Reflections on the Golden Screen

The Silver Screen

When I was a a lot younger than I care to remember it seemed that cowboy movies were on every cinema in our city.  The cowboys themselves were household names and I can recall to this day Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Roy Rogers, Tim Holt, Lash Larue, Buck Jones, Cisco Kid and everyone's favourite father-figure, Hopalong Cassidy - I can even recall the names of their horses - Black Diamond, Topper, Trigger and Champion - which is proof of just how cowboys were ingrained into our collective consciousness.  Bedecked in white hats and riding white horses, at every Saturday matinee the cowboys righted wrongs and shot down a never-ending supply of Indians in reel after reel of black and white movies.  Bizarrely singing and playing guitars as they rode along, the Hollywood cowboys created a mythical world whch had no resemblance to reality.  But little by little, cowboy films became more sophisticated and a grown-up audience came to realise that Native Americans had in fact been treated abominably and that life on the prairie was a harsh and cruel existence.  Very few of the cowboys  survived their black and white mythical world to move on into a more realistic environment but one of the very few was John Wayne who emerged from his Republic days to make some classic westerns.


When John Wayne took the part of The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach {1939} he at once made the transition from Saturday Matinee heroics to the world of acting and John Ford elevated the Western into something worthy of further consideration as an art form.  With a cast second to none and a serious storyline Stagecoach paved the way for more of the same.  Being of an age when the plot meant little and dialogue just got in the way of the action,  John Ford's epic was lost on me at first showing - the only part worth watching was the Indian attack at the finale.  It was only later when I was old enough to appreciate the nuances of characterisation and plot that I realised the true worth of this film.  Later still I realised that the plot of Stagecoach  had been filched from the unlikely source of a Maupassant short story called Boule de Suif.

Red River
was made in 1948 and began the formula Wayne was to follow throughout his career playing the grizzled cowboy to the young buck who was usually a teen heartthrob.  Although it was a cynical ploy to attract audiences who would not normally watch Westerns it worked exceptionally well and Montgomery Clift and John Wayne turned it into an action-packed film based on the first cattle drives.   Directed by Howard Hawks,  Wayne plays Tom Dunson who fosters a very young survivor of an Indian raid played by Montgomery Clift.  As he grows into a young man Clift comes to respect Dunson and his way of life but their relationship reaches breaking point under the intolerable and unexpected strains of their odyssey along the Chishom Trail.  John Ireland steals a few scenes as he underplays his role of  a sly gunfighter and Walter Brennan's cook has far more depth than that sort of role would normally give while Harry Carey Jr makes up just one of an excellent cast.  It is this attention in detailing each individual character and allowing them to expand their parts that makes this western so good and it undoubtedly belongs in the pantheon of great western movies.

 
John Wayne  went on to make many more films for John Ford and his Western trilogy of  Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande are acknowledged as classics in their field.  As his career moved along, the Duke's career became chequered and he would produce first rate nonsense such as The Conqueror in 1956 and in the same year make one of the finest Westerns ever made - The Searchers.  The role of Ethan Edwards ranks high in the pantheon of Western heroes not least because he is a flawed human being.  Riding out to rescue the little girl {Nathalie Wood} stolen by the Indian Cicatrice { Scar } the story would have been fairly ordinary but Ethan's institutionalised racism gives his character far more depth and lengthens the tension until the final reel. 
The phrase " That'll be the day " which Wayne speaks like a mantra throughout the film, carries just enough menace to make the listener stop in their tracks -- something like the low growl a dog makes { Buddy Holly took the phrase from the movie for his famous song }.   The final scene is legendary in Western movie lore as Wayne, framed by the door, walks away into the sunshine and if his walk was not famous then it certainly was forever after.  Wayne said that he copied the walk from the Western star Harry Carey ---Harry Carey Jr was in many of Wayne's movies usually as an excellent foil to Wayne.
Wayne continued his lengthy career in the same manner.  Set in Africa, Hatari  was followed by The Cowboys  in 1972, Directed by Mark Rydell.  The former was a fine soporific, having been known to put whole audiences to sleep, while the latter was a little gem.  Taking his formula of playing against teen idols, on this occasion Wayne played against a whole posse of them on a cattle drive.  There have been more vicious bad guys but  Bruce Dern must be the most malevolent screen villain ever to walk the west. 
There has never been a baddie as bad as Bruce Dern - not
particularly for his sinful ways but for the air of menace he exuded.  How he could produce such a sweet girl as Laura Dern who saved those little kids in Jurassic Park is a complete mystery.  But the real stars of The Cowboys are the kids whose individual characters take shape as the cattle drive progresses and to Director, Mark Rydell's credit the moments of pathos never descend into sentimentality.  Cooks are like goalkeepers -- both species are crazy and Roscoe Lee Browne retains the tradition as he keeps the kids in line with that rich baritone voice and at the same time steals every scene that he plays.  Among the cowboys is a very young Robert Carradine whose talent is apparent even at such  a young age.  The stand-out scene is where John Wayne is beaten by Bruce Dern and his gang and it is quite unusual and full of pathos to witness the rancher being tormented by the sadistic Dern who is a great deal younger.

