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).

The Bedford Incident (1965) ****

A belated entry into the Cold War thriller genre that appeared to have peaked with Dr Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Bedford Incident, filmed in black-and-white with a less-than-stellar cast nonetheless holds its own as an examination of men under pressure, a cat-and-mouse actioner, as well as a stark warning of the dangers of nuclear war. Perhaps you could not find a more contemporary theme,

Capt Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a maverick U.S. Navy destroyer commander hunting down Russian submarines should they stray into territorial waters. He has been passed over for promotion, despite having previously successfully forced a Russian sub to the surface. Into his meticulously-run ship are dropped photo journalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) – re-teamed with Widmark after The Long Ships – and Lt. Commander Chester Potter (Martin Balsam),  a ship’s doctor. In effect, their presence is a simple device to put Widmark under the spotlight, in some respects to  challenge his operational methods, and, as a narrative device, to provide an excuse to tell the audience everything they need to know.  Among the ship’s crew are young ensign Ralston (James MacArthur) and former  German former U-boat commander Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman) who acts as an advisor.

The newcomers are afforded insight into how this ship is run and into its hunting methods, for example, dredging up waste from the sea in order to examine it for evidence of a Russian presence. There is a bundle of interesting technical data – a submarine has to surface for air, as another example – and the soundtrack mostly consists of endless sonar. Apart from the German, who appears to subsist on Schnapps, the crew is unusually top-quality, the sick bay deserted, the enterprise run under wartime conditions, every person on board dedicated to fulfilling the captain’s every wish.

The tension is in triplicate. First of all, there is the obsessive captain who could at any time just explode; secondly, there is the hunt for the submarine replete with tactical maneuvers and hunches; and finally, always in the background, there is the nuclear element and the fear that untoward action could trigger a holocaust. And there’s also time to take down a peg or two the holier-than-thou visitors, Dr Potter revealed as a civilian medic returning to the service as a refuge, Munceford as a rather spoiled individual who complains when dangerous maneuvers interrupt his shower. Schrepke has the unenviable task of trying to rein in his boss, Ralston one of the few on board finding the pressure hard to handle.  

But Widmark steals the show. His over-acting often stole the show when he had a supporting role, but this is a finely nuanced performance. An admirable, instinctive commander, he is loved by his men (such adoration not easily won) with a gift for battle and outfoxing an opponent, often barely containing his own tension. It would have been easy to ramp up the pressures he felt in the way of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954) but there’s a big difference between a man about to crack and one who loves battle and is desperate to score victory. 

Sidney Poitier (Duel at Diablo, 1966) is excellent in a more relaxed role, combative only in matters of intelligence, and probably benefitting from not having to carry the picture. James MacArthur (The Truth about Spring, 1964) shows acting maturity is moving away from the easier Disney roles in which he came to prominence.  Character actor Martin Balsam (Harlow, 1965) excels as always in this kind of role, a man with hidden weakness. Eric Portman (The Man Who Finally Died, 1963), somewhat typecast as a German officer, is given a deeper role where villainy is not his only ace.  If you keep your eyes peeled you might spot a fleeting glimpse of The Dirty Dozen (1967) alumni Donald Sutherland, as part of the medical crew, and Colin Maitland as a seaman.

The top-billed Richard Widmark turned producer on this one, as he had done for The Secret Ways (1961), not so much as to greenlight a pet project but to keep a place at Hollywood’s high table just when that seemed to be slipping out of his grasp after the commercially disastrous John Ford roadshow Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In truth, Widmark’s position as an outright star appeared questionable. He seemed to transition all too easily between top billing (Warlock, 1959, The Long Ships, 1964) and second billing (Two Rode Together, 1961,  Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, and Flight from Ashiya 1964).   

But the billing oddity from today’s perspective if to find Sidney Poitier – coming off an Oscar win for Lilies of the Field (1963) and later a box office smash in his annus mirabilis of To Sir, With Love (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967) – subordinate to Widmark in the credits department.  The Long Ships featured the same billing arrangement.

Also putting his neck on the line was James B. Harris who was making the jump to director from producer of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962). Screenplay honors go to James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969) who adapted the bestseller by Mark Rascovich.

Harris makes a sound debut, the decision to film in black-and-white paying off, and enough going on through personality clash and the sub hunt to keep the pace taut. Authenticity was added by filming aboard naval vessels (although British in this case) and what little model work there is does not look out of place. A bigger budget would have made better use of the actual hunt (as The Hunt for Red October, 1990, later proved) but sound effects rather than visual effects suffice. I had not at all expected the shock ending. Another point in this film’s favor is that the threat of nuclear apocalypse has not gone away and the fact remains that the world as we know could disappear at the touch of a button.

