The western is genre that often gets a raw deal in the image stakes. And it’s not just a matter of waning box-office popularity in recent times. It’s rarely afforded the respect that other genres seem to court so easily and instead finds itself weighed down by the notion that it’s somehow unsophisticated. The term oater is applied, I’ve used it myself, in an affectionate way, yet it carries a certain air of condescension when you stop and think about it too. I guess the stereotype of uncouth figures riding horses, firing guns and chasing Indians is such a strong one that it’s managed to sideline the genre in the minds of many people. The paradox is that the western is actually one of the richest forms of cinema around. Leaving aside the frequently breathtaking visuals, the setting offers the opportunity to tell an almost unlimited range of stories and explore as many themes as it’s possible to imagine. The vast geographical expanses and the absence (or at best the bare rudiments) of civilization create a kind of nearly blank canvas onto which a skilled filmmaker can paint, with both bold and subtle strokes, whatever he likes. William Wellman was certainly highly skilled and his westerns are never less than interesting, and usually challenging too. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a powerful and memorable piece of work that stays with you and is one of those films that proves the western is capable of being not only an entertainment but an intellectual stimulant as well.
The plot is a simple one and it’s that lack of complexity in the storytelling that’s one of its greatest strengths. The film has a moral point to impart and too much narrative trickery would only be a distraction and water down the central message. Events begin to unfold in a little backwater settlement where the neighbouring ranchers have been struggling with the perennial problem of cattle rustling. When a youngster comes racing into town to breathlessly announce that one of their own has been apparently murdered and his livestock taken a tragic chain reaction is set in motion. The jaded and bitter populace experience disbelief and outrage and are teetering on the edge, poised to ride out and hunt down like animals the alleged killers of their friend. For a brief moment, it looks like reason and decency may prevail as the aged storekeeper Davies (Harry Davenport) appeals to their better nature. But this is not to be – ex-soldier Tetley (Frank Conroy) soon turns the townsfolk back to their base instincts, and a rag-tag posse is formed. Not wanting to draw the ire of the town upon themselves, two cowboys, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), reluctantly join the eager hunting party. It’s not long before the posse cut the trail of three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford) who seem to fit the bill of the murderers. From this point on the movie becomes a kind of ethical struggle between the ineffectual Davies and the implacable Tetley for the souls of the posse members, with the fate of the three captives hanging in the balance.
The Ox-Bow Incident is based on the novel of the same name by Walt Van Tilburg Clark and, although it’s been quite a few years since I read the book, I recall it as being a pretty faithful adaptation. Wellman’s direction captures the heavy, moody and ultimately tragic tone of the novel very well. There aren’t many true exterior scenes, most of the film seeming to have been shot on sets, and this (along with the high contrast photography) helps to pile on the sense of claustrophobia and doom. While the outcome is fairly predictable, the director still maintains the tension and, crucially, that isn’t lost even with repeated viewings. In fairness, a lot of that comes down to the performances too; Dana Andrews, as the leader of the suspected murderers, was billed below Henry Fonda but his work plays a large part in the success of the movie. His initial disbelief and growing desperation at the nightmare situation he finds himself in is built steadily. He did a fine job of conveying an awkward mix of fear and nobility that positively demands the sympathy of the viewer. In a sense, Fonda plays something of a supporting role in this one, only taking centre stage at a few points. Perhaps his best moment is in the saloon at the end when he reads Andrews’ letter to his illiterate friend. The letter itself is a powerful and emotive one that expertly outlines the author’s twinned concepts of justice and conscience. Fonda’s delivery of the words, as Wellman shot him in extreme close-up – partly obscured at first and then full face – is perfectly timed and enunciated to maximise their impact. However, for long stretches, he’s portraying the confused man in the middle, caught between the opposing ideals of Tetley and Davies. It’s this conflict that’s at the heart of the picture: how reasonable and civilized men can be browbeaten into submission, how the cult of personality can sway the masses and turn them into an unthinking mob, bereft of ethics and robbed of conscience. It’s both an indictment of the failings of the law – the sheriff has left town, the judge is a procrastinator, and the deputy is little more than a barbarian – and a warning that that same law is all we have to prevent our descent into inhumanity.
