Wednesday, August 7, 2013

10 Obscure, Classic Era Westerns

Maybe a little more than 10 years ago but not much more, I watched The Searchers for the first time. It was on Thanksgiving, a rented video cassette.  By then of course I was a committed film buff, seen a lot and was pretty well experienced in many genres – noir, horror, science fiction, French, etc., etc.,  – but The Western had pretty much escaped my purview. Oh sure, I went to the theater to the see the first runs of contemporary westerns, like Silverado or Dances With Wolves or Unforgiven – and enjoyed them immensely – but The Western as a genre was just not my thing. I was too young or not born yet to see the great revisionist or spaghetti westerns.  Unlike say, horror films or romantic comedy, westerns on television failed to gain my youthful cinematic interest.

Perhaps some of my initial disinterest, in spite of film buffery devotion, can be attributed to how heavily edited TV versions of Westerns were when I was growing. The cuts were not only censorship, as Westerns got more violent (a trend I welcome), but the motion picture companies just made arbitrary decisions so more commercials could be aired. Commercial television and the film companies that own the rights, left to their own devices, were destroying our movie legacy. AMC and Turner Classic Movies have not only saved a lot of movies, but restored them into being presentable again.

 I remember seeing Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid – mainly because of Bob Dylan as Alias; I loved the Soundtrack – on television and finding it an unwatchable buzz-kill. Turns out, they took the final edit away from Sam Pekinpah – the film had a troubled distribution – but in our DVD era the release has two versions – a theatrical release and Pekinpah’s reconstructed cut – neither were not the Television Version cuts. When I finally got the DVD, during the early phase of my study of the Western, I was in awe. An incredible film – a great revisionist Western, wonderful performances throughout – the theme of how fate can ruin friendship, yet friendship is one of the few values worth living and dying for – and maybe killing for – is superbly expressed. I’ve come to find out that butchering westerns were more the rule than the exception.

Of course, there a lot of bad westerns – but there are more forgotten, over-looked or so badly mutilated by TV editing to have been ignored for decades – than unwatchable productions. That’s what this list is about: bringing attention to the more obscure westerns. This list assumes you have seen all the major westerns – starting with Shane, every western made by John Ford, 7 Men From Now, every western made by Sam Peckenpah – Rio Bravo and Red River – the Howard Hawks masterpieces – and of course, Once Upon a Time in America and the other major Italian made, filmed in Spain with American Actors, Spaghetti Westerns. Quite frankly, Lonesome Dove and Deadwood should be required viewing, but I still have problems agreeing television is film, but that’s a whole other discussion.

After my The Searchers introduction, I tried to be as diligent as I could, amassing DVDs, and the occasional Film Forum revival, reading some books. There are guys who sell inexpensive DVDs – of old and out of print movies – on the periphery of Union Square Park where I was able to attain many rare Westerns. Now, I love all eras of Western Golden, Classic, Revisionist (which includes Spaghetti Westerns) and Revivalist (Silverado and all westerns that followed). But the 1950s Western are still the best of the genre.

 Now, if you watch with the right frame of mind,  you can see elements of all these categories in every western – Westerns can be about many things, but they are also always about the Western –  but I am focusing mainly on the Classic Western, basically everything after the Ox Bow Incident (1943) and High Noon (1952)—this list assumes you’ve seen these two masterpieces – and before Ride The High Country  (1962), Pekinpah’s first film and Randolph Scott’s last, which by introducing more cynicism, more violence and stories set at the end of the western expansion era, signaled the start of the Revisionist Western.