Book into Film: “The Way West” (1967)

Screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann earned their keep on this one. The source was a literate historical novel by A.B. Guthrie which, despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, was seen primarily as a western. In considerable detail, it covered what a wagon train heading to Oregon needed to do and know in order to make the 2,000-mile trip. It is a fascinating read, told from many points of view. But very little of the book found its way into the film.

It wouldn’t have been much of a film if the screenwriters had simply followed the book structure, for much of that was internalized, thoughts and feelings of the settlers, dramatic incident not so much. So if this was going to be a big-budget western it needed a lot more.

The paperback was sold as a western not as a novel of literary merit so it was inevitable
that the Native Americans who played a minor role in the book took center stage
on the book cover to target the expected audience.

What isn’t in the book: Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) isn’t a Senator for a start, he’s not a widow and doesn’t have a child. He’s not a visionary either with some grandiose map of how he envisages the town he’ll build. He doesn’t hang a man, get a whipping or die falling over a cliff. He’s quit the wagon train long before the cliff section. And he stopped being the leader of the expedition less than halfway through the book.

What isn’t in the book: Evans (Richard Widmark) isn’t overfond of alcohol, doesn’t create an unforced halt in order to celebrate Independence Days several days too soon, doesn’t have a grandfather clock whose loss causes him to lose his rag with Tadlock, in fact it’s he who picks the fight after discovering Tadlock intends to hang a thieving Native American.

What isn’t in the book: Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) isn’t losing his eyesight, though recently widowed his wife wasn’t a Native American, and he doesn’t have a lucky necklace to pass on to a young man or woman.

So there’s a whole passel of wonder right there. The screenwriters have instantly dramatized all three leading characters by providing them with different attributes, making Tadlock and Summers more sympathetic than in the book, rendering Evans less sympathetic. The problem with the book’s Summers is that what makes him interesting is his lore, his knowledge of everything to do with the West, little of which translates to the screen. So providing the toughest of them all with an impediment allows him an immediate story arc.

What isn’t in the book: a Native American child is not killed by a settler, there’s no settler hanged by Tadlock to placate the warring tribe. There’s no warring tribe. There’s no race with other wagon trains at the outset and no racing across a river to get ahead of a rival. There’s no stowaway preacher either, though there is a preacher (Jack Elam). There is only one stop along the way in the film, at Fort Hall, but two in the book, the other being Laramie.

What isn’t in the book, I’m sorry to say, is the wonderful sequence of lowering wagons down a cliff, and Brownie (Michael McGreevy) marries Mercy (Sally Field) because otherwise she’s going to leave the wagon train at Fort Hall and he doesn’t make a pledge in public that her unborn child is his. And there’s no part for Stubby Kaye.

This hardback cover gives far better representation of the novel’s content.

Some of the more solid emotional material is retained. The frigidity of Mrs Mack (Katherine Justice) remains, giving her husband (Michael Witney) the excuse to seduce Mercy, considerably more innocent in the book, where she is described not as sassy but awkward in adult company, “growed up in body and not in knowing.”  While not loving Brownie, she marries him for convenience, though she learns to love him. Brownie gets advice on handling Mercy from Summers and much of that dialog is imported straight from the book.

From the book comes the idea of the settlers chiseling their names on the rock, of Brownie, while doing so, being captured by Native Americans and being traded back to his father.

Cover of the British Corgi movie tie-in paperback printed in 1967.

But there are some ideas lifted from the book out of sequence that the screenwriters build up into major dramatic incidents. The river crossing at the start of the film is taken from the river crossing near the end of the book. Close to the start of the novel, Mack kills a Native American, whose tribe seek justice but are sent away empty handed by Tadlock. That becomes a key sequence in the film when Mack is hanged by Tadlock. A child is killed by a rattlesnake and that is transferred to a different father who gives full expression to his grief.

The screenwriters exacerbate the tensions between the characters, create more moments of high drama, invent the visionary element, and are responsible for the vast bulk of crisp dialogue. While the dialogue in the book sounds authentic, it lacks the brittleness and thrust of the words spoken in the film.

