Jimmy Stewart: The Westerns
Today is the birthday of the most famous of all 20th century Stewarts, James “Jimmy” Maitland Stewart (1908-1997). Stewart was a member of an elite club, what might be called “Movie Stars’ Movie Stars”. He conquered almost every genre (except horror and musicals, although Vertigo comes close to the former, and he did actually sing in some early movies…but let’s just reiterate that he did not “conquer” in that area).
Westerns formed a strong substratum amongst his body of work, although I would imagine most people think of him primarily in comedies. Because of an odd quirk in timing, though, I grew up thinking of him primarily in westerns. They were a staple of his late career, and many of them were shown on television when I was a kid: I remember seeing Shenandoah (1965), Fire Creek (1968), The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), and The Shootist (1976), and then later many others, below. We also shared the family name, of course, and this served to induce greater interest than I might have otherwise had. And when I was a very small kid, I’m sure I mixed him up a bit with Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone in Disney Productions, which we watched with avidity because of our pioneer background. (They look kind of similar, right? Well, they do if you’re four years old).
For someone so closely associated with rusticity, it’s funny that it took him so long to become a star in westerns. Fellow Frank Capra lead Gary Cooper had been in westerns since the silent days; other guys who started in films around the same time as Stewart, such as John Wayne and Randolph Scott and even Henry Fonda starred in westerns from the beginning of their careers. But Stewart perhaps wasn’t the “type”, at least in an obvious way. Tall and thin and gangly and bashful and awkward, he came across as gentle in his younger years. In his one early western, Destry Rides Again (1939) he’s a comical anti-hero, a man of peace until circumstances demand otherwise. John Ford clearly couldn’t get that image out of his head when he finally cast him as the bookish lawyer in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), despite the fact that at that point Stewart had already proven himself as a more conventional western hero numerous times over the past decade.
The reinvention happened primarily in collaboration with director Anthony Mann, for whom Stewart starred in five westerns. By the time of the first of these Winchester ’73 (1950) he had attained some maturity and gravitas. More than this — he had been in combat as an army air force pilot, had dropped bombs on people, had been shot at, had made life and death decisions, had led men through harrowing situations. After the war, Stewart had some new colors in his palette as an actor. He could play a mean, crazy son-of-a-bitch now when called upon. This was new and unexpected, and was a startling thing to unleash on audiences who expected “Aw Shucks Stewart”. Color film was a big help in this transition. When I think of Stewart in a western, I think of those expressive, pale blue eyes, staring out of a dusty, dirty, sunburnt face. His eyes could be downright hard on occasion now — I’m not sure if I’ve come across that look in his pre-war pictures. As for his body type? In point of fact that lean, lanky look wears just fine on a cowpoke — actually it made him look more authentic than many a western star. Stewart was a REALISTIC cowboy, maybe the most realistic Hollywood cowboy since William S. Hart.
Anyway — here we go: Stewart’s westerns (the ones I’ve seen anyway). Warning! I always include spoilers!
Destry Rides Again (1939)
One of the most magical of all Hollywood films. Seems very much informed by screwball comedy, feels very Capraesque (it was directed by George Marshall). A comedy western with a serious plot (which it takes seriously) in an age when westerns weren’t very serious! Screwball/Capra feeling reinforced by the cast: Stewart and a bunch of familiar comical character actors (I’m looking at you, Mischa Auer!)
The fictional town of Bottleneck is ridiculously wild at the outset. Complete chaos: Sodom and Gomorrah. Marlene Dietrich is “Frenchy” the dance hall girl. She sings songs with witty lyrics by Frank Loesser: “Little Joe”, “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” and others. In the opening scene, there’s a poker game. A farmer bets his whole farm and then frenchy abets a cheat, spilling coffee in his lap so they can switch cards on him. The guy tells the sheriff. The sheriff confronts the guys and gets killed. The mayor, a tobacco chewing crook, is in the pocket of the gang. He appoints the town drunk (a former deputy) as sheriff as a patsy (Charles Winninger). He decides to fool them by doing a good job, so he sends for the son of his old sheriff, a man who has the reputation of cleaning up Tombstone: Destry (Stewart).
When Destry arrives he makes a terrible impression: holding a canary cage and a parasol for a lady, telling folksy stories. One of the most awesome scenes ever: when he disarms the gang leader (Brian Donlevy) coolly by telling him he doesn’t carry guns. confuses him, even scares him for a minute, seems like a standoff. Their laughter is nervous at first, but Destry becomes a laughing stock nonetheless. At first he seems a sort of Holy Fool, like Dostoievski’s The Idiot. Destry is Christ-like, peaceful, pacifistic, gentle, and unafraid to seem ridiculous, because he is so secure in the knowledge that his way is right.
