Custer of the West (1967) ****

Far grittier than I expected for a portrayal of one of America’s greatest, if flawed, western heroes. Far darker, with a two-fisted take on the endemic corruption at the highest level that fuelled the Indian Wars. Revisionism with a punch. And bold enough to turn Cinerama tropes on their head.

We should deal with the last first because that reveals the extent of the bitterness that seeps through a biopic in which a soldier’s great skills are put to unwarranted use. You may recall that from its earliest days, Cinerama relied on thrills of a specific nature, one that like 3D put  viewers in the driver’s seat, only to scare the pants off them. You were always racing towards danger, whether that be down the rapids in How the West Was Won (1962) or downhill along twisting roads in The Battle of the Bulge (1965). There always seemed a runaway train to hand. Whatever, it was just a thrill ride, occupants escaping unhurt.

Not so here. The men on the runaway wagon have been tied to it. It careens downhill all right, at one point from an upside down point-of-view, but it ends up over the cliff, no escape for the men. A soldier rides a log river to escape Native Americans. He manages that but is killed on dry land by an arrow all the same. A runaway train falls into a burning bridge. The normal thrills, then, with a realistic edge.

The reward for the great hero, Custer (Robert Shaw), gallant leader of sixty dashing cavalry charges during the Civil War, is a commission with the 7th Cavalry in the Dakotas on a mission described by General Sheridan (Lawrence Tierney) as “plain robbery,” the blatant theft of land from Native Americans.

That’s virtually the first scene, a brutal analysis on the American West, greedy land-guzzling settlers requiring protection, a soldier in obeying orders tacitly agreeing to wage an unholy crusade, not a justified war against slavery.

And Custer doesn’t inherit your John Ford cavalry unit, where every drunk has redeeming features, if only to provide some comedy. His second-in-command, Major Reno (Ty Hardin) is an alcoholic, nearly an entire battalion of malingerers on sick parade. Although later spouting chivalrous nonsense about hating machines, it’s the cannon Custer brings to bear on the enemy that provides initial victory, permitting the boast that 255 men conquered the Cheyenne nation. But, of course, such triumphalism proves premature, the Cheyenne and Sioux taking revenge on defenceless towns.

Custer is presented with ambivalence, but granted something of a free pass given his intolerance of alcohol, antipathy to the war and whistleblowing that points the finger at government officials and corrupt businessmen. On the other hand he is the chief marketeer of his own image, vainglorious, not least in his determination to win the Battle of the Little Big Horn on his own, arriving a day ahead of other assigned forces.

He is both ruthless and comforting. Instead of upbraiding a mutinous soldier for stealing water during a trip over the desert, he tells him to wait till sundown when his thirst will be quenched. But, despite repeated broken treaties, he lacks sympathy for Native American chief Dull Knife (Kieron Moore) for failing to comprehend that a superior power will always win. There’s a bit too much crammed into a relatively short running time. A Russian appears to point out that the United States is negotiating to buy Alaska. Railroads enter the equation and an early version of a tank. An anonymous prospector has gold teeth because he likes “the taste of gold.” Robert Ryan makes a cameo appearance as a deserter.

All that is redundant when the venality confronting Custer is dealt with in one brilliant scene when gold prospectors start digging up the fort in the hope of finding the precious mineral.

I’m no expert on the historical accuracy but by and large whether this portrayal of the life and times of General Custer is actually true it certainly rings true.

British actor Robert Shaw (Battle of the Bulge), with his mean shifty eyes and trademark tight-lipped side-of-the-mouth delivery, doesn’t quite bring enough shade to the characterisation, but possibly that’s the fault of the screenplay, which has cast him, outside of the final calamitous engagement, as even more heroic in the political arena than on the battlefield. As his wife, Mary Ure (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) appears only fitfully and has little to do. Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs, 1992) is excellent as the self-serving Sheridan. Just like the later Cinerama epic Krakatoa East of Java (1968) this suffers from lack of recognizable stars.

Director Robert Siodmak (The Crimson Pirate, 1952) creates a literate, revisionist, western that ensures intelligence is not swamped by action. Bernard Gordon (Krakatoa East of Java) and Julian Zimet (Circus World/The Magnificent Showman, 1964) are credited with the screenplay.

A worthy attempt to use a legend to explore the greater issues of the day.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) ***** Now Officially The Greatest Western of All Time

Having complained about lists and then recanted when one of my favorites got the nod at the top of the heap, I’m doing the same again.

The recent Sight & Sound once-in-a-decade Directors Poll did the unthinkable and placed Once Upon a Time in the West ahead of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) which, virtually since release, had been anointed the top western of all time. The critics who participated in the Critics Poll, which ran concurrently with the Directors Poll, were not, I hasten to add, quite so convinced. According to the critics, the John Ford picture was still top dog, ahead of the Leone masterpiece in second place. But in a battle between directors, who make a living making pictures, and critics, whose only skill is writing about them, I know which side I would come down on. And in any case I had long sided with the directors on this issue.

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, Harmonic 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 back 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 is 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 realise 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-up 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.

If you live in the U.K. you should get the opportunity to see this once again on the big screen because the British Film Institute, which coincidentally owns Sight & Sound, is planning to screen all the 100 films in its latest poll. Other countries might take note.

Bandolero (1968) ****

Darkest – and possibly the most under-rated – western of the decade featuring a top-class cast playing against type, down-and-dirty in its depiction of the itinerant cowboy, an ending you won’t see coming and if it’s not a heretical notion close cousin to the later The Wild Bunch (1969).