 Last autumn, while promoting Django, Quentin Tarantino in an interview on Fresh Air, said that more than any other film genre, “the western says more about the decade in which they were made.” The 1950s were the era of the Classic Western, when the genre first infused social issues, existential questions, in-depth characters and increased realism into what becomes essential movie storytelling. Filmmakers and audiences first took westerns seriously.  Think 2001 Space Odyssey and Star Wars –  science fiction had long been part of American film, but these films made science fiction serious, as important a watershed  moments in American culture as when Poe infused horror tales with literary pretensions. Stage Coach, The Ox Bow Incident and High Noon did the same thing for the Western and for a while, the appetite was insatiable. By the 1960s, westerns had mainly moved to television and the triple feature – which gave these B-movies a home, faded from the American cinema. For about 20 years though, theaters and movies competed with television and great westerns were made.

These are near-great westerns – and important or at least, provocative, films. They exemplify the style and feel of the best of American film of their era.  This list assumes you’ve seen most of the westerns previously mentioned. These films need to be better known, they contain amazing moments of terrific acting and directing. Because they were lower budgets and had a different distribution than the studio blockbusters, which also meant that the studio honchos and the censorship board did not pay as close attention. Unlike many 50s era mainstream American films, it’s these westerns – the more obscure ones especially – that most realistically – even when the plots bordered on the ludicrous and were, more often than not, blatantly ahistorical – explored adult themes in post war America. 1950-era Westerns especially, can have a subversive subtext because filmmakers could sneak in ideas and images not allowed in the highy monitered popular films of the same era.

Westerns may be an acquired taste and maybe one reason I’ve acquitted this taste is that at the core of most of these films is a man confronted with a dramatic conflict that forces him to make sense of his life. If that is not the basic screenplay of real life – especially the middle age sojourn – I do not know what is! Also, 1950s western may avoid historical accuracy, but they are American creation myths. The story of America endlessly fascinates me, always entices my imagination. Who are we? Who were we?  What 1950s Westerns lack in facts they make up for in truth – mythological veracity but truth nonetheless. The west had to be settled by violent men of honor, but when civilization arrived, the violence and honor threatened the very civilization they enabled. Like Moses, their qualities ensured our survival in the desert, but those same qualities prevented Moses from joining us in the Promised Land.  Most western film heroes honestly live by the ethos – to thy own self  be true – and after they reestablish order – which usually is first disrupted when that ethos is challenged – the western hero rides off to the horizon – yes, often the sunset – because he is no longer of use to civilized society.

Are his ideals antithetical to that social order or has that social order forgotten the true value of those ideals? That is the Paradox that as Americans, Westerns invite us to ponder.

 In the 1950s, this dilemma must have felt very real – postwar America, rampant Post Traumatic Stress that was undiagnosed and ignored -- the majority of American men were veterans, had grown up during the Great Depression, fought a war that finally defeated forces of Fascism and Racism – which were ideas being debated and in varying degrees enacted for about a century before Germany invaded Poland. Yet, in America Jim Crow – a cousin to Nazism – white supremacy was accepted as the status quo and encoded into law throughout the former confederacy and its border states. Our great melting pot had devolved into a paranoid conformity. We were afraid of communism and worried that the economic security we had achieved after the great depression was fleeting. It is in this psychological milieu that our cinema created hundreds of stories, to give us solace, understanding and perhaps even wisdom, about our own creation myths. War lingers in the backstories of the plot of most westerns. War is either imminent – with Native Americans – and/or fresh in the memories – the Civil War most likely – a familiar subtext to 1950s America who had just saved Europe and Asia at a psychic price few admitted we needed to pay.    

Scholars have written reams about these themes and issues when it comes to the better known Westerns. Justifiably so. People will be studying and enjoying The Searchers and Shane as long as people are interested in stories, which will be forever. But here are 10 movies not as well-known, a little harder to find. They  remind me that my study of the Western is far from finished, convinces me there are more near-forgotten film treasures still unearthed. Of all the lists I’ve done, this was the most challenging to limit only to 10. I reckon I may have to do a sequel.



