Sierra (1950): A B-Movie in The Mountains

Burl Ives, knocking out the title ballad in his instantly recognizable tones, is the welcome mat laid out by the film. The setting is slightly novel. High in the hills and mountainous crags is the crib for our story. Sierra gives numerous hints at its modest budgeting. This is no grand, windswept epic and yet it does not need to be.

It opens with our leading loner Ring Hassard (Audie Murphy) who finds, of all things, a girl in the underbrush. Living an isolated existence as he does, the curt young man is slightly distrusting of human beings. It doesn’t help that they meet after she has scared away some wild horses he was stalking.

This is Sierra Vista. Hassard lives in the solitude with his father (Dean Jagger) raising their stock of horses and enjoying a simple life away from the prying eyes of the town miles below.

They have few acquaintances and fewer friends. One man who might fit the bill is the itinerant apothecary Lonesome (Ives), traveling lazily by mule, strumming away, with a tune for every occasion. I’m rather fond of Ives’ sleepy ditties, and the western was made for such asides, though there is quite the multitude. After Jeff Hassard is injured by a bucking steed, it’s the old-timer who patches him up. However, it’s only a maintenance job.

Ring continues with their work single-handedly, and in one representative encounter, he runs into a lowdown horse thief named Big Matt (Richard Rober), who unfortunately finds himself on the right side of the law. In another turning point, the irrepressible Ms. Riley Martin (Wanda Hendrix) gets ambushed by a rattlesnake and a fearless Ring shoots the poison out of her arm. It breaks with any form of reason I’ve ever heard of. Regardless, it sends the story hurtling toward a new conclusion.

He breaks his lifelong vow to never go into the town of Sierra Vista. Soon enough, people are lauding his quick thinking, and, of course, asking questions about where he materialized from.

When word gets out about him and his unfairly maligned father, a narrative has already been written about them.  The town knows only reputations. He is a menace to society, and they all but confirm his prevailing distrust in his fellow human beings. Foregoing all the normal systems of law and order — suspicious of all types of authority — he doesn’t do himself much good. Between her uncooperative client and a ridiculing public, Riley’s position as counselor to the accused is not one to be coveted.

Soon thereafter, the sheriff takes calls for a posse of men to comb the adjoining hills. Meanwhile, one of the town’s shifty characters, with a claim to our eligible heroine, looks to commit to a stealthy operation of his own with Big Matt — parallel to the law’s endeavors — and far more dubious.

Ring finds himself having no other choice but to play fugitive and outlaw — the card that has been dealt him — joining with a clan of curmudgeon mountain men, who have been regarded with the same animosity. They form a ragtag band of renegades to do battle with seemingly unassailable odds weighing against them.

The ending is a bit lame and too clean, but it can hardly be expected for the movie to have gone toward bleaker terrain. A B-movie is meant to be cheap and agreeable to the audience. Anything potentially alienating would be a hard break with accepted convention. All flaws aside, it’s a decent vessel for Audie Murphy. Idle curiosity might well lead one to Sierra if nothing else.

Some fitting subtext of the movie was the real-life, brief yet tumultuous matrimonial bond between Audie Murphy and Wanda Hendrix. Their union would be horribly short. Though married during filming, they would already find themselves separated by the time of its release.

One can only hazard a guess the relationship was exasperated by Murphy’s undiagnosed PTSD from his war experiences. Honestly, he was only on the cusp of his fledgling career, not so far removed from his premier status as America’s ultimate war hero, and the demons that come with such a pedigree.

If the eyes are the so-called window to the soul, Audie Murphy’s is burning with a maelstrom of fierce emotion, oscillating from melancholy and glints of warmth to tormenting darkness. His eyes are his greatest attribute and would remain so for all of his movie career. Action pictures like war films and westerns suited these attributes. He could probably speak more with his eyes than with any line of dialogue.

