This extended film review is a reissue of my reflections of the Ranown cycle of films that director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott worked on. These were varied in strength but mostly hold up well today as tight western thrillers that pushed what can be done on a B-Movie budget. I’ve left the films in chronological order of when the films were reviewed to avoid confusion.
Westbound (1959) Revisited
I’ve decided to undertake a revisit the Ranown Cycle of films directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, taking the cheap budget of a B-western and raising it with the direction and the ideas of the script to that of a A-Western, before the power of the films was really known. All culminating in Scott’s swan song to cinema with Sam Peckinpah‘s Ride the High Country (1962) where he decided to never act again, believing he was unable to surpass his performance. Westbound (1959) is the first in a disjointed series that hopes to redress my view of these films that I only started to understand as I was finishing the first watch. It will be out of sequence, based on an availability, however this time I will be using a more critical eye in order to expand my understanding of these films.
So out of the seven films I am starting with number 5, which so far feels like a more cerebral of the series. Set during the height of the civil war as most westerns are, either before, around or after that period of upheaval in American history. Which allows for a darker story to be told. When Union captain John Hayes (Scott) to undertake a mission that could change the course of the war for the side that does eventually go onto win. It’s one he does at first with reluctance, a return to an old way of life that is away from the front line of war, something that he believes in. To manage a stagecoach route to ensure the daily passage of gold to the Union is not what he had in mind.
However when he meets wounded soldier Rod Miller (Michael Dante) returning home, unable to fight himself. Having to face battles of his own at home, Hayes grows into a father figure who wants to instill new purpose the now disabled soldier. It’s a rarity to see a handicapped actor playing such a prominent role. Usually given to an extra on a battlefield or about to have a limb blown off. Placing him in a role that allows both the characters and audience to confront the issue head on. On returning home his wife Jeanie (Karen Steele) takes a while to adjust to his new situation. He’s not the man she saw go off to war. A walking casualty of war that has returned from the battlefield.
The Miller’s live in the the Colorado territory that was supportive of the Confederate campaign. Wherein we find the villains of the film. Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan) both in the field of love and war where Hayes is concerned, coming back to town where he finds his old flame Norma (Virginia Mayo) who is caught in the middle of these two men. Clay’s right hand man – Mace (Michael Pate) who is a real thorn in his side, acting more in impulse than intellect. These are the two real difference between them, its classical really, the intelligent bad guy gets the less intelligent more physically stronger gunfighter to do the dirty work and that fact is not hidden from view.
On the surface its a class set-up for a western of the period, however underneath we find darker tones, a country whose people have no real conscience, a wounded soldier, a stagecoach load who fall to their deaths are all placed before us. Its harder hitting than that standard gunfight or brawl in the street. We have men who act with little thought for the consequences until it’s too late. Whilst Hayes and his men fight to keep the route open to ensure a steady supply of gold to the union acts as a metaphor for a country working together for the greater good. Of course set during the Civil War that idea is meaningless, its one side for the other. Move it forward to the time of production you have look further, where I can see no parallel. The is probably the weaker of the series, its heavier on characters and settings, not set in the wide open spaces, it’s very luscious in terms of landscape. I feel there is something that wants to come out, there are things going in, characters who are fighting to be heard whilst becoming too mainstream as the film progresses. Aspects could have been developed and just left.
Ride Lonesome (1959) Revisited
The second film in my journey back through the Ranown Cycle, or the 6th out of seven films that Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott made together. Much the same as Anthony Mann and James Stewart did at the start of the decade. After the previous film Westbound (1959) which really doesn’t fit into the series as strongly as Ride Lonesome (1959) which I began to remember quite strongly as I viewed it for a second time.
From the opening titles I felt more engaged, the music more dramatic and powerful as we embark on a film that is set out in the untamed West, using a location – The Alabama Hills in Lone Pine; a favorite location of the director. Mirroring John Ford‘s use of Monument Valley. Boetticher use of the location brings out the horror and the danger. Placing cowboys into an alien world that they have to ride out of back into what they hope is civilization or ride on for eternity. Anything or anyone could be hiding behind these structures that stretch for miles. If anything this film is more cinematic out in the open, no sound-stage shots, all out on location, a western that relies on the open to tell its story.
So I’m more impressed with this later instalment of the cycle, things are looking darker if only in terms of soundtrack as we meet Ben Brigade (Scott) who has already find who is looking for, we’ve come in half way through his journey. Our traditional hero is a bounty hunter, not even the later anti-hero of the Dollars trilogy that uses his intellect to get what he wants. Instead he is driven to see this young man Billy John (James Best) hang, a man who has shot men in the back. A good enough reason to be brought to justice, not even giving his opponent a fair chance to defend himself.