10 Obscure, Classic Era Westerns   


The Man From The Alamo (1951) – Yes this list is so obscure – it assumes you have at least seen 7 Men From Now – is that even Budd Boetticher scholars over-look this gem. Boetticher made a bullfighting film – The Lady and the Matador and noir – The Rise & Fall of Legs Diamond, both are great and well regarded, but his major contribution to cinema are the group of films he made with an aging Randolph Scott, great westerns, great films. Scholars dismiss many of the earlier Boetticher, as did Boetticher, because the studio had final cut. A more modest film than 7 Men From Now (whose only true psychological antecedent is The Stranger by Albert Camus), The Man From the Alamo dives into similar existential crisis waters that fascinated Boetticher. Stroud played by Glen Ford, a subtle actor who starred in many great westerns, most notably the original 7:10 to Yuma, leaves the Alamo – a group of soldiers, all from the same small town in Texas, draw lots (here, actually beans) so that one of them can go back home to make sure their families and farms are safe. Ford wins and he goes home; his family and all the families have been murdered, the only survivor to tell the tale is a Mexican boy and friend. But these weren’t Mexicans who did this, but Texans who were promised land grants if they fought for the Mexican side. While Boetticher has other concerns than historical accuracy in this tale, he doesn’t overlook what most people do, is that during the Texas war for Independence, Americans did fight on the side of Mexico and many Mexicans sided with the American-led, independence movement. Glenn Ford goes to town with his now adopted Mexican son, turns out these American banditos are making trouble but that fear is pushed aside. The townies have Texas Freedom fever. Ford is known as a coward, the man who ran out of the fighting and is jailed and almost lynched (twice!), but while in Jail he befriends the men who killed his family so he can fulfill his vendetta against the leader – who raped his wife before killing her. Under protection of the Texas Calvary, the entire town leaves by wagon train – with the bank’s gold – and are pursued by the American banditos, with an undercover Stroud. Everyone thinks he’s a coward, he cannot tell the truth because then he cannot personally inflict justice, and he also must save the townspeople, who hate him from the marauders.  Instead of saving the day, the Calvary actually gets called away by orders – Boetticher subverts the film cliché – and good Texans – women, children and a one armed mayor (Chill Wills!) have to fight the bad Texans alone, but  in order to do so, these good Texans have to realize the coward and the Mexican are just as good as Texans as they are.  Are these plot twists or philosophical paradoxes requiring resolution? No time to decide, because the last act of this film has some of the best horse scenes ever filmed – Boetticher was an expert equestrian and ended his life as a horse breeder and award winning rider, long after being kicked out of Hollywood for being a total bad ass. The American Banditos are pursuing the towns people, who by covered wagons are racing across the prairie to get to the river crossing where they intend to defend themselves. Glen Ford is riding between both groups. All the horses are at full gallop. Needless to stay, this was a pre special effects of any kind film era; all the stunts are real. Is justice achieved? Will the mob abandoned collective prejudice? Is honor worth it? This film poses all these questions and then to answer them there are vast landscapes filled with charging horses, a vicious fist-fight on precipice of a waterfall, and women and children fighting off marauders with muskets. An existential dilemma is developed and posed. Pure cinema is the response.