Gang of outlaws led by Dee (Dean Martin), condemned to death for robbing a bank, is rescued by his brother Mace (James Stewart) posing as a hangman.  While a posse led by Sheriff Johnson (George Kennedy) is in hot pursuit and the outlaws kidnap as potential hostage recently widowed Maria (Raquel Welch), Mace, sauntering through the deserted town, indulges in a bit of larceny himself.

All head for Mexico, a pitiless region, where the posse are picked off by bandits, the outlaws directed by the native Maria towards a small town which turns out to offer no safety at all. While there’s plenty action, this is more character-based. Mace and Dee are on the Civil War divide, the former (still sporting his Union uniform) riding with General Sherman, the latter with the Confederate Quantrill’s Raiders, despised by Mace as nothing more than glorified killers.

And while they are both outlaws, Mace blaming his situation on the Civil War, they are divided too by a sense of honor, Mace making it a point of principle never to harm women or children, Dee, far removed from any sense of himself, guilt-ridden, past caring, and lonely, can’t remember the last time he was with a woman he respected.

Sheriff Johnson is in pursuit in part due to unrequited love for Maria. Quick to action  in a professional capacity, he is tongue-tied in her presence. Nor has the newly-wealthy Maria much need of a male protector. A whore since the age of 13 to provide for her extended family, sold into marriage nd acceptance that for security not love, she has been, ironically, set free by violent robbery. Dee’s gang views Maria as plunder, rape imminent should the brothers turn their backs. While Maria has little interest in another male protector she finds herself attracted to Dee.

Mace is mostly peacemaker, prodding his weaker sibling into responsibility, trying to instil into him the kind of code by which the likes of The Wild Bunch swore, but, still on the shifty side himself, concealing from the others the loot from his own robbery. But where The Wild Bunch are essentially sanctified by Peckinpah, especially with their hypocritical codes of honor and their unlikely redemption, the lives of Dee and Mace are unfulfilled, lawful or lawless drifters enjoying little of life.

There’s an ambivalence to Mace, theoretically a law-abiding rancher, but apparently turning outlaw on a whim. We are introduced to an impoverished Mace being ripped off for food and accommodation, spending the night in an overcrowded bunkhouse, his Unionist uniform doing him no favors two years after the end of the Civil War in Confederate Texas. He appears less prone to violence but we are not privy to how he persuaded a hangman to part with his outfit. And he’s a mean hand with a rifle, helping his brother escape his pursuers.

You might wonder just how Mace came to be an outlaw when he witters on so often about his God-fearing mother and his upbringing on a farm and you always have the sense he’s part of that woeful Hollywood creation, the “good” outlaw, as if there was such a thing, certainly no sign of him dispersing ill-gotten gains to the poor. He might just be as deluded as his brother.

Of the three, Maria is the most clear-sighted, no qualms about her behaviour, and,  provided with weaponry, perfectly capable of defending herself. Mexican bandits offer her no clemency either, assuming that, escorted by gringos, she has abandoned the land of her birth, or just because any woman is prey.

So it’s a perfect onion of a western, layers upon layers, the pursued needing to defend themselves not just against the pursuers, but bandits lying in wait, and within their supposed close-knit community the brothers guarding against fellow outlaws and protecting the  woman.  

James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965) played many a tough guy at the reinvention of his career in the early 1950s in Anthony Mann westerns, and while his characters often displayed venal qualities they were not outlaws. Career-wise this was a dicey role for an established western hero. That he brings the common touch that was the hallmark of his original screen persona to this characterisation of an outlaw with a code of honor does not disguise the fact that he is still an outlaw.

Dean Martin had essayed a really mean bad guy in Rough Night in Jericho (1967) but again this was his debut as an outlaw, and a conflicted one at that, enjoying the boost to his self-esteem that leadership brings, but finding himself enmeshed with the dregs of society, and certainly not on the look-out for any acts of kindness or redemption. This is a beautifully nuanced performance especially when he realizes Maria is responding to him.

Raquel Welch (Fathom, 1967) in what amounts to her first major film opposite two Hollywood legends more than holds her own. Not able to rely upon her overt sex appeal as in her previous outings, she portrays an upstanding women, abused by men in the past, determined not to take that route in the future. Alone of all the characters, having accepted her fate at an early age, she has developed a self-esteem not sacrificed to circumstance. The whore and the outlaw might be the oldest trope in the book but it works very well here as two characters find solace in each other.

George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), more accustomed to playing tough guys, leavens his portrayal by appearing idiotic with women. This, too, is a departure for Andrew V. McLaglen. Anyone aware of Shenandoah or The Undefeated (1969) will be familiar with his dexterity for widescreen composition, but here he tamps down on that stylistic device, concentrating more on group reaction and interaction. James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah) wrote the biting script based on a story by producer Stanley  Hough.  

While there’s plenty action it’s not a rip-roaring western, too much character involvement for that, but certainly ranks as one of the top westerns of the decade.

Apologies again for the premature appearance of the blog “Behind the Scenes: Bandolero!” but that will definitely appear tomorrow.

Welcome to Hard Times (1967) ****

Director Burt Kennedy’s record with westerns was very much hit or miss. This revisionist effort is one of the former though it could as easily tipped into the latter, beginning with a shrill soundtrack that telegraphs every incident and the no-name villain. And you might also wonder if irony had taken such a hold of settlers that they would actually name their town “Hard Times” when there was a gold strike over the hills.

