Colorado Territory (1949): High Sierra on Horseback

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For me, it’s fascinating to consider directors who did not simply direct remakes but they actually reworked their earlier films. Prominent examples are, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu, Cecil B. DeMille, and Frank Capra, just to name a few.

The reasons could range from any number of things. Maybe they could command higher production values or harbored a desire to reexamine or improve on themes they had tackled previously. In the case of Howard Hawks, he even amazingly returned to the same basic narrative three times over as Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo respectively. That’s quite the feat even if it initially appears a tad repetitive. However, watch the films and it does feel like you are seeing an altogether different entity each time, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory fits somewhere in there as a western that very much has two feet to stand on and the fact it was based off the director’s earlier work High Sierra, starring Bogart and Ida Lupino, feels nearly inconsequential. It’s not so much that there is no space to begin comparing the two. It’s more so the latter film, given its new cast and a new location, genuinely feels like an entirely different animal. Yes, we still have Walsh at the helm but the canvas and the language being utilized is essentially different. So from thenceforward, I will treat it as such.

Walsh is no slouch when it comes to western scenery capturing the raw majesty of the rock faces as men on horseback make their way across the planes of God’s country. This certainly is no gangster movie. The distinctions are made straightaway.

We meet Jeff McQueen (Joel McCrea) for the first time in a jail cell where he’s been stowed for his notorious exploits as a bank robber. However, an old friend keeps a promise and gets him out of the clink so he can pull one last job.

It feels like an uncharacteristic role for McCrea, in one sense, but he still fills the boots of his character with his typical principled outlook. McQueen, at this point, has had time to think and favors settling down and carving out a new life for himself with a stretch of farmland, a pretty wife, and a life of honest sweat and toil.

On an outgoing stage, he makes the acquaintance of a hopeful fellow from back east (Henry Hull) who’s also looking to make a new life for his daughter (Dorothy Malone) and himself out west. His philosophy is epitomized by the statement, “The sun travels west and so does opportunity.” He’s intent on finding the Promised Land and even as his daughter remains slightly skeptical, their life appeals to McQueen deeply.

What follows is an epic introduction of our antihero’s attributes, single-handedly righting a runaway stagecoach while fending off incoming bandits with an assured fearlessness. Even in these moments, McQueen cannot completely disown what he is or shed the years of experience he has accrued. He’s a hardened and whip-smart man whether it’s on horseback or handling a revolver. He’s a real man’s man.

So when he finally arrives in the rubble of a ghost town, serving as a hideout, he’s quick to cut the two young bucks waiting for him down to size. One’s your prototypical hothead (John Archer) looking to have it out at the drop of a pin and the other (James Mitchell) is strangely eloquent, though no less treacherous.

In his vast history of bank jobs, McQueen’s met many like them and it speaks to something that he’s probably the only one who made it out alive. Everyone else is either dead or rotting in prison. He’s not a man to take chances or make mistakes because if he had, he would have been dead long ago.

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It’s part of the reason, despite his compatriots’ objections, he tells their gal pal Colorado (Virginia Mayo), a fiery former saloon singer, to leave their company. He’s not afraid of her getting in the way. On the contrary, he’s worried the other two outlaws will find reason to quarrel over her. That’s the last complication he needs now.

And yet Colorado impresses him and ultimately convinces McQueen to let her stay. She’s pumped full of a dogged tenacity making her persistently tough. He likes that and, of course, she’s beautiful because Mayo is sweltering even in her earthy, lacquered state.

If the dichotomy is not obvious already, the weathered outlaw has two girls and two lives calling out to him. He must dispense with one for good before he can take up the other for all posterity. At this point, the story is barreling towards the long-awaited bank job. We know what it means.

As the events unfold, he’s always one step ahead of everyone moment after moment. It’s thrilling to watch really because McQueen’s such a savvy, completely pragmatic man. This constant awareness makes him likable. He feels as much of a hero as he’s a villain and that’s as much as a testament to McCrea gritty candor as anything else — a straight arrow as he always is.

No matter, he outwits his two accomplices and flees the posse looking to string them up with the price tag on his head growing steadily bigger. There is a sense that time is running out on his dreams. He also comes to find things were not as good for his stagecoach acquaintances as they expected. For once in his life, he begins to gamble.

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First, on the prospect they will take him in even as a fugitive on the run and then in his own struggles to protect Colorado. What we get is literally Virginia Mayo versus Dorothy Malone as they have it out in a stellar log cabin struggle, the picture beginning to spiral toward imminent doom.

A harrowing finale takes us back inevitably to the Valley of Death with McQueen climbing over cavernous rock faces in a last-ditch effort to flee his pursuers. It’s easy to see the foregone conclusion. We don’t want it to be but it’s hopeless and Colorado Territory gives us that odd sensation only certain stories can effectively manage.

It made us empathize with a purported scourge on society, wishing that he might find love and escape to a life of anonymity as he had always dreamed. But we knew before it ever arrived such a dream was never to be. Does the ending surprise us? Not necessarily. That doesn’t make it any less bitter as two tragic hands clasp each other one final time in a desperate attempt to stay together.

4/5 Stars

Canyon Passage (1946): Ole Buttermilk Skies

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Portland, Oregon 1856 could lead us to many places but in these circumstances, it guides us to an enterprising mercantile store owner named Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews). Though he’s the main driving force behind the story, there’s little doubt this is a tale of pioneering far grander than a single individual.

As such, Canyon Passage is the epitome of a hidden gem, lined with talents who generally does not garner enough credit today for their many fine attributes. First of all, is Jacques Tourneur the French director who made a name for himself in a career laced with genre pictures and this one is no different, boasting a spectacular visual vibrancy.

The opening is exemplary, showcasing his skills as a master world-shaper, taking a western town that we only spend minutes in and through torrential rain pouring down, streets of mud, and various interiors, he’s already created a space that feels tangible to our eyes.

