Behind the Scenes – “Hour of the Gun” (1967)

Blame Robert Wise for falling behind on The Sand Pebbles (1966), otherwise John Sturges  would have pressed ahead with Steve McQueen pet project Day of the Champion (later resurrected as Le Mans, 1970, though minus Sturges). Needing another hit after the consecutive box office failures of The Satan Bug (1965) and The Hallelujah Trail (1965), Sturges fell back on an equally favoured project, The Law and Tombstone, a revisionist and darker look at the Wyatt Earp legend, with “a few liberties taken so it doesn’t become a documentary.” Despite the failings of the last two films, Mirisch had just re-signed Sturges, expanding his current deal from two to four pictures.

“It seemed like a first-rate idea,” recalled producer Walter Mirisch, who had worked with Sturges on The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). In his memoir he said, “If there was still a market for Western pictures, John Sturges was certainly the ideal director to test it.” (Mirisch’s memory is a bit hazy here regarding the commercial prospects for westerns – 1966 had seen box office success for El Dorado, Nevada Smith, The Professionals and The Rare Breed while 1967 would usher in The War Wagon and Hombre among others). The initial idea was to re-team Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, to which this was a sequel, but Paramount, which had made the original picture, nixed the notion.

The image for the Japanese poster was taken from the initial shootout at the O.K. Corral that opened the picture.

James Garner came on board in the main because he still owed Mirisch, marking a decade in the business, a picture. He had originally worked for Mirisch in The Children’s Hour (1961). He was hired for “not much,” a straight salary, but credited Mirisch with kick-starting his career after his battle with Warner Brothers. Mirisch had also funded By Love Possessed (1962) in which Sturges had directed Jason Robards, “a brilliant actor though one with problems” (something of an understatement).

There was some surprise in Hollywood when Sturges returned to Mexico after the difficulties – censorship, threats to boycott the film, union issues – he had encountered shooting The Magnificent Seven there. Having vowed “never to make another picture” in that country, “one of the reasons we’re back here is because they’ve eased up on regulations.” Having expected to import most of the cast from Hollywood, the producers were delighted that “six of the ten other featured parts” went to Mexicans, as a result of extensive auditions. Although Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch, 1969) remained director of cinematography, a Mexican camera crew was hired with Jorge Stahl in charge.

James Garner takes the stand in court defending himself against allegations of murder.

Shooting began on November 9, 1966, at Torreon, “a quiet little agricultural town with a single hotel and bar,” where a fake town had been built at a cost of $100,000. Filming shifted to Churusbusco Studios in Mexico City on December 20 and four weeks later production wrapped after exteriors at a hacienda near San Miguel de Allende for the face-off with Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan in the film).

James Garner (The Great Escape, 1963) was keen to be reunited with Sturges. “I was happy to play the character,” reminisced Garner, “because John always knew what he was doing. He would take five, six, seven factions in a story and bring them together.” Garner saw Earp as “a guy taken with his own power, who nobody could defy.” 

Jason Robards, as Doc Holliday, with a well-known wild side, was difficult to manage. Assistant directors were dispatched every morning to find out where, bar or brothel,  the actor had ended up the night before. Sturges rounded on him when Robards turned up at lunch for a scheduled 8am start. He was perfect after that. Unusually, Sturges would invite the cast to watch the dailies. Producers Mirisch were not happy with the title which was eventually changed to Hour of the Gun.

“My mistake,” rued Sturges, “was that I thought people would be fascinated by the real story about the quarrel between the Earps and the Clantons. You didn’t just shoot people, there were trials, lawyers, citizens’ committees…I got preview cards that said of all the stories told about Earp and Holliday this was the dullest. They (the audience) considered them fictional characters. They couldn’t have cared less that that’s the way it really was.”

As Variety pointed out in its review: “Probing too deeply into the character of folk heroes reveals them to be fallible human beings – which they are of course – but to mass audiences …such exposition is unsettling.”

Edward Anhalt’s screenplay was based on this book published in the late 1950s.

There were clearly reservations about the project. Mirisch announced it was “ready for release” at the end of March 1967 but it did not see the light of day for another seven  months. Although the film was budgeted at just over $3 million – $1 million more than In the Heat of the Night (1967), another Mirisch project – and received tremendous support from the industry-wide “Fall Film Fair” promotional campaign (“commended…for excellence in entertainment”) it was a huge flop in the U.S. bringing in a miserable $900,000 in rentals (the amount studios receive once the cinemas have taken their share of the gross). It did better abroad with $1.5 million but the total was nowhere near enough to recoup the costs.

“Also playing a large role in the reaction to the picture was the continued loss of interest by audiences in Western pictures,” said Mirisch. “I was again guilty of thinking that this trend would reverse and that Westerns, led by a hit picture, would return to favour stronger than ever. I was wrong. As a new generation arose, their interest in westers had been satiated, probably by television, and they now embraced the so-called Easy Rider era of movie-making.”

This is another piece of faulty memory. The year after the release of Hour of the Gun   commercial success was enjoyed by Bandolero!, Hang ‘Em High and The Scalphunters to name a few and Will Penny and The Stalking Moon, both revisionist westerns, won critical favour. And, apologies for harping on about it, but, as I showed in my book The Gunslingers of ’69, that year proved a box office bonanza for westerns despite Easy Rider.

SOURCES: Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) p257-262; Walter Mirisch, I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), p259-260; United Artists Archive, Appendix II, University of Wisconsin; “Mirisch, Sturges Revamp Pact for Two More Films,” Box Office, July 25, 1966, W-1; “James Garner Moves from Actor To Future Producer Status,” Variety,  October 5, 1966, 5; “Director John E. Sturges Returns to Mexico for Law and Tombstone,” Box Office, November 7, 1966, pW-2; “Mirisch Schedules Five Major Films,” Box Office, March 13, 1967, p10; “Film Title Changes,” Box Office, April 24, 1967, p18; Advert, Box Office, Aug 28, 1967, p4-5; Review, Variety, October 4, 1967, p16.

Hour of the Gun (1967) ****

Destroy a legend at your peril. Mythic western hero Wyatt Earp (James Garner) goes down’n’dirty after the death of his brother, spurning law and order to turn bounty hunter, which is legitimate, and then vigilante, which is not, in pursuit of Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan). A revisionist western, then, with director John Sturges substantially reimagining the image of Earp he had been instrumental in creating through Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), a box office smash starring Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as sidekick Doc Holliday.

The first change is to keep Clanton alive, having been a casualty in the previous picture. The opening sequence sets the record straight. But corruption and the law acting in conjunction pull Earp and Holliday (Jason Robards) up on criminal charges though they are found innocent. When corrupt law fails to work, Clanton resorts to ambush, killing Earp’s brother. Clanton organises a posse of twenty men to kill Earp while the lawman sets up his own, smaller, team of bounty hunters.

It soon transpires Earp’s warrants are little more than “hunting licenses” and although marginally he errs on the side fairness the odds, courtesy of his superior gunplay, remain substantially stacked in his favour and he picks off the villains one by one, pursuing Clanton into Mexico.

This is the story of Wyatt Earp in transition, shifting into lawlessness, at a time – 1881 – when the West itself was undergoing dramatic change, big business from the East forcing greater acceptance of the law (and using it for their own purposes), the growth of the cattle barons and the gradual elimination of the gunslinger, gunfighter and criminal gangs. There’s no room for romance as there was in O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven (1960) just pitiless determination to revenge. But there’s little of the all-male camaraderie that informed The Great Escape (1963). Earp and Holliday remain tight but the others in their gang have been somewhat forcefully enlisted.

The poster is very misleading, giving the impression of an all-action
gun-toting movie rather than one of somber reflection.

The best scenes are the result of Earp conniving, revealing a streak Machiavelli would have envied, even duping Holliday, until it’s clear the Earp of legend has been vanquished. Sturges congratulates himself on telling the “truth.” But that’s the problem. The truth involves a lot of background that slows the picture down. And presenting Earp as transitioning is pretty much a blatant lie. Earp was clearly as ruthless killer at the O.K. Corral as he is now and no amount of pointing to corrupt law can eliminate the fact that the lawman prefers to kill villains rather than see them face justice. So there’s really no transition. Earp is a more civilized version of The Man With No Name. But at least he accepts it. There’s no hypocrisy involved.

The two principals are superb, shucking off the mannerisms that previously defined their screen personas. Gone is the trademark James Garner cheeky chap, the grin and even the slicked-back hairstyle. He is your father in a continually bad mood now rather than your favorite uncle full of japes. How much Sturges pinned back Robards’ capacity for over-acting can be seen by comparing this with the actor’s performance in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).

Full marks for Sturges in trying to tell a complex, morally ambivalent, story, and he avoids the more grandiose approach to changes in the West as instanced in Once Upon a Time in the West. The early courtoom scenes slow down the narrative when a couple of lines of dialogue could have done the same job. But it is exceptionally true in its depiction of Earp. There is not a bone of redemption in his body. He is going on a killing spree and he doesn’t care who knows it or how it damages his reputation, still high enough before the final episode of the revenge hunt for him to be touted as a future lawman-in-chief for Arizona.

Nor does Doc Holliday offer anything in the way of consolation. This isn’t like The Wild Bunch where a ruthless band of robbers convince themselves they have a code of honor and provide rough camaraderie as a way of filling in the emotional gaps in their lives. Holliday mistakenly sees Earp as man who could not exist outside the law without destroying himself, but that would only concern an Earp who was still interested in rules. Holliday, a self-confessed killer, over 20 deaths to his name, seeks redemption by saving Earp from himself. But in keeping with the raw truth, he is wasting his time. “I’m through with the law,” proclaims Earp, somewhat redundantly, once he dispatches his final victim.

It was a different kind of western at a time when in mainstream Hollywood there was no such thing. Although elegiac in tone, it cuts to the mean. And it was the forerunner of other, more critically acclaimed, westerns like Will Penny (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and in a sense it was precursor to Dirty Harry (1971) where in order to obtain justice Harry Callahan has to throw away his badge.

Many reasons have been advanced for the film’s commercial failure, most erroneously assuming that the genre had fallen into disrepair and was not revived until the glory year of 1969, but as I point out in my book The Gunslingers of ’69, that was far from the case. The same year as Hour of the Gun, John Wayne had ridden high on the box office hog with The War Wagon to follow the previous year’s El Dorado and Paul Newman as Hombre had been a big hit. The first two spaghetti westerns, only released in the U.S. in 1967, were also given as instrumental in the failure of Hour of the Gun, but neither was a massive box office hit. Revisionism had not quite hit the target with the public either as witness Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The most likely reason was the fact that Sturges set out to dispel a myth that the public were happy with, that the movie was slow moving, and the characters essentially unlikeable. John Ford averred that when the legend became fact you printed the legend, but the opposite was patently not true here.  Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, 1965) wrote the screenplay based on a straight-shooting biography by Tombstone’s Epitaph by Douglas D. Martin. who had previously written about the Earps.

It might be cold, and at times meandering, but it offers up a fascinating character study and although Earp’s transition could be construed as tragedy, the destruction of a good man, Sturges takes no refuge in such an idea. This is Sturges boldest, most courageous, picture and he does nothing to soften the killing. Where The Magnificent Seven, another bunch of killers, ride into Mexico on the back of a bombastic theme tune, this is a much leaner effort, and all the richer for it.

The Valley of Gwangi (1969) ****

The special effects are in the five-star range while the movie into which they fit is really worth no more than three stars so I’ve compromised, hence the four-star rating. Actually, the story and characters are interesting enough, and there are some stunning cowboy stunts,  though where is a fur-lined bikini when you need one. Although we are treated to prehistoric monsters, humans fail to have managed the transition to the hidden valley where the creatures have kept out of sight for millions of years. Instead, we are in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Mexico.

However, one specimen, a miniature horse, known as El Diablo, has been found and now resides in a rodeo, property of T. J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) whose showstopping turn involves leaping on horseback from a high platform through a ring of fire into a pool of water.  Ex-flame and sleek salesman Tuck (James Franciscus) and archaeologist Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith) follow gypsies who aim to return the horse to the Forbidden Valley. T.J. and a band of cowboys are in pursuit.

I saw this double bill in 1969 when it was shown on the ABC circuit in Britain.

Widening a tiny gap into the unknown world also of course means it’s not big enough for the monsters to escape. The valley is ruled by Gwangi, an Allosaurus, which to most of the audience looks remarkably like a T. Rex. Various battles ensure. A Pteranadon swoops down from the sky and captures one of the cowboys but is killed by Carlos (Gustavo Rojo). Gwangi fights an Ornithomimus and a Styracosaurus. Even if your knowledge of prehistoric monsters  isn’t up to identifying each creature, no matter, the fights are very well done, and a step up in terms of special effects from similar tussles in Harryhausen’s previous venture in One Million Years B.C. (1966) especially as we are less distracted by females attired in fur bikinis.

Naturally, the intent is to capture Gwangi and put him on show a la King Kong (1933) and it’s equally obvious how this particular maneuver is going to work out. That the story follows this particular angle is down to the fact that the movie was the original idea of Willis O’Brien, the special effects genius to created King Kong. After considerable development, RKO shelved the project on the assumption the public was not interested in dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, back in the human tale, the previously principled T.J. lets greed get the better of her and begins resisting Tuck’s overtures. Even if you can guess the finale, it is pretty well done.

Ray Harryhausen only had a limited fanbase in the 1960s, otherwise this picture would not have done the rounds as the supporting feature to Robert Mitchum western The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969). You can tell it lacked the budget of One Million Years B.C. because the creatures fail to remain a consistent color. Even so, this ranks as one of the top special effects achievements and these days Harryhausen’s work is much more appreciated.

Unless you are Raquel Welch, it’s difficult for an actor to compete with prehistoric monsters. At least here, the stars had decent dialogue and the tangled romance provides entertainment as do the host of stunning stunts in the rodeo and a bull running amok. Charlton Heston look-alike James Franciscus (Youngblood Hawke, 1964) is a plausible love interest who doesn’t let romance get in the way of a fast buck. The role of Gila Golan (Our Man Flint, 1966) extends to more than eye candy and there’s not a bikini in sight or disrobing of any sort. Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954) was a sci-fi veteran and Laurence Naismith had appeared in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). British actress Freda Jackson (The Third Secret, 1964) plays a witch.

Director Jim O’Connolly (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969) keeps the human elements rolling along and once monsters join in the fun there’s scarcely time to draw breath. William Bast (Hammerhead, 1968) pulled together the human and monster elements for the screenplay.

Harryhausen fans will have a ball.

Texas Across the River (1966) ****

Excellent comedy western mixing dry wit and occasional slapstick to joyous effect. The wedding between Spanish duke Don Aldrea (Alain Delon) and Louisiana belle Phoebe (Rosemary Forsyth) is interrupted by her previous suitor Yancy (Stuart Cottle) who is killed in the resulting melee. Escaping to Texas, Don Aldrea’s marksmanship leads settler Sam (Dean Martin) to recruit him to help fight raiding Commanches. Romantic entanglement ensues when the Don rescues Native American Lonetta (Tina Marquand) and Sam has more than a passing interest in Phoebe.

It is so tightly structured that nothing occurs that doesn’t have a pay-off further down the line. Bursting with terrific lines – including a stinger of a final quip – and set pieces, it pokes fun at every western cliché from the gunfight, the cavalry in hot pursuit, and fearsome Native Americans to the snake bite and the naked bathing scene. Incompetence is the order of the day – cavalry captain Stimpson (Peter Graves) issues incomprehensible orders, chief’s son Yellow Knife (Linden Chiles) cannot obey any.

The Don, with his obsession with honor and his tendency to kiss men on the cheeks, is a comedy gift. Despite his terrific head of hair, he is stuck with the moniker “Baldy” and every time he is about to save the day he manages to ruin it. Sam is the kind of guy who thinks he is showing class by removing his spurs in bed while retaining his boots. His sidekick Kronk (Joey Bishop), a mickey-take on Tonto, mostly is just that, a guy who stands at the side doing nothing but delivering dry observations.

Lonetta is full of Native American lore and has enough sass to keep the Don in his place. “What is life with honor,” he cries to which she delivers the perfect riposte, “What is honor without life?” Phoebe is a hot ticket with not much in the way of loyalty.

Two sequences stand out – the slapping scene (whaat?) and a piece of exquisite comedy timing when Sam, Phoebe and the Don try an iron out a complicated situation.

Good as Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) is the picture belongs to Alain Delon (Once a Thief, 1965) and I would argue it is possibly his best performance. Never has an actor so played against type or exploded his screen persona. Delon was known for moody, sullen roles, cameras fixated on his eyes. But here he is a delight, totally immersed in a role, not of an idiot, but a man of high ideals suddenly caught up in a country that is less impressed with ideals. If he had played the part with a knowing wink it would never have worked.

Martin exudes such screen charm you are almost convinced he’s not acting at all, but when you compare this to Rough Night in Jericho it’s easy to see why he was so under-rated. Joey Bishop (Ocean’s 11) is a prize turn, with some of the best quips. Rosemary Forsyth (Shenandoah, 1965) is surprisingly good, having made her bones in more dramatic roles, and Tina Marquand (Modesty Blaise, 1966) more than holds her own. Michael Ansara (Sol Madrid, 1968) played Cochise in the Broken Arrow (1956-1958) television series. Under all the Medicine Man get-up you might spot Richard Farnsworth. Peter Graves of Mission Impossible fame is the hapless cavalry leader.

Director Michael Gordon (Move Over, Darling, 1964) hits the mother lode, the story zipping along, every time it seems to be taking a side-step actually nudging the narrative forward. He draws splendid performances from the entire cast, knowing when to play it straight, when to lob in a piece of slapstick, and when to cut away for a humorous reaction, and especially keeping in check the self-indulgence which marred many Rat Pack pictures – two of the gang are here, Martin and Bishop. There’s even a sly nod to Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns when the electric guitar strikes up any time Native Americans appear. Frank De Vol (Cat Ballou, 1965) did the score.

Rough Night in Jericho (1967) ****

Woefully under-rated western with three A-list stars at the top of their game in a taut drama with an explosive ending. Not surprising it was overlooked at the time with John Wayne duo El Dorado and The War Wagon, Paul Newman as Hombre and an onslaught of spaghetti westerns garnering more attention at the box office. Though a rewarding watch, be warned this is more of a slow-burn drama than a traditional western and both male leads play against type.

Former lawmen Dolen (George Peppard) and Ben Hickman (John McIntiyre) have invested in a stagecoach business owned by twice-widowed Molly Lang (Jean Simmons), just about the only business in Jericho in which Alex Flood (Dean Martin) does not have a controlling interest. Dolen’s first reaction on surmising Flood’s power is to quit, “stepping in’s a habit I outgrew.” And it’s not a bad approach given that Flood is judge, jury and executioner and apt to leave victims strung up to dissuade dissent.

Dolen and Flood have a great deal in common, moving from ill-paid law enforcement into business, Flood, having cleaned up the town, staying on the reap the profit. While Dolen avoids confrontation, Molly aims to stir up opposition, invoking ruthless reaction.

What’s unusual about this picture is it’s mostly a duel of minds, Dolen and Flood testing each other out, neither backing down even while Dolen intends quitting and when he happens to win a bundle in a poker game with Flood you have the notion that was somehow an inducement to help him on his way.  It’s a power game of sorts, too, between Dolen and Molly, she determined to give no quarter to the point of drinking him under the table.

But when violence occurs it is absolutely brutal, Flood’s knuckles bloodied raw as he batters a man foolish enough to challenge his rule of law, Dolen taking an almighty whipping from Yarbrough (Slim Pickens), Molly viciously slapped around by Flood for daring to look at Dolen. When Dolen does move into action it is with strategic skill, gradually reducing the odds before the inevitable shoot-out between respectable citizens and gangsters.

A good half century before the notion took hold, this is a movie as much about entitlement, about those doing the hard work receiving just reward, Flood, having risked his life to tame the town, deciding he should be paid more than a sheriff’s monthly salary. And the western at this point in Hollywood development had precious few female businesswomen in the vein of Molly.

Cover of the Pressbook

Both Dean Martin and George Peppard play against type. An unexpected box office big hitter through the light-hearted Matt Helm series, Martin explodes his screen persona as this vicious thug, town in his thrall, contemptuous of his victims, turning politics to his advantage, but still happy to hand out a beating when charm and chicanery fail. This is one superb, and brave, performance.

For Peppard, this picture is the bridge between the brash persona of The Blue Max (1966) and Tobruk (1967) and the thoughtful introspective characters he brought to life in P.J. / New Face in Hell (1968) and Pendulum (1969). Perhaps the most telling difference is a little acting trick. His blue eyes are unseen most of the time, hidden under the shade of his wide-brimmed hat. He is not laid-back in the modern sense but definitely unwilling to plunge into action, movement both confined and defined, a man who knows his limits and, no longer paid to risk his life, unwilling to do so.

Jean Simmons (Divorce American Style) is in excellent form, neither the feisty nor submissive woman of so many westerns, but clever and determined, perhaps setting the tone for later female figures like Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles (1969).

And this is aw-shucks Slim Pickens (Major Dundee, 1965) as you’ve never seen him before. John McIntire had spent most of the decade in Wagon Train but he punches above his weight as a mentoring lawman. If you are trying to spot any other unusual figures keep an eye out for legendary Variety columnist Army Archerd  who was a walk-on part as a waitperson.

More at home in television, director Arnold Laven took to the big screen on rare occasions, only twice previously during the decade for Geronimo (1962) and The Glory Guys (1965), but here he handles story and character with immense confidence and considerable aplomb. The direction is often bold – major incidents occur off screen so he can concentrate on the reactions of the main characters. There is a fabulous drunk scene, one of the best ever – plus an equally good hangover sequence –  the violence is coruscating, all the more so because it is not delivered by gun.

The screenplay by Sidney Boehm (Shock Treatment, 1964) and Marvin H. Albert (Duel at Diablo, 1966) swings between confrontation and subliminal menace.

Stagecoach (1966) ****

It’s probably sacrilege to admit that I quite enjoyed this. Also it’s been so long since I’ve seen the John Ford original that I could remember very little of the specifics and I haven’t seen the remake before so this was just like watching a new movie.

Basically, it’s the story of a group of passengers taking the stagecoach to Cheyenne for different reasons who are joined by an escaped murderer and shepherded along by the driver and a town marshal. There is some excellent action but mostly it’s a relationship picture, how the characters react to one another and their response to crisis.

Good-time girl Dallas (Ann-Margret) is on the run, banker Gatewood (Bob Cummings) is hiding a stash of stolen money, alcoholic doctor Boone (Bing Crosby) is penniless, liquor salesman Peacock (Red Buttons) is a coward, gambler Hatfield (Mike Connors) has Civil War secrets, pregnant Lucy Mallory (Stefanie Powers) is meeting her cavalry husband in Cheyenne. Ornery Buck (Slim Pickens) is the driver. Curley (Van Heflin) is riding shotgun and when he comes upon stranded escaped murderer the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord) promptly arrests him.

The drama unfolds as the characters confront each other or their own weaknesses. Dallas, who had a high old time as a saloon girl, is way out of her depth in respectable company,  concealing the secret of her affair with the married Gatewood. Ringo coaxes her along, bringing her out of her shell, giving her back self-respect, and of course falling in love. Curley, with his eyes on the $500 reward for bringing Ringo in, has no intention of letting the gunslinger take his revenge in Cheyenne on Luke Plummer (Keenan Wynn) who killed his family. Boone and Peacock provide the fun, the doctor spending most of his time separating the salesman from his cargo of booze.

There are endless permutations with a story like this, the kind of material favoured in  disaster movies like Airport (1970) and The Towering Inferno (1974) where disparate characters battle for survival. The action is only part of the deal. The picture only truly works if the characters are believable. For that, you need a heap of good acting. The audience could certainly rely on old dependables like Bing Crosby (The Road to Hong Kong, 1962) in his big screen swansong, Van Heflin (Shane, 1953), Red Buttons (Oscar-winner for Sayonara, 1957), Robert Cummings (Saboteur, 1942) and cowboy picture veteran Slim Pickens to put on a good show. But the main dramatic load was to be carried by relative newcomers Ann-Margret and Alex Cord.

Ann-Margret has made her name with sassy light-hearted numbers like The Pleasure Seekers (1964) and had only just stepped up to the dramatic plate with Once a Thief (1965). This was Alex Cord’s sophomore outing after Synanon (1965), the odds stacked against him making any impact in the role which turned John Wayne into a star. 

Amazingly, the casting works. Ann-Margret moves from feisty to restrained, meek to the point of being cowed, and for most of the film, far removed from the false gaiety of the saloon, seeks redemption. The cocky trouble-making minx emerges only once, to knock the wind out of Mrs Mallory, but, after taking a tumble down the humility route, gradually steers her way towards a better self, preventing Gatewood from causing chaos, nursing Mallory and inching her way towards true feelings for Ringo. As in the best movies, it’s not for her to open up about her woeful life but for another character, in this case Ringo, to identify her predicament: “What you doin’ about your scars, you got ‘em even if they don’t show…when you goin’ to stand up and stop crawlin’?” When they finally kiss it is one of the most tender kisses you will ever see.  

My reservations about Alex Cord’s acting skills were based on his moustachioed performance in Stiletto (1969) but I reversed my opinion after seeing him in The Scorpio Letters (1967) and this is another revelation. As much as he can deliver on the action front, and sports on occasion a mean-eyed look,  it’s in the dramatic scenes that he really scores, gentle, vulnerable, caring. He certainly matches the Duke’s trademark diffidence in terms of romance. That the camera can mine depths of expression from both faces proves the calibre of their acting.

If director Gordon Douglas (Rio Conchos, 1964) had more critical standing, his bold long opening aerial tracking shot over rugged forest, mountain and plain before reaching the stagecoach would have received the acclaim accorded Stanley Kubrick for a similar shot in The Shining (1980). The opening also makes it clear how far removed this is from the original, not just in colour obviously, but (although filmed in Colorado) in a different locale, Wyoming, rather than the arid Arizona of Monument Valley. After a brief glimpse of the stagecoach, Douglas switches to a cavalry troop making camp. A soldier going into a wagon is met by a hatchet in the head. The camera tracks the corpse’s blood as it flows down a stream where it alerts another soldier washing clothes. Before he can raise the alarm, he gets a lance in the back.

Where the passengers have heard rumors, quickly dismissed (“nobody got scalped by an old rumor”) of the Sioux (Apaches in the original) on the warpath, the audience has seen the cavalry troop slaughtered, so (in effectively a Hitchcockian device) provides the movie with the tension the on-screen characters initially lack The passengers soon grasp reality when they come across another patrol dead at a staging post, and eventually are battling for their lives when ambushed. But prior to that there is a tense sequence of leading the stagecoach across a narrow mountain ridge during a storm.

There’s a clever reversal before the Sioux onslaught. The passengers think they have seen soldiers approaching, but it is the Sioux wearing cavalry uniforms. There is no river to cross as in the original, but the chase along a mountainous path is breathtaking, aerial and tracking shots given full rein, ending in a shoot-out without (as in the original) the cavalry riding to the rescue.

Douglas has his work cut out with the drama, as various characters confront their issues, and his staging is superb, characters always given reason to move. Screenwriter Joseph Landon (Rio Conchos) borrowed material from the Dudley Nichols original but added and subtracted quite a bit.

At the time critical deification of John Ford had not begun and Hollywood was in a cyclical remake mood – new versions of Beau Geste and Madame X appearing the same year – so Gordon Douglas didn’t quite face a critical backlash, although praise was generally sparse. Judging by the box office it received an audience thumbs-up – as it does from yours truly.

You can rent this on Amazon Prime.

The Harder They Fall (2021) * – Seen at the Cinema

Here’s the set-up: a cavalry officer, who has looted a town and slaughtered its population, apparently, is given the task of transporting notorious outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) by train from one jail to another for no particular reason, but a higher-up soldier has hired the remainder of Buck’s gang, led by Trudy Smith (Regina King) and Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield), to attack the train and kill this officer and in return Buck is granted is freedom. The train driver is so dumb that seeing a horseperson astride the track he simply stops the train, obviously not realising what time period he is in, and that in the lawless West, this person is not taking up this position because they missed their stop. When Buck returns to Redwood, a town no bigger than a postage stamp, he discovers it is actually extremely rich, source of wealth not explained either, except the money has been stolen by his associate Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole), leaving Buck to somehow recover the $50,000 that has been lost.

Buck has been on a losing streak, his own gang having been robbed of $25,000 by another gang led by Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), whose family, incidentally, has been slaughtered by Buck who carved a cross in the young Nat’s forehead, making him of course far too instantly recognisable for such a chosen profession, but that doesn’t seem to bother him.  

And that’s before it gets complicated with Love trying to get the drop on Buck, Buck trying to regain his stolen cash, rival gunslingers wanting to demonstrate their quick-draw skills, and rival saloon keepers Trudy and Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz). Fields is another contender for the dumb-and-dumber award after thinking the best way to scout the postage-sized town of Redwood is not just to sneak up in darkness and have a looksee but instead to pretend she’s moseyed into town with the intention of buying up the saloon and not having the sense to work out that Buck is just going to capture her and use her as bait. Oh, and just in case in case you do get lost, geographically, the titles of the various locations are splashed over the screen in ginormous letters.

Not only is the story a mess but it’s awash with songs, some of which appear thematically or historically relevant, but most are not and one of which written by director Jeymes Samuel (making his feature debut) was chosen as the ideal accompaniment for the climax. You might as well have called this picture Anachronism City, which is a shame because all the leading characters were real people. It was maybe a stretch to find a historically-accurate story in which to feature real people, but surely it could not have been so difficult as this.

And don’t get me started on the money – $25,000 / $50,000. Really? Don’t remember Butch Cassidy or Jesse James earning that amount. Where’s all this meant to come from? Did nobody on this picture have any idea how much people earned – and therefore could save – or how much might be in a bank vault? This is pluck-an-idea-out-of-the-air screenwriting.

There’s definitely a good deal of energy on show but mostly of the music video kind. There’s explosive violence of course. And occasionally there is a decent piece of composition. And you can’t fault the acting despite the failings of the script and the tendency towards Tarantino philosophizing. But it’s pretty much a complete misfire, especially if you like your westerns.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) *****

A mighty cast headed by John Wayne (True Grit, 1969), James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965), Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) and Vera Miles (Pyscho, 1960) with support from Edmond O’Brien (Seven Days in May, 1964), Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966), Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) and Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1967) do justice to John Ford’s tightly-structured hymn to liberty and equality and reflection on the end of the Wild West. So tight is the picture that despite a love triangle there are no love scenes and no verbal protestations of love.

The thematic depth is astonishing: civilization’s erosion of lawlessness, big business vs. ordinary people, political chicanery, and a democracy where “people are the boss.” Throw in a villain with a penchant for whipping and a lack of the standard brawls that often marred the director’s work and you have a western that snaps at the heels of Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948) and The Searchers (1956).

The story is told in flashback after Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and wife Hallie (Vera Miles) turn up unexpectedly in the town of Shinbone for the funeral of a nobody Tom Donovan (John Wayne), so poor the undertaker has filched his boots and gunbelt to pay for the pay for the barest of bare coffins. Intrigued by his arrival, newspapermen descend and Stoddard explains why he has returned.

The backstory unfolds. Arriving on stagecoach, novice lawyer Ransom is attacked, beaten and whipped by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). He is found by horse-trader Donovan (John Wayne) and taken to a local boarding house-cum-restaurant where Hallie (Vera Miles) tends his wounds. With a young man’s full quotient of principle, Stoddard is astonished to discover that local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) has ducked out of responsibility for apprehending Valance on the dubious grounds that it is outside his jurisdiction and that Valance has so mean a reputation he has the town scared witless. When Valance turns up he humiliates Stoddard and only Donovan stands up to him, rescuing an ungrateful Ransom, who detests violence and any threat of it.

Stoddard soon turns principle into action, setting up his shingle in the local newspaper office run by Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) and on learning that Hallie is illiterate establishing  a school for all ages. In the background is politics, but the push for statehood is inhibited by big ranchers who employ Valance to intimidate. Despite his aversion to violence and insistence that due legal process will eliminate the law of the gun, Stoddard practices shooting. When Donovan gives him a lesson and, to point out his unsuitability to confront such a mean character as Valance, covers him in paint, Stoddard floors him with a punch.  

That principle I mentioned has something in common with Rio Bravo (1959) – Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon (1952) – in that Stoddard, determined to fight his own battles, refuses to ask for help when targeted by Valance. The inevitable showdown is extraordinary, not least because it takes place at night and Ford, a la Rashomon (1951) tells it twice from different points of view.   

Precisely because it retains focus throughout with no extraneous scenes as was occasionally John Ford’s wont, the direction is superb. As in The Searchers, to suggest emotional state-of-mind, the director uses imagery relating to doors. This time the humor is not so broad and limited primarily to one incident. Both main male characters suffer reversals, in the case of Stoddard it is physical but in the instance of Donovan it is emotional. Either way, action is character. In the romantic stakes, they are equals, dancing around their true feelings.

Upfront there is one storyline, the upholding of law and order whether against an individual such as Valance or against the attempts of big business to thwart democracy. But underneath is a subtly-told romance. Donovan and Stoddard are allies but in terms of Hallie they are rivals. Neither have an ounce of sense when it comes to women. Neither actually protests their love for Hallie. Although Donovan brings her cactus roses and is, unknown to her, building an extension to his house to accommodate what he hopes is his future bride, his idea of romance is to mutter, in patronizing manner, the old saw of “you look pretty when you’re angry.”  He would have been wiser to have taken note of her spunk, because she can be more than direct if need be.

Stoddard isn’t much better. Despite her growing feelings towards him being obvious to the audience, he assumes she prefers Donovan. Action drives the love element, the need to save or destroy.

All three principals are superb. This may seem a typical Wayne performance, a dominant figure, comfortable with a gun and his abilities, but awkward in matters of the heart. But he shows as great depth as in The Searchers and the despair etched on his face at the possibility of losing Hallie eats into his soul. Stewart combines the man-of-the-people he essayed for Frank Capra with some of the toughness he showed in the Anthony Mann series of westerns. Vera Miles tempers genuine anger with tenderness and practicality. Unlike many Ford heroines she is not a trophy wife, but a worker, mostly seen running a kitchen. Lee Marvin cuts a sadistic figure, with an arrogance that sets him above the law, his tongue as sharp as his whip.

As well as Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Edmond O’Brien and Lee Van Cleef, you will spot various members of the John Ford stock company including Andy Devine (Two Rode Together, 1961) as the cowardly gluttonous marshal, John Carradine (Stagecoach), John Qualen (The Searchers) as the restaurant owner and Jeanette Nolan (Two Rode Together) as his wife.

The boldest part of the picture, however, comes at the end, when the director dismantles the myth built up around Stoddard and which the politician has used to create a career that spanned two terms as a Senator, three terms as a Governor and been the American Ambassador to Britain. So be warned, if you ain’t seen the picture, this is spoiler alert. In some respects, Ford was way ahead of his time. The twist at the end where the good guy is revealed as the villain of the piece is more of a contemporary trope. There were plenty of pictures where the villain appeared to have gotten away with it only to be caught out at the very last minute. This is not that kind of movie. Stoddard gets away with it for the simple reason that he fits the heroic mold.

“Print the legend” is very much the standard American attitude to myth. Dig deeper and what you find is hypocrisy. Man-of-the-people Stoddard’s life is based on bare-faced fraud. He took the glory for an action he did not commit. Of course this was in the days before newspapers found that bringing down politicians sold more papers than building them up and these days I doubt if such a scoop would be ignored.

Nor for all his upstanding image does Stoddart show the slightest sign of remorse – until now when he must know his confession will never see the light of day. (Maybe, if he had gone to the New York Times but not the Shinbone paper). He built his entire career on this violent action, the antithesis of his supposed stance on process of law.  He takes all the plaudits and fails to acknowledge Donovan, except when it’s too late, and Donovan has died a pauper, his rootless life perhaps engendered as a result of losing Hallie. Hallie’s character, too, is besmirched. She chose Stoddart precisely because he was a man of principle who risked his life to tackle – and apparently kill – Donovan. Those two elements are indistinguishable. Had she know Stoddart had failed and was only saved by the action of Donovan it is questionable whether she would have chosen the lawyer.

There are a couple of other quibbles, not so much about the picture itself, but about other quibblers, commonly known as critics.  Alfred Hitchcock famously came under fire for the use of back projection, not just in Marnie (1964) but other later films. That spotlight never appeared to be turned on the at-the-time more famous John Ford. The train sequence at the end of the film uses back projection and the ambush at the beginning is so obviously a set.

Don’t let these put you off, however, this is one very fine western indeed and fully justifies its growing critical status.

CATCH IT ON THE BIG SCREEN: By the way, if you live in Italy you can catch this on the big screen in Bologna where it is showing at Il Cinema Ritrovato – Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna on July 20-27, 2021.

Readers’ Top 30

I’ve been writing this Blog now for one year, beginning July 2020, so I thought I’d take a look at which posts proved the most popular (in terms of views) with my readers. So here’s the annual top 30 films, ranked in order of views.

  1. The Secret Ways (1961) – Richard Widmark and Senta Berger – making her Hollywood debut – behind the Iron Curtain in gripping adaptation of the Alistair Maclean thriller.
  2. Ocean’s 11 (1960) – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Rat Pack in entertaining heist movie set in Las Vegas.
  3. It’s Not All Rock’n’Roll (2020) – remarkable documentary about the other side of the music business as ageing rocker Dave Doughman tries to keep his dreams alive.
  4. Age of Consent (1969) – British actress Helen Mirren makes her movie debut as the often naked muse for painter James Mason in touching drama directed by Michael Powell.
  5. The Venetian Affair (1966) – Robert Vaughn shakes off his The Man from Uncle persona in taut Cold War thriller also starring Elke Sommer as his traitorous wife and Boris Karloff in a rare non-horror role.
  6. The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl / La Louve Solitaire (1968) – French cult thriller starring Daniele Gaubert as sexy cat burglar forced to work for the government.
  7. Pharoah / Faron (1966) – visually stunning Polish epic about the struggle for power in ancient Egypt.
  8. The Swimmer (1968) – astonishing performance by Burt Lancaster as a man losing his grip on the American Dream.
  9. Stiletto (1969) – Mafia thriller with hitman Alex Cord and and illegal immigrant girlfriend Britt Ekland hunted by ruthless cop Patrick O’Neal.
  10. The Naked Runner (1967) – after his son is taken hostage businessman Frank Sinatra is called out of retirement to perform an assassination.
  11. Marnie (1964) – Sean Connery tries to reform compulsive thief Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
  12. Our Man in Marrakesh / Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) – Entertaining thriller sees Tony Randall and Senta Berger mixed up in United Nations plot involving the likes of Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom.
  13. The Happening (1967) – Anthony Quinn locks horns with Faye Dunaway and a bunch of spoiled rich kids in kidnapping yarn.
  14. Dark of the Sun / The Mercenaries (1968) – Rod Taylor and Jim Brown head into the heart of darkness in war-torn Africa with a trainload of diamonds and refugees including Yvette Mimieux.
  15. The Guns of Navarone (1961) – men-on-a-mission Alistair Maclean World War Two epic with all-star cast including Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Stanley Baker, Irene Papas, James Darren and Gia Scala.
  16. The Sicilian Clan (1969) – three generations of French tough guys – Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Alain Delon – clash in Mafia-led jewel heist.
  17. 4 for Texas (1963) – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as double-dealing businessmen in highly entertaining Robert Aldrich Rat Pack western starring Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg.
  18. Five Golden Dragons (1967) – Innocent playboy Robert Cummings becomes enmeshed with international crime syndicate led by Christopher Lee, George Raft and Dan Duryea.
  19. Duel at Diablo (1966) – James Garner and Sidney Poitier team up to protect Bibi Andersson in Ralph Nelson western.
  20. Move Over Darling (1963) – after years marooned on a desert island Doris Day returns to find husband James Garner just married to Polly Bergen.
  21. Pressure Point (1962) – prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier is forced to treat paranoid racist inmate Bobby Darin.
  22. Wonder Woman 84 (2020) – in one of the few films to get a cinematic screening during lockdown, Gal Gadot returns as mythical superhero to battle supervillain Kristen Wiig.
  23. Genghis Khan (1965) – Omar Sharif as the Mongol warrior who conquered most of the known world, tangling with rival Stephen Boyd and Chinese mandarin James Mason on the way.
  24. A Fever in the Blood (1961) – Warner Bros wannabes Efrem Zimbalist Jr, Angie Dickinson, Jack Kelly and veteran Don Ameche in tough political drama.
  25. The Prize (1963) – Paul Newman and Elke Sommer investigate murder in the middle of the annual Nobel Prize awards in Sweden.
  26. In Search of Gregory (1969) – wayward Julie Christie embarks on pursuit of Michael Sarrazin who may – or may not – be a figment of her imagination.
  27. Justine (1969) – Dirk Bogarde and Michael York become entangled in web woven by Anouk Aimee in corrupt pre-World War Two Middle East.
  28. The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) – singer Marianne Faithful in a hymn to the open road and sexual freedom.
  29. Blindfold (1965) – psychiatrist Rock Hudson and dancer Claudia Cardinale in highly entertaining mystery thriller about missing scientists.
  30. Hammerhead (1968) – secret agent Vince Edwards and goofy Judy Geeson on the trail of evil mastermind Peter Vaughn.

My Five-Star Picks for the First Year of the Blog

It’s a been a fabulous year for watching the movies and my pictures of the year (the first full year of the Blog running from July to June, I hasten to add) make up an eclectic collection ranging from historical epics, dramas and westerns to horror, thrillers and comedy. Although this is my chosen decade, many of the films I was seeing for the first time so it was interesting to sometimes come at a film that had not necessarily received kind reviews and discover for one reason or another cinematic gems. There was no single reason why these pictures were chosen. Sometimes it was the performance, sometimes the direction, sometimes a combination of both.

The westerns I most enjoyed came from either ends of the decade – John Wayne and Rock Hudson in magnificent widescreen spectacle The Undefeated (1969) and Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and the team in The Magnificent Seven (1960).

There was another ensemble all-star cast in J. Lee Thompson war film The Guns of Navarone (1961) one of the biggest hits of the decade with Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Stanley Baker et al.

Horror brought a couple of surprises in the shape of Daliah Lavi as the Italian peasant succumbing to The Demon (1963) and Peter Cushing menaced by The Skull (1965).

Not surprisingly perhaps Alfred Hitchcock headed the ranks of the five-star thrillers, but surprisingly to some, this was in the shape of Marnie (1964) with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren rather than some of his decade’s more famous / infamous productions.  Heading the romantic thrillers was the terrifically twisty Blindfold (1965) with Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale teaming up to find a missing scientist. The Sicilian Clan (1969) proved to be a fine heist picture in its own right as well as a precursor to The Godfather with a topline French cast in Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Jean Gabin.

Only one comedy made the five-star grade and what else would you expect from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), slightly outside my chosen remit of films from the 1960s, but impossible to ignore the chance to see Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon strutting their stuff on the big screen. For the same reason I had the opportunity to re-evaluate Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning historical epic The Gladiator (2000) that gave Hollywood a new action hero in Russell Crowe. Stylish contemporary sci-fi chiller Possessor (2000), from Brandon Cronenberg,  was another one seen on the big screen, one of the few in this year of the pandemic.

Most people would certainly put Paul Newman as prisoner Cool Hand Luke (1967) in this elevated category but, to my surprise, I found several other dramas fitted the bill. The clever sexy love triangle Les Biches (1968) from French director Claude Chabrol made his name. Burt Lancaster turned in a superlative and under-rated performance in the heart-breaking The Swimmer (1968) about the loss of the American Dream. Rod Steiger, on the other hand, was a hair’s-breadth away from picking up an Oscar for his repressed turn as The Pawnbroker (1964).

Two films set in the Deep South also made the list – Marlon Brando in Arthur Penn’s depiction of racism in small-town America in The Chase (1966) with an amazing cast also featuring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and Michael Caine as a more than passable arrogant southerner in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown (1967) opposite rising star Faye Dunaway. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s hymn to the freedom of the motorbike in Easy Rider (1969) turned into a tragic study of attitudes to non-conformity.

For only eighteen films out of a possible two hundred to make the cut indicates the high standards set, and I am looking forward to as many, if not more, brilliant films in the year to come.

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