Anyway, this is certainly a town that lives up to its name. Can’t have been more than a dozen houses, a saloon of course, but it’s the muddiest place west of No Name City (Paint Your Wagon, 1969) and the meanest to hove into view since High Noon, with the townspeople in thrall not to an entire gang, but one nameless stranger (where have we seen that before).

The Man from Bodie (Aldo Ray), as he is known, is the bad guy from Hell. He shoots anyone who stands up to him like Fee (Paul Birch) or shows the slightest dissent like undertaker Hanson (Elisha Cook Jr) and rapes Fee’s girlfriend Flo (Ann McCrea) before dumping her corpse on the saloon stairs.  

Will Blue (Henry Fonda), lawyer not lawman, hasn’t the guts to stand up to him, but comes the closest of the cowardly bunch. When The Man has done as much rampaging as a tiny town will allow he burns it to the ground. Most people leave, but Blue,  having done too much running in his life, decides to stay to look after Fee’s orphaned son Jimmy (Michael Shea).

If Blue’s vengeful Oirish girlfriend Molly (Janice Rule) also remains it’s mostly to hate him for abandoning her to the madman – Blue had used her to distract the Man but then retreated when the going got tough leaving her to be raped at will. She sets up her own League of Desperadoes, recruiting new arrival Jenks (Warren Oates) and the orphan, to tackle the bad guy on his inevitable return.

Meanwhile, a mobile unit of sex workers, complete with tent, turns up to service the nearby gold workers.  Their entrepreneurial boss Zar (Keenan Wynn) spots opportunity and helps Blue rebuild the town. Of course, everyone’s just waiting for Bodie Man to return.

Anyone that’s likeable or got anything approaching character is killed off at the start, so we’re left with an unlikeable, ambivalent, but realistic, crew. For all his later hi-falutin’ principles and pioneer spirit, Blue is still a coward who, to save his own skin, sacrificed Molly. Hoping to redeem himself by acting as surrogate father to Jimmy doesn’t result in him winning any respect from Molly.

This is one raped woman who found out the man on whom she was depending was no protector. Why should she ever love him again? And she’d be crazy to put her life in his hands once more. Of course, she could have got herself her own shotgun or pistol and ambushed Brodie Man when he took another shine to her, but instead she plays pretty please with Jenks, which is understandable, and the young Jimmy, which is deplorable.

That the sex worker magnate becomes one of the town’s foremost citizens might cleave closer to the bone than many viewers would like, but corruption was as endemic in America then as it presumably is now.

And it begs the question when all those pioneers headed out West how many of them were scum like Bodie Man? And how did the settlers think law-and-order was going to work out?

On the downside we have a villain, who, not content with killing and raping, demonstrates just how mean he is by smashing whisky bottlenecks because he hasn’t the patience to extract the cork with his teeth. Fee is dumb enough to take on the bad guy with a bit of log. Molly’s Irish accent is all over the place. And we could do with less music. And there’s a climactic twist that belonged to a horror film and is not only completely out of place but undoes the realistic tone by providing a somewhat sanctimonious ending.

But if you are expecting a movie along High Noon lines, with the good guy beating the bad, and winning the town’s respect, then you will be disappointed. On the other hand if you come prepared for one of the darkest westerns of the decade where the terrorizing outlaw exerts such fear that the townspeople, in defending themselves, pull down the shades between good and evil, then you will be amply rewarded.

The boldness of director Kennedy (The War Wagon, 1967) in reimagining the West as a place of venal proportions should be applauded. The direction might take a wrong turn here and there but the aim is effective. Henry Fonda (Firecreek, 1968) is good as ever and although I could do without the awful accent Janice Rule (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) is superb as the vengeful woman refusing Blue forgiveness and willing to use a youngster as a weapon.

A sound supporting cast includes Keenan Wynn (Warning Shot, 1967), Edgar Buchanan (Move Over, Darling, 1963), Janis Paige in her final movie outing, John Anderson (5 Card Stud, 1968) in a double role, Aldo Ray (The Power, 1968) and Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch, 1969).

Kennedy wrote the screenplay form the book by E.L. Doctorow.

Will make you flinch but worth a look.

How the West Was Won (1962) ***** – Seen at the Cinerama

I’ve got Alfred Newman’s toe-tapping theme music in my head. In fact, every time I think of this music I get an earworm full of it. Not that I’m complaining. The score – almost a greatest hits of spiritual and traditional songs – is one of the best things about it. But then you’re struggling to find anything that isn’t good about it. But, for some reason, this western never seems to be given its due among the very best westerns.

Not only is it a rip-roaring picture featuring the all-star cast to end all-star casts it’s a very satisfying drama to boot and it follows an arc that goes from enterprise to consequence, pretty much the definition of all exploration.

Given it covers virtually a half-century – from 1839 to 1889 – and could easily have been a sprawling mess dotted by cameos, it is astonishingly clever in knowing when to drop characters and when to take them up again, and there’s very little of the maudlin. For every pioneer there’s a predator or hustler whether river pirates, gamblers or outlaws and even a country as big as the United States can’t get any peace with itself, the Civil War coming plumb in the middle of the narrative.