Winchester 73 (1950)
Thefirst of the Anthony Mann Stewart westerns, a classic story of the gun that keeps passing hands, the Six Degrees of Separation of westerns. The talsman at its center is a special one of a kind — perfect– rifle. Every man who sees it seems transfixed. It seems to have a power over them. They HAVE to have it. Those who get it by foul means tend to die. It’s almost religious, like the Grail or like the Ting in Tolkien. A very powerful concept, rooted in our most ancient superstitious instincts. Great storytelling.
The one man who won’t be killed is the man to whom it belongs: Stewart, who won the gun in a shooting contest in Dodge City, July 4, 1876. (In the film’s only really cheesy sop to Hollywood preposterousness, the contest is refereed by Wyatt Earp. The saving grace though is that character is played by a young Will Geer). Stewart wins the gun shooting against a bad guy he seems to know, who later clubs him and steals the gun. Stewart goes off in pursuit. The bad guys, who’ve left their sidearms and ammo in Dodge City (where the law makes everyone check them in) now feel vulnerable and need to acquire arms. There is a gun dealer at the post but they don’t have enough money. He wants the Winchester. The bad guy won’t give it at first but eventually loses it in a card game. The trader goes to sell guns to Apaches (the chief of whom is played by a then-unknown Rock Hudson talking “How Ugh” language). The Apaches kill him and take the Winchester. Now a cowardly dude and an extremely foxy Shelley Winters are leaving town in a wagon and are attacked by Apaches. They join a small bunch of cavalry who are also trapped, including Jay C. Flippen as their sergeant and Tony Curtis as one of the men. They eventually fight off the Apaches and get them on the run by killing the chief, who drops the Winchester. The cowardly dude gets the rifle. He goes to meet up with a gang of bad guys, led by professional creep Dan Duryea. They are holed up in a house. Duryea wants the gun, the cowardly guy won’t give it up. Duryea torments him, then kills him, and takes the Winchester and Winters. They go to meet up with bad guys from the top of the story. The principal one turns out to be Stewart’s brother, who had killed their father. Stewart catches up to him and kills him in a shootout.
Mann’s an excellent director, not just pictorially but in how he directs actors. Stewart does best acting of his career in his movies. Winchester ’73 contains that great famous scene in the saloon, where he wants to to find his brother and holds another dude down on the bar, choking him, wild eyed, asking “Where is he?!”
Broken Arrow (1950)
A classic of its kind, based on real events, and told very economically and movingly. The title refers to a Native American symbol for peace. It’s Arizona in the 1870s. Stewart plays real life Tom Jeffords who has the audacious idea to go alone and speak to the Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise (Jeff Chandler) to stop the war that has been raging for ten years. To do so, he approaches a “half-breed” to get him to teach him the Apache language and customs. He goes alone and proposes to Cochise that he let the mail through (it hasn’t gone through in 7 weeks.). Arthur Hunnicut plays the guy in charge of the mails. As a second stage in the diplomacy, Jeffords brings in a General and they establish a 3 month trial peace treaty. Will Geer plays a white settler who heads up efforts to undermine the peace efforts. The core of the story is Jeffords’ love affair and marriage to a pretty Indian girl who is then killed by whites. Jeffords now finds himself eager for war and revenge. Ironically, it is Cochise who urges patience: a great and timely lesson. Jay Silverheels portrays the great leader Geronimo.
Bend of the River (1952)
Perhaps my favorite Anthony Mann western, more action and less melodrama. As always we have morally ambiguous heroes and villains with big smiles on their faces. Here Stewart is a former outlaw, a Missouri border raider of the Jesse James variety. Arthur Kennedy is another crook. They decide to be scouts for a wagon train headed for Oregon, led by Jay C. Flippen (with the obligatory beautiful daughter). On the way, there’s Indian trouble, the girl gets an arrow in the shoulder. When they reach Portland, the plan is to take a steamboat the rest of the way (the mountains are impassible). The girl will stay to recupe for a month. She and a big load of supplies will be shipped in a months time. Kennedy also stays. Two and a half months go by. Stewart and Flippen return to find a massive gold rush in progress. It seems like the girl has become seduced, she doesn’t want to go back and she’s now Kennedy’s girl. The supplies have gone up 50 times in price, so the supplier (who was all smiles when they last encountered him) is hanging on to the goods. Stewart and company take them anyway. (There is a big shoot out. Stewart, Kennedy and Rock Hudson as a young gambler, against the whole town). The heroes make their escape, along with some hired help they brought along. In order to evade the bad guys, who are sure to cut them off at at a certain point on the river, they debark early, with a plan to blaze a new road through a mountain pass. They defeat the bad guys in a shootout, but then there’s a worse setback. The hired men mutiny and take over the supply train, with a plan to sell to the mines. Kennedy takes the mutiny over. We now see his true colors, he’s a total mean villain. He takes the supplies (and, oddly, also Flippen and the girl) with him. Stewart vows vengeance. He picks several of the men off. Eventually he pins the group down with rifle fire. Kennedy rides to get the miners. The other hired men flee. Stewart takes the wagon train to the settlement. One last shootout as Kennedy arrives with the miners. Stewart and he fight it out hand to hand in the river. Kennedy doesn’t come up. For the first time, Flippen sees that Stewart has a rope burn on his neck, from a botched hanging. It turns out that a bad guy can become good after all.
