The Raid (1954): Starring Van Heflin

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On first glance, The Raid feels like a punchier, B-grade version of John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959). In time, it winds up being a fairly apt descriptor. The fact that the other Civil War piece is a lumbering giant gives The Raid an unpretentious edge. Because in the casting department it still has a fine ensemble to work with, despite its humble production values. When Lee Marvin is your fourth bill, the prospects for an absorbing experience are great.

Likewise, the story grabs hold of the real-life events, taking a few artistic liberties, but honing in on an interesting theme. It begins as a mere mission movie — a vehicle for revenge — only to evolve into something more nuanced and ultimately, heartbreaking. This time we see the action from the other side, beginning on September 26th, 1864. These are not rogue Union cavalry looking to wreak havoc but renegade Rebels preparing to break out of their prisoner-of-war camp.

In essence, we have Stalag 17 meeting not only The Horse Soldiers but some amalgamation of The Professionals and The Dirty Dozen, except, again, we are working within budget constraints.

Major Neal Benton (Van Heflin) is the calculating ringleader, who gets his men across the border to Canada in order to plot out the next plan of action. The Raid becomes a story of infiltration, watching and waiting for the best moment to strike. The man sent ahead to do the recon is of course Benton. He dons his best gentlemanly duds to make the necessary arrangement and takes on the name Neal Swayze as part of the masquerade.

News of General Sherman’s march to the sea stokes the flames kindling behind their ire. The purpose becomes twofold. They want to avenge their brothers-in-arms as much as they want to become a thorn in their enemy’s side. Their spot of choice is the Northern oasis of St. Albans. The undercover Rebel makes acquaintance with the local bank owner (Will Wright) and finds agreeable domicile in the home of a war widow.

Anne Bancroft’s role is not altogether demanding as she plays the docile love interest. Regardless, she does this well, even getting a few moments to assert herself. After all, she is the enemy with a human face and we care for her as much as we do for Heflin. This equal footing is key. It causes a schism because alliances have been split. We begin to understand the deep fissures running through the ravaged society.

Even with the mistrusting Captain Lionel Foster (Richard Boone), it’s less about him thinking the other man is traitor and more so, his belief Swayze is elbowing in on his territory. After all, he’s known Katie Bishop far longer. He’s protective of her.

So with time, these relationships grow and Swayze receives a generous amount of acceptance. Soon the Confederate forces slip into town incognito, ready to tear it apart and hit the Yankees where it’ll hurt — in their pocketbooks. An auction of scavenged Rebel goods boils the outsider’s blood. It instigates a contentious bidding war that he finally diffuses. It’s not yet the time for action.

Lee Marvin, forever the loose cannon, all but blows their cover, threatening to set off a disastrous chain reaction. After going on an alcoholic binge, he gets it together just in time to stumble into the local sanctuary of worship. Their hard-sought plans look perilously close to being spoiled. Swayze steps out of the house of God a local legend and feeling even more like a heel.

As such, The Raid is this strange jolting empathy machine. This crisis of conscience comes to bear because the enemy has surprised him and welcomed him into the fold as a fellow human being. Of course, he can barely look them in the eye much less take their generosity, knowing full-well what he has been commissioned to do — completely obliterate their homes.

After all, their soldiers did little better to his home in the South. If we were simply to go by the eye-for-an-eye mentality, and the fact this is wartime, he has more than a right. However, this does not make the endeavor any easier. On top of the logistical elements, Northern troops patrolling through, and the need for stealth and efficiency, all of a sudden he has to deal with complicated relationships.

In the form of the widow Anne Bancroft and her precocious son, the local banker Will Wright, and even the standoffish Richard Boone. He starts to soften to these folks. The most impressive evolution is with Captain Foster. He shows a vulnerability and an ultimately retained dignity as the plot progresses. He would be so easy to villainize because Boone, Marvin, and Claude Akins were so good at those parts. And yet they can all be in this picture and function differently. Boone actually comes out looking extraordinarily sympathetic.

The fact that these characters become more and more like human beings, makes his mission all the more perplexing. This very element gets at the core dissonance of the Civil War because we were literally turning brother-against-brother, sometimes across arbitrary lines of distinction.

