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.


65 thoughts on “A Distant Trumpet

  1. Thanks very much for looking at this one Colin – I’ve never seen it and my impression, based on a few of the references I;d come across , was quite poor, probably based on the casting and the aforementioned tacked-on feel of the love interest. This sounds much better than I though – I am always more of a Curtiz man than a Walsh man when the Flynn comparison is made in terms of style though arguably the actor performs much better under Walsh. Either way, it now seems like an unfair comparison – and what a career the guy had! And now, for a crack at those Japs indeed!

    • Yes, I haven’t read that much on the film, and what I have tended to focus on the weaknesses. There are of course weak areas, and I tried to take account of those, but there’s also plenty of positives to take from it.

      Curtiz and Walsh, two quite different directors I think. I admire the work of both men enormously but I feel Walsh was closer to what we think of as an auteur – meaning that his personal stamp is more apparent on his films. Curtiz, and this isn’t meant as any criticism, didn’t seem to leave that kind of signature on his movies.
      Regarding their films with Flynn, I feel both men got some excellent performances from the actor. Curtiz arguably had the stronger material to work with, while Walsh’s temperament seemed to suit Flynn better.

      • Well, I think Curtiz was visually a much more personal filmmaker than Walsh and I think it is easy to single out his work from most other Warners directors of the 30s and 40s with his long and complex tracking and dolly shots and his love of expressionist lighting techniques. On the other hand Walsh may have put more of his own personality in terms of the characters and I think Flynn’s performances in GENTLEMAN JIM and THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON are more substantial than what he gave Curtiz – but then the characters are more grounded.

        • Yes, all good points. I do like Curtiz a lot; I think he was one of the great classic era directors and his work really stands the test of time. His list of credits, both in terms of quantity and high quality, is honestly awe inspiring. I think that in some ways it’s his versatility that has led to his relative underestimation among critics. It’s difficult to associate Curtiz with a particular genre or style of picture – there are excellent examples of pretty much all of them in his filmography – which in turn makes it (more) difficult to apply the auteur label.

          Walsh’s credits range widely too, but his best work can be found in a handful of genres so it’s perhaps easier to identify certain motifs. And I agree on the personality coming through; there is a particular sensibility that can be seen in a Walsh film.

            • I’ve never read Walsh’s autobiography – have you? I understand it’s supposed to be marvelously entertaining, although probably laced liberally with embellishments. I’m going to have to try to track down a copy as I get the impression it’s along the lines of Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways, and that’s easily the most enjoyable memoir I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

              • No, not read it – I bet it’s a damn good read and probably not too reliable – I recommend Don Siegel’s, which also seems to be able to recall the past with perhaps a touch too much clarity but is very entertaining!

                • Another one I need to get round to then. Guys from this era seemed to have some terrific tales to tell, even if they add a little here and there.

                  • I think being able to spin a good yarn was very much the storytelling tradition that created so many great directors in that era (nowadays the ability seems mostly technical) – having said that, the entertainment value sometimes gets in the way with books that take themselves more seriously – sadly this didn’t stop Frank Capra from apparently making up huge chunks of his autobiography

                    • I think you’re probably right on the storytelling aspect. It’s something that’s certainly apparent from the films, so it shouldn’t really be any surprise that these people were able to write an entertaining tale. It’s similar in a way to watching interviews classic era actors gave on TV back in the 70s and 80s. Whenever they talked to Parkinson or the like it always seemed they had a lots of interesting and entertaining anecdotes to pass along.

                      BTW, you can see Walsh talking about how he claims to have discovered and named John Wayne here:

                    • Thanks for that – this was from the update to the Richard Schickel ‘Men Who Made the Movies’ series which he later turned into a book of interviews – which reminds me, I wish they’d repeat the Barry Norman FILM GREATS series!

                    • Absolutely! Anyway, I can’t remember if you mentioned it on here or over at your own place. The point is it’s information worth sharing.

  2. As expected, your review makes me want to view it. When it first came out, I was put off with Troy Donahue in the lead and in a western. Best regards.

    • Glad to hear I got you interested Chris. I imagine Donahue’s presence would have counted as a big draw at the time, although I can see how it might also turn others off. It certainly gave me pause but, except on a few occasions, he’s not bad. There is a degree of stiffness of course but if you bear in mind he’s playing a raw West Point graduate on his first posting out west, then it does sort of blend in with the role.

  3. Something clicked between Donahue and Pleshette; they wed the year this film was released. On the other hand, they also divorced the year this film was released.

    I read the novel many years ago. I remember it as being a bit of a slog, dragged down by the same plot elements that you describe as hampering the film. I also saw the film, but I can’t recall anything about it, except for my surprise that Donahue had been selected to star in it.

    • Thanks for that. I did wonder if maybe the more humdrum aspects had been added to the script just to give some more dimension to Donahue’s role. Sounds like it was there all the time though.

      • You could very well be right about the script. Such things were common occurrences.

        Even though I have a copy of the novel I haven’t read it in a long, long time. It’s just that I remember that after reading it I knew that it was a book that I would not wish to revisit. But perhaps, based on your review, I should give the film another look.