The Naked Spur (1953)
Another Mann picture, the title of which makes no sense til the very end, when Stewart defeats Robert Ryan with an unexpected spur in the face. Ouch! Put some clothes on that spur!
The year is 1868, in what seems to be Colorado. The premise is that Jimmy Stewart is a bounty hunter, seeking Robert Ryan for a murder in Kansas. He’s lost the trail when he comes upon a prospector, who’s seen some clues (one Millard Mitchell, a sort of third rate Walter Brennan). The prospector leads Stewart to a huge rock face, where several obviously intentional landslides occur. The guy is up there. Shortly thereafter they meet up with Ralph Meeker as a dishonorably discharged cavalry officer. He helps Stewart take Ryan (who happens to have company with him, his girlfriend Janet Leigh) at the top of the cliff.
The middle part of the picture is hard to take, as Ryan rather transparently tries to turn the others against each other so he can escape. Rather talky. Could almost be a play. Seems to be a comment on capitalism. The three men are partners of convenience, each motivated only by the money, not by any friendship for each other, which means they can’t trust each other. Along the way, Stewart gets more and more vulnerable. He’s shot in the leg in a fight with Indians. Emotionally exposed as it becomes known by the other his motivation for money: he was swindled out of the ranch he loved by the woman he hoped to share it with in matrimony.
Like just about all of the Mann/Stewart heroes, this one is obsessed. He and Ryan are on opposite poles. Mann seems to like to twist all the conventions. Making Ryan at least seem like a likable nice guy (much like Arthur Kennedy in The Man from Laramie), while Stewart seems a mercenary and a hard-ass. Which makes it harder to suss for the three in the middle: his two partners (whom he doesn’t even want, but needs); and the girl who seems to be caught between both men (she thinks Ryan is innocent). Finally, Ryan tricks the prospector into freeing him so he can show him a gold stake he knows about. He brings the girl along. At the first opportunity, he gets the rifle from the prospector and kills him. The gunfire brings Meeker and Stewart. Shootout. Stewart sneaks up behind Ryan on the cliff face, jabs him with the spur, and Meeker shoots him. He falls down the cliff into the rapids. Meeker goes across rapids on rope to retrieve the body and drowns. Stewart gets the body and is ready to take it back for the reward. He also wants to marry the girl. In some of his best acting ever, he relinquishes the body and buries it to prove he’s not the kind of guy to do everything just for money.
The last act of this film is great and redeems the rest of the picture, which I find tedious and irritating, but that effect may be intentional, as it’s built into the situation. Claustrophobia. A small band of people in close quarters getting on each others nerves. And it does indeed get on your nerves!
The Man from Laramie (1955)
Stewart plays the title character in this Anthony Mann western, a former army captain who comes down to Coronado, New Mexico from Ft. Laramie seeking revenge on whoever’s been selling guns to Apaches — for one of those guns was used by the Apaches to kill his brother and some of his fellow soldiers in the area. These facts emerge piecemeal, creating a nice tension. Stewart comes under the pretense of delivering some supplies to a store. The woman who runs it (Cathy O’Donnell) becomes the love interest, and we learn that she is related to the big cheese in town (Donald Crisp). Stewart’s looking for freight to haul back with him. She suggests he take some salt from the salt flats. He does, to his regret. The psychotic son (Alex Nicol) of the man who owns the property comes up with a band of hands (including Arthur Kennedy, the ranch foreman) and decides to teach him a lesson. He lassos Stewart, drags him through his campfire, and torches all his wagons. Later in town Stewart catches the guy without his lackeys around and beats him up. The guy’s father, played by Donald Crisp, offers to pay Stewart.
There is a great classic triangle on the villain’s side, as well as complexity in the characters. The Crisp character was a tough son of a bitch in his day because he had to be. But he is mellowing with age and is also going blind. His son was pampered by the mother as a boy and is now going out of his way to prove that he is tough, but he only seems reckless and insane, not a man. His insecurity is fed by the fact that the foreman, Arthur Kennedy, is both a nice guy and tough, and seems a rival for his father’s affections.
Stewart starts working for a plucky rancher lady (Aline McMahon) who is a sort of rival (and, long ago jilted fiancé) of Donald Crisp played by Aline McMahon. The psycho son randomly starts shooting at Stewart out in the desert. Stewart has to shoot back, and gets the guy in the hand. This makes the guy go mental. He has his men grab Stewart and hold him and he shoots Stewart’s hand point blank. This is a famous scene, and possibly Stewart’s best technical acting ever.