He continues this yeoman work throughout the story, which is a credit to its hardy terrain. We have sumptuous outdoor panoramas with rolling plains and expansive skies above. Then, there’s the verdant underbrush of the forests captured, the lush greenery, and even the interiors of cabins and shops have a rustic beauty about them that feels real.

Our trifecta of leads all proved substantial stars at one point or another beginning with Dana Andrews, then Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy, yet for whatever reason, it seems their names (much like their director) get lost behind a host of far more visible faces.

Nevertheless, they earn their due and in all other regards, Walter Wanger’s production is knee deep with equally memorable supporting players like many of the greatest westerns of the age. Hoagy Carmichael meanders about doing this and that with his mandolin and donkey, singing an occasional song, such as the instantly unforgettable “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which captures a bit of the folksy milieu wafting over the picture.

Canyon Passage is also ripe with love triangles beginning with Logan and the future wife of his best friend, Lucy Overmire (Hayward) who he has been tasked with bringing home. They share a mutual affection but Logan respects his buddy George Camrose (Donlevy) too much to steal his girl; they’ve been through far too much together for that.

Instead, he sets his eyes on the pretty young woman (Patricia Roc) who was taken in by a genial frontier family headed by Andy Devine and his wife. They would gladly welcome anyone into their fold and it’s no different with Logan as he looks to make strides with Ms. Caroline.

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However, if this was all Canyon Passage was about, it would lack a sizable conflict. But Logan must simultaneously deal with the local instigator of trouble Honey Bragg (Ward Bond as a burly villain) who has previously had more than a few run-ins with Logan and he’s not looking to make nice.

In fact, the whole town congregates in The Golden Nugget saloon after Bragg challenges his adversary to a showdown to have it out once and for all. The full brutality of such a society sets in with the men crowding around ravenously for a good show of pugilism to get their blood stirred up. A hint of lawlessness has been injected into the air.

But George also has demons of his own, namely, a gambling habit, which he can’t break, owing money all across Oregon to the point his friend bales him out only if he promises to quit. Still, the urge for wealth and constant comparisons with Logan’s continual success, make him continually discontent. He goes straight back to the cisterns that prove to be his undoing.

Like some of the best westerns by the likes of Ford or Hawks, this one feels, at times, like it’s about nothing much in particular and yet the paradox is it’s about so much that’s meaningful, speaking to the humanity at large. There is a local house-raising for a young couple just starting out and they marvel at all the folks who come to help them out. Because, for all the charitable neighbors, this is an investment in their own livelihood.

We see crystal clearly. What is going on, in front of our eyes, is the fleshing out and the building up of an entire community. Then, we receive a showcase for men of principle going against a world that seems so violent, brutal, and utterly untamed. Instead of cowering in fear or remaining apathetic, they look to confront it in some way.

However, beyond this, we have another broad conflict that’s age-old. The chafing between those who began with the land — The Native American tribes — and then the white man expanding westward with a belief they deserve a chance at a new life. In the eyes of those who started there, these newcomers are desecrating their home. In the eyes, of the pioneers, they are making it into more of a home.

When human beings wind up in close proximity, with varying viewpoints, beliefs, and practices, there’s bound to be repercussions and there are. Watching Canyon Passage you realize these very things were affecting real people, men and woman, families and the children within them. It feels like a truly eye-opening scenario.

Bloodshed ensues and against such beautiful exteriors, it only makes the scarring of the land and the bodies all the more inescapable. There’s something inside of us saying this is not the way it was meant to be.

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What makes Canyon Passage quite powerful, frankly, is there’s no single point of contention or an individual goal in mind. It’s this all-encompassing drama with grand themes — grandiose in both scope and scenery — that concern a whole host of people trying to make lives in the western territories. You can begin to understand most everyone’s point of view. Amid the destruction and unrest, it’s easy to recognize the problems at hand. Surely, the West was meant to be more than this. Fights and warring, razing and killing.

But the frontier has always been an arena for hardship. Death by any number of ways. It’s the resiliency people lived with that meant something. In Canyon Passage, there are the same kind of folks who don’t go skulking around in their troubles but instead rise up to make the best of the next day to come. One might wager a bet it’s one of the bygone markers of the American spirit. Hopefully, we haven’t lost it all yet. We could probably still use some of that just as we could still use ambition and love, friendship, and fellowship with an underlying empathy for our fellow man.

Only when “The End” flashed upon the screen did I realize, in my former days of channel surfing in vacation hotel rooms, I once caught the tail-end of Canyon Passage. There again was an indelible image I distinctly remember, Hoagy Carmichael ambling along on his donkey, through the forest, knocking back a tune. It made me distinctly mirthful like an old friend just recently discovered again. If this film isn’t considered a classic by now then it should definitely be in the running.

4/5 Stars

Barbary Coast (1936)

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The production itself was fraught with some turbulence thanks to the contentious relationship between Miriam Hopkins and Edward G. Robinson. The latter actor was irritated how his costar was constantly trying to increase her part and keep him off balance with frequent dialogue changes. Regardless, the talent is too wonderful to resist outright.

How Howard Hawks ended up directing Barbary Coast is anyone’s guess, somehow getting involved as a favor to his screenwriting buddies Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur who spent numerous rewrites crafting something that the production codes might actually condone, overhauling the original novel’s plot points immensely.

Hawks has no major stake in the production and as such it hardly stands up with his most engaging works. Still, it does hold some merit demonstrating from the outset it’s a fast-moving, thick-on-atmosphere, period adventure set out in 49ers era California. That environment is enough to make a generally engaging yarn even if the narrative threads run fairly thin.