What this film suggests is that we have more bringing us together than separating us. Still, we stand doggedly to our presuppositions. Certainly, we cannot downplay the crucial issue of slavery (though it doesn’t play into this tale at all), but I think there are already some intriguing implications.

The line between feelings and duty become perilous roads to traverse. Van Heflin, while never the classically handsome lead, had something far more compelling. There’s an inherent honesty within his stock. He can be genial, pragmatic, even harsh and unfeeling. Whatever he is you never feel like he’s being inauthentic as both hero and villain. This ability carries the picture’s emotional core opposite Bancroft and the stellar troop around them.

Events run their course and yet there is an unquestionable toll to them. A war picture often fails if we don’t feel abhorrence for the violence. But there also needs to be a human connection. The Raid somehow manages both with relative ease. Movies such as this never grow tiresome because they carry with them an invigorating life, in spite of the inherent restrictions hoisted upon them.

3.5/5 Stars

Man Without A Star (1955): Kirk Douglas Drifting

ManWithoutAStar1955Poster.jpgThere are few better ways to get yourself into the spirit of a western than the majestic gusto of Frankie Laine (self-parodied in hilarious fashion by Blazing Saddles). It’s the segue into a mythical world.

I assumed Kirk Douglas would be the fellow lacking a tin star. And yet the title is a bit more poetic, if not altogether helpful. He’s a staple of westerns just as the plot he finds himself ensconced in is an archetype. Dempsey Rae (Douglas) is the quintessential drifter, constantly on the move. He never had time enough to look up at the constellations and settle on his place among them.

Not surprisingly, all things in the film revolve around Douglas who brings his usual vigor to the role. A fun dose of jocularity tones down his usual intensity, finding time enough to even knock back a few tunes on the banjo. Because, if I’m completely honest, he’s not the first man you think of as a western star. Not the features or the physique.

Still, he’s able to inhabit the role such that he spills out into everything and holds down the film with his very presence. If not an immediately recognizable cowboy, he is a larger-than-life talent.  His part in the story begins in a cattle car where he winds up sharing his open-air compartment with a callow kid from Texas (William Campbell). They witness Jack Elam knife a man, turn him in to the authorities, and get out of further trouble as stowaways.

They stop at the nearest town just passing through with the two men joining forces and becoming instantly chummy. The older man mentoring the young buck — keeping him out of trouble, drubbing him up a job, and teaching him how to shoot. Fancy tricks don’t matter. You’ve got to be quick and sure on the handle. Furthermore, they keep each other constantly amused, a fine example being when the naive wrangler walks into the local saloon in the most hilarious new duds.

In fact, aside from the opening run-in with the authorities, this is a thoroughly amicable storyline, at least until barbed wire comes into the picture. One of the local ranching families aren’t bad folks by any means, but they certainly have a different way of thinking.

There’s a sense it all goes back to the mythos of the open range — nothing to stop you, nothing to drag you down — so you remain free. This is the type of idealized rhetoric Dempsey speaks in. The wire gets in the way of this tradition, finding a hard-and-fast way to section off and also commodify the land.

Strap Davis (Jay C. Flippen) is the foreman, a decent man who brings the boys on as cowhands to work The Triangle, owned by some unnamed investor from back east. Among other luxuries, they look with awe at the new-fangled inventions like indoor plumbing with a toilet inside the house. They’re in for an even greater surprise when their new boss turns out to be a woman named Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain).

Crain is domineering as the cattle magnate and incumbent owner of the Triangle. Without question, it’s one of her most authoritative and thus, one of her most intriguing roles. Behind Douglas, she is the most commanding force as she looks to surround herself with cunning enablers, aspiring to oversaturate the pastures with her stock and gobble up as much wealth as she possibly can.

It’s the age-old conundrum. Douglas is smitten with her assured beauty, even to the proposition of marriage, and yet he can’t carry himself to stay with her as she becomes more and more consumed with her ambitions. The cattle wars end up being fought more by outsiders than those at its center.

Richard Boone and a new crowd are called in to give the cattle matron a more persuasive bargaining power. They rough up Rae something awful, leaving him hog-tied like a pig after one sound beating. Meanwhile, the formerly inseparable Texans are now on opposite sides of a feud. All of a sudden, Jeff’s not the callow laughing stock with a dumb grin on his face. He knows how to kill, losing a level of innocence. It becomes friend against friend.

