Behind the Scenes: “How The West Was Won” (1962)

These days fact-based magazine articles commonly spark movies – The Fast and the Furious (2001) was inspired by a piece in Vibe, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) started life in Esquire – but it was rare in the 1960s (see Note below).

However, a series of seven lengthy historical articles in the multi-million-selling Life magazine in 1959 about the Wild West, extensively illustrated with material from the time, captured the attention of the nation. Bing Crosby acquired the rights, not as a potential movie, but for a double album recorded in July 1959 on a new label Project Records set up specifically for the purpose – two months after the series ended – and a proposed television special.

When the latter proved too expensive, the rights were sold to MGM which then linked up in a four-film pact with Cinerama to create the first dramatic picture in that format, the three-screen concept that had taken the public by storm in 1952 with This Is Cinerama. Since then, Cinerama had focused exclusively on travelogs and coined $115 million in grosses from just 47 theaters, including $9 million in seven years at the Hollywood theater in Los Angeles. Eight years in its sole London location had yielded $9.4 million gross from a quartet of pictures, Cinerama Holiday (1955) leading the way with (including reissue) a 120-week run, followed by 101 weeks of Seven Wonders of the World (1956), 86 for This Is Cinerama and 80 weeks for South Seas Adventure  (1958).

Box office was supplemented with rentals of the projection equipment. But the novelty had worn off, lack of product denting consumer and industry interest, many of the theaters set up for  the project returning the equipment, so that by the time of this venture there were only 15 U.S. theaters still showing Cinerama. The company went from surviving primarily on equipment royalties to becoming a producer-distributor-exhibitor. Ambitiously, the company believed it could generate $5,000 a week profit for each theater, and, assuming growth to 60 houses, that could bring in $15 million a year.

Crosby initially remained involved – crooning songs to connect various episodes – but that idea was soon abandoned. Director Henry Hathaway (North to Alaska, 1960), claimed he came up with the movie’s structure. “The original concept was mine,” he said, “The first step in the winning of the West was the opening of the canal, then came the covered wagon, next the Civil War which opened up Missouri and the mid-West then the railroads, and finally the West was won when the Law conquered it instead of the outlaw gangs; which was the theme I worked out for the picture.

“So I conceived the whole idea and then got writers to work on the five episodes. Each episode was about a song originally. Then I travelled all over the country to find locations.”

For once this was a genuine all-star cast headed up by actors with more than a passing acquaintance with the western: John Wayne (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962), Oscar-winner Gregory Peck (The Big Country, 1958), James Stewart (Winchester ’73, 1950), Richard Widmark (The Alamo, 1960) and Henry Fonda (Fort Apache, 1948) with Spencer Tracy (Broken Lance, 1954) as narrator plus George Peppard (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) in his first western.

The two strongest female roles were given to actresses playing against type, Carroll Baker (Baby Doll, 1956), who normally essayed sexpots, as a homely pioneer and Debbie Reynolds (The Tender Trap, 1955), more at home in musicals and comedies, as her tough sister. The impressive supporting cast included Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach, Walter Brennan, Robert Preston, Carolyn Jones and Karl Malden.

Glenn Ford and Burt Lancaster were unavailable.  Frank Sinatra entered initial negotiations but ultimately turned it down. Gary Cooper, also initially considered, died before the film got underway.

Initially under the title of The Winning of the West screenwriter James R. Webb (The Big Country, 1958) was entrusted with knocking the unwieldy non-fiction story into a coherent fictional narrative. In effect, it was an original screenplay at a time when Hollywood was turning its back on bestsellers, “the pre-sold theory less compelling.” His first draft accommodated various montages covering the journey from the Pilgrim Fathers to the building of the Erie Canal and the Civil War and it was only in subsequent drafts that the tale of Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) emerged with surprising focus on female pioneers.

Webb’s initial ending had involved a father-son conflict, presumably a fall-out between the Rawlings played by James Stewart and George Peppard, but that was rejected in order not to finish on a “note of bitterness” out of keeping with the spirit of the movie. Although he did not receive a credit, John Gay (The Happy Thieves, 1961) also contributed to the screenplay.