The story gains in complexity. The psycho and the foreman are the gunrunners, it turns out. When the father notices a discrepancy in the books, and suspects something, the psycho loses his shit and tries to call the Apaches with smoke signals. The foreman is forced to shoot him. This is really well built, almost Shakespearean. The relatively good guy (Kennedy) is forced by his first, seemingly minor transgression (selling the guns) into a deeper and deeper vortex of evil he can’t control. First it looks like Stewart is the murderer of the son, so Crisp goes to kill him, but he can’t see. Then Crisp goes looking for the wagon with Kennedy, still not suspecting Kennedy. They struggle; Crisp falls off a cliff. But he survives. He tells Stewart what he knows when he wakes up. Kennedy goes and sends smoke signals to the Apaches. Stewart stops him, and makes him help him destroy the guns. Kennedy is killed by the Apaches. Crisp and McMahon will get married. Stewart rides off.
The Far Country (1955)
Another one directed by Anthony Mann; this film really shows his noir background. Cattle man Jimmy Stewart’s creed is “I look out for myself. It’s the only way”. In the end, he saves a town. The plot has him and Walter Brennan bringing cattle to Alaska on a boat from the lower 48. Stewart’s on the run; he killed two men for rustling. When he gets to Alaska his cattle are seized by a cheerfully crooked sheriff. The villain is congenial, one of many such Mann characters. Stewart is forced into helping the saloon lady and her crew bring a load of provisions into a camp farther inland. Because he is stubborn, Stewart goes and steals his cattle back, and brings those. The villains can’t pursue him past the Canadian border. They prospect alongside folks in the town. People seem to be starting to build a community. Then the villain and the gang show up and invalidate everyone’s claims. Brennan is killed In the end, Stewart—who’d planned to take his gold and leave—decides to leave. Despite the fact that he has been shot, he comes back into town and has the climactic shoot out and achieves redemption. With J.C. Flippen, Jack Elam and Harry Morgan.
Night Passage (1957)
This one is set in Colorado mining country. Stewart is a former railroad payroll guard. Now he earns money as an accordion player (!) and occasional trouble shooter. Audrey Murphy is his brother, the Utica kid, a train robber, who runs with a gang rub by one “Whitey” (Dan Duryea), a mean moron. They battle for the hearts and minds of a young boy (Brandon deWilde, the kid from Shane, here also named Joey), and a woman (Elaine Stewart). The gang has robbed so many railroad payrolls that the employees are about to quit en masse, forcing railroad owner Jay C. Flippen and his right hand Hugh Beaumont to have to hire Stewart again (they’d fired him before for letting his brother escape). Stewart carries a payroll on his person When the train is robbed, Stewart shifts the money into the kid’s shoebox. Robbers konk Stewart on the head. When they can’t find the payroll they take the kid, and take the railroad owner’s wife as a hostage. Stewart follows, pretends to join the gang. An inside man from the railroad blows the whistle. Shoot out. Stewart escapes with the woman. More shooting out. Murphy goes to help Stewart. They kill the rest of the gang but Murphy dies. Stewart gets the job, the girl and the kid. Well written, directed and acted (and shot against a gorgeous backdrop of fall mountain foliage). Even Murphy is better than he usually is, maybe because playing a villain calls for him to summon more complexity from that apple pie face. Feels a bit like an Anthony Mann picture. Why it is called Night Passage though is a mighty big mystery.
Two Rode Together (1961)
A Ford film, a sort of follow up to The Searchers. As in that film, it touches on Stockholm Syndrome, the insidious way captives come to love their captors, a phenomenon which especially affects children, whose personalities are still forming. (It is interesting to me that this was so much on Ford’s mind at the time. Why? Was he thinking about communist indoctrination?) Jimmy Stewart, playing against type, is a mercenary, corrupt marshal, and Richard Widmark is a by-the-book cavalry officer. (The roles would have been better switched. It also would have been better with Wayne instead of Widmark, who is a sort of 2nd tier Wayne. But by this time Wayne had branched off on his own, producing and directing his own vehicles. Increasingly Widmark would play the parts that might have gone to Wayne). The two men are sent out on a joint mission to retrieve a bunch of white captives from a wagon train who were taken by Quanah Parker and his Comanches. (More on Quanah Parker in a future post. I have recently learned I am distantly related to the Indian leader). Stewart’s character is a sort of lowlife. He will only perform the mission for money, and he dickers about the amount, at that.
When they arrive at the encampment most of the captives are either dead or have been sold off. Of the handful remaining, one wishes not to go back, another is a crazy hunchback. These are left behind. One teenage boy is now a vicious Indianized warrior who wants to kill white men. He is all they have to bring back. They also bring back a pretty Spanish captive, who is not of the bunch the have come for, but is included due to a misunderstanding. It’s a pathetic result.