Congressional Medal of War winner Lance Pool (Robert Taylor, in a convincing, albeit “red-face” performance), a Shoshone Indian, comes home to Wyoming after his valiant service on the side of the Union to be a rancher with his father at the Devil’s Doorway (1950), the sweetest spread in the territory. But Wyoming has enacted racial laws prohibiting Indians to own land. Sheep herders want to graze their lambs on cattle grazing lawns – Taylor has the best stretch of property – and local politicians are using the new racial codes and homesteading laws to steal Lance’s land, forcing a clash between the apprehensive shepherds and the Indians – the now fighting mad Taylor is letting Native Americans fleeing the oppression of the Reservation System live on his Ranch, causing the U.S. Calvary to enter into the fray that includes locals for (but if they support native Americans, they’re breaking the law) – and against – the Indians – as well as the shepherds and their flocks. Anthony Mann directs—he made great noirs and  some great Westerns, such as The Furies, with Barbra Stanwyck, a psycho-sexual Father-Daughter melodrama that happens to take pace in the 19th century, west of the Mississippi and a series of better known westerns starring Jimmy Stewart (The Naked Spur and Winchester 73 are probably the best). Mann is the one of the best directors in the history of film, and is the equal of John Ford or Fritz Lang (and they felt so too!), but he seems mainly overlooked today and Devil’s Doorway is all but forgotten. Every time I watch this splendidly detailed, brilliantly acted allegory, I’m struck by how comprehensively it examines the complexities of 1950 racial politics, especially the idea that we fought for freedom against the Nazis only to return to a land with Nazi-like apartheid. I am in awe of how great a movie this really is, truly as moving and important as The Ox Bow Incident as westerns go, and To Kill A Mocking Bird – take that cinema snob!  Plus, Mann is such an interesting director – scenes of sheep herds comingling and clashing with cattle herds in the prairie dust are mind boggoling – stunning images that act as clever play within the play symbolism – and dresses Taylor, who keeps swinging between stoicism and justified anger – in a wardrobe that increasingly is more native American, until the tragic end of this relativistic drama where Taylor once again dons the Union officer’s uniform, how we saw him in the opening scene. Forget whatever preconceptions you have about the Western, Mann is the consummate visionary and there are moments of excitement and action equal to any in this genre known for its excitement and action. Devil’s Doorway is as poignant a social drama about how the denial of justice and equality destroys the social fabric of a community as any ever made, then and now. In fact, I would argue, what makes this film so powerful is that its progressive political ideals come masked in one of the best Westerns ever made. You think you’re watching cowboys and Indians and wind up questioning your own conscience.
Only The Valiant (1951) is the greatest Gregory Peck movie you’ve never heard of, The Apaches are uprising and Peck plays a  Richard Lance, a by-the book captain who insists on not killing a captured chief, treating him like a Prisoner of War. But following military protocols – and respecting a captured savage’s human dignity – raises the ire of the Calvary grunts.  Peck also knows that Apache braves will not cease their violence until their chief is free. There’s also a daughter of a colonel at the fort where is stationed that he is in love with for the purposes of the romantic subplot, but your probably could guess that. The only way to protect the main fort is to defend a smaller, outlying fort, where the Indians are sure to attack but like the plot of 300, it’s by a narrow pass in the mountains and the Indians will be unable to mount a full-on attack. Peck is hated by the rag tag troop of soldiers, that incudes an alcoholic ruffian by Ward Bond and Lon Chaney Jr, as a bipolar Arab-American (I’m not kidding), who swears by Allah he will kill Peck. Peck is ordered to defend the fort with a small platoon of his choosing, so he selects only soldiers who hate him. Why? A stoic man of honor, Peck knows the chances are slim of defeating the enraged Apache, so he chooses the most expendable of the soldiers, who understand resent they are on a suicide mission led by an officer they despise. An extraordinarily violent film especially for its time.  I particularly liked the tomahawk in the neck in one battle scene. When the soldiers are not fighting the Native Americans, they’re fighting each other – at one point, two soldiers – a former union man and a former confederate – are captured by the Apaches, and wind up in an extended fist fight with each other, to the delight of the Native American extras. Only the Valiant is a low budget Calvary western, much of the action takes place on obvious sound stages – yet these limitations actually enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere, at times it seems like a film of an off-Broadway avante garde drama where group of men await certain death, or Platoon. The movie is a thrilling portrayal of paranoia, and mutual antagonism as a response to that paranoia (like Platoon). The foremost reason to watch this film, however, is the scenes between Bond and Peck. Here you have one of the greatest leading men of his generation and one of the greatest character/supporting actors of that same generation working together for the only time in their careers. It’s a B movie – though a brilliant script, even when it veers towards the preposterous – and a miniscule budget, but these two film talents love acting against each other.  Both are known for better movies, but in Only The Valiant, their scenes together are some of the best acting moments either ever had, which is saying a lot.