Whichever role he played, the Duke never lost that tough-guy persona from the days of the Ringo kid right up to The Shootist.  With John Wayne it was always a case of "what you see is what you get" and he became so familiar to most of us that it was as if we knew him and if we are honest would like him in our corner any day of the week.  It has been said that he was never acting but merely  playing himself -----whether that's true or not true,  we have still  been privileged to be witness to a lifetime's work on screen and one man's dedication to his art, from boyhood to old age.  There is a telling scene in The Cowboys where Wayne's character, Wil Anderson, tired after a day on the trail, is reminiscing to Roscoe Lee Browne and he states unequivocally that he does not like old age and all that it brings with it.  He says it so wistfully there is more than a suspicion that he is speaking directly to the audience.
True Grit {1969}  was of course when John Wayne received an Oscar at last for his portrayal of that unusual lawman Rooster Cogburn.  In truth he could have won half a dozen Oscars both before and after True Grit . Henry Hathaway directed a delightfully off-beat western which not only highlighted Wayne’s versatility but also showcased Kim Darby as the precocious Mattie Ross, both of them aided and abetted by Strother Martin, Glen Campbell and Robert Duvall.
There’s little doubt that John Wayne has turned out more westerns both in quality and quantity than any other film star.  Looking at it in retrospect, the standard of his work has always been so high and his films so entertaining that it has been taken for granted and it is only now with the so few westerns being produced that it can be seen just how good the man was.  I haven't even mentioned half of them
----The Sons of Katie ElderEl DoradoRio Bravo and so many more.
As the years went by Wayne improved like a vintage wine but still insisted upon turning out crocks such as the Green Beret and Big Jake. Perhaps he did this purposefully to emphasise just how good he could be when he turned his mind to it as in 1976 he made yet another little gem three years before his death.  In The Shootist  Wayne played an ageing cowboy dying from cancer whose way of life was coming to an end just as his was.  Lauren Bacall played his landlady and Ron Howard her adolescent son who learned that being a gunfighter was not so glamorous as he once thought. The appearance of cars and paved roads presaged a new era and the film was a fitting but sad finale to the career of John Wayne.

Despite his many flops and there were plenty of them, there are very few who would dispute that John Wayne {Born 1907 Died 1979}  was and still is the doyen of the Western movie ---hence the lengthy section necessarily devoted to his films.  However, there have been others with exceptional careers of their own in this genre
High Noon {1952} is for many aficionados everything that a western movie should be.  While I think that it’s a very fine film with a great deal to recommend it, I have to say that it can be just a little tedious as the watch ticks down, and the gunfight at the end is an anti-climax after so much of a build-up.
Fred Zinneman directed it in black and white and of course Gary Cooper was the Marshal running out of time and friends rapidly.  Katy Jurado is always worth watching but Grace Kelly was no more than average and most of the interest lay in the Miller gang who all looked suitably menacing, especially Lee Van Cleef who went on to specialise as the eponymous, brooding gunman in many other westerns.

Sheb Wooley who played Ben Miller went on to make a record called One-Eyed Purple People Eater which topped the Billboard charts in America which in turn  was even more incredible when you find that it was competing with Elvis, Jerry Lee, Brenda Lee and a whole host of stars who have now become legendary.  Fortunately for Sheb, the disc came out after High Noon or it would have been not only Ben Miller who was shot to pieces but also his credibility as an outlaw. High Noon would never have been so effective as a suspense picture without the haunting melody which played throughout and “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’ will forever be associated with the film.  Many others have recorded the music but nobody can emulate the rich baritone of Tex Ritter ---- it’s running through my head as I write.


There's an interesting postscript to the High Noon story which revealed a great deal about the real John Wayne.  In 1976, Duke was being interviewed on British television by Michael Parkinson who is not known for his in-depth or probing style and Parkinson was startled at John Wayne's invective when the subject of High Noon  arose.  He railed against the film being  anti-American due to the cowardice displayed by the town's men, he complained about the church scene where men and women sat apart and he was most upset at the end when in his words ---"And then at the end, there's this sheriff, he takes off his badge and steps on it and grinds it into the dust.  What kind of sheriff is that ?"
Wayne was famous for his ultra-patriotism and Parkinson passed it off as such but what he didn't know was that years before Wayne had been active on the House of Un-American Activities Committee which was largely anti-communist.  The Director of High Noon, Carl Foreman had been denounced by that committee and John Wayne had always thought that Foreman's political leanings had translated into the making of the film.
The really strange thing was that Wayne had presented Gary Cooper with his Oscar 22 years earlier with a fulsome speech in praise of the whole thing.
Shane has always been a favourite among Western movie aficionados.  Made in 1953, its depiction of life among the immigrants trying to hew a living out on the frontier is probably as realistic as has ever been made.  Carving out a life in a harsh environment with nothing to depend on but their own industry has always been a staple of the American frontier expansion and Van Heflin's long battle to remove a tree stump using nothing but muscle and primitive tools epitomises and perhaps allegorises just what they were up against. 
Jean Arthur playing his wife and Brandon de Wilde as their little boy make up the  prototype frontier family so rightly venerated by present day Americans.  Their neighbours who may live 10 miles or more distant are working to the same end but their isolation makes them vulnerable to the bad guys who live in what passes for a township.  They fight a losing battle against the burning of their cabins and the damage to their crops until Shane arrives.  Quiet spoken, small and modest in the guise of Alan Ladd, he is the antithesis of the Western hero and it is this factor which makes this movie outstanding.  When Shane shows the courage and strength and skill to fight back against the baddies then the farmers come to realise that they only need to tap into their own resources for evil to be conquered.  Jack Palance is the gunfighter that Shane must finally overcome and a very young Ben Johnson begins a long and illustrious career in Westerns.  Ben is the one who is in very near every decent cowboy ever made, always steals the scenes but nobody recalls his name.

