Burt Lancaster: The Westerns

Today is the birthday of the great Hollywood star Burt Lancaster. The toothy tall one made many films in many genres, but for the sake of focus (and because I already have the notes written up) today we take a look at his westerns (warning: we always include spoilers):


Vengeance Valley (1951) 

A bit of a soap opera. Robert Walker plays a shifty, no-account heir to Ray Collins’ ranch…Lancaster is his decent, honest, forthright and discreet foster brother. Walker, a married man, has knocked up his mistress and weasels out of it 50 ways, with Lancaster always picking up the slack…i.e., doing nice things for the woman, and enduring accusations from her brothers. Walker schemes to sell off all their cattle (half owned by the father) in a drive so he can escape the mess his life is in without taking any responsibility. He sets up Lancaster to get shot by the the girl’s brothers. Showdown. Lancaster kills Walker and winds up with his wife — which, any way you look at it, has to be counted as a happy ending.


Apache (1954) 

Blue eyed New York acrobat Lancaster (“I wawk in the ways of the great spirit”) plays “Massai, Last of the Apache Warriors”, in this early stab by liberal Hollywood to balance the scales. God save us! At this early stage the perpetrators apparently still felt that though it’s important to TREAT natives as human, it’s unimportant to DEPICT them as human. Lancaster’s performance is patronizing in the extreme.  Apparently no one told him the title of the film was “Apache”, not “Planet of the Apes”.  He plays the Apache warrior as though he were choreographed by Jerome Robbins, a savage not only noble but nimble. And of course he and his love interest and the other major characters are played by whites with brown shoe polish on their faces. They all seem to have blue eyes—as though terrified that audiences would think, even mistakenly, that the producers had dared to put Native Americans in speaking parts.

It isn’t much of a plot although it’s a template I’ve seen plenty of. Its 1886. Geronimo has surrendered, the last rebellious Apaches are being shipped off to a reservation in Florida. Massai escapes from the contingent somewhere around St. Louis. Making his way to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) he meets a Cherokee who teaches him that it is possible for an Indian to grow corn and still hold his head up high. He returns to his people to relay this revelation—they immediately trap him and turn him over to the authorities. He escapes again of course and remains a fugitive throughout the picture. He does violence at first until he hooks up with his true love and they start to grow corn together. (the rival for her hand is played by Charles Bronson, which is too perfect). The end of the picture is one of those open-ended irresolute finishes I associate with the early 70s. The soldiers and bounty hunters who have been pursuing him throughout the whole picture, upon finding him and his wife (who’s just given birth) on their little farm—decide to let him go, as he’s obviously no threat anymore. Directed by Robert Aldrich


Vera Cruz (1954)

Directed by Robert Aldrich, Vera Cruz was co-produced by Lancaster who co-stars with Gary Cooper. It’s strange to see them in the same film, but no stranger than seeing Johnny Depp alongside Robert Mitchum in Dead Man!

I’d be very surprised if this film wasn’t highly influential on the spaghetti western directors. Set in Mexico right after the American Civil War, at a time when Mexico is ruled by the French puppet dictator Emperor Maximilian (George Macready). Cooper and Lancaster are fortune hunters. Cooper is decent but the loss of the South (and his wealth) in the Civil War has made him bitter — he needs money for his starving Louisiana plantation. Lancaster is completely unprincipled and has been since childhood. He grows to like Cooper more and more (he’s the only man who fights and shoots as well as he does), but that doesn’t mean he’ll treat him straight. Their gang includes Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson and Jack Elam.

The men are hired to take a beautiful Countess (Denise Darcel) to the port city of Vera Cruz so she can sail to Paris. But something’s not right. Scores of troops plus these American mercenaries just to protect one Countess? The coach turns out to have $3 million in gold stashed beneath the floor, intended to bribe Napoleonic officials to keep Maximillian on the throne. The film becomes a multi-directional contest a) to get the gold to Santa Cruz, and b) to see who’ll get it. In the end, Cooper and Lancaster fight a duel and….


The Kentuckian (1955)

Directed and produced by and starring Burt Lancaster. Definitely charming and pretty to look at (I mean the movie, not Lancaster, though I hear he is) but it’s a little dull. Lancaster is a Daniel Boone type frontiersman in the 1820s. He and his son are striking out for Texas, but quickly spend their traveling money rescuing a pretty indentured servant girl. [THIS IS THE FILM’S COOLEST FEATURE. I DON’T THINK I’VE SEEN THIS MAJOR FACT OF EARLY AMERICAN LIFE REPRESENTED IN ANY OTHER MOVIE!]. With no stake, the three are forced to lay over in a nearby town where Lancaster’s brother and persnickety sister in law (Una Merkel) live. These two and the local schoolteacher contrive to civilize Burt and the boy and get him to settle down there and be a merchant. Lancaster falls in love with the teacher. The indentured servant girl goes to work for Walter Matthau, a mean and cowardly, bullwhip-cracking saloonkeeper. John Carradine is great as a snake oil salesman. The climax concerns a shootout with a couple of rogues who are from a family that’s feuding with Lancaster’s. Lancaster dispatches them and realizes his real nature is to go after adventure in Texas with the boy and the girl (and the dog. Did I mention the dog?)


Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) 

Also directed by John Sturgis. The umpteenth remake of the west’s most famous gunfight, yet still somehow not definitive. The film-makers are still hellbent on mythologizing a story that by now had been picked mighty clean. Seems like a lot of talent wasted in the service of something “less than”. One is accustomed to seeing Lancaster (who plays Wyatt Earp), in far more substantial roles. Kirk Douglas (Doc Holliday), frequently did schlock, but was generally wasted doing so. The movie’s most distinctive feature is a terrible ballad, sung by Frankie Laine, with new verses that come in after every scene and tell the story (seems inspiration for similar technique in Cat Ballou)

This version is somewhat more historically accurate than previous ones and very much concentrated on the relationship between the two men, minutely observing their incremental warming up to each other to the point where they become good friends. Starts in Griffin, Texas. Doc is a bastard. Mistreats his woman. She is a girl with a past, but she does love him and take care of him. Doc hates himself and what he has become, and takes it out on her, treats her like dirt. Three bad men (led by Lee Van Cleef) ride into town looking to kill Doc. Earp comes in around the same time, seeking info on some men Doc has seen. In order to get the info, he lets Doc know one of the bad men has a derringer in their boot. Armed with this information, Doc preemptively kills Van Cleef in a fight. Later, Doc, shows up back in Dodge City, where Earp is marshall. So does a beautiful lady gambler. Earp tries to throw her out — ladies aren’t allowed to gamble (it causes fights) but he ends up letting her stay. Then he gets Doc to help him on a job. While they are out of town, Doc’s girl (whom he has dumped) takes up with one of the Clanton gang, which he discovers when he returns. The guy tries to provoke him into a fight, but he wont bite. Then Clanton goes on a rampage. About two dozen of his gang come into town, shooting the whole place up, including Earp’s deputy, played by Earl Holliman. Earp and Doc, just the two of them, disarm the whole bunch (including the youngest Clanton, played by Dennis Hopper). The gang vows revenge. Earp is now about to quit being a marshall. He and the gambler lady have fallen in love and they plan to “go start a ranch”. Then he gets a telegram from his brotherVirgil (whom we have not heretofore met or even heard about, outside of whatever personal knowledge we have of the legend we bring as audience members) saying he is having trouble with the Clantons in Tombstone (where he is Marshall). Rge girl breaks up with Wyatt, but he has to go anyway: “family”. His brothers include Martin Milner of Adam-12 and Deforest Kelley of Star Trek. The Clantons kill the youngest one, thinking he is Wyatt. Now the stage is set for the big gun fight shootout denouement.


The Hallelujah Trail (1965) 

Yet another one directed by John Sturgis. Comedy western about a shipment of whiskey, bound for the tradionally snowed-in Denver before winter comes. Treated with a mock seriousness, narrated by John Dehner, as is very common in the epic comedies of this era, it works itself up into epochal exertions but to little purpose. It’s just not funny.   Burt Lancaster and Jim Hutton are cavalry officers in the approved Fordian manner. Added to the chaos are a bunch of temperance activist suffragettes led by Lee Remick, a bunch of irish miners and a bunch of Indians after “firewater” led by Martin Landau as “Chief Walks Stooped Over”. Also in the cast are Brian Keith, Donald Pleasance as some sort of “seer” (who only “sees” when he drinks whiskey), John Anderson, Dub Taylor et al. The movie looks beautiful, it’s just irritating, boring and not funny.


The Professionals (1966) 

Well constructed, beautifully shot, tightly edited late classic western — that somehow still seems to be somewhat dull. I think it has to do with the entire cast of fairly bland, two dimensional, dispassionate male actors. Like the title says, they have a job to do, they do the job and that’s the end of the picture.

It is the late nineteen-teens. Texas cattle baron Ralph Bellamy hires four of “the best” to retrieve his wife who has been kidnapped by a captain of Pancho Villa’s and brought to some of the most rugged country in Mexico. The gang consists of Lee Marvin (an expert in weapons and tactics), Lancaster (a demolition expert), Robert Ryan (a horseman), and Woody Strode (for some reason I’d rather not think about, an expert tracker and masterful archer). Jack Palance plays the Mexican captain. The men go down through the desert, steal the woman from a small army in the middle of their compound and then learn that she is in love with the Mexican and with the revolution and doesn’t want to go back. This was always the case. She had never been kidnapped — Bellamy just wants to kill her and her lover. If anyone, Bellamy was the kidnapper. In the end, the heroes free the girl and the Mexican from Bellamy’s men.


