The Paleface (1948)

As a kid, I was fond of Frank Tashlin’s Son of Paleface for a myriad of reasons. Thanks to that esteemed institution known as the local library I was well-versed in the Hope & Crosby Road Pictures by an early age and Roy Rogers was probably second-only to Gene Autry as king of the Singing Cowboys. Jane Russell wasn’t too bad herself.

More recently, coming to understand Tashlin himself — his background in animated comedy and his partnership with Jerry Lewis — gives greater context to his place as a creative visionary. Because it’s true he blends the gray area between live-action and the cartoon logic of animation better than almost anyone else.

In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Tashlin had these unsavory words for The Paleface and its director:

“After seeing the preview of it, I could’ve shot Norman Z. McLeod. I’d written it as a satire on The Virginian (1929), and it was completely botched. I could’ve killed that guy. And I realized then that I must direct my own stuff.”

While it’s true the original movie doesn’t have the same outrageous commitment to comic gags that its successor did, if Tashlin was not so close to the material, he might be able to appreciate some of its elements.

However, before we go there, it seems necessary to introduce a caveat. The Paleface is a film out of a different era. If you’re an immediate impression of the movie is one of distaste, there aren’t any surprises here. Particularly jolting is when they are taken in by the local Natives to die some gruesome death only to be saved by Hope’s masquerading as a medicine man armed with the black magic of dynamite.

But if you have a sense of nostalgia, can look past the blind spots, or have a reservoir of goodwill toward Bob Hope, it delivers alongside the best of his comedies by providing a genre and allowing him to bend it to his will, courtesy of his usual feckless, smart-aleck shtick.

It works by first introducing all the western tropes Tashlin was mentioning. Russell, the feisty female outlaw, Calamity Jane, is enlisted by the government to investigate clandestine operations supplying the Indians with firearms. She joins a wagon train after outsmarting some adversaries in the ladies’ showers. It allows her to do some recon and she uses a first-class boob as her cover.

Bob Hope (as Painless Potter) is showcased with a row of dentistry gags including his canister of laughing gas, which becomes a recurrent plot point throughout the picture. When he’s not getting them lost in the woods, he knocks back “Buttons and Bows,” a tune that has remained a lasting relic of the movie, thanks to renditions by the likes of Dinah Shore, and its reintroduction in the sequel.

Every kiss he shares with his costar is like a rap over the head with the butt of a pistol. But along with being the aggressor, Russell also does his shooting for him on multiple occasions. In fact, when he is goaded into a shoot-out over the hand of a woman in a saloon, the outcomes prove surprisingly close to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paleface was released over a decade earlier). Could it be John Ford was influenced by Paleface? I’ll let you be the judge.

As for Norman Z. Macleod, I’m inclined to give him my good graces given his pedigree with Marx Brothers and screwball-like comedies of all sorts. While he might not commit to gravity-defying visual gags as Tashlin would have — we understand how he would be able to expand and punctuate them — Macleod always seems intent on zipping the pace along and keeping the tone zany.

This suits Hope even as Russell and the other characters allow the story to still stay true to many of the western tropes of cowboys, Indians, and western towns needing to be tamed.  This melding of the usual beats with the wacky subversions instigated byHhope is the crux of the movie and blended with its color photography and the antagonistic chemistry of its stars, it’s more than enough to garner a watch. My own biased nostalgia still makes me partial to The Son of Paleface. 

3.5/5 Stars

The Last Hunt (1956) and The Killing Fields

The Last Hunt considers an era that is no more. Once America’s Great Plains ran rampant with herds of bison numbering up to 60,000,000 based on the estimation of this movie. The initial premise of Richard Brooks’ western intrigues for the sole fact that this is a slice of history that doesn’t get much screen time in the cinematic west and, thus, it offers a framework for some potentially pointed commentary.

The onus for the circumstances is placed on both hunters and American Indians for recklessly slaughtering the population down to a mere 3,000. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems much of the blame must be cast on the white men. But this is something to get into later. 

For now, it should be briefly mentioned the movie has a great deal of footage shot in the famed Custer State Park spread out across the Badlands, and if you’ve never had the opportunity to go there, I would certainly recommend it, if only for the chance to see some bison. 

I’ve gotten the exhilarating opportunity to see bison several times in my life and let us just say, there’s nothing quite like it as far as putting you in touch with the sheer majesty of nature. To look at one of those creatures in close proximity, even from the relative safety of an automobile, is breathtaking. It gives one an even deeper appreciation for both the magnitude and the inner turmoil The Last Hunt attempts to grapple with. 

Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger) for one, is a big-time hunter who wants to wash his hands clean of the profession. He’s intent on taking one last job and moving on. However,  it’s one of his colleagues, the bloody-thirsty Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor), who derives an unseemly amount of pleasure out of his vocation. He stays matter-of-factly, “Killing, fighting, war, that’s the natural state of things” and he wholeheartedly believes it. This mentality bleeds into all facets of his life. 

For one thing, he despises Indians. They’re hardly better than the big-time game he bags, and he’s quick to deride the genial half-breed who joins their company (Russ Tamblyn). Sandy is just as quick to welcome the boy on, and it’s yet another uneasy wedge between the two hunters. 

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Watching the bison drop instantly to the ground as dead weight is in itself a bit perturbing and feels unnatural. Be forewarned, The Last Hunt is not for the squeamish because there is nothing simulated about the hunting throughout the film, actually performed by government sharpshooters who thinned out the bison population. Why it is done this way I’m not quite sure.

Likewise, watching Taylor blast away at the giant beasts until he’s decimated a whole pack for their skins, and then a moment layer cutting away to what feels like a bison killing field leaves a startling impression. The baby bison are left parent-less and a majestic white buffalo — believed to be medicine for the natives — is unceremoniously struck down. 

But this is only a backdrop or even a representation of what is going in the hearts & minds of the two characters as they chafe against one another. The movie would not work without both of their points of view. Charlie continues to exercise his almighty power of life and death over the beasts, relishing every minute, because killing is the only real proof you’re alive. His words, not mine.  Sandy could care less — having his own personal crisis of conscience — even as he extends a courteousness to his fellow man, no matter their creed. 

