Stagecoach (1966) ****

It’s probably sacrilege to admit that I quite enjoyed this. Also it’s been so long since I’ve seen the John Ford original that I could remember very little of the specifics and I haven’t seen the remake before so this was just like watching a new movie.

Basically, it’s the story of a group of passengers taking the stagecoach to Cheyenne for different reasons who are joined by an escaped murderer and shepherded along by the driver and a town marshal. There is some excellent action but mostly it’s a relationship picture, how the characters react to one another and their response to crisis.

Good-time girl Dallas (Ann-Margret) is on the run, banker Gatewood (Bob Cummings) is hiding a stash of stolen money, alcoholic doctor Boone (Bing Crosby) is penniless, liquor salesman Peacock (Red Buttons) is a coward, gambler Hatfield (Mike Connors) has Civil War secrets, pregnant Lucy Mallory (Stefanie Powers) is meeting her cavalry husband in Cheyenne. Ornery Buck (Slim Pickens) is the driver. Curley (Van Heflin) is riding shotgun and when he comes upon stranded escaped murderer the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord) promptly arrests him.

The drama unfolds as the characters confront each other or their own weaknesses. Dallas, who had a high old time as a saloon girl, is way out of her depth in respectable company,  concealing the secret of her affair with the married Gatewood. Ringo coaxes her along, bringing her out of her shell, giving her back self-respect, and of course falling in love. Curley, with his eyes on the $500 reward for bringing Ringo in, has no intention of letting the gunslinger take his revenge in Cheyenne on Luke Plummer (Keenan Wynn) who killed his family. Boone and Peacock provide the fun, the doctor spending most of his time separating the salesman from his cargo of booze.

There are endless permutations with a story like this, the kind of material favoured in  disaster movies like Airport (1970) and The Towering Inferno (1974) where disparate characters battle for survival. The action is only part of the deal. The picture only truly works if the characters are believable. For that, you need a heap of good acting. The audience could certainly rely on old dependables like Bing Crosby (The Road to Hong Kong, 1962) in his big screen swansong, Van Heflin (Shane, 1953), Red Buttons (Oscar-winner for Sayonara, 1957), Robert Cummings (Saboteur, 1942) and cowboy picture veteran Slim Pickens to put on a good show. But the main dramatic load was to be carried by relative newcomers Ann-Margret and Alex Cord.

Ann-Margret has made her name with sassy light-hearted numbers like The Pleasure Seekers (1964) and had only just stepped up to the dramatic plate with Once a Thief (1965). This was Alex Cord’s sophomore outing after Synanon (1965), the odds stacked against him making any impact in the role which turned John Wayne into a star. 

Amazingly, the casting works. Ann-Margret moves from feisty to restrained, meek to the point of being cowed, and for most of the film, far removed from the false gaiety of the saloon, seeks redemption. The cocky trouble-making minx emerges only once, to knock the wind out of Mrs Mallory, but, after taking a tumble down the humility route, gradually steers her way towards a better self, preventing Gatewood from causing chaos, nursing Mallory and inching her way towards true feelings for Ringo. As in the best movies, it’s not for her to open up about her woeful life but for another character, in this case Ringo, to identify her predicament: “What you doin’ about your scars, you got ‘em even if they don’t show…when you goin’ to stand up and stop crawlin’?” When they finally kiss it is one of the most tender kisses you will ever see.  

My reservations about Alex Cord’s acting skills were based on his moustachioed performance in Stiletto (1969) but I reversed my opinion after seeing him in The Scorpio Letters (1967) and this is another revelation. As much as he can deliver on the action front, and sports on occasion a mean-eyed look,  it’s in the dramatic scenes that he really scores, gentle, vulnerable, caring. He certainly matches the Duke’s trademark diffidence in terms of romance. That the camera can mine depths of expression from both faces proves the calibre of their acting.

If director Gordon Douglas (Rio Conchos, 1964) had more critical standing, his bold long opening aerial tracking shot over rugged forest, mountain and plain before reaching the stagecoach would have received the acclaim accorded Stanley Kubrick for a similar shot in The Shining (1980). The opening also makes it clear how far removed this is from the original, not just in colour obviously, but (although filmed in Colorado) in a different locale, Wyoming, rather than the arid Arizona of Monument Valley. After a brief glimpse of the stagecoach, Douglas switches to a cavalry troop making camp. A soldier going into a wagon is met by a hatchet in the head. The camera tracks the corpse’s blood as it flows down a stream where it alerts another soldier washing clothes. Before he can raise the alarm, he gets a lance in the back.