Aside from the B-movie, cheapo shoot-em ups John Wayne made through the 30s and 40s – even after John Ford featured him in Stage Coach (the film Andrew Sarris said – “gave birth to American Film” – one of his most hyperbolic albeit accurate declarations) – Hondo (1953) is the nearly-forgotten of Wayne’s great westerns, probably because he would soon make more important films –  the classic Ford Westerns the Calvary Trilogy – Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande –  and of course, The Searchers – one of the greatest films ever made. Also, the film was made in 3D, but rarely shown in that format – there are a lot of close-ups of arrows, bullets and horses going right into the camera, which probably looek better in 3D then 2D, yet now gives the film an off kilter, kinetic energy.  Wayne is the rare film actor who got more popular as he got older – he was a superstar in the 1960s, more famous in late middle age than when he was young. I can’t think of another actor with this trajectory. Wayne also made lots of film throughout his career, of varying quality and he brought his persona to support right wing politics, which still makes it difficult to objectively appreciate his talent. The fact is, he one of the most capable actors in the history of film. Hondo is transitory Wayne; he is abandoning the acting gimmicks of his earlier career and crafting the persona that would sustain him for the next quarter century. Part Apache, the titular character is a loner and former gunman. He smirks and glowers and gets into fights. He now works as a scout  for the army when he meets Geraldine Page and her son, living on the edge of the Prairie in the heart of Apache country, during an uprising – Apaches were always doing that – Her husband is away, and she will not heed the advice to leave because the Apaches leave them alone – why? – the gruff Apache (a wonderfully cheesy yet touching performance by veteran character actor Michael Pate) chief – all of his sons have  been killed by white men – adopts the son by becoming blood brothers. Cold, emotionally distant, a little ornery, Hondo takes on some parenting duties like teaching the lad to swim by throwing him a pond. Unfortunately Johnny’s real father, who apparently has abandoned his family, has no honor – when he first meets Wayne he is mean to his dog! – And basically needs to be killed, by Wayne.  What makes this Western special is Wayne and Geraldine Page – Wayne says he people must learn live without others and Page saying a woman is worthless without a man – the dialog is retrograde – but delivered with such earnest faith, you can’t help but marvel in spite of your own rationality. Watching Wayne and Page exchange dialog and develop a chaste yet credible romance – the only thing they seem to have in common is that they are in a movie together and are both asexual WASPS – is spell-binding cinema. Every time I watch the movie I can’t help but see why the 1960s happened. His unfeeling step father causes the death of both his criminal and selfish, birth- father and his beloved mentor, a long-haired social outsider. Who wouldn’t go on to join the Weather Underground after this kind of childhood? The last line is Wayne’s bemoaning the end of the Apache’s way of life. “It was a good way of life,” says the half-apache Hondo, who was instrumental in the demise of that life and the dysfunctional upbringing of his adopted son.  I imagine an adult Johnny telling the Hondo plot to his psychiatrist. One hopes electroshock provided some relief.


The Ride Back (1957) could be a Beckett Play. William Conrad, a down on his lawman who we find out that his wife has left him and he has taken on a bounty hunter gig, to go into Mexico and take back to Scottsdale, Anthony Quinn, who is wanted for a murder, which he committed but it’s never that simple. Quinn is earthy, speaks Spanish, popular, friendly, outgoing – a Neal Cassidy type – while Conrad is unhappy, uncomfortable in his skin and bitter. Along the way they deal with Mexicans – who are treated with respect and speak Spanish, which Conrad cannot comprehend Quinn’s wild-eyed Mexican girlfriend – west length black hair and ample cleavage stretching her blouse. In between escape attempts and Conrad keeping a gun on him, the smarmy Quinn keeps trying to unnerve Conrad, whose anger is from a deeper regret about his failed marriage and having been a failure at life. He is going to bring in Quinn because he has decided this will be the one thing he will not fail at. Fate has pushed these two together and life beyond no longer has meaning. They find a cabin where a mom and dad and little girl have been murdered by the Apache. Quinn keeps insulting Conrad, Conrad smolders in a slow burn. Then, they find a girl, the twin sister of the murdered child. She is traumatized and will not speak. The mutual hatred begins to fade as the presence of the little girl humanizes them both as they protect her from a small band of Apache who are pursuing them.  Completely low budget, minmalist film makinng. No real sets to speak of, just some actors, horses and a script where an existentialist crisis detonates every few minutes. Both men underestimate each other and until they realize they  have two things in common – honor and compassion – from which there is always No Exit.