The audience is already on the side of the bounty hunter, how long will that last as we meet more people at a stage stop, two men and the wife of the boss of the post. Its a barren landscape and dangerous too, as we learn when a stagecoach rides in, only to crash into the post after an attack by Native Americans who bother the five for half of the film. We also have a return to the minimal cast which is something that really works out in the open, allowing us to focus on these individuals. From the stage post we meet Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn) a double act essentially, the smart and the dumb man who plot to snatch the wanted man Billy and set him free, having heard there is an amnesty on his head. However plans to head to Santa Cruz for the bounty is where we are heading.
However Santa Cruz is not really where we are heading, taking our time through open country, taking a longer route, out in the open, not hiding their tracks. The threat of Billy John’s brother Frank (Lee Van Cleef) who is already riding over in pursuit of rescuing his brother. We see little of him and his men, only a few scenes in all. Allowing more focus on the men and Mrs. Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) who has only just realised she is a widow, as she stays with these men more out of safety than anything else. She has to trust them, finding that as however united they are as a group they are as the ride on, they are divisions between them.
The divisions are best highlighted through the night scenes, heavy in dialogue and shadow leaving the characters almost in profile. Even though its basically day-for-night lighting its allows us to look inside these men and Mrs. Lane as they begin to understand each other and the situation they are in. Boetticher has definitely bounced back here with more adult western that really hits home when the truth is revealed to us. Brigades past is told to us with striking tree in the background, a hanging tree, it doesn’t take much explanation. Simultaneously the images of the past are that occurred at this location are being retold, we can imagine the awful scene that have drawn him back here for what is essentially the bounty he has really been waiting for. A reward that is worth more than any money could substitute.
The hanging tree is a familiar image in the genre that has never been so potent, always associated death, unlawful trials, racism and injustice. A lone bare tree in a wide open space allows the potential for so much imagery, becoming an arena of death for a short time, taking the Western back to ancient Rome or Greece where all could see your rise or fall from miles above. It’s all about the staging of the ideas, the emotions, out in the open even when they are held up tight inside you can feel the tension as nothing can truly escape the elements.
The Tall T (1957) Revisited
The third of film of the Ranown Cycle, and the 3rd of the series in sequence is another strong entry. Set mostly in the Lone Pine which allows The Tall T (1957) to be a visually distinctive film to watch and reflect upon once you leave it. I am really enjoying my journey back into these darker B-westerns that really don’t deserve that label, the script elevates it to something far higher. I guess the budget and number of unknown actors ultimately dictates that definition. However I think that lack of high-profile actors, apart from Randolph Scott who had fallen out of favour unlike his contemporaries doesn’t seem to care, immersing himself into the material that makes it all worthwhile. The length of these films is just about right as-well, short, sweet and incredibly sharp for the adult audience at the time. It doesn’t talk down to anyone.
The beginning of the film is pretty straight-forward, Pat Brennan (Scott) rides in from what looks like the untamed wilderness, it’s all light-hearted as we meet the people of Contention another frontier town that is full of characters. I am already trying to workout who is going to make it on the journey ahead. Beginning at a stage stop once more, a recurring location in these films. Traditionally a passing place on the journey of most westerners in the genre. Popularized by Stagecoach (1939) which I originally saw this film as. Its much more and nothing like it in many respects. After a what is a carefree trip with Brennan through town buying candy for his friend’s son, you can see Brennan is a decent man who is everyone’s friend, he can’t do wrong.
All this is a false pretense as soon as he is horses-less he’s left vulnerable to whoever passes by. Hitching a lift on a stagecoach driven by old-timer and friend Ed Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt) who lets his ride up top. Going well so far until they reach familiar territory – the station, its deserting which is worrying to say the least. All’s revealed from the emptiness where so much life happened, it’s a band of four men led by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) who reveals what has just happened, the death of father and son buried in the worst place, down the bottom of a well. It’s not a good start to the second half of the film. This is the beef of the film, what we have waited for, away from civilization, from law and order, where things are supposed to make sense. Now three men are in charge and its only going to get worse.
Hopes of a making a bargain are offered by newlywed Willard Mimms (John Hubbard) who offers to get a ransom from his new father-in-law. The first character to show his true colours is also the most unlikely, a prisoner negotiating his way out. He’s a coward and greedy, having married for money not love. Riding back to town to get the ransom set-up with one of the men. Leaving us with us with probably the worst of the gang who lead Brennan and Doretta Mimms (Maureen O’Sullivan) to a hide-out, an abandoned mine. We see the younger men start to show their lack of intelligence, a weakness that will eventually work in hero’s favor. These are not men you’d want to meet in town or out in the open, not so much ruthless as dangerous and stupid which is a terrible combination.
