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, is 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.

The Misfits (1961) *****

A knockout. Stone cold five-star gold label classic. It’s rare for a non-western to turn into one of the greatest westerns of all time. Forget The Wild Bunch (1969) and Once Upon a time in the West (1969) and every other paean to the dying of the Old West. This is all you need. A true insight into just what is left for the cowboy once civilization and modernization have run their course.

What’s perhaps most astonishing is that three major Hollywood stars plus a top director and  one of the three greatest American playwrights of all time combined to make an indie. There’s no high drama of the kind Hollywood usually requires, no love dashed, no death or murder, nothing dramatic enough to be called narratively gripping. Made today, it would be the kind of picture that would traipse from film festival to film festival, hoping for a break at Sundance. The cast would be no-namers unless a star, fed-up with actioners, wanted to gain some artistic credibility.

This is as misleading a tag line as you could get. Admittedly, selling the movie’s core sadness
in the early 1960s would have been tough.

By some freak of Hollywood magic this was greenlit. There’s plenty good dialog but nothing that’s going to make it into the Classic Line Hall of Fame and there’s only a handful of finely wrought scenes. So beyond the astonishing mustang sequence, what reverberated was the acting, with each big star producing a scene of the highest quality, for pure emotional impact possibly unsurpassed in their entire careers.

The story itself is pretty slim. Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) in Reno to get a divorce hooks up with washed-up cowboy Gay (Clark Gable) and grieving car mechanic Guido (Eli Wallach). They repair to Guido’s cabin in the country, unfinished after his pregnant wife died because he didn’t have a spare tire. They are joined by hard-drinking man-hungry Isabelle (Thelma Ritter). Roslyn shacks up here with Gay, brightening up the place with decorative ideas and planting vegetables.

At the rodeo they stake drunken Perce (Montgomery Clift), a tough guy with mother issues, self-destructing one rodeo at a time. At various times the trio nurse and console each other, but mostly they get drunk. The three men take Roslyn along to show off their cowboy skills, catching wild mustangs. This is less old-fashioned than you might imagine. It’s more like tracking down the great white shark in Jaws (1975), a primeval battle between man and beast. Man has the advantage of being able to use Guido’s biplane to drive the horses down to Gay and Guido waiting with lassoes.

And tires.

What are the tires for you might well ask? Well, they fulfil the same function as the barrels in Jaws, to weight down the animals so they are easier to track, perhaps exhausting them so much they might just topple over and die. So the odds are not exactly even.

The guys are further disadvantaged by Roslyn’s presence. When she learns of the horses’ fate – not as you might expect to become working horses on a ranch like current television series Yellowstone – she is horrified. The critters will end up as pet food. So much for the Wild West.

This is an absolutely fantastic sequence and I’m surprised it doesn’t turn up on critical lists at all as one of the great western segments of all time. It says more about the end of the West than all the violence of The Wild Bunch or operatic fervour of Once Upon a Time in the West. And it’s a companion piece to The Old Man and the Sea, man, for all his endeavors, ending up with virtually nothing.

There’s a few twists and turns to this sequence so I won’t spoil it for you except to say it is one of the very few sections in movies where character plays out in action.

And this isn’t even Gable’s greatest scene. The moment when, drunken out of his skull already, he bleats in the street about his kids carries awesome power. What he’s saying doesn’t even make a great deal of sense, which is the beauty of it, because what drunk ever makes sense, most of the time he’s effectively addressing the demons inside.

Clift has a horrifically comic scene. His brain is as washed away as his body. He wakes out of a drunken stupor and can’t remember why he has a huge bandage round his head and proceeds to unravel it, again with a monologue that reveals his inner catatonic state.

Monroe is mute in her best scene. She just stares in horror at the mustang incident unfolding. And she has another terrific scene, probably the most ordinary thing she ever did in her screen career, battering a ping-pong.