Robert Aldrich went on direct such contemporary crowd pleasers as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Longest Yard, and The Dirty Dozen, but in the 1950s he lensed Kiss Me Deadly, a touchstone film for the French New Wave and the noir that heralds the end of classic noir and proclaims the start of neo-noir. The film immediately preceded accomplished a similar turning point, Vera Cruz (1954) – a film that anticipates Sam Peckenpah (who unabashedly ripped it off for the Wild Bunch) and Sergio Leoine, who is said to have studied it intensely and it shows in his work, where references to it, intended and unintended, abound).  That this violent, cruel and surrealistic western was made in the 1950s still blows me away. An aging Gary Cooper, an ex Confederate colonel who lost everything in the Civil War, and Burt Lancaster, who is just a gunman in it for the rush and is having so much fun in this film, with his reckless violence and constant sarcasm, he should be smoking a cigar and wearing  groucho mustache, meet cowboy cute – Lancaster sells him a stolen horse – and they go to Mexico to work as mercenaries during the Franco-Mexican war – the amazing supporting cast – Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, Caesar Romero – many of whom would work for the revisionist westerns for the next 20+ years – keep things sleazy and violent. Aldrich is a kitchen-sink director, and this film is bloated like other big budget westerns, like They Died With Their Boots on – and the more existential westerns of the 1950s, like High Noon, were a counter point and why the Western’s were so rich a cinematic vein. Aldrich subverts his wide, detailed canvas, convoluting a convoluted plot for solely for the pleasure of convulsion. There are evil Frenchmen supporting the Emperor and earnest peasants fighting for freedom and a stage coach filled with $3 million in gold the emperor wants, the peasants need, and Lancaster and Cooper have made a deal to steal but they cannot trust each other. Lancaster aligns himself with a French woman and a Cooper a peasant girl – does greed and personal interest win or will the better natures of our American heroes side with the Peasants. Aldrich was a showman, but he also was a lefty. An enjoyable ride, serious issues are explored in a credible fashion and the action scenes still astound more than a half a century later. A film this ahead of its time will always feel fresh.


 Fort Dobbs (1958) has a Patricia Highsmith novel feel to its plot. In trying to conceal the murder he did commit, a man is accused of a murder he did not commit. Actually, the original murder is accidental manslaughter, but Gar – Clint Walker, gets out of town fast, and is pursued by a posse. He finds a corpse killed by a Comanche arrow, exchanges jackets with the body so the posse thinks he has been killed, but then when he tries to steal a horse from  Virginal DeMayo –  Celia Gray and her son Chad, the latter shoots him. Celia nurses him back to health, the Comanche attack. They must seek refuge in Fort Dobbs. On their odyssey to sanctuary, it is revealed the stolen jacket belongs to Celia’s husband, and she first concludes that Gar has killed him. Along the way they meet an acquaintance of Gar, Brian Keith in ultra-sleazy mode, who is a gun dealer, and the Comanche are his best clients. Keith attempts to rape DeMayo. A later scene, where Clint saves Virginia from nearly drowning has DeMayo waking up, naked beneath a blanket, realizing that she is naked and knowing that the man –who she is attracted to, but the circumstantial evidence shows he murdered her husband – has undressed her and seen her body. Clint, whistling and shirtless, is cleaning his long, hard, fully erect rifle. Smoldering and sensual, the pseudo-subliminal sexuality surmounts the details of the plot, and the safety they seek at Fort Dobbs takes on a new, more personal symbolism. The Comanche may kills us at any minute, but I am naked under this blanket and we both have our minds on something phallic. Clint Walker, tall, muscular, is  total beefcake and filmed to moisten panties and DeMayo’s ample cleavage seems always ready to burst free every time she moves.  Alas, it was the 1950s and American Film had yet to invent sex, so the lust and passion are left to simmer in subtext. Gordon Douglas, who made a range of films, from Little Rascal comedies to Call Me Mister Tibbs, is having a lot of innuendo fun with the Burt Kennedy screenplay – who wrote for Boetticher and directed the revisionist western dramadey, Support Your Local Sheriff. Not many saw this film on its first theatrical run, but I’m sure 80 percent of all the teenage boys who saw it with a girl at least got to second base before after the show, a rare feat for Eisenhower era movie dates.