Claire Trevor is a favorite, and she could play the hooker with a heart of gold part with her eyes closed.  Apart from being the obvious counterpoint to Crain, she is the friend and the romantic interest Rae can fall back on. She will always always have him unconditionally. She actually makes the dead-end role into something, but it’s a shame she’s not given something with more heft or narrative significance.

We have this continued swinging of allegiances. So it’s not a new storyline with its cattle and factions — disagreement over land, and guns looking to muscle their way in by railroading the competition. All of these elements are easily derivative from previous oaters.

But the cast is a joy to watch in action for what they are able to bring to the scenario. It makes for an engaging interplay as characters are turned against each other and stretched to their limits, just enough to make it compelling without breaking with convention too radically.

Expect there to be the preemptive happy ending where reconciliation is discovered and good gives evil a sound drubbing. There’s nothing wrong with that because it’s the drifter’s journey to get there holding our primary interest.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Kirk Douglas on February 5, 2020. 

Big Jake (1971)

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The film has an opening gambit that nearly feels unbecoming of a John Wayne picture and yet there’s something simultaneously quite riveting about it. You can’t quite take your eyes off of it, waiting to see what will come to pass.

Our narrator sets the scene in 1909 where, while the East is rising in a constant deluge of modernization, the West is still as ornery as ever. What follows is a full display of that reality as a band of thugs led by John Fain (Richard Boone) rides into a sprawling ranch with one thing on their minds.

There’s a sense that this late-period work from veteran director George Sherman, his last film, in fact, is well aware of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969) generation and it readily ups the violent content. Although it is a modern western in this sense, there are still blatant signs of not only antiquity but the deep-rooted hierarchy of the West along ethnic lines.

With his good buddy from the early days behind the camera, John Wayne has another personal vehicle on his hands. There’s no doubting the centrality of his presence on the plot even if his entrance is delayed. The stock company is rich and deep as per usual but there is a myriad of young guns too and Duke had a habit of making his work a family affair.

Bobby Vinton gets a near token cameo while little Ethan Wayne becomes crucial to keeping the plot chugging forward as the thugs run off with the boy expecting a ransom in return for his life. Duke’s other two grown sons are played by Patrick Wayne and Bob Mitchum’s boy Christopher. Though not quite family, Maureen O’Hara makes a lovely appearance as the strong-willed ranch matriarch who has long been estranged from her husband Jake McCandles. The scenes with her longtime costar end in a blink of an eye but with such a meaningful cinematic history together they leave the necessary impression.

Like most of these later works, similar to a McClintock! (1963), Big Jake is unequivocally a must-see for the John Wayne faithful — people who could watch him in just about anything will find time to be heartily entertained.

It’s somewhat of a menacing western drama but there’s still ample room for a cheeky and rip-roaring good time. Big Jake, though more violent than some of Duke’s predecessors nevertheless has his mark of approval all over it. There are falls in the mud. He gets plenty of time to smack his sons around and also receives his share of wallops as retribution. Pulling buckshot out of backsides and dousing them with whiskey is all in a day’s work. And Duke is as vociferous as ever.

That’s what will get people to stay. Because it’s one thing about John Wayne that is rather refreshing. Like him or not, you know full-well where he stands and how he’s going to play it. Larger-than-life and tough-as-nails but with unquestioned integrity. I’m drawn to that like many others because I come from a wishy-washy generation. But far more than that, even if I don’t necessarily agree with everything he does, the Duke never seems to do something purely out of spite. Instead, he has some deep-seated convictions.

He plays Big Jake McCandles with his typical presence that knows few equals in terms of longevity or sheer durability. Wayne certainly understands how to command a room and while everyone else tries to upstage him no one has the gumption. Richard Boone is probably the only old-timer who has the wiles and the pedigree to try to steal his spotlight and he’s, of course, the ringleader of our villains.

Despite being a man who left his family long ago, McCandles returns on a moment’s notice to rescue his kidnapped grandson. He’s a no-good old coot but there is that aforementioned sense of moral integrity. He’s has a funny way of showing it but he cares about family.