The R1 DVD of The Ox-Bow Incident from Fox is an excellent presentation of the film; there’s hardly any damage to be seen, the detail level is fine, and the crisp image has the kind of strong contrast necessary for this type of movie. There’s also a fine selection of extras: a commentary track by William Wellman Jr and Dick Eulain, a biography of Fonda, and a gallery of images. This title is due for a Blu-ray release by Koch Media in Germany in August. Seeing as the extras are to be replicated it’s reasonable to expect that the same film elements will be used, therefore a first class transfer should be on the cards. As I said in the intro, The Ox-Bow Incident is a good example of a thinking man’s western, yet for all that, it never loses sight of the fact that it has to entertain and grip the viewer too. A superb film.
I love the complexity of westerns from the 1950s. Moreover, I love the fact that this complexity could be contained within the framework of relatively simple and compact stories and still lose nothing in the telling. Take Last Train from Gun Hill (1959): on the face of it we have a fairly standard pursuit and revenge tale, yet it successfully tackles the themes of racism, loyalty (both to friends and to family), justice and the father/son dynamic. Not only that, but it wraps the whole thing up in a run time of an hour and a half or thereabouts. The result is tight, intense moviemaking that draws you in from the very first shot and only relinquishes its grip when the final credits roll.
Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) is a US Marshal with a Cherokee bride and a young son. Within minutes of the opening Morgan’s wife has been assaulted, raped and murdered by two young thugs. This is a brutal and shocking way to begin any story, and despite the camera mercifully cutting away none of its power is diminished. The point is further hammered home when Morgan arrives to survey the terrible aftermath, horror, sorrow and outrage all flitting across his features. Morgan’s grief is compounded by his realisation that a saddle left behind at the scene of the crime points the finger of guilt at an old friend and comrade Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). Morgan doesn’t for one moment believe that Belden himself could have been directly involved in this heinous act, but the presence of the saddle means some member of his entourage must have been. The sting in the tail comes from the fact that the chief culprit is Belden’s son and heir Rick (Earl Holliman), a spoilt and inadequate young man living hopelessly in his father’s shadow. The perverse and damaging nature of this father/son relationship is eloquently summed up in a short scene at Belden’s ranch house. When the foreman ribs the boy about the reason for a cut on his face Belden goads him into fighting for the honour of the family name – Rick is soundly beaten, causing humiliation to him and disappointment to his father. When Morgan learns the truth the scene is set for a confrontation between the two old friends. The bonds between the two men are strong but the events that have taken place put an intolerable strain on them. Morgan is determined to take Rick back to stand trial while Belden is equally determined to stop him. As Morgan and his prisoner wait in a cramped hotel room for the arrival of the last train, Belden and his men lay siege outside. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma at this point, although Rick lacks the charm of Ben Wade and Morgan’s personal loss lends him more inflexibility than Dan Evans. As the clock ticks inexorably towards the arrival of that last train the pressure mounts on Morgan, and the issue is raised of whether he too might have to face the same situation as Belden somewhere down the line – for Morgan (like his former friend) is now a widower faced with the unenviable task of trying to raise a boy alone.
John Sturges always knew how to shoot an action scene and there can be no complaints on that score here. However, this movie isn’t a string of back to back shoot-em-up set pieces, and it’s sometimes forgotten how good Sturges was at coaxing strong performances from his cast. Both Douglas and Quinn give convincing portraits of men unaccustomed to ceding ground to anyone and torn between conflicting loyalties. The few scenes where they actually share the screen are a pleasure to watch – the initial meeting at the ranch when both men realize who really killed Morgan’s wife, and what the consequences must inevitably be, contains some marvellous work with an enormous amount of feeling conveyed simply through subtle glances. As good as Quinn is, Douglas steals the show with his grim determination and suppressed fury boiling just below the surface. He’s playing a man for whom respect for the law and the badge he carries is paramount, even to the extent that his own personal grief is subordinated to duty. There are only two occasions when his professionalism is allowed to slip momentarily, both triggered by racial slurs directed at his murdered wife. The first is a reflexive burst of physical violence against a local loudmouth. The second, however, is merely vocal but has a sadistic quality that is quite chilling – his deliberate and detailed description to a shackled and cowed Rick of how the judicial process that will lead to his certain death will be as slow and protracted as any Indian execution is the only time he permits himself to savour the taste of revenge. Earl Holliman played Rick as a whining, craven creature who never elicits the least sympathy from the viewer. This seems to be largely down to the writing, and if any particular criticism is to be made of the film it’s that Rick’s character is just too unlikeable. If there had been something even vaguely attractive about him it would have added yet another layer to the story, but that’s really just nitpicking on my part. Carolyn Jones has the only female role in the movie (not counting the extremely brief appearance by Morgan’s wife) as the on/off lover of Belden. Aside from providing a counter to all the machismo on display, she occupies (for most of the film at least) a place similar to that of the viewer i.e. watching from the sidelines while feeling some sympathy for both the protagonists. In the end, it’s her respect for Morgan and his motivation, and her disillusionment with Belden and his son’s brutality, that leads to the decisive shift in the balance of power.