Given the film’s episodic structure it is amazing how well the various sequences fit together and the narrative thrust maintained. The story covers a 50-year stretch beginning in 1839 with the river sequence bringing together James Stewart and Carroll Baker. After Stewart is bushwhacked by river pirates, he marries Baker and they set up a homestead. The next section pairs singer Debbie Reynolds with gambler Gregory Peck whose wagon train is attacked by Indians on the way to San Francisco. Later, Stewart and son George Peppard enlist in the Civil War (featuring John Wayne as an unkempt General Sherman).

Stewart dies at the Battle of Shiloh. Peppard joins the cavalry and later as a marshal in Arizona meets Reynolds and prevents a robbery that results in a spectacular train wreck. It took a superb piece of screenwriting to pull the elements together, ensure the characters had just cause to meet and to create solid pace with a high drama and action quotient.

The undertaking was too much for one director. Initially, it was expected five would be required but this was truncated to three – John Ford (The Searchers, 1956), Henry Hathaway  and George Marshall (The Sheepman, 1958) although Hathaway carried the biggest share of the burden and Richard Thorpe (Ivanhoe, 1952) handled some transitional historical sequences. 

The directors broke new ground, technically. The Cinerama camera was actually three cameras in one, each set at a 48 degree to the next and when projected provided a 146-degree angle view. Each panel had its own vanishing point so the camera could, uniquely, see down both sides of a building.

But there were drawbacks. The cumbersome cameras required peculiar skills to achieve common shots. Directors lay on top of the camera to judge what a close-up looked like. Sets were built to take account of the way dimensions appeared through the lens, camera remaining static to prevent distortion. When projected, the picture was twice the size of 65mm and before the invention of the single-camera lens led to vertical lines running down the screen. Trees were built into compositions to hide these lines.

“You couldn’t move the camera much,” recalled Hathaway, “or the picture would distort. You have to shove everything right up to the camera. Actors worked two- and three-feet away from the camera. The opening dolly down the street to the wharf was the first time it had ever been done.

He added, “Over 50 per cent of the stuff on the train was made on the stage (i.e. a studio set) and 60 per cent of the stuff coming down the rapids. I never took a principal up north to the river, the principals never worked off the stage. We never photographed the scenes with transparencies in three cameras with Cinerama – we photographed them with one camera in 70mm and then split the negative.

“I wouldn’t shoot close-ups in Cinerama – I shot the close-ups in 70(mm) and then separated the negative because in Cinerama it distorted their arms. When (George) Stevens shot The Greatest Story Ever Told he used only 70mm and split it all. So from then on they never used the three cameras again. Now they’re actually shooting it in 35(mm).”

Rui Nogueira, “Henry Hathaway Interview,” Focus on Film, No 7, 1971, p19.

After a year spent in pre-production, an eight-month schedule due to start on May 28, 1961, and a completion date of  Xmas 1961, MGM anticipated a 1962 launch, Independence Day pencilled in for the world premiere. The original $7 million budget mushroomed to $12 million and then to £14.4 million, $1 million of that ascribed to adverse weather conditions, hardly surprising given the extent of the location work. A total of $2.2 million went on the 10 stars and 13 co-stars, virtually talent on the cheap given the salaries many could command, transport cost $1 million and the same again in props including an 1840 vintage Erie canal boat.

Rain and overcast skies added $145,000 to the cost of shooting the rapids sequence in Oregon and another $218,000 was required when early snowfall scuppered one location and required traveling 1,000 miles distant. Nearly 13,000 extras were involved as well as 875 horses, 1,200 buffalo, 50 oxen and 160 mules. Thousands of period props were dispersed among the 77 sets. Over 2,000 pairs of period shoes and 1500 pairs of moccasins were fashioned as well as 107 wagons, many designed to break on cue.

Virtually 90 per cent  of the picture was shot on location to satisfy Cinerama customers accustomed to seeing new vistas and to bring alive the illustrations from the original Life magazine articles. Backdrops included Ohio River Valley, Monument Valley, Cave-in-Rock State Park, Colorado Rockies, Black Hills of Dakota, Custer State Park and Mackenzie River in Oregon.

The picture, including narration, took over a year to make. Cinerama sensation was achieved by shooting the rapids, runaway locomotive, buffalo stampede, Indian attack, Civil War battle and cattle drive. Motion was central to Cinerama so journeys were undertaken by raft, wagon, pony express, railroad and boat, anything that could get up a head of steam.