The truth is, he sees out his objective with his typical dogged resilience laced with worldly wisdom and tenacity. The conflict spawns from one son who is rightfully bitter and another son who seems like he’s traded out the past for new-fangled gadgetry. In the end, it seems the tried-and-true methods prove most effective. Wayne is joined in the task at hand by his feisty canine named “Dog” and a veteran Apache tracker named Sam.

Elmer Bernstein’s scoring automatically evokes layers upon layers of added richness from any western scenery and he’s somehow able to perfect everything that is resplendent and majestic about this way of life. There’s a deep abiding understanding of what The West meant and what men stood for.

Their final destination comes in a bustling boom town with thugs milling about and everyone looking to get a hand in on the cash payload that the McCandles have hauled around in order to save their young kin.

We know it’s only a matter of time before things come to a head. Of course, Duke gives it a bit of a kick in the rear by instigating barroom brawls to rile up the masses as a quality distraction. The resulting payoffs are as expected and gut-bustingly uproarious. And of course, John Wayne gets the last laugh of all from inside the shower stall of a barbershop followed by a final showdown where every member of the McCandle clan gets their own chance at redemption.

There’s nothing cutting edge here but this is a story of the dwindling West and so when that’s what your story is about, I think it can be said that Big Jake succeeds in these modest regards. After all, it’s a self-selecting film because anyone who wants to see it will be satiated and anyone else probably won’t search it out anyway. John Wayne has that influence on people even today.

3.5/5 Stars

Hombre (1967)

hombre1“You don’t get tired, you don’t get hungry, you don’t get thirsty. Are you real?” – Jessie

“More or less” – John Russell 

How to function within Western culture. That’s what John Russell must figure out as a man who was raised by Apache and then is forced to enter the “white man’s world” to collect his deceased father’s possessions (a watch and a boarding house). He starts out complete with long locks and a bandanna but soon switches over to more traditional western wear in a way blending into society — while simultaneously beginning to look more like the Paul Newman we know.

But he’s far from the affable ne’er do well. In fact, he hardly even utters a word. He’s not agreeable and about as terse as they come. He’s not looking for any favors and he’s not looking to hand out any charity. He’s also not going to take the white man’s flack. But his decision to sell his boarding house for horses is not too popular with the home’s residents, including the fiery Jessie (Diane Cilento).

hombre2Ultimately, Russell boards the local stage with a few other individuals. The destination doesn’t seem to matter much, but the people do. Leading the coach is affable Mexican Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) and along with the two aforementioned, the other two misplaced tenants, young Billy Joe and his wife join the contingent. The coach is rounded out by Indian Agent Alexander Favor (Frederic March), his well to do wife, and finally, the vulgar tough-guy Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone).

When Dr. Favor learns of Russell’s background he requests that the Indian sit up top and such a reaction embitters Russell. But there’s not much time to worry about the prejudice because Cicero’s cronies hold up the stage in an effort to swipe some ill-gotten gain from the esteemed doctor. The survivors are left to die and Russell heads off on his own with a few stragglers trying to catch up with him. He has no sympathy to offer, but they follow him because he is the most knowledgeable among them.

Of course, the film must reach a crescendo and it occurs with Russell dealing with Dr. Favor and then Boone. Both men are crooked in their own ways. Grimes is sadistic in nature, but Favor is also a despicable and sorry excuse for a human being. And yet Russell himself has his own streak of heartlessness. What it means is that each man must face justice and in some way, shape, or form pay for their deeds. Just as the men come in different incarnations, they are complemented by varying degrees of women from all across the gamut.

Director Martin Ritt’s Hombre really feels like a riff off of Stagecoach and feels somewhat reminiscent of Boetticher’s western The Tall T (also featuring a no good Richard Boone). But it’s no doubt a western for the 1960s, coloring the West with more liberal and revisionist tones. However, the film deals not only with prejudice but morality. For although John Russell has a gripe with the world and its hypocrisy since his people are getting pushed out by men who call themselves “Christian,” he’s not without fault. Jessie so rightly points out, that if the whole world didn’t lift a finger then the whole world would go to hell in a hand-basket. And in many ways this world does.

3.5/5 Stars