But the world is fully animated. Alive with honky-tonk pianos, crooked roulette wheels, and hazy city streets paved in mud. Just about what you envision gold country to be like, at least viewed through the inspired dream factory of old Hollywood. The blending of genre is a fine attribute as the picture is a mixture of historical drama, romance, comedy, adventure, and western themes sharing some relation to San Francisco (1936) and The Sea Wolf (1940), along with the lawless towns in Destry Rides Again (1939) or even The Far Country (1954).

A ship lands in the notorious San Francisco Bay, among its passengers a strangely out of place lady (Miriam Hopkins) and a gentlemanly journalist, Marcus Aurelius Cobb (Frank Craven). They are met with quite the reception committee of local undesirables.

Walter Brennan is a standout as the scrounging, toothless, eyepatch-wearing Old Atrocity preying on unsuspecting outsiders who happen to make their way to the streets of San Fransisco. Mary Rutledge is in town to join her fiancee who messaged her to come out and meet him as he’s struck it rich. She promptly finds out her man is dead, no doubt knocked off by the crooked Louis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson).

With his restaurant the Bella Donna and adjoining gambling house, the ruthless businessman rakes in the profits by robbing prospectors of their hard-earned caches and getting tough when they object to his dirty practices.

Miriam Hopkins, both radiant and sharp, isn’t about to snivel about her lost prospects and heads straight away to the Bella Donna to see what business she can dig up for herself. There’s little question she causes quite the stir because everyone is taken with this newly arrived white woman — including Louis. As Robinson’s character puts it, she has a pretty way of holding her head, high falutin but smart. That’s her in a nutshell as she earns the moniker “Swan” and becomes the queenly attraction of the roulette wheels.

It’s there, an ornery and sloshed Irishman (Donald Meek in an uncharacteristic blustering role) gets robbed blind and causes a big stink. Louis snaps his figures and his ever-present saloon heavy Knuckles (Brian Donlevy) makes sure things settle down.

He’s sent off to do other jobs as well. In one such case, he shoots someone in the back but with a mere Chinaman as an eyewitness in a kangaroo court presided over by a drunk judge, there is little to no chance for legitimate justice. Then there’s the manhandling of free speech by forcibly intimating Mr. Cobb in his journalistic endeavors and nearly demolishing his printing press for publishing defamatory remarks about the local despot. Swan is able to intercede on his behalf as Cobb resigns himself to print droll rubbish and it seems Louis has won out yet again.

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Joel McCrea has what feels like minuscule screentime and achieves third billing with a role casting him as the romantic alternative, a good guy and yakety prospector from back east who is as much of an outsider as Ms. Rutledge. He’s eloquent and strangely philosophical for such a grungy place. He’s also surprisingly congenial. It catches just about everyone off guard. First, striking up a serendipitous friendship with the woman and gaining some amount of rapport with Chamalis for his way of conversing.

Though the picture stalls in the latter half and loses a clear focus, the performances are nonetheless gratifying as Robinson begins to get undermined. Vigilantes finally get organized using the press to disseminate the word about Louis and simultaneously battle his own monopoly with an assault of their own.

One man must die for the right of freedom of speech to be exercised while another man is strung up like an animal. Our two lovebirds get over the lies they told each other looking to flee the ever-extending reach of a jealous lover. Chamalis is not about to let them see happiness together. The question remains if they can be rescued in time from his tyrannical clutches. The dramatic beats may well be familiar but Barbara Coast still manages to be diverting entertainment for the accommodating viewer.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rio Grande (1950)

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Rio Grande is the final chapter in John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy. It is less of a continuous narrative, held together instead through the maintaining of a similar spirit as well as analogous thematic elements and characters. Much of this must be attributed to Ford and Merian C. Cooper who produced the pictures through their Argosy Pictures label. Furthermore, much of the director’s stock company makes a showing as per usual headed by John Wayne as Colonel Kirby Yorke.

While, to some extent, the earlier picture Fort Apache was also about the sometimes prickly marriage between duty and familial obligation, it was all but thrown to the wayside in the end. In other words, the maniacal resolve of Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), as a military leader, took precedence over his relationship with his daughter (Shirley Temple), which in itself was a statement.

However, one could claim Rio Grande is a simpler picture with far less complicated aspirations in its own attempt to examine alienated families. To get a grasp of the scenario, three figures must be brought to the fore.  Colonel Yorke (Wayne) is stationed on the Texas border tasked with defending folks from raids instigated by belligerent Apaches. But such a lifestyle can be difficult on relationships and Yorke has long been estranged from his wife (Maureen O’Hara) who has never quite forgiven him for numerous past grievances in their rocky courtship.

We find out in passing they had a son together though Yorke hasn’t seen the boy for years and he’s surprised to find out his own son flunked out of West Point for failing arithmetic. The next big shock comes with the new class of recruits, requested by Yorke to aid in keeping up defenses against the onslaught of Indian raids.

One of the recruits just happens to be his son Trooper Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman Jr.), who by no decision of his own has managed to wind up at his father’s outpost. From their first reunion, both men make it clear there will be no favoritism or show of kinship. As far as both sides are concerned, it’s duty first and they hardly know each other anyway. There seems little need to start now.

The picture does have some lively idle chatter in the background provided by the ever boisterous and larger-than-life Irish teddy bear Victor McLaglen tasked with getting the new recruits up to snuff. Aside from Trooper Yorke, he is befriended by Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) and southerner Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) who both prove their aptitude in taking on jumps in the manner of the Ancient Romans. Music is also integral to the life of a cavalryman in tents or around campfires, in the form of ballads or down-home toe-tappers. Song follows them everywhere.

But the moment of greatest import arrives with Mrs. Yorke as she pays a call on her husband and comes to fetch her boy. She plans to take him back home with her by buying him out and removing him from the life for good. It’s full of contentious and complicated feelings. But what we realize is there still is a fleeting love between the couple. They are on the receiving end of an after dark serenade from the Sons of the Pioneers and Kathleen notes Kirby has grown more thoughtful with age.