This behaviour begins to show to Brennan and Usher two maturer men who have lived enough to know what is right and wrong, life has happened to them and are stronger for it, it’s the paths they’ve taken which have defined them. You could say they are the same before taking different routes in life, they want their own lot part of the world, just going about it different ways. However the real transformation in the film is Doretta who wakes up and understand what she wants in life, able to change her life for the better by the end of the film.
Its a tense Western that doesn’t waste any time in getting going. You could easily place this film in the stage a 2 act piece that would have the audience begging for some release which you don’t get until a gun is fired. The tone of the Ranown Cycle is set by here, its taut, sparse and very adult for its time. None of the big personalities you get from other actors, Scott doesn’t come across steal scenes, he is very much the star but says very little and means a lot, you feel at ease with him on-screen especially out there you do.
Comanche Station (1960) Revisited
My original review of Comanche Station (1960) drew comparisons early on with The Searchers (1956) which is easy to see why. Take out the raging and confused racist and what you have left is a man looking for and trading for those taken by Native Americans. Take out John Wayne‘s Ethan Edwards and replace him with Randolph Scott‘s Jefferson Cody a man with a very different goal. He too knows and understand the enemy but hasn’t become consumed by them. Instead it allows him to survive as we find Scott once more out in Lone Pine, a location that has become synonymous with him and Budd Boetticher working together for the last time here before Scott’s final film two years later. We see even less of the developing west, is all man vs. the wilderness.
With the opening scene lacking any real dialogue, a series of gestures and about two or three lines we have secured Nancy Lowe (Nancy Gates) and riding hopefully back to civilisation and safety, something that both of them are still far away from. We don’t know either characters intentions, their pasts or recent experience, its straight into a situation that will need to explain to build up these characters. One flaw of the film is the lack of attention that Nancy Lowe really received, her time with the Native Americans as a captive/squaw are completely ignored, she has been saved, end off really for her. This is something which John Ford couldn’t ignore, answering The Searchers with The Two Rode Together (1961) where a female captive comes to terms, and readjust back to a white way of life. I guess for Nancy all that is yet to come. She becomes the centre of attention as the film goes on in other ways.
So with Nancy safe and on our way back to her old safe life we stop by yet another stagecoach station, a symbol of isolation and progress, a step along a journey many yet to be completed. We have already what can happen in these locations in the Boetticher’s world where danger is lurking around the corner. With a station acting as a stopping place where anyone can drop by, if that be for rest, food, good or even money and blood. This time its a gunfight against Native American’s who are fighting other men who are riding over for safety. We see how unprepared Nancy is for a gunfight, unlike her rescuer Cody who tries to keep her safe as possible as bullets fly, and joining in the fight to defend this outpost of white civilisation, also just to survive which is a very human act.
With the first fight of the film out of way another one begins in the form of words and actions, three men against one, as newly arrived Ben Lane (Claude Akins), Frank (Skip Homeier) and Dobie (Richard Rust) discover Nancy and what she represents, a newly returned captive with a price on her head. Losing what power she has, becoming a pawn and losing respect in Cody whose labelled like the others, in it for the money. Its a similar theme, one man against the odds, ganged up against as he travels the open country. His character is tested in each film as different men in these seven films (more or less). Its once again the older man Lane who is the leader, age giving him the edge, the intelligence, the younger ones are seen as muscle and weight in a battle, extra lead to fire from their guns.
Being the last film in the series I can see already from the 4 films I have now revisited clear imagery at play. We have Lone Pine a landscape where very little can live or grow, no idea what lies behind the next pass or ridge. The perfect hiding place really. A stoic figure in Scott who always has to fight on his own. Always on a journey to somewhere, with a past that is hard to match and not to envy. A single woman who plays the role of damsel in distress who has yo be saved from falling into the hands of the bad-guys who are after her. The visual style maybe the same (more or less) which creates a world for these darker stories to play out, like dime-novel without the fantasy. Its not about being yellow or your abilities with a gun. These films are about what drives us under all those guises and how they determine our actions, making for some seriously gripping films that never relent.
Decision at Sundown (1957) Revisited
The fifth review in my on and off series of revisits to the Ranown cycle of films made by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, Decision at Sundown (1957) was the third they made together. If you don’t look at the year of release for signs are how young the films in is terms of the two men’s work/progression they are still very much in the confines of the studio back-lot, very traditional and safe in terms of setting. Not yet fully in Lone Pine as we find which they first visit in films such as Westbound (1959) which allows for a true sense of isolation to come into these tense and introspective films. We’ve been out there once already in The Tall T (1957) we know what these two are capable of.