Initially, too, the production team had been adamant – “rigid plans for running time will be met” – that the movie would clock in at 150-155 minutes (final running time was 165 minutes) and there was some doubt, at least initially, on the value of going down the roadshow route in the United States. Roadshow was definitely set for Europe, a 15-minute intermission being included in those prints, for a continent where both roadshow and westerns were more popular than in the States.

Big screen westerns in particular in Europe had not been affected by the advent of the small-screen variety. Some films received substantial boosts abroad. “The Magnificent Seven and Cimarron (both 1960) took giants steps forward once they made the transatlantic crossing.” British distributors also reported “striking” success with The Last Sunset (1961) and One-Eyed Jacks (1962) which had toiled to make a similar impression in the U.S.

In the end the decision was made to hold back the release in the U.S. in favor of another Cinerama project The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, which had begun shooting later and ultimately cost $6 million, double its original budget. Rather than bunch up the release of both pictures, MGM opted to kick off its Cinerama U.S. launch with Grimm in 1962 and shifted How the West Was Won to the following year. MGM adopted the anticipation approach, holding the world premiere in London on November 1, 1962, and unleashing the picture in roadshow in Europe.

A record advance of $500,000 was banked for the London showing at the 1,155-seat Casino Cinerama (prices $1.20-$2.15) on roadshow separate performance release. Before the advertising campaign even began in October, a full month prior to the world premiere, over 62,000 reservations had been made via group bookings. Critics were enamored and audiences riveted. The cinema made “unusually large profits” and after two years had grossed $2.25 million from 1722 showings.

Dmitri Tiomkin (The Alamo, 1960) was hired to compose the music, but an eye condition prevented his participation though he later sued for $2.63 million after claiming he was fired before the assignment began. Alfred Newman (Nevada Smith, 1966) wrote the thundering score but uniquely for the time MGM shared the publishing rights with Bing Crosby. In the U.S. Bantam printed half a million copies of a paperback tie-in, sales of the soundtrack were huge and there was a massive rush to become involved by retailers and museums with educational establishments an easy target. 

Audience response was overwhelming, a million customers in the first month, two million by the first 10 weeks at just 36 houses, some of which had only been showing it for half that time. But it failed to hit ambitious targets – predictions that it would regularly run for three years in some situations “based on the star roster and the fact the pic offers more natural U.S. vistas than anything yet done on the screen” proving wildly over-optimistic. Still, it had enjoyed 80 roadshow engagements including eight months at the Cinerama in New York and grossed $2.3 million in 92 weeks in L.A, $1.14 million after 88 weeks in Minneapolis and $1.5 million after one week fewer in Denver.

By 1965, as it began a general release 35mm roll-out with 3,000 bookings already taken, it had already passed the $9 million mark in rentals including a limited number of showcase breaks the previous year.

Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it won for screenplay, sound and editing. The movie became MGM’s biggest hit after Gone with the Wind and Ben-Hur. In my recent book The Magnificent ‘60s, The 100 Most Popular Films of a Revolutionary Decade I placed it twelfth on the chart of the decade’s top box office films.

It provided a popularity fillip for most of the big stars involved, none more so than James Stewart who, prior to shooting, had been on the verge of retirement. Box office appeal diminishing, work on his next picture Take Her, She’s Mine postponed by the Actor’s Strike, after the death of his father he had “quietly begun to make plans to get out of his Fox contract, retire, and move his family out of Beverly Hills.” He had spent $500,000 on a 1,100-acre ranch and was already well set to quit acting having accumulated a large real estate portfolio in addition to oil well investments.

NOTE: Robert J. Landry (“Magazines a Prime Screen Source,” Variety, May 30, 1962, 11) pointed to Cosmopolitan as the original publication vehicle for To Catch a Thief (1955) by David Dodge in 1951 and Fannie Hurst’s Back Street (1932), serialized over six months from September 1930.  Frank Rooney’s The Cyclist’s Raid – later filmed as The Wild One (1953) – first appeared in Harpers magazine. Movies as varied as Edna Ferber’s Ice Palace (1960) and The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, later filmed as Cape Fear (1962), were initially published in Ladies Home Journal. The Saturday Evening Post published Alan Le May’s The Avenging Texan, renamed The Searchers (1956), and Donald Hamilton’s Ambush at Blanco Canyon, renamed The Big Country (1958) as well as Christopher Landon’s Escape in the Desert which was picturized under the more imaginative Ice Cold in Alex (1958). 

