Kirk Douglas: The Westerns

Today we pay homage to the late Kirk Douglas with a look at some of his westerns. Funny to think of a a Jewish ragman’s son from New York faring so well in oaters, but he did. It may not be the first thing one thinks of, but his work in the genre adds up to something notable, and many of them are with the best directors. Naturally, there is a range in quality, but some of these are gems and classics.

Along the Great Divide (1951)

This Raoul Walsh western (Douglas’s first) begins with Walter Brennan being lynched by a mob for supposedly killing their ringleader’s son. Marshall Douglas, Deputy John Agar, and their men rescue him so they can take him to civilization for a proper trial. The ringleader of the lynching vows revenge. Brennan claims to be innocent. Virginia Mayo is his feisty, gun-totin’ daughter. Brennan tries various schemes to get out of Douglas’s custody (including tormenting him about his own dead father, a marshall who was lynched with his prisoners), but Douglas hangs on to him and protects him throughout the treacherous journey. It is an ordeal but Douglas is unswerving. Many twists and turns. In the end Brennan is found guilty by the jury, but at the last minute, Douglas notices that the brother of the kid who was killed has his pocket watch – it was he who had killed him. He ends up shooting his father, then gets shot to death himself.

The Big Sky (1953)

A rather tedious and rambling Howard Hawks western which seems calculated to replicate the success of Red River but lacks that central, focused human story. It’s just a succession of adventures, which, to me, at least, are boring without decent characters and relationships. As Red River was theoreticallyabout 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. Of particular interest is the detail that, thirty years after the Lousiana Purchase, French influence is still dominant in this part of the country. It prompted me to get out 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 (Douglas and Dewey Martin) meet up in the woods of western Kentucky and then travel to St. Louis to hook up with Martin’s uncle, played by Arthur Hunnicutt, the best role I’ve seen him do. They get work going on a boat upriver to trade furs with the Blackfeet. On the way they encounter all Indian fights, and rapids, and battles with the fur company. The film deserves its relative obscurity.

Man Without a Star (1955)

In this King Vidor picture, Douglas is a drifter who comes into a town on a freight train. He and his young friend (William Campbell) are detained with others for a murder. The culprit is a not-yet-grizzled Jack Elam. Douglas is rewarded for blowing the whistle. He and his buddy get a job on Jay C. Flippen’s ranch (Flippen’s the foreman). Lots of humor. Douglas is a gregarious, likeable dude, who plays banjo and says “yahoo!” a lot. He even performs a musical number. But if there’s one thing he hates, it’s a barbed wire fence. And this leads to an ironic development. First the ranch is taken over by an unspeakably gorgeous woman (Jeanne Crain) who takes baths with the door open. She is a hard edged, unsentimental businesswoman. They romance each other; she makes him foreman. But she wants more. She hires muscle (a not yet grizzled Richard Boone) to strong arm the neighboring rancher who’s been stringing wire. Douglas quits. He wants no part of range wars, he’s had his fill of them in the past. But his buddy stays with the woman, a bitter split. Douglas is about to leave town when Boone and his gang beats him up. This decides Douglas, ironically, on the side of the wire stringers. They at least represent law and order. He helps them defeat the bad guys. Then he leaves. He still hates barbed wire. His lack of a star seems to have two meanings: keeping peace without a badge, but also lacking a direction, a star to follow.

The Indian Fighter (1955)

Douglas self-produced this forgotten widescreen, Technicolor epic about Sioux troubles. Judging by the poster, Douglas appears to be stopping the uprising with his teeth alone. Andre de Toth directed.

Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)

Directed by John Sturgis, this is 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 Burt Lancaster (who plays Wyatt Earp), in far more substantial roles. Douglas (who plays 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 a similar technique in Cat Ballou)

That said, 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. It starts in Griffin, Texas. Doc is a bastard. Mistreats his woman (Jo Van Fleet). 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 at 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 info, 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 (Rhonda Fleming). Earp tries to throw her out (ladies aren’t allowed to gamble, it causes fights) but he ends up letting her stay. 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 Doc discovers when he returns. The guy tries to provoke him into a fight, but he won’t bite. Then Clanton goes on a rampage. About two dozen of thugs 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 brother Virgil (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). The girl breaks up with him, but he has to go anyway: “family”. His other brothers include Martin Milner and Deforest Kelley. The Clantons kill the youngest one, thinking it is Wyatt. Now the stage is set for the big gun fight shootout denouement we’re all so familiar with. Bang bang, shoot shoot!

