Tag Archives: western

Clint Eastwood’s much-honored “Unforgiven”

In his multi-Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” (1992). Clint Eastwood’s still blows everyone away in the end—or is it the whiskey shooting? No one can say that Eastwood tried to mask aging on screen here.

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Eastwood played William Munny, a once-vicious outlaw and killer who had retired to farming in Kansas and raising two children (his wife/their mother is dead), who comes out of retirement for that movie cliché “one last job,” to earn a $1,000 reward offered to whomever can kill “Quick Mike” and “Davey-Boy” Bunting, two cowboys who disfigured a woman named Delilah Fitzgerald

In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, gunslinger “English Bob” (Harris) and his biographer, W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) turn up. English Bob is disarmed my the sheriff, “Little Bill” Daggett (Hackman), a gunslinger who has gone straight, but is still a tough and sometimes vicious enforcer of the law (which he defines as he sees fit). “Little Bill” savagely beats “English Bob” before ejecting him from town.

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Though there is a lot of violence, including yet another instance of Eastwood absorbing a lot of punishment before the final shootout, I think the movie is more a critique of violence than a celebration of it. As in the work of Eastwood’s de facto mentors as a director (the film has a dedication to Serge [Leone] and Don [Siegel], who largely forged his steely, laconic persona), critique/celebration is uncertain.

In addition to the impressive acting, the film featured Oscar-winning editing by Joel Cox (who had already edited nine movies directed by Eastwood and a couple of more starring him) and Oscar-nominated cinematography by Jack N. Green (who had already shot half a dozen movies directed by Eastwood).

“Unforgiven” is very well crafted, but is it a great film? Not in comparison to “The Wild Bunch.” In some ways “The Wild Bunch” was more romantic and had more gratuitous violence than “Unforgiven,” but it has an epic/tragic sweep that “Unforgiven” does not—and the wild bunch didn’t shoot their way out against impossible odds in the end. In the final gunfight Eastwood should at least be wounded by Hackman (who earlier kicked the sh_t out of him).

“The Unforgiven” is the best western to win a best-picture Oscar (“Cimarron” and “Dances with Wolves” are the others), but I don’t think is even in contention as “best western” (competition for “The Wild Bunch” includes “The Searchers,” “Fort Apache,” the latter two both directed by John Ford, George Stevens’s Shane,” and Howard Hawks’s “Red River” and “Rio Bravo”).

©1994, Stephen O. Murray

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Gregory Peck in “Only the Valiant” (1951)

Between 1948 and 1958 Gregory Peck forged the more psychologically complex “adult western” genre (“adult” not in the sense of sexually explicit but as dramas for adults rather than white hat/black hat adventures for boys) in five films conemporaneous with Howard Hawks’s “Red River,” John Ford’s “The Searchers,” and the original “3:10 to Yuma” (written by Elmore Leonard, whose work would be adapted into some of the grittiest later westerns, such as “Valdez Is Coming”).

The 1950 “The Gunfighter” in which Peck played the title role (with a notorious mustache) is the prototype, though “Yellow Sky” (1948) has plenty of ironies. Peck had dramatically cracked up as General Savage leading bombing missions in “Twelve o’clock High” (1949) and had been traumatized in Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945), Peck played a series of very tough-minded individuals during the 1948-51 periods, including Captain Ahab in John Huston’s adaptation of “Moby Dick” (1956), the relentless hunter of his wife’s killers in “The Bravados” (1958) ,, battling Charlton Heston in William Wyler’ “The Big Country,” holding a Korean hill in “Pork Chop Hill” (1959), taking out “The Guns of Navarrone” (1961,”and the extremely straight-laced Captain Richard Lance in the 1951 cavalry melodrama filmed in black-and-white “Only the Valiant.”

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At the start, Capt. Lance refuses to let his scout, Joe Harmony (Jeff Corey) shoot the captive Apache chief, Tucsos (Michael Ansara, the future Mr. Freeze, who, btw, was born in Syria). The army does not shoot prisoners Lance avers. Harmony points out that he is a civilian, but very reluctantly accepts Lance’s decision.

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Back at the main fort (Fort Winston), Col. Drumm (Herbert Hayes) is bedridden. He tells Capt. Lance to select a detail to escort Tucsos further away. Harmony tells Lance that this is a suicide mission, that Apaches are all around, flush with having overrun the fort that guarded the pass through which they swoop down (Fort Invincible).

Col. Drumm is annoyed that Lance has chosen himself to lead the detail, and designates Lt. William Holloway (the every ingratiating Gig Young) to lead it. The soldiers and the surgeon’s daughter Cathy (Barbara Payton), who has spurned Holloway because she is in love with the Alpha Male (Capt. Lance), thinks Lance has chosen Holloway because he saw Holloway kissing her, believes that Lance asked to be replaced by Holloway. The audience knows that this is untrue, but as W. I. Thomas famously wrote, “If men [human beings] define a situation as real, it has real consequences.”