A.B. Guthrie was a celebrated American novelist, a journalist who had come to fiction late, over 40 when he produced his first book, a mystery novel set in the West. But after winning a fellowship to Harvard, his writing took a literary turn, and his West did not take the traditional romanticized view. Two of his novels had been filmed – The Big Sky (1952) starring Kirk Douglas and These Thousand Hills (1959) directed by Richard Fleischer – and he had written an Oscar-nominated screenplay for Shane (1953), based on the Jack Schaefer novel, as well as for The Kentuckian, based on the Felix Holt book. The Way West had become such a touchstone for originality and an acclaimed masterpiece that it seemed impossible to turn it into a film.

Whether the film’s negative critical reaction and audience disregard was down to the screenplay veering so far away from what was considered a classic novel is hard to say. This is a very good example of a book that appeared unfilmable being somehow turned into a more than watchable film.     

And I can recommend the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way West (1967) ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book into Film – “The Secret Ways” (1961)

You might ask yourself why star Richard Widmark bought the rights to Alistair MacLean Cold War thriller The Last Frontier (title changed to The Secret Ways for American publication and the film) if he was going to ignore so much of the author’s brilliant story. In the original version hero Reynolds (the Widmark character) does not simply fly into Vienna as in the film, but has already crossed the Austrian border into Hungary in a blizzard after hitching a lift in a truck but now is stranded on foot in sub-zero temperatures, 30 miles from Budapest. This is not the only change authorized by Widmark, wearing his producer’s hat.

His Reynolds is a freelance gun for hire clearing a gambling debt and hired by an American spy ring compared to MacLean’s British secret service agent, intensely trained for 18 months for this mission. The mission in MacLean’s book is to rescue/kidnap British scientist Professor Jennings, the world expert on ballistic missiles, with the help of Hungarian resistance leader -Hungary at the time part of the Soviet bloc – Jansci (Wolf Rilla). Widmark eliminated all mention of Jennings. Instead, the task facing his Reynolds is to get Jansci out of Hungary. Widmark’s Jansci is still a resistance leader but doubling up as the professor albeit a straightforward scholar with nothing to do with missiles.  

Cover of the Doubleday U.S. hardback edition in 1959.

Combining characters was not unusual in the movie business and Widmark may have deemed it necessary to streamline the plot. But if the idea was to simplify the plot, that hardly explained the existence of Elsa (Senta Berger). She was not in the book. Her sole purpose may have been to provide Widmark with casual romance – a testament in Hollywood terms to his irresistible attraction – early in the story.

This was Alistair Maclean’s first shift away from the trio of war novels, including The Guns of Navarone, which had rocketed him into the bestseller class, and it proved to be a major change of style that created the non-stop thriller template that would underpin the later Fear Is the Key (published in 1961), When Eight Bells Toll (printed in 1966) and Puppet on a Chain (1969 publication), all of which were filmed, which saw loners or secret agents enduring horrific physical abuse as they battled the odds.

MacLean’s Reynolds enters Budapest a captive, rather than as in the Widmark version merely catching a train. Widmark meets Jansci’s daughter Julia (Sonia Ziemann) in Vienna. But in the book the secret agent meets Julia, along with her father, after he is captured by the resistance. In the book Reynold’s kidnap occurs in the first 20 pages, in the film at the halfway mark. From the outset Maclean thrusts his hero pell-mell into action with nary a let-up but in the film the action is punctuated by romance and various political meanderings.

Giving the game away No 1: the back cover of the Fontana paperback movie tie-in explains the plot – and it’s different from the one Widmark filmed.

Perhaps Widmark shied away from the MacLean plot due to budget constraints for the novel is certainly more intense and continually action-packed. Starting with the blizzard and ending with a perilous river crossing, the novel has several scenes which would have looked stupendous on screen. The story Widmark ignored involved the scientist in danger of being removed from Hungary to be returned to the Soviet Union, forcing Reynolds to effect a rescue on board a train, in a devil-may-care episode worthy of James Bond, by separating one car from the rest. There follows a 400-kilometer chase to the Austrian border where, pursued by Hungarian secret police, they cross the river Danube. In a final twist, while the professor and Julia are safe, Jansci refuses to leave his native country.

In various blogs covering the transition of novel into screenplay, I have mostly understood why a screenwriter would delete, alter or embellish plot, characters, time scale and even locale. Sometimes the screenwriter simply comes up with a more believable plot (as in Blindfold) or is required by the sheer length of the novel to make considerable changes. It’s rare for me to think that the screenwriter has taken the wrong approach. I thought The Devil Rides Out could have done with more of the occult background in the Dennis Wheatley novel. Here, it’s quite obvious that Maclean had a far better storyline than the film Widmark chose to make, the blizzard, train and river crossing scenes far more exciting than anything in the finished picture. As I noted, money may have been the issue.