Some enterprising character has built the Erie Canal, making it much easier for families to head west by river. Mountain man fur trader Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) on meeting prospective pioneers the Prescotts has a hankering after the young Eve (Carroll Baker) but as a self-confessed sinner and valuing his freedom has no intention of settling down. But he is bushwhacked by river pirates headed by Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan) and left for dead, but after saving the Prescotts from the gang changes his mind about settling down and sets up a homesteading with Eve.

We have already been introduced to Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) who has attracted the attention of huckster Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) and they meet again in St Louis where she is a music hall turn and widow. Her physical attraction pales in comparison with the fact she has inherited a gold mine. He follows her, unwelcome, in a wagon train which survives attack by Cheyenne, but still she resists him, not falling for him until a third meeting on a riverboat.

Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) wants to follow his father to fight in the Civil War. Linus dies there, but there’s no great drama about it, he’s just another casualty, and the death is in the passing. In probably the only section that feels squeezed in, following the Battle of Shiloh a disillusioned Zeb saves General Sherman (John Wayne) and Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) from an assassin.

Returning home to find Eve dead, Zeb hands over his share of the farm to his brother and heads west to join the U.S. Cavalry at a time when the Army is required to keep the peace with Native Americans enraged by railroad expansion. Zeb links up with buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), who appeared at the beginning as a friend of his father.

Eve, a widow again, meets up in Arizona with family man and lawman Zeb who uncovers a plot by outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) to hijack a train. Zeb turns rancher once again, looking after her farm.

But the drama is peppered throughout by the kind of vivid action required of the Cinerama format, all such sections filmed from the audience point-of-view. So the Prescotts are caught in thundering rapids, there’s a wagon train attack and buffalo stampede, and a speeding train heading to spectacular wreck. There’s plenty other conflict and not so many winsome moments.

Interestingly, in the first half it’s the women who drive the narrative, Eve taming Linus, Lilith constantly fending off Cleve. And there’s no shortage of exposing the weaknesses and greed of the explorers, the railroad barons and buffalo hunters and outlaws, and few of the characters are aloof from some version of that greed, whether it be to own land or a gold mine or even in an incipient version of the rampaging buffalo hunters to pick off enough to make a healthy living.

And here’s the kicker. Virtually all the all-star cast play against type. John Wayne (Circus World, 1964) reveals tremendous insecurity, Gregory Peck (Mirage, 1965) is an unscrupulous though charming renegade, the otherwise sassy Debbie Reynolds (My Six Loves, 1963) is as dumb as they come to fall for him, and for all the glimpses of the aw-shucks persona James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965) plays a much meaner hard-drinking hard-whoring version of his mean cowboy. Carroll Baker (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is an innocent not her usual temptress while George Peppard (The Blue Max, 1966) who usually depends on charm gets no opportunity to use it. .

Also worth mentioning: Henry Fonda (Madigan, 1968), Lee J. Cobb (Coogan’s Bluff, 1968), Carolyn Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family, 1964-1966), Eli Wallach (The Moon-Spinners, 1964), Richard Widmark (Madigan), Karl Malden (Nevada Smith, 1966) and Robert Preston (The Music Man, 1962).  

Though John Ford (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) had a hand in directing the picture, it was a small one (the short Civil War episode), and virtually all the credit belongs to Henry Hathaway (Circus World) who helmed three of the five sections with George Marshall (The Sheepman, 1958) taking up the slack for the railroad section.

And though you might balk at the idea of trying to cover such a lengthy period, there’s no doubting the skill of screenwriter James R. Webb (Alfred the Great, 1969) to mesh together so many strands, bring so many characters alive and write such good dialog. Bear in mind this was based on a series of non-fiction articles in Life magazine, not a novel, so events not characters had been to the forefront. Webb populated this with interesting people and built an excellent structure.

I’m still tapping my toe as I write this and I was tapping my toe big-style to be able to see this courtesy of the Bradford Widescreen Weekend on the giant Cinerama screen with an old print where the vertical lines occasionally showed up. Superlatives are superfluous.

Guns for San Sebastian (1968) ****

Pre-Stagecoach (1939) Hollywood used to differentiate between historical adventure pictures and westerns. Given it’s set in 1746, before there was such a thing as a revolver or repeater rifle, so a complete absence of gunslingers, this falls squarely into the former camp though its format displays western credentials. A tad top-heavy with religious allegory, “miracles,” peasant piety and an Ennio Morricone score mainlining on the celestial, nonetheless it manages to achieve a character-driven narrative and some powerful action sequences.  

However, it’s a lengthy set-up. Outlaw Leon (Anthony Quinn), on the run from Mexican troops, takes refuge in a church. As punishment for giving him sanctuary Fr Joseph (Sam Jaffe) is expelled to the abandoned church of San Sebastian in an equally abandoned village. Ringing the bell to attract parishioners only alerts bandits who kill him. Donning his garb, Leon is mistaken for a priest by Yaqui leader Teclo (Charles Bronson) and strung up crucifixion style. But he’s rescued by villagers who almost elevate him to sainthood courtesy of a couple of accidental “miracles.”

Enjoying his newfound status, but still attracted to peasant Kinita (Anjanette Comer), he directs the parishioners to build a dam to flood the fields to assist in corn-growing. Teclo objects to challenges to his authority and burns down the village. The villagers turn against Leon, and although initially intending to vanish, he decides instead to blackmail his mistress, the wife of the local governor (Fernard Gravey) who agrees to supply him with weapons. Leon builds a fortress to withstand the expected attack setting up a very engaging climax in which the dam plays a critical role.

