Tomorrow on TCM: Dawn to Dusk Westerns #3
Every Tuesday and Wednesday in July Turner Classic Movies will be showing westerns the entire day, for a total of 100 movies in all. Here is tomorrow’s line-up. The times below are all Eastern Standard Time, and beware that I always include spoilers.
4:30am: Rachel and the Stranger (1948)
Less a conventional western than a drama set on the colonial frontier. The setting is a cabin in the woods (a farm). William Holden is a depressed widower with a son. He hires a gorgeous indentured servant (Loretta Young) to be his wife and continues to treat her as a servant. His best friend Robert Mitchum, a trapper and trader, comes back around and falls for Young. Nowadays the story would be about how the two of them hook up. This being 1948, it’s about how Holden comes to realize he really loves her and the pair stay married. Black and white, but beautifully designed and shot, and well written and acted. RKO’s most successful movie of 1948.
6:00am: The Big Sky (1952)
A rather tedious and rambling film in my book. Seems calculated to replicate the success of Red River (also by director Howard Hawks) but lacks that central, focused human story. It’s just a succession of adventures, which, to me, at least, is boring without decent characters and relationships. As Red River was theoretically about the last cattle drive on the Chisholm trail, this one is about the first trip upriver on the Missouri. Set in 1832, it is full of some cool historical details that are good fodder for something, but don’t add up to much here. Chiefly that, thirty years after the Louisiana Purchase, French influence is still dominant in this part of the country. (It prompted me to go the map: you find this really cool stripe of French names going up the middle of the country: New Orleans, Baton Rouge,St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Dubuque, Des Moines, etc).
In this story, two guys meet up in the woods of western Kentucky: Kirk Douglas, and some other guy (Dewey Martin). They decide to hook up with the other guy’s uncle in St. Louis. They look all over the place and can’t find him. Then they are thrown in jail for drunkenly carousing, and coincidentally find him in the same hoosegow. He is played by Arthur Hunnicutt, the best role I’ve seen him do. They get work going on this boat upriver to trade furs with the Blackfeet. Their insurance is a beautiful Blackfoot maid. The rest of the crew are all Frenchmen, and one Indian half-wit. Since these characters are all afforded the respect Hollywood usually gives to foreigners, the only characters we are expected to care about are Hunnicutt, Douglas, and Martin, and there really is no conflict between them. It’s all Indian fights, and rapids, and battles with the fur company. In short, the film deserves its present obscurity.
And what a dumb title! If the movie had at least been in color, we could contemplate the blueness of this “Big Sky”. But anyway, what’s the sky got to do with this picture? Big River would have made a great deal more sense.
8:30am: How the West Was One (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), and more stars than It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World! 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. Then the families encounter rapids. Both the parents (Malden and Moorehead) die. Stewart catches up and now vows to settle down and marry Baker, and they will start a farm “right here” (which happens to be Ohio).
We get passing mentions of the Mexican war and the Gold Rush. Then we catch up to Debbie Reynolds as a dance hall singer in St. Louis. (Reynolds has half a dozen musical numbers in the movie, all of them are profoundly irritating and anachronistic) She learns she has inherited a gold mine in San Francisco. Gambler Gregory Peck gets interested in her. Reynolds joins a wagon train, partnering with Thelma Ritter, who is seeking a husband. Robert Preston is the wagonmaster. Peck shows up and offers to help the ladies. He is rebuffed but proves his worth during an Arapahoe attack. Both Peck and Preston propose marriage but are rebuffed. Reynolds and Peck arrive at her claim and are told by Jay C. Flippen that it is played out. She goes back to singing on a riverboat. And in another unnecessary story twist, Preston comes back to propose again, and Peck comes around to propose again. She accepts and they head for San Francisco. (this relationship seems lifted wholesale from Showboat).
Then we actually LEAVE the west: (America also has a “north” and a “south”, as the narration helpfully tells us) for a digression to the Civil War. We have a single shot of Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln, sagely signing a paper. We catch up with Carol Baker on her farm. Stewart is with the Union Army as a Captain. Andy Devine comes around as a neighbor now in uniform and encourages her son George Peppard to join. Stewart dies at Shiloh. Peppard kills confedate Russ Tamblyn at Shiloh when he is about to assassinate general grant (Harry Morgan) while he talks with Gen. Sherman (John Wayne). Then he returns home and learns both parents are dead so he will re-enlist and fight Indians.