Still, there’s no denying his inherent sense of duty that has left a path of destruction, both physical and relational. After an abrupt nighttime raid, Yorke resolves to send the women and children within the encampment away to safety, except they too get ambushed en route. The children are abducted. He has some choices to make. A countermeasure is now in order to extract the children from the enemy.

It’s very much a concrete objective and yet taken in light of what has already transpired, we can easily see this act of necessitated bravery being tied closely to the roots of family identity. What we are willing to do for our sons and our wives or to make our parents proud? All of these issues come under scrutiny and must be resolved in a tangible way.

When everything is said and done, Wayne and O’Hara together are what does it for me. We leave them grinning from ear-to-ear as O’Hara playfully spins her parasol next to her man, newly reunited. There’s something electric surging between them — that intangible whats-it all the great screen couples were imbued with.

Though smaller scale and relatively compact, Rio Grande is no less a western from John Ford. One might concede Ford was going through the motions as he had compromised and made this picture solely so he could realize his next passion project The Quiet Man (1952) (also starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and Victor McLaglen). As they say, the rest was history.

3.5/5 Stars

Fort Apache (1948)

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Fort Apache gives me the opportunity to consider one of John Ford’s most unlikely long-term collaborations with film critic turned screenwriter Frank S. Nugent. As with all Ford partnerships, it was oftentimes prickly but there’s no repudiating the impact. However, even the writer realized how improbable it was he would have such a hand in mythologizing the West alongside one of the great American masters. Nugent noted the following:

“I have often wondered why Ford chose me to write his cavalry films. I had been on a horse but once—and to our mutual humiliation. I had never seen an Indian. My knowledge of the Civil War extended only slightly beyond the fact that there was a North and a South, with West vulnerable and East dealing. I did know a Remington from a Winchester—Remington was the painter. In view of all this, I can only surmise that Ford picked me for Fort Apache as a challenge.”

The picture opens with a particularly acerbic and icy Henry Fonda as Owen Thursday, newly assigned to the cavalry outpost at Fort Apache. One could make a wager each of Fonda’s characterizations in everything from You Only Live Once to The Ox-Bow Incident and even My Darling Clementine all culminate right here. Though he’s dismissive of the assignment, Thursday is nevertheless intent on upholding his duty. He rides along the bumpy roadways with his teenage daughter Philadelphia (an effervescent Shirley Temple) who is simply glad to be by her father’s side.

To understand the picture, it’s useful to know Nugent developed extensive bios for every character to flesh out who they were exactly. We have John Agar in his screen debut starring opposite his new wife in real life (Temple) and playing the newest commissioned officer to the fort, Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke.

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Life as a cavalryman proves to be a family affair and one clan has an especially substantial presence in the camp. The Lieutenant’s father (Ward Bond) is stationed there too with his mother, the older man serving as a Sergeant Major. Meanwhile, many of the veteran soldiers provide a close-knit community including Sergeant Festus Mulcahy (Victor McLaglen) who has been a lifelong friend to the O’Rourkes. Here we see Irish-American blood flowing through the picture as Ford heralds his own ancestors part in this historical landscape not only during the Civil War but long afterward. The pride in this shared culture is undeniable.

For most of its run, Fort Apache is the epitome of character-driven drama. Nugent’s meticulous character development overlaid by Ford’s own distaste for expositional dialogue provides the groundwork for yet another story operating in vignettes more than anything else. At any rate, the dialogue comes off clunkily at times while the romance between Philadelphia and Michael O’Rourke begins to blossom.

However, with her father adamant against such a union and astringent in all manners of his command, it causes an instant riff in the camp. One of his finest lines comes with inspecting his officers and noting, “The uniform is not a subject for individual whimsical expression.” He expects everyone to abide by the letter of the law and his unswerving personality is glacial on all accounts.

Meanwhile, the old reliable guard has fun with the new recruits. Among their ranks, rather unbelievably, is the veteran character actor Hank Worden. Then, the community of wives and sweethearts led by Mrs. Collingwood (Anna Lee) and Mrs. O’Rourke (Irene Rich) look to help Philadelphia make a home for herself. John Wayne is in the picture as well though he takes a decidedly secondary role as Captain Kirby York, striving to work under Thursday’s guidance with as much obedience as he can muster. However, the final act is Wayne’s as much as it is Fonda’s however.

It hardly needs to be said at this point but Monument Valley is awesome. Watching horses streak across the plains ferociously kicking up storms of dust never grows old. Nor do images of Wayne and Pedro Armendariz perched on a towering rock formation taking in the view. You can’t make this stuff up. The beauty is majestic as only natural topography can be without input by human hands or CGI — the way it was probably meant to be photographed.

There’s the impending threat of Indians making their way south. Telegraph lines are down again. So a visit is paid to the scruffy horse trader who is quite conveniently liaison between the American Indians and the government within the territory. Despite his contempt for Meacham, Thursday will not do anything about him nor does he attempt any diplomacy with the belligerent Cochise. He decides instead on the executive decision to make an all-out charge on the Native Americans forces who are waiting, guns cocked and ready.

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In the waning moments, Fort Apache becomes a more fully-realized, even emphatic indictment of recalcitrant and bluntly antagonistic leadership. Thursday holds a very entitled station — whatever he says, he says on behalf of the United States government — and no one else can say anything otherwise. What they do protest he backs up with regulations, honors, and code of conducts that might as well bury everyone.