  4. It has always seemed to me that there was a sort of cut-off for western film-making around 1960. Most westerns made after that (and they were hugely reduced in number by then) no longer starred the western leads we were used to and who knew their “western” business. As a result, for me, even at the time, much of the pleasure diminished.

    This film sort of displays what I mean – directed by the great Raoul Walsh certainly but no recognisable western leads in sight. Because of this, I never made a point to view this film, and still have not. Now, Colin, you have made me more curious to see it since this is the fullest review of this movie I have ever seen (and undoubtedly the most knowledgable). So, next time it comes on TV……….

    • Jerry, I suppose 1960 is a reasonable date to settle on as a cut-off point, although there are a number of films that hark back to the earlier period made after that. These early to mid-60s westerns are fascinating for me in a way as you can actually see the changes taking place bit by bit.
      I really think you might be surprised by this film. It’s worth putting preconceived ideas aside and just seeing how it works on you. Sure there are weaknesses, but there are lots of positive aspects too.

      • Yes, thanks for opening up this movie. I will try and make a point of catching it now.

        Still feel though my point about 1960 (roughly) is how I see it. A few exceptions (one very notable exception being the wonderful film after which your site is named). It is interesting to see changes coming in and they are very definitely evident in “Ride The High Country”; I just don’t happen to like the changes generally. And the changes were across all genres of course. I don’t think it is coincidence that most of the western players’ careers were closing down, apart from Wayne and Murphy (though his best were mostly now behind him). Just a fact of (Hollywood) life.

        • Oh I won’t argue that one Jerry. I don’t feel a lot of the changes, most especially related to the western, were especially positive.
          Still, change is inevitable and I think it would be a mistake to write off everything post-1960. There’s still plenty to enjoy; you just have to search a little more and filter.

          • There were a couple of minor oaters starring Jim Davis but that was 1961 or so, so they qualify in my mind as the “old” style. But there were increasingly some real “clunkers” in the years to come, mostly (as John K aptly put it) westerns for people who don’t like westerns. Perfectly put!

            Best western of recent times for me was “Open Range”, Kevin Costner’s film that would correctly now be termed a “western classic”, I believe.

  5. I must admit that when the film was first released and I realised that Troy Donahue was in the lead role, I expected “little”, but persevered, and was surprised by the result – much in accordance with your comprehensive review, Colin.

    Being a compatriot of such respected directors as John Ford, King Vidor and Henry King who all entered the “movie business” around the early 1900’s, Raoul Walsh soon earned a reputation as an “action” Director, injecting, where possible a degree of humour into his productions; perhaps he could have enlivened the “slower” parts of “A Distant Trumpet” with a laugh or two. The presence of Suzanne Pleshette was welcome, however it was a pity that the scriptwriters, Twist, Beich and Fielder, were unable to utilise her considerable talent to greater advantage.

    When the White House agreed to the filming of Robert J. Donovan’s novel, “P.T. 109”- President John Kennedy’s exploits as commander of a “P.T.” boat during WW 2, Raoul Walsh was recommended by Warners to direct the film. Ironically, they chose Walsh’s latest film for 20th Century Fox, “Marines, Let’s Go” to send to the White House to gain the necessary approval ; Kennedy “hated” the film, and vetoed Walsh’s participation. Lewis Milestone was appointed Director however he left the project and the film was passed on to TV director, Leslie Martinson to complete.

    In 1964, Warner Bros. showed a loss of almost US $ 4 million dollars and released onlly two other western features – “The Man From Galveston” and “Cheyenne Autumn”.

    • Rod, it’s nice to hear you agree that the film is rewarding if you’re prepared to look past factors which initially appear off-putting.

      With such a long and varied career, it’s not altogether surprising that Walsh made both out-and-out classics and some humdrum stuff. Mind you, I don’t think I’ve seen a film he made that didn’t have at least some merit.

      Also, you brought up the subject of humor. Walsh, like Ford, tended to favor the broad variety. It’s been said that his idea of humor was setting fire to a whorehouse, and there’s actually a variation on that very concept which takes place in A Distant Trumpet.

  6. Walsh for his final feature was given a decent budget by Warners, the films production values are fine. It’s interesting that like that other great director of Westerns Delmer Daves, Walsh too was trying to court the “youth” market with some of his later films.
    The main drawback to the film, for me, is Troy Donahue. I think it was David Susskind, who at the time cited Donahue as a blonde stallion who simply cannot act. For me, the film would have been far better with say Jeffrey Hunter, James Garner, Roger Moore or Steve McQueen in the lead. The film does have one really great line………”burning while Rome fiddles”

    Very interesting comments from Rod regarding PT 109. I think OPEN RANGE is wildly overrated, and the normally splendid Michael Gambon terrible as the main villain. As bad as I feel OPEN RANGE is it looks like a classic compared to the other Western released about the same time; the completely dreadful THE MISSING.

    • John, as I said in the review, I reckon Donahue did fine in the action sequences and comes across as convincing enough. I think the moment when I was most aware of his weakness was when Laura arrived unexpectedly at the fort; the scene just doesn’t play right, and I put it down to the performances at that point.

      I agree with you on The Missing, a mess of a film that wastes good actors and ends up being plain boring.

