West Of Dodge City, 1947.
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John Ford started out making two-reel Westerns for Universal in the silent era and directed a number of silent feature Westerns but Stagecoach was his first sound Western, over a decade into the talkie era.
He must have been working on sheer instinct, because adult-oriented A-Westerns like Stagecoach were long out of favor. The film, well received critically and a commercial success, brought the A-Western back, and incidentally made a star of John Wayne, as Ford predicted it would at the time.
The picture has to rank among the most important of all Westerns simply for reviving the genre as mainstream Hollywood fare, which it remained well into the 1960s.
It was based on a short story by Ernest Haycox, though Ford said his sense of it was shaped by the short story “Boule de Suif” by Guy de Maupassant. Others have suggested the short story “The Outcasts Of Poker Flat” by Brete Harte as a more likely model. It hardly matters, as all these stories share the conceit of a group of strangers thrown together in an unexpected adventure — a timeless premise in fiction.
Ford’s variant on it is simply brilliant. The characters are all sharply drawn and varied, their conflicts and alliances engaging and continually shifting, often in unexpected ways. Wayne’s Ringo Kid becomes the center of the tale, because of his gallantry and determination, and because of Wayne’s screen presence, easy and natural but riveting.
Wayne was hardly star material at the time, being predominantly a veteran of scores of modest B-Westerns, and Ford had to fight to cast him in the picture, but more than holding his own with a cast of fine supporting players he somehow towered over all of them. He was the one you couldn’t take your eyes off of.
Ford brought all his considerable skill as a director and storyteller to the movie — it’s impeccably crafted and wonderfully entertaining. It was the film Orson Welles watched over and over again in order to learn how to direct a movie and it repays countless viewings for ordinary film lovers as well.
It’s one of the great movies and the Criterion Blu-ray edition of it belongs in every American home.
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A lot of folks reckon Red River to be one of the greatest Westerns ever made but I myself don’t see it that way. It’s a damn good Western, and a fine entertainment, but to me there’s something just a little off about it.
The outdoor scenes were all shot in southern Arizona and are spectacularly good. The crossing of the cattle over the Red River is as impressive as any river crossing in any Western. Throughout the film John Wayne gives one of his very best performances, ably supported by Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan and Joanne Dru.
Its first 45 minutes are as good as the first 45 minutes of any Western, but the film seems to wander off the trail a bit after that, starting with the sequence of the night stampede.
Having Latimer, well played by Harry Carey, Jr. (above), talk about his wife and his hopes and his dreams moments before getting killed in the stampede comes across as artificial. The stampede itself, though it incorporates some stunning location footage of rampaging longhorns, is interrupted once too often by inserts shot back at the studio on a sound stage.
The sequence has emotional power but it feels like an interpolation and too obviously manipulative. Hawks generally got at sentimental effects in less direct ways. More importantly, it feels like a departure from the easy and natural way the film establishes its characters and their conflicts in the first 45 minutes, with crackling dialogue and inventive exposition that never plays as exposition.
Hawks being Hawks, a master storyteller, the stampede has a legitimate function in the overall structure of the tale, motivating John Wayne’s character, Tom Dunson, in an understandable way, to commit his first suspect act as the boss of the trail drive, coming very close to killing the hapless cowboy who caused the catastrophe.
This line of development gets more and more intense after the stampede, Dunson more and more unreasonable and unhinged. We proceed to the triumphal and visually masterful crossing of the cattle over the Red — a superb piece of filmmaking — only to find that it hasn’t settled Dunson down at all.
A final confrontation with his adopted son Matthew Garth, played by Clift, causes Garth to mutiny and take control of the drive, exiling Dunson, who promises to come back and kill him. This is the core of the movie — revealed now to be a version of Mutiny On the Bounty on horseback.
At this point, it ran into the same problem Mutiny On the Bountry ran into dramatically. The tension between Christian and Bligh, having reached its climax in the mutiny, essentially ends and the tale bifurcates. We see what happens to Christian, we see what happens to Bligh, but the personal face-to-face conflict between the two men, the engine of the drama, is over.