 Lloyd Nolan, who might best be remembered for character parts in the 30s and 40s, to my recollection puts together one of the most colorful portrayals of his career. His cackling “Woodfoot” holds a foolhardy appreciation for life and the rush of the hunt. It’s a lark to him, but he’s also good at what he does. The resplendent green plains laden with sheets of pine trees capture the sense of rip-roaring adventure out on the trail as the raucous pegleg tears across the territory with a giddy sense of abandon. 

Over time he settles into a good-natured sagacity even as he provides nighttime accordion playing to lighten the mood. He’s a bit of insulation between the men around him while offering the young boy neighborly advice. He softens and becomes more decent as Charlie becomes more and more stricken with his crazed obsession. 

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Because there are only a handful of primary characters, each one has a very specific personality put on display and each earns their keep in the movie. The one exception seems to be Debra Padget, no fault of her own. She is an extremely alluring albeit absent beauty. Charlie desires her lustily, despite his bigotry, while Sandy becomes her de facto protectorate. I feel sorry for her because with the part she has to play — as the captured Indian maiden with child — she can’t win. Obviously, there’s a vague sense of her being a love interest, but in a male-dominated arena, she doesn’t have much import, unfortunately.

 Though the picture doesn’t have the best track record with American Indians — this is often the case with westerns circa 1956 — The Last Hunt does make a valiant attempt at some kinds of off-handed commentary. When talking about their customs, Charlie says, “Indians they don’t have religion.” Woodfoot replies with a cynical response of his own, “Indian religion is just the same as ours, except they don’t pass the hat after they pray.”

There’s another moment worth mentioning as a kind of mutual appreciation builds between Sandy and Padget’s nameless Indian girl. He acknowledges that he learned how to ride and learned about life from natives, so he holds them in the highest esteem. Proximity breeds this kind of empathy. 

She comes back around with her own version (by taking care of a toddling infant who is not her own child). She learned babies belong to all people, a sympathetic pearl of wisdom gained from Christian missionaries. It’s in this space where they form a kind of shared understanding built on mutual respect. 

But there comes a point of no return. For Sandy, he goes into town to sell their skins for a hefty sum, but he’s also resolved to get some of the buffalo stench off of him. He’s ashamed and the whole outpost points to his ignominy. Soon he’s brawling over the beasts to the chorus of rowdy honky-tonk and bodies flying over and under the bar.

 Charlie fairs little better as he goes into a continued fit of paranoid delusion leading him toward a chasm of madness. He believes his partner is looking to double-cross him, and he’s prepared to track him down and kill him if he has to (or anyone else who might get in his way). For all his disreputable malevolence, Robert Taylor is undoubtedly the film’s standout totally committing to his demented role. Granger is a necessary foil, but he and most everyone else must play cool and understated only smoldering under Nilson’s provocations. 

Truthfully, the ending feels woefully anticlimactic, or at least ill-gotten, failing to follow the trajectory that the story looked to be paying off. Still, up until this point The Last Hunt has a nervy tenacity in its best moments that might well leave a lasting impression on a willing audience. It remains a contentious indictment of America’s dubious indiscretions even as it also helps to unwittingly propagate a few more. Sometimes the good comes with the bad. 

3/5 Stars

Westward The Women (1951): A Fuller, Richer Kind of Western

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My only qualm with Westward The Women might be the title itself because otherwise, it’s a striking movie that should rightfully be heralded as a supremely significant western for the story it chooses to tell. At the very least, the title does make it evident that this is a story with women at the forefront — after all, the journey west was just as much theirs as anyone else’s. They just needed someone in a position of influence to enable them.

John McIntire is the visionary who can see what his land would become if subdued by men who could settle down with wives and make it into a suitable country. He’s already got the land. He’s already got the hands to work it. He just needs the women.

But he needs a man with the grit and horse sense to make it a reality because the closest females are thousands of miles away from his pristine California valley. Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) is the man for the job with a plethora of experience when it comes to being a wagon master. This task seems nearly unthinkable, and he takes it mainly for the money. He doesn’t necessarily believe they can make it. He hasn’t met the women yet.

As if to confirm his expectations, most of them are city folk and have neither fired guns nor ridden horses. They already have a few strikes against them. He’s hardly impressed, propped up in the corner with his hat tipped back contemptuously. During the vetting process, Mr. Whitman takes on the recruits with a far more benevolent eye.

They run the gamut from the imposing Hope Emerson to ladies with sullied reputations (among them Denise Darcel). The fact that an Italian widow and her young son sign aboard must also make us pause for a moment.

Because Westward the Women isn’t merely a story about heroic women — it is certainly this. However, since it was originally conceived by Frank Capra (who wrote the story and planned to direct), it’s an immigrant tale, albeit between Chicago and California.

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While Robert Taylor is rightfully acerbic and disaffected for the part, he also has a strict sense of equity extending to both genders. Although he has a crew of veteran men working with him, he’s not going to take any of their guff or fooling around, and he’s prepared to kill to maintain order. It’s supremely harsh but then again, he seems to understand something few others do: This is a life or death scenario.

There are the torrential downpours that nearly wash them away, the treacherous terrain crushes a couple of their wagons to pieces, and, of course, there’s the threat of Indian raids. Worst of all is the internal division inside the company. Buck knows they will never survive if they can’t stick together.

The trail requires the supreme sacrifice of many who give their lives in service to the journey. It’s never easy but more than anyone else, the women’s resolve is firm. They will make it to their destination even if it kills them. Moment by moment, we learn more about the depth of their character.

The movie is a western that cuts against the grain — of both the 1850s and the 1950s —  engaged in telling a story predominantly about women featuring a Japanese character who feels at least a little bit more substantial than a sideshow attraction. His existence at all feels unheard of for depictions of either era.

I wish more directors and westerns had seen fit to have characters like Henry Nakamura (also featured prominently in Go For Broke!). While he might not be a totally integral piece, he adds yet another perspective to the movie and provides a kind of empathetic echo chamber for Robert Taylor (ie. When you’re wrong big boss, I’ll tell you).

There’s also the long-running gag with Ito’s Japanese creating an unspoken irony between what he says in his native tongue and what he expresses to Wyatt. When they finally happen upon the grave of Wyatt’s dead buddy (and with it a cache of rum), Ito voices his surprise, then says “Good ol’ Quackenbush.” His translation is liberal, to say the least!