Shane is the age-old story of good versus evil but quietly gets across the message that the average man possesses reserves of courage and strength to face up to any situation.  The acting , the plot and the subtleties of the dialogue  { did Shane fall for Jean Arthur ? } go to make up a great movie and as Westerns are ageless and never date  there is little doubt that Shane will remain the classic Western that it is today.  
James Stewart deserves a special mention for the numerous westerns dotted throughout his long and illustrious career.  It has to be said that none of them reached the exalted status of a “classic” western but all of them are good, solid, traditional and entertaining cowboy pictures.   I can’t really say what denotes a classic film and it probably means different things to different people but for me it is a certain je ne sais quoi which makes it a cut above all the rest.  The strange thing is that James Stewart makes a great cowboy and he usually has a top-quality supporting cast and the stories are good but for some indefinable reason they just do enter into my personal hall of fame.  Nevertheless, I do enjoy them a great deal. friendly, approachable and easy to understand…as if you were talking to your customer
Winchester 73   directed in 1950 by Anthony Mann has for its opening scene a shooting contest of all things, which is reminiscent of the eponymous contests that no self-respecting Robin Hood film would ever miss out.  Lin Mc Adam {James Stewart} is persuaded to take part and one by one the contestants are whittled down until there are just McAdam and Dutch Henry Brown  {Stephen McNally} remaining.  Dutch Henry is supremely confident of his abilities and ups the ante suggesting that they forgo the target and shoot at nickels spun into the air.  McAdam is of course up to the challenge and finally wins the prize of  the brand new, gleaming and embossed Winchester 73 - one-in-a-million.  Dutch Henry is hardly magnanimous in McAdams victory and leaves the field muttering various threats and imprecations.  McAdam doesn't keep the gun for long, as the same night he is attacked and the Winchester is stolen, setting in motion a chain of events in which the rifle passes from hand to hand for the remainder of the film. 
In a picaresque ramble throughout the old west {which, by the way, was in in black and white at the time} we encounter a young Will Geere as an unlikely Wyatt Earp with a decrepit-looking Virgil,  Shelley Winters as the maiden-in-distress predictably named Lola, the ever dependable John McIntyre  and Black Bart himself who turns up in the guise of Dan Duryea.  There’s also an encounter with an Indian called Young Bull looking suspiciously like a very young Rock Hudson.  It's interesting to note that in real life Young Bull was the son of the legendary Sitting Bull.  When Buffalo Bill and his travelling show of Indians and sharpshooters and cowboys came to Europe Young Bull came along which is when most people swore that they had seen Sitting Bull.  It was. however, just wishful thinking as Sitting Bull never left America. 

In film after film,  Shelley Winters always seemed destined to spend her life with  layabouts and no-goods and it's no different here but what is noticeable is that back in the days when it was not compulsory for an actress to look like a stick-insect and have flashing white teeth, Shelley's less than perfect teeth and rounded figure make her far more attractive than the cloned females of today. 
The scene where the Indians attack the solitary outpost is a dreary re-run of all those films where the Redskins ride round and round like plastic ducks in a fairground (is that where sitting duck comes from?) and sacrifice themselves  in the hundreds in order to kill 5 or so white-men.  No Indian was ever that stupid.  Nevertheless it's a good old-fashioned  western with a great cast but there is a lingering feeling that the movie as a whole could have been a classic treated in the right manner --it lost its way somewhere along the line but still stands as a great piece of western entertainment.  Tony Curtis is also in the film but you have to be quick to spot him in one of his earliest roles.

 
Bend of the River  { Where the River Bends in U.K} was made two years later and Anthony Mann once again directed James Stewart -this time choosing to shoot in Glorious Technicolour and thereby enhancing the already impressive Oregon scenery.  I first saw this film as a small boy and I still recall vividly the wagon-train being surrounded by Injuns and the arrow that came out of nowhere and thudded into Lori Nelson's shoulder ---what a shock that was ! 
Anyway, Glyn McLintock [James Stewart }, the wagon-master, had finally had enough and with a knife in his teeth crawled into the forest at night despatching several Redskins until about to be killed by an Indian his life is saved by the timely intervention of Emerson Cole { Arthur Kennedy }.
Arthur Kennedy appears in many westerns and is a bit like Ben Johnston in that he is a notorious scene-stealer with a distinctive " presence" but rarely stars in a film or gets the girl for that matter - the wild-eyed Jack Elam is another of the same.   In  Bend of the River Kennedy plays that unique role that he does so well -- on the surface all smiles, ingratiating and helpful as can be and beneath the surface devious, calculating and corrupt.
Inevitably, Cole betrays McLintock, abandoning him to the wilderness.  Mclintock is then faced with a journey back to civilisation and a fight against superior odds in an entertaining but standard western