  7. I must admit I expected far more flak regarding my opinion of OPEN RANGE. I guess a lot of folks feel that if they ignore me I’ll just go away…..trouble is; I don’t!
    Anyway I have decided to give the film another go; a mate (who adores the film BTW) is lending me his Blu-Ray. The thing is I have not seen the film since its initial release and was expecting far more I guess. Which is not to say that I hated the film there were fine elements there but overall the film has faded from my memory. Sadly Costner’s star power has faded somewhat since OPEN RANGE and it would be probably hard to get a studio to bankroll a future Western project. Costner is one of the very few current day potential Western “stars” Furthermore he had the endorsement of none other than Joel McCrea many years back. Got a lovely photo of the two of them from Life magazine circa 1989 which I have been meaning to get copied and framed. Actors like Tom Berenger, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn and others could have been great Western stars if the genre had maintained it’s appeal over the years. Of the new breed of actors Barry Pepper has great potential to be a great Western star, but it won’t happen because hardly any get made these days. Possibly TV mini-series is the future of the Western.
    Of recent Westerns SERAPHIM FALLS was very good for the first two thirds. Then for the final part things decline, ridiculous characters are introduced and the makers decide, unwisely, to go all allegorical. Worse still, in this final stage the film rips-off the beginning of THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and the end of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER. A great pity because the earlier parts of the film are great.

    • I like Open Range – it’s not perfect – possibly could use a little editing. LoL.But has some very good stuff too.
      Westerns overall? I wouldn’t know why Westerns had a Renaissance period during the 40’s and surely the 50’s – just that it was so. And some Classic work was done – with many great Stars. Briefly re-awakened during the Spaghetti era.
      Will that happen again? ??
      Westerns will never die, because I believe nearly every Actor/Director wants to be in or make a Western at some point in their career. Yet they need something to work with – good writing (Louis L’Amour where are U?) – some inspiration – not just to toss something out. Yet we periodically get some great stuff like Unforgiven.
      Just seems like there’s hardly ever enough to sate our appetites. But as Colin shows us, there’s plenty of older Westerns that are worthy which we’ve never even seen.

      • Yes JC, there are many actors who appear keen to add the western to their list of credits. What’s more of a problem is the shortage, unlike in the past, of those who seem prepared to commit themselves on a long term basis to the genre.

  8. Since the heyday of the Western in the Fifties the genre has gone in and out of favor but enough of them have been made since then and some of them very good indeed. 1976 was a good year, we got two bona fide classics THE SHOOTIST and THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. 1976 also gave us THE MISSOURI BREAKS,have not seen that one; some films send a message to me “avoid at all costs”

    Sadly,two directors seemed to indicate that they were going to be the genres leading lights, namely Burt Kennedy and Andrew V McLaglen but their films got worse and worse as the years went by. Kennedy, certainly never gave us that classic Western that he was so capable of. Kennedy’s THE DESERTER had enormous potential but whoever came up with the idea that Bekim Fehmiu would make a compelling lead in a Western?

    Where do we go from here? The TRUE GRIT remake and DJANGO UNCHAINED did excellent box office but the latter title is one few Western fans will really want to see. Liam Neeson and Seth Macfarland are reviving the “comedy” Western with their A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. Neeson is mega-hot at the box office at the moment and Macfarland’s TED was a monster hit. These may not be sort of Westerns fans want to see but good box office helps to keep the genre alive until someone makes a “proper” Western sometime in the future.

    One of the most overlooked Westerns since the Fifties is WHEN THE LEGENDS DIE which I know Blake Lucas has championed many times. I have,over at Toby’s championed MR.HORN a wonderful made for TV Western (also starring Widmark BTW) that nobody seems to have seen. There are possibly several,forgotten very good Westerns from the Sixties onwards that have yet to debut on DVD (or Blu-Ray) but discovery is what makes film collecting so compelling in the first place!

    • John, I’ve never seen The Missouri Breaks either. I may well be missing out on something wonderful but, like yourself, there’s something that just doesn’t attract me to the movie.

      The western has had its obituary written so many times now but it refuses to lie down and die. Just when we think its gone for good, someone wheels out another. They’re not always good, and some have been downright bad, but they show how resilient the genre is.

  9. I may not agree with your assessment of “OPEN RANGE”, John K, but I always enjoy what you have to say, regardless. Actually though, I believe I would again use your excellent saying (but turned around) that “OPEN RANGE” is a western for people who DO like westerns!! When it was made, Costner’s star power had already waned somewhat. He directed it and put Robert Duvall above himself in the credits – liked that.

    • Only fitting as Duvall has certainly done his share in keeping the western alive. He had a really good turn in Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend, a film that often seems to get overlooked.

  10. Sorry to report that I don’t know that one, Colin. Every so often I will watch a more recent attempt at the western, mostly to be disappointed, so I don’t bother too much. Of course, that way one can miss something good without realising!

    • Definitely worth seeing, a beautifully shot movie. And Wes Studi is excellent in the title role.

      For what it’s worth Jerry, your reply just came in as comment number 4000 on this site!