Pony Express. Telegram. Railroads. Richard Widmark is an unprincipled capitalist railroad boss. Henry Fonda is a buffalo hunter (he looks great in his costume). Peppard is some kind of army liaison. Two of Widmarks’ railroad workers have been killed by Arapaho. Fonda and Peppard broker a peace, which Widmark then breaks. Indians are on the warpath. We don’t get a big battle scene, but the Indians do start a buffalo stampede. Peppard briefly visits Fonda in the mountains then heads through Sierra Nevada to seek his fortune.
End of the free range. Range wars. Peppard is now a marshall. Reynolds (in San Francisco) is selling off her belongings (she has made and lost three fortunes). Her only property left is a ranch in Arizona, which she goes to claim, enlisting Peppard and his family to help her farm. But first Peppard needs to defeat a gang of train robbers, lead by Eli Wallach (playing his umpteenth Mexican), Harry Dean Stanton and others. Peppard is assisted by another marshall, Lee J. Cobb. Spectacular robbery and train crash scene. Then Peppard, Reynolds and family head through Monument Valley to their ranch.
A beautiful (I think) epilogue showing the modern west: dams, highways, cities—the optimism and celebration of such superstructures circa 1962 now as much a part of history as the vanished west.
11:15am: Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
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 is Wyatt Earp, Arthur Kennedy is Doc Holliday and John Carradine is their poker playing, cheating companion. The gang’s all here! (Those characters were in My Darling Clementine. Carradine had been in Stagecoach. Stewart had been in more recent Ford westerns, like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Kennedy is more from the Anthony Mann stock company — Stewart probably brought him along). Even this sequence has a point though, illustrating public bloodlust to wipe out these pathetic starving Indians (Earp and Holliday of course run against these tendencies). The movie is full of gorgeous shots, and to-die-for Fordian compositions of humans moving through space. He really is an incredible director.
2:00pm: The Alamo (1960)
Directed by the Duke himself. Boy, if you think about it, how ballsy, to make your first directorial effort this large scale, big budget epic about an important chapter in American history. I feel like it paves the way for later guys like Mel Gibson, George Clooney, Kevin Costner — nothing to do but to do it, so they do it. The quality of this film and those more modern stars to me is similar. It is not disgracefully executed, but it is somehow impersonal. As though it is the Hollywood machinery that is truly getting the job done; the actor turned director is just barely, breathlessly, keeping his hands on the wheels and grateful in the end to be able to park this complicated vehicle without crashing.
The sets are gorgeous and realistic, and we are — not surprisingly — reminded of Ford. An all star cast: director/producer/star John Wayne as Davy Crockett (who shows up with a band of drunken Tennessee volunteers), Richard Boone as Sam Houston (general of the Texican army), Laurence Harvey as Col. Travis (the martinet commander of the Alamo whom I happen to be named after), Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie, and Frankie Avalon, as yet another young 50s pop singer who can’t act but is stuck into a western anyway.
The three hour plus length is appropriate to this subject, but Wayne doesn’t make the best use of those hours, sending us down detours about fictional love interests and some fairly embarrassing speechifying about ideals. The battle scenes are quite impressive, though, and worth waiting for. In the end, though, we are curiously unmoved about this amazingly heroic and somewhat quixotic act by a handful of men. The emotional heart of the story feels somehow neglected even as the events are technically depicted. A lesson there.
5:30pm: Cimarron (1960)
A remake of the Edna Ferber classic starring Glenn Ford, Anne Baxter, Maria Schell and Arthur O’Connell.
EVENING: SEVERAL WESTERNS BY ANTHONY MANN
8:00pm: The Naked Spur (1953)
Another Mann picture, the title of which makes no sense til the very end, when Jimmy 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!
10:00pm: The Man from Laramie (1955)
Jimmy 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.
12:00am: The Last Frontier (1956)
An Anthony Mann western set in Sioux country. Victor Mature, James Whitmore and a native companion are trappers who have a season’s worth of pelts seized by Sioux Chief Red Cloud in exchange for their lives. The Sioux are agitated by the recent establishment of several army forts in their territory—they aim to wipe them out. Angry about this development, Mature proposes to get some sort of compensation from the army for their financial loss. They wind up being hired as scouts by the well-balanced, likable young Captain in command of the fort.