3/5 Stars

No Name on The Bullet (1959): America’s Hero Becomes a Villain

Nonameonthebullet.jpg“We might be the only two honest men in town.” – Audie Murphy as John Gant

Audie Murphy had the added reputation of being a hero in real life, and so it hardly hurt him in his efforts to portray valorous protagonists on the big screen. However, despite being a fairly humble effort, No Name on The Bullet deserves some acknowledgment for giving Murphy the chance to be on the other side of the spectrum.

He’s introduced in the picture with foreboding music. It’s the only character cue we need to go with his dark clothes. He’s no good guy. Soon he’s taken a room at the local hotel and his very presence has gotten the whole town buzzing apprehensively.

Initially, it feels like a somewhat corny setup hinging on melodrama. Although Murphy’s by no means over-the-hill, and though I’ve only seen him in a couple films, he was never really a compelling lead.

Early on, his youthfulness aided him as did the mystique of his extraordinary war record. If anything, he is a living testament to courage not being solely predicated on imposing physical prowess. Whereas the westerns of old certainly were, and he does not meet one’s typical impression of a gunslinger. His part as John Gant, though menacing and curt, hardly can be considered intriguing at first glance. He feels like a walking trope.

But as he settles in, everything gets more and more engrossing. In fact, the movie’s increasingly deceptive because his part gets better and better the more involved the townsfolk become.

The implications are that his very name strikes fear in every man because he is a notorious assassin who has killed upwards of 20 or 30 men in the past. However, he’s never met a conviction of any kind because he always goads his targets into fighting back. The question remains: Who is he after? The subsequent punchline seems obvious. Someone is going to be dead by the time he leaves town.

The local Sheriff (Willis Bouchey) is a decent man who nevertheless feels helpless. If Gant doesn’t do anything, there’s no law against sticking around town. All he and his deputy can do is keep an eye on the fort.

It’s this unsettling, restless stalemate of the narrative conceit that proves to be the movie’s bedrock. There is also an innate reminder No Name on The Bullet functions very much as a morality play. In terms of story, Gant is the stimulus in the town causing the dark predilections to come to the surface or, more comically, the scurrying rats who want to confess their shading dealings.

Because his mere presence sends shock waves through the community. The tension comes with not knowing who he is actually after. I even momentarily thought (like The Gunfighter) maybe he’s simply looking for a respite. Not so…

Despite the antagonism, Gant does find one benevolent soul (Charles Drake) who doesn’t hold his reputation or vocation against him, at least not initially. It’s easy since a certain amount of ignorance proves blissful.

Their mutual respect within the picture is informed by the real-life relationship between Murphy and Drake. Murphy considered the other man his best friend and used his pull to get Drake in many of his movies so they could work together. It’s not altogether magical, but there’s no denying it helps their rapport.

Luke Canfield (Drake) is son of the blacksmith while simultaneously filling in as the local doctor. He is pledged to be married to the perky daughter (Joan Evans) of one of his ailing patients. There is little doubt he has a stake in keeping the peace. Even as they come to understand each other, there’s a sense that he and Gant remain diametrically opposed. Still, the gunman suggests they aren’t actually all that different.

They commence a literal chess match that becomes a pretense for the town’s many issues. They trade personal philosophies, with everything that happens around them informing their views of humanity. In the wake of their meeting, the real games begin.

With the sheriff’s powers in question, the invalid judge proposes two alternatives: either vigilante justice — the western standard of mob rule — or let Gant kill his man. Then, everything would be settled.

Though hesitant, Canfield finally resolves to get at the head of the mob to try and ensure no further bloodshed will take place. As town physician, this is his main prerogative. As a trained killer with a job to do, Gant has other ideas, even if he’s not looking to take the other man down with him. They appear to be two immovable forces at a kind of impasse.

The final twist is a lovely bit of, shall we say, poetic justice. The story is served best by an open ending because this is not a distillation of reality; it is a western parable of good vs evil, human corruption, and ultimately, some form of instinctual integrity.