The Man from Laramie,  made in 1955, once again teamed Anthony Mann with James Stewart and once again Arthur Kennedy played his usual peripheral role in which he excelled once again.  On this occasion he abandoned his underhand persona and played the brother of the psychotic Dave Waggoman { Alex Nicol }, torn between family loyalty and what he perceived to be right.  Acting in that typically underplayed manner that he does so well, Kennedy transformed scene stealing into grand larceny.  The rest of the supporting cast were excellent with Aline MacMahon as Kate and Donald Crisp frustrated by his inability to control Dave both outstanding.  Another western movie stalwart, Jack Elam was in there also and it goes without saying that inevitably he played a baddie -- could he ever play anything else with that unique semi-comic-/semi-sinister visage.
When I first saw this film in the cinema, there was a single scene which stood out from all the rest and that scene alone was enough to elevate the film from a standard western.  Dave Waggoman catches Will Lockhart {James Stewart ) out in the salt flats and in a cruel act of vindictive vengeance he has his men hold out Lockhart’s hand firing a bullet through it at point blank range, leaving him to suffer in agony.  What distinguishes the scene is that Stewart does not play it with Lockhart bravely facing his fate -- instead he visibly recoils and is just this side of begging for mercy.  Also, although Dave’s men carry out his orders and his sibling { Arthur Kennedy } tries to restrain him they are all shocked at the excessive cruelty.  They have in that moment  become aware that they are carrying out the orders of an unhinged psychopath and feel themselves diminished by doing so.
In complete contrast to that slice of cinematic excellence it is incomprehensible how the very same director could allow such a juvenile and inept piece of music for the credits.  The audience of 1955 accepted it quite readily and it even made the charts as I recall, but a modern audience would surely die laughing at the comically inane lyrics. Stewart and Mann teamed up for two other westerns –The Naked Spur was a little too much on the psychological side for my tastes while The Far Country reached to the other end of the spectrum and injected a note of humour.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance {1962 }  was directed by John Ford and brought together the dream-team of James Stewart and John Wayne with Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien and Vera Miles as backup. The plot is quite complex, involving the return of Senator Ranse { James Stewart } and his wife Hallie { Vera Miles } both now old, returning to the town of Shinbone for the funeral of  Tom Doniphon { John Wayne }.  The press are interested in the Senator’s connection to Doniphon and eventually the story is recounted by Ranse.  As a young lawyer he determines to bring a semblance of law and order to Shinbone and he comes up against the ultra violent gunman Liberty Valance { Lee Marvin }.  At the same time he falls for Hallie who is already involved with Tom.  Naturally Hallie and Ranse fall for each other to the extreme disappointment of Tom.  When Ranse’s office is wrecked and his friend is terrorised then the mild Ranse gets a pistol {which he doesn’t know how to use } and heads for certain death at the hands of Valance.  Hallie appeals to Tom and the trio meet in a crescendo of gunfire in which Valance comes off worse and loses his life. Pangs of conscience by Ranse are assuaged when Tom lets him know that it was he who shot Valance.Nevertheless,  Ranse is credited with the killing and his whole career takes off from that point onward.  So, in short Ranse walks off with the reputation, the girl and a glittering career leaving Tom to rue the day he ever came to town.  The plot is far more detailed than that but suffice it to say that all the old Ford artifice is there -- a touch of comedy with Andy Devine, the free-for-all fight scene and a love story.  There’s more than a touch of Sidney Carton about John Wayne’s role and James Stewart is excellent as the self-effacing senator.
 
The Big Country was directed by William Wyler in 1952 and has always been an old favourite of mine ---- the opening scene with Gregory Peck and Carroll Baker riding across the prairie to a great musical background is nothing less than exhilarating.  While Gregory 
 Peck and Carroll Baker’s love affair is dramatically altered by the change of setting from the high seas to a sea of grass the lives of the supporting artists are all of them just as fascinating in their different ways. Over and over, it is a given that it is not enough to have a “star” and a mediocre support cast and this film is just another proof of that. The casting of Burl Ives and Charles Bickford as feuding ranchers is inspired and their stubbornness eventually kills them both.  Charlton Heston was never better as the adopted son of Major Henry Terrill { Bickford } whose loyalty is tested to the limit by his intractable attitude to anything which remotely opposes his will.  Steve Leech { Heston } as the ranch foreman hankers after Pat Terrill { Carroll Baker} and his opinion of former Captain McKay { Peck } as a coward leads him to believe that Pat will one day reject McKay for this reason.  Leech’s opinion is slowly changed as McKay quietly does things his own way culminating in a midnight fight in the moon light in which both men slug it out to the point of exhaustion.  The fight is a tie but Steve learns a new respect for McKay. Both Hannassey and Terrill are domineering martinets and while Terrill has the reliable and courageous Steve Leech for a son,  Hannassey’s domination has turned his son, Buck, into a coward.  Buck’s kidnapping and attempted violation of Julie Maragon { Jean Simmons } in Blanco Canyon,  Hannassey’s hideout,  leads McKay into a rescue attempt, and all of the plots and relationships are polarised and resolved as the two old protagonists shoot each other dead. [Waterfall]
The storyline to The Big Country is refreshingly different to most other westerns and while there is no lack of action, there is a noticeable departure from any of the stock western formats.  All the cast are brilliant but if pressed I would say that Burl Ives takes first prize for his unique version of a grizzled rancher with pretensions of gentility - I am pleased to say that I wrote this last sentence before I discovered that Burl Ives won an Oscar for Best Supporting actor which takes some doing when up against the likes of Charles Bickford.  The quite delicious  Carroll Baker is not far behind, spoilt and pampered and then  torn between her father and her lover, eventually losing both.
They only ever made one or two films in Cinerama ---why they ever stopped I don't really know but the usual answer is economics.  Anyway, whatever the reason, sadly they only ever made a few Cinerama pictures,  but when I went to the Abbey cinema to see this new format it stopped me in my tracks and all these years on I still remember it as a great night out.  A Cinerama screen  is three times the size of a normal screen and so wide that you actually had to turn your head to see from one side to the other and on this particular occasion I really was engrossed in the movie to the exclusion of all else ---- more of an experience than an occasion.  For nearly three hours I travelled down the Erie canal, fought Injuns and found out  How The West Was Won {1958]. The movie was based on the Louis L'Amour novel of the same name and like the book it was in sections ---- The Rivers,  The Mountains and The Outlaws, The Civil War and The Railroad.  There were three Directors, John Ford who directed The Civil War, George Marshall who directed The Railway and Henry Hathaway who directed the other three.  Spencer Tracey is the narrator and as he tells us right at the beginning this story is a tribute to the immigrants who made their way west and there is throughout the film a pervasive sense of wonder that just one hundred and fifty years ago America was a true wilderness.  There are so many stars in this film that it reads like a Hollywood who's who but each of them plays a vital part and none of them are there just for the star name.  The story runs from 1839 to 1889 and encapsulates the immigrant experience via several families who are making their way west.  The opening section, The Rivers, has the Prescotts {Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead} with their four children having negotiated the Erie canal about to carry on in a home-made raft.  They are unaware of just how ferocious the river can be and in the first of several exciting set-pieces are carried into the maelstrom at the end of which the audience let out a collective sigh.  Their parents and brothers drowned on the river,  Lilith { Debbie Reynolds } and Eve {Carroll Baker) are washed up on the banks of the river and it is at this point their lives diverge.  Eve who is a Romantic in the true sense of the word,  falls for Linus Rawlings {James Stewart} and settles down in the place where her parents died. The feisty Lilith heads out on her own and joins a wagon train meeting the man she eventually marries, Cleve Van Valen {Gregory Peck} on the way.  Thelma Ritter and Robert Preston are just two of their companions on the way to California.  The Indian attack is the second set-piece and is spectacular and exciting and as near to the real thing as it geWhile Lilith is making her fortune in San Francisco, the scene switches back to a work-weary Eve, bidding a tearful
farewell to Zeb {George Peppard}, one of her two sons on his way to the war.  Linus has already been gone several years.  John Ford once again directs John Wayne in his role of General Sherman and at a Shiloh while Zeb is saving Grant's life Linus is dying on an operating table.   Zeb returns from the war to find Eve has died and realising that his only reason for staying has gone he leaves the farm forever. 
We next see Zeb as an army officer harangued by the railroad manager { Richard Widmark } to keep the Arapahoe off his back.  Henry Fonda as a buffalo hunter working for the railroad is one of the last of the mountain-men and he introduces himself to Zeb as an old friend of his father.  The Arapahoe stampede a herd of buffalo through the railroad camp and yet another highlight of the movie takes place as the buffalo destroy all in their path.  Both Zeb and Henry Fonda leave the railroad to continue on its inexorable way.
Lilith, in the meanwhile has grown old and with the death of Cleve she decides to travel to Arizona to see her nephew and his family.  Zeb now married with two children is by now a renowned sheriff and as Lilith alights from the train he sees several outlaws he knows also arrive.  Eli Wallach as the outlaw leader is out for vengeance for the death of his brother. The final set-piece takes place as Wallach attempts to rob the rain and at the same
time kill Zeb in retribution for his brother's death. 
This is truly a breathtaking several minutes of action on the moving train and a fitting finale to a great movie.  Several of the stunt men nearly died in bringing this section to the screen when the tree trunks swung out of control.
The above resumé is just a brief outline to a great movie.  I have watched the film several times and as enjoyable as it always is it can never be as good as that time I saw it in the Cinerama format it was designed for.  Strangely, I have never seen any of the critics enthuse over this film ---- most of the reactions seem to be lukewarm or just so-so. Perhaps if they had seen the sadly ephemeral wonder of Cinerama they would have had a different viewpoint.