The garrulous drunkard, Cpl. Timothy Gilchrist (Ward Bond, borrowed from the John Ford repertory company) looks at the list of the detail and remarks that it has everyone with a grudge against Capt. Lance. Before the Last Stand, Capt. Lance will explain the rationale for choosing the misfits he did. One might wonder if Capt. Lance is deficient in sense and motivating those he is leading. If so, the psychological ju-jitsu seems to work.

“Arab” (Lon Chaney, Jr.) goes from trying to kill Lance (when he returned from Holloway’s failed expedition and again at the start of the posting to the waterless Fort Invincible guarding the pass) to twice saving Lance.

 

The early 1950s began to portray Apaches (the last pacified indigenous peoples) as something other than bloodthirsty savages (Broken Arrow, Apache, Taza – Son of Cochise. “Only the Valiant” doesn’t portray them much at all. The attackers are brave and Tucsos is a bit arrogant, but mostly the Apaches are shown attempting to push white invaders back.

The movie reminded me of some later movies with small bands of misfits meshing (The Dirty Dozen, Seven Samurai, They Came to Condura), and even more explicitly uniting Confederate and Union soldiers against Indian attacks (Return to Fort Bravo and Major Dundee) with plucky last stands (Return to Fort Bravo, Zulu, Seven Samurai). Capt. Lance is not a megalomaniac in the mold of Gen, Custer, Lt. Col. Thursday (Henry Fonda’s martinet in “Fort Apache”) … or Capt. Ahab.

Although his mission is to buy time for relief troops to reach Fort Winston, Lance is not suicidal, has plans to close the pass, and genuinely aims to return with as many of his misfit detail as possible.

Peck is really, really good as the straight, straight arrow officer with savvy as well as inflexible rectitude. When Cpl. Gilchrist is asked why he didn’t kill the captain, he replies that without him, they have no chance to survive the mission. The respect the captain inspires is very grudging but very real, and Peck makes it credible.

The supporting cast is also good (except for the wooden Payton as the only marriageable woman around). Bond runs with the opportunities provided by the role of the roguish drunk (who can shoot and prevail in hand-to-hand combat even when under the influence), the kind of role the alcoholic John Ford often assigned to Victor McLaglen.

I thought that the black-and-white movie was shot in a studio. The pass did not look at all right to me, and the movie’s Chiricaua Apaches were not in anything resembling the Chiricauha Mountains of northeastern Arizona. The location shooting (of which I think there was not much!) was somewhere in northeastern New Mexico (Galllup) — Navajo country.

Though the location looked wrong (fake) to me, a lot of the movie takes place at night. There is none of the visual splendor of John Ford’s westerns (black-and-white or color ones) in Lionel Lindon’s (Going My Way, I Want to Live!, The Manchurian Cndidate) serviceable, rather noirish cinematography. Franz Waxman (Rebecca, Sunset Boulevard, A Place in the Sun) provided a varied and solid musical score.The print transferred to DVD (with no bonus features other than some trailers for other westerns) is not very good, I’m glad to have been able to see the movie, which George Chabot long ago recommended to me, but wish that it had been remastered. As a pioneer tough-minded western, it deserves better than Lions Gate has provided. I’d give the DVD two stars, but the movie is a solid and interesting 4+ stars.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

A lot of acting talent wasted in pursuit of “MacKenna’s Gold”

Mackenna’s Gold” is a long and strange 1969 movie about cupidity. It stars Gregory Peck as Sheriff Mackenna who, after a mystical encounter with an Apache chief who has a map showing the way to a legendary cache of gold, is captured by Mexican bandito Colorado (Omar Sharif) to lead a mixed party of Apaches (including Julie Newmar!!!) and other outlaws (including Keenan Wynn playing Mexican) to the gold of the spirits.

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The route from Monument Valley to Canyon de Chelly is remarkably long (maybe because it goes rather far out of the way to Grant’s Pass in Oregon) and plot complications are many. Townsmen, including Burgess Meredith, Edward G. Robinson, Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Massey, John Garfield Jr., et al. and two visiting Brits (Anthony Quayle and Robert Porter) hear rumors of gold and follow Eli Wallach to join the expedition. There’s also a dwindling cavalry squadron headed by Telly Savalas in pursuit of Omar Sharif, another hostage played by a charisma-lacking actress names Camilla Sparv, and Apaches attacking everyone.