A modern audience might expect a sturdier narrative rather than one that seems to shift at whim, not helped by Leon’s indecision. And it’s too slight a vehicle to carry the political points, the state of Mexico at the time, the settlers vs. original occupants (i.e. Native Indians) scenario, the problems facing half-breeds (Leon and Teclo both), but it’s better at exploring the power of the church, the worship bestowed on any priest who turns up, regardless of how ill-suited he appears.  The occasional comic sequence, banter with an architect, negotiation with a Mexican colonel, seems out of place.

On the other hand there is a truly mesmerizing performance from Anthony Quinn (Lost Command, 1966) as a womanizing low-life who happens upon redemption, so deep does his impersonation of a priest go that he can’t bring himself to touch the compliant Kinita, who is aware of his true identity. Switching between shiftiness and godliness at the drop of a hat and deriding villagers for their lack of character his turning point comes when he realizes he has fallen into the same trap. That he emerges as a wily man of conscience is no mean feat.

The other big bonus is to see someone at last recognize Charles Bronson (Once upon a Time in the West, 1969). Here he is given cinematic status, camera pitched up at his face, and allowed to eliminate the growl and monosyllabic delivery that has been his wont in lesser roles. He’s a rather decent villain at the end.

There are a couple of inconsistencies. Teclo wants villagers to take to the hills but on the other hand somehow to spend enough time tending the corn that come harvest time he can steal. And it’s a bit too neat how he falls into the dam trap.

All in all, enjoyable and very under-rated primarily, i suspect, because people come at it expecting a western rather than a historical film in the adventure vein. But it’s elevated by the intriguing narrative, the questionable hero, Quinn’s performance and the introduction to a new-look Bronson.

Frenchman Henri Verneuil (The Sicilian Clan, 1969) does well to probe so many issues for an audience probably expecting something more straightforward. James Webb (Alfred the Great, 1969) wrote the screenplay based on novel by a William Faherty, a Jesuit priest. In the book, the hero was a soldier who became a priest rather than an atheist opportunistic outlaw.

Lonely Are the Brave (1962) ***

Wannabe blood brother to The Misfits (1961) but more like a distant cousin, cowboy out-of-time yarn too pre-emptive for its own good.  Freedom-loving, don’t-fence-me-in Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) falls foul of the law by escaping prison and is pursued into the hills by competent and sympathetic Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau) who is saddled with an incompetent law enforcement team out of their depth up against a true man of the west. You can see the end coming a mile off, a truck that interrupts the narrative for no particular reason.

The only problem for me are certain inconsistencies.  A man who refused to be tamed tames a wild horse, his freedom coming at the expense of a captive animal, hobbled overnight to prevent escape. And instead of leading a frightened beast across a busy highway rides him in clear danger.

And I don’t get this voluntary incarceration malarkey, highly principled though it appears, breaking into jail in order to break out a friend Paul (Michael Kane) who just wants to serve out his relatively short sentence instead of being faced with a longer one as an escapee.

Jack won a Purple Heart in Korea but although he was 22 when World War Two broke out there’s no mention of that war record. And it seems a bit of an unlikely cliché that you can still break out of prison in the 1960s with just small hacksaw.

David (Hammerhead, 1968) Miller’s film tries too hard to make a very obvious point, forgetting that it was cowboys like Jack who turned the West into the antithesis of freedom. There are some unexpected touches. Jack, wanting to start a brawl as a means of being arrested, finds himself with a tougher customer than he envisaged, a World War Two veteran who doesn’t take prisoners. There’s a nod towards immigrants swarming into America. Paul, knowing he has crossed a line in the contemporary world, just wants to pay his debt and move on, rather than trying to disappear into a fantasy life. Cops, with all the modern accoutrements, find themselves undone by a man with old world skills.

R.F.D. stands for Rank Film Distributors, patting itself on the head for getting
the picture off to a good start in the London West End.

Once the movie heads into the hills, which is what all this lengthy preamble is for, it becomes more interesting, if only because in what is intended to be a game of cat-and-mouse, the cop cats are revealed as the mice.

But Kirk Douglas, having lit a fire for freedom in Spartacus (1961), seems more intent on going down a similar route than creating a proper character. And, as usual, given he is top-billed, reveals acting insecurity, or arrogance, trying to steal every scene, tipping back his hat just one of his many bits of business to ensure the audience eye follows him.  

On the plus side is some notable playing by Walter Matthau (Mirage, 1965), encumbered with a bunch of lazy cops who spend more time eating and sleeping than doing their job and easily outgunned in the wilderness by a cowboy for whom it spells home.  Gena Rowlands (Machine Gun McCain, 1969) is impressive as Paul’s worn-down wife with a soft spot for Jack though she finds it hard to stand by a dumb man. George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke, 1967) makes a mean sadistic cop. And there’s an early role for Carroll O’Connor (The Devil’s Brigade, 1968). If you’re talent-spotting Bill Bixby (television’s The Incredible Hulk, 1977-1982) is a helicopter pilot.

Kirk Douglas and business partner Edward Lewis were the producers and hired the former blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) to script Edward Abbey’s novel Brave Cowboy.

I thought the title was a bit of misnomer: Lonely Are the Foolhardy might be more accurate.

Ride the High Country (1962) ****

Far from routine western with director Sam Peckinpah, in his sophomore picture, channelling territory that would later become more familiar, old friends turning enemies, the encroachment of civilization, the passing of the Old West, and sharing with The Misfits (1961) incredulity that the once noble occupation of cowboy/lawman has become redundant.  In Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), the story turns on former friends turned enemies, here that aspect is in its infancy.