  11. I think I’m good to chime in about what I think is the Western’s continued health and relevance at least every 6 months or so, ha…as I believe I have mentioned, the hit Western video game Red Dead Redemption (2010) has introduced the genre to a whole new demographic who can then be lead into films and TV series. I have seen it with the college students I teach. Also, the serious TV success of AMC’s Hell on Wheels (an “Old West” Western/2011-Present) and A&E’s Longmire (a contemporary-set Western/2012-Present) demonstrate there is still an audience for solid writing and acting.

    If anything, to my mind, the Western genre has so many more resources to tap into now….such as an increased breadth of historical scholarship for plot-lines that gives voice to many groups that were ignored in earlier films….or HD clarity to highlight outdoor locations.

    I really would recommend for those who may have given up on newer Westerns to view The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)….or Dead Man (2005). Those two films push the boundaries of the Western into the universal in a number of beautiful ways.

    • Chad, I think that TV has played a big part in keeping the western afloat in recent times, ironic in a way since it could be argued that it was the glut of TV westerns back in the 50s and 60s that led to over-familiarity and the decline of the genre.

  12. I love the movie A DISTANT TRUMPET Yes, it’s flawed, but its strengths are so much greater than its flaws. I hasten to add that I essentially agree with Colin about what those flaws and strengths are and how they balance, even if I might want to express just a little more about this. It ranks well up for me among last films of great directors–all directors and not only American ones. It may be even better for me because I saw it a few times in a theatre–I don’t know if others here have. It really gains from being seen on the big screen, because those elaborate exterior action sequences and stunning long shots all come over to such great advantage seen that way, and the movie finally has a magisterial feeling.

    I’ve read the book–and not that long ago, so I think I remember it better than Stormy, the only other person here who commented. From my own reading of it, Stormy underestimated it pretty seriously. It’s a very long, elaborate novel, but continually absorbing. The climax–when Hazard and his Apache scout White Horn journey into Mexico in the mountains to find and meet with the Apaches–is enthralling. If the movie had been three hours instead of two, it would have been worth taking most of the last hour for this. However, it is here that the movie most comes into its own–though Horgan is a historian as well as a novelist and strives for balance, it is Walsh who has a more profound sympathy for Indians and actually find a deeper resonance within his realization of this scene. This is a scene that has, in different ways, been done many times in Indian Westerns and never better than in this one. The Indians are given their own language, treated with tremendous dignity, and the Geronimo figure could not be more eloquent. The reason artists come back to this is that it still feels tragic. Indians did not go gently into the night, especially Geronimo, but this feels like an existential embrace of what he senses from history and experience will be a bleak future–existential because this surrender was not a defeat in battle but was negotiated in the way we see here.

    It was my feeling for the film that eventually led me to read the book. They share a lot but are not just the same–key changes Walsh made with John Twist (his favorite scenarist) reflect his personality. I don’t want to say too much about the book because I know Colin plans to read it and maybe others here have an interest in it too. But will just observe a few things about how the movie is different. I want to do this without trying to set the film and book against each other. The film could not hope to be as elaborate as the novel, or anywhere near it.

    In the book Hazard’s story begins with him as a boy and his investment in his military career begins there (there is a meeting with Lincoln that more suggests a Ford film than one by Walsh) and is kind of the through line for the novel and suggests its title (a great title for a Walsh movie but it finally means more in the book). While it then moves forward reasonably quickly to the present of the Southwest action, it keeps going back to give numerous characters back stories, some of them very dramatic, including White Horn, the Apache scout, who had been a chief, and of course General Quait, probably the best-realized character in the film as played by James Gregory. Among the most important characters are Col. Prescott and wife Jessica–they are just barely present in the film, but along with Laura are really the book’s most important characters after Matt himself.

    Naturally enough, it all had to be simpler and more compressed for the movie and that’s not a fault. Most intriguingly, Walsh, working with favorite scenarist John Twist and so getting it the way he would want it, reverses the roles of the two women. In the novel, Laura is the heroine and marries Matt early on (not an easy road because of class differences between them) but he initially has to go to Fort Delivery alone. There without her, he has an affair with Kitty Mainwaring, which he regrets (Laura does comes to live with him there later) but Kitty is a different woman, neurotic and close to being a nymphomaniac, and has several more affairs and comes to a sad end. For Walsh, whenever he has any say in it, it will always be the worldly woman who will have his sympathy and likely wind up the actual heroine, so Kitty is changed into a positive character, while Laura becomes the prim fiancee who is not a proper partner for a Walsh hero. It’s true, though, that while Walsh revitalizes these characters on paper, the realization of the intimate part of the story is not as well done as other of his films.

    However, much as he is one of my favorite directors, I blame Walsh rather than the three leads for this. I read an interview where he said that none of the three was well-cast and he plainly was uninspired by them so doesn’t give these scenes much. But I think if he had worked with them more it would have been better. I will break ranks more on Troy Donahue than Colin did–I believe (unlike Walsh I guess) that he was well-cast for Matt, who is pretty much as he is in the book. I’ll admit I just don’t understand the ridicule Donahue seems to get because I think he was a fine actor, not the greatest ever but sincere and believable. Delmer Daves worked with Donahue, as well as Pleshette, McBain, Sandra Dee and Connie Stevens in those late melodramas, with very good results, especially with Donahue and Stevens. If that’s who you have, give them all you can. I know all the great male and female leads Walsh had worked with before and who he must have missed here, but I also just think they are mostly adequate because he didn’t ask more. The big love scene in a cave between Donahue and Pleshette is especially awkward, seeming to end abruptly–it needed the strong hand that Walsh had on so many other occasions.