Hawks was wise enough to bring his Christian and Bligh together at the end for a final showdown, but the narrative mechanism he used to arrange this was clumsy. Basically it involved the late introduction of a new character, Tess Millay, played by Joanne Dru. Garth rescues her from a wagon train under attack by Indians, then leaves her, whereupon she falls in with Dunson and becomes a kind of mediator between the two men, finally stopping their duel to the death at the end of the film.
It makes for some interesting interactions between the characters, but feels a little jury-rigged as a plot development. The film was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase, who wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Chase thought the heart of the tale lay in the triangle between Dunson, Garth and Millay. Hawks wanted it to lie in the spectacle and historical consequence of the first major cattle drive to a rail-head in Kansas, so he hired Charles Schnee to rewrite the script with that in mind.
He and Schnee never really solved the problem of how to integrate the two parts of the movie into a whole. Two thirds of it is the epic tale of a cattle drive with a Mutiny On the Bounty structure, the last third concentrates on an intriguing emotional triangle between three characters. Hawks acknowledged this in later years, saying he was never happy with the ending of the film, but he blamed it on Schnee and on Dru, a last-minute replacement for another actress — he said Dru simply didn’t know how to play the role correctly.
In fact, Dru (above) is wonderful in the film, and no actor giving any kind of a performance could have resolved the split nature of the narrative. The ending is satisfying enough, if a little perfunctory — Millay simply tells Dunson and Garth to stop fighting because they love each other, so they stop fighting.
The film remains a fine entertainment, because each section of it is involving and well executed, but it doesn’t have the driving through-line, the structural cohesion, of a first-rate film, a first-rate Western. Surely some way could have been found to introduce Millay earlier and more naturally into the narrative — Hawks and his writers simply didn’t take the trouble to do it.
Audiences didn’t seem to mind — the film was a huge hit and is now considered a classic, though I myself don’t think it measures up to Hawks’s other important Western, Rio Bravo, a less ambitious film in some ways but in my opinion a flat-out masterpiece.
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The craven, dickless men who run Hollywood today have an understandable hatred of the Western, a genre which has traditionally mocked, with scorn and contempt, cowardly eunuchs like themselves. Still, it’s a hard genre to kill. Real Westerns keep showing up unexpectedly astride the trail every ten years or so — an Unforgiven or a True Grit — always welcomed by audiences, always profitable. It must annoy the hell out of the eunuchs.
The Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, from 2010, may be a sort of miracle, as Unforgiven was, but it’s real enough and its commercial success understandable enough. It’s one of the best Westerns ever made, beautifully crafted, humane, inspiring, thrilling, dealing with the timeless themes of the Western — shame, honor, redemption.
The Blu-ray edition of it belongs in every American home. It’s not just a joy in itself, it’s an immensely satisfying rebuke to the Hollywood nullities who fear and hate such works from the shallows of their shriveled, dessicated hearts.
In most B-Westerns you can expect to find formulaic and sometimes quite preposterous plots, stilted dialogue given a stilted delivery by mediocre actors, crude comic relief that only a child might possibly find funny, cheesy interior sets and romantic subplots involving cardboard female characters. You will often find musical interludes featuring anachronistic Western swing numbers.
You can also expect to find superior cinematography in the outdoor scenes, picturesque landscapes, superb horsemanship by any player who gets up on a horse, and beautifully choreographed equestrian action scenes. You will often find examples of expertly driven horses pulling wagons, buggies or stagecoaches, which can be thrilling.
The scenes involving horses are like the arias in an opera — they’re almost always beautiful or stirring, and as in opera they can utterly redeem a bad libretto.
If you don’t have an eye or a taste for watching men and women on horses move through beautiful landscapes, most B-Westerns won’t have much to offer you, just as most operas won’t have much to offer you if you don’t have an ear or a taste for beautiful melodies.
At RKO, Tim Holt played second lead in a few B-Westerns in the 1930s before the studio decided to make him the star of his own series. They launched it with Wagon Train, a superior showcase a cut above the standard B-Western.
