesn’t come across as half-baked, as is sometimes the case when you try to pack too much in.

      You’re right that there are lots of interesting Chandler films that are unavailable – The Tattered Dress is up near the top of my wanted list.

      I’m another fan of Koch’s book style packaging – space saving and extremely stylish.

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      • I saw THE TATTERED DRESS last year and thought it was excellent, a very absorbing drama with a great cast. I also liked FOXFIRE although it felt slightly truncated to me.

        I’ve become quite a Chandler fan in the last couple years and am glad to see the good words for him here. Looking forward to catching TWO FLAGS WEST.

        Best wishes,
        Laura

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        • Hello Laura. I should have thought The Tattered Dress would be a popular release on DVD, then again there are quite a few Universal movies that have yet to make an appearance.

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  7. Colin,just because I like to champion smaller or lesser known films does not mean that
    I do not like “classics” or big budget stuff.
    When looking at black & white Fox Westerns from the same period;by major directors
    I would rate YELLOW SKY,THE GUNFIGHTER and RAWHIDE way above TWO FLAGS WEST.
    In fact I even prefer FURY AT FURNACE CREEK to TWO FLAGS WEST.
    Part of the great pleasure of collecting DVDs these days is “discovering” obscure minor films,
    which can often be outstanding.A recent gem is LOOPHOLE (1954) which I have wanted to see for ages.I have really liked other films directed by Harold Schuster and LOOPHOLE is one of
    his very best.The film is interesting in that it moves away from the dark days of HUAC influenced
    early Fifties Noir and moves into a more humane vision of America. Even the cops are far
    more liberal;that is apart from Charles McGraw who comes across like a throwback to the bad old
    days.McGraw with his “bully boy” tactics gives the film its dynamic,though he comes across as
    outdated and out of touch as he longs for the days of the “rubber hose” treatment.
    So much going on in a little 80 minute Allied Artists programmer.
    One of the Fox Westerns not released by Impulso in Spain was Harmon Jones impressive
    THE SILVER WHIP (released today by Fox Archives;though I cannot vouch for picture
    quality from this very substandard series.) At any rate THE SILVER WHIP is excellent;
    starts off as a stagecoach holdup shoot em up then morphs into a lynch mob flick.
    Rory Calhoun and Dale Robertson both excellent as the law enforcers with opposite views
    on how to deal with ruthless killers.Robert Wagner very impressive as the inexperienced
    deputy caught in the middle.Again IMHO far better than TWO FLAGS WEST.
    I will continue to champion these little-known gems Colin,as long as you do not mind me
    hi-jacking your very fine site from time to time.

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    • John, all comments are very welcome here, and I assure you that your contributions are always appreciated. So feel free to “hijack” as much as you please!

      I certainly won’t attempt to argue that there aren’t lots of Fox westerns as good as or better than Two Flags West. I guess it just works better for me than for you. Personally, I like the fact that such movies highlight not only the diversity of our own tastes as fans, but also the variety of product out there.

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  8. I am delighted to read John K above and I share a similar interest in collecting obscure minor westerns. These movies did not last long in the cinema circuit on opening due to poor box office receipts, eg. The Proud Ones is one such example. Best regards.

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    • Hi Chris. Interesting you should mention The Proud Ones – it’s a film I keep meaning to get round to posting something about. In fact, I almost did a few weeks back but a hectic work schedule took over and I ended up postponing it yet again.

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    • Thanks for your comments Chris,I too would like to hear Colins take on THE PROUD ONES.
      I consider it to be one of the most overlooked of Foxs CinemaScope Westerns.
      Plenty of Robert Ryan admirers out there too!

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  9. Colin,

    Sergio’s mention of Robert Wise’s “This Could Be The Night” brought back some pleasant memories. Our High School Class was transported to a major city theatre to see a re-release print of MGM’s 1935 film of “A Tale of Two Cities”, ( the classic Dicken’s novel we were studying at the time), when a preview of “TCBTN” was screened as a coming attraction.

    I am/was a big fan of the beautiful Jean Simmons and when teamed with Paul Douglas, together with the “new” personality, Anthony (Tony) Franciosa, as well as Joan Blondell, J. Carol Naish, Zasu Pitts, Julie Wilson, Ray Anthony and his Orchestra, (who supplied the jazz soundtrack) and even an appearance by the legendary Bess Flowers, (generally uncredited, but seemingly always there), this film provided great entertainment and an impressive “date” movie, at the time.

    Wise was a prolific and successful director who seemed to be able to handle just about any genre with ease, from Westerns to Musicals and Comedy/Dramas such as “TCBTN”.

    I

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    • Nice story Rod.

      I think Wise is quite typical of those filmmakers who came up through the ranks in the old studio system. Being under contract, they more or less had to take whatever project the studio assigned to them. I’m sure that must have been frustrating for many, but it also provided these people with a grounding in a whole range of films. We do tend to associate some figures with particular styles of filmmaking and genres, simply due to their excelling at those, but nearly all of these guys could turn their hand to any type of movie.

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  10. Sorry to hear The Proud Ones didnt do well at the box office. I like it a lot. Great dynamic between Robert Ryan and Jeffrey Hunter.

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  11. I have never understood the popularity of Cotton myself, he comes across to me as a piece of wood for the most part. Now having said that, I did like him in the 1957 Joseph Lewis film, THE HALLIDAY BRAND with Ward Bond and Viveca Lindfors. TWO FLAGS WEST i only saw once several decades ago so i need a re-watch. Your review has worked again.

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    • I still haven’t gotten round to The Halliday Brand even though I have a nice copy here. I understand your lack of enthusiasm for Cotten as it’s something I’ve heard from a few people. Personally, I don’t feel he was wooden but he had a deep reserve and at times, and in certain roles, he overcooked that aspect of his persona. Anyway,as I mentioned in a review of another movie just days ago, he could play nasty and heroic and just about anything in between under the right circumstances – I get the impression that sometimes his private feelings about a given role or film colored his approach to it and thus his performance.

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  12. There is an episode of THE FORD TELEVISION THEATRE from 1956 with Cotton and Ray Burr worth a look see. It is called, “Man without Fear” and is directed by James Neilson. I have a couple dozen of this series on disc here somewhere. Review up on IMDB. Not sure if You-Tube has it up or not.

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