Still, one of the most unforgettable interludes comes with reading off the roll call of those who were lost in the latest raid. It moved me immensely. Most of these women we don’t know by name, but they leave an insurmountable impact on the story representing so much of the human spirit and the dignity held aloft by the film. They feel, rightfully so, like a hallowed list of heroes.

And again, over any prevailing plot points, it’s the specific touches that will be remembered going forward. With the trail getting unstable ahead, the women are beseeched to lighten their loads and begrudgingly ditch all their worldly possessions at the roadside. It becomes a graveyard of discarded belongings as they roll ever onward.

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Then, there’s a little dog being carried along in a bucket under the birth of the wagon or the impression of a wayward wagon wheel left behind in the middle of the desert in their wake. They stop for nothing.

Finally, they get to The Promised Land, with fresh springs of running water, but before they go over the hill, Buck vows to gather together garments so they can look their best for their future husbands. There’s a kind of mounting expectation on all sides. It’s something supremely special they all get to take part in and we are privy to it as well.

When Taylor speaks to the men, he entreats them, “These are good women, great women, make sure you treat them right because God help you if you don’t.” He’s grown to esteem them just as his audience has. Thankfully, these men will too.

When the sexes finally get together, it feels a bit like a western cotillion and the ending is fittingly idyllic as they create a kind of rural utopia built on the bedrock of matrimony, decency, and hard work.

John Ford was always the purveyor of civilization making its way across the West, but we must remember Capra also had a stake in representing the American Dream. As the actual director of this film, William Wellman does a fine job capturing the adventure with the trials and tribulations of a wagon train, highlighted by numerous standout performances garnering an abiding admiration for all these folks.

Westward The Women is sadly the exception to the rules governing the western genre, but what a treasure it is to have as a kind of hagiography to the pioneering ladies who weathered immense hardship to pursue their dreams. Whether fact or fiction, the portrayals feel revolutionary, and what a joy it is to find such bountiful parts for people as diverse as Hope Emerson and Henry Nakamura. They suggest a fuller, richer western landscape than we’re in a habit of seeing.

4/5 Stars

Warlock (1959): Fonda, Quinn, and Widmark

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There are three names emblazoned over the title credits engulfing the screen: Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, and Anthony Quinn. Somehow they all figure into this story — into the war that we are about to be privy to. The question remains, how so and on what sides? It turns out, it’s far from a clearcut answer.

As Warlock progresses, I couldn’t help but think of that quote: “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?” Its variations have been attributed to individuals as diverse as Bertolt Brecht, Carl Sandburg, and the Vietnam-era Hippie movement. Regardless, the most overt sentiment remains the same. War is perpetuated by people who willingly show up to fight, whether it’s out of a sense of duty, an assertion of masculinity, personal advancement, or a desire to watch the world burn. 

The San Pablo gang frequents Warlock quite often, prepared to terrorize a town and demoralize all those who stand for law & order, even to the point of death. The incumbent deputy sheriff is sent out of town on an honor guard of emasculation. He’s the most recent casualty, yet another man who will have his name crossed out on the brick wall of the jail. Because everyone is keeping tally. The whole town observes the public humiliation with distaste and private shame behind curtains and tucked away on second-story balconies. 

Richard Widmark’s Gannon consorts with the rebels, but he doesn’t like it. He looks decidedly conflicted in their company. It’s his baby brother (a scrawny Frank Gorshin), who keeps him connected to the gang by association. We must come to decipher where his allegiances lie just as he does. 

 What a majestic pair Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn make together as they trot toward Warlock. They give off a sense of having traversed much of the world. Hank’s been installed as the new Marshall famed for his golden-handled colt revolvers.

From years of experience, he predicts the local community will be pleased with him until it grows into a general resentment as he maintains such a high degree of autonomy. But as their town has already given itself over to anarchy and murder, this is a form of salvation at a very high wage. It remains to be seen if it’s worth the price. 

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In this way, Warlock courts themes not unfamiliar to Wichita or Man with a Gun. Director Jacques Tourneur’s sense of the town somehow felt more atmospheric and real, and then Robert Mitchum in the latter film was a singular hero without peer, ready to go to war alone. In Warlock, the talent is more substantial and as such, we get something slightly more complex, if not always more compelling or artful than Wichita, in particular. 

One might be reminded that this is a Moab-shot western, and yet while there are some stunning exterior shots, what’s just as telling is how much of the movie takes place either in interiors or at the very least in the confines of the town. Director Edward Dmytryk finally ensconced again after the Hollywood Blacklist, looks far more engaged in the psychological underpinnings of his characters than he does in making the picture look pretty with sweeping grandstanding. The color schemes are bright if a bit gaudy, and the same might be said of the costuming. 

But what does it matter in comparison to his characters? Even someone like Deforest Kelley has a say as a delightfully thuggish heavy with a wicked sense of humor. Then, the stage brings Dorothy Malone. She’s not exactly an antagonist, but she owns a vindictive streak having it out with (Quinn) in back parlor rooms over past grievances.

In another scene, she lays flowers at the perfectly constructed Hollywood grave of the murdered Bob Nicholson. What’s curious is the scriptural epitaph: How long, oh Lord?” It’s the implicit question at the heart of the story.

If she is one surprise inserted into the storyline, another is Gannon volunteering to become Deputy Sheriff. It’s not out of any amount of duplicity or self-lobbying. There’s a sense he legitimately wants to pursue law and order — standing tall, knowing he’s committed to veracity for once in his life. It should be noted Fonda is a Marshall, and the film makes a distinction. He is not bound by the same strictures.  

Thus, Widmark becomes the fulcrum in the film’s dialogue covering all realms from law & order to the tenets of western masculinity. Where does Widmark get his teeth? Where does he get his sense of conscience? These questions might be up for debate, but to his credit, despite being the top-billed actor among a group of heavyweights, he’s brave enough in the role to come off as pitiful at times. It’s a deceptive performance, and I mean this as a compliment. 

Since this is a western, albeit set mostly in a specific locality, there are very few female characters — only two of note — and the leading ladies are both blondes, conveniently mirroring one another as they pair off with the leading men.  Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michael) is a creature of civility, who is surprised to find their hired gunman has a courteous manner. In his view, he practices with his pistols the way she practices the church organ. Their vocations are different, but as people, they have a surprising amount of common ground. 