SOURCES: Brian Hannan, The Magnificent ‘60s, The 100 Most Popular Films of a Revolutionary Decade (McFarland, 2022) p168-170; Marc Eliot, James Stewart A Biography (Aurum Press, paperback, 2007) p350-351; Rui Nogueira, “Henry Hathaway Interview,” Focus on Film, No 7, 1971, p19; Sir Christopher Frayling, How the West Was Won, Cinema Retro, Vol 8, Issue 22, p25-29; Greg Kimble, “How the West Was Won – in Cinerama,” in70mm.com, October 1983;  “Reisini Envisions Cinerama Leaving Travelog for Fiction Pix,” Variety, December 14, 1960, p17; “Metro in 4-Film Deal with Cinerama,” Variety, March 1, 1961, p22; “Cinerama Action Awaits Plot Tales,” Variety, March 8, 1961, p10; “Fat Bankroll for How West Was Won,” Variety, May 24, 1961, p3; “Return to Original Scripts,” Variety, June 28, 1961, p5;“MGM-Cinerama Set 3-Hour Limit For West Was Won,Variety, August 23, 1961, p7; “Hoss Operas in O’Seas Gallop,” Variety, August 23, 1961, p7; “Coin Potential As To Cinerama,” Variety, September 20, 1961, p15; “Changing Economics on Cinerama,” Variety, October 11, 1961, p13; “Bantam’s 22 Paperback Tie-Ups in Hollywood,” Variety, October 25, 1961, p22; “How West Was Won for July 4 Premiere,” Box Office, December 11, 1961, p14; “Crosby Enterprises Holds West Cinerama Songs,” Variety, January 24, 1962, p1; “Grimm First in U.S. for Cinerama but Abroad West Gets Priority,” Variety, April 4, 1962, p13; “Cinerama Fiscalities,” Variety, April 11, 1962, p3; “Cinerama Story Pair Burst Budgets,” Variety, May 16, 1962, p3; “Tiomkin’s $2,630,000 Suit Vs MGM et al,” Variety, June 27, 1962, p39; “Hathaway a Pioneer,” Variety, July 25, 1962, p12; “Bernard Smith Clarifies Fiscal Facts,” Variety, August 8, 1962, p3; Review, Variety, November 7, 1962, p6; “London Critics Rave Over West,” Variety, November 7, 1962, p19; “Brilliant World Premiere in London for West,” Box Office, November 12, 1962, p12; “West in Cinerama the Big Ace,” Variety, November 14, 1962, p16; Feature Reviews, Box Office, November 26, 1962; Bosley Crowther, “Western Cliches; How West Was Won Opens in New York,” New York Times, March 28, 1963; “Big Book Aid for West,Box Office, April 1, 1963, pA3; “West Was Won Seen By 2,000,000 in 10 Weeks,” Box Office, June 3, 1963, p15;  “How West Was Won for 19 Showcase Theaters,” Box Office, June 15, 1964, pE1; “West End,” Variety, November 11, 1964, p27; “How West Was Won Ends Roadshowing,” December 9, 1964, p16; “3,000 Bookings Expected for How the West Was Won,” Box Office, May 3, 1965.

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.

Circus World / The Magnificent Showman (1963) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Bookended by disaster – a ship turning turtle, fire raging in the big tent – and kept aloft by giddy circus turns this long-ignored movie in the John Wayne canon is ripe for reassessment. In more down-to-earth mold, with no villains to rein in, no gun-toting required, this calls upon something more basic from the actor, the dramatic skill required to make the audience fix on a strong character within a spectacular screen event.

Presented in stunning Super Technirama, the swansong of maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), and mistakenly viewed as little more than a travelog or a compendium of circus acts, this dwells instead on transition and loss as Matt Masters (John Wayne) struggles to allow adopted daughter Toni (Claudia Cardinale) to grow up and to come to terms with the part he played in the romantic calamity – father a high-wire suicide, acrobatic mother Lili (Rita Hayworth) fleeing to Europe – that left her parentless.  