The Scalphunters (1968) 

A fairly negligible entertainment, apparently contrived to address changing race relations at the time, and directed by Sydney Pollock of all people. It seems set in Oklahoma or Texas in the 1850s or before. Lancaster is a trapper whose furs get swiped by a band of Kiowas. In exchange, he is given a slave which he does not want. The slave is a highly educated house slave from Louisiana played by Ossie Davis. Lancaster isn’t that nice to the slave: plans to sell him. He plans to take the furs from Indians as they get drunk that night, but just as he is about to, a gang led by Telly Savalas, out for Indian scalps, attacks and takes the furs with him. Needless to say, Savalas is very badly cast, and the character is also misconceieved: stupid, noisy, hotheaded, impulsive and generally urban. As a villain he is about as effective as Yosemite Sam. One doesn’t believe he has done any of the things he is supposed to have done: killed marshals, robbed banks, etc. The gang carries their own whores (Shelley Winters among them) along with them as they go. Lancaster wants his furs back. Pursues the whole gang. The slave gets captured by them and makes himself useful to the whore. He gets to liking the life and hopes to string with them to Mexico. One by one, Lancaster picks off the gang, shoots some, knifes some, causes an avalanche, fills a water hole with loco weed for their horses to drink. Finally, Savalas claims to give up and the gang leaves. Lancaster comes down to get his furs. Savalas emerges from a shallow grave and attacks him, ties him up. The slave kills Savalas, then lords it over Lancaster. The two fight. The Kiowas come back and take their furs back. The two men pursue them again.


Lawman (1971) 

Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Lee J. Cobb, Robert Duvall, Ralph Waite, and the guy who played McCloud’s  NYPD supervisor. This thought provoking film has Lancaster as the the titular constable. He is inflexible, cruel…admirable in some ways in his devotion to getting the job done, but you can’t help wondering if his way isn’t a bigger curse than anarchy. In a sort of prologue, Cobb and his bunch shoot up a small town, accidentally killing an old man. Some time later, Lancaster, the lawman of that small town shows up in their town…where they turn out to be some of the leading citizens. The whole town freezes him out, including the storekeepers and so forth. Some of Cobb’s men are hotheaded and want to kill Lancaster outright. Cobb turns out to be not such a bad guy. He founded this town, he is comfortable. He doesn’t want bloodshed. He wants to make everything “right”, but with money, which is the definition of corruption. Yet this way may have been better than what transpires. The original killing had been the accidental result of some admittedly out-of-hand rough play. Now Lancaster – an admitted professional killer — has a series of shoot-outs where he murders in cold blood some of the otherwise law-abiding and productive citizens of the town. In the end, the whole gang is in jail, wounded or dead. He’s done his job.


Valdez is Coming (1971)

Based on a Leonard novel. Burt Lancaster in the sort of film we associate with Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. We’re in some border town. Lancaster is Bob Valdez, a Mexican-American former Apache fighter who is now a local constable. Some semi-crooked landowner and his lackeys are shooting at a black man for a murder he allegedly committed. Through a snafu, Valdez has to kill the black man, who turns out to have been innocent. When Lancaster tries to collect $100 for the widow (a pregnant Apache), the villain and his minion humiliate and torture him (they even force him to walk around with a crucifix tied to his back, directly after they have shot up a church.)  Valdez, a ridiculously mild man in the beginning, who prefers talking to violence has now been pushed too far. He sends the titular warning (“Tell them, ‘valdez is coming’.”), comes in for the guy, kills one of his lackeys and kidnaps his woman, then rides into the desert, forcing several successive patrols of henchmen to come after him. He kills them all. In the end they do trap him, but the men are too in awe to shoot him. It ends with a stand off between Valdez and the villain. Lancaster is second to no one in machismo, but the brown face paint he wears is ridiculous, as his accent. About ten of the characters seem to be non Mexicans in brown make up. All the men (of all colors) are wearing eye-liner. In short, this is a movie with a lot of men wearing a lot of make-up!


Ulzana’s Raid (1972) 

Critically acclaimed (but now sadly obscure) revisionist western by Robert Aldrich depicting a savage fight between settlers and Apaches.


Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson (1976)

Lancaster played dime novelist Ned Buntline in Robert Altman’s satirical film. Not a western per se but a movie with western themes. Much more about the film is here in my Paul Newman western post. 


Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) 

Fictionized story based on real historical characters. Diane Lane and Amanda Plummer are the titular naughty who are inspired by Ned Buntline’s dime novels to do some crimes. When they encounter the real life Bill Doolin (Lancaster) they goad him and his gang (Scott Glenn, John Savage and others) to be bad again. In the end they are foiled by lawman Bill Tighman (Rod Steiger). 

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