The title is actually a rodeo term apparently for, unsurprisingly, a horse that was too small or weak to work. I would have preferred something less obvious because it’s quite clear from the outset all the characters are misfits.

This is probably the closest Monroe got to playing a character who reflected her inner turmoil. Roslyn’s beauty brightens up lives but mostly she is depressed, thinking that even when you win you lose, too fragile to cope with reality, and inclined to need consoled as much as she is willing to nurse the others. Gay is a superb creation, who despises men who earn “wages,” that is have a regular job and lose their freedom. Even if freedom means no female companionship and being reduced to catching horses for the few bucks they will bring in from pet food manufacturers, he would rather do that. Perce is just so battered by life he hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. The self-serving Guido whines.

Put all these characters together and they still live in world of their own, and although they occasionally cross the border into another’s existence by and large it is without understanding.

Without John Huston’s empathetic direction it would be unbearably sad, but with virtually nothing in the way of real plot he draws us inexorably in to their small lives. Given its budget and the box office potential of the stars, it was a flop on release. Now it’s a masterpiece.    

However tragic or premature, few Hollywood stars could have gone out at the top with a picture of this quality as did Gable and Monroe. Possibly as a result of his exertions on the film, Gable died a few days after shooting completed, Monroe eighteen months later, but what a final legacy.

Firecreek (1968) ****

Unfairly overlooked intelligent western with terrific performances from the two male stars and thematically prefiguring both Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Granted it appears slow but it’s the slow-burn kind of slow that works exceptionally well. Too often under-stated means under-rated while subtlety rarely attracts critical plaudits. And if you see the role of the screenwriter as probing personality and uncovering self-delusion rather than merely devising pithy lines then this is one for you.

Johnny (James Stewart) is a two-bit (“honorary”) sheriff  in a two-bit town stuffed full of losers. Into his patch comes a gang of hired killers fresh from range wars led by the wounded Bob (Henry Fonda) and including cocksure trigger-happy Earl (Gary Lockwood), mean Norman (Jack Elam) and dumb Drew (James Best). With Bob side-lined with his injury, it’s not long before the gang kicks off, Earl half-drowning a man, smashing up the saloon and nearly killing a pompous preacher (Ed Begley) while Norman attempts to rape Native American squaw Meli (Barbara Luna). They think a few dollars will repair the damage and nullify hurt feelings.

But for the most part tensions just simmer, it looking like the outlaws are temporary visitors, Johnny using diplomacy to settle matters, and none of the townspeople inclined to get into a shooting match. And there’s a rich seam of characters who even when they skirt cliché seem to offer if not necessarily something new but not shop-worn either and with emotional depth.

Headstrong teenager Leah (Brooke Bundy) is attracted to dangerous Earl even though he would as soon rape as romance her, level-headed Evelyn (Inger Stevens) finds solace in a man she knows is a killer and midwife Dulcie (Louise Latham) is so dry her language could cut you with a knife. Johnny’s too trusting wife Henrietta (Jacqueline Scott)  bewails “why did we settle for less than we wanted,” storekeeper Whittier (Dean Jagger) would be a knife-whittling charming elder statesmen except for his habit of going for the jugular,  and hero-worshipping stable boy Arthur (Robert Porter), too old to be just cute and verging on a calamity, “couldn’t tell you what day it was.” And there’s a hint that the upstanding Johnny ain’t quite so perfect, the question of Meli’s white child left dangling in the air.

It’s the kind of “cemetery” town people end up when they’ve nowhere else to go, the inhabitants discomfited “because today didn’t turn out like yesterday.” Johnny’s the worst offender, stopping here on his way to a better life further west because all he “saw here was land nobody wanted and ground that nobody would be challenging me for.” The only person who will stand up for law and order is the witless Arthur who unwittingly triggers trouble. The townspeople mirror the villagers in The Magnificent Seven (1960) who require the assistance of mercenaries before they can stand on their own two feet except in this case nobody is rushing to the rescue.