The film has a sort of epic structure. The journey to retrieve the kids is really its own complete story. We now have a second phase: what happens with the captives when they arrive back at the post. The girl is shunned by all the white people (especially the women) at the fort. Stewart gives an excellent speech in her defense, redeeming much of his unsavory behavior to this point. The wild Indianized boy is rejected by everyone as being theirs, except one woman who is so crazy to get her son back that she thinks she is his and takes him in (her husband realizes he is not but takes him to make her happy). The woman cuts the ropes that bind her savage captive and he immediately knifes her to death. He is then hung by a mob. In the film’s best scene, as the young man is being dragged to the hanging tree, he recognizes a music box that belonged to him when he was a boy and has been kept by sister (Shirley Jones) who hasn’t recognized him. She realizes to her horror that it is he, but too late. This scene should be unbelievably powerful. Because we sense it’s potential to be so, it almost is. But the film, as constructed, doesn’t permit it.
The film is strangely disjointed — it’s surprising that Ford made it before Liberty Valance, because it shows signs of decline which Valance does not. It has many comic scenes (way too many in fact) and many harrowing scenes, but they don’t gel together. Ford indulges Stewart way too much, who seems to be improvising in his self-parodying way in several too-long scenes. This may be to make us like him despite his money-grubbing ways, but it doesn’t come together. Far more effective are his frankly brutal monologues to the settlers about the realities of what they will come upon when they find their relatives. From the outset, he advises them against even trying. The language of it is brutal even today and was thus cutting edge in the extreme in 1961, no doubt. But it is hard to reconcile with Stewart’s yut-yut shtick in earlier scenes.
One scene, where Stewart kills a brave who sneaks into his campsite to kill him, can only be called badly directed. Shot on an indoor sound stage which looks like it belongs in an Ed Wood movie, it is very ploddingly and clumsily edited, so that it looks like the Indian is just standing there waiting for Stewart to throw a knife into his chest. The film feels to me about where Hitchcock was in his Torn Curtain period. Mentally, a director at the height of his powers, but physically failing. So you get extremely excellent work alongside slipshod work borne of fatigue.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
One of Ford’s best films — a literal argument about justice: guns vs. laws. You might say it’s a little TOO literal, the characters overtly have the conversation many times. It might be more rewarding and more cinematic to just tell the story and have the audiences draw their own conclusions. But that’s a tricky business. I have found that you cannot underestimate the obtuseness of audiences. Sometimes the way of the sledgehammer is best.
The story is told in flashback. Jimmy Stewart, as an important senator (rehearsing the way he’ll actually talk in 15 years), and Vera Miles, his wife, return to the fictional town of Shinbone for a funeral. The editors of the local paper are perplexed that this important man has come back for a pauper’s funeral for a man they never heard of, so Stewart tells his story. The bulk of the film takes place in flashback.
A stagecoach robbery. Stewart, as Ransom Stoddard, a young lawyer is among the passengers. He defends a young lady and is brutally beaten for his pains. He vows to put the men who did it in jail. The crooks literally rip his lawbooks, in one of the film’s many symbolic gestures. John Wayne as Tom Donovan, a healthy, good-natured (and good hearted, but tough) rancher, finds Stewart and brings him to his sweetheart Hally’s (Miles) house. Hally and her Swedish parents nurse Stoddard back to health. Stoddard is appalled that everyone knows that the robber is Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and that this Valance character is allowed to roam about to commit his crimes with impunity. He vows to try him in a court of law. Wayne insists that guns are the only way to deal with Valance. Stewart vows not to carry a gun. [Sidenote: the actors are both about 50 here, playing men 20 or 30 years their junior. This makes it singularly strange that in only 7 years Wayne will play Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, as though he’d aged 6 times that span in the intervening time.]
The name “Liberty” seems symbolic. Invariably spoken of as a good thing in our culture, in its pure form it can also be a negative: anarchy, crime. And Valance (which you must admit is a weird name) sounds awfully like “violence”.
To earn his keep, Stewart helps in the restaurant. In the old west this is woman’s work. Liberty and his gang come in, and steal some other guy’s meal. Liberty is one of the best (i.e., worst) villains in movie history. A mean son of a bitch who never has a single redeeming moment. Every gesture is rude and violent, he literally smashes every object he touches. His gang is also the best (worst) gang ever, including Lee Van Cleef (later a major star in spaghetti westerns) and Strother Martin as a loathsome, sadistic, giggling weirdo. They call Stewart a “waitress”, then trip him for sport. Unfortunately, he was carrying John Wayne’s meal, which allows Wayne to defend Stewart without seeming to. There is a standoff between Donovan and Valance. Stewart yells at them both and picks up the steak. He is good and humiliated.
At the same time, Stewart becomes a prominent citizen in the town. He strikes up a friendship with the drunken newspaper editor (Edmond O’Brien) and hangs his shingle as a lawyer there, and also teaches school to both children and grownups, merging lessons in reading and writing with civics. He is an idealist and a born politician. Now it emerges things are getting worse. There is a looming political battle between big free range cattle ranchers who want to maintain territorial status (in this fictional, unspecified territory), and small farmers with fences who want statehood and law and order. The cattle ranchers hire Valance to terrorize the little guys. Nevertheless, the town elects Stewart and the editor to be their delegates. Valance vows to kill them both. It looks like Stewart will escape (Wayne encourages him to do so but he may have an ulterior motive beyond goodness. He’d like to get him away from Hally, his girl). The bad guys beat up the editor and destroy his office. This enrages Stewart, giving him courage to stay. He takes a gun and intends to shoot it out with Valance. Valance plays with him, shoots around him, shoots him in the arm. Just as he is about to kill him, Stewart shoots, apparently killing Valance.