Giving the game away No 2: the back cover of the Pocket Books paperback movie tie-in explains that Reynolds is a British secret service agent – but that’s not how Widmark played him.

However, it’s just as interesting that Widmark and Co. managed to make an enjoyable picture by not following the original story. The role of gambler-gone-bad was more appropriate to the Widmark screen persona than a secret service agent (outside of the humorous Our Man in Havana, there were not many of those around until a few years later). The film did introduce Senta Berger to a wider audience and the plot as it stands made a lot of sense.

The book was published in Britain in 1959 as The Last Frontier. In America the same year Doubleday renamed it The Secret Ways. There was a Victor Mature western called The Last Frontier in 1955 – and the title had also been used in 1932 and 1939 – so unless  Richard Widmark had purchased the film rights prior to American publication and announced a name change, then I have no idea why the book title changed.

 

Behind the Scenes – “The Secret Ways” (1961)

Since this is the most popular review on the Blog, I thought I might delve into the background to the picture.

“The reason I made The Secret Ways,” Richard Widmark told British film monthly Films and Filming, “is that I like spy thrillers. I’ve been in this business quite a long time and to survive you have to do all kinds of pictures, you can’t just specialize on just one kind.”

Widmark wasn’t just branching out into a different genre, he was developing a completely new set of skills – turning producer. His Heath Productions had cut its teeth on Time Limit (1957), a Korean war drama in which he starred with a strong supporting line-up in Richard Basehart, Dolores Michaels, Martin Balsam and Rip Torn. For a neophyte producer, Widmark went out on a limb in his choice of director, Karl Malden, better known as an Oscar-winning actor. So he had no problem taking chances. He had bought the property from Warner Brothers at a time when big studios were running shy of doing small pictures.

Widmark purchased the rights to The Secret Ways in March, 1959, one month after American publication by Doubleday, with the intention of beginning production before the year was out, putting him on target to produce three films in a year. Also on his production schedule were The Seven File for United Artists and bullfighting drama Wounds of Honor which he would direct but not star. Budget for The Secret Ways was set at $1 million.

“I enjoy production,” Widmark later claimed. “I like to act but over the years I find that I can do more and I enjoy setting things up and seeing them through.” But he could have hardly have been happy with his experience on The Secret Ways. Screenplay issues prevented Widmark meeting his initial start date. Peter Viertel (The Old Man and the Sea, 1958) had first crack followed by Scotsman William Templeton who having written the film adaptation of 1984 in 1956 was expected to understand the Cold War elements. But it was left to Widmark’ s wife Jean Hazelwood to take the screenwriting credit, even though this would be her movie debut and she never made another film.

Finalizing roles proved equally last minute. Female lead Sonja Zieman signed up only a few weeks before production rolled, Senta Berger a couple of weeks after. Obstacles arose once filming finally got underway on August 1, 1960. Rather than importing crews from Britain or America, Widmark chose the budget-conscious idea of utilizing a German-only team. Problems proved as much psychological as a culture clash of working principles.

Widmark recalled that it was “like fighting World War Two all over again – you have the Austrians and the Germans fighting like mad with the English and the Americans, they hated us.” Added to that were language barriers, technical obstacles and cultural difficulties, one example being that the foreign crews were not accustomed to going out into the street and shooting all night for five consecutive weeks. Nor, presumably, were they so keen to be filming so close to the borders. Much of the filming, according to assistant producer Euan Lloyd in a six-minute documentary, was “done directly under the guns of communist guards only yards away.”

Worse, star and director Phil Karlson were soon at odds, not helped by the fact that Widmark had little regard for directors. “There are to me about eight to ten efficient directors in the world,” he declared, not counting Karlson among that figure. When the director took ill for a week with a virus, rather than shutting down the production, the star took over the directorial reins. Three weeks later, the director quit, over creative differences regarding the ending. Widmark took up his seat again in the directorial chair.  