 
 Ride the High Country was directed in 1962 by Sam Peckinpah who departed from his usual blood-letting and made a great little elegy to the Old West and to its two stars.  Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea were both in their 60's when they made the film and the repartee between the two highlights how well they know each other.  Both of their lifetimes of toil and danger have led to little but poverty and in the Autumn of their days both men face penury and where once they were young enough to go out and earn as the mood took them, work is now difficult and hard to come by.  The major difference between the two old friends is that Joel McCrea steadfastly refuses to compromise his principles to make money whereas Scott has reached a point where he will willingly embrace dishonesty as a means to an end.  When they come up against the degenerate and dangerous Hammond brothers in defence of a naive, young girl then choices have to be taken as to where their priorities lie.  Warren Oates makes a first appearance as one of the crazed and lunatic Hammonds, great performances from the whole of the supporting cast and some great scenery go to make up an understated but superb little gem.
Another gem is Will Penny, made in 1968 by a Director unknown to me, Tom Gries, is very obviously a western made purely for the love of the genre. It was never going to be a box-office hit even with such stars as Charlton Heston, Joan Hacket and Donald Pleasence and even the title is unpretentious. Personally, I find all of this attractive and a title such as Will Penny is far more magnetic than "Blazing Guns of the Timberland " ----- I’ve been fooled by too many of those before.  The representation of Will Penny and his friends is almost documentary in its depiction of their life as cowhands and the romantic myth of the cowpuncher is shattered as a shabby and down-at-heel Penny seeks work wherever he can find it. The work itself is gruelling and arduous and pays so little that the cowhands are virtual wage-slaves, knowing no other life and having no other skills.
The unemployed Penny and his friends are unfortunate enough to cross the path of a preacher played by Donald Pleasence who was in the same queue as Bruce Dern when they were giving out manic, deranged and malevolent. Pleasence, accompanied by his equally unwholesome brood kills one of the cowhands.
Eventually finding work, Penny puts the episode out of his mind and heads up to a remote line-cabin owned by the rancher {Ben Johnson again}. It is the middle of winter and Penny finds the snow-bound cabin inhabited byJoan Hacket and her little boy, both of them homeless and vulnerable.The relationship between the two brings out emphatically just how bleak and isolated his life really is as he softens under the woman's influence while in her turn, Joan Hacket takes comfort in his strength and independence.Catherine {Joan Hacket}and her boy bring to the surface a warmness which Penny has of necessity subsumed for years and they complement each others strengths and weaknesses as most men and women do.  
Needless to say, Pleasence and his cretinous clan shatter this idyll just at a time when both Penny and the cinema audience have all but forgotten him. The film is of course drawing to an end at this point and I will not elaborate any further but true to the rest of the film the ending is unconventional.
A nice little tale of the frontier courageously produced in the midst of the plethora of shoot-em-up spaghetti westerns, Will Penny did not go completely unknown ----Charlton Heston was honoured with a statue for his work on this and other films and his performance rivals that of his ramrod in The Big Country.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  {1969 }.  I know that it won four Oscars and I know that it's highly acclaimed and I know that most people love it, but I don't think that westerns or gangsters for that matter translate into comedy.  Apart from any other factor, most of the dialogue is tedious and predictable anyway and there is very little plot  ---sorry but whimsical westerns just don't do it for me.
In a way it's a shame that director George Roy Hill chose to make the film this way because one of the best things about it is the turn-of-the-century feel atmosphere engendered by the tinkly piano and sepia photographs.  The other good things about it are Robert Redford and Paul Newman who both show in the very few serious bits of the film that they could play excellent cowboys and it's a pity that they they both made so few.

