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

The Naked Kiss (1964)

thenakedkiss1If you’re not at least mildly prepared for it, The Naked Kiss comes at you like a ton of bricks. A woman comes at the camera menacingly beating up a man, for a reason we don’t know. Then her hair comes flying off and there she is still swinging at him completely bald. It’s frightening, frenetic, and completely engrossing. From thence on, Sam Fuller has us in the grips of his story, even if we don’t quite know what it’s about yet. His hook has grabbed us.

It turns out the women we were so brutally introduced to is named Kelly (Constance Towers). A couple years down the road she looks strikingly different, with no sign of turmoil. Instead, she’s a sleek beauty working the streets of Grantville.

thenakedkiss2Of course, her first customer happens to be a police chief named Griff (Anthony  Eisley), who advises her to skedaddle out of town as quick as possible. He gives her the details on a cozy joint across the border known for their Bonbon girls. He thinks he’s got her pegged, but Kelly goes and does something even he wouldn’t expect.

She acquires a job at an orthopedic hospital for disabled children and quickly becomes a favorite in the ward. All the kids love her dearly, and she cares for them faithfully. But Griff still thinks she’s working an angle. His mind is closed off, looking for every opportunity to dredge up Kelly’s guilt. He wants to confirm everything he already knows about her, even if it’s not true.

Kelly’s stellar performance catches the eye of town millionaire J.L. Grant, who also happens to be a good friend of Griff’s. She and Grant hit it off on topics such as Lord Byron and Beethoven. Their time together turns into romantic dreamscapes of Venetian waterways.

At the same time, Kelly is extremely sympathetic to her fellow workers supplying money for a woman so she can keep her baby instead of getting an abortion. To naive young Buff, she warns of selling herself out and becoming a Bonbon (“You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife. Why, your world with Candy will become so warped that you’ll hate all men. And you’ll hate yourself! Because you’ll become a social problem, a medical problem, a MENTAL problem!… And a despicable failure as a woman”). It’s in these candid moments where Kelly reveals her scruples, although she’s not above vigilante justice, whether it involves her old pimp or the morally questionable proprietress Candy.

There are strangely peaceful lulls that only make the climactic moments in the film all the more dramatic. Fuller utilizes the children’s song from the hospital wonderfully with the hollow images he juxtaposes on screen. The song reverberates several times as a haunting marker of what Kelly has seen between a little girl and her soon-to-be husband. But that’s over with now. Kelly has deeper troubles to worry about afterward.

The Naked Kiss is a pulpy delight as only Fuller can deliver with twisted natures and deep-seated brokenness. He makes glorified trash which is often times far more engaging than the most polished blockbuster Hollywood can churn out. The seedy exterior almost always gives way to great depth. Even when you step back for a moment, it becomes obvious how implausible this story is. How does Griff not know about his best friend? Yet Fuller plays the drama so well we are completely engrossed.

thenakedkiss3The social commentary is there. The characters are interesting. Meanwhile, Fuller slices and dices through taboo subjects that would have horrified censors and yet he brings them to the forefront in such a way that hardly glorifies them, but actually gets them out in the open. Every detail isn’t written out, but Fuller throws us into the narrative and allows us to track with him. He puts a little faith in his audience.

Constance Towers’ performance looms large in this film and she reminds me a great deal of Gena Rowlands. Her turn as Kelly is multifaceted and dynamic. Her look of genial charm just as easily turns into an icy gaze of contempt. Furthermore, she, much like Fuller, is willing to go to the streets and acknowledge all the dirt and grime there. She wants to clean it up, and she truly is the hooker with the heart of gold. Only such an easy categorization should not take away from Towers’ role at all. There’s more to her than a look, or a wig, or a body.  To paraphrase Grant, she’s the most interesting contradiction I’ve met in some time.

4/5 Stars

Shock Corridor (1963)

shockcorridor1“This long corridor is the magic highway to the Pulitzer Prize” – Johnny Barrett

Being a jack of all trades, producer, director, screenwriter extraordinaire Sam Fuller also had a stint as a journalist. Therein lies his obvious stake in Shock Corridor, a film that looks frightening on paper, and is even more eye-opening in execution. True, this is not an altogether realistic film, but that’s what makes it such a stirring portrayal. It dives into the darkened recesses of a sanitarium showing us things we don’t want to believe. They probably weren’t all true, but there’s still that shred of doubt. We’ve seen enough One Flew of the Cuckoo’s Nest and read enough horror stories to know better. Fuller plays off that fear which intrigues us as much as it alarms.

Investigative journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) can see it now. If he infiltrates a mental institution he can dig up the truth on a murder case that occurred behind closed doors and was quickly hushed up. Such a piece of detective work could earn him the Pulitzer Prize easily, and the tantalizing prospect is too good to resist. His girlfriend played by Constance Towers pleads with him to back out, because she wants no part of the plan.

But he teams up with his editor Swannee and Psychiatrist Dr. Fong to cook up a backstory the people in charge will buy. Barrett gets coached in how to act and respond to every question. It’s a potential long shot, but just like that, they buy his sordid story of obsession with his sister thanks to a performance by Cathy. He’s in.

shockcorridor3Behind the pearly gates, there are brawls galore and noisy neighbors riddled with all sorts of neurosis, quirks, and ticks. There are the good cop and bad cop who help care for the patients and keep them at bay. Johnny even begins to have hallucinations of his girlfriend drifting through his dreams. He gets introduced to hydrotherapy, dance therapy, and even faces a traumatizing experience at the hands of women in the female ward.

All the while, he is sniffing around for any information on the man named Sloan who was killed with a knife by a man in white pants. He makes his rounds questioning three different witnesses and amid their idiosyncrasies, they give him bits and pieces of fact. However, their own mental capabilities are clouded by traumatic war experiences, racist ramblings, and fear of impending nuclear war.

shockcorridor2The boisterous, tumultuous chaos of the ward does almost become maddening, even to the viewer. Johnny has a few angry outbursts of his own as the strain of the facility gets to him more and more every day. Electric shock therapy among the other treatments leaves him mixed-up, confused, and overtly paranoid. He’s hardly the man we met in that office so many days ago and even if he got the scoop he was looking for, at what cost? Shock Corridor has a thunderously disconcerting ending worthy of a Fuller production.

From casting Philip Ahn as a knowledgeable psychiatrist to the absurdity of an African-American obsessed with the KKK and Pro-White sentiment, Fuller once again does a lot on the racial front. He manages to represents Asians in a positive light and the character of Wilkes points to the still inherently twisted nature of southern white supremacists, even after the advent of such legislation as Brown v. Board.  Thus, once more he gives us a sensationalized story with a surprising amount of depth to it. No doubt he had a soft spot for journalism since that’s what he made his living off of at one time. But Shock Corridor implies that there is such a thing as crossing the line. It’s the utter extreme, but it’s cautionary nonetheless.

3.5/5 Stars