Saying that there is a strong sense of isolation in the town of Sundown. It’s an odd beginning, as a stagecoach is held up, simply to let passenger Bart Allison (Scott) off and catch-up with his partner Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) his sidekick almost who has stood-by him through a lot. Maybe the audience’s supposed to be thrown by this outburst of violence before simply riding off? It acts as a jolt, this is not the Scott of previous films, he’s not playing the straight forward hero. Even in the Ranown cycle he’s usually the hero with a darker side to him. Here he has a single purpose which he sticks rigidly too, there’s little deviation to even look after a woman whose trapped in a bad situation. His woman was killed three years previously. We are seeing another side to the same character we later see in Comanche Station (1960) and Ride Lonesome (1959) who has more compassion.
The two strange men who ride into town cause trouble everywhere they go, not the kind of trouble that results of death and destruction, rather creating an atmosphere of unease among the towns-people. Allison is making his presence known before the big-wedding and showdown which is sure to follow. We have yet to even meet the much talked about Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) is even seen on-screen, building him as this dangerous man who has killed his fair-share of people before owning the town of Sundown that he now owns. When we finally meet him we discover that even though he’s to marry one woman, he’s spending more time and enjoying it with another Ruby James (Valerie French) who herself is questioning her relationship. I found John Carroll to be a much cheaper imitation of Clark Gable, tall, dark but not so handsome even classically, maybe that’s the intention, Gable never played men with a dark ulterior motive or the villain.
So having establish what the film is about, a bit of context surrounding the previous film, the cannon of the actor and directors work together lets focus more on the plot. Again it’s a short film which allows things to move rather fast. Down to mainly the budget again, it’s a lot tighter, something which you can lose with a bigger more one. The town all learn of Allison’s presence at the wedding, the classic line of any man speaking of a reason why these two people should not marry or forever hold their peace. Said more out of tradition today, used more for drama on-screen, used perfectly here when Allison interrupts, he doesn’t care for the respect of the church, so driven for personal justice he carries his gun into the church, for protection and warning for Kimbrough to react. We have the whole town here, bearing witness to this threat against the man who owns the town. Another powerful figure who will have to fight to hold onto his place. Having them in the palm of his hand for two years, he even pays for their drinks at the saloon.
It’s not long until Allison and Sam are holding up in the livery stable, not the open main space with the horse where there is more places to hide. instead the more confined space of the owners back-room, where they could both spend the remainder of the film as they’re surrounded by Sheriff Swede Hansen (Andrew Duggan) who is the towns owned sheriff, a coward with a badge on who sends other to do his work. The law enforcement’s an extension of Kimbrough’s hold over the town. Aptly named Sundown, which we never see, as the events take course over the day, its more metaphorical for the gunfight’s that take place during the day that determine the course other town will next take.
Allison being driven by revenge is also deafened not blinded by the truth that Sam has to tell him about his wife, it eventually divides them. But why did Sam hold onto this secret about Allison’s wife for so long? He couldn’t bear to tell him for the fearing the damage it may do, shatter the image he holds his wife in. It’s the case believing the legend and not the fact, a powerful idea out in the west. Breaking that ideal is hard to stomach, the legend or ideal of a person we hold can be far stronger than the truth.
As the two men continue to fight, the hold of Kimbrough loosens in the town, reality is slipping back as men start to discuss what they have lost, lead by the towns doctor John Storrow (John Archer) who had always seen beyond his gestures of good will to see the real man. One who had emasculated a town, what made them strong had all but gone. It’s a film about learning and understand the truths that we hide ourselves from. It takes the strongest of men to ride into town acting like a man, wanting to settle a score to show a town full of them to see what they had lost in themselves. Not the rights and powers, the feeling of being a man. It’s an idea that has not so contemporary, the idea of a man is now more sensitive, more open to his feelings than bottling them up. We all can hide from the truth if we choose to. Scott, one of the epitome’s of the western man turns that on its head, is unable to deal with the truth until the end of the film.
Summarising where I am in my journey through the Ranown Cycle I can see that if the story is strong enough as it is here, do we really always needed the rugged outdoors of Lone Pine to set our stories against. The cast was far larger than those film, there is still a focus on characters and a number of them too. Scott is able delve into the inner reaches of what is possible with man in as few words as possible.
Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) Revisited
The sixth film in my revisit to the Ranown cycle of films, and the fourth film Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) that Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher made together. One that is practically confined to studio back lot, one used in a number of 1950’s Westerns, mostly B-movies too. There are the odd classic which I’m reminded of. I’ve probably said this before when I look at a Randolph Scott Western they are generally B-Movies as he moved to the end of his career. However all that he brings to them, his presence, charm and down to earth being makes them stand the test of time. You could say today his contribution to cinema and the genre is something that can’t be overlooked, which has helped ensure that position. When it came to this 7 film collaboration Scott is taking a creative chance here, with a director whose been confined to B-Movies. Yet these films don’t feel like that, maybe in the supporting cast that you won’t see with A-list stars.
Anyway I’m spending too much time mumbling on when I should focusing on another tight film. I’ve already established the emphasis of the Frontier town back-lot, I feel that the best of the Ranown films are set out in the country where anything can happen, open to the elements and the evil of man lurking behind the next mountain or large rocks that populate Boetticher’s cold westerns. I decided to watch the trailer last night, a very misleading thing to do, as I thought that Scott’s character Tom Buchanan robs a bank with an accomplice. How very wrong I was, it just shows how manipulative a trailer could be in the late 1950’s. Instead he was another honest man who stands by his words, even his past as murky as it maybe, he could explain his position and past decisions, he owns his past as fictional as it really is, it becomes real.
I mentioned the evils of man out there in nature, the untamed landscape, that is not really in the Agry family who run the town of the same name. We’ve seen men in earlier Westerns, where rich cattle men owned the sheriff, who gangs who employed others to carry out their jobs lawfully. There’s no guise of the powerful figure pulling the strings from behind the scenes, instead its in your face, the face of the townspeople who are in-fact free to question the power but don’t really test its boundaries. It’s only when Buchanan rides into the border town, laid down with belts of bullets, it’s not an easy image to see the hero of the film weighed down by so much ammunition. He is joking with Sheriff Lew Agry (Barry Kelley) who we first don’t suspect of his dreams of power. It’s a light first scene, we’re being introduced to the Buchanan who just wants to pass through, easy-going and amiable. It’s not until Roy Agry’s (William Leslie) shot by Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas) for reasons we don’t really learn, it’s just an inevitability for the Agry’s black sheep who caused nothing but problems. Still a death in the family has to be avenged.
As it’s a Mexican who killed him it’s supposed to be easy to just go out and hang him, until they the Agry’s realise that Judge Simon Agry (Tol Avery) is running for Senator, he cant have an illegal hanging against him. So for the sake of image..and justice a quick trial that has Buchanan caught up in it as the supposed accomplice. Our hero is found innocent as he was, whilst Vega pleads guilty and happy to do so. The trial is merely for show, if justice is seen to be done then the town can move forward, a hanging and the town will still live in fear and want to be protected.
What follows is the breakdown of a male dominated family that conspire against each other. When a deal’s done to secure the release of Vega for payment of $50,000, probably a lot more today. Reflecting even then how those in power can be so underhand to ensure they stay in power. The deal doesn’t stay secret for long thanks to bumbling brother and hotel owner Amos (Peter Whitney) who is the real black-sheep of the family, or could you say the honest one of the family who has no real respect. He has only has a position thanks to his family name, without that he would be left outside and probably dead in the reality. You can’t help but empathise with him though, wanting to deliver change but forever locked out.
As in the other entries of the Ranown Cycle Scott is the stand up, hero who fights against the odds. Even though he just falls into these horrible situations that push him to test his own morals, he, doing what he has to survive and fight for the wronged man or woman. So where does it fit in with the other films, it is a strong entry, but for me it’s always going to be about Lone Pine that hides the danger and the drama, a wider stage to set the film upon. The cast is larger than the stronger films that have more tension, this is probably sitting in the middle in terms of strength of drama. This is however the dream of a better life, that ranch with a few thousand head of cattle, the dream of an ideal or a better life, a strong theme that runs throughout the cycle.
Seven Men From Now (1956) Revisited
If it wasn’t for John Wayne having a scheduling conflict we may not have had the Ranown cycle. He was supposed to be playing the lead in the latest Budd Boetticher film that his company was producing. However he was about to start on The Searchers (1956) instead of leaving his director and film without a lead he recommended a good friend of his – Randolph Scott the role. It was the start 7 film partnership that would form the Ranown cycle created by the actor and director. Making their own Monument Valley out of Lone Pine, another iconic and ready-made stage for the myth of the West to be played out in.