Down on his luck former lawman Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), shirt collar frayed, holes in his boots, eyesight not what it was, recruits old pal Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), reduced to running a western sideshow, to help him escort a load of gold down from the mountains. Gil brings along his younger sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr). Along the way, romance beckons for the ever romantically-inclined Heck when he encounters young Elsa (Mariette Hartley), daughter of Bible-thumping farmer Joshua. When she runs off, intending to marry prospector Billy Hammond (James Drury) at the mining camp, they act as her escort.

Gil turns out not to be the straight-shooter he originally appeared, planning to rob the gold consignment on the way back, with or without Steve’s assistance. The plot takes a wild detour in the mining settlement when Elsa realizes that her marriage will take place in a brothel, her fiancé is a drunk, and that his four brothers reckon they will have equal claim on her sex-wise. Gil arranges for the marriage to be apparently annulled, which doesn’t for a moment fool the Hammond brothers, and the return journey, already splintered by Steve working out what was on Gil’s mind, turns into one ambush after another.

The narrative switch away from the cowboys bewailing their lot, or, in Gil’s case planning payback for a life gone awry, to the plight of the vulnerable woman in the last of the lawless western wildernesses, is a nifty one. But you can’t help seeing Gil’s point, all the gun wounds, gunfights, months in hospitals, jobs lost as a result of confinement, make a man’s mind turn to the notion he has not been correctly reward for his endeavours. And not quite as convinced as Steve that honor makes up for everything.

There is some very lively dialog, great banter as Gil tries to sow sedition in Steve’s ear, Steve with an endless fund of humorous retorts, gently explaining that the hole in his boot is a masterpiece of the shoemaker’s art, a clever method of hidden ventilation, at each point deflecting a wily tongue probing for weakness. Steve is soon revealed as anything but a gunman past his past, or even a bare-knuckled fighter, knocking out cold a disbelieving Heck.

The romance is well done, Heck convinced he has prised Elsa away from her father, only to discover he is not included in her plans, and the isolated virgin unlikely to respond to male ardor. But when the reality of marriage strikes home, a slap in the face required to guarantee compliance, Elsa is extremely lucky not just to find Steve and Gil willing to come to her rescue, but for the less upstanding Gil to take legal matters into his own hand, although you can’t help feeling, in terms of the subsequent mortality rate, this is a hell of a price to pay for a young girl who was not aware of the realities of married life. But, hell, every decent western requires sacrifice.

Peckinpah introduces some excellent twists on more common scenes. A horse race is won by a camel, belly dancers instead of saloon girls, the restaurant bust up in the traditional fistfight is Chinese, Steve assumes the crowds lining the streets to witness the race are extending a hospitable welcome to him, courtesy of his previous exploits. And to Gil’s consternation, the fat pot of gold, literally, diminishes by the minute, the original quarter of a million dollars reduced first to twenty thousand and then a mere eleven, almost hardly worth reneging on a lifetime friendship. Unusually, the lusty young Heck begins to question turning criminal. And the clue to Joshua’s behavior is visual, as we glimpse his wife’s headstone, marked “harlot.”

But when it comes to the showdown you will see an early rehearsal of the famed shootout in The Wild Bunch. But here observation takes the place of action and the steady drip-drip of Gil’s moans serve to highlight a life wasted in community service and Steve’s stoical insistence on law and order, a code that demands good humor in the face of adversity.

This was a splendid last hurrah for Randolph Scott (Western Union, 1941) , well past his Hollywood heyday and now consigned to B-movie westerns, though lucky enough to team up with Budd Boetticher for the seven late-1950s pictures known as the Ranown Cycle, now held in very high esteem. Joel McCrea (Union Pacific, 1939), too, was on the downward Hollywood slide, pretty much restricted to westerns for the whole of the 1950s. This proved to be his final movie of this decade and he only made three more. So, for both, Ride the High Country, was a fitting send-off. Future Wild Bunch alumni Warren Oates and L.Q Jones had small parts.

Ron Starr (G.I. Blues, 1960) and Mariette Hartley (Marnie, 1964) were unlucky that their performances did not reach a wider audience, especially among producers, because they both created multi-faceted characters. Sam Peckinpah was far luckier, Ride the High Country becoming a calling card among foreign critics.

Chuka (1967) ****

I’m astonished this highly original western has disappeared into critical oblivion. As cruel as it is unusual, overturning every cliché, brimming with realism, more drama that action, some stunning scenes, and an ending only the bold would ever consider, this is desperately in need of reappraisal.

A refuge becomes a trap. The hero never wins. A spurned lover remains spurned. The cavalry are the dregs of society. Nobody listens to common sense. There’s no sending for help to relieve the beleaguered garrison. What chance does anyone have when the commanding officer is proud to die “by the book” rather than engineer a simple escape.

Gunslinger Chuka (Rod Taylor), arriving from the wintry north, shares some of his provisions with starving Arapaho Native Americans, comes upon a broken down stage containing two high-born Mexicans en route to California, Veronica (Luciana Paluzzi) and Helena (Victoria Vetri), his presence, thanks to that simple act of generosity, ensuring the marauding Arapahoes spare their lives. At the fort, a deserter is being whipped on the orders of martinet English commander Col Valois (John Mills). A patrol has failed to return so Valois won’t let the newcomers leave.