    On the other hand, if the intimate scenes are just good enough–I say that because they do their part and don’t hurt the movie for me–Walsh does hit the heights in the action scenes and long shots in a way few could do and no director now could even hope to do. I once talked to a female colleague who saw it with an audience in Paris–maybe the Cinematheque Francaise–and she said that during these scenes it was so still in the audience you could hear a pin drop. As she said, and as they felt, this WAS cinema.

    After the memorable climactic moment of Matt throwing down the Medal of Honor, the same in the film as in the book, there is a key change at the very end–I have to say that the end of the novel is very moving in a way that of the film is not. This is apart from the question of historical accuracy, and even if the film could not have had the same feeling behind this without all the back story and without a scene at the mid point of the novel that is not in the film at all, it seems to me now that Walsh, with the changes he had made, could have his own ending that would have been much more satisfying in all ways that what is there. Returning to the movie again after reading the book, I wondered why he didn’t and that–rather than the many differences between the two works–hurt the movie just a little for me. But all things considered, it didn’t make me think less of the movie which is I do think is a glorious end to a great career.

    • Blake,

      I defer to you on the novel since you read it not long ago and have a much better memory of it than I. About the only thing I remember about it is that I found it to be tedious and was happy to get to the last page.

  13. I know my comment was belated and meantime the discussion cut into a lot of other directions. Some of this will come back with other films so won’t try to add too much here but just a few things I do want to throw in my two cents on. I’ve commented before that although I have kept up with Westerns (though not quite so willing to see any Western made after the 3:10 TO YUMA remake), I’ve long lost faith of it ever coming back to being the genre that means so much to me. The many people that created that and worked within aesthetic and narrative traditions of which they had a shared understanding that ran quite deep are all gone now. Yes, someone will always want to make a Western and they will keep coming along, but even for those who well-understood what was great about them, there is too much sense of deliberation over themes, ideas, and images rather than the right balance of spontaneity and lack of pretension with thoughtful creativity. Sorry to those who do love it, but OPEN RANGE is for me a good example of this. I enjoyed it at the time, within reason, but it was perhaps an hour longer than it needed to be, everything way too emphatic, its redemption theme more laid out as theme than dramatically lived within the film. When people say this is great–and I know it has had its share of articulate defenders–I think it’s partly because one waits for a reasonable facsimile of the Westerns we loved and then one comes along with no competition, but anywhere in the 50s this would have been just one more and not better than many others but a lot shorter. I’ve never had any desire to see it a second time.

    I’d like to believe in the Western but I think genres and art forms flourish and meaningfully evolve when they are widely practiced as this once was–in the late 50s, it had become incredibly refined. It was both the genre and the practitioners, the iconography and the kinds of themes and ideas that were explored. This is a different time and cultural moment. It just can’t be like that now. And unlike others, I’m not waiting for a resurgence of the Western because there are already so many good Westerns of the past that repay seeing again and again. For most of us, there remain good Westerns we haven’t even seen yet so we have those to look forward to as well.

    I would say to Jerry, and will elaborate in my next post, that up to a point, there have been good Westerns after the classical period, even in the worst of times–I don’t love the 70s but like a handful of Westerns made then very much, several of which are just wonderful. And I think there was enough strength left with at least a few directors (Eastwood, Walter Hill) and some actors who found some iconography in the genre in these later years (Hackman, Duvall) that up to a point, something great could still be done. So, the last two Westerns that really satisfied me like the great Westerns of the past–UNFORGIVEN (Eastwood) and GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND (Hill), but these are over twenty years old now, and they both seemed to close on the kinds of Westerns they were. GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND, already mentioned here, shares the historical background of A DISTANT TRUMPET, and I will say it compares well to it too, allowing that one is a classical work and the other inevitably a modernist one so they have very different tones and textures.

    Maybe ten years ago, I felt like my dislike of 70s Westerns had caused me to skip too many at one time, so I went back and saw a bunch of them I’d missed–and saw some again too. A few were better than I thought they’d be, but mostly it was pretty depressing. I mention this because one I saw again (I felt I had to because I wanted to say something about it in a published piece) that i’d especially disliked was THE MISSOURI BREAKS, which several people here have said they have avoided. I will weigh in on this one and won’t encourage you to see it. I consider this the worst Western ever made that any serious critic ever took to be a masterpiece. All the worst faults of the 70s–the facetiousness, lack of seriousness, wavering tone, apparent contempt for the West and any deeper meaning than corruption in Western history, are all there. Although Arthur Penn made one of my favorite 70s movies, NIGHT MOVES, I wish he had never gone near the Western, and don’t even like the earliest and best of the three THE LEFT-HANDED GUNS, which has about 15 minutes of sustained intensity before it is over but a pretentious feeling uncharacteristic of 1958, while LITTLE BIG MAN is a cartoon for all its historical expanse and THE MISSOURI BREAKS is easily the worst of the three. Especially dismaying is the performance of Marlon Brando, who is inexcusably indulged by Penn. Paid millions for a role like this, Brando refuses to be professional, just plays with the character, doing whatever he likes and never taking it seriously. It’s typical of an actor sometimes cited as cinema’s greatest but for me, much of the time, he is its worst, not because he lacks talent and could not be good but because of all the things he can do, one of them is not, except on rare occasions, being believable.

