Two Rode Together (1961): The Community of a John Ford Western

With such a robust body of work, it’s no surprise John Ford often gravitated toward certain images to represent the West and Two Rode Together it little different with the director returning to familiar iconography. This time it’s Jimmy Stewart, not Henry Fonda, propped up against a railing with his feet kicked up casual-like.

As an aside, my mind wonders if it was Ford who made actors reputable because of his pictures, or were his pictures made better by the memorable actors — the John Waynes, Henry Fondas, and Jimmy Stewarts? Because it’s true they left an indelible mark on his filmography as he did on their movie careers. It’s not altogether surprising that the greats would get together — with their talents coalescing — since they were made greater through collaboration.

In this picture, Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) is the town’s Marshall. He has a fairly cushy life to lead and his reputation does all the talking. Thus, he can live in relative peace. He has his drinks brought out to him on the veranda and the only grief he gets is from Belle (Annelle Hayes). The tough-talking, deeply perceptive proprietor runs the local saloon, which remains all but empty during its off-hours.

A group of Cavalrymen rolls into town done and dusted. McCabe welcomes them in and reconnects with one of his pals: Lt. Jim Garry (Richard Widmark). What becomes evident is how friendships exist outside the confines of the movie. This in itself is powerful. The reason they came to town was actually for McCabe. They have orders to take him on the 40-mile jaunt back to their outpost.

We still don’t have a point or a reason — an inciting incident for the movie — but by this point in this career, maybe Ford doesn’t have to explain himself. The secret to his success is making us revel in the experience, and I’m not just saying that.

There’s a camaraderie, a good humor, and a beauty in being thrust into his world. He obviously takes great care in photographing it, but he also cares deeply about his players. Hence the reason he always held onto his tight-knit stock company.

One of the defining moments plays out in an extended take with Widmark and Stewart sitting at the water’s edge. It’s the essence of the movie in a nutshell as they smoke cigars, chewing the fat, and enjoying one another’s company. The moment gained some notoriety as Ford, in his typically tyrannical manner, made his cast and crew work in the icy water all day rather than have a simpler set-up. However, the extended nature of the sequence adds to the relaxed atmosphere. Time slows down for even a few minutes.

The story arc itself isn’t much good or at least it pales in comparison to something as incisive as The Searchers that culls the depths of revenge and human vindictiveness. None of this is surprising. Stewart finds himself dealing with folks holding out that their loved ones, abducted years ago by the Comanche, are still alive and capable of being rescued.

In what feels like a holdover from his pictures with Mann, Stewart is individualistic and more cynical than some might initially recall. His explanation of what Comanche do to white men — a young woman’s little brother — is enough to make the girl squirm with grief, and there’s no tempered dose of sympathy in any of his words. He’s not aiming to assuage fears and play savior to a bunch of people.

Against this, you have the typical broad comedy. In this case, Ken Curtis and Harry Carey Jr. vie for the affections of Shirley Jones only for her to dump a liberal amount of flour in their faces. Widmark sets up an equally comical duel for the hand of his girl only to have Andy Devine come to his rescue, essentially bodyslamming the rivals into the drink with his substantial girth.

Still, it does revert back toward its dark and bitter inclinations. Stewart and Widmark make contact with the Native Americans, but completing their mission supplies only small comfort. They bring back one feral youth raised by Comanche and a timorous senorita (Linda Cristal) who was the wife of one of the buffalo warriors (Woody Strode).

Both become social pariahs to be gawked at for different reasons. For the woman, though her life was harsher, she was treated with more respect, and with more dignity, by the Comanche.

The showcase for all of this to play out is the typical affair cropping up in all Ford’s Cavalry pictures with a dance put on by the military at the outpost for all the soldiers and their wives. It’s a sumptuous event. However, Ford effectively subverts the usually sensible, civilized space creating the most traumatic of moods. Here even this kind of life-giving community has been sullied and soured by human bigotry.

There are few places to hide as prejudice is expressed so perniciously out in the open, between whispered gossip and disparaging looks. Meek Elena (Cristal) stews in it all under the weight of all their sidelong glances, cringing out of her skin. She knows she is unwanted, that she doesn’t fit in, and frankly, it becomes the most heartbreaking scene in the picture.

Oddly enough, the bookends of the story are probably for the best, consisting of the vistas and the world they help to accentuate — the journey and how we got there, opposed to the actual particulars. You wouldn’t be wrong in observing Stewart and Widmark are too old for their parts, but it’s easy enough to stop caring and drop it altogether. What they provide to the movie is something else.

Because even as Ford literally called the script “crap,” and it’s true the tale’s not exactly the most cohesive, taut foray in storytelling, between the actors and director, there is so much bounty to be appreciated. There are also some lingering questions. What will happen to Shirley Jones and Widmark? We hardly know if the Comanches have been satiated. Then, Belle Aragorn is back, and it feels like a whole different movie was going on with her and the deputy while we were away.

Still, we end up with Stewart propped up against that railing once again and my mind couldn’t help but drift back to my opening thought. Ford and his actors collectively made stories richer and more vibrant so they could add up to something more than fragments of narrative strung together. They operate on different levels, bringing together all these bits and pieces of pulchritude, relevance, and meaning.

Two Rode Together is downright venomous at times, but it never loses sight of its prevailing good-humor. With the likes of Andy Devine and Jimmy Stewart holding down the fort, how could you not? And all of this is very much in keeping with John Ford.

Ford was a paradox — the inexplicable cipher to the end — who played both the taskmaster and also deeply loyal friend to kith and kin. It’s that tension that holds this picture together. For all the hell he put his stock company through, he’s also the very same man who shut down production for a week so he could set up funeral arrangements for one of his dear friends: Ward Bond.

It’s quite simple, but really all you need to know about this picture and John Ford is in the title. It’s not about the individual so much as the collective unit. Only then do we get humor and progress and friendship. As much as he might have masked it, he desperately needed other people, and his films reinforce this.

3.5/5 Stars

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