Chuka, sympathetic to the situation of the starving Arapahoes, suggests the colonel gives them food and sufficient weapons to allow them to hunt their own food. Veronica, now a widow, turns out to be Chuka’s long-lost love. Romance beckons but his unsavory occupation turns her stomach. Hired gun Chuka is not the only one to exploit need. Major Benson (Louis Hayward), the fort’s second-in-command, has a squaw (Herlinda Del Carmen), trading shelter for sex, stashed away.

Valois convenes a dinner party in honor of his guests – “I miss conversation and the elegance of dining in mixed company” – only to torpedo the occasion by revealing “what a uniform can conceal,” the sins of his officers: Benson a card cheat, Lt Daly (Gerald York) court-martialed for treason, the company doctor a coward. An arrow through the window ends dinner prematurely, Chuka demonstrating his skills in shooting the perpetrators.

Bit of artistic license here – Luciana Paluzzi is buttoned up all the way, no naked back,
and Rod Taylor is not quite so athletic.

Honor plays no part in Chuka’s life and he refuses to help out Valois unless paid $200, enough he thinks to start life afresh with Veronica, and only after a knockdown no-holds-barred fight with faithful Sgt Otto Hahnsbach (Ernest Borgnine), the only man on the post who doesn’t despise Valois – an upper-class stranger in a  strange land – prevents Chuka leaving in any case.

On a scouting mission, Chuka finds the patrol strung up and a massive Arapaho war party on the verge of attack. He returns to a mutiny, led by Benson, quelled by a single shot by Valois, the first time, it transpires, he has killed a man.  In a very moving speech, Hahnsbach reveals that Valois saved his life, but in consequence was tortured and castrated. Benson turns out to have a very soft spot for his squaw, feelings naturally unreciprocated. Valois refuses Chuka’s entreaty to abandon the fort, leaving the supplies and guns behind, but saving the lives of everyone.

This time it’s the Native Americans who exhibit the strategic martial skill. It doesn’t end well. And here’s no stirring music to comfort the audience. Defeat here is raw, none of the manufactured heroics of The Alamo (1960) or The Wild Bunch (1969).

Sure, I expected a tad more action, but in its place was a more than satisfying drama that honed to the reality of the American West, a pitiless region exploited by the pitiless. The rule of authority doesn’t just commit commanding officers to suicidal action, it also condemns civilians like Veronica, who flees her home rather than confronting her father over another forced marriage.

The ranks of the U.S. Cavalry – beatified by the likes of John Ford for whom occasional drunkenness and a fondness for fisticuffs were the only sins – must in reality, like armies the world over, have been filled with the scum of the earth, wanted men, killers, thieves and vagabonds, using new identities to escape their past. As if the best source of recruitment was characters on a par with The Dirty Dozen. While Valois and Hahnsbach believe they have whipped the men into shape, there wouldn’t be any whipping of deserters if that were true.

Valois the martinet certainly has parallels with the commanding officer of Tunes of Glory (1960), also played by John Mills, on the verge of a nervous breakdown  as a result of his war experience. And we are led to believe that Valois is as “guilty” as the rest of the outfit when, in fact, he keeps his heroism hidden. Hahnsbach begins with an impersonation of Victor McLaglen, John Ford’s high priest of rowdiness, but he also reveals hidden depths.

This is Rod Taylor reinvented, far removed from the romantic charmer of the Doris Day comedies or the tough hero of The Mercenaries/Dark of the Sun (1968). And Taylor, himself, was very much responsible for bringing this laid-back but deadly gunslinger to the screen. He was the film’s producer, had an uncredited hand in the screenplay, redefining the role as he saw fit. And it was an audacious character to put on the screen. The gunslingers of The Magnificent Seven bemoaned their lot, lack of family, wives, emotional baggage, but they didn’t bring the Revisionist Western to life.

And although Clint Eastwood would put a different spin on the hired gun, the Leone films were not released in the U.S. until after this was made so would not have influenced the production. As well as sharing his food with the starving Arapaho, Taylor ensures his character puts their case in straightforward language.

And a sense of foreboding, courtesy of the opening scenes, hangs over the whole enterprise, and part of the skill of director Gordon Douglas (Stagecoach, 1966) is to lull us into a false sense of security, that somehow the main characters will escape the foretold destiny. I have mentioned before my surprise that Douglas is treated just as a journeyman director. Sure, his western output can’t be mentioned in the same breath as Ford, Howard Hawks or Sergio Leone, but this is not far off not just for its down’n’dirty attitude to the West, but for some moments of pure cinema. Not only does the ending echo the opening but our introduction to Taylor, via an aerial shot, echoes our last image of him, in both cases eyes gazing upwards in apprehension.

The dinner party scene is quite superb, and Mills goes from hidebound martinet to sympathetic character, his wistfulness as he recalls wooing women in the past likely to stay in the memory, as does his reaction to shooting the mutineer, while Borgnine’s recollection of Mills’ heroism is beautifully done, Borgnine, too, morphing from cliché bully to proper  character. In another film, a star of Taylor’s caliber would have fought for a happy ending, but every opportunity for one, Taylor and Paluzzi scampering off into the sunset, for example, or being reconciled, is denied.

Good to see Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball, 1965) in a more interesting role and Victoria Vetri (credited here as Angela Dorian), prior to her Playboy fame, given the chance to play a more rounded character than when she went down the Raquel Welch route in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). Richard Jessup (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) wrote the taut screenplay based on his own novel.