On the reputation of this, combined, almost superficially, with his gifts for law and politics, Stewart is renowned throughout the territory and going to be made a congressman. (He runs against John Carradine as a hilarious windbag of the old school). Stewart is in a bind. He doesn’t want to glorify killing, or be highly regarded for being a killer (he wants the law to prevail). Furthermore, he is open to criticism, justifiable if true, for being a killer. He is about to bow out when Wayne puts him right. He himself had killed Valance from the shadows. Ironically, now Stewart feels it’s alright, and goes in and excepts the nomination. But most importantly (a point Ford doesn’t stress enough til later) he doesn’t announce he wasn’t the real killer. He lies. He uses the reputation to become an important man. Meanwhile, Wayne, heartbroken at his loss of Hally (which he perceives as she tenderly tends the wounded Stewart in the earlier scene) gets drunk and goes and burns down the house he was building for them to move into when they are married. There is great irony here. Somehow every good gesture Wayne does enriches Stewart and hurts himself. This is what makes it a great, rich story and not just an argument about justice. At any rate, in the end, Donovan (Wayne) dies unknown in the town he helped save, and Stoddard (Stewart) is one of the most important men in the country, and a bit of pettifogging fool, besides. His wife knows the truth and so does he. And the lie will go on: “When the legend becomes truth, print the legend”. Irony– “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance”.
How the West Was Won (1962)
This is a movie that I have great affection for, despite many failings. That it is patriotic in a way that has become quite dead, and involves so many collaborators in a project so devoted to American history is in its favor. It’s a story of an American family’s experiences in the west across three generations. Eugene O’Neill had played with this multi-generational technique, and it was later employed in everything from Roots to The Kentucky Cycle. Many segments are well acted and directed, and many are downright amazing (e.g., a buffalo stampede). But even at 3+ hours you can’t cover a century of history without feeling that the treatment is somewhat cursory. Any of its segments (or the bits merely mentioned) deserve an epic treatment in and of themselves. The whole thing feels cheapened when reduced to a chain of greatest hits. Also the story, in an effort to involve the family in as much history as possible becomes rather implausible.
The film has no less than three directors: (John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall). Spencer Tracy is the narrator. We first meet Jimmy Stewart as a trapper in buckskin as an example of the very first pioneers. Then we have families going west on the Erie Canal. We follow two of them: a Scotsman and his sons; and Karl Malden as a Mennonite or something with his wife Agnes Moorehead and daughters Carol Baker and Debbie Reynolds, and two sons (whom the story abandons completely). They take a canal boat west and then switch to rafts.
They meet Stewart, who is affable and passes some time with them, hooking up immediately with Carol Baker. Then he splits. There is an exciting digression as first Stewart, then the families have run ins with a family of river pirates (masquerading as dealers in provisions) led by Walter Brennan, and including Lee Van Cleef. Aided by Stewart, they shoot it out, dwindling numbers on both sides. Stewart leaves them again at this point. For my full description on this film go here.
Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
John Ford’s valedictory western statement. It feels very Kennedy Era. We have a liberal sympathy with the Indians, but the tone is still paternalistic. It’s about the moral obligation to care for Native Americans, which is laudable but they’re not yet written, depicted or acted as people. Though the all-star cast includes stars (Ricardo Montalban, Sal Mineo, Gilbert Roland) playing the Cheyennes, they’re still not humans, but stoic, “how, ugh” objects. Mineo doesn’t even have any lines, he’s just the “fiery one”.
Everyone must have intuited that this would be Ford’s last western: there are so many stars in it. By rights, John Wayne should be in such an important Ford film, but it’s all in the timing. By now Wayne was building his own empire and I’m sure he had other fish to fry. So Ford cast Richard Widmark, his Wayne stand-in. The always terrible Patrick Wayne is also in it, so Wayne’s DNA at least is in the picture.
The plot is based on a real life incident (one which gets a chapter in Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee). In 1878, the tiny remainder of a branch of the Cheyenne, whose native land was in the Yellowstone area of Wyoming, got sick of living in the barren reservation they’d been given in arid Indian Territory. After a year they decided to go home, and so they did. They were already down to 300 from over a thousand. The film is about the epic trek: men, women and children traveling 1500 miles on foot. But again, this film is not really their story. It’s really about the well-meaning officer (Widmark) who grapples with trying to bring them back humanely (fighting military, political and public pressure to wipe them out). Edward G. Robinson plays the equally humane Secretary of the Interior (which runs counter to Dee Brown’s account). Karl Malden is a German-American officer who is “just following orders” when he imprisons a bunch of them in the cold when they turn themselves in, and his troops shoot them all down as they try to escape. His accent is abysmal! Method, shmethod — your performance is useless, Malden!