The initial stand-offs between Johnny and Bob are under-stated, serving to stoke up tension, and the twist is that it’s Bob who tries to avert a showdown, feeling sorry for the sheriff, knowing he will be no match for a proven gunslinger, while the climax provides a surprising saviour. In fact, Bob is the most self-aware of all the characters. He tells Evelyn “you are living even more in the past than I am” and that “I don’t have your temperament to accept another empty day.” And even though he doubts the quality of his gang, he can’t give them up, or the power of being in charge. “I’ve been alone, didn’t like it…I can’t gamble with being a nobody, I’ve been that, doesn’t work for me.”

Among the ton of great touches are Johnny’s badge, made by his kids, title misspelled, the climax in a dust whirlwind, the pompous preacher whose bluster can’t save him, and the most terrible wake you will ever witness.

It’s quite astonishing that a film with such a high quotient of characters – except Johnny at the end – lacking redeeming features could work so well. Director Vincent McEveety was the epitome of a journeyman, best known for television and Disney (Herbie Goes Bananas, 1977) go-to guy. This was his debut feature – if you exclude Blade Rider, Revenge of the Indian Nations (1966) stitched together from episodes of television’s Branded – and it sank at the box office despite the presence of Stewart and Fonda, admittedly at the tail end of their marquee power.

Outside of the wake and the climax, the best scenes are under-played. McEveety lets the words do the talking, a good choice given the exemplary writing (as indicated above) and three principal actors who can be relied upon to ignore the temptations of over-acting. He handles the action well and there’s a growing sense of terror as the townspeople realize what their cowardice has let them in for.

There’s a nod here and there to High Noon (1952) with the town full of cowards but from today’s perspective it’s as a precursor that the movie is perhaps more interesting. Henry Fonda’s (The Best Man, 1964) performance, complete with pitiless stare and thick stubble, seems a rehearsal for Once Upon Time in the West (1969) while his gang, like The Wild Bunch (1969), complete with squabbling outlaws and leadership challenge, are “running out of borders.”  You might notice how Fonda’s death here – the movement to the side when shot, the shock in his eyes – while markedly less operatic closely resembles a similar scene in Once Upon a Time in the West. And if you want further reference to Sergio Leone’s epic, how about a nearby town called Sweetwater.

You might think you’ve seen this James Stewart (The Rare Breed, 1966) performance  before but it’s a subtle variation on the hapless character of Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962) and far removed from the take-charge characters of this decade. This is man who has fooled himself into thinking he is something he is not, a man of the west in name only.

Inger Stevens (House of Cards) again delivers, like the other townspeople acting tough to hide the weak interior. There’s a terrific supporting cast. Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey) is given more rein than anybody else outside of Ed Begley (Warning Shot, 1967). Look out also for Dean Jagger (Elmer Gantry, 1960), Richard Porter (Mackenna’s Gold, 1969), Jay C. Flippen (Hellfighters, 1968), Louise Latham (Marnie, 1964), James Best (Shenandoah, 1965), Brooke Bundy (The Gay Deceivers, 1969) making her movie debut, Barbara Luna (Che!, 1969) and Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West).

Credit for the intelligent screenplay goes to Calvin Clements (Kansas City Bomber, 1972), also making his first picture.

Rio Conchos (1964) ***

Starts and ends as a rootin’-tootin’ western but sags badly in between. The chance of turning it into The Magnificent Four or even The Dirty Pair go a-begging and it’s both revenge- and redemption-driven without either taking enough precedent. And there’s a curious dynamic in that the murderers are clearly smarter than the soldiers. Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, it’s engaging enough but too episodic and far short of a classic.

Lassiter (Richard Boone) kills Apaches with brutal efficiency in revenge for losing wife and child to them. But there’s no law against murdering Native Americans, not even when they form a harmless burial party, and when arrested by Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) it’s for buying a stolen rifle, part of a consignment of 2,000 feared to be heading into the hands of the Apaches and a rogue Confederate Col Pardee (Edmond O’Brien), under whom Lassiter once served.