It’s been just under a year since I reviewed made my last entry regarding this series of films, as I remember some films were stronger than others, now I have come full circle and back to the beginning with Seven Men from Now (1956) which really set-up the formula which was reworked in the majority of the seven films. We begin with a stormy night, getting the drama going straight away, a tall and water-soaked figure walks away from the camera to the rocks in search of shelter. It’s the ever reliable and stoic Scott playing Ben Stride who finds a campfire, keeping two men warm. It’s all cosy now, asking for a cup of coffee, when we learn he has lost his horse sometime ago in a gunfight, he’s been walking all day, tired and wet from a very long day. The two men grow suspicious when they discover he was a sheriff, reaching for their guns, the camera cuts away amidst gunshots, before we see Scott riding away with two horses, him on the back of one. The only survivor, but was it out of murder or survival. I carry this dark thought with me for a few minutes, questioning his motives, is he the man I know on the screen or someone whose out of a ride for revenge.
As always he rides alone and prefers it, enjoying the company of no one unless he really has to, which comes in the form of the Greer’s a couple traveling to California. Annie (Gail Russell) and John (Walter Reed) a poor excuse for a man who is struggling to get his wagon out of a muddy patch of ground. How has he gotten this far without being killed by gunfighter’s, cowboys or even worse Chiricahua’s who are on the loose. Surrounded by danger from the unseen and his own lack of manhood. Yet Annie has stayed with him, there must be more to him than meets the eye. Stride the gentlemen he is begins to ride with them, out of duty for the couple who have somehow survived this far into the West.
So as much as he wants to be alone with his tortured thoughts as he acts as guide and security for the traveller’s. We learn later on more of his past when they stop at a way station and the arrival of Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and Clint (John Beradino) join him, they know more than the Greer’s who are just happy to be resting. We learn that the sheriffs wife was killed during a Wells Fargo robbery, a crime that Stride couldn’t stop, loosing his position in town soon after. He’s not only lost his wife but his position in society. He’s only a man with a debt to settle with the men who killed his wife.
There are similar back-stories throughout the Ranown cycle that have created these complicated characters for Scott to play, this is just the first of them, he’s digging deep into the psychology of the men he plays. Before we learn more we see who Masters is when they face a raiding party of Chiricahua’s who up until now have been spoken about. They are soon taken care of revealing his true colours, shooting a captive man in the back. Was he one of the seven shot down leaving six for Stride to take aim at, or was he being protected, funny how he was shot in the back though.
This is one of Marvin’s larger supporting roles before rising up to top billing. We can see how this clearly more physical actor can psychologically get under the skin of our hero. Sharing the Greer’s wagon shares a story, comparing one woman to Annie, who naturally pales in comparison, taking aim at both husband John and Stride who he was aiming at more. He doesn’t need a bullet to get under his skin, whilst John’s too cowardly to defend his wives honor. This Western is not just one of action and guns, its one of the mind, making it stand out from the standard B western.
Technically we can see that the look of the films in the series is being established, the imagery of Lone Pine. Visually it’s a bit hit and miss, editing is not as slick as it can be. The cinematography is starting to show signs of something greater, however the focusing can be distracting when we cut to a new scene. That’s not to take away from what is otherwise on-screen and in the script.
I’d forgotten how short and sweet these films really are, it’s a lean film coming in at under 80 minutes. We are soon back in civilisation where more characters are met, led by Payte Bodeen (John Larch) who is possibly the leader of these men. We also learn where the money is that has been with the Greer’s the whole time. The guilt of Strides past has never really left him, taking the money into his own care, taking responsibility, ultimately taking action for the loss of his wife and position. It’s a twist I forgot was even in the film, showing that it’s been a long time since my last viewing and just how well the film works as it moves to the finale as we see the characters all being revealed for who they are, they’ve all been hiding something from us and ultimately themselves. I’ll leave you with a clip from Blazing Saddles (1974) which just shows how much I have missed Randolph Scott on my screen and the imprint he has made on the genre.
Probably the only comedy western which like many others first think of is Blazing Saddles (1974) which still holds up today – mostly. I decided to take the plunge into the sub-genre with another Burt Lancaster led film The Hallelujah Trail (1965) which I was for years avoided, comedy and Western can be really silly, becoming boring. Admittedly I laughed a few times here and there, but not enough to say this is a comedy that I’ll be returning to in a rush. I did however see it through and considered some of the themes that it raised, even comedy’s of varying quality can raise some issues to discuss.