Where the passengers have heard rumors, quickly dismissed (“nobody got scalped by an old rumor”) of the Sioux (Apaches in the original) on the warpath, the audience has seen the cavalry troop slaughtered, so (in effectively a Hitchcockian device) provides the movie with the tension the on-screen characters initially lack The passengers soon grasp reality when they come across another patrol dead at a staging post, and eventually are battling for their lives when ambushed. But prior to that there is a tense sequence of leading the stagecoach across a narrow mountain ridge during a storm.

There’s a clever reversal before the Sioux onslaught. The passengers think they have seen soldiers approaching, but it is the Sioux wearing cavalry uniforms. There is no river to cross as in the original, but the chase along a mountainous path is breathtaking, aerial and tracking shots given full rein, ending in a shoot-out without (as in the original) the cavalry riding to the rescue.

Douglas has his work cut out with the drama, as various characters confront their issues, and his staging is superb, characters always given reason to move. Screenwriter Joseph Landon (Rio Conchos) borrowed material from the Dudley Nichols original but added and subtracted quite a bit.

At the time critical deification of John Ford had not begun and Hollywood was in a cyclical remake mood – new versions of Beau Geste and Madame X appearing the same year – so Gordon Douglas didn’t quite face a critical backlash, although praise was generally sparse. Judging by the box office it received an audience thumbs-up – as it does from yours truly.

You can rent this on Amazon Prime.

Major Dundee (1965) ***

Best viewed as a rehearsal for his classic The Wild Bunch (1969), this Sam Peckinpah western covers much of the same thematic ground – feuding friends, Mexico, betrayal, comradeship, brutality, and a grand gesture climax. But the set-up is more complicated than The Wild Bunch. This time out Unionist Charlton Heston in the titular role and former friend Confederate Richard Harris team up towards the end of the American Civil War to hunt down a band of Apaches. Heston’s prisoner, Harris faces the choice of joining his unit or being shot. Since both lived in the South, Harris sees Heston as a traitor for siding with the North. After the Apaches are destroyed, Harris plans to kill Heston.

If the set-up was as straightforward as that, it would have probably resulted in a better film. But once Heston’s soldiers cross the Rio Grande they also come up against the French. And the timescale of the picture covers a complete campaign from November 1864 to April 1865, barely a month before the end of the Civil War so the pace is sluggish despite being packed with incident.  And it struggles with allowing the weight of narration – via the cliched diary – to fall on a young bugler (Michael Anderson Jr.), the only survivor of an Apache attack.

That said, the action sequences are terrific, especially the battle on the Rio Grande itself. Like the best military movies, there are clever maneuvers and deceptions – from both sides. And since the unit comprises not only the quarreling Heston and Harris but warring Unionists and Confederates, freed former slaves and a bunch of criminals in the same league as Robert Ryan’s Wild Bunch gang the tension remains high throughout. Subsidiary characters are given a full story arc – the raw lieutenant (Jim Hutton) making his bones, the bugler losing his virginity. Added to this, Major Dundee is clearly in the last chance saloon, his posting seen as a punishment, and several times his military decisions are, rightly, called into question. His attitude to command is also questionable, minus his uniform in the field and legs on the table while addressing junior officers. And, as with The Wild Bunch, this is no idealized Mexico, but an impoverished, savaged, ravaged country.

There was no romance in Peckinpah’s original take on the story. But the presence of Senta Berger as a widowed Austrian stranded in Mexico brings out the humanity in Heston. Unlike many of her more volatile Latin counterparts, Berger is soft-spoken and gentle. Here, that acts very much as a counterbalance to the pugnacious Heston. She is fearless, effectively acting as the leader of the Mexican village the soldiers initially intend to pillage, persuading them otherwise. She demonstrates considerable intelligence: “The war won’t last forever,” says Heston; “It will for you,” she replies. But, ultimately, she is betrayed by the womanizing Heston.

In the duel between old friends, Harris comes off best in terms of principle. He defuses an ugly racial incident and clearly commands more authority among his men. When difficult action must be taken regarding a deserter again he does not hesitate to act. And he keeps to his word of honoring a flag he despises as long as he is under Heston’s leadership. In some senses, he has the better part since he has to keep normal impulse in check. Many critics considered Heston miscast but that was mostly after the fact when Peckinpah was able to line up a more dissolute William Holden in The Wild Bunch because by that time the actor was already wasted physically from alcoholism. But Major Dundee’s inability to meet his own high standards is exactly the kind of role you want to see a physical specimen like Heston take on.

Senta Berger was the cover girl for “Showtime,” the monthly magazine for the Odeon cinema circuit in the U.K. and there was also feature inside on the film’s star Richard Harris.