In a somewhat irritating digression, meant, I suppose to be comic relief (and I hate Ford’s idea of comedy), Jimmy Stewart plays Wyatt Earp, Arthur Kennedy is Doc Holliday and John Carradine is their poker playing, cheating companion.
Not a western per se, but I feel compelled to put it here — it feels so close to being one. Stewart plays an extremely laissez-faire Virginia patriarch. A very rare character in the Civil War era south, I must say: he keeps himself and his large brood of sons out of the war, saying “It’s not my war and I take no note of it.” But the cannons booming down the street make that stance harder to justify all the time. The war becomes impossible to ignore however when Yankees capture his 15 year old son, who rather foolishly goes around sporting a Confederate soldier cap. Stewart takes his other sons and daughter on a quest to find the young son. They don’t find him but they do find their new in-law Doug McClure on the northward bound prisoner train. They free him and burn the train: “It’s not the kind of a train I favor,” says Stewart. One son gets killed along the way. Then the son they left back at the farm (Patrick Wayne) and his wife (Katherine Ross) are killed by scavengers. The family comes home, devastated now by the war. And then, as a sort of deus ex machina, the teenager comes home on crutches. I don’t know anything about the backstory of this film, but it seems to me that it starts out really terrific, but as we get into the actual plot, pieces are missing, almost as though it were severely cut, detrimentally so. The characters who die do not move us. They have not truly been established as characters, so it does not feel as though people have died. And the ending is so abrupt and silly. At any rate, anything that has so many horses and guns, Doug McClure and Patrick Wayne, and a rustic, grizzled Jimmy Stewart chomping on a dead cigar, feels awfully close to a western.
In early scenes I feel like there’s nothing about the film that couldn’t be included in a film made three decades earlier. For the most part that’s true, although Stewart does utter the word “tit”. He’s a libertarian hero in this movie. REAL weird to compare this western to another one Kathryn Ross was in just 3 years later, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which feels like it was made in a different century.
The Rare Breed (1966)
Jimmy Stewart as a drifter hired by widow Maureen O’Hara to look after an extremely valuable prize European breeding cow. Brian Keith as a semi-comical Scottish villain, a neighboring rancher who tries to foil their plans. A memorable section is concerns their desperately needing to keep the cow alive through a freezing winter, and Stewart enduring great privations in order to do it, because that’s the job he signed on for.
This may be Stewart’s last great role (which is ironic, since he lived and acted longer than co-star Henry Fonda, whose last great role was in the early 1980s). This is a tremendous film. It feels very much like the moral westerns of the late 50s, rather than one from 1968, which is not surprising, given the sensibilities of its powerful stars. Stewart is a farmer and part-time “sheriff” in a very sleepy Wyoming town. The position is honorary, the badge, homemade by his children. His wife is going into labor but insists he and his sons go into town to church. At the very same time, Fonda rides into town with his gang of ruffians; they are professional strong men for cattle barons. (among them are Gary Lockwood, as the worst of the bunch; and Jack Elam, as the most grizzled). We immediately spy trouble. They are wild, uncouth, disrespectful, mocking and quarrelsome. Furthermore, the town appears composed almost entirely of elderly men (Dean Jagger, Jay C. Flippen and Stewart) and gorgeous young women. Surely this is a disaster waiting to happen. The bad guys’ misdeeds initially are like those of juvenile delinquents: half-serious fistfights, disrupting church, etc. And we smell the picture’s moral a mile off: Stewart is pretty clearly a stand-in for Neville Chamberlain — he doesn’t nip it in the bud. He lets them do as they want in hopes they’ll leave soon and the trouble will be over. Unfortunately, they lay over awhile as Fonda recuperates from a bullet wound. And they move on to vandalism and rape. Frustrated, the half-wit stable boy, implausibly handsome for a retarded kid (he looks like James Dean), keeps trying to get Stewart to act like a sheriff. When the boy sees one of the hooligans rape a local woman, he confronts him. before anyone knows what’s happened, he’s got the guy’s gun out and shoots him dead. The gang lynches the kid. Now, finally, Stewart can’t take it any more. The climax of the picture is satisfying, if a little implausible. Farmer Stewart makes a speech and then takes on the rest of the gang in a shoot-out and kills them all. It’s mighty satisfying, but hardly realistic!