Much of the film is about the culture clash between the wild mountain men and the discipline of the army. Mature’s character was raised by Scottish trapper Whitmore in the wilderness. Childlike, enthusiastic – he embodies a certain American ideal, pure and unspoiled. His main clash is with a Colonel played by Robert Preston. The character and the situation seem largely derived from Ford’s Fort Apache. Preston is a bloodthirsty butcher…with a military philosophy akin to Grant’s and Sherman’s but without the victories to show for it. Nicknamed “the Butcher of Shiloh” he is sent away from the Civil War still raging to this frontier post as punishment. Ordered to hold one fort, he loses it, and takes the few men he has left to the young captain’s fort and takes over, organizing the understaffed post for a suicidal pre-emptive excursion against Red Cloud. Everyone argues against it, but he is determined to have a victory. (This is the most I’ve ever liked Preston in a movie, by the way—I hate him in musicals. But he seems very well cast here). Everyone tries to subvert Preston’s purposes, especially Mature, who also happens to be angling for Preston’s wife (Ann Bancroft), who knows who the superior man is, and even lays with him—it’s racy for its time.
In the end, Preston fights his disastrous battle and dies in the midst of it. Mature leads the troops back to the fort and is made a uniformed soldier for his trouble. (he has longed throughout the movie to be a “real soldier”). The anti-military message in the film is strong, as its its willingness to question authority when it is wrong…definitely is a precursor to films of the late 60s.
2:00am: The Devil’s Doorway (1950)
An ahead of its time liberal western by Mann – it points the way to those Indian anti-heroes played by white actors Burt Lancaster, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Here, it’s Robert Taylor and he’s rather unconvincing, the film’s greatest weakness. A Congressional medal of honor winner and sgt. major from the Civil War (the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner syndrome – he couldn’t just be an ordinary native American man), he returns to find land grabbers (led by the incredibly awesome Louis Calhern) vying for his family property. Taylor is helped by a woman lawyer! But it’s still no good, the whole thing escalates to a fatal shootout between sheepmen and Taylor and his fellow Shoshones. It is somewhat didactic but well made nonetheless. It features great Mann touches (I particularly liked it when Taylor threw sawdust in the eye of a guy he was brawling with on the salon floor – something white-hatted serial heroes would never have done). It seems an allegory for a contemporary situation: the African Americans who’d served heroically in WWII but were deprived of rights in post war America. A well made, if minor, picture
3:30am: There Was a Crooked Man (1970)
Not a Mann western of course — this film is a lead-in for the next day’s full of westerns. It stars Kirk Douglas with red hair dye and Lennon specs, and a grey-bearded Henry Fonda. The film, written by the guys who wrote Bonnie and Clyde (David Newman and Robert Benton) is a huge waste of time. Douglas robs Arthur O’Connell’s family of half a million dollars. He buries the loot in a rattlesnake hole in the desert. O’Connell spots him in a whorehouse and the culprit gets busted and carted off to prison with a bunch of other ne’er do wells; a couple of con men (one of whom is Hume Cronyn), a pretty boy (recognizable from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), and Warren Oates. Their cellmate is an elderly Burgess Meredith, who counsels them not to even think about escaping. Former mashall Fonda is brought in as the warden, and proves to be very liberal minded (prison reform was big in the early 70s). Fonda believes in humane but firm treatment of prisoners. Just as he is holding a ribbon-cutting of his new facilities (with a hilarious speech by Ray Goulding as the Lt. Gov.) Douglas, and his guys make their jail break by starting a riot (about an hour and a half of the movie is a friendly stand off between Douglas and Fonda). Douglas is the only who escapes. Just as he is retrieving his money, a rattlesnake bites him in the neck and kills him. Fonda comes along, takes the money, and goes to Mexico. Essentially, it makes you feel like an asshole for staying with this movie for two hours. Also: there’s no real reason this movie needs to be set in the old west. While it is set there, it is not a western in that sense. It’s really a prison break picture, and could have been set anywhere.