It’s no coincidence that sending his three-ring circus cum Wild West Show on a lucrative tour of Europe in the early part of the 20th century provides an opportunity to hunt for Lili, the love of his life. But the circus ship capsizes in Barcelona, leaving Masters penniless, forced to  work for a rival European promoter until he can scrape together enough dough to start again. Masters uses the opportunity of traveling through European capitals to scout new acts, including clown Aldo (Richard Conte), a lion-tamer turned tiger-tamer Emile (Hans Dante), and ballerina Katharyna (Giovana) who performs on the high wire while Toni wants to chance her arm against Matt’s objections as an acrobat and flex her romantic muscles in romantic dalliance with Matt’s new partner Steve (John Smith).

The subplots add dramatic heft, the lion-tamer is frightened of tigers, Aldo has vengeance in mind, so in between the scintillating circus acts the storyline is compressed around the drink- and guilt-sodden Lili and conflict on several fronts with Toni while old retainer Cap (Lloyd Nolan) is on hand to pep up or challenge Matt.

You wouldn’t be allowed to make this kind of film these days so it’s worth glorying in the glory days of the circus – dancing horses, lions, tigers, elephants, acrobats and genuinely hilarious clown sequences. It being a three-ring circus there’s always something going on, plus the Wild West element which comprises a stagecoach being attacked.

John Wayne is as befuddled as ever in romance, restricting his trademark double take to astonishment at Tony’s transition to womanhood. There’s an occasional reversal but mostly  it’s a battle against the odds, potential triumph leavened by gritty loss.

A modern producer would have switched the disasters – it didn’t really matter how Matt got into a fix. But the capsizing, appearing so early the effect is stunning, is brilliantly handled, not just the rescue of people and animals but Matt in lion-taming mode and ending with a clever coda. In every photograph Lili’s face has been scratched out but in among the saturated notes of Matt’s vital cash box is a picture of her.

Some critics have suggested John Wayne (In Harm’s Way, 1965), recovering from his own financial debacle caused by over-investment in The Alamo (1960), took the role for financial expediency. But I can see the attraction, as I’m sure the actor did. This is a far more rounded character than anything since The Searchers (1956) and he can’t even find redemption from a six-shooter. He’s more protective than aggressive, paternal instinct triggering character reaction, and it’s more of a James Stewart type of role, coming back from adversity, and nothing straightforward about a man whose love affair caused marital disaster.

Critics have also taken pot-shots at Claudia Cardinale (The Pink Panther, 1963) as if she was not already an accomplished actress (a favorite of Visconti, for example) in a compelling role and competing on even terms with a star of John Wayne’s charisma without being able to fall back on the old saw of the romantic interest. Although playing a character nearly a decade younger, Cardinale  brings an earthy feistiness to a character with a bucket of decisions to make, turning on its head her relationship with Matt and going through the dramatic hoops with Lili.

Rita Hayworth (The Happy Thieves, 1961) has shucked off the glamor, a worn-down relic of her former self, turning to drink and religion in equal measure in vain hope of finding peace. Veteran Lloyd Nolan (The Double Man, 1967) and Richard Conte (Assault on a Queen, 1966) hold their own, but John Smith (Waco, 1966) does not. Look out for former British star Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965).  

Henry Hathaway (5 Card Stud, 1968) does a terrific job marshalling all the elements, containing the core family drama within the wider action-oriented structure. While there’s never a dull moment, in among all the spectacular scenes are some exhibiting a particularly sensitive directorial touch such as when Matt discovers Lili’s hotel room and reflects on his own misdemeanors.

There were almost as many writers as circus performers – James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961), Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945), Julian Zimet (A Place for Lovers, 1968), Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963), Nicholas Ray (The Savage Innocents, 1960) and Philip Yordan (El Cid).

Come at it from the fun perspective and you won’t go wrong. John Wayne completists will adore it.

I was lucky enough to see this is full glorious widescreen at the cinema where it was the Closing Film at this year’s  Widescreen Weekend in Bradford. What a way to end a show!

Seven Thieves (1960) ****

You wouldn’t figure director Henry Hathaway for a caper movie. He seemed more at home with action, whether that be war (The Desert Fox, 1951), adventure (Legend of the Lost, 1957) or western (Nevada Smith, 1966) although he was a dab hand at film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947). And before the big-budget all-star Oceans 11 entered the equation in the same year as Seven Thieves – and stole much of its thunder – the heist movie ran mostly on B-movie steam such as Rififi (1955), The Killing (1956) and Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958).