The Trail is one of the few films to actually give decent screen time to the Temperance Movement – the Feminists of the 19th century, with a focus both moral decency and more rights for women. They have always received a raw deal in a male dominated genre. Maybe it’s in light of the #MeToo movement that I’m able to this coming through more. Previously the genre has seen them as basically party-poopers who want to stop the men having any fun. Twice in 1939 we see them trying to change their society in their small way. Trying to lecture Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) in Dodge City, luring him away both alcohol and violence. Partly helping him stay out of trouble in Errol Flynn‘s absence. The intervention doesn’t hold for long, the lure of the violence next door becomes too much to handle. Also seen as a comment of gender, if a man can’t take part in a fight and hold his liquor, is he really a man. Whilst over in Stagecoach a prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) is driven out of town by the Law and Order League, which could be argued to be a good thing. A town with no prostitution is always better, however that label has only been inferred in various readings of the film. Once The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) enters, his advances to Dallas are first ignored, she knows she’s no good, tainted even, we never know the real reason, it’s all inferred by the audience who decide her past from the clever dialogue and acting. Whilst Sam Peckinpah uses the South Texas Temperance Union in The Wild Buch (1969) as merely something to be shot at. He hates them enough to see them killed in the street indiscriminately by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his men. They are lost to the crowd that are caught up in the crossfire of the bank robbery that goes wrong.
So somewhere in the middle we have the young attractive women in Hallelujah Trail led by Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) who uses their sexual power to overcome the soldiers at the for they are staying at. A political rally that encourages the band to play along and even cannons to be fired. Enough to alarm Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) returning from a mission, is alerted to the noises back at the fort, mistaking them for an Indian invasion. The film sets out to place the army – in turn the men on the back foot, they cannot have full control of the events in this film.
Here gender roles are flipped if only for comic effect in the year of 1867 when apparently the Indian wars are over, the Plains Indian’s have all be penned off to reservations, the problem has been solved in a mere two years since the end of the Civil War, a little too simplistic and incredible inaccurate. If anything the wars continued well into the 1870’s before the “Indian Problem” was finally and dramatically resolved at Wounded Knee in 1890 with a few arguments over treaties around that same period. The film wants to quickly brush the “Indian problem” under the carpet to allow the Sioux to break out in search of whiskey that’s been promised to the town of Denver.
At the centre of the film is a fight over who gets their hands on the said whiskey. The Temperance league wants all 20 wagons worth to be poured into the river. Whilst the men wanting it, just want to safely arrive to avoid the oncoming drought that’s heading their way. Whilst the U.S. Army just wants to ensure it’s safe passage, whilst also trying to keep the peace between these two sides. That’s before the added element of the Sioux wanted the gifts they’ve been promised on a yearly basis being delivered. A standard part of the original agreements, tonnes of money, food and gifts to pacify them in turn hoping to encourage them all to adopt a life of farming. In short a lot of people want that booze. Lastly we have the Irish who are transporting 10 of the wagons, who have labor grievances that they want to take up with the trail leader Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) an upstanding tax paying citizen and Republican.
Everyone but the army are out for manipulating the situations to suit their own goals. Understandably water in the area is scarce and not always as clean to drink as alcohol. Whilst the women who have both their looks, age and gender on their side to try to manipulate the situation in an attempt to instill abstinence in the men across the country. Of course in a comedy that doesn’t always go according to plan. Massingale is not as clean and sober as she wants to appear to be. Whilst the Sioux are rightly out for what they’ve been promised. Sadly their on-screen depiction is far worse than usual. Not only are white actors playing the chiefs, whenever they speak the narrator translates over them, even any sign language is mocked by the narrator. They are again seen as 2 dimensional people. Their goal maybe more appreciated by the audience whilst still reducing them to children in the process. Following the smell of booze that for future generations can ruin a life on the reservation.
There are moments such as the gunfight in the sandstorm which after a few minutes becomes tiresome. Well staged and meaningful in wanting to get the laughs. We get that the confusion from sides stops anyone dying because they have no clear view of the perceived enemy. It pretty much sums up the film, no one wanted to really be there making it. Lancaster was contractually obliged to take part at a reduced salary, not getting on with Remick, the jokes rarely hit the marks. If anything it’s just become very dated to watch. There are moments that stand out but very few. It’s raised slightly by some of the cinematography that achieved some daring pans above the action as it passed under the camera. However it’s essentially a comedy dud. With sole exception to the Temperance movement that’s blurred with feminism if only briefly and back-tracked on at the close of the film. There’s a lot going on in a here and it’s far too long to really call a comedy. The main problem is that it needed another script draft before reaching the screen, leading it to be an overly ambitious film that could have been so much better.
Nearly 4 years ago I revisited Blazing Saddles (1974) that was before I really understood it beyond the surface level reading of the film which is perfectly valid. However the more I have read about the Western genre, the more I can understand this comedy Western, which I’m sure is still the most profitable of the genre, reaching beyond the male dominated audience to reach one far broader who would never usually seek out a Cowboy film.