Last Train From Gun Hill (1959)

The plot of this one is almost exactly the same as 3:10 to Yuma. Kirk Douglas is a sheriff. When his wife is raped and murdered (witnessed by their 9 year old son) he goes after the killer, who turns out to be the worthless son (Earl Holliman) of his best friend (Anthony Quinn). Quinn is a powerful man, owns the whole town. So Douglas can’t just bring the kid to jail. He has to hide out in a hotel room until the train comes, and then walk the kid to the depot with the entire town against him. In the end, his new friend, prostitute Carolyn Jones, slips him a shot gun and he is able to walk Holliman out with the barrel of the gun pointed at Holliman’s chin. At the last minute another punk tries to free Holliman. Both punks are dead when the smoke clears. Quinn calls Douglas out, and Douglas shoots him too. Last line: “raise your son right”.

The Last Sunset (1961)

Robert Aldrich directed and Dalton Trumbo (fresh from his post-blacklist triumph Spartacus, also with Douglas) scripted this dark tale of incest and suicide, which also has Rock Hudson, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Malone, and Carol Lynley. It was originally known as Day of the Gun.

Lonely are the Brave (1962)

This one joins The Misfits and others in the “cowboy as dodo” sub-genre. Douglas is a latter day saddle tramp. We first meet him journeying through the New Mexico desert on horseback, cutting his way through fences and eyeballing the jets that fly overhead. When he learns his buddy is in jail, he does a reckless thing: gets himself thrown in jail (for hitting a deputy) so that he can go in and break him out. The friend doesn’t even want to break out. So Douglas breaks out alone. Rides back into the desert on his horse. But he isn’t off the hook. The whole first hour merely sets the stage for the film’s big set piece, which to my mind must have influenced everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Thelma and Louise. One man alone fleeing into the mountains, pursued by local police (led by Walter Matthau), state police, rangers, an airplane, and even an army helicopter. The overkill of it seems intrinsically unfair. And there is a menace to all this modern machinery. It seems unescapable. We know that the wilderness Douglas is fleeing into is finite; there are authorities on the other side. (Though his plan is to flee to Mexico, so there is hope). This is an existential flight. Will he be allowed to exist? Is there a way for him to exist? In the end (symbolically) he escapes the authorities in the wilderness area only to get hit by an 18-wheeler being driven by Carroll O’Connor. It kills his horse and seems to break every bone in Douglas’s body. Wonderfully, a character asks the question: “Will he live?” and a doctor answers, “Who knows?” Plants the question: can the individual exist in these times? Interestingly, the screenplay is by once again by lefty Dalton Trumbo. Seems ironic to me — the kind of world many 20th century socialists would have built makes individualism even less possible than capitalism does. Don’t tell me Castro wouldn’t be on the side of the helicopters.

The War Wagon (1967)

A fairly dumb movie, to be frank. John Wayne for once is cast a little against type as a guy who gets out of prison to seek revenge on the man (Bruce Cabot) who swindled him out of his ranch and framed him. To do it, he devises an ingenious caper . (This is what’s against type. The John Wayne we all know would just walk right up to his enemy fearlessly and call him out right then and there. Stealing is sneaky – and somewhat cowardly, when you think about it). To help him with his plan, he puts together a gang, consisting of Kirk Douglas, a top gunslinger AND safecracker (a rather unlikely combination); Keenan Wynn as a cranky, thieving old nut who’s the “inside man”; Howard Keel as a “half-breed” who enlists the help of some local natives; and Robert Walker Jr as a drunken young explosives expert. (Where did he get such expertise at age 18? And a teenage alcoholic is unqualifiedly sad — no shoehorning that into a light comedy as they try to do here). They devise a plan to steel the robber baron’s gold shipment (gold on Wayne’s property is what prompted the swindle). The bad guy’s pride and joy is a special armored stage coach, the real star of the film. The ironclad coach has a gatling-gun turret and is guarded by 33 armed guards. The films ostensible reward is seeing how these five mildly amusing misfits take the stage. In the end, they do. And that’s about it!


The Way West (1967)

A by the numbers epic, but pretty effective all the same. Aside from some frank sexual business, the film feels and looks a great deal as though it had been made 10 years earlier. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen. The story concerns a wagon train moving west to Oregon, led by the triumvirate of Kirk Douglas, a senator who has organized the whole journey; Robert Mitchum as a scout/ wagonmaster; and Richard Widmark as one of the settlers (the one who gripes the most of course about Douglas’s uncompromising authoritarianism). Also in the party are Sally Field as a very sexed-up teenaged girl and Jack Elam as a preacher (the comic relief.) Also in the cast are Harry Carey Jr and Stubby Kaye. It only lags in spots—most of the events are compelling and dramatic enough to keep you engaged all the way through, many of them quite memorable. In the end, there is a coup, and Douglas is deposed from leading the party and Widmark takes over.  It’s odd how forgotten this movie is.