    If you do see this, and see Brando’s acting, it may make you appreciate Troy Donahue’s performance in A DISTANT TRUMPET.

    • Blake, I want to I say that I very much appreciate your taking the time to compose those two replies that say so much, not only about the film we’re talking about here but the western in general. Frankly, I need a little time to fully digest all the points you’ve raised and addressed. For the moment, let me just say that I’m more than a little humbled that my article here has spurred you on to such detailed and heartfelt responses.

    • Again there’s plenty of food for thought here. I try to catch every new western when they appear in the cinema, rare as that may be. Some have been very disappointing while others were at least satisfactory. Some time ago I think I would have counted myself among those hoping for a resurgence of the western, and I’m certainly not averse to the notion now. Having said that, I now no longer think it’s likely to happen. Too much has changed not only within cinema but the broader social culture too. As you say, the circumstances simply do not exist to allow the genre to make a glorious comeback. I certainly don’t believe it’s finished though, and there will continue to be westerns made; TV, as has been mentioned before, has and continues to play a part, but cinema seems unable to commit itself to the western as a long-term trend. And as the distance between us and the historical west grows greater every day, the less relevance it appears to have.

      This, I think, leads into your comments on The Missouri Breaks. Reading them, I have to say I’m now less inclined to see the film, but I’m not all that surprised. I’ve seen Arthur Penn’s other two westerns and was unimpressed by them, thinking that the man, for all his talents and abilities as a film director in general, had no proper feel for the genre. The finest western directors all had that feel, that respect if you like, for the genre which shone through in their finished work. Much of that has been lost and filmmakers today, like Penn perhaps, approach the genre from a different angle.

  14. Finally, to Jerry, I think you know I am in sympathy with your feeling about what happens in the 60s but I think you are simplifying it just a little. My feeling is more like Colin’s that it did not happen all at once and one can see the changes almost year by year. I do think the Western changed most in the 1960s, traumatically so, but remember that this is happening when classical cinema in a wider way is ending. Cinema feels very different by the end of the decade than it did at the beginning.

    So my feeling, confining it to the Western, is that there are three phases:

    1)1960-1962. As you observed, production of Westerns is way down, and I’d also add that the themes and motifs that reached a peak in the late 50s disappear pretty quickly (released early in 1960, COMANCHE STATION, easily the year’s best Western, is more like an end of ’50s film in this respect), but initially I like some of the fresh things that come along–HELLER IN PINK TIGHTS for one is an enjoyable, different Western. Some of the directors, actors and others we like are still very present in these years. And I especially feel 1962 marks the real end point of the classical Western because of the elegiac feelings of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, which I will be bold enough to say are also the two best American movies of that year–and that’s remarkable given how few Westerns were released then and it’s something I would not as readily claim for even the best years of the Western earlier. Also, I’ll remind of the four leads in these, Wayne and Stewart in one, McCrea and Scott in the other–they just happen to be my four favorite male stars in the genre. There is also the fact that VALANCE is directed by supreme classicist John Ford, while COUNTRY is made by modernist to be Sam Peckinpah, yet intriguingly COUNTRY seems like the more classical Western while Ford’s movie leans more toward being modernist, if subtly so–and that’s characteristic of Ford.

    2) 1963-1966. These are really the transitional years, with good late classical Westerns coming out side by side with the early Italian Westerns and those Hollywood Westerns looking toward modernism (along with Peckinpah, Leone and Monte Hellman made their first Westerns, all key, in this period). I’ll come back to this, but briefly for now I hope. This period really deserves an article all its own, maybe even its own book, because no matter what one thinks of any of the individual Westerns, there is just so much going on. And it’s interesting that while production of Westerns is so low in Hollywood that there are only five that really count in 1963, there are a lot more being made by 1966.

    3-1967-1969. Now it is really the modernist Western that dominates–by the end of the decade, Peckinpah and Leone are the genre’s dominant directors, for good or ill–and when Hollywood tries to recreate what it had done in classical days, there is often a sad, desperate feeling about those movies as if they are going through the motions without knowing why (A.C. Lyles movies are probably the most conspicuous example but far from the only one). Of the veterans, the main exception for me in the late 60s is Henry Hathaway, who really holds his own.

    Going back to the that middle ’63-’64 period, 1964 is for me the standout year and I want to conclude with that because it is the year of my three favorite Westerns of these years, of which one is A DISTANT TRUMPET and the others are CHEYENNE AUTUMN and RIO CONCHOS. Interestingly, these are all Indian Westerns, though each with its own character, and all made by veterans, though Gordon Douglas did not have a career stretching back to silents as Ford and Walsh did. There is something magnificent about these three films–they are all classical but of their moment too, having more of a philosophical view of white/Indian relations and of history than the pro-Indian cycle of the 50s, while RIO CONCHOS has elements of the bleaker modernist Westerns to come but without the cynicism (Colin dealt with this here and that piece is worth looking up for anyone interested). In the end, I take them most to heart for what they are aesthetically that Westerns will soon not be–the wide screen and color images of all three have so much integrity of time and space, with a solid beauty and compositional richness rather than zoom shots and long lenses, and in that way at least at one with the Westerns one loved in the 50s, that and the consistent artistic sensibilities of Ford, Walsh and Douglas, all remaining creative. Along with the directors, the cinematographers too (Joe MacDonald on RIO CONCHOS and William Clothier on the other too) were rooted in the great Westerns and the way they had looked, and it really shows.