Likewise, it is Lily (Malone) who rebuffs Morgan (Quinn) due to his undying allegiance to Blaisedel (Fonda) only to turn her affections to Gannon. Again, it feels like a curious pairing, but if the other couple functions, then so can they. 

If we are to analyze Warlock on a perfunctory level of criticism, the problem is that it has three climaxes, which means it possibly has none. However, there’s a nugget in here somewhere, and it’s couched in the ending. The whole movie is transmuted in the final visual summation. It’s announced by Henry Fonda with nary a word. If you want to call it a deconstruction of the West you can, a subversion of convention, that too, but what is it, if not a definitive statement?

Warlock is a talky western and perilously long, but in those final moments, it spits out our American genre back into the dust and leaves us to meditate on our corporate understanding of so many things. In Anthony Quinn, I see a character who is not willing to break with tradition. He is trapped in the habitual cycle of his ways, in a life that can never last, and out of preservation, he buries himself. It’s a tragedy, and not because he’s a cripple. Fonda has the whole town sing “Rock of Ages” out of deference to his lifelong companion.

Richard Widmark, time and time again, finds it within himself — this unexplainable compulsion to uphold the law — it’s as if once he pins on that badge, he’s devoted to his post. Whether it’s totally blind or not, he comes out of the picture with this peculiar kind of integrity we never would have expected. It’s not a flashy part, but it’s vital.

Finally, Hank Fonda. Good ol’ Hank. He feels like such an enigma for the entirety of the picture. He has that casual soft-spoken charm of his and yet he really is a vigilante; ironically, a symbol of chaos. It makes it all the more imperative to dwell on his final actions. I’m not sure if they’re warranted and from what we know of his character, I’m not sure they made sense. Maybe they do. But the image speaks volumes. It’s an ending to a western you won’t soon forget.

3.5/5 Stars

The Hanging Tree (1959): Delmer Daves and Gary Cooper

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“You’re standing on the edge of a cliff. I don’t advise you going through life with your eyes closed.” – Doc Frail

Delmer Daves isn’t often remembered alongside the foremost western directors. Although in the 1950s, he crafted some stellar movies, and something less-heralded like The Hanging Tree is as much a testament to his legacy as anything he ever did. It puts a fine foot forward with a bouncy ballad courtesy of Marty Robbins and verdant imagery of epic proportions.

We’re in Montana, 1873, in gold country, and the local folks have caught the bug. Gary Cooper (in one of his last great performances) drifts into town on horseback. As he rides past, someone notes the local hanging tree makes people feel respectable. We know it will have imminent significance.

For now, he sets up shop as an M.D. named Doc Frail. The bustling town is being built as we speak, everyone in search of their own private “glory hole.” They are territorial and have no mercy for sluice robbers trying to pilfer their claims.

Frail is a curious figure because he hardly seems drawn to the same promise of riches as everyone else. There is a sense that this is as good a place to stop as any. Like Joel McCrea’s judge in The Stranger on Horseback, he is a man of vocation, who knows how to take care of himself while also adhering to a personal code of conduct. However, he also has a smoldering secret buried in his past creating a lingering specter over his present. Some men might deem him a saint and others a devil.

Could it be he has a higher calling altogether? His first good deed is to fix up the thief (Ben Piazza), who got winged in the arm. But he doesn’t let the young man named Rune off without payment. He salvaged the boy’s life and so he takes him on as a begrudging bondservant. Again, it feels like it’s all part of the veteran doctor’s plan.

Cooper takes to the role, and it informs the more casual even comical tone the film sets on initially. Sure there’s a lurking menace but for the time being Coop takes to the people and provides them the healthcare they desperately need. They’re obliged to him. What’s more, he’s not an outsider — some of the folks have made his acquaintance before — and he’s likable while ratting out the phonies.

Front and center is the jovial if slightly skeezy Frenchy, with Karl Malden turning in a vital performance to supply the story some direction. The other is a scripture-spouting drunkard named Bub (George C. Scott in an early role).

The rest of the tale is built out of the search for a lost stagecoach passenger. When she is found, the half-unconscious, blinded Swiss immigrant (Maria Schell) is nursed back to health by Doc. He shields her from both the light and the prying eye of the world outside.

If it’s not apparent already, The Hanging Tree gives off the aura of an entirely different brand of western, and it’s not just the Montana terrain. It also comes down to the pacing and how the characters relate to one another.

Over time, Rune feels beholden to Doc, and he becomes a loyal companion by association. The same might be said of Elizabeth as she has the doctor to thank for her health and her entire livelihood. For the time being, she “sees” only the good in him. But the movie would be too clean if he reciprocated directly.

He continually takes part in these elliptical games with others. His lady benefactor calls him cruel for bringing people close only to push them away, and she has a point. It’s true his decency and bedside manner is tempered by a bleakly cynical side. How do you reconcile such a thoughtful figure with the man in black who gambles by night?

One also comes to understand how ephemeral this community seems. Doc warns Elizabeth their current home is a crawling anthill that could blow away with the scum of the world. It’s true in six weeks it could be a ghost town. But she rejoins with a plucky resolve. There is no other way to tackle this world, and she takes to it gladly. She settles into her own grubstake, christened “The Lucky Lady Mine,” joining forces alongside Rune and Frenchy (and a silent partner).

The ending of the movie can only end in one place if it’s to make good on its title. It’s true we end up there. What’s curious is how joyous euphoria about striking it rich can turn people into a mob just the same if they were angry. Inhibitions get released and the world goes to hell with drink, lust, and incendiary male hedonism.

For me, everything falls together so conveniently I didn’t have time to consider the logic. There’s little need to. Gary Cooper sticks to his guns and does what he always has from the beginning of time and by that I mean The Virginian way back in 1929. His quiet boldness punctuates the madness, and it feels right, though not totally complete.

If nothing else, it’s worth the final shot and in case we didn’t catch the metaphor, a musical refrain reminds us, “The Hanging Tree was a tree of life for me.” Where the gold rush-crazed economy is gladly ditched for something more tangible and lasting. Where being granted eyes to see can be a sobering reality check while still leading us in pursuit of goodness. Because sometimes the hanging tree might just be the place we find salvation once we realize we’re not in control. We can’t always save others, especially when we are in need of saving ourselves.

3.5/5 Stars

The Last Wagon (1956): Morals Out On The Range

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We’re in the Arizona territories. The year is 1873. Glorious overhead shots give us a sense of the vast panorama of the terrain in CinemaScope as Richard Widmark gets hunted down and returns the fire of his pursuers.