Holt plays a scout leading a wagon train loaded with desperately needed supplies for settlers in a remote town, navigating perilous country, threatened by Comanches on the warpath and a gang of road agents working for a rival express company.
Production values are high, the script is taut, and Holt is at his most appealing, ably supported by a fine cast, including Martha O’Driscoll (with Holt above) as the leading lady. Trained as a dancer, she had a middling career in Hollywood for about ten years, until she gave it up to raise a family and pursue other interests.
She attained a certain cult celebrity for her appearance in House Of Dracula (above), but she was a very good actress, too, with a striking screen presence. She anchors the romantic subplot in Wagon Train with her vexing, self-assured performance in a role that has more substance than usual for a female lead in a Western.
The film is really a modest A-Western and became the first of 46 Westerns Holt would star in for RKO. They would become increasingly formulaic — enjoyably so for the most part — but a film like Wagon Train makes one wish Holt had starred in more Westerns of similar ambition and quality.
Most Western saloons were not much more elegant than this — a fancy carved bar, a generous selection of spirits, a wood frame and canvas (or plain board) walls. Hollywood usually got it backwards — with fancily constructed and decorated rooms and only one kind of unbranded whiskey on offer.
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Between 1950 and 1952, actor Edmund O’Brien and director Byron Haskin teamed up for three Westerns. Two of them, Silver City and Denver & Rio Grand are now available on Blu-ray in decent if not spectacular transfers from Olive Films.
O’Brien was a reliable character actor but sits a horse uneasily as the star of a Western. He has a modern, urban sort of persona and lacks the physical grace of a typical Western hero. Haskin was a special effects man who got into directing, most notably The War Of the Worlds in 1954. He seems an unlikely fit for Westerns as well.
The two films are, nevertheless, good solid contributions to the genre. Haskin has a decent feel for landscape, and in Silver City there’s a really fine action scene filmed on a moving train hauling giant logs. It’s one of the best train sequences in any Western, done live with excellent stunt work and no recourse to process shots.
In the same film, Yvonne De Carlo is a vexing presence as the female lead — she helps the film’s running time pass most agreeably..
Both films are probably for fans of the genre only, but as such they don’t disappoint.
Clark Gable didn’t make many Westerns and never made a great one, except for, arguably, the modern Western The Misfits. He never had to grind out a living in B-Westerns, either. It’s a shame, because he looks terrific on a horse and has the physical self-possession of a classic Western hero.
It’s odd, too, because his breakthrough as an actor came as the result of a Western, The Painted Desert, his first talkie, from 1931. He played second lead to star William Boyd but got so much fan mail that the studio which had him under contract, MGM, decided he was star material himself.
The Tall Men, from 1955, directed by Raoul Walsh with his customary craft, is pretty close to being a great Western, however. Gable was doubled a lot in his riding scenes on location during the production, having already suffered his second heart attack by 1955, and much of the first half of the film is studio bound, but this is no great loss, since the heart of it is a lively love triangle between Gable, Robert Ryan and Jane Russell, heavy on dry and amusing banter between the principals.
Russell gives one of her best performances in the film as the ambitious, down-to-earth Nella Turner. It’s a pleasure to watch Gable’s easy, insistently masculine style of sparring with her — there was never an actor who conveyed a cocksure but amiable virility quite the way Gable did. He’s got a lot of woman to work with here in Russell, and he seems to enjoy the challenge thoroughly.
The second half of the film opens up suddenly, and somewhat surprisingly, to an epic scope, as the love triangle hits the trail on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. It becomes a different kind of film — grand, poetic, rooted in the landscape. It has passages with horses and cattle and wagons and river crossings that recall passages in Walsh’s visually astonishing The Big Trail, from 1930.
The cattle drive mounts to an action climax that doesn’t really deliver the goods visually or dramatically, but up to that moment it’s riveting. And somehow Gable’s presence knits all the ill-fitting parts of the picture together.
The Tall Men may occupy a place in the second rung of the Western canon, but as plain old-fashioned Western entertainment goes it more than earns its spurs.