A pretty tedious movie. Dean Martin is leader of gang of bank robbers, one of whom is the elderly Will Geer. They are caught in the act by sheriff George Kennedy and are slated to be hanged. Stewart happens to hear of this incident while he is staying at an extremely crude hotel establishment taking a bath. He waylays the hangman on the trail, learns all the secrets of his trade, and manages to get his clothes and ropes (we do not see how). He helps free the gang on the scaffold. They flee, pursued by the whole town, with Raquel Welch (whose husband they had killed in their robbery) as their hostage. Stewart takes the opportunity of the empty town to rob the bank. He then catches up with the gang, helps them evade the crooks, and joins them on the run. The bulk of the movie is what I call “conversations around campfires” — that boring thing of a movie seemingly filled with the downtime of a bunch of people either running from or chasing somebody. Really tedious. Stewart tries to convince Martin to go straight and settle down with Welch, whom he has fallen in love with. Kennedy and his posse catch the crooks, and put them in jail in an abandoned Mexican town. Bandoleros ride in. They escape again somehow: shootout. Someone is about to rape Welch (seems to happen in every movie she’s in), Dean saves her, but is shot dead for his troubles. Mourning. Senseless tale. A whole bunch of stuff seems to have happened for nothing.
The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)
A squaresville comedy western, starring Stewart and Henry Fonda and directed by Gene Kelly.The plot is: Stewart and Fonda are a couple of cowboys in an outfit that apparently employs geezers to do demanding physical work. Stewart gets a letter that says his no-good brother is dead and has left him some property. They ride all the way from Texas to Cheyenne, and learn that the property is a whorehouse, run by madam Shirley Jones. Stewart is appalled, tries to unload the whorehouse, but the law won’t let him. The town turns against him. A roughneck beats up Jones. Stewart kills him in a gunfight. Then a bunch of his relatives show up and Fonda and Stewart kill THEM in a fight. Then more relatives are coming. Stewart signs the whorehouse over to Jones and the two men head back to Texas.
For a sex comedy, The Cheyenne Social Club is mighty prissy for even 1970. The film is lightly humorous, but very slight and doesn’t feel like enough of an event somehow. It strives mightily to trade in on the public’s affection for Stewart and Fonda as beloved Hollywood actors, right down to have them banter about their real life identities as a republican and a democrat.It feels a lot like some of John Wayne’s last movies, very much out of step with the times. Stewart in particular seems too old for the part he is playing, his lanky body now sagging in fifteen places like melting paraffin. It’s maybe one of the more comedic roles he had been called upon to do in decades, in some ways having more in common with his work in the thirties than his later westerns. At any rate, it might have been a better role for a young Gary Cooper, whose persona to my mind always contained a certain stiffness around women.
The Shootist (1976)
An emotional epitaph on the western genre and star John Wayne: for fans only. Made my old man cry. Makes me cry. Wayne’s last film, in which he is dying of cancer, just as he was in real life. Stewart, his co-star from Liberty Valance, is the crusty old town doctor. The love interest and owner of the boarding house where he stays is Lauren Bacall, not normally identified with westerns but also a holdover from classical Hollywood. It is as though they are repeating the formula of the previous year’s Rooster Cogburn by having Wayne play opposite another mature female Hollywood star, but this is a far better film. (Bacall was a foxy 60 year old, but her character is supposed to be about 40). Her son is played by Ron Howard, which has nice Opie-echoes.
It’s Carson City, Nevada, 1901. a period of transition: trolly cars, telephone poles, automobiles. Wayne’s an old gunfighter, J.B. Books. (wears a mustache, unusual for Wayne). Comes into town and gets the diagnosis from Stewart. He’s going to die a painful death over the next two months. He checks into the boarding house. The kid figures out who he is and tells his mother. She wants him out. He wont leave. She tells the marshall (Harry Morgan, in a hilarious role). Soon it is all over town. Wayne just wants to die quietly but no one will let him. Killers try to make a name by killing him. Vultures show up: a journalist who wants to make a name writing about him, an old flame who wants to marry him just so she can sell a tell-all book; an undertaker (hilariously, inevitably played by John Carradine). Even the barber sweeps up his hair and saves it. Meanwhile, he has two decent, real relationships. The boy, whom he teaches a few things; and Bacall, with whom he builds a friendship, which might have been a romance if there had been enough time. (This is an interesting relationship. Books is a gentleman with her at all times. Was he always? Or is it only his vulnerability at this time which makes him someone who could be acceptable to her? It’s academic, and yet worth asking. Makes for a rich story).
In the end, prompted by Stewart, Wayne opts not to go the undignified route, but to die the death he is uniquely qualified to die. He arranges to meet 3 men he knows would like to kill him. Richard Boone, who wants revenge (Books killed his brother), Hugh O’Brien, a gambler and gunfighter, who would merely like the chance to try himself against Books, and a third man, Howard’s boss, who is just a lowlife. The great part of this is, he’s not just going there to get shot. He likes fighting. He gets to die having his own kind of excitement; indeed he kills the other three men, and is ironically left standing at the end. Then the bartender comes out of nowhere and shoots him fatally. The kid, who has been watching, then kills the bartender. We see that he has grown up all at once. The romance he has had about gunfighting is now gone. He sobers up.
An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)
Well, yes! This counts! It’s Stewart’s last credit, a voice-over as sheriff “Wylie Burp” in this animated children’s film. Perhaps not as epic as John Wayne’s last film, but there is a certain poetry to it.