Release was delayed due to Widmark’s other commitments. Once he had completed his role in the film he was away from mid-October shooting John Ford’s Two Rode Together and not able to return to post-production until December

The biggest problem was avoiding making an overt political statement. “I was trying to make an adventure story, a sheer adventure story. But some of it (politics) just creeps in.” Hungarians in Detroit complained the movie did not go far enough in depicting the reign of terror. “They had been in contact with the Hungarian Secret Police,” said Widmark, “had gone through this torture, which seems corny with the dope, the needle and the steam room. But it’s not incredible, it goes on every day of the week there.”

Despite tepid box office, Widmark ploughed ahead with plans to make The Tiger’s Roar from the Jack Davies novel as a vehicle for Trevor Howard. But this and his other two features did not come to fruition and the star did not climb back into the producer’s chair until The Bedford Incident in 1965, which proved his last stab at production.

Working with Widmark inspired Zieman to set up her own production arm, announcing Next Stop Paradise, based on husband Marek Hlasko’s novel, in which she would star. But that did not get off the ground either.

SOURCES: “Widmark to Star Self in Secret Ways,” Hollywood Reporter, March 20, 1959, p18; “Viertel Secret Plottter,” Hollywood Reporter, October 2, 1959, p11; ”Widmark Projects Three Heath Prod’ns Next Year,” Hollywood Reporter, November 11, 1959, p2; “Bill Templeton Plots Secret Ways for U-I,” Hollywood Reporter, December 17, 1959, p1; “Widmark Signs Fem Lead,” Hollywood Reporter, July 11, 1960, p2; “ “Widmark Film Rolls,” Hollywood Reporter, August 1, 1960, p3; “Viennese Actress Set,” Hollywood Reporter, August 9, 1960, p3; “Phil Karlson resumes,” Hollywood Reporter, September 6, 1960, p2; “Karlson Exits Widmark Picture Over Different Endings,” Hollywood Reporter, September 22, 1960, p1; “Widmark Reports,” Hollywood Reporter, October 11, 1960, p3; “Widmark Back to U-I,” Hollywood Reporter, December 15, 1960, p2; “Crew Hazards Under Red Guns As Documentary for U’s Secret Ways,” Variety, March 1, 1961, p19; “New Role for Sonja,” Box Office, May 8, 1961, W2; Richard Widmark, “Creating Without Compromise,” Films and Filming, October 1961, p7-8.

And The Winner Is…

Many thanks to all who took the time to enter the first-ever competition run by the Blog. The idea was to guess which of the films reviewed in the April Blog received the highest number of views. How many did you get correct?

Here’s the Top Five in ascending order:

  1. The Venetian Affair (1966)- Robert Vaughn, Elke Sommer and Boris Karloff in espionage drama, adapted from the Helen MacInnes bestseller.
  2. The Secret Ways (1961) – Richard Widmark behind the Iron Curtain in Alistair Maclean thriller.
  3. Stiletto (1969) – Mafia assassin Alex Cord hunted by cop Patrick O’Neal with Britt Ekland providing the glamor. From the Harold Robbins novel.
  4. Duel at Diablo (1966) – action-packed western starring James Garner and Sidney Poitier, both playing against type.
  5. The Secret Partner (1961) – Stewart Granger on the run in mystery thriller also starring Haya Harareet.

If I had not restricted the films in the competition to those that were just reviewed in the April edition of the Blog, I would have had to find room for another picture that was originally reviewed last year. Polish epic Pharaoh/Faraon (1966) would have taken fifth place if I had changed the criteria to just total views for the month.

I am delighted to see readers digging back into the Blog to ferret out great films.

The winner has requested that I respect his anonymity. He writes a movie blog under the pseudonym “Over-The-Shoulder” and has asked I don’t reveal his full name. But if you want to know what he writes about, check out his blog.

The Secret Ways (1961) ***

This gritty realistic thriller, based on Alistair Maclean’s The Last Frontier, has much in common with The Quiller Memorandum (1965) with spies stalked through dark cobbled streets. To pay off his gambling debts, Michael Reynolds (Richard Widmark), posing as a journalist, agrees to smuggle out of Hungary resistance leader Jansci (Walter Rilla) on the Soviet hit list after the failed 1956 uprising.  Assisting him is Jansci’s daughter Julia (German star Sophie Ziemann) and, making her debut, Senta Berger as Elsa.

This is a city of staircases and tunnels and echoing footsteps and authorities keeping close tabs on visitors. The first time Widmark escapes their notice he is beaten up and it takes considerable skill, dodging through cinemas, creeping along window ledges, to make any headway in his assignment. Various complications ensue, not least that Julia despises Reynolds and that Jansci does not want to flee his country. Reynolds, who starts out as anything but your standard good guy, ends up less mercenary.