The R1 DVD from Paramount has Last Train from Gun Hill looking just great. The vistavision elements have been transferred beautifully at 1.78:1 anamorphic, with colours looking rich and saturated. I can’t say I noticed any damage or flaws worth mentioning and the image is sharp and detailed. There are no extras whatsoever on the disc, and that’s a pity as this is a movie that would seem to be just begging for an intelligent commentary track. This is a movie – like many by Sturges in fact – that knows how to keep the tension simmering and the viewer hooked. There’s no preaching or tiresome moralising yet the messages are all communicated clearly and seamlessly without impeding the narrative or the entertainment. In short, it’s a high class film.
Some movies are especially difficult to define or categorize. Allan Dwan’s The River’s Edge (1957) is certainly such a film; it’s a blend of modern western, noirish thriller, and lush and lusty 50s melodrama. While it’s possible to argue over which one of those labels comes closest to summing it up, it’s clear enough that this is a B movie which was given the glossy treatment. As such, this is an impressive piece of budget film production, dealing with those classic themes of money, greed, jealousy, love, and there’s a level of casual brutality not usually found in films of the period.
The story concerns three people: Ben Cameron (Anthony Quinn), his new wife Meg (Debra Paget), and Meg’s former lover Nardo Denning (Ray Milland). Right away we can see that Cameron’s relationship with his wife is not all it should be; she’s tottering around his ramshackle ranch house in high heeled slippers, struggling with the lack of modern conveniences, while he’s struggling with steers outside. The thing is Meg is a city girl, actually she’s con artist on the lam, while Cameron is a salt of the earth type whose greatest ambition is to make something out of his fledgling ranch. These two have hooked up together and are trying to make a go of it, but it’s starting to come unravelled. At the critical moment, who should turn up at Cameron’s door but his wife’s old flame Denning, apparently looking to hire a guide to take him on a hunting trip into Mexico. Meg takes off with Denning, at least as far as the nearest motel, and it’s unclear at this point whether she truly means to leave her husband for good. At any rate, she never gets to fully decide as a car ride results in Denning killing a border patrol man in a fairly shocking manner. With Meg now implicated in the crime, and with the knowledge that Denning is carrying a suitcase stuffed full of cash, Cameron has a change of heart and decides that he’ll take the two former partners over the border to safety. The rest of the film charts the shifting nature of the characters’ relationships and motives. At the begining none of them act out of anything but naked self interest: Denning just wants an out and doesn’t especially care who he has to buy or kill to achieve it, Meg wants to escape from the drudgery and dullness of the remote ranch, and Cameron has his hungry eyes on the cash. Everything is complicated by the fact that both men are still love with Meg, and she has no qualms about playing one off against the other and flitting back and forth between them. The real turning point, for her character at least, comes after she gets a serious infection from a cut arm. When Cameron hacks away the poisoned flesh in a storm ravaged cave it’s as though some of the poison also drains away from Meg’s heart. From then on, the positions are clearly defined and the only question remaining is who will survive the hazards of the wilderness and walk away with the money.
In the latter years of a very long career Allan Dwan specialised in churning out slick little B movies on a budget, and The River’s Edge is a good example of this work. He packs a whole lot of story into less than 90 minutes and makes it all look a good deal more expensive than it has any right to. The combination of location shooting and studio sets blends together well and the use of colour is stunning in places. He also displays what might be termed a more modern approach to violence and death than was normally the case at the time; the three killings which take place, although not graphic in the current sense, occur with an abruptness that retain the ability to shock. The three leads are very professional and do their level best to lift the movie above its pulp roots. Ray Milland was of course in his twilight years as a leading man but just about pulls it off, his charming sadist who may yet have a small grain of decency buried deep is effective enough to distract you from the fact that he was probably too old for the part. Debra Paget (with a flaming red hairdo) is a fine femme fatale who’s by turns calculating, ruthless and affectionate. Her character arguably goes through the greatest arc of the three, and she handles the move from a scheming bitch to a woman who’s regained some sense of honour quite capably. Anthony Quinn starts off as a basically weak loser who can’t even summon up the will to hang onto his woman, but by the end he comes good and redeems himself somewhat. I say somewhat because there’s still an element of doubt and a shadow of greed hanging over him.