Charged with going undercover to get the weapons back is Haven, who lost the cargo in the first place, and another soldier Franklyn (Jim Brown), posing as gunpowder salesmen. Lassiter is freed from jail along with exceptionally vain murderer Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosca). From captured Apache Sally (Wende Wagner) they discover the Apaches are hooking up three days hence with Pardee in Rio Conchos in Mexico.

Mostly, it’s tension between the soldiers and their captives-turned-colleagues. There’s an incident with a dead baby at a house attacked by Apaches, Lassiter shooting the tortured mother. Lassiter attacks a saloon keeper for refusing to serve Franklyn. Pardee is building an army to re-start the war. There’s a brutal scene of the men being dragged behind horses. While Haven plans to use the gunpowder to blow up the Apaches and/or the rifles, Lassiter and Rodriguez nurture plans to steal the cargo.

Lassiter is pretty smart, twice outwitting the Apaches by using fire as a distracting device, easily getting the better of Haven and more than a match for the duplicitous Rodriguez. But there’s a powder keg waiting to explode in more ways than one, the chances of Lassiter toadying along to Apaches seeming remote.

Richard Boone (Night of the Following Day, 1969) coming off Have Gun –Will Travel (1957-9163) and The Richard Boone Show (1963-1964) is impressive as the wily renegade. Here’s one of those actors you never quite know what he’s going to do and that unpredictability adds continuous tension, but it would probably have helped if the audience was fully filled in on his intentions, rather than being surprised all the time. Given he was the star here, he was allotted time to be seen making up his mind in various situations, something he would be denied as a later supporting actor. So when there’s not really much going, he creates tension.

Stuart Whitman (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) doesn’t really have enough to do what with Boone’s character always being one step ahead and clearly more attuned to danger. Anthony Franciosca (A Man Could Get Killed, 1966) has a gem of role, adding to his characterization withlittle bits of scene-stealing business, sharpening a knife on a wagon wheel, recovering a knife from the stomach of a victim being dragged away by a horse, snaffling a packet of cigarettes, and never ceasing to admire his attraction to women.

Jim Brown (The Split, 1968) makes a solid movie debut, offering more by his presence than in action terms since for the most part he is just the sidekick. Wende Wagner (Guns of the Magnificent Seven, 1969) has more screen time but mostly just smolders or looks sullen apart from a nice scene mourning the baby and another defying her tribe. Look out for Edmond O’Brien (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) and silent child actor Warner Anderson.

The action sequences are well done and director Gordon Douglas (Robin and the Seven Hoods, 1964) also deserves credit for allowing Boone such scope while the opening scene and the death of the unseen woman are exceptional. He has a great gift for the widescreen, but the movie could have done with more clarity. It’s not his fault the poster was misleading and led me into the picture with different expectations. The screenplay by Joseph Landon (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) and Clair Huffaker (The War Wagon, 1967).was based on the latter’s book.

Nevada Smith (1966) ****

Half breed Max Sand (Steve McQueen) has little truck with the notion that revenge is a dish best served cold. But he’s too young and raw, far from Lee Marvin’s callous killer in Point Blank (1969), to properly avenge the slaughter of his family by three outlaws.

This is a coming-of-age tale with a distinct difference. Max’s development includes, apart from initiation into sex of course, learning to read and write so he can make sense of signposts in order to track down the murderers and receiving tuition from gunsmith Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) so that he can at least loose off some shots without doing himself damage. Vengeance burns so deep that he even stages a bumbled robbery so he can be sent to the prison where the second of his targets is incarcerated. Now that’s dedication for you. And along the way he learns the most important lesson of all, how to live, and not destroy himself through vengeance.