  15. In the last paragraph, I meant “…that middle ’63-’66 period” and hope that was clear.

    Stormy, I hope I didn’t seem dismissive of your opinion of the novel just because I’ve read it more recently and so remember it better. It’s always fine to disagree, of course, and if you weren’t enjoying a book like this, it would be tough to get through because it is so long. The novel is actually well-regarded generally and that’s usually used against the movie, something that bothers me much more than any individual opinion of either because I think the movie is being held to a standard of fidelity to the novel, which I think is wrong. I don’t believe a movie owes a novel anything like that, but should be considered on how it succeeds or fails on its own as an individual work that owes to the literary work only as a source.

  16. Blake, I’ll have to come back to you in stages I think; your comments here are so detailed and comprehensive that I need to chew them over slowly.

    On the film itself, I was particularly interested in the points you made about Walsh and his handling/use of the leads. I haven’t seen those Daves melodramas, although they have been mentioned on this site before, so I’ll have to take your word on Donahue’s effectiveness in them. The film gives over a significant amount of time to the romantic/intimate moments and, seeing as I felt they were the weaker aspects of the production, it’s enlightening to hear you say that a certain detachment (I’m not sure if that’s the right word, but it’s the feeling I’m getting) on the part of Walsh may have contributed to that.

    As for Donahue, I’ve read a few scathing dismissals of his performance and, to be honest, was expecting the worst. The truth is he’s not bad; he could be better, and some of that may indeed be down to the direction, but his performance is perfectly acceptable for the most part. If nothing else, it’s good to have the opportunity here to try to put the record straight on that score.

    • I am still trying to marshal my thoughts to respond to Blake, as I feel his superb analysis rightly expects.

      But on the subject of Troy Donohue, I saw him in three of those early 1960s melodramas for WB, two of them indeed on their General release in the cinemas – “PARRISH” and “SUSAN SLADE”. I was a teenager and had a bit of a “thing” about Connie Stevens (but we won’t dwell on that). Perhaps because they were contemporary dramas and this young actor was in the early stages of stardom he seemed very good. I never would have seen him as a western lead frankly but that is not to say he would not necessarily be any good in that role.

  17. I find Blake`s analysis infallible. I grew up watching Troy Donahue in those 60s melodramas and could not accept him in a western, as in my opinion he did not have the image of a cowboy like Gary Cooper and the rest. Best regards.

    • Donahue certainly didn’t have the background in westerns of the genre greats but, had he been in the business a little earlier, I think he could have grown into westerns. There were many actors who, on the surface, seemed unlikely as western leads yet did some fine work (in some cases maybe even their finest) in the genre. To some extent anyway, the timing and circumstances worked against Donahue.

  18. Just to backtrack slightly; but mentioning the state of Westerns today I regret mentioning Seth MacFarlane’s A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. All I knew was that it’s a comedy Western and Liam Neeson is in the cast. Now that I have seen the trailer on-line I can see that the film looks as if it’s crammed with
    sub-moronic-sub navel humor. This film could clean up at the box office unlike last years dire LONE RANGER…..really with films like this The Western has never had it so bad. I have to admit though Neeson looks awesome as a mean gunslinger. I also think Neeson would make a great Gil Favor if ever they did a big screen version of RAWHIDE.

  19. Backtracking even more firstly Chad (great site BTW and thanks for the info on the Tom Horn book) I am afraid that I cannot share your admiration for the Brad Pitt Jesse James film. I did see this one in a cinema and had a huge problem staying awake. The film has plenty of admirers though and I think you will agree that it is a film certain to divide people. I am more at ease with DEAD MAN – I’m not saying I entirely “got it” but parts of the film were very impressive-stunning at times. Sadly I never saw this one in a cinema and that’s my loss. It’s odd but a friend who is in his seventies loves the film and sent me the DVD which he picked up in a bargain bucket for a few pence. I am glad that he did.I am very tempted to get the Blu-Ray of this film. Furthermore Jim Jarmusch’s GHOST DOG is one of my favorite films of the 90’s.

  20. I was wondering earlier where Blake was while all this was going on and I see that he is back with a vengeance; enigmatic as ever. I did like Blake’s comments that he has not seen a great Western since Walter Hill’s GERONIMO and Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN. He also made the most interesting point that both these films were over twenty years ago. I was feeling sort of isolated with my opinion of OPEN RANGE and it’s good to know that Blake more or less shares my views. In the years since the Fifties the pickings for Western fans have become leaner and leaner. Westerns that promised much like THE WAY WEST were huge let downs,especially considering the three leads. I mentioned Burt Kennedy earlier and I know Blake and I differ on earlier things we have said over at Toby’s. It’s just that I feel that Kennedy promised so much but never delivered the classic that he was most capable of. Having said that I would love to see a scope version of his first, THE CANADIANS, which I remember as a truly beautiful film. For me the most impressive of Kennedy’s 70’s output was the rarely seen/shown THE KILLER INSIDE ME not really a Western but a modern day Western of sorts; brilliant cast too. At any rate I have avoided the recent remake which was a critical and box office disaster. It’s a shame that so many fine films go “off radar”.