Instead of addressing any area of compromise as minor as it might be, there is a straight and decisive path cut through any issue. They ride toward their inevitable deaths. The final bugle sounds for charge and yet it’s hardly a battle, target practice is more like it, and the horrifying thing is most everyone knows it going in. But when a man such as Colonel Thursday holds the reins you reluctantly cave to his demands lest you be clapped in irons for insubordination — even when the decisions are near lunacy. York is the one man brave enough to stand against and lives to fight another day. Many others are not so lucky

If Custer’s Last Stand was anything like this, it makes complete sense and simultaneously becomes an even more terrifying piece of history. In what might be called an early precursor to the glorification of a hero’s legend in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), much the same treatment is provided here for the far more dubious Owen Thursday. Once more Ford’s picture is able to get at this obvious discrepancy by pulling away and looking at the story from those folks who canonize history for all posterity. It’s oftentimes the newspaper men who are afforded that privilege. Whether their effusive praises are in order is another matter entirely and by the end, Ford Apache is a sobering portrait. It comes so far from seemingly homely even jovial roots within the compound.

So many lives were needlessly sacrificed so one man could be heralded a legend. The frightening thing is that Thursday was not a mere glory seeker; he fervently believed what he was doing was in the right. That kind of dogged methodology proved itself highly pernicious when no thought was given to discretion of any kind. It’s simply blind execution of duty. Whether it evokes Kant or not, I cannot help but think of one of the most famous examples of this in Adolf Eichmann, acting as a lowly Holocaust architect, who nevertheless proved the consequences of such a philosophy.

The dark horse of the Ford pictures, Fort Apache begins as one beast and comes out quite a different animal by the end. It so easily gets sidetracked, distracted, and lulled into different scenarios and there never is a true sense of urgency to keep the picture moving toward an obvious conclusion. Still, in the end, we get the finale and it’s unnerving as both a commentary and another projection of the mythical West. Somehow Ford stitches it together as a two-edged sword of both indictment and a moving paean to those passed.

4/5 Stars

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

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The Horse Soldiers is the one and only teaming of John Wayne and William Holden in a story based on the raids of Colonel Benjamin Grierson during the Civil War. John Ford casts the story as a brand of folklore carried through the air by the songs sung on the trail by a regiment riding in their formation. “I Left My Love” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” are the two prime examples ringing out on more than one occasion.

Wayne is the journeyman military man who is intent on carrying out his mission. But his exacting, army first mentality soon sets him at odds with a newly assigned regimental surgeon from up north, Major Henry Kendall (William Holden), who is appalled by the conditions of the war. His vow to do his very utmost to save life ultimately butts up against the other man’s own sense of duty. It seems that they will never be reconciled.

Though Wayne rarely carries a firearm on camera, he does readily smack some people around. And yet these very discrepancies are an indication of why the man is so hard to figure. There’s a decency to him revealing itself in isolated moments even as he leads his men on a mission to decimate the enemy’s contraband by the most decisive means possible.

When William Tecumseh Sherman, whose name is thrown around at least a few times, famously asserted “war is hell” it was not a quip. I believe he meant it wholeheartedly, coming from a man who was willing to do what was required to win. Not out of malice but, on the contrary, out of a sense of duty. But that unswerving call to duty led him to undertake some pretty ruthless means — horribly cruel in their execution. A like-minded figure can be found in Colonel Marlowe.

He brazenly leads his men into the heart of Reb Country and they are eventually met by an onslaught of Confederates, as they snake their way far behind enemy lines. The irony is the fact that in civilian life the Colonel was a railroad engineer and now he must watch his men bend the southern railroad lines into “Sherman Neckties” to impede future transportation.

If Major Kendall is the initial manifestation of the opposition Marlowe faces, the next front comes courtesy of a southern belle named Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers). Her tactics include a sly show of hospitality in an effort to pass secrets to her countrymen. As a result, the Colonel has no recourse but to bring her along on their raid, doing his best to treat her nobly, within reason; though she continues to despise his guts.

There’s a recurring theme as you can see with both Holden and Towers’ characters trying to decide what to make of this man. Although her part is hardly groundbreaking, a shoutout must be given to tennis extraordinaire and barrier breaker Althea Gibson for playing Miss Hunter’s loyal maid Lukie.

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Political views in real life played into the heated character dynamics between our two stars, with Wayne’s overt conservative values completely at odds with Holden’s liberal leanings. While it might have helped the picture — to some degree — it meant the two vowed to never again appear together. Take it for what it’s worth.

Otherwise, The Horse Soldiers is as enjoyable as a Civil War film can be. Rather unbelievably, this is the only feature-length Civil War film that Ford would ever do. Pictorially it’s about as arresting as most anything he conceived during the period. However, this one doesn’t feel like a commentary or really like it’s trying to make any kind of statement. It’s also easy to call into question some of the character mechanics as detailed by the script.

There are some people who live and others who die. Good deeds are committed and likewise, evil. People hate each other and some fall in love. Sometimes in the same instance. Such is the blurred landscape of a “civil war” — a term that forever has been questioned due to its very oxymoronic nature.

John Ford himself was even more cantankerous than usual because his doctor had forbidden him from drinking and the loss of a stuntman in the climactic battle scenes only soured matters. It’s a fair assumption the picture may have suffered as a result with the director tiring of the project in the end, all but cutting production short. Regardless, it’s a generally agreeable adventure plucked out of history and touched up for the viewing public in exhilarating fashion. There needn’t be more to it.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

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“Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.” ~ John Wayne as Nathan Brittles

Instigated by one of the cataclysmic massacres of the West, Custer’s Last Stand, the word is sent by telegraph and pony express all across the country. Simultaneously, members of numerous tribes including the Sioux and Cheyenne are on the warpath. They have a new resolve to make war with “The White Man” who has continually lied and cheated them out of their land. It brings deep-seated issues at the core of American’s history to the surface.

However, for what initially appears a heavy drama, Ford’s picture comes off surprisingly light and quite comical in patches. Frank Nugent’s script forges a story about the U.S. Calvary at Fort Stark. Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is counting down the days until his retirement not so much with anticipation; it’s all but inevitable. Because you see, he’s been in the service of his country for a good many years and it’s about time for him to step down.