Pursued (1947 – so I’m cheating a little about the 1950s)  is considered the most successful of the Western noirs, an early mash up of two genres, which basically meant some paranoid story of murder and suspense was set in the west and the cinematographer added more shadows – German expressionist lighting, okay – to heightened the psychological drama that unfolds.  Raoul Walsh directed great noirs, like They Drive by Night and High Sierra, and mostly large scale westerns, like 1930’s The Big Trail, an early serious Western the first A-picture role for John Wayne. Although as creaky as any early sound film – especially one with such an abundance of outdoor scenes – The Big Trail is a bloated extravaganza, too big for its britches – but inside this ode to our pioneer past is this sub-plot of a murder yarn, a mystery the Wayne character solves, and I suspect it’s this tiny story lost in an epic where Pursued was found. A flashback movie, Robert Mitchum has been pursued by an unknown event in his childhood. An early, dream-like scene, has a woman – Judith Anderson – bring a young child to her two children, Teresa Wright and Dean Jagger , when they grow up – informs them he will live with them and that they must leave immediately.  The children grow up as siblings, but Mitchum and are in love, with the brother resents. Mitchum leaves the ranch to fight the Spanish (I’m not sure what year this is), comes back a war hero but an Iago character gets the brother riled up about Mitchum’s past. People are gunning for him and he doesn’t know why. He kills his step brother, which makes his step sister end their engagement. Her new boyfriend – Harry Carey Jr. – is shot by who seems to be Mitchum, but is really the shadowy figures pursing Mitchum throughout the flashbacks. To avenge the deaths of her brother and fiancé, Wright swears to kill Mitchum – but they realize other forces are at work. Which turns back to the early flashback, when he was a child, he witnessed his whole family murdered and he s the last one alive, but the family doesn’t want him to get the land, which Judith Anderson wants? She cannot forgive Mitchum for killing his son. This film seems to take place during the turn of the 20th century, but Walsh shows nothing that would make it an end of the west western. Instead, is a very spooky western were honor and love struggle to survive against vengeance. You pay for the sins of your father, and even in the New Mexico desert, you cannot escape your fate. In Pursued, revelation is redemption.