The distinctive red rocks have the hint of John Ford and if nothing else, remain a stunning reminder of America’s glorious topography. We really live in a gorgeous place if we take the time to get out in it.

For Widmark, it’s life or death as he kills one assailant only to get winged and dragged behind a horse by the wrists. It’s hardly water skiing. This is the untidy, rough-and-tumble law of the wide-open land. The victors are those who survive, whether through chicanery, brute strength, or guns loaded with lead.

It feels like we’ve been privy to a whole short movie before our main storyline has even begun. This is to The Last Wagon’s credit. It has robust beginnings and makes Widmark out to be an intriguing enigma right from the outset.

We find him finally, dead beat, strung up in a tree for safekeeping in the custody of a sadistic sheriff (George Matthews) as a wagon train of women and children scuttle by. They couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, but this is the entire premise of the movie right here.

It’s their leader (Douglas Kennedy) who welcomes the lawman into their company, wary of both prisoner and his executioner. It’s an uneasy partnership to be sure. He makes his moral stance quite clear when he blesses their evening meal, “Teach us to live with open hearts and share with our fellow man our values.” It falls on the deaf ears of Bull Harper and “Comanche” Todd, who is trussed up to a nearby wagon wheel.

The wanted criminal doesn’t help his case when he murderers yet another man in view of a whole wagon train of incredulous witnesses. They aren’t accustomed to such savagery. He comes back sharply, “I had a right to kill him, but I suppose my side of the story doesn’t interest you none.” It plays as another pointed comment on who he is: both a murderer and a “white” Comanche, and then who they are, naive Christian pilgrims.

There are two individuals in their ilk, in particular, who show him a dose of Christian compassion. The young boy Billy (Tommy Rettig) brings him food, with all the candor in the world, asking him honestly if he thinks he’ll go to heaven. It’s hardly out of a place of browbeating or scorn, but genuine concern. He’d like to go scouting with Todd up in Heaven because Billy aims to be there. He wants the other man to be there too. His older sister Jenny (Felicia Farr in an amiable and lucid performance) also extends him a certain benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, the movie’s attempt at commentary on prejudice is partially undermined in all its good intention. It begins with Widmark. Although it’s partially explained away through exposition, he’s certainly no Indian by birth. Likewise, in a precursor to her mixed-race role in Imitation for Life, Susan Kohner is given the role of a half-Navajo girl, who faces bigotry with a stolid resolve. It is her bratty half-sister (Stephanie Griffin), white by birth, who encapsulates all the malicious prejudices festering on the range. This is made plainly evident.

However, Delmer Daves does not constrict his movie into being a mere morality play. In fact, The Last Wagon is hard to pin down. There are all these potential narrative offshoots, and it supplies some genuine moments of surprise while still mixing its messages and becoming an entirely different narrative on multiple occasions. One prime example is how the movie is both indicting prejudices against American Indians and still somehow using them as a mechanistic trope of the West.

Gratefully, the movie splits off from the pack and hones in on the most intriguing characters. One drastic turning point comes when all the adolescents sneak off to go skinny-dipping, including the scandalized Valinda and the foxy Ridge (Nick Adams). They’re the story’s resident imbeciles. For the time they can frolic gaily only for the rapids to give them a scare, and then worse…

the last wagon

They return to nothing — a camp totally decimated — Widmark is the only one left, cast aside on his wagon wheel. Valinda chastizes him, “You got no right to be alive when our people are dead!” Here we find the meat of our story. It settles into being a survival western with Richard Widmark anchoring the youthful contingent following his lead. Their objective is obvious, making their way through the aptly bone-chilling “Canyon of Death.” They have no other alternative. Widmark is the only one who knows what it takes to survive.

The Last Wagon has some downright bizarre moments — setting traps for food and Widmark makes it look like a breeze ambushing their dinner in a cave. In a matter of minutes, snake bites, apache ambushes, and they just keep on coming; it’s the kind of western melodrama not averse to tossing out all sorts of wrinkles, and why not? There’s a lot to work with. Either you laugh it off as absurd or you admire the commitment to making the story lively. The same goes for the dialogue. It’s not the most nuanced job, but it keeps the pulse going.

There are obligatory interludes too as he hacks off his handcuffs across from Farr while sharing his life story. We get something of his own spiritual belief system. His father was a circuit-riding preacher — he was even baptized — and his daddy looked to carry the word of his God to the whole world, that is until he died. The operative word is “his” God because Todd was adopted by a Comanche chief and never looked back. If this God wasn’t concerned with saving his father, then he wasn’t interested.

Still, they just might receive a providential intervention yet in the form of some horse soldiers. However, their saviors in Calvary uniforms turn out to be a reconnaissance unit, and with Indians on the warpath fast approaching, it becomes Todd’s time to rescue all of them. He knows the dilemma: Get them out of their hopeless predicament only to find himself on trial for murder.

It becomes a layman’s civil discourse. Law is law — Comanche or white — if it is just. The question remains who gets to decide Justice? Jenny comes to her man’s defense: The Good Book says something about taking life but what about giving life back? This is what he’s done for them — provided a lifeline in a hopeless scenario. Needless to say, whatever the parameters most human systems are flawed and infallible. They don’t always hold up.

In the end, there’s a kind of swelling sentiment as we watch redemption at work. The young men and women sitting before the courts as a testament to Todd’s decency. After such a treacherous journey, it’s convenient and painless. So be it. It feels equally grand to watch Widmark ride off with Farr and Rettig. It hits all the beats like a western such as this is supposed to. Nothing more is required.

Delmer Daves puts together an oater with a gorgeous sense of the Western vistas in its many earthy hues. Any ways in which it feels heavy-handed or derivative are mostly smoothed over by a typically stalwart performance by Widmark (and the fact I’m fond of Farr and Rettig). The Last Wagon is a pleasant surprise, and it need not be more.

3.5/5 Stars

Ride Lonesome (1959): One of The Best Ranown Westerns

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“You just don’t seem like the kind of man who would hunt a man for money.” 

“I am.”  

Ride Lonesome has a setup as obvious as it is simple, further indicating why the collaborations between Budd Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy were so plentiful. It comes with supplying a concrete premise with an intriguing overlay of character dynamics.