John Ford gave Duke the part, realizing after Red River (1948), Wayne was not simply a warm body with an imposing presence; he truly was an actor by this point in his career. Resultingly, he makes Ford’s decision to cast him in a slightly more demanding role pay off handsomely. To his credit, he makes a fine showing imbuing the part with a certain world-weariness that comes with age but also immense good humor.

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Victor McLaglen, as the burly First Sergeant Quincannon, calls on his Colonel every morning taking a nip out of the bottle he has conveniently hidden in the other man’s quarters, as they commiserate about their military careers coming to a close.

Meanwhile, the two hot-blooded young men under his command (John Agar and Harry Carey Jr.) turn foolish in their pursuit of the prettiest (and only) flirt in camp, niece of the commanding officer Allshard, Ms. Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). Brittles observes with mild amusement as they vie for her affection, barking reprimands at them for their undisciplined behavior, while simultaneously stirring them on — noting that she wears a yellow ribbon in her hair denoting a beau. The question remains who she will pick and it becomes one of the film’s running gags as much as it is a source of easy conflict.

Initially, there seems to be little nuance in how the Native Americans are portrayed, prone to indiscriminate violence, yet at least, even for a moment, the film suggests it is not a cultural divide but one defined by generations. Young men are intent on making a name for themselves and finding glory on the battlefield. It is the old man who have gotten past that. They have seen how war ravages the earth and humanity. They are weary of such ordeals.

Nathan Brittles goes to Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) on the eve of his retirement to forge some fragile peace. But his old friend is powerless to do anything so Brittles takes yet another approach to save lives. It’s his one final gift to his men. Mind you, he was not required to take on any of this and yet a man such as Brittles would have nothing less because he cherishes his command and the men who ride beside him. They mean just as much to him as the U.S. Calvary itself has for well nigh 40 years.

What makes all these preceding events genuinely striking is the stunning Technicolor frames. The continuous processions over the plains are breathtaking panoramas with skies as immaculate as the western backgrounds themselves.  The most well-conceived moments come in capturing thunderbolts out on the prairie as Brittles leads his caravan on their mission with their two female cohorts.

In such instances, there’s a scope and grandeur that gives the impression of an intricate painting even more than a film and it’s true Ford and his director of photography purportedly drew inspiration from the works of Frederic Remmington. In this regard — and I’ll try to not overstep my bounds — Winton Hoch’s cinematography stands up to if not surpasses the imagery of The Searchers. Likewise, there are wonderfully decadent period costumes evoking the era nicely but as always John Wayne dons his worn in, one-of-a-kind pride and joy that he would wear until his Rio Bravio (1959) days.

Though relatively forgotten alongside more formidable offerings like The Searchers, Stagecoach, or even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon might just be one of Wayne’s most fascinating performances in a Ford picture. Not only is he playing a man 20 years his senior — and doing it with surprising credibility — he makes the old calvary man into a figure with true heart and soul. He’s not too hardened or unfeeling to hold onto lifelong friendships, enjoy a good joke, or grin at the young love that besets the hearts of the men under him. They respect him and he cherishes them in return.

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There are numerous poignant moments as his tenure winds down but one of the finest comes when he gives his beloved troops one final inspection. They surprise him with a gift paid for by all of them — a solid silver watch with a remembrance on it. It’s a token of respect to a man they deeply admire. In a move that can’t help but conjure up George Washington himself, Brittles pulls out his granny glasses to read the inscription and we see yet again this great man of strength was, as we always suspected, a man of a certain sensitivity too. He’s deeply touched.

He rides off, a job well done, but as it so happens the cavalry is not done with him as trusty Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson) comes to fetch him one final time. Not by a long shot. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is simultaneously an elegy to those who served and were lost in the line of duty and more specifically to a man who took great pride in his post.

4/5 Stars

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

310_to_Yuma_(1957_film).jpgThe picture showcases a parched landscape of cacti and dusty trails — the arid terrain accentuated by purposely tinted photography. It’s aided by that bleak black & white palette courtesy of Charles Lawton Jr., just as Delmer Dave’s earlier western, Jubal (1956), was made by its vibrant imagery around Jackson Hole. Each fits the mood called for impeccably.

Setting the scene, you have Frankie Laine belting out the epic title track with his usual gusto; the opening gambit with focused precision initiates a holdup and the repercussions of such an act. This coach headed for the Arizona outpost of Contention is robbed and the driver killed. The culprits are Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his band of thugs.

Felicia Farr is reteamed with Ford refilling the drinks of all the boys as they brazenly ditch the crime scene and head to a nearby saloon to drink it off.  The sparks fly between the pair as they’re both a little less saintly compared to the previous year’s Jubal (1956). Except their romancing isn’t the meat of the storyline. For that, we must turn to the other man who was indirectly affected by the robbery.

Dan Evans (Van Heflin) is a struggling rancher plagued by the local drought, but he and his two sons also witnessed the holdup go down. Pretty soon, Wade is captured and Evans signs on for $200 that will help him get by. Together he and another man, the town drunk, carry out the sheriff’s plan to transport Wade for safekeeping while they wait it out for the 3:10 to Yuma.

Lacking the edgier shoot ’em up qualities of its still thoroughly engaging remake starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, this original offering from Daves, with a story by Elmore Leonard, must be first and foremost a character study and it is an exemplary one.

It’s an assignment of such an intimate even personal nature although Evans only took it for the money. In one scene the outlaw sits around the family dinner table like a regular guest, except he’s handcuffed and the curious boy pipes up asking questions about him. Then Wade sits at the table and has a nice long talk with Mrs. Evans that almost makes him seem human. That’s just it. He’s done some bad things but it’s hard to get away from the fact he can be a rational, even decent person.