It gets very “Lord of the Rings” near the end albeit with less convincing special effects. There’s lots of western (mostly northern Arizona) scenery throughout (the last movie shot by Joseph MacDonald, whose best work was in “The Sand Pebbles”),and an adequate Quincy Jones soundtrack. Plus, there’s a pretentious ballad that is not as grating as those in some 50s and 60s westerns (even though it is sung by José Feliciano) and for no good reason a narrator commenting with heavy-handed irony (a popular 60s device borrowed from early cinema noir).

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Gregory Peck was superb at conveying tough integrity and highly developed survival skills. J. Lee Thompson directed him in a much better instance, “Cape Fear,” in the ridiculous and unthrilling Cold War thriller “The Chairman” and, in another screenplay by Carl Foreman (who wrote “High Noon” and the adaptation of “Bridge on the River Kwai”), in the popular action film “The Guns of Navarrone.”

I was really disappointed when Omar Sharif revealed to Gregory Peck what he wanted to do when he was a millionaire. I was hoping that he was going to want to see the Pyramids, but he had a more conventional dream destination.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

1943 rom-com with Jean Arthur and John Wayne

In 1943, when Columbia’s legendarily despotic chief Harry Cohn lent his top female star to Republic to make a romantic comedy with its rising male star John Wayne, Jean Arthur had a string of successful and very funny comedies (The Devil and Miss Jones, Talk of the Town, The More the Merrier), as well as having played the female lead in two of Frank Capra’s best-loved movies (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Arthur exerted a pixieish charm with an odd mix of the prim and the brassy.

As the title character in “A Lady Takes a Chance,” she plays Molly Trousdale, a stylish New Yorker. She is first seen—wearing a very large hat—boarding a transcontinental bus. Each of her three suitors brings her presents and bid her very reluctant adieux. With such ardent male attention, her seatmate is puzzled about why she is leaving. The back stories of her three relationships is never filled in, but it seems more that she is not in love with any of them than that she can’t make up her mind. But maybe she is taking a trip to see the country to clear her mind and make a choice.

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Within ten minutes of the opening, the bus tour members are at a rodeo. Molly is at the edge of the stands trying to take a snapshot when a cowboy is thrown over the fence and lands on top of her. The cowboy (and the “chance” of the title) is John Wayne, called (in this movie and offscreen) “Duke.” He is drawn to her, but is used to rodeo groupies and saloon denizens and doesn’t know how to talk to a “lady.”

He takes her to a saloon, where many female friends flirt with him and Molly looks dignified, if pained. They try again and he wins $238 playing craps with her blowing on the dice. Listening closely to dice she is given to roll herself, she realizes they are loaded and reduces the all-or-nothing bet to $1. The Duke is impressed. He is also impressed by her downing a potent drink called “cactus milk.” Soon there is a barroom brawl, followed by offending Molly after she has missed her bus.

The brawl, the bandiage, the offenses, etc. are all standard issue 1930s and 40s Hollywood issue. The high point for viewers and the low point for Molly is a night on the desert, freaked out by coyote howls and being so cold she steals Duke’s horse’s blanket.

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In a motel that is remarkably well stocked with everything Molly needs to whip up a romantic candlelit dinner, Duke recoils at being snared by domesticity—drawing the line at wearing an apron to help with washing the dishes. He is a “don’t’ fence me in” man who enjoys many woman, not (he thinks) a “one-woman man.” Indeed, his “better half” (the Duke’s label) is Waco, one of those grizzled, maternal cooks so common in midcentury westerns. Waco is played by Charles Winninger who created the role of Cap’n Andy in the original stage production of “Show Boat” and repeated the role in the 1936 film version. Screen formula requires Molly to supplant Waco, though actually speaking of it as a “divorce” as the Duke does, borders on risqué for that era.

The role of Duke makes few demands on John Wayne, who is charming and restive enough. Although he was a star already in 1943, he was a star in formulaic westerns churned out by a third-rate studio (Republic). The films that would make him a superstar (The Angel and the Badman, Fort Apache, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Sands of Iwo Jima) were all made after World War II…by which time Arthur was free of her Columbia contract and very choosy about roles and directors.

“A Lady Takes a Chance” has some stock rodeo footage and cheesy studio sets. There is nothing notable visually. The screenplay (by Robert Arsey) is formulaic sitcom, directed by journeyman William A. Seiter, who directed more than a hundred movies I’ve never heard of along with the Astaire-Rogers vehicle “Roberta,” the Marx Brothers’s antics in “Room Service,” and “One Touch of Venus,” Ava Gardner’s first leading role.

Molly must have been very skilled at packing, since she has only one small suitcase and many outfits (need I add that they emerge without a wrinkle?), as well as at motel haute cuisine.