But you also need an inscrutable hero. Here a veteran bounty hunter has a man to bring in. The hero’s name is Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott) and his quarry, Billy John (James Best), sits waiting for him. Brigade comes up to him nice and easy-like to take him into custody.

It’s right then Billy John grins and lets him know his cronies are spread out in the rocks up above. He’s trapped. If he turns his back and walks away, there’s nothing more to it or else he commits himself to what he started along with probable death. Right here in a moment of immeasurable tension, we see Randolph Scott at his capable, laconic best. He’s totally inexorable and nobody’s gonna get him to back down. 

As the story progresses Santa Cruz becomes a kind of MacGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock would call it. It’s where Brigade plans to take Billy John to be strung up. In case there was any doubt, he gets out of this opening scrape alive and with his prisoner still intact. So they mosey their way along the gorgeous craggy tundra of the West toward their destination. 

On their journey, they happen on a stagecoach outpost. It’s important for introducing three more of the film’s key players. Two of them are little better than bandits (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn), the third is a woman (Karen Steele) waiting for her husband to return with some much-needed provisions. She’s wary of her uninvited guests and not too pleased to have two more strangers passing through. 

With these newest additions, we have the requisite menagerie to give the story a renewed outlook because what are the Ranown westerns but character pieces with higher stakes than what meets the eye? Foes can come in many forms: a gang of outlaws, self-serving amnesty seekers, and who ruled the land before all others but the Native American population — out for blood to avenge the affronts to their cultural hunting grounds. 

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It makes for some of the most engrossing stand-offs and conflicts on multiple planes of contention. People are constantly being caught between other people. What makes it delicious is how it’s not totally vindictive. Some of these people form relationships and still feel compelled to kill one another for their own purposes. At least they stand prepared to and our hero is no different. 

Mrs. Lane drifts around with hardly any stake anymore with her husband murdered. She can’t understand why Roberts would want to save Scott’s life in one minute and hours later be meditating on killing him. They need him until the time is right, and then they have to take him down — as simple as that. 

It’s loose cannons like him giving this movie a new kind of dramatic depth. Because there are no longer any straightforward roads. Everything feels ambiguous.  We gravitate toward Scott as some kind of moral center because his pedigree in films tells us as much. Maybe we can sense the decency in him. Otherwise, his career path and his generally callous nature don’t do him many favors. But it’s a tribute to the picture. 

On a side note, it always astounds me how they were able to scrounge up such a stellar group of players for these westerns. Take stock of everyone for a moment. Of course, you have Randolph Scott but then Pernell Roberts, James Coburn, and Lee Van Cleef. That’s pretty remarkable for a low-budget flick.

Lee Van Cleef doesn’t have much to do aside from being a threat, and he’s good at this, prepared to search the bounty hunty out and reclaim his brother. Their meeting is inevitable. Roberts is chummy yet opportunistic, subverting his Bonanza infallible eldest brother on horseback in an agreeable way. Coburn plays a dimwitted second fiddle as he hasn’t quite ascended to the aloof heights of Britt in The Magnificent Seven. All in due time. Karen Steele doesn’t normally get much acknowledgment, as her career was mostly relegated to the small screen — you can’t quite call Ride Lonesome the big time — nevertheless, she is a stalwart in her own right and strikingly beautiful.  

 But we must remember, Brigade and his uneasy alliance still have a prisoner to get to Santa Cruz with Van Cleef’s Frank fast approaching for a showdown. It’s almost like the bounty hunter wants them to catch up…The question: Why? For that matter, if he gets out of one scrape, he still has two more guns to get past. He’s rapidly running out of time. 

The script quickly flips the inevitable on its head and instead of feeling like we’re subjected to the usual rhythms of the West or left hanging, so to speak, there is this sense of satiation. All loose ends are tied off, and the resultant humor comes with a sigh of relief. If there’s this touch of lightness, then the resolution is equally about making peace with the past as so evocatively captured in the final shots — an image that so easily becomes emblazoned in one’s mind. Brigade sets his specters ablaze ready to step out of the ashes a new man.

Ride Lonesome does its job well, and it’s such a delectable, economical delight. If it’s not the best of the Ranown cycle, it’s darn near the top and remains a classic reminder of why the Ranown westerns have maintained a pull on many of the genre’s aficionados. It’s a marvel that so much can be accomplished and so much emotion can be mined in a movie that clocks in nicely at under 75 minutes. 

4/5 Stars

I Shot Jesse James (1949): A Sam Fuller Western

i shot jesse james

I Shot Jesse James is an off-center western as only Sam Fuller could possibly conceive it. At the very least it brings a journalistic eye and a shift in perspective. Because distilled down to its most basic elements, it’s a psychological character piece with John Ireland at the heart of it as Robert Ford: the man who shot Jesse James.

It’s not quite as punchy as Sammy Fuller would establish himself to be, but there is a slew of compelling ideas, and it’s not as straightforward as the western genre often suggests itself to be. Sure, the opening scene feels like quintessential Fuller, prepared to rap us over the head with the brunt of his movie. Bank robberies can never be easy; they’re always contentious. Guns drawn and bank tellers intent on sounding the alarm.

The picture is also about as noirish as they come out on the range — part of this is indebted to the conflicted character psychology — as expectations fluctuate wildly and scenarios happen not as we expect, but as they are meant to in a dismal landscape where everything comes out to its pessimistic worst.

People are poison to one another. The cruel hand of fate is inevitable. The lynchpin moment where a frankly, conventional Jesse James (Reed Hadley) is gunned down by his best friend is hardly imbued with the mythical glory the tabloids would have you believe. It’s almost matter-of-fact, totally unsentimental.

Fuller’s script acts as an examination of mythos and the pariah-like celebrity that engulfs the man. It makes for a far more perplexing exploration when you consider Jesse James died a hero — a Robin Hoodesque legend — while Ford is totally disgraced in society. He shot his best friend. If not for money, at least for a girl.

His desires are normal. He wants to get a ring so he can marry her and settle down. The question remains whether this kind of humdrum life is available to someone in his station.

The thematic ideas of legends on the range are dissected in many other westerns, and there’s always a sense of notoriety catching up with a protagonist. He has a target on his back. They might not have modern technology but papers, telegraph, and word of mouth have more pull than we might imagine. Word gets around and, if anything, legends grow larger with every town dispelling their own half-truths about the man and the myth.

Every gunshot potentially has Ford’s name on it. And yet he doesn’t want to give up his name. He’s too proud for that. He does take to the stage circuit reenacting how he shot Jesse James, and yet he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. The audiences watch with a kind of morbid curiosity. It’s another nail in the coffin. Surely they comprehend this is simply one pitiful man shooting another — not some gargantuan duel of ruinous proportions.

In an equally telling interlude, Ford offers to trade a drink for a troubadour’s ballad and gets an ode to the coward Robert Ford who laid Jesse James in his grave sung back in his face. You can imagine his chagrin when he finds out he’s been memorialized in such a manner and then the jovial performer’s surprise when he learns he’s singing to the craven legend himself.

i shot jesse james

In a flat western, Barbara Britton’s part would be tepid. Here she gets at least two moments in close-up where her face comes alive with a crazed expression you don’t soon forget. It’s fit for a femme fatale, but she’s not evil or psychotic. At worst, she’s torn apart by love, and it’s a force she can’t cope with.

If Ford is still madly in love with her, there’s another character who drifts through and vies for her affections. Whether real or imagined, it doesn’t really matter. Ford has it in his head that the genial prospector, John Kelley (Preston Foster), is his bitter rival.

As mankind follows the trail of prospective wealth, both Ford and Kelley wind up in Colorado in the midst of a silver boon. For the time being, Cynthy is out of the picture. Far from fighting, they share a room, right neighborly.

The final act doesn’t feel much like a western at all. It’s shed all the traditions long ago. Again, it is a character piece. It could be any genre. This one just happens to be set around saloons and hotels, mining towns, and grubstakes.

But there are two men and one woman, and she can only end up with one of them. Perhaps she only actually really loves one of them. Frank James comes back into the story — you might remember him too — but he’s only another mechanism, like Wanted Dead or Alive posters or climactic showdowns between good and evil. Here they always carry the persistent inevitably we attribute to noir. There can only be one conclusion…

To the very last iota, it feels like textbook Fuller as he announces himself on the cinema landscape. On top of writing and directing the picture, he purportedly shot it over 10 days on rented sets from Republic Pictures. What’s most extraordinary is how the movie hardly seems to suffer from these constraints. If anything, it set a template for how Fuller would maintain a degree of creative autonomy while still managing to create a wide array of compelling projects in years to come.

Although his visual style would continue to grow and sharpen, there’s a killer instinct proving a lightning rod for stories. As a journalist and a journeyman, there’s this sense Fuller had the “don’t get it right, get it written” mentality. However, this very rarely seems to harm his output, which somehow always manages to find a worthwhile point of view to grab hold of.

I Shot Jesse James is little different. Its inadequacies often wind up making it all the more intriguing. You’ve never seen Jesse James spun in this manner, and way back in 1949 Fuller had a kind of prescience in suggesting where the West would go after the 1950s.

3.5/5 Stars

One-Eyed Jacks (1961): Good and Evil is in the Cards

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One-Eyed Jacks acts as a bit of an anomaly. It was originally meant to be helmed by Stanley Kubrick. Instead, Marlon Brando himself oversaw direction — his one and only time in the director’s chair. The results are as vibrant and totally Brando as they are messy, devolving into something more than indicative of its creative nucleus.

To its credit, the movie, set in the 1880s, earns its world more than Viva Zapata because there is an understanding of cultural differences inherent in the landscape. It does not try to insensitively blur ethnic lines with whites playing Mexicans.

Even Brando’s sense of Zapata, although plaintive, potentially falls prey to this blind spot. But One-Eyed Jacks is as much about the meldings of the cultures as anything. Yes, there are still obvious hierarchies and spheres of existence.  Chinese, for instance (represented by Philip Ahn), are tertiary characters, and the Latino cast is certainly secondary to the Caucasian leads, but this is indicative of the structures in place. There is some attempt at character definition that goes beyond menial stereotypes.

The scenes that strike me, in particular, are between Katy Jurado and Pina Pillicener. Instead of copping out, making these two women converse in English for the benefit of an English-speaking audience, there’s enough confidence in the emotion engendered (even if your Spanish is not up to par to catch every word). It feels wholly honest compared to typical Hollywood convention.

But, in order to explain this world, we must start 5 years earlier with a couple of outlaws. Before the days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad (Karl Malden) are a pair of womanizing bandits robbing banks all over Mexico, living a merry life of crime constantly on the run from the authorities.

It does eventually catch up to them as they are left stranded out in the desert with Federales hot on their heels. The fateful choice to send Dad off to find horses while Rio stays behind winds up altering their steps for good. Rio gets captured and shackled up in a local prison with his compadre Chico (Larry Duran). Dad rides off to start a fresh life for himself without any kind of penance being paid. Their divergent roads spell out what the future must hold.

Even when it lumbers along or willfully bides its time — for instance, watching a couple thugs waiting it out on a porch by the sea — the color scheme as captured by Charles Lang is gorgeous. It’s one of the film’s persistent attributes though it has a handful of others.

My mind drift’s to a shot far later in the story when Brando rides his horse past a gnarled tree right out of Sleepy Hollow. Unbeknownst to him, one of his faithful companions lies shot to death only meters away, and he is riding toward doom — for crimes, crimes he didn’t even commit.

Brando often surrounds himself with interesting folks. Some are tried and true — allies he’s been able to rely on for a long time — like Karl Malden (reunited again after A Streetcar Name Desire and On the Waterfront). And yet even the likes of Katy Jurado and a promising international newcomer like Pina Pellicer bring their own sense of sober candor to the picture. She’s a striking contrast to her leading man even if they share a core sadness.

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The Ben Johnsons and Sam Gilmans round out the assemblage of talent with the gruff essence of imposing masculinity. Slim Pickens, on the side of law and order, is his own version, equally snide and opportunistic — creating the kind of evocative characterizations that westerns thrive on.

It’s this kind of duality — represented foremost by Brando and Malden, then accentuated through their posses — causing one to mull over the meaning of One-Eyed Jacks. The phraseology is not something that gets used too often today. But its origins are from the profile image on a playing card. In this context, it comes to symbolize people who show off their “good side” while conveniently hiding all their faults through duplicity.