Just three years later in 1972, Robert Redford did make a serious western and it turned out to be a little classic.  It's well known that Redford has a love of the great outdoors and enjoys a certain solitude so the story of a Mountain Man in the mid 1800's must have been an attractive proposition - in fact apart from Butch Cassidy and discounting films such as The Horse Whisperer this is the only real western he has ever made.  Filmed in Utah, the scenery alone is worth the price of admission for Jeremiah Johnson .  The story tells of Johnson, as a young man setting out to be a Mountain Man and with help from Will Gere he sets himself up as a trapper.  Having achieved his aim,his idyllic lifestyle living in the cabin he has built, is further enhanced by his marriage to a Crow squaw and the child that they have together.  Accidentally stumbling into a Crow burial ground one day,  his whole world is shattered when the Crow cruelly kill his wife and child in an act of revenge Johnson sets out to avenge their deaths and declares war on the whole Crow Nation, killing one by one as many of the tribe as he can.  In return, the Crow set out to trap their nemesis,  until after many years of killing the war of attrition is ended as both protagonists weary of the fight.  Directed by Sidney Pollack, the film was based on the life story of a true Mountain Man who went by the name of Liver-Eatin' Johnson.  Most of the film kept to the facts and the real-life slaying of the Crow  {Johnson called them Absaroka, the Indian name}  but Liver-Eatin's habit of cutting out the Indian's livers was never going to go down well with Robert Redford fans so Pollack did with the film what Johnson did with an Absaroka liver and cut it out.
Just as Shane stands the test of time, in complete contrast The Magnificent Seven does not.  It may seem heresy to some but The Magnificent Seven is in retrospect a very poor B movie which has attained cult status simply for the presence of Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and their pals.  There is little or no characterisation and Yul Brynner looks nothing like a gunslinger.   The story is simplistic and transparent and the dialogue between the Seven is ludicrous.  Sorry for all you die-hards out there but I watched the film again recently and was frankly bored.and the only remarkable thing about it was that it was made as long ago as 1960.
It's difficult to mention Westerns without mentioning Clint Eastwood whose lengthy career was largely devoted to the genre in his early years at least.  He learned his trade in Rawhide and honed his skills in the so-called  spaghetti westerns.  When I first watched it, like most other Western fans I thought  The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and its progenitors were great entertainment with loads of gunplay and a background of Ennio Morricone atmospheric music.  Watching them again at this distance in time, now I am not too sure.  The silent assassin formula can only be stretched so far and those lingering close-ups of the nose hair of what must be the ugliest cowboys on the planet are a bit off-putting to say the least.  Combine that with flimsy plot-lines and cardboard- cut-out characters being gunned down like fairground pop-ups and you have a series of violent, juvenile, stylised and melodramatic comic-opera movies.  Moving away from Western films, Clint turned to cop movies and turned out a series of good to indifferent films which were usually entertaining and often memorable.  It was later in his career when he tried his hand at directing that he began to turn out more thought provoking films such as The Bridges of Madison County and Gran Torino.  Although famous for his Westerns he has actually made relatively few compared to his work as a whole.  If you dismiss the Italian Westerns then only two really stand out as comparable to the great Westerns  - Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josie Wales made in 1976.   Moving quickly from scene to scene this turned out to be one of those great little movies which never win awards but attain cult status because they are so enjoyable.  Josie Wales was a mixture of the dramatic and picaresque and Chief Dan George's deadpan and self-deprecating humour was a foil for the grim and quixotic outlaw.  I can watch this one over and over again and often do and although Clint is still the cold-eyed killer it is still a million miles away from the spaghetti Westerns.