 

Arthur and her western sidekicks are charming, but were in better screen vehicles.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

1958 somewhat revisionist western, “The Big Country”

I like both Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons a lot, so was inclined to like William Wyler’s “The Big Country” (which I saw on tv many decades ago). In some ways it is a revisionist western, somewhat like “High Noon,” not as radical as “The Searchers,” or even “The Gunfighter” (with a mustachioed Peck), the first of the revisionist westerns of the 1950s.

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Peck played James McKay, a Yankee sea captain, who has come west to wed Patricia Terill (Caroll Baker), the devoted (to an unhealthy degree) daughter of doting cattle baron, Major Henry Terrill (the gravel-voiced Charles Bickford). McKay refuses to prove his masculinity in public, though the audience is privy to demonstrations his fiancée is not, including fighting the major’s foreman, Steve Leech, played by a surly Charlton Heston, in a memorable knock-down, drag-out fistfight shot from far above. There is also a God’s eye (well, at least canyon rim top) view of the final one-on-one gunfight between the stubborn patriarchs (Burl Ives, winning his Oscar). There are more conventional, closer-up shots of the duel between Peck and the eldest, weasliest son of Rufus Hannassey, “Buck” (Chuck Connors).

None of the four Hannasey boys is a testimonial to good child-raising. As the eldest, “Buck” had to have had more time with a mother. His father deplores him, but has to have a major share of the blame for Buck’s character. Rufus otherwise seems a perspicacious observer and interpreter of what is unsaid. And he is either the only one who remembers despicable deeds by the major, or the only one with the courage to allude to them. (I don’t know what the major did that so riled Hannassey, and Patricia certainly won’t listen to anything disparaging of her father.)

In addition to the Hannassey’s Blanco Canyon (shot in Kern County, California’s Red Rock State Park) and the major’s vast holdings (shot in the Sierra foothills east of Stockton), there is a river with year-round water, the Big Muddy, on land owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who allows access to the water to both the Terrill and Hannassy cattle. She lives in town and teaches school, the ranch she inherited (form her grandfather; I have no idea what happened to her parents) is fallow (well, ungrazed). She and Pat and the major are friends, but she abides by her grandfather’s promise to allow the Hannasseys access to the Big Muddy.

Having resisted offers to sell from both sides, Julie precipitously accepts an offer from McKay to buy the property. Steve and his henchmen drive Hannassey cattle away, though neither Julie nor McKay would support this. (I don’t think Steve knows the deed had changed hands, and am not sure whether he is acting on his own or following orders from the major.)

Buck seizes Julie. The major’s mini-army is set to go in the narrow canyon to rescue her. McKay knows this is just a pretext and goes in himself to get her out. Violence follows, if less than the threatened “river of blood.”

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McKay is as stubborn as the two patriarchs, though trying to make peace between two clans that do not want that and not at all given to public posturing, in contrast to the senior antagonists and their junior ones (Heston and Connors). Peck was very, very good in the role (fresh from the monomania of Captain Ahab), as were the old enemy patriarchs Ives and Bickford played.

I can’t see McKay being so smitten by the superficial Patricia as to give up his way of life and go to wed her in her own (that is, her father’s) turf. It is obvious that Julie is smarter and more compatible. Do they love each other? I’m not sure, and though they are together at the end, there is no indication they will live together happily ever after, or at all. And the heirs of both Terrill and Hannassey ranches are less prudential than the patriarchs, and it is difficult to foresee McKay keeping the peace that he has tenuously established by pushing the old men to fight each other rather than to sacrifice surrogates to their enmity.

Veteran cinematographer Franz Planer (who was Oscar-nominated for Wyler-directed “Roman Holiday” and “The Children’s Hour”) did good work. Presumable the shooting from up and away was Wyler’s decision. Jerome Moross’s rousing western score (kicking in in the opening credits; thankfully this is one 1950s western without a ballad!) foreshadowed scores by Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, and was Oscar-nominated. (Dimitri Tiomkin won for “The Old Man and the Sea.”)

The adaptation to a big-screen, all-star, 165-minute-long movie from a story by Donald Hamilton (creator of Matt Helm) was credited to Wyler and to Jessamyn West, the author of Friendly Persuasion, which Wyler had directed an adaptation of (not crediting her work beyond the novel) in 1956. It centers on a pacifist who was played by Gary Cooper (who took up arms in Howard Hawks’s “Sgt. York”).

I’m still not sure that Burl Ives deserved the Oscar for his part here, but for me the alternative choice would have been his “Big Daddy” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He definitely peaked in 1958! His Golden Globe for 1958 was also for his role in “The Big Country,” btw. And Wyler went on (even before shooting was complete) to Rome to direct Heston in the title role of “Ben Hur,” for which both won Oscars.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray