Alvarez Kelly (1966) ***

True stories do not always make good films. It says a lot about stardom that Oscar-winner William Holden virtually single-handedly redeems Edward Dmytryk’s Civil War western. And this was at a time when the actor’s career was in freefall, not having had a hit since The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Although his good looks personified him as a matinee idol, many of his best performances came when he was playing against type, as a shady character, such as in this instance

The essential narrative is that Holden has driven a couple thousand head of cattle from Mexico to deliver to Union troops. Holden plays an “Irish senor” (as defined in the title song) whose Mexican origins provide an excuse to consider the United States an enemy, positioning him as a neutral in the conflict, allowing him to justify his profiteering. Confederate colonel Richard Widmark plans to steal the herd.  Had Holden been a patriot the story would have knuckled down to him trying to thwart such plans, but since he’s a free agent with no allegiance except to himself the film has to take another route. So this involves Holden being captured by Widmark in a bid to turn the Confederate soldiers into cowboys capable of driving the stolen herd.

That would set the film down a fairly standard narrative route of training raw recruits such as Holden would follow in The Devil’s Brigade (1968). But this film evades such a simple format. All we ever learn about the intricacies of handling cattle is that you need a hat and have to be able to sing. Instead, this is a more thoughtful picture about honor versus self-interest, about the human casualties of war. Unlike most westerns it’s not about shoot-outs and fairly obvious good guys and bad guys. In the main it’s a drama about conflicting interests and often how good guys will do bad things in the name their beliefs.

The film doesn’t take sides. Do we root for the Union soldiers fighting to free slaves or the romantic version of the Confederacy? Do we root for the immoral selfish Holden because he’s had a finger shot off as a way of bringing him to heel or do our sympathies lie with the upstanding one-eyed Widmark who has given so much for his cause? 

Dmytryk whose career encompassed The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Young Lions (1958) was on an opposite career trajectory to Holden after box office hits The Carpetbaggers (1964) and Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965). Between them, Holden and Dmytryk just about save what was a misconceived project, an original screenplay by Franklin Coen (The Train, 1964). That it was based on a true story did not make it any better an idea.

Holden is excellent, easing into the world-weary character he would project more fully in The Wild Bunch (1969). And I like his delivery, the pauses between words as if they are occurring to him for the first time rather than rattling them off as is the way of so many stars. Janice Rule (The Chase, 1966) is good as the errant girlfriend who feels let down by Widmark’s honor – and who is open to seduction by Holden – and has her own ideas about what she deserves from the war.  Although it’s tempting to say we’ve seen this craggy Widmark (The Secret Ways, 1961) characterization too many times before, here he adds a further emotional layer as a man who eventually faces up to the personal sacrifices he has been forced to make.    

A man convinced he is doing the right thing versus a guy who couldn’t care less about principle turns out to be an interesting concept though perhaps weighed in favor of the latter by the casting.

Had Widmark played the profiteer I doubt if we would have had such a balanced notion of right and wrong. Holden has the screen charm to get away with playing complicated characters, sometimes (The Counterfeit Traitor, for example) eventually tuning heroic. The idea that, in westerns, it’s not all black-and-white, and that bad guys could provide a moral core would be central to the genre a few years later when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969) made heroes of outlaws and the lawman in True Grit (1969) sailed close to the wind.  

Action fans will be amply rewarded by the ending as Holden attempts to outwit Widmark.

CATCH-UP: William Holden films reviewed so far are The Counterfeit Traitor (1962), The 7th Dawn (1964) and The Devil’s Brigade (1968); Richard Widmark films featured so far are The Secret Ways (1961) – the Blog’s top-ranked film according to our readers – The Long Ships (1964), Flight from Ashiya (1964) and The Way West (1967).

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

A masterpiece to savor. The greatest western ever made. Sergio Leone’s movie out-Fords John Ford in thematic energy, imagery and believable characters and although it takes in the iconic Monument Valley it dispenses with marauding Native Americans and the wrecking of saloons. That the backdrop is the New West of civilisation and enterprise is somewhat surprising for a movie that appears to concentrate on the violence implicit in the Old West. But that is only the surface. Dreams, fresh starts are the driving force. It made a star out of Charles Bronson (Farewell, Friend, 1968), turned the Henry Fonda (Advise and Consent, 1961) persona on its head and provided Claudia Cardinale (Blindfold, 1965) with the role of a lifetime. And there was another star – composer Ennio Morricone (The Sicilian Clan, 1969)

New Orleans courtesan Jill (Claudia Cardinale) heads west to fulfil a dream of living in the country and bringing up a family. Gunslinger Frank (Henry Fonda), like Michael in The Godfather, has visions of going straight, turning legitimate through railroad ownership. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) has been dreaming of the freedom that will come through achieving revenge, the crippled crooked railroad baron Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti) dreams of seeing the ocean and even Cheyenne (Jason Robards) would prefer a spell out of captivity.

The beginnings of the railroad triggers a sea-change in the West, displacing the sometimes lawless pioneers, creating a mythic tale about the ending of a myth, a formidable fable about the twilight and resurgence of the American West. In essence, Leone exploits five stereotypes – the lone avenger (Harmonica), the outlaw Frank who wants to go straight, the idealistic outlaw in Cheyenne, Jill the whore and outwardly respectable businessman Morton whose only aim is monopoly. All these characters converge on new town Flagstone where their narratives intersect.

That Leone takes such stereotypes and fashions them into a movie of the highest order is down to style. This is slow in the way opera is slow. Enormous thought has gone into each sequence to extract the maximum in each sequence. In so doing creating the most stylish western ever made. The build-up to violence is gradual, the violence itself over in the blink of an eye.

Unusually for a western – except oddities like Five Card Stud (1968) – the driving force is mystery. Generally, the western is the most direct of genres, characters establishing from the outset who they are and what they want by action and dialogue. But Jill, Harmonica and Cheyenne are, on initial appearances, mysterious. Leone takes the conventions of the western and turns them upside down, not just in the reversals and plot twists but in the slow unfolding tale where motivation and action constantly change, alliances formed among the most unlikely allies, Harmonica and Cheyenne, Harmonica and Frank, and where a mooted  alliance, in the romantic sense, between Jill and Harmonica fails to take root.

There’s no doubt another director would have made shorter work of the opening sequence in Cattle Corner, all creaky scratchy noise, in a decrepit railroad station that represents the Old West, but that would be like asking David Lean to cut back Omar Sharif emerging from the horizon in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or Alfred Hitchcock to trim the hypnotic scenes of James Stewart following Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Instead, Leone sets out his stall. This movie is going to be made his way, a nod to the operatic an imperative. But the movie turns full circle. If we begin with the kind of lawless ambush prevalent in the older days, we end with a shootout at the Sweetwater ranch that is almost a sideshow to progress as the railroad sweeps ever onward.

No character performs more against audience expectation than Jill. Women in westerns rarely take center stage, unless they exhibit a masculine skill with the gun. There has rarely been a more fully-rounded character in the movies never mind this genre. When we are introduced to her, she is the innocent, first time out west, eyes full of wonder, heart full of romance. Then we realize she is a tad more mercenary and that her previous occupation belies her presentation. Then she succumbs to Frank. Then she wants to give up. Then she doesn’t. Not just to stay but to become the earth mother for all the men working on the railroad.

Another director would have given her a ton of dialogue to express her feelings. Instead, Leone does it with the eyes. The look of awe as she arrives in Flagstone, the despair as she approaches the corpses, the surrender to the voracious Frank, the understanding of the role she must now play. And when it comes to close-ups don’t forget our first glimpse of Frank, those baby blue eyes, and the shock registering on his face in the final shoot-out, one of the most incredible pieces of acting I have ever seen.

And you can’t ignore the contribution of the music. Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in the West has made a greater cultural impact than even the venerated John Williams’ themes for Star Wars (1977) and Jaws (1975) with rock gods like Bruce Springsteen and Metallica among those spreading the word to successive generations and I wonder in fact how people were drawn to this big-screen showing by the opportunity to hear the score in six-track Dolby sound. There’s an argument to be made that the original soundtrack sold more copies than the film sold tickets.

The other element with the music which was driven home to me is how loud it was here compared to, for example, Thunderball (1965), which as it happens I also saw on the big screen on the same day. Although I’ve listened to certain tracks from the Bond film on a CD where the context is only the listener and not the rest of the picture, I was surprised how muted the music was for Thunderball especially in the action sequences. Today’s soundtracks are often loud to the point of being obstreperous, but rarely add anything to character or image.

One final point, Once Upon a Time in the West was reissued not as some kind of retrospective for the director but in memory of the composer.  

Five Card Stud (1968) ****

Another western in sore need of re-evaluation. Largely dismissed as a routine oater trading on the gimmick of a whodunit and packed with old stagers, this is in fact about a serial killer, a treatise on law and order, and almost acts as a conduit between the decade’s previous westerns when the good guys and the bad guys are easily defined to the end of the decade when such distinctions were muddied after The Wild Bunch (1969) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) invited audiences to root for the bad guys. In this rather well-structured picture, full of action and romance, we don’t know who the bad guy is.

The whodunit, however, is really a MacGuffin. The movie is more concerned with investigating the changing mores and hypocrisies of the West and predicting the inherent dangers in the proliferation of weaponry. It’s worth remembering that the movie came out at time when mass murderers such as Charles Whitman (the subject of Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, 1968) who went on a killing spree in 1966 were becoming the norm.

A card sharp is lynched for cheating at poker in the quiet town of Rinchon where late-night gambling is the height of entertainment. One of the players, professional gambler Van (Dean Martin), attempts to stop the hanging but is beaten up for his troubles. No surprise then, that he ambles off to Denver. Sometime later the hangmen begin dying off and Van returns not just to solve the mystery but to ensure that his name isn’t on the list. “If someone is out to kill you, you don’t sit around and let him pick the time,” he concludes. With the number of killings, not to mention brawls and shoot-outs, it’s almost continuous action.

On his return, Van discovers, with a gold strike nearby, the incipient boom town has attracted unsavory elements, not just the high murder quotient but a whorehouse and loud music in the saloon. Acting as counterbalance is gun-toting preacher Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) who announces his presence by spraying bullets in the saloon floor, emerging as the self-proclaimed “conscience” of the town.

For a sometime protector of law and order, Van is rather lax in the morals department, unwilling to commit to main squeeze rancher’s daughter Nora (Katharine Justice) when the likes of Lily (Inger Stevens), the unlikely proprietor of a barbershop-cum-whorehouse, are on hand. Van is an interesting study. Once he becomes aware that the only people likely to end up in an early grave are the six men who played poker with the lynched individual, it doesn’t occur to him to fess up to Marshal Dana (John Anderson) which would ease the fears of the ordinary public. Awareness the only corpses belonged to the guilty would have prevented further outbursts of violence among a disaffected population. Interestingly, too, Dana makes no attempt to investigate the lynching.

At the core of this picture are a couple of amazing scenes as paranoia takes hold. One miner, without the slightest sense of irony, complains that in the old days a gunfight took place face to face, not by a murderer slinking round in the dark. Rudd adds some prophetic advice: “wear a gun and use it fast, wear a gun and use it slow – I say don’t wear a gun and you won’t use it at all.”

Van likes to think he has the measure of women, when in fact they have the measure of him. The story avoids the obvious lure of a love triangle, of jealous women competing for Van’s affections. Both the young Nora and the more mature Lily are pretty well grounded. “One wore-out no-account kiss” is Nora’s dismissive description of Van’s attempts at romance while Lily lets Van know she has taken a shine to him as a matter of convenience, he’s just a man and she hasn’t had one in three years. Expecting to be treated as a pariah, Lily, expressing the notion that “women don’t usually like women who like men,” strikes up a friendship with Nora.

Marshal Dana finds it increasingly difficult to maintain any kind of peace since as the death count mounts, paranoia grows rife, exacerbated by the kind of greed gold fever brings, resulting in citizens determined to challenge authority and take matters into their own hands.

The most antsy character is Nick (Roddy McDowall), Nora’s brother and the leader of the lynch mob. Nick seems to stir up bad feelings, provoking the ire of both his father and Van. The guilty are despatched in original ways, one man “drowns” in a barrel of flour, another strangled by barbed wire, a third wakes the town at night when the church bell to which his neck is attached starts ringing out. It’s not too hard in the end to work out who the killer is, but as I said, that is not the point of the picture, although the ending is satisfactory.

There a mass of small detail of the kind that director Henry Hathaway (True Grit, 1969) tends to work into his pictures. Van is a cut above. He travels to Denver and back by stagecoach not on horseback. Citizens can purchase Pocahontas Remedies and beer from the Denver Brewery. Shaves and haircuts at the Tonsorial Parlor are reasonably priced but “miscellaneous” comes in at $20. After the preacher shoots up her floor, saloon owner Mama (Ruth Springford) smooths out the holes.

And there is some distinctive direction. Rudd’s sermon that lasts nearly 90 seconds is delivered in virtually one take, a fistfight is conducted in silence except for a soundtrack punctuated by grunts and punches hitting their target, a dying man tries to leave a physical clue about the identity of the mysterious killer. And there is a superb main street gunfight with Van trying to rescue the marshal and Rudd striding down the street in old-fashioned gunslinger mode.  

Dean Martin (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) and Robert Mitchum (The Way West, 1969), both with apparently easy-going but magisterial screen personas, come off well together. Inger Stevens (Firecreek, 1968)  always a great screen presence, an ethereal beauty, is vulnerable and strong at the same time. Katherine Justice (The Way West, 1967) is sassy and independent-minded and has a terrific facial response to coming across the first murder.  John Anderson (The Satan Bug, 1965) leads a fine supporting cast including Yaphet Kotto (Live and Let Die, 1973), Denver Pyle (Shenandoah, 1965) and Whit Bissell (Seven Days in May, 1964).

Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts, adapting the novel by Ray Gaulden, contributes some classic lines. “If that is a Bible, read it,” Van instructs Rudd, assuming the preacher has a gun planted in the Holy Book, “If it ain’t a Bible, drop it.” There’s a nod to a James Coburn scene in The Magnificent Seven (1960). Congratulated on his marksmanship in hitting the spinning wheels of a windmill six times out of six, Rudd protests his shooting was a failure since he was aiming for the spaces in between. It was ironic that her next assignment concerned a lawman who took much the same no-holds-approach to the criminal fraternity (True Grit, 1969) as the killer in this picture.

I was so intrigued by this picture, realizing it had much more to offer than a whodunit, that I watched it again within a few days and was pleasantly surprised by its depths.

The Rare Breed (1966) ****

Classic themes of hope, resilience and redemption influence director Andrew V. McLaglen’s follow-up to Shenandoah (1965). Add in a battle against widespread misogyny, thieves falling out, a brilliant stampede and a forlorn hunt that has echoes in the decade-old The Searchers. But other more serious issues are explored. At the film’s core is the question of how a nation built on innovation refuses to countenance change, in other words a country where hierarchy (inevitably male) has begun to impose its preference and how those who suggest alternatives must not just buckle to that collective will but admit they are wrong, a problem that in the half century since the film was made has not gone away.

Widow Martha (Maureen O’Hara) and daughter Hilary (Juliet Mills) bring to auction her white-face Hereford bull, a British institution, the first of its kind to be imported (for breeding purposes, you understand) to America where hardy longhorn cattle are the dominant species. Despite being insulted for her temerity in challenging the existing order, Martha is astonished to receive a winning bid of $2,000, only to realize this comes with conditions attached, the buyer assuming his largesse will also win her, a sharp elbow to the ribs dissuading him of this notion.

Determined to see the bull delivered to the Texan ranch, Martha decides to accompany the animal on its journey. Wrangler Sam (James Stewart), hired to transport it instead plans to steal it and to keep the dupe sweet until the time is ripe encourages her to develop romantic ideas towards him. When another cowboy, Simons (Jack Elam), with eyes on the same four-legged prize causes confrontation the game is up, though Sam sees the trip through.

Rancher Bowen (Brian Keith) belittles the Hereford bull although viewing Martha as a better proposition, but the only way to discover whether the beast can survive in the territory is to let it loose on the open range where it was likely to encounter blizzards (not so rare in Texas as you might think). Once the bull is set free, the movie shifts onto a question of endurance, not just of the animal, but of the mindset of Martha and Sam. Her faith in her insane idea is tested to the limit and, almost in compensation, a woman needing security/protection et al, she comes to appreciate the attentions of a less wild Bowen.

Both central characters have much to lose and much to face up to. Martha, in accepting she was wrong and letting Bowen into her life, will almost certainly be surrendering her independence (she can still be feisty but that’s not the same thing). It’s a testament to her acting that you can see that faith wilting. Sam, a conniving thief whichever way you cut it (although the storyline gives him something of a free pass), has to face up to the fact that he was planning to con a woman out of the precious possession on which her precarious future was built.

The scenes between Martha and Sam are superb, especially when he is grooming what he thinks will be an easy dupe. Sam, in a purgatory of his own making, almost certainly an outcast were the truth more widely broadcast, attempts to expiate his guilt.  

James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara had worked together in Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and there is no denying their screen chemistry. But there’s an innocence that O’Hara rarely displays, the woman in love suppressing those emotions not denying them as perhaps in The Quiet Man (1952). She’s both independent and, if the right man comes along, happy to accept his protection (from the male predators of the West), while at the same time keeping him on the right track and sorting out his world of misshapen priorities. There are some brilliant scenes where something else is going on story-wise and O’Hara is internalizing some deeper emotion entirely. It’s an acting coup for an actress like Maureen O’Hara who would never give up to convey so well a character on the verge of surrender.

This is one of James Stewart’s best roles, far removed from the principled hero of Shenandoah (1965) and returning him closer to the shifty character of Vertigo (1958) adept at self-justification. In the scene where he is found out by O’Hara he is outstanding. It’s not a given that the character will find a way to turn things round and his efforts to redeem himself make the latter part of the picture emotionally involving, especially as this is countered by O’Hara’s own internal battle.

It’s worth pointing out that although the narrative mainly concerns the two main characters, the background is filled with ruthlessness. Not only does Sam feel no compunction about stealing a bull worth $2,000, we first encounter Bowen’s son Jamie (Don Galloway) when he is making off with a herd of his father’s longhorns. The cattle barons use their wealth to “buy” a classy woman and cheat cowboys. And there is further murder along the way.

I was going to mark this picture down for the comedy which seems to amount to endless brawls but I wondered if modern audiences, reared on the never-ending fistfights and wanton destruction that usually indicated the finale of a superhero picture, would accept it quite happily, perhaps even welcome it. While Brian Keith (The Deadly Companions, 1961) stands accused not only of one of the worst Scottish accents committed to the screen – and these days of cultural appropriation – that does not take away from a character who, behind the beard, transitions from loathsome father to something more approaching humanity, in other words wild man who realizes the benefits of civilization.  

In fact, the broad comedy serves to obscure a film full of brilliant, cutting, funny lines, generally delivered in scathing tones by the woman.  O’Hara to Stewart: “You may bulldog a steer but you can’t bulldog me.” Stewart to O’Hara: “Can I help you with that” and her response “No, they’re clean and I’d like to keep them that way.” And that’s not forgetting the sight of the cowboys whistling British national anthem “God Save the Queen” in order to bring the bull to heel.

I forgot to mention the romantic subplot involving Hilary – in case you were wondering what role she had in all this – and Bowen’s estranged son, Jamie. Juliet Mills (Avanti!, 1970), older sister of child star Hayley, is excellent as the sassy daughter of a feisty woman, Don Galloway (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) less of a stand-out in his debut, in part because he has to subsume his rage against his father.

Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) is good as always and you will spot in smaller parts Ben Johnson (The Undefeated, 1969), Harry Carey Jr. (The Undefeated), Barbara Werle (Krakatoa, East of Java, 1968) and David Brian (Castle of Evil, 1966). John Williams, masquerading as Johnny Williams, wrote the score.

Setting the comedy aside, this is a more intimate film from director Andrew V. McLaglen compared to the widescreen glory of The Undefeated and the intensity of Shenandoah and for that reason tends to be underrated. There are some wonderful images, not least Sam carrying the injured Jamie in the style of Michelangelo’s La Pieta – an idea stolen by Oliver Stone for Platoon (1986) – but mostly McLaglen concentrates on the actors.

Sergeants 3 (1962) ***

There’s a terrific western directed by John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) inside this Rat Pack offering, the second of four in the series. On the plus side are plenty twists on traditional scenarios, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin displaying a certain kind of easy screen charisma, and three exceptional and well-choreographed battle scenes.

Sinatra, Martin and Peter Lawford play the eponymous sergeants, Lawford committing the cardinal sin of wanting to quit the regiment to get married, with Sammy Davis Jr. as a former slave, bugler (an important plot point) and horse-lover wanting to sign up, and Joey Bishop (television star and occasional movie actor) as their sergeant-major boss.

A fair bit of time is spent on the usual Rat Pack shenanigans, getting drunk, brawling, playing tricks on each other, and exploring odd comic notions such as playing poker with a blacksmith’s implements as chips. But when it gets down to proper western stuff, it fairly zings along, with a decent plot (a Native American uprising) and excellent action scenes. You could have had William Goldman writing the script for the number of reversals involved as the picture keeps one step ahead of audience expectation.

For a start, rather than flushing out outlaws from a town, the troopers have to remove Native Americans who have taken it over. Instead of the cavalry pursuing Native Americans, it is mostly the other way round. It is the soldiers rather than the Native Americans who attack a wagon. Sinatra finds himself employing a bow-and-arrow and then a tomahawk rather than being on the receiving end of such weaponry.  Instead of dynamite, the good guys make do with fireworks. Where Native Americans are usually pinned down, this time it is Sinatra’s merry band. And when it comes to resorting to serious violence, that, too is usually the remit of the Native Americans, not as here, Sinatra chucking man off a cliff.

When it sticks to action, the picture is very well done and involving. When Sinatra has to take charge instead of larking about, the movie has focus. Both Sinatra and Martin were undertaking serious roles around this time, the former in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the latter in political drama Ada (1961) so this might have appeared welcome relief.

The comedy isn’t along the laugh-out-loud lines of Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) or Blazing Saddles (1973) and the action of so full-on you wonder why anybody thought this required comedy at all, although there is a pretty good punchline ending. Action aside, It’s almost the equivalent of easy listening. The Rat Pack was a particular 1960s institution, the members joining each other on stage in Las Vegas or featuring in television programs, but there’s no real modern correlative.

It was interesting to see how the Rat Pack concept developed. This movie chucked out the idea of including a few songs as with Oceans 11 (1960) while the next one in the series, 4 for Texas (1963) was more of a serious straight western. But the final picture Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) went in the opposition direction and was a full-on musical as if by the time they came to making that picture everyone had realized the film would make more sense if it played to their inestimable talents.

The series developed in other ways, too. Romance was minimal in Oceans 11, barely seen here, but was a major element of 4 for Texas – who would want to waste the talents of Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg – but just as Andress is a smooth operator in 4 for Texas when it came to the last Rat Pack picture Barbara Rush was also a significant player for whom romance was merely a means to an end. You could also argue that the disappearance of Lawford and Bishop allowed the supporting roles to be played by actors who were not in on the joke.

CATCH-UP: the entire Rat Pack quartet has now been reviewed in the Blog with Oceans 11 (1960) and 4 for Texas (1963) also to be found here. Other Frank Sinatra films reviewed are Can-Can (1960), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), The Naked Runner (1967) and The Detective (1968) while for Dean Martin the list, so far, comprises Texas Across the River (1966) and Rough Night in Jericho (1967).

Behind the Scenes: “The Way West” (1967)

As you might expect with a title like this John Wayne was in the frame, at least at the start. But when Burt Lancaster’s production outfit Hecht-Lancaster bought the property that was the end of that casting idea. Hecht-Lancaster was at its peak in 1956, each of its first 11 pictures turning a profit, and just signed up to a $40 million three-year deal with United Artists. Biggest project on the table: $5 million for The Way West with a dream team of Lancaster, James Stewart and Gary Cooper and a script from Clifford Odets (The Sweet Smell of Success, 1957). But by 1959 the dream had soured, with $545,000 already shelled out on the western with no sign of a start date. A year later the project was shelved. When Harold Hecht split from Lancaster, the rights reverted to United Artists.

Hecht’s initial efforts as a solo producer had not paid off, Taras Bulba (1962), Flight from Ashiya (1964), both starring Yul Brynner, and Tony Curtis comedy Wild and Wonderful (1964) all covered in red ink, before suddenly resurfacing with the hit Cat Ballou (1965), making him imminently more bankable than before. However, given the impact music had in Cat Ballou, Hecht hankered after something in the same vein, except bigger, and bought the rights to Finian’s Rainbow, a Broadway hit from 1947. When casting issues caused delay, Hecht signed a one-picture deal with United Artists for The Way West. The studio had such high hopes for the movie that plans were made for its world premiere to be held at the Houston Astrodome, a first, and it was considered a natural for roadshow treatment.

A substantial rejig was required of the source material, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by A.B. Guthrie, by screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann, not least to ensure that the character played by Kirk Douglas remained with the wagon train until the end of the trail, unlike in the book. Andrew V. McLaglen, with three box office western hits behind him in McLintock (1963) starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, Shenandoah (1965) with James Stewart and The Rare Breed (1966) co-starring Stewart and O’Hara, was first choice to sit in the director’s chair.

Charlton Heston (El Cid, 1961) was approached to play the lead of Senator Tadlock. When he turned it down, Kirk Douglas signed on for his first western in five years – although his next would also be a western, The War Wagon (1967) with John Wayne – Robert Mitchum (Villa Rides, 1968) was offered the choice of either scout Dick Summers or firebrand Life Evans. At the end of a long lunch with Hecht and McLaglen, Mitchum could not make up his mind and the producer and director assigned him the role of the scout.

“I’m awfully glad it worked out the way it did,” recalled McLaglen, “because Widmark was perfect for the other part and Mitchum was perfect for the scout.” It might not have been Widmark because Max von Sydow was also reputedly offered a part. Von Sydow was too big a star to play any of the other supporting parts and the part assigned to Widmark was Scandinavian so in that sense an ideal fit.

While Widmark did not attempt a Scandinavian accent, Mitchum spoke Lakota, apparently with a decent accent, in several scenes where he had to communicate with Native Americans. He didn’t learn the language, as modern actors might do, but simply recited the words spoken to him off-camera.  Mitchum and Douglas had acted together in Out of the Past (1947), where the former had the larger role, and, while not sharing scenes, appeared in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), where the billing was reversed. Although not in a directorial capacity McLaglen had worked with Mitchum on Blood Alley (1956) before the actor was fired.

It was an arduous shoot, virtually the whole picture shot as exteriors, in Tucson, Arizona, and in various locations in Oregon including Bend, Christmas Valley and the Crooked River Gorge. Around 400 members of cast and crew made the trek. In the absence of CGI, everything seen on the screen was achieved for real without any recourse to blue screen. The desert was real. When the river was forded, it was with real wagons and the cast. The wagons were raised and then lowered from the tops of cliffs using the old-fashioned methods that would have been available at the time, that is by rope-and-tackle.

In order to begin filming or play less arduous scenes on top of the cliffs, cast and crew went up in a ski lift. “You’re up there, hundreds of feet up, nothing but rocks to call on,” Jack Elam remembered. “If you had to go to the bathroom it was a matter of half an hour down and half an hour up.” When the wagons were lowered down the cliff all the actors at some point had to participate and according to Elam “some people landed in the hospital.” The river crossing was no less dangerous, with the potential for drowning a constant hazard.

“Andy McLaglen…was wonderful through the whole thing. Stayed calm through thick and thin,” said Elam. Added assistant director Terry Morse, “Nothing intimidated him…for all the difficulties he kept it right on schedule.”

Given three stars with reputations, it was not surprising there were flashpoints, Kirk Douglas, apparently, at the heart of most, accused of snatching newspapers out of the hands of supporting players and trying to usurp the director. Commented Harry Carey Jr., “He tried to take over the thing at some point. Widmark got furious at it, very agitated. He screamed, ‘You’re not directing this goddam movie.’ Really raised hell with Douglas.”

Said McLaglen, “Somebody like Kirk Douglas and somebody like Mitchum, they were poles apart in personality. Bob was an easygoing guy and Kirk was more volatile. But there was never a feud.” Just how easygoing Mitchum was – a production assistant was assigned to keep an eye on him just in case he got carried away with his predilection for fishing and was wading in the water when it was time for his next scene.

Kirk Douglas thought so little of the picture there’s not a single mention of it in his autobiography The Ragman’s Son.

The movie wrapped on August 29, two days ahead of schedule, which was quite remarkable given how tough the shoot had been. The fact that it took almost a year to reach screens suggested UA had problems with the finished product. Andrew McLaglen asserted that it had been shorn by nearly 30 minutes after the first round of cinema screenings, but that memory seems faulty given that the film Variety reviewed the movie in mid-May 1967 – a month before its world premiere in Eugene, Oregon, on June 13 – ran 122 minutes, the stated running time. Critics were not kind but the director thought it was “a terrific picture” and “one of the things I dream about today.”

SOURCES: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster, An American Life (Aurum Press, 2000) p171,192, 194; Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care, (Faber and Faber, 2002), p491-495; Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son (Simon & Schuster, 2012); “Largest Independent Motion Picture Deal,” Variety, April 13, 1956;  “Hollywood Report,” Box Office, November 15, 1965, p20; “Hecht’s Oncer for UA,” Variety, March 30, 1966, p5; “Astrodome May Show Hollywood’s Way West,” Variety, May 4, 1966, p12; “Hecht Finishes Production of UA’s The Way West,” Box Office, September 5, 1966, pW5; “Review,” Variety, May 17, 1967, p6.

The Way West (1967) ****

How this crispy-told beautifully-mounted character-driven western ever languished among the also-rans is beyond me. I suspect the specter of John Ford hung heavily over it in the eyes of critics at the time but it more correctly belongs to the cycle of Cecil B. DeMille westerns that told stories with a true historical bent. Often detrimentally compared to How the West Was Won (1963), which told a similar tale of endeavor, this movie deliberately lacks that movie’s inflated drama in which every incident was built up, not least influenced by the need for Cinerama effect, rather than seeking an authentic truth.

Plainly put, the difference is here there are no charges, no races, no fording of rivers in the wrong places. Native Americans are treated with respect. Above all, an epic crossing of the continent with fully-loaded wagons is necessarily going to be slow, risk avoided at all costs, and yet this is not without incident or character arc. In fact, the script is terrific, not just dialogue that rings true, but among the elements brought into play are male rivalry, clash with authority, guilt, young love, revenge, vision, justice, America in embryo. That the movie maintains a stately pace, no fistfights descending into brawls, and a shock ending indicate a director in charge of his material.

Based on A.B. Guthrie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in 1843, the first wagon train heads for Oregon under the iron rule of Senator William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) and guided by a scout with failing eyesight in Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum), both men widowed and in emotional limbo, and in the cantankerous company of Lije Evans (Richard Widmark) and his glamorous wife Rebecca (Lola Albright). There’s a stowaway (Jack Elam), a preacher who can’t afford the price of transportation, an illicit love affair between the vibrant and lusty Mercy (Sally Field) who “hankers after any three-legged boy” but makes eyes at married man Johnnie Mack (Michael Witney), and enough obstacles to keep less determined settlers from reaching their promised land.

Tadlock is the visionary, a politician suffering from an overblown estimation of his self-worth,  who “might have been President except for a woman,” ruthless, valuing only his own ideas. “Point the way,” he tells Summers, “don’t gall me with opinions.” For fear it might interfere with his role as commander, he hides his vulnerability. There’s a plaintive moment when he shares his vision of a city with Rebecca, on the one hand full of his own importance, on the other clearly needing the pat on the back. Later, an occasion of death sees him falling prostate with grief on a grave and on breaking his own laws demands to whipped. The over confident blustering individual is by the end almost suicidal. What is a leader if there is no one to lead?

Summers stoically accepts his infirmity, constantly dropping his head so his eyes are hidden from sight under his hat as if his ailment could be easily detected, mourning the loss of his Native American wife, and while full of Western lore as easily passing on gentle wisdom about love, and his “lucky necklace” to an unrequited lover, but still accused of unworldliness, “for a smart man you ain’t got a lick of sense.”  Evans bristles at any authority, believing independence means he goes his own way, especially if that permits the freedom to get drunk at a time of his choosing, and especially once he realizes such lack of inhibition riles the repressed Tadlock. But his fondness for alcohol triggers an incident that almost costs his son his life.

Celebrations he started catch the attention of the nearby Sioux and in the communal drunkenness a Native American child is accidentally killed. In the best scene in the film battle Sioux seeking justice and intent on attack are thwarted only by the “sacrifice” of the killer.

The picture is packed full of incident, many characters coming alive in a single shot or with one line of dialogue. A woman tramps on her husband’s foot to prevent him challenging Tadlock’s authority. A woman with a baby retorts that she is afraid when bolder settlers facing potential Native American attack assert the opposite. The bravest man in the camp, the first volunteer to be lowered down a canyon, dies when his rope snaps.  

There are any number of reversals. Buffalo, instead of being a danger and prone to stampede, create a dust cloud to hide behind. Rivers are crossed at sensible points, rapids avoided. An African-American whips a white man. A boy becomes a man through honor rather than violence. Stories, large and small, play out in a succinct script.  

Kirk Douglas (The Arrangement, 1969) is superb as a man whose iron core deserts him. Robert Mitchum (Secret Ceremony, 1968), in almost a supporting role, excellent in full awareness that the sight on which his reputation and job depend will vanish, brings a subtlety to his performance that would be recognized as ideal for Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Richard Widmark (The Bedford Incident, 1965), who is generally simmering, gets to mix in a bit of fun in with the simmering.

Lola Albright (A Cold Wind in August, 1961) swaps seductiveness for sense. In her debut Sally Field (Smokey and the Bandit, 1977), filled with zip and zest, sparkles as the lusty young woman and it’s astonishing to realize she would not make another movie for nearly a decade while another debutante Katherine Justice (Five Card Stud, 1968) finds her inner fire when it’s too late.  There’s supporting talent a plenty – Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), Stubby Kaye (Cat Ballou, 1965), Harry Carey Jr. (The Undefeated, 1969) and William Lundigan (The Underwater City, 1962) in only his second film of the decade.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen (The Rare Breed, 1966) captures the correct tone for the film, making up for the essential slow pace with brilliant use of widescreen, coaxing great performances from all concerned. Screenwriters Ben Maddow (The Chairman, 1969) and Mitch Lindemann (The Careless Years, 1957) compress Guthrie’s tome with considerable skill.  

Woefully underrated at the time and since, this deserves reassessment. This is a truer version of how the west was won. And I surely can’t be alone in demanding that McLaglen’s talent be more properly recognized.

The Scalphunters (1968) ****

If ever a film deserves reassessment, this is it. This western, marketed as a vehicle for Burt Lancaster in the wake of hugely successful The Professionals (1968), sees the star playing  cussed trapper Joe Bass trying to retrieve furs stolen first by Native Americans and then by outlaws. That the serious race issues tackled here were dressed up in very broad comedy and typical western action ensured it missed out on the kind of recognition that critics would assign a straightforward drama and lost its rightful place as a pivotal picture of the decade.

In theory, a somewhat unusual Burt Lancaster western. In reality something else entirely. For large chunks of the movie Lancaster is absent as the story follows the fortunes of black slave Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) as he achieves not just freedom but genuine equality. Joseph is introduced as a slave of the Kiowa, left behind when the Indians steal Joe Bass’s furs. In compensation for his loss, Bass plans to sell Lee in the slave market in St Louis and in the meantime enrols him to help recover his furs.

However, a band of outlaws, specializing in collecting Native American scalps (hence the title) and selling them at $25 a time, get to the furs first as a by-product of a raid on the Kiowas. In pursuit with Bass, Lee falls into a river at the outlaw encampment and becomes the slave of Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) who also aims to sell him. Lee plans to escape until discovering Howie’s large troop is headed for Mexico where the slave would automatically become free. With clever talk, beauty-treatment skills and knowledge of astrology and ecology, Lee insinuates himself into the wagon of Howie’s paramour Kate (Shelley Winters).

With Bass still in pursuit, there are several excellent action scenes as the outnumbered trapper seeks to outwit Howie who turns out to be just as devious. But the main question is not whether Bass will recover his stolen property but which side will Lee pick. Will he act as spy to help Bass get back his furs or will he disown Bass and remain with the murderous genocidal gang? Either in the company of Bass or Howie, he is constantly reminded of his status, taking a beating from one of Howie’s thugs, Bass refusing to share his whisky because he views him not just as a slave who “picked his master” but as a coward refusing to fight back when attacked beaten up.

The film comes to a very surprising ending but by that time through his own actions Lee is accepted as an equal by Bass and the issue of slavery dissolved. In effect, it is a tale of self-determination. Lee effects liberty by taking advantage of situations and standing up for his own cause.

Lee is one of the most interesting characters to appear on the western scene for a long time. Exactly where he acquired his education is unclear and equally hazy are how – and from where – he escaped and how he ended up as slave of the Commanches before they traded him to the Kiowa. However he came to be in the thick of the story, his tale is by far the most original. But he’s not the only original. The fearless Bass was an early ecological warrior with an intimate understanding of living off the wild, not in normal genre fashion of killing anything that moves, but in knowing how to find sustenance from plants. That in itself would endear him to modern lovers of alternative lifestyles.

Normally the derogatory term “scalphunters” would be reference to Native Americans, but here it is American Americans who exploit this market. Despite being the leader of a vicious bunch, Howie turns out to be a bit of a romantic and Kate a bit more interested in the world than your average female sidekick.

Director Sydney Pollack (The Slender Thread, 1965) does a marvelous job not just in fulfilling action expectations and taking widescreen advantage of the locations but in allowing Lee to take center stage when, technically, according to the credits, Ossie Davis was only the fourth most important member of the cast. Burt Lancaster was approaching an acting peak, following this with The Swimmer and Castle Keep, happy to take risks on all three pictures, especially here where for most of the movie he is outwitted and ends up in a mud bath.

Both Telly Savalas (Sol Madrid, 19680 and Shelley Winters (A House Is Not a Home, 1964) reined in their normal more exuberant personas.  Savalas, in particular, cleaves closer to his straightforward work in The Slender Thread than the over-the-top performance of The Dirty Dozen (1967). Winters, usually feisty, is here more winsome and vulnerable, apt to be taken in by sweet-talking men.

But Ossie Davis (The Hill, 1965) is the standout, his repartee spot-on. It is a hugely rounded performance, one minute wheedling, the next sly, boldness and cowardice blood brothers, and while his brainpower gives him the advantage over all the others he is only too aware that such superiority counts for nothing while he remains a slave.

It’s dialogue rich and it’s a shame it wasn’t a big hit for that would have surely triggered a sequel – especially in the wake of the following year’s buddy-movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – because the banter between Lee and Bass is priceless. For the dialogue thank the original screenplay by future convicted gun-runner William W. Norton (Brannigan, 1975), father of director Bill Norton (Cisco Pike, 1971).

CATCH-UP: This Blog has covered virtually the entire career this decade of Sydney Pollack. Check out my reviews on The Slender Thread, This Property Is Condemned (1966) and Castle Keep (1969). Burt Lancaster films reviewed are: The Unforgiven (1960), Seven Days in May (1964), The Swimmer and Castle Keep.

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.

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