The River’s Edge came out on DVD in the US a few years ago from Fox in a very attractive edition. The transfer is anamorphic scope and the print used is very clean and colourful. The disc has a commentary track from James Ursini and Alain Silver, and a few trailers and a gallery. This is the kind of movie that probably wouldn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of seeing a DVD release in the current climate, all the more reason to appreciate its availability. There is no way that The River’s Edge could ever be termed a classic movie, but it is a tight and entertaining little thriller given a highly professional polish. Everything moves along at a lick and there are far worse ways of spending an hour and a half. All in all, it serves as a pretty good introduction to the later works of Allan Dwan.
Warlock (1959) is a movie that could be approached on a number of levels: as a psychological piece, an early example of revising the myth, an allegory and even as an apology. It’s an exceedingly complex film, which is paradoxically both its strength and its weakness, and also one that remains consistently fascinating. Essentially, this is a variation on the “town tamer” western – almost a sub-genre in itself – but the dense plotting takes it off in a number of directions.
The town of Warlock has become one of those wide open places where the law can only lurk in the shadows, hoping not to draw any unwelcome attention to itself. It has turned into a stamping ground for a band of murderous cowboys, referred to as San Pabloites, who have imposed a reign of terror on the seemingly ineffectual citizens. When one of their number is murdered and the sheriff humiliatingly run out of town the residents decide that the time has come for a positive response. A decision is taken, albeit grudgingly, to hire the services of one Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) for the position of de facto town marshal. Blaisedell, a thinly disguised version of Wyatt Earp, arrives in town along with his friend Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn) and sets about restoring law and order on his own terms whilst also overseeing the establishment of a gambling house and saloon. The no-holds-barred tactics of the new marshal soon see him in conflict not only with the San Pablo outlaws but also with those who have employed him, and by extension with the newly appointed sheriff. This man is Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), formerly one of the San Pabloites but now a reformed character – and in truth the film is as much about him as anything else. While all this is going on, Morgan is quietly scheming away in the background and manipulating events for his own ends. Sooner or later, a showdown (or more accurately a series of showdowns) will have to occur before matters can be resolved.
Warlock is a film with a whole lot going on, arguably too much for its own good. The parallel with the Wyatt Earp story is an interesting one in that it was, up to that point anyway, much closer to the reality of the situation. Blaisedell’s marshal is no shining hero bent on bringing law to the territory; he’s a professional gunman, ”handy with colts” in his own words, seeking out another pay day and raking in a little extra on the side via his saloon. If the relationship between Blaisedell and Morgan is supposed to hold up a mirror to that between Earp and Doc Holliday then it’s a skewed image that’s presented. Morgan is a crippled soul, both literally and physically, and considerably more dangerous than his partner. So far so good, but Morgan has taken friendship and loyalty to the extreme – to the point that it has twisted itself into a kind of jealous worship. Many commentators have stated that Morgan’s feelings for Blaisedell border on the homoerotic, and I can see where that notion comes from, but I don’t buy into it myself. For one thing, the director Edward Dmytryk said that that wasn’t a correct reading of the film. While Morgan’s obsessiveness towards his friend is clearly off-centre it seems to me more a product of his insecurities and self-loathing than anything else. The other main point of interest is the pivotal figure of Johnny Gannon. It’s hard not to see Dmytryk (one of the Hollywood Ten who became a “friendly witness”) projecting himself onto this character who turns his back on friends, family and associates to follow what he views as his own righteous path. Gannon’s conversion seems justified in a particularly intense scene where he confronts his old comrades in their lair in an attempt at conciliation. This gesture is spurned and results in the kind of brutal sadism that rivals James Stewart’s mutilation in The Man from Laramie.
This was Edward Dmytryk’s last good film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without its problems. As I said, Warlock is a movie rich in plot but such richness can bring about a slightly hamstrung end product. The fact that there are so many plot strands, and the necessity to tie them all up, means that the film has three separate climaxes. The effect of this is to lessen the impact of all of them. That, of course, is more a problem with the scripting than Dmytryk’s direction, which is solid enough and contains some well thought out camera angles. The action, when it comes along, is handled competently and the gunfights are all suitably dramatic. The three leads turn in good performances, with Henry Fonda putting a different spin on the part of the lawman to that which he created with John Ford the previous decade. Anthony Quinn keeps things fairly controlled as Morgan, though he does sail perilously close to the kind of scenery chewing that he was prone to lapse into on occasion. Richard Widmark is also especially good as the outlaw-turned-sheriff who visibly grows in stature and confidence as the story progresses. His faltering romance with a worldly Dorothy Malone (playing the fabulously named Lily Dollar) has enough realism to prevent it from merely being the kind of extraneous padding that is often the case.
As far as I can tell, Warlock should be available on DVD pretty much everywhere. Optimum’s UK disc presents the film in a very fine anamorphic scope transfer. It’s generally sharp as a tack throughout and the colours really do justice to Joe MacDonald’s classy cinematography. Unfortunately, there’s not a thing on the disc in the way of extras, but that’s about par for the course with Optimum releases. OK, this film may not be one of the front line classics in the western genre but it does help its development along. The movie’s greatest flaw is trying to pack in too much story, thus throwing itself off balance. However, there are still a lot of positives to take away from it.
“What do you Yankees think you are? The only real Americans in this merry old parish are on the other side of that hill with feathers in their hair”
If most old movie fans were asked to name their favourite Errol Flynn picture I think that a significant majority would probably plump for The Adventures of Robin Hood. I couldn’t really fault that choice as it comes in near the top with me too, but it’s still not my favourite. That honour would have to be reserved for They Died with Their Boots On (1941). I don’t know if it’s Flynn’s best film but it is up there and must surely be seen as one of the high points of his career. The character of George Armstrong Custer is one that Tasmania’s most famous son must have seemed ideally suited to playing. When the film was made Custer’s reputation as one of America’s greatest military heroes was only beginning to be reassessed, so there’s no axe-grinding revisionism to be found. Judged as a faithful biopic or character study, the movie is open to all sorts of criticism; but that’s not really what They Died with Their Boots On is all about, and it would be doing it a great disservice to treat it too harshly on those grounds. No, this is a Boys’ Own adventure of romance and daring, of guts and glory – and taken as such, it works perfectly.
There have been numerous portrayals of Custer on screen, dating back to Francis Ford in 1912, but I doubt if any have imbued the man with the glamour that Flynn brought to the part. The film traces his life and career from his entry into West Point up to his final moments at the Little Big Horn. Custer’s arrival at the US military academy, in all his gold-braided glory with a pack of hunting dogs in tow, is largely played for laughs, although it does set up a simmering rivalry with fellow cadet Ned Sharp (Arthur Kennedy) that’s crucial to the plot’s development. In fact, this is a film of two distinct parts; the first hour or so is mostly lighthearted knockabout stuff with only the occasional foray into more serious matters, while the second half takes on a decidedly darker and moodier tone. Therefore, we get to see Cadet Custer as a kind of fun-loving prankster who liked to ride his luck and chance his arm with authority, which, by all accounts, wasn’t too far from the truth. When the Civil War intervenes and necessitates his early graduation, Custer finds himself torn between pursuing his interest in the love of his life, Libby (Olivia De Havilland), and his enthusiasm to get into the thick of the action. Naturally, the pursuit of glory and honours wins out, and this leads to a nice little scene in Washington with General Winfield Scott (Sydney Greenstreet). Interestingly, Custer did have a fortuitous meeting with the Union commander on arrival at the Adjutant General’s office which led to his first active posting – albeit without the business with the creamed onions. The war, which ironically brought enormous fame to Custer, is given only minimal attention but it does show his rapid rise through the ranks. While all this is presented in a highly entertaining fashion, you still get the sense that we’re only marking time until we get to the real meaty stuff – the move west and the Indian Wars.