But the epitome of the picture comes near the end when the two men hold up together in a hotel room waiting for the minutes to pass, knowing full-well Wade’s men will be coming any minute to have it out. There’s a ticking clock plotting device in use like High Noon (1952) as one of his cronies (Richard Jaeckel) is milling about waiting for the reinforcements to come. But also everyone in town is anticipating the incoming train.

Glenn Ford evolves into the devil on the shoulder, constantly testing Evans through proposed bribery and parlor tricks that provide all sorts of distractions to wear down his captor. His coolness juxtaposes nicely with the antsy ranchhand with dynamics running analogous to The Naked Spur (1954). This time Glenn Ford is doing the continual psychological manipulation instead of Robert Ryan. Ryan is good but I think here Ford works far better across from Van Heflin.

As heroes, they are similar types (see Shane or Jubal) and that makes Ford’s corrupt turn still somehow mirror the other man. In a different life or maybe a different film, we could see how the roles might be reversed. For now, they must deal with claustrophobia that’s certainly exasperated by confined space but really exerts itself throughout the finale, even outdoors. It’s not so dependent simply on the physical location as it is the pressures bearing down on the character of Evans.

It’s a contentious proposition, no small coincidence that right there we have the name of the town but at least Dan is not standing alone… This quickly changes when the gang materializes and proves to be more formidable than initially suspected. Rapidly his backup, made of family men just like him, has quickly dissolved and it’s just him against a band of cold-blooded killers.

The final moments are an exhibition in heroism where it takes one man like Evans, bent in his personal resolve to see his job to completion, even as the deck’s stacked against him. Again, we have echoes of High Noon.

It’s true everyone continually hammers home the fact. By this time there’s no amount of obligation. The man who hired him on (Robert Emmhardt), his frantic wife (Leora Dana) rushes to get him to change his mind, even his prisoner tells him the same. And yet he sticks with it because one man has died — a man who granted might have been slightly misguided — yet he believed in some form of law and order enacted by the people for the people. That’s what makes Evans proceed with this near-suicidal mission. It has to do with moral rectitude and committing to what you deem to be right — even if there’s a cost.

Does the picture chicken out in the end? I’ll let you decide for yourself. Regardless, Van Heflin and Glenn Ford are in fine form and require the viewer to brace themselves for a tension-filled ride. One could argue 3:10 to Yuma is forged and won in their scenes together. Everything else is informed by this central relationship.

4/5 Stars

Jubal (1956)

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There’s no doubt about it. Jubal boasts absolutely gorgeous imagery and how can you miss with a backdrop as majestic as the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming? Its looming grandeur is evident in just about every single exterior shot — a continuous hallmark of classical frontier visions.

This element alone will quickly cause many western aficionados to recall one of the finest in the genre, George Stevens’ Shane (1953), which was also shot in the same area and consequently, exhibits a broadly similar plotline. However, that can be attributed to the fact westerns often busy themselves with tales of lone drifters riding toward new destinations in an effort to escape some unnamed force in their past. Jubal (Glenn Ford) is molded out of the same archetype.

Except Jubal winds up at the cattle ranch of the welcoming Sherp Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), who finds the other man frostbitten and proceeds to give him shelter and a cup of coffee. That’s just Sherp’s way, even though he’s a fairly prosperous man with a pretty wife (Valerie French), he’s instantly likable and beloved by everyone, in spite of his good-natured prattling.

The figure instantly positioned as an antagonist is Pinky (Rod Steiger) who right off the bat accuses the other man of smelling of sheep. He holds sheepherders in disdain but soon feels like his position on the ranch is under threat. Because despite being a newcomer, Jubal instantly makes an impression as a reserved but nevertheless trustworthy and hardworking ranch hand.

He gains the favor of Sherp even as he’s bent on moving on. That’s his nature. Delmer Daves serves as both screenwriter and director, adapting a story bearing the strains of Shakespeare’s Othello but again, like comparison’s with Shane, it’s true most stories have narratives scouring similar cisterns for inspiration. What matters most is what they offer us that is unique.

Ultimately, Jubal does decide to stay on a spell and the consequences are not unfelt. He conceals a buried hurt that supplies our character conflict. In some regards, as best as I can describe it, he fits too neatly into a box as it all comes gushing out when talking with a pretty ingenue played by Felicia Farr. As he discloses his deep-seated hurt, Jube readily acknowledges he’s never shared this boyhood trauma with anyone else. There’s something about her genial innocence setting him instantly at ease.

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Her parents are part of an unnamed religious caravan searching for the Promised Land and Jubal is instrumental in allowing them to stay on the ranch, even as Pinky fights for them to move along. He’s continually looking to belittle and lessen Jubal in Horgan’s eyes by any means possible.

Meanwhile, the seductive onslaughts turned toward Jubal, coupled with slanderous verbal assaults from a jealous rival, look to take the man down one way or another. Yet he will do nothing to compromise himself. He stands firm with integrity but like Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, you know he will be blamed for something he had no hand in.

The whole film is really an exhibition in differing acting styles rubbing up against each other. Rod Steiger, of course, immersed himself in “The Method,” famously playing alongside Brando in On The Waterfront (1954). In Jubal, you can very easily see the early shades of Officer Gillespie, though Pinky is arguably worse as an animalistic brute with a bur in his backside.

You can also easily see how his animosity could have spilled over into everything and soured his working relationship with Ford and Borgnine, who maintain a more naturalistic even intuitive style. Regardless, each man feels well-suited to their respective parts.

The same can be said of John Dierkes as well and Noah Beery Jr., as genial as ever, playing on the fiddle as another ranch hand. Charles Bronson at first seems a curious even suspicious character although his purpose becomes evident as he becomes the go-between to vouch for others, knowing both the worlds of the religious pilgrims and the ranchers. Jack Elam is features though he doesn’t have much to do while Victoria French’s role relies heavily on her being a tantalizing seductress, constantly coaxing Jubal into some sort of romantic tryst.