Rio is a pathological liar even in the context of people he likes. He knows no other way to go about it, holding onto his anger and letting it direct him toward revenge. But in one sense, he’s straightforward because he’s always taut with tension and the kind of angst Brando built a dynasty out of. There’s always sensitivity on the other side.

Dad is a jovial character. He’s made a life for himself and he has “reformed,” now on the side of the law. But the stroke of fortune that allowed him to get away from the federales 5 years ago and make a new life for himself, has never really left him. He’s a wheedling even deceptive fellow with a merciless, self-serving edge. He’s a man to be feared because he has popular opinion and legitimacy on his side. It’s a far more terrifying prospect.

Here’s yet another western playing with the conventions of heroics and villainy with this newfound muddied and greying sense of morality as Peckinpah would continually work through in the ensuing years. Because the final act is about a man sentenced to be hanged and the root of justice behind it remains totally immaterial. Brando is cast as a local villain even as he remains part victim to the audience. Malden and his crew are symbols of justice — swift and sure — with at least a couple of caveats.

Up until the final shots, One-Eyed Jacks remains a fairly engaging morality play rooted in a host of fine performances and its provocative imagery. Given the circumstances — how an inexperienced Brando captured exorbitant amounts of footage and remained indecisive in his directorial decisions — it feels like a bit of a marvel we got something as passable as this. Its imperfections only make its virtues all the more fortuitous.

3.5/5 Stars

Go West (1925): Keaton & His Cow

320px-Keaton_Go_West_1925“Go West Young Man. Go West.” – Horace Greeley

I had to refresh my memory on Horace Greeley because he’s as much a mythic figure — supreme champion of manifest destiny — as he is a mere historical figure. During the mid-19th century, he was a sometime political statesman and most famous as the founder of The New York Tribune, a purveyor of public consciousness in its day.

Thus, it’s not too big of a hop, skip, and jump into Buster Keaton’s latest feature indebted to Greeley, if only for these very few words. Because the opening image gives a summation of our hero’s lot in life, tugging his heap of personal belongings into The General Store in order to hock them for all they’re worth.

A hunk of bread and a stick of salami are all he has to show for his possessions and armed with such measly goods, he hitches aboard a train to seek his fortune. The Big City isn’t much good to him, where he’s literally trampled by the sheer mass of humanity or almost being run over by automobiles.

So he pulls himself back into his train car with his meager morsel of bread, this time buried in barrels of potatoes all but taunting his cravings for further sustenance. But the cinema fates take control and send him flying down the hillside so he might come face-to-face with The West, no doubt fashioned more by nascent Hollywood than any orations of Horace Greeley.

The juxtaposition of the typically diminutive Keaton as a cowhand is a hilarious image in itself, both mentally and in the flesh. He takes the most hands-off approach to milking a cow, waiting for the gal to do her business only to sit idly by, perplexed by the lack of results.

I couldn’t help thinking of Keaton as the first city slicker, and yet what sets him apart is the fact he’s not quite adjusted in the city either. He’s just universally out of place because every place has new obstacles to handily trip him up. And he makes sure to play them up so we comprehend exactly how inadequate and outmatched he seems compared to his contemporaries.

The greatest piece of inspiration found within the usual western tropes is Buster’s dearest friend, “Brown Eyes,” the lady cow. In actuality, the actor trained with the bovine extensively to build an authentic rapport, and it’s true his love has easily attributed anthropomorphic qualities. After all, as human beings, we are able to do it with almost anything.

She waits outside for him like a trained puppy dog and even wanders into the bunkhouse to look around. The film might even be prefaced as a love story between a man and his cow. Still, it’s not merely a comic point of departure. Is it corny to admit Keaton does honestly and resolutely love that cow? I think not.

He’s dwarfed by everyone, be it man or beast, but he’s got his typical fortitude and surprisingly plucky ingenuity. The little pipsqueak with a pea shooter, perpetually tripping over his chaps, brings his unorthodox form to all facets of livestock and farming. Meanwhile Go West gladly takes on all manner of tropes. You have elements of The Virginian (originally a book from 1902 and a film in 1929), The Great Train Robbery, and undoubtedly a host of other passable references I’m unaware of.

Likewise, the trail of cattle following him into the town’s center predates the brides from Seven Chances. It turns out he’s more of a cow whisperer than a cow wrangler, and the little man takes it upon himself to herd the stock to get them to his boss’s appointment on the other side of town.

The crowning moment occurs when he dresses up in a devil’s suit, even forsaking his beloved pork pie hat, knowing the red will lead the cattle away from the terrified humanity toward their final destination. It’s his final act of sacrificial bravery for his best gal. Staying true to its own internal logic as opposed to genre convention, Buster winds up with his true love — two peas in a pod, driving off into the sunset, as it were.

It’s common to consider the big three of silent comedy in tandem because it provides some litmus for differentiating their individual personalities. Chaplin makes us sympathetic to his poverty, Lloyd to his nerdish looks, but Keaton just might be the most fundamental in many ways. He’s always the slightly-built, mess-up, and outsider. He gains our sympathy by always being physically (and visually) outmatched. To evoke a biblical allusion, he is carved out of the small-but-mighty David archetype.

I won’t say the film is totally without its visual innovations — as per usual — but it probably dips more into the pathos trough than we are accustomed to with “The Great Stone Face.” There’s no confusing Robert Bresson and Buster. Still, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Au Hasard Balthazar. For those who recollect, it’s about the life of a donkey in the French countryside, who almost becomes a Christ-like sacrificial lamb even as he strikes up a meaningful human friendship.

In fact, I’m inclined to think in this case that Buster Keaton never had a better costar. With Chaplin, it’s easy to recall the likes of Paulette Goddard, Edna Purviance, even Eric Campbell, but Keaton always strikes me as a solitary figure. Certainly, there are girls and female companionship (take Our Hospitality or Seven Chances, etc.), but he never feels tied to someone else. Even in these aforementioned offerings, the romance feels more like a function of the plot than actual bona fide romantic drama. Because that is his lot in life.

Thus, when he gets to ride off happily with someone who might intuitively understand him better than any human companion, it’s a surprisingly resonate happy ending, going beyond perceived comic value. Somehow, with Buster Keaton’s conception of comedic narrative space, it makes perfect sense that Greeley’s entreaty to “go west” would manifest itself in a romance with a cow, but in the most sincere manner. This is the key.

4/5 Stars