With the action shifting to Dakota, the whole feel of the film changes and raises it up to a different level. There’s still time for the odd lighter moment but it’s quickly apparent that this new war is no gentleman’s affair. Custer almost immediately clashes with his old foe Sharp who’s running a saloon and trading rifles with friendly Indians from within the fort. The first order of business is to end the drinking and whip the drunken recruits into some sort of fighting force. This is achieved via a wonderful sequence whereby Custer adopts the old Irish drinking song Garryowen and uses it as a means of instilling a sense of pride and unity into his ragtag 7th Cavalry. There’s also the first view of the red men, and in particular their chief Crazy Horse (Anthony Quinn). One notable aspect of this movie is the respect afforded to the Sioux; at no point are they portrayed as anything less than a disciplined fighting force with legitimate grievances. The real villains of the piece are the corrupt officials and their businessmen backers from the east. The point is made very clear that the Sioux are left with no choice but to rise against the whites when treaties are broken and their shrinking homeland is further encroached upon. When Custer leads out his last fateful expedition he does so in the hope of earning more personal glory of course, but it’s also obvious that his political masters and their moneyed allies have left him with no other option. So, he leads his 7th to the Little Big Horn – to hell…or to glory, depending on one’s point of view.
Flynn gave one of his better performances in They Died wth Their Boots On, particularly in the second half. You can see the character gradually mature as the story moves along, his youthful optimism giving way first to disillusionment and then, finally, to a perversely jaunty death wish. If you wanted to stretch a point, it’s possible to see parallels in the course of Flynn’s own life. There’s also much more maturity in the relationship between the characters of Flynn an Olivia De Havilland; this would be their last film together and that fact adds considerable poignancy to their farewell scene, which is pitch perfect in its playing. However, even though the film marked the end of one partnership, it would signal the beginning of another – this was the first movie that Flynn made with director Raoul Walsh. If the star’s relationship with Michael Curtiz was a less than happy one, his collaboration with Walsh was much more congenial. These were two men who were much closer in temperament and Flynn seems to have felt a lot more comfortable in the company of the buccaneering old director. Walsh was one of those directors who was always in his element shooting outdoors on location. I’ve already made the point that when the film switches to the west it moves up a gear, and I think that’s due, in part, to Walsh’s affinity with the outdoors. The last half hour or so has a dreamy, poetic quality that’s the equal of some of John Ford’s best work – and that’s no mean feat. It should also be pointed out that the movie benefits enormously from one of Max Steiner’s finest and most memorable scores, which is built around the rousing yet vaguely melancholy Garryowen.
Warner’s R1 DVD (I believe the R2 is the same transfer) of They Died with Their Boots On is quite fabulous, clean and sharp with barely a damage mark in sight. It has a good selection of extras though it lacks a commentary, which I feel this movie deserves. OK, maybe this isn’t the best western you’ll ever see but it’s right up there among my all time favourites – one of those films that unfailingly pushes all the right buttons on every viewing. Next up, San Antonio.
Ride, Vaquero (1953) was one of those films that always seemed to elude me. I’d read about it and heard about it often but, somehow, could never manage to see it. Well, I’ve finally got around to it. Robert Taylor wouldn’t be the first actor most people would think of as a western character but the fact is he made a good number of oaters in his time. I’ve been watching quite a few of his westerns recently (the ones in the R1 westerns set, and a TV broadcast of The Hangman) and this would probably be my favourite.
Rio (Taylor) is the right hand man for bandit chief Jose Esqueda (Anthony Quinn), operating along the Texas/Mexico border in the aftermath of the Civil War. The end of the war has thrown up new challenges for these men, namely the arrival of new settlers and the renewed interest of the army and the federal government. Esqueda understands that such developments will spell the end of his reign as the undisputed master of his territory. His preferred course of action is a simple one; drive out the settlers before they have had a chance to put down permanent roots. The toughest proposition Esqueda has yet to face comes in the form of King Cameron (Howard Keel), who has come west with his wife (Ava Gardner) to build a new life. An abortive raid on the Cameron ranch leads to the capture of Rio. Instead of handing him over to the law, Cameron offers Rio the opportunity to switch allegiances and become his partner. He accepts, but the question remains whether his decision is based on a desire to embrace a more lawful lifestyle, or just a desire to embrace Camerons wife.
Director John Farrow manages to throw a number of big themes into the mix – the old ways vs progress, loyalty and betrayal, and a man’s need to hold onto what he has won. Taylor gives a good performance as a man who’s in search of his place in the world. He may seem cold and aloof, but that’s surely an essential part of the character. His precise relationship with Esqueda is not fully revealed until the end, and it goes a long way towards explaining the alienation his character feels. Anthony Quinn gives the lusty, larger-than-life treatment to his role of the bandit king, and it’s very enjoyable. Ava Gardner naturally looks great and brings a credibility to her part as the rancher’s wife with the wandering eye. Howard Keel is just about adequate but, since I believe this was his first non-musical role, I won’t be too harsh on him. There are also small yet memorable parts for Jack Elam and Ted De Corsia.
Ride, Vaquero has recently been released on DVD by Warners in France. The disc is a barebones affair with removable French subs and, unfortunately, boasts a weak transfer. The image doesn’t seem to have undergone any restoration and looks soft throughout. The biggest problem though is the colour, which has faded badly. The film was shot using the cheap Anscocolor process and if you’ve seen the recent R1 of Escape form Fort Bravo you’ll have some idea of what to expect. That said, the film is well worth 90 minutes of anybody’s time and I’d recommend it, if you can get past the deficiencies in the DVD transfer.
Budd Boetticher is celebrated, and rightly so, for the seven westerns he made with Randolph Scott in the late 50s. Seminole was produced just a few years before those collaborations and, while it’s a satisfying enough picture, it’s not quite up there with his best. One could, I suppose, quibble about its credentials as a western due to the setting (Florida) and the time period (1835) but I feel it’s as near as makes no difference.
The story, most of which is recounted in a long flashback sequence, follows the newly appointed Lt. Caldwell (Rock Hudson) who is travelling back to his birthplace in Florida to take up a position at Fort King. His arrival coincides with the beginnings of an uprising among the Seminole, provoked by a government plan to uproot the tribe and move them west to prevent their presence slowing down the nation’s expansion. Within this framing story there’s further conflict due to the revelation that Caldwell’s boyhood friend, the half breed Osceola (Anthony Quinn), is not only the chief of the Seminole but is also vying for the affections of his sweetheart Revere Muldoon (Barbara Hale). While Revere shuttles back and forth in the role of intermediary between the Seminole and the army, a plan is set in motion by the fort’s commander, Major Degan (Richard Carlson), to strike at the enemy in their Everglades homeland and thus preempt any further threat.
The film raises a number of issues, only a few of which are fully explored. The main conflict is the internal struggle which Caldwell experiences between his loyalty to the army and his inherent sympathy for the Seminole he has known all his life. This leads to his being suspected of treachery by his superiors and his eventual court martial. The film tries hard to show the Seminloe in a positive light (mostly due to the performance of Anthony Quinn) but generally takes the middle way, since the army is portrayed as being reasonably even-handed with the exception of the uptight martinet Major Degan. This leads to a bit of a pat, upbeat ending. Much stronger is the middle section where Degan leads his troop on a disastrous march through the steamy swamps with a huge cannon in tow, all the while insisting they keep their tunics buttoned to the collar as per the regulations. One of the more interesting themes, and the film really only touches on it, is that of miscegenation. It is quite clear that Revere has been involved in a long-term relationship with Osceola but, after a brief mention by the chief of how white society would frown on this, she quite happily drops him and contents herself with a future by Caldwell’s side.
Rock Hudson is just about adequate in his role as the new officer forced to make war on his one time friend but his acting is a little too wooden to do justice to a part which requires him to experience a good deal of inner turmoil. Anthony Quinn fares better as the reluctant war chief whose living in both the white and Seminole cultures has afforded him an understanding of both. However, the role, as written, calls for a little too much nobility on his part and so weakens the chracter. Richard Carlson’s Degan is a very one dimensional portrayal which consists of much manic ranting and petty spitefulness, still he makes for a good hissable villain. As for Barbara Hale, she hasn’t a lot to do except act as a plot device and provide some decoration. Lee Marvin shows up in one of his small early parts as Sergeant Magruder and adds a touch of class to the proceedings, as he always did. Boetticher directs the whole thing at his trademark brisk pace, and does his best work when he moves out from the confines of the fort into the swamp scenes and the ensuing battle at the Seminole camp. As I said earlier, his finest work would come a few years later but Seminole remains an entertaining little piece.
Now for the DVD. Seminole is available in R2 in the UK from Optimum and the transfer can best be described as weak. The picture is very soft and muddy throughout, and the colours are extremely faded – a real shame since this is a movie that would benefit enormously from strong, vibrant colours. The only bonus included is the theatrical trailer. There are editions of the film available from France and Germany but I have no idea if they look any better. All told, I would recommend the film – pity about the DVD.