    I often feel guilty, and I am sure that I have said this before, about contributing to RTHC especially considering the extreme high quality writing of our gracious host Colin, and Blake. What I love about you guys is you never over-intellectualize what you write about, you just keep producing these beautifully constructed essays. My approach to film is far more basic it’s more irreverent or should that be irrelevant. After all is said and done I guess that it’s the “trash addict” in me; my idea of symbolism in the Western is Coleen Gray chasing Jan Sterling around the bedroom armed with an enormous pair of scissors in Edward Ludwig’s Southern Gothic Western THE VANQUISHED. I DO try guys, but I’m too long in the tooth to turn back now!

    • John, you’re selling yourself short here I reckon. I’ve always appreciated your comments on whatever film has come up, and I’m sure I can speak for plenty of others when I say that too. You just go right on sharing whatever thoughts you feel like.

      You know, I’ve never seen Kennedy’s version of The Killer Inside Me. I did see the remake and actually thought it was pretty good, although the murder scene is extraordinarily brutal and gratuitous, and I think that harmed the film enormously. Really, I feel that was a step too far and the critical reaction and subsequent box-office reflected that.

    • John K., I agree with Colin. You always contribute a lot. On more recent Westerns, I find I often agree with you too. I too had trouble staying awake through the THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD BOB FORD, though did manage to stay awake until the end. It was never more than faintly interesting. Unlike you, I didn’t like DEAD MAN either. A lot of people love that, enough that they put it over all the great Westerns of classical years–I always think they don’t like Westerns the way I do. These films kind of position themselves as “art westerns” and I won’t say they appeal to those who don’t like Westerns, but both directors were on record that THEY don’t like Westerns, especially Andrew Dominick who apparently doesn’t like the genre at all (excepting his own movie I guess!). Jim Jarmusch said he liked JOHNNY GUITAR but disliked all the Westerns of John Ford. One recent movie in this “art Western” vein I enjoyed more was MEEK’S CUTOFF, directed by Kelly Reichardt–it was kind of intriguing and sustained a mood well. But I never think about it now and wouldn’t go back to it, just like any other Western since 1993.

      In any event, the movie was more “enigmatic” than I am. I’m an open book, so don’t know why you said “enigmatic as ever” John (LOL).

  21. Seeing as a good deal of the discussion here has moved towards the relative merits of the modern take on the western, I’d be interested to hear what the general opinion is of the TV versions. I’m thinking particularly of the adaptations of McMurtry’s work. I enjoyed them for the most part, although I think the books are still preferable. I also thought Walter Hill’s Broken Trail was interesting.

  22. Colin and Blake, thanks so much for the kind words, undeserved but most welcome.
    Blake, regarding my use of the word “enigmatic” I was trying to say that one can never second guess your thoughts on film; you constantly surprise. Very interesting regarding your comments regarding Jim Jarmusch on John Ford. I don’t exactly love DEAD MAN but thought that it had very interesting elements and I certainly liked the film visually.
    A Western from the early Seventies that rarely, if ever, gets discussed, and from one of Blake’s favorite directors as well- THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN. I have very good memories of that film and it’s one that I need to re-visit sooner rather than later. My game plan is to wait for these major works to turn up on Blu-Ray which is why I have held back on getting the DVD. As I have said many times before, I am a recent convert to Blu-Ray and am totally “sold” on the format. Not every vintage film looks wonderful on Blu-Ray but when they do the results are often jaw-dropping. I found the recent Blu-Ray release of GUNFIGHT AT OK CORRAL outstanding. Ditto the recent German Blu-Ray of BACKLASH. While we are discussing all things Sturges I was amazed how good JOE KIDD looked on Blu-Ray. I have, in the past, considered the film OK early Eastwood but very minor Sturges. However, viewing the Blu-Ray has given me an entirely different take on the film. The landscapes and compositions are beautiful, the film looks amazing in the Blu-Ray format.

  23. Rather belatedly, I fear, but I have been away for a few days and just wanted to reflect on John K.’s comments per:

    I often feel guilty, and I am sure that I have said this before, about contributing to RTHC especially considering the extreme high quality writing of our gracious host Colin, and Blake. What I love about you guys is you never over-intellectualize what you write about, you just keep producing these beautifully constructed essays. My approach to film is far more basic it’s more irreverent or should that be irrelevant. After all is said and done I guess that it’s the “trash addict” in me; my idea of symbolism in the Western is Coleen Gray chasing Jan Sterling around the bedroom armed with an enormous pair of scissors in Edward Ludwig’s Southern Gothic Western THE VANQUISHED. I DO try guys, but I’m too long in the tooth to turn back now!

    John K.’s inimitable words but I could not put it better myself. I also feel my own contributions are hardly major but I really do enjoy the byplay, the useful info and the superb essays by Colin and Blake that express my own feelings rather better than I can!!

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