Mostly it is atmospheric cat-and-mouse with ruthless opposition partial to the odd spot of torture. Once it gets going, it a chase that the escapees are unlikley to evade. That Reynolds is distrusted by those he is trying to help and that he doesn’t want to be here at all, forced into adventure by adverse personal circumstance, stokes up the tension.

Widmark doesn’t quite abandon his snarling persona but manages some deft dry-wit comedy when trying to play a journalist accommodating his hosts. Senta Berger makes a striking debut. Sophie Ziemann is less impressive but veteran character actor Walter Rilla has the brooding and charismatic presence of a leader. Vienna, generally not considered a soulless city, does a great job standing in for Budapest.

This was one of many Widmark bids to gain greater control of his career and provide himself with more interesting leading roles than the standard villains or tough guys that Hollywood marked him down for. He was the producer and at one point took over direction from Phil Karlson after artistic differences of opinion. Jean Hazlewood, Widmark’s wife, wrote the screenplay. While there’s less out-and-out action than Maclean devotees brought up on Where Eagles Dare and Fear Is the Key might expect, there are still considerable rewards from an intelligent screenplay and the crackle of pursuit. Seen as a late entrant to the Hollywood cloak-and-dagger genre than a precursor of the 1960s Bond-style adventure, this has a great deal going for it.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Senta Berger in Major Dundee, Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, and The Quiller Memorandum; Richard Widmark in The Bedford Incident, The Long Ships, Flight from Ashiya and Alvarez Kelly.

The Long Ships (1964) ***

Decent hokum sees Vikings ally with Moors to seek a mythical giant bell made of gold, “the mother of voices.” There are stunning set-pieces: a majestic long ship coming into port, superior battles, the Mare of Steel, the discovery of the bell itself, while a clever ruse triggers the climactic fight. There’s even a “Spartacus” moment – when the Vikings declare themselves willing to die should their leader be executed.

Richard Widmark as a wily Viking, second cousin to a con man, makes the most of an expansive role. Instead of seething with discontent or intent on harm as seemed to be his lot in most pictures, he heads for swashbuckler central, with a side helping of Valentino, gaily leaping from high windows and  engaging in swordfights although he does appear to spend an inordinate amount of time swept up ashore after shipwreck. Sidney Poitier, laden down with pomp and circumstance rather than immersed in poverty as would he his norm, is less comfortable as the Islamic ruler. Fresh from winning the Oscar for Lilies of the Field (1963) it surely must have the chance of a big payday that lured him into this role. (Widmark and Poitier re-teamed in The Bedford Incident, 1965, previously reviewed in the blog.) The diminutive Russ Tamblyn, as Widmark’s sidekick, is easily the most athletic of the trio.

British production company Warwick could hardy believe their luck in landing an Oscar-winner. They had gone down the swashbuckling route before with The Black Knight (1954) and had made films with big Hollywood names like Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth in Fire Down Below (1957). This was a trade advertisement in “Box Office” magazine (April 27, 1964) – in the same issue was an advert for Poitier’s triumph in Lilies of the Field.

Although handy with a sword, both are equally adept as employing seduction, Poitier making eyes at Viking princess Beba Loncar (in her Hollywood debut) while Widmark targets Poitier’s neglected wife Rosanna Schiafffino (The Victors, 1963). The story is occasionally put on hold to permit the Viking horde to pursue their two favorite pastimes – sex and violence – and they make the most of the opportunity to frolic with a harem.

One of the marks of the better historical films is the intelligence of the battle scenes. Here, faced with Muslim cavalry, the Vikings steal a trick from The 300 Spartans by lying down to let the horses pass over them then rising up to slaughter their riders. But there is also an unusual piece of intelligent thinking. Realising, as the battle wears on, that they are substantially outnumbered and have their backs to the sea, Widmark takes the sensible option of surrendering.

Director Jack Cardiff, Oscar-nominated for Sons and Lovers (1960), brings to bear his experience of working on The Vikings (1958) for which he was cinematographer. He is clearly at home with the action and equally there is some fine composition. However, the story in places is over-complicated, he fails to rein in the mugging of one of the industry’s great muggers Oscar Homolka and there is a complete disregard for accent discipline.  Edward Judd (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1961), Scotsman Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape, 1963) and Colin Blakely (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, 1970) have supporting roles. 

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

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