The Long Riders directed by Walter Hill seems to be largely forgotten among Western movie fans and is rarely spoken about as something special.  People I know who have seen it are unimpressed so until somebody tells me different I am in a minority of one about this film.  Made in 1980, it must be unique in having four sets of brothers playing their screen counterparts ; Stacey Keach and James Keach play Jesse and Frank James, David Carradine and Keith Carradine play the Younger brothers, Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid play the Millers and Nicholas Guest and Christopher Guest play Bob and Charlie Ford.  While there is an initial suspicion that this appears to be a bit gimmicky and has an " uh oh " factor it actually works very well and is not at all detrimental to the film.   
Apart from one or two instances of artistic licence such as Cole Younger's knife-fight with Blue Duck, the script sticks to the Jesse James story as well as can be at this distance in time.  Previous films about Jesse have usually followed the dime novel versions of the story, at best eulogising him as a latter-day Robin Hood and at worst as a truly nice family man caught up in events beyond his control.  The most cloying version stars Tyrone Power as an all - smiling Jesse James evoking surreal images of Donny Osmond with a gun.  This is yet another occasion when Hollywood has distorted history by flooding the collective consciousness with incorrect and spurious information in order to sell tickets and perhaps this is why I like The Long Riders so much - because it adheres to the known facts and portrays Jesse and his clan as they really were.
Stacy Keach's Jesse is the grim and forbidding ascetic that he was known to be. His humourless, Old-Testament demeanour inspired respect and fear but rarely liking.  Frank,  played by James Keach is a softer version of his brother and they are inseparable.  David Carradine's Cole Younger is a deadly assassin, skilled with both knife and gun, living a life which alternates between the saloon and train-robbing, while Keith Carradine plays Bob Younger who aspires to normal family life made difficult by his loyalties to Cole and the gang.   
The portrayal of all the gang members is typical of the era after the Civil War when a disgruntled and beaten army of rebel soldiers found themselves unable to return to civilian life and assimilate themselves back into their communities.  As a consequence, many still acted out their army days in guerrilla bands purporting to carry on the fight but they were little more than armed robbers.  Jesse and his cohorts were all products of this environment and having been trained as efficient killers and raiders found it an easy matter to turn to crime for a living.  The process has been enacted many times in many eras.
I like the portrayal of the hard lives people led in those times and how their poverty drew them together.  The dance scene is memorable with an authentic flavour of the times and dances which are rarely seen on screen.  Many of the so-called Western dances of that era were in fact European folk dances transported to the New World and in this instance the similarity to Lancashire clog-dancing is striking.   Ry Cooder provides the music which is evocative of the era.
The tour de force is the infamous Northfield Raid which was supposed to net the gang enough money that they would never need to resort to crime again -the Pinkerton men were making life increasingly difficult and there was a foreboding that the gang would soon be caught.  Unfortunately for the gang, virtually the whole town was lying in wait and as they emerged from the bank penniless due to a time-locked safe they were subjected to a withering hail of fire from all directions.  The ruination of the gang is played out in slow-motion alternated with normal speed as the riders are torn to pieces while trying to escape.  The tattered remnants of the gang are pitiful as they rest up in a swamp.  The Younger brothers have been riddled with bullets while the James brothers are unscathed.  There is bitterness and acrimony as the James brothers ride away to leave the Youngers to their fate.
I would put this film high in the pantheon of western movies for its gritty enactment of post-bellum life in a poverty-stricken Missouri and the truest version yet of the Jesse James story. 
Tombstone was made in 1993 by a Director I have never heard of named  George. P. Cosmatos.  Cosmatos had made several films in Italy and has the dubious honour of directing First Blood II but it was Tombstone which showcased his talents - Cosmatos made only one film following Tombstone which is odd given that the film is outstanding.  Tombstone concentrates on events surrounding the Gunfight at the OK Corral and although it is full of incident and action, is surprisingly authentic in the manner in which it portrays both the characters and the events.  Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell), Virgil Earp (Sam Elliott) and Morgan Earp (Bill Paxton) arriving in Tombstone and setting themselves up in the saloon business find themselves confronted by a gang calling themselves The Cowboys.  The Cowboys were in real life over 100 rustlers and thieves who terrorised the town led by  Curly Bill Brocius, played by Powers Boothe as a vicious laughing cavalier of a bandit; Johnny Ringo,  unpredictable  and deadly, played by Michael Biehn; Ike Clanton, cowardly and boastful in turns, played brilliantly by Stephen Lang ; and Billy Clanton played by Thomas Haden Church.  Very few  of the characters in the film (and there are a lot of them) are fictional and the Director has taken a great deal of trouble to represent the era factually.  Several of the actors are worthy of note for differing reasons - one is the actor who plays Billy Claiborne who is named Wyatt Earp (yes really); there's Sheriff Fred White played by an ageing Harry Carey Jr whose father was responsible for the famous John Wayne lopsided walk.  Harry Carey Jr himself was in nearly every John Wayne movie from a young man onward; there's a cameo by Charlton Heston  and the film is narrated by Robert Michum.
Wyatt Earp will always be the central character in the O.K. Corral story but he is never overshadowed by the other characters who each have their own opportunity to shine and often do so to the detriment of Earp and Kurt Russell.
There's a standout-scene in the film set in the saloon where Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer)  is playing cards, and interrupted by an aggressive Ringo ; when Doc attempts to beliitle the gunfighter with a phrase in Latin, Ringo responds with Latin phrases of his own and the pair throw Latin phrases back and forth until Ringo tires of the display and shows how adept he is at tricks with his guns, earning a round of applause from the watching crowd.   Doc Holliday responds by parodying Ringo's efforts with a cup and a seemingly childish dare of"I'm your Huckleberry."   The whole scenario is truly entertaining and the Director has managed to make the confrontation between Doc and Ringo threatening and comical at the same time.  It would be easy to dismiss the scene as pure theatre on the Director's part but it was a fact that both men were highly educated and could quite easily resorted to Latin and it was also true that both men were accomplished gunfighters, so that the scene is not so far-fetched as it first appears.  Johnny Ringo was in fact a  a mass of contradictions and a  fascinating character in his own right - well-educated, he mixed with most of the outlaws of the day, was well-known to the James Gang and the Younger brothers,  and knew the deadly John Wesley Hardin.  There was a suggestion that something dark and mysterious in his childhood had affected his personality and given that he shot a man simply for refusing a drink it is more than a possibility.
The romance between Wyatt Earp and Josephine Sarah Marcus, played by a coquettish Dana Delany is also authentic - the pair married and were together for over 46 years until Wyatt's death in 1929.  The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is always a highlight of any film about Wyatt Earp and in thisinstance is portrayed faithfully as the true version of events with Billy Clanton and Bill and Tom McClaury killed outright and Doc and Virgil and Morgan Earp wounded.  Most surprising of all is that the frenetic ending to the film in which The Cowboys are hunted down one by one was also true, including the killing of Curly Bill Brocius by Wyatt Earp. 
There is some debate as to who killed Johnny Ringo but the  scene in which Doc Holliday took the place of Wyatt Earp has been put forward as the true version of events.
The Director persists with the true version of the now mythical story to the very end when Doc Holliday lays dying in Glenwood Springs Sanatorium where he really did end his days and lives on in western folk-lore.   As for Val Kilmer, he lives on in cinema folk-lore as the man who stole every scene in Tombstone as the best Doc Holliday to date.
 