Thinking about it in retrospect, it really is a fine stroke of inspiration to turn America’s greatest WII hero into a villain. It sends a distinct message to your audience: We must look inside ourselves and consider our own character.

Do we stand up to scrutiny? Are the heroes we prop up all that different than our villains or do we often choose to see what we want to? For that matter, are we very far removed from those that we conveniently categorize as villains?

Now 14 years after the end of WWII, you might say America was in a place to start coming to terms with its specters. The 50s were still an age of innocence, but we were on the cusp of something far bleaker. No Name on The Bullet is a portent for a future generation of westerns. Those bearing the mark of a far muddier morality.

3.5/5 Stars

Red Badge of Courage (1951)

Red_Badge_of_Courage_1951.jpgStephen Crane’s seminal Civil War novel was made to be gripping film material and although my knowledge of the particulars is limited John Huston’s story while streamlined and truncated feels like a fairly faithful adaptation that even takes some effort to pull passages directly from the original text.

Even with the film getting butchered by the producers and chopped down to only 70 minutes from its original 2 hour running time, there’s still a gripping power to this war story. The narration feels a bit forced (despite being delivered by James Whitmore) but beyond that Huston’s film has an undeniable resonance for the atmosphere it develops and the very palpable inner turmoil of its central character as portrayed by famed real-life war hero Audie Murphy.

It suggests the other side of what it is to be a soldier. The fear, the reluctance that wears on the individual, and it begs the question, who are the real heroes if not men who did their duty despite the very fears that shackled them? Portrayed in this film are men and boys who were thrust into conflict and they were forced to respond accordingly. Not necessarily because they wanted to but out of very necessity.

In the end, the realization is that maybe fear is alright and acknowledging it is oftentimes the very sign of a brave individual. Someone who knows their limitations and still manages to push beyond them to do extraordinary things. Because as FDR so famously noted, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It can be debilitating, stifling our resolve to take action. Thus, it’s our response that’s paramount.

Barely 20 during the war Murphy isn’t all that much older here and it feels remarkably fitting for him to play the naive Youth getting his first welcoming to war faced with this very conundrum. He wants the glory of war. He wants that red badge of courage. But he’s too afraid to take it. The utter irony is how battle-tested Murphy was by that point in time–but of course, he became a hero at a very young age and that doesn’t necessarily mean it came easily or without a cost.

Huston also examines the disillusionment in the utter absurdity and idiocy of war sometimes. Though it had already been 6 years since the end of WW II with men such as Audie Murphy and Bill Maudlin involved it’s easy to get the sense that this was a rumination on that particular war’s effect. Huston as well had been involved in documenting the life of soldiers and Maudlin made a name for himself as one of the great wartime cartoonists originating the iconic duo of Willie and Joe. Murphy’s accolades spoke for themselves as one of the most highly decorated soldiers of his day but he also undoubtedly suffered from the trauma of PTSD.

The dialogue is ripe with colloquialisms and the images seem generally authentic with photorealistic visuals to match a fairly dismal outlook. It does not shy away from the reality. Figures constantly moving through the frame mechanistically. Claustrophic closeups, tights angels, billows of smoke and relentless gunfire make the battle sequences truly immersive. And the soldiers are played by actors of all shapes and sizes including Murphy, Mauldin, Royal Dano, John Dierkes, Arthur Hunnicut, and even Andy Devine.

If it had not been for the studio’s meddling we might be calling Red Badge of Courage one of the great American war movies. As it stands today, cut down from its original running time and slightly removed from John Huston’s original ambitions, it’s still a highly moving picture. Because moments of greatness shine through no matter the muddling factors. So despite its minor status and a runtime that suggests lesser fare, Red Badge of Courage is really Class A material through and through. Huston did not call it one of his best movies for nothing.

3.5/5 Stars

Have a wonderful Memorial Day and here’s to all the humble heroes in our armed forces.