Couple of minor quibbles – why doesn’t the window break when an arrow comes through it but shatters when Chuka jumps out, how come the Native Americans have enough guns to launch a major attack on the fort but not enough to hunt for food? But those are very minor points.

Very worth seeing.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) ****

Breezy western debut that created five legends: announced the arrival of a new directorial force in Sergio Leone; bestowed screen stardom on Clint Eastwood; instantly created a new mini-genre in the Spaghetti western; provided a platform for the distinctive music of Ennio Morricone; and best of all from the producers’ perspective made a mountain at the box office. You could add in a cavalier attitude to corpses and adding a notch to the development of that 1960s standby, the anti-hero. From now on the good guy could be a bad guy or so morally ambiguous as not to make a difference.

Look no further than the opening scene to note the alternative Leone approach to the western. An anonymous stranger (Clint Eastwood) arriving in town, observes, while drinking water from a well, a gang torment a small boy by firing bullets at his feet. Indifference to the taboo subject of violence to children became a Leone trademark, most evident when children are slaughtered in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Most astonishing of all here, the stranger, ostensibly our hero, does not intervene despite, as we shall soon discover, being a ferocious shot.

Who the heck is this Bob Robertson? A pseudonym for Sergio Leone, as if Robertson was particularly any better known than the debut director. Daniel Martin, oddly enough, is correct, but John Wells, Carol Brown and Benny Reeves are all made up.

Instead he learns that the child is being kept from his imprisoned mother Marisol (Marianne Koch), who has been taken from her husband Julio (Daniel Martin) by Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte). Rather than directly intervene a a good hero should, the stranger decides to profit from the situation. Realizing there are two opposition factions in town, the Rojos and the Baxters, he decides to play them off against each other, taking money in turn from each, demonstrating his credentials by shooting four men. That the Baxter clan includes the town sheriff (Wolfgang Lukschy) shows how powerful the Rojos have become.   

In fact the stranger doesn’t orchestrate a straightforward shoot-em-up as you might expect but cleverly gets them to kill each other first of all by arranging for both families to confront each other in a makeshift cemetery where the stranger has deposited the bodies of two men, the supposed survivors of a massacre of Mexican soldiers escorting a gold shipment. The Rojos win this round.

After appearing as nothing but a ruthless opportunist, the stranger now turns into a hero, freeing Marisol, reuniting her with husband and son, and giving them money to go away. This kind act does not go unnoticed, the stranger captured and tortured, the Baxters massacred on the assumption he was acting on their behalf. The stranger escapes in a coffin, fashions himself some chest armour in a tin mine, and confronts the remaining Rojos in an old-fashioned, though with a typical Leone twist, gunfight.

Setting aside the body count, which enraged traditionalists, including the vast majority of critics who would later endorse the even more violent blood-letting of The Wild Bunch (1969), the trio of Leone, Eastwood and Morricone put their innovative stamp on the western.

Stylistically, it was in a class of its own (until, at last, Leone outdid himself with the further adventures of The Man with No Name and Once Upon a Time in the West). The operatic elements which feature so strongly in his later work, are here confined to the plethora of close-ups, more like portraits and extremely well-lit, the circular camera movement for the climax (again, more evident in Once Upon a Time in the West), and the stillness before the shoot-out, the way tension builds through nothing happening for a considerable amount of time, not through characters shifting to more advantageous position, but simply while the camera sits and broods.

Leone cut out exposition, generally a large part of the beginning of any western, the stranger having no emotional involvement in the situation. A normal western would focus on the forcibly estranged husband attempting to free the imprisoned wife, perhaps as in The Magnificent Seven (1960) hiring someone to do it for him. The stranger, in effect, sets out to profit from misery.

And he doesn’t say much. A character this monosyllabic would be a supporting actor in a traditional western, perhaps fulfilling a comic role or given some elaborate emotional back story for why words were so precious he wouldn’t spend them.

And he’s definitely iconic. In a later scene, Leone has Eastwood materializing out of the swirling dust in a scene that would easily have fitted the traditional western. But for the most part, he relies on audience reaction to a character who dresses in far from traditional fashion, most notably with his poncho and cigars. The western hero didn’t squint either. He walked not situations with his eyes open, indicative of his boldness and ability to face any situation.

Leone avoids classic western confrontation, the one-on-one scenes that usually occur close to the start where the hero either exhibits prowess or is humiliated. In what might be called “the Chicago Way” not only does nobody come to a gunfight with a knife, the bad guys come mob-handed.

Sure, that means the hero is shown to be even more deadly with a pistol, but it also permits Leone to extend the action by focusing not just on two opposing characters but a number of different faces. There are some other motifs at play in Leone’s debut – women are not all as submissive as Marisol, Consuelo, the Baxter matriarch, on hiring the stranger, says “I’m rich enough to appreciate the men my money can buy,” her power and wealth finding later echo in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Last but not least, is the Morricone sound. There had been great western themes before, plaintive as in High Noon (1952) and The Alamo (1960) or stirring like The Big Country (1958) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), but this appeared to arrive from a different orchestral planet.

If ever a movie could claim ownership of the title “a star is born” it’s this one. Perhaps it has remained so special because the triumvirate of Leone, Eastwood and Morricone had such illustrious careers, this merely a starting point rather than, as if often the case when Hollywood anoints a new star, the highlight.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.