The Gunfight at O.K. Corral has itself turned into a legend and the story has been told so many times and in so many ways that it is becoming blurred in the telling.  Nevertheless, there has never been a shortage of stars queuing up to play one of the Earp brothers and that greatest of tragedians, Doc Holliday, is turning into a latter day Hamlet with the role fast becoming an iconic role in Hollywood circles.  Victor Mature attempted the role in John Ford's My Darling Clementine and although he played it with his usual charisma the fact remained that he did look a little too robust to be a sufferer from tuberculosis and the occasional cough here and there was hardly convincing.   Walter Huston took the part in The Outlaw but he was largely overshadowed by Jack Beuetel's laughable version of Billy the Kid.  Nobody cared anyway as they were all too busy gazing at Jane Russell's bosom.
Others who have played the legendary tragedian  joining Val Kilmer, Rndy Quaid and Dennis Quaid, are Cesar Romero, Kent Taylor, Kirk Douglas, Jason Robards, Stacey Keach and also Arthur Kennedy in Cheyenne Autumn.  Which of these is the best is a moot point but my personal choice is Val Kilmer.

 
It should be pretty obvious that I'm a great fan of western movies but not usually a reader of western literature I have been turning to reading westerns in the absence of new films.  Western literature in the main is pretty staple fare but the books of  Cormac McCarthy are a revelation - hard-hitting and well-written, they are almost documentary in style as most of the novels mourn the passing of the old west.  But Larry McMurtry is the Poet Laureate of the western novel and Lonesome Dove and its successors are virtually impossible to put down.  The characterisation in these books is so real that you seem to have known the people all your life and they explore every aspect of life on the frontier not least from a woman's point of view.  I can't enthuse too much about Lonesome Dove and its sequels and prequels which makes it all the more strange that they were for the C.D. market and not for the big-screen.  Nevertheless, the C.D's are sought after by enthusiasts and in the main they reproduce faithfully McMurtry's novels although the books are so good that they cannot truly be reproduced in any other medium but literature.
The westerns have come a long way since the era of the singing cowboys in the 1930's but it has taken quite a while as it meandered through the 1960's and 1970's when it was almost obligatory to have a lusty choir or a manly baritone singing such ditties as "there was no cayute who could outshoot the man from Laramie"  or"Wyatt Earp, brave courageous and bold "and there were even worse lyrics than that.  As times have changed, the westerns have gradually become grittier and moving gradually away from its romance of the west theme it has slowly emerged just how harsh the life of a cowboy really was - even as early as 1968 Will Penny was far ahead of its time when it showed down-at-heel cowboys struggling to make a living.  But it seems that the public at that time clung to the image of buckskinned knights on horseback and  Will Penny was never a success at the box office and has become more of a cult film.   What has also become apparent over the years is that the life of a woman in the west was probably harder than that of the cowboys and the derogatory phrase "whores" entered into film dialogue more and more until it has now become commonplace.  The picture that has emerged of women out west is that they were either very "respectable" married women and treated with deference or they were "whores" to be treated with contempt - in Appaloosa (previewed in Part 2) Ed Harris' character has only just met Renee Zellweger's character when he asks her point blank is she a whore or a married woman.  Most women at that time worked side by side with their husband and were dependent on him to carry out the heavy work - if that partnership ever ended when the husband died through disease or snakebite or any of the many dangers on the prairie then often she was forced into prostitution.
Lonesome Dove, the novel, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 which is unusual for a western and even more unusual in that the women in the book are as important to the storyline as the men themselves and not just ciphers.  Lorena has been forced into prostitution by a lover, abducted by a renegade half-breed and living in poverty she longs for a new life in the promised-land of San Francisco.  Clara has moved away from Lonesome Dove with her husband and it takes all her strength to keep their homestead going when her husband is kicked in the head by a horse and lies permanently comatose.  Their stories weave in and out of the plotline and they are seen to grow in strength as they face every adversity, sustaining not only themselves and each other but most of the men who they come into contact with.  The original story is based on a real-life cattle drive by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving from Texas to Montana and the main characters are Captain Augustus "Gus" McCrae and Captain Woodrow F. Call, although it has to be said that every single character is fascinating in his own right.  The original series had Robert Duvall playing Augustus (Gus) McCrae and Tommy Lee Jones as the taciturn Woodrow Call both ex-Texas Rangers leading the cattle-drive.  The situations that they meet on the way which include floods, snakes, disease and Indians make the film truly exciting but the characters that face these challenges are just as fascinating each in their own way -- the little-known Timothy Scott is brilliant as Pea-Eye Parker, with Danny Glover as Deets, Ricky Schroder as Newt and Chris Cooper as July Johnson and many others that we meet along the way.  Lonesome Dove alone is a tour de force but the sequels and preqels are unusual in that they are just as good if not better - Return to Lonesome Dove, Streets of Laredo, Dead Man's Walk and Comanche Moon are all superb.

 
 Even from this single page of western films it's obvious that there is a vast gulf between the early black and white films of the 1920's and 1930's, although it has to be said that there is very little difference in the plots - the ranch-owner who wants all the water for himself and has a crew of cut-throats to make sure he gets it is still around as is the lone gunhand ready to stand up to him, the paid mercenary handy with a gun which began the career of Jack Palance is in most films, the timid townsfolk and the good-hearted dance-hall girl are all stiil there and so are the Indians.  But the big difference is not within the plot but in the grittier and more graphic representation of the characters who can no longer get away with flashing pearl-handled colt 45's around.  It's been a long time coming but the evolutionary process from the era of the singing cowboys in white buckskins to the lethal guns of the poverty-stricken William Munny has at least shown us that the frontier may well have been a place of romance and beauty but it was also a place of sudden death, disease and poverty.  Like so many things in life while we have gained something we have lost something along the way.