Even so, all Cord’s tuition counts for nought when Max needs a knife to dispatch his first victim Coe (Martin Landau). And he’s not yet so slick with a weapon to avoid serious injury himself. Kiowa saloon girl Neesa (Janet Margolin) nurses him back to health at her tribe’s camp. They become lovers but he rejects the wisdom of the elders and the opportunity to make a life with her.

Unfortunately, Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy)  is a jailbird. And worse, held prisoner in a swamp. Probably the worst bank robbery ever committed sends Nevada there. Max enrols another woman, Cajun Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette) working in nearby rice fields – fraternisation between the jailbirds and these women permitted – to steal a boat to help him and Bowdre escape. Bowdre gets his and this time it’s Pilar who is the collateral damage.

A genuine outlaw now, Max has no trouble joining a band of robbers headed by Fitch (Karl Malden), the final prey. By now calling himself Nevada Smith, Max’s plans are thrown into confusion when it becomes apparent Fitch is aware of his true identity. A surprise ending is on the cards whichever way you cut it, and especially thrilling since it occurs during a well-planned gold bullion robbery.

It’s a film of two parts but divided into three if you like, the unusual swamp setting fitting in between two sections of more straightforward western. Though in the hands of director Henry Hathaway (True Grit, 1969), there is little that’s so straightforward given his mastery of the widescreen and his hallmark extreme long shot. He’s capable of moving from the extreme violence of the vicious murder and rape of Max’s mother to the son’s discovery of the bodies shown just through Max’s physical reaction. And there’s some irony at play, too: gold triggers slaughter and climax; mental dereliction not as feared as its physical counterpart.

Although Hathaway was a true veteran, he was not best known for westerns in the manner of John Ford, more at home with film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947), war (The Desert Fox, 1951) and big-budget pictures like Niagara (1954) with Marilyn Monroe and Legend of the Lost (1957) teaming John Wayne and Sophia Loren. In a 30-year career he had only made three westerns of note – The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), Rawhide (1951) and Garden of Evil (1954). So it was something of a surprise that in the 1960s over half his output was in the western genre. And unlike Ford and Howard Hawks who stuck to the formula of action within a defined community, Hathaway tended towards films of adventure, where the main character, often of a somewhat shady disposition, wandered far and wide.

Steve McQueen (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) carries the picture with some aplomb, moving deftly from the wet-behind-the-ears youngster to a clever and calculated killer and still retaining enough humanity to enjoy a romantic dalliance. There’s enough action here to satisfy McQueen’s fans spoiled by The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) and for those who had come to appreciate his acting plenty to enjoy. This and The Cincinnati Kid, where perforce as a poker player, he had to do a great deal of brooding, solidified his screen persona, a star you can’t keep your eyes off, wondering what on earth is going on in his mind. As much as he’s playing a character finding his feet, this is McQueen at very nearly the top of his game.

Brian Keith (The Rare Breed, 1966) is the pick of the support, adding a little softness to his usual more hard-nosed screen characters. The villains – Karl Malden (The Cincinnati Kid), Martin Landau (The Hallelujah Trail, 1965) and Arthur Kennedy (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) – are all good in their own different ways, and in the hands of excellent actors, easily differentiated. Suzanne Pleshette (Fate is the Hunter, 1964) shines in a too-brief role.

The sterling supporting cast includes Janet Margolin (Bus Riley’s Back in Town, 1965), Pat Hingle (Sol Madrid, 1968) and Raf Vallone (The Secret Invasion, 1964). John Michael Hayes (Harlow, 1965) fashioned the screenplay from The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins. 

Although Hollywood had been prone to sequels – Father’s Little Dividend (1951) following Father of the Bride (1950), Return to Peyton Place (1961), Return of the Seven (1966) etc – there had been no perceived market for prequels, so this was something of a first, Alan Ladd having essayed an older and considerably more sophisticated Nevada Smith in the 1964 film of Harold Robbins bestseller. 

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.

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