The film is a testament to the intrigue found in continuous antipathy and an almost fatalistic sense of powerlessness in the face of inevitable doom. In other words, no matter how hard he tries, it seems like Jube will never be able to win.

My main qualm, however, is in the ending. I’m used to abrupt endings but the film seems to have delegated its time in the wrong ways. The beauty of the film thus far was its smoldering potential threat which led to some invariably dark turns. By the final juncture, we essentially know what will happen but we relish them coming to fruition in a cathartically cinematic fashion.

While Jubal gets the girl and clears his name, he only gets a very brief showdown with the continual thorn in his side, Pinky, before the doctor comes out of the shed to pronounce death with the other man being guilty of certain indiscretions.

So in very basic terms what could have been a more thrilling culmination is all but cut short. Vindication is made easy. Otherwise, the picture boils to the end thanks to the maddening rage of Steiger, which is capable of twisting every minor detail into more ammunition to try and sway the mob and bury another man in his premature grave.

The necessity is that Ford is and remains throughout the film a white knight, never has a lapse of character, and even goes after the good girl. It’s the circumstances that are constantly against him. It makes for a tumultuous and repeatedly helpless state of being for the entirety of the film. The blip before “The End” loses a bit of this tension but up to that point, Jubal makes good as a friction-filled western drama.

4/5 Stars

Wagon Master (1950)

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“Wagons west are rolling…” – Sons of The Pioneers

Despite being a tighter film, Wagon Train still bears the irrefutable mark of John Ford. Together with producer Meridian C. Cooper, he crafts a piece of work as near to a fully realized articulation of his vision as he probably ever achieved; this made it one of his personal favorites.

Because there is no one to answer to except for himself and if anything, in contrast to his career prior, it’s a freeing proposition. Wagon Train contentedly meanders along ever toward its destination with time enough to stop and visions enough to keep an audience engrossed.

Without John Wayne, the story instead finds able space for other worthy stalwarts of the Ford stock company and in this aspect alone it’s a fine showing. Ben Johnson’s athleticism on horseback is matched by a plain-speaking integrity proving both steady and unperturbed.

The beauty of the casting is the very authenticity of it. He’s the real deal as a one-time rodeo hand, stunt double for the biggest stars like Gary Cooper and James Stewart, and a certified roping champion. He performed all his own stunts in the picture including the well-remembered scene where he weathers a bucking bronco after Joanne Dru dumps bath water out of the rear her wagon spooking his horse. He stayed on for 10 bucks before getting thrown. That was only after a previous take had to be reshot.

Furthermore, Ford gives the other prominent roles to young Harry Carey Jr. who is Johnson’s trail companion and the more spirited of the two. While Travis and Sandy are intent on selling their stock and nothing else, they eventually agree to come aboard as wagon masters for a caravan of Mormons heading out West. The Elder, played by the venerable Ward Bond, is a man of faith who nevertheless has the raw courage and determination to lead his people on their journey. And he has his usual bearing which only blesses the story. In truth, it’s an obvious precursor to the heralded TV western, Wagon Train, also starring Bond for its first few seasons.

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Even as the search for the Promise Land subsists, lead by Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) and the sounding of her horn, it is Bond who has decency enough to stop for those in need. They end up running across a hoochie-coochie show made up of a swacked trio (Alan Mowbray, Ruth Clifford, and Joanne Dru) who, without any water left, tried to survive off spirits.

Though a group of social outcasts and equally proud, the Elder obliges to help them out even as their own resources are dwindling. Thus, the procession exuberantly races toward the first sign of water. Jumping off horses, dipping their hats in it, taking a nice cool drink for the first time in far too long.

Our two heroes, also begin to call on their lady friends. Travis tries to extend a gentlemanly hand to Denver (Dru), who defiantly rebuffs his advances and simultaneously Sandy starts eyeing a Mormon girl who already has a beau. In another interlude, a fist-fight erupts between the two young men which the Elder handily breaks up, only to wind up with his pants torn to pieces by a feisty dog.

What becomes evident in the stages of this story is how it is never truly about one individual but an entire community. Part of that comes with the absence of a marketable star like John Wayne or Henry Fonda — two regulars in Ford pictures. However, like My Darling Clementine (sans Fonda), there is this sense of the communal nature of civilization. This western on wheels brings together religious pilgrims, medicine show performers, and Navajo Indians who are all able to find a certain amount of common ground.

Dances become something not only proving to be a form of gaiety and lively human interaction; they might very well be a mechanism for how a bit of home is brought to new territories as a means of making them more habitable. It’s a sign of kinship.

Of course, every society has its outside stressors and in this case, the caravan is paid a visit by a band of glowering men led by a crotchety old-timer (Charles Kemper) winged in the arm. It’s a tenuous partnership at best as his “boys,” including James Arness and Hank Worden, are a testy and trigger-happy bunch. Even as he knows how dangerous they are, The Elder agrees to extend the olive branch, while Travis bides his time knowing now isn’t the time to act. Sandy can’t quite fathom this initial passivity but their forbearance is rewarded in the end.

A John Ford gunfight ensues and not unlike its brethren in My Darling Clementine, the exchange of bullets is efficient and to the point; it’s not meant to bear the entire weight of the picture. Instead, Ford settles back into a broader perspective, reinforcing the lyrical quality of his imagery with the vocalization of The Sons of the Pioneers.

I remember them most vividly from my days watching Roy Rogers serials, hearing the group sing their harmonies, and I do miss the throaty vocals of old folk western tunes like “Song of the Wagonmaster” and “Wagon’s West.” Though I hesitate to call Wagon Master, an all-out musical because that would probably give the wrong impression, it is indebted to its music much in the same manner of a High Noon (1952) or a Rio Bravo (1959). You cannot begin to separate the two.

4/5 Stars