John Cassavetes almost steals Saddle The Wind (1958), an early performance that has been mostly overlooked, probably because the cineastes who, justifiably, have put Cassavetes on his pedestal, are too pretentious  to understand why  westerns are part of that pedestal. Cain wants to be Abel and Abel turns into Cain in this brother story where the unresolvable conflict between homesteaders and ranchers leads to violence, tragedy and the end of a way of life. Robert Taylor, the older brother, has a spread he rents from the ranch king pin, an excellent Donald Crisp, who plays a devout Christian and father figure to Taylor, whose belief in him led Taylor to a path of righteousness. Taylor used to be a gun fighter. Cassavetes likes to drink and party and get rowdy, a juvenile delinquent beatnik. You expect him to start spouting Kerouac, in an edgy, frenetic performance frothing with Method. He brings home a gal he plans to marry, Julie London, she causes tension between the two brothers. She is of ill repute; Cassavetes is too inexperienced to understand and Taylor is too cynical to believe she has changed her ways. Cassavetes wants to prove himself and escape his brother’s shadow – or get his brother’s approval – while Cain is trying to get Abel to stay Abel, because he’ll live longer. Cassavetes wants to hear about the gun slinger days of Taylor, but Taylor wants to forget the violence and raise steer. One day in the town’s saloon, a gunman, whose brother Taylor killed during his gunman days shows up for vengeance, Cassavettes draws on him, the gunman is distracted and the younger brother kills him with a lucky shot, becomes a celebrity and finally believes he is escaping his brother’s shadow, and decides Taylor is just being jealous because Taylor knows he’s no Cain, just an Abel. How are you going to keep them down on the ranch when they get a taste of blood and the possibility of sex (still the 50s, petticoats remain laced). Meanwhile, a homesteader with his family, a union officer fresh from the civil war, has legitimate claim to the Taylor’s land. Cassavetes takes it upon himself to drive the union officer away, but who overpowers the punk kid, which leads to more violence. Crisp the Christian, is willing to give up ranching if it means acting unchristian to the homesteaders, Taylor is torn between loyalty to his juvenile delinquent brother and his loyalty to his father figure. Confrontations ensue, honor is questioned and redemption comes at a price. A gripping film, where the action truly symbolizes the extensile conflicts of good men who must knowingly do bad things. However, what I really love about this film is that like say, The Long Hot Summer, you get to see different schools of acting clash. Cassavetes is all modern and method; Taylor is an old school movie star from the studio system. Soon Westerns will be all modern and method – watch this film through the goggles of cinema history and you witness a passing of a torch – but it’s not that one school is better, but that so few times both generations of acting styles are contained in one film that together they make a unique, rarely seen, style of acting. One of Cassavetes best performance in a non-Cassavete’s directed film.

After repeated having the peaceful town of Warlock (1959) shot up by cowboys, the town hires Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), a renowned gunfighter, as town marshal, who comes with his devoted friend, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), his hero-worshiping, club footed, right-hand, who is secretly a violent sleaze ball. Their first encounter with McQuown's men is without bloodshed, though the cowboys are humiliated and one of them, Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) sick of being an outlaw, stays behind.  The overstuffed plot has a lot of business – a woman Quinn loved but he killed his brother, come to town to play at the saloon he and Fonda have taken over. Gunfighters want to get even with Fonda, return to town led by Frank Gorshin –the Riddler! – who is also in the film, Richard Widmark’s brother. Meanwhile, a real sheriff who hates Fonda appoints Widmark as a legal sheriff and this former outlaw takes the idea of justice and law seriously. He’s a righteous man. Redemption is in the air, because in a nifty supporting role, Deforest Kelly – yes, Dr. McCoy ! --- decides he’s had enough of the outlaw cowboys and Fonda and Quinn, who is playing both sides against the middle. Widmark is good, but he’s not that good and the finale is a draw between Fonda and Widmark, both men who prefer good to evil but who have done bad things in their past. What is true honor and what is pride? What will the future of America be? Fonda’s ambiguity here was unique for his roles at this time; this hard edge would be exploited to the max by Leone in Once Upon a Time in the West. In Warlock, you see the nugget of nihilism – even though in the end he chooses good, because it is the 1950s --  but a nugget is all Tom Joad needs. Fonda was such a great actor, in Warlock you see him play a man who has lived with violence for so long that when he finally renounces it, you feel his liberation. Widmark is brilliant too. A reluctant hero, unable to resist his own conscience yet, neurotic and scared. He’s everything we hero not to be, which makes the character more realistically heroic.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this article! I've seen quite a few of these, one western I suggest, thought its trailer and poster are absolutely appalling, and its reputation is complete critic revulsion is The Fiend Who Walked The West, I personally found it to be a fantastic grim noir western, I'm curious on your thoughts if you see it!