Half a century after initial release, another dozen minutes were added to the movie as part of an overall restoration, and the film was acclaimed by critics as a lost masterpiece. That was a rather rose-tinted perspective and, although the extra footage clarified some points, in general it did not lift the confusion surrounding the narrative. The movie needed fewer minutes not more. The deletion of the entire French section would have prevented the movie sinking under the weight of its own ambition. Certainly, the studio Columbia played its part in undermining the movie by shaving too much from the budget just as shooting was about to begin. It is still a decent effort and without it, and perhaps learning from his mistakes, the director might never had turned The Wild Bunch into a masterpiece.

Virtually the entire marketing program for “Major Dundee” was based around the military. The film appeared on the centenary of the ending of the Civil War. The movie most likely to take advantage of that anniversary – Gone with the Wind – was in cold storage, having already taken advantage of the centenary of the start of the war for its umpteenth reissue. So exhibitors were encouraged to put on displays of battle flags sourced from a museum or collector or to arrange a parade with buglers enrolled from youth groups or the church. A horseman dressed in Union colors could ride through the streets to raise awareness and the cinema lobby could be decorated with military equipment and both Union and Confederate flags. Any local person named Dundee might be rounded up. On a different note, Charlton Heston had rustled up his own version of Mexican chili and the recipe was being offered to newspapers. Harry Julian Fink had novelized his screenplay so there was the possibility of bookshop displays and Columbia Records had issued the “Major Dundee March” as a single. Unusually, there was an 8mm film about the film’s stunt men which was intended for sale in cinema lobbies.

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.

Pressbook: Sing, Jimmy, Sing – Shenandoah (1965)

Pressbooks (also known as Campaign Manuals) were notorious for coming up with all sorts of insane and inane devices in an attempt to entice the moviegoer. The extremely handsome 20-page A3 pressbook for Andrew V. McLaglen’s Civil War western Shenandoah (1965) was no different in that respect – “racetrack in your area – hold a Shenandoah handicap.”  Or how about this classic: “In Shenandoah the war stops for a cow that wanders between the fighting…a local dairy might be interested: Everything Stops While The Public Drinks Our Milk etc.”

Luckily, the marketeers had some better ideas, mostly based on the traditional folk song of the title which has a hymnal quality. So star James Stewart was roped in to cut a record, released on the Decca label, with special lyrics of that famous song.  For a start the idea of Stewart singing was a clever stunt in itself, but the main aim was not to garner some newspaper coverage but to attract the attention of radio stations and use the record’s cover as a means of encouraging music stores to set up window displays.

And never mind Stewart’s contribution to the canon of singers of the song, the marketing team identified more than 30 other versions of the song by the likes of Harry Belafonte (four versions), Jimmie Rodgers (three) and Guy Lombardo and instrumentals by British jazzman Acker Bilk of “Strangers on the Shore” fame and guitarist Duane Eddy. Decca was putting further promotional push behind an album entitled “The Blue and the Grey, Songs of the American Civil War.”

Theater managers were urged to suggest to radio stations they group some of these tunes together “for an interesting period of broadcast listening, perhaps in a musical segment of Civil War songs or a radio contest to identify the vocalist.”

In addition, the marketing team sought coverage in the television pages of newspapers since many of the supporting cast were small screen regulars – Doug McClure star of The Virginian, Glenn Corbett star of Route 66 and James McMullen a regular on Ben Casey – and newcomer Katharine Ross had been featured in a few shows. “You should take advantage of this away-from-the-amusement-section opportunity to pick up extra publicity space directed to the TV page reader!”  

Of course, the main purpose of a Pressbook was to provide the theater owner with the actual advertisements for the movie. He or she would cut these out and drop them off at the local newspaper which would use them to make up the ads that ran in the newspaper. These came in a variety of sizes from small single column black-and-white efforts to larger five-column full-color ads.

And they also came with an avalanche of taglines (note the varying use of capital letters) and images. The key tagline was “Two Mighty Armies Trampled Its Valley…A Fighting Family Challenged Them Both.”

Or you might have come across these alternatives –“Like giants they stood in the path of two might armies…and with their fighting spirit challenged them both” or “James Stewart, A Giant Of A Man Who Fought For Shenandoah” and “When History Called for Men and Women Larger than Life…Charlie Anderson and his proud family answered the challenge – with courage mightier than guns – and with love that no cannot could ever shatter.”

And there were more: “They reached for their rifles in the name of love…not hate…to challenge two mighty armies” down to the simpler “Shakes The Screen Like Cannon Thunder” and “Where A Mighty Adventure Was Born.”  You might be led to believe from this fusillade of taglines that the marketing department could not make up its minds about which tagline was best and just chucked them all at the theater manager, leaving them to choose.

But that was not the case. The reason behind the disparate taglines was precisely to provide choice, to allow the theater manager to decide how best to market the picture to suit the audience he or she knew best.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.

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