There was a Crooked Man (1970)

I first saw this film as a kid. Its stars are its most memorable aspect: Kirk Douglas with red hair dye and Lennon specs, and a grey-bearded Henry Fonda. The film, written by David Newman and Robert Benton, the guys who wrote Bonnie and Clyde, is a disappointing waste of time. Douglas robs Arthur O’Connell’s family of half a million dollars. He alone gets away and buries the loot in a rattlesnake hole in the desert. O’Connell spots him in the whorehouse though, and he 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 (Michael Blodgett from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), and Warren Oates. Their cellmate is an elderly Burgess Meredith, who counsels them not to think about escaping. Former marshall Fonda is brought in as the warden, and proves to be very liberal minded. He 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. Again, Douglas is the only one 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 a putz for staying with this movie for two hours. 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, at any time.

A Gunfight (1971)

A fairly experimental and intimately scaled (low budget) movie, partially funded by an Apache Indian tribe. Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash play a couple of old gunfighters who befriend each other, much to the disappointment of the people in town. Desparate for money, Douglas comes up with the idea of staging a gunfight and selling tickets. He is subsequently killed in the fight, which only lasta a second. Karen Black, Keith Carradine, and Jane Alexander are also in the film.

Posse (1975)

An extremely interesting artifact, both thought-provoking and entertaining. Kirk Douglas produced, directed and stars in this political satire/ western, influenced by spaghetti westerns, and possibly Robert Altman. It’s certainly a much better film than Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Douglas plays a vain, strutting marshall who’s running for senate. His vanity is justified in some ways—he’s very good at his work. But his character is fatally flawed, as we shall see. The only thing between him and a career of perfection is the fact that bank robber Bruce Dern is still at large. After a couple of very memorable, clever set pieces, Dern is caught…and, again very cleverly, we watch as he contrives to escape…which he does. Just as the hero proves to have faults, Dern’s robber eventually becomes sort of likeable, at least to the characters in the story. In the end, Dern kidnaps Douglas and demands an immediate ransom of $40,000, the amount he lost from his bank robbery. Douglas orders his posse to go get the money—and they do, by looting the town and killing one of its leading citizens. THEN, the posse joins up with Dern (they’d earlier learned that Douglas wasn’t going to retain them as senator…they were to get railroad jobs at a cut in salary). Douglas has in a single instant lost all political goodwill, all possibility of the senate seat that seemed assured, and is completely alone in the world. It is clearly an allegory about Nixon. Very well made—so odd for it to be this obscure.

The Villain, a.k.a. Cactus Jack (1979)

An atrocious comedy western by Hal Needham. Douglas is woefully miscast as a bumbling, Wile E. Coyote like bounty hunter, trying to kill sheriff Arnold Schwarzennegger (yes!) and the always sexy Ann-Margret. When I say Wile E. Coyote, I mean that literally…the film literally recreates Warner Brothers cartoon gags in live action. But Doulas has no facility with broad comedy and what’s the point of cartoon gags without cartoon exaggeration? The movie contains a thousand character actors, some of whom we laugh at, some we laugh with: Mel Tillis (who also supplies the movie’s lame soundtrack, and I think co-produced), Paul Lynde (as an Indian!), Strother Martin, Foster Brooks, Ruth Buzzi, Jack Elam. The film limps along from gag to gag for the duration and ends out of left field. Ann-Margret has been trying to schtup scharzenegger right along….and he must be gay or something because he’s not interested (some joke!) In the end, she simply decides to go with Douglas, who leaps around in fast motion like Daffy Duck in response. End of movie.

The Man from Snow River (1982) and The Man From Snow River II (1988)

A Kangaroo western based on a poem by Banjo Patterson, but, hey, Australian westerns count! I remember old Kirk got lots of good notices and lots of coverage for his dual performances in these films when they came out. He was 72 at the time of the sequel.

Draw! (1984)

Another not very funny comedy western casts James Coburn as a drunken ex-sheriff hired to apprehend Douglas after he justifiably shot some men who tried to stop him from leaving town with his fairly gotten poker winnings. The angle is that they are both older men now, and it is “the last days of the old west”.

The Man from Snowy River II was Douglas’s last western, but far from his last film. That was Empire State Building Murders, made 20 years later, when Douglas was 92!