And probably judged against other glossy efforts of the 1960s like Topkapi (1964) and Gambit (1967) Seven Thieves would appear on the surface to come up a bit short. No doubt accounting for it being so under-rated. But while this is in itself a neat little thriller the kick comes in the emotional entanglements and a succession of twists at the end that sends it in my book into a higher category.

And it’s so outrageously clever that the mystery of why French-based criminal mastermind Theo Wilkins  (Edward G. Robinson) would reach out across the Atlantic Ocean to recruit former jailbird Paul Mason (Rod Steiger) to spearhead the heist of a cool four million dollars from a Monte Carlo casino is not resolved until the end, and in spectacular fashion.

Technically, there are actually only six thieves, the other is an inside man, Raymond (Alexander Scourby), who has fallen for the seductive charms of nightclub dancer Melanie (Joan Collins). Making up the rest of the septet are safe cracker Louis (Michael Dante) and muscle-cum-driver Hugo (Berry Kroeger) with Poncho (Eli Wallach) playing the key role of the pretend crippled, arrogant, irascible millionaire – and contrary to the claims of one poster he is the decoy not Melanie.

Distrust of his team makes Theo bring in Paul, who ruthlessly knocks them into shape, putting into seamless action the plan devised by Theo. Simply put, Poncho is going to act as a distraction by having a heart attack at the gambling table while Paul and Louis climb out a window along a ledge to the casino director’s flat which provides, by means of an elevator, direct access to the underground vaults. Once they’ve stolen the cash, they clamber back along the ledge and hide in the flat where, by this time, Theo, playing the role of Poncho’s personal physician, has taken him. The money will be hidden in Poncho’s wheelchair and removed to a waiting ambulance.

But Paul is a rather suspicious character and wants to know what he’s letting himself in for so in turn works out the weaknesses of his team. Melanie hides behind a façade of high birth, Pancho is too reckless, “measuring danger only in terms of profit,” Hugo prone to unnecessary violence, while Louis has omitted to mention he is terrified of heights, the ledge on which the operation depends standing on a 100ft high cliff.   

In some posters, this was promoted as Al Capone (Steiger)
vs Little Caesar (Robinson).

The plan relies on Poncho actually appearing to be dead, so dead that the casino director (Sebastian Cabot) will not hesitate, at Theo’s insistence, to shift him out of sight of the rest of the gamblers into his flat. But Complication No 1 is that Poncho doesn’t want to be dead, even if it is a ruse, skeptical of Theo’s plan to convincingly knock him out by means of a carefully measured dose of cyanide. Complication No 2 is that a night club client recognizes Melanie and casts doubt on her credentials as a lady of quality. Complication No 3 is that English physician Dr Halsey (Alan Caillou) questions whether Poncho is as dead as he seems.

But such complications are nothing compared an extraordinary range of twists that raise tension sky-high at the movie’s denouement. I challenge you to guess what these three superbly-conceived twists would be, all of them one by one turning the project on its head, and it rapidly shifts from one direction to another, ending with an unbelievable – and yet so in keeping with the premise – climax.

Attention to character detail lifts this out of the rut, whether it be Theo’s penchant for collecting seashells, Paul resplendent in a white suit, Melanie resisting the blandishments of becoming a kept woman, Raymond trying to climb out the murky depths into which the lure of Melanie has taken him, and a series of subtle relationships, some developing through the robbery, others which began long before the heist working themselves out.

The heist itself is well done, tension kept constant mostly through the failings of the crew and the suspicions of the dupes. All in all an excellent picture.

This was a critical film in the careers of most of the cast. Edward G. Robinson (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) was handed his first top-billed role in four years. It was a deliberate change of pace for Rod Steiger (The Pawnbroker, 1964). For Eli Wallach, best known at the time for stage work, it was the first of three films that year that would launch him into the higher ranks of top supporting stars; it was followed by The Magnificent Seven and The Misfits. After being leading lady to the likes of Gregory Peck and Richard Burton, this spelled the end of Twentieth Century Fox’s belief in Joan Collins’ star qualities while for Michael Dante (The Naked Kiss, 1964) it was a step up.

Wallach and Dante could be accused of over-acting but Robinson, Steiger and Collins all act against type with considerable effect. Hathaway does a superb job working from a script by Sydney Boehm (Rough Night in Jericho, 1967) based on the Max Catto bestseller.

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. 

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.

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