So lets remember what I discovered originally (briefly) before moving on to a darker and in-depth
- The fart joke – “Of course Saddles was the first film to feature a fart joke, which again i found hilarious, yet for different reasons, as many films depicted cowboys camping, sitting around a fire eating beans, which must if you think about it create a lot of wind if that is all you eat for a while. Acting as not just a joke but a great comment on the genre, something that you wouldn’t first think about.”
- Black Sheriff – “The major flipping of convention is the casting of an African American in the lead role and as the sheriff (Cleavon Little) placing him in a world that is still coming to terms the emancipation of slaves, especially in the South, which as we see took it hard, not with a second agenda that is never revealed to the people of Rock Ridge when Bart is made sheriff by rail-road baron Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) (not to be confused with Hedy Lamarr) makes him sheriff of a town ear-marked for demolition by the workers for the laying of more track. A clever way’s needed to scare of the people, without buying the land which would be a long drawn out process.”
- Flat-pack town – “Everything about the genre is more rigorously challenging the conventions of the genre more than the earlier Cat Ballou (1965) which was more introvert in it’s exploration. A very big gag that’s played out to fool the enemy before they finally enter the town is to build a replica of fronts to recreate the town, down to the smallest detail. The very aesthetic of the genre’s mocked. The fourth walls broken many times, something that very few films do, and something Brooks has done time again to great success.”
Now moving to a more political angle of the film which Westerns have been used time and again to reflect the thinking of modern American politics both at home and abroad. The Vietnam War may have been over for a few years and troops now home, however the nation was still reeling from the images and the trauma that’s brought home with the veterans of what was a national shame. So take the politics of the war and spread it across the Wild West.
The war on Communism becomes the spreading the railway from East to West, the latest stretch reaching just outside Rock Ridge a small town in the way of progress, or the progress in the form that modern America wants. That’s not before we meet our soon to be Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) who along with other railroad workers do not play-up to the stereotypes that the genre and cinema have reinforced, singing a modern American standard, in the face of an ol’ time tune by the white Americans who are the idiots. The perception of the others underestimated, much like the 5 stages communist occupation, that the Eisenhower administration started out with being used by the North Vietnamese were using, taking China’s lead, instead of considering that is could be adapted for their own culture.
Moving forward past the N***** jokes which still hit, playing up the ignorance of the white town, afraid of the until then (1874) freed slaves. There is a town meeting, the second that they have in the film. Where the leaders of the town stand there is a board, all Johnson’s, with different initials, it’s the same regime under a different member of the family that has gone unquestioned for seemingly decades or centuries, this is the norm of the town, a black Sheriff, a foreigner coming into, supposed to infiltrate in the guise of law enforcement from the enemy soon becomes an ally. It’s like the soldiers over in Vietnam who saw the madness joined in with the natives and fought back. It’s treason but acceptable in the Wild West where.
Bart and Jim (The Waco Kid) (Gene Wilder) see past the sides they are supposed to be upon, defined by politics, genre and history to take on the corrupt establishment. This time the power-mad Headly Lemar (Harvey Korman) and the puppet Governor William J. Lepetomane (Mel Brooks) who dreams of the higher office. It’s all about strategy, using power to overcome the other. The new sheriff and old gunslinger whose cleaned up his act come together and work on a plan that will fool the railroad men along with the hired guns that are sent into do the job they don’t want to do themselves. They can’t buy the land, it must be taken with force, reflecting the government not being able to talk or sway the Vietnamese of the South from not adopting communism.
So the plan, build a duplicate of the town of Rock Ridge that will fool the incoming army (a band of misfits, criminals, Nazi’s, bandito’s, rapists, all the scum of the earth coming together and do what the railroad won’t to, kill. The replica takes the language of the classic Hollywood back-lot literally, building town fronts (in one night) with the help of defective railroad workers – African-Americans and Chinese who put their differences aside for this act. The replica they build along with wooden people are accepted, fooling the mercenaries. This is the jungle the natural habitat of the Vietcong who know and understand their environment better than any foreign soldier who enters. They can fool them, allowing a few to die, the native has the upper hand throughout. It’s a genius piece of writing and satire, combining the genre that tears up and puts back together the country in a different with the conventions of warfare in the jungle.
- Moving onto my last point of this film, I find the ending in a new light, I previously found the breaking of the fourth wall to be too much “I did and still don’t like the ending that sees the cast of the film breaking away from their world of the west into that of the black-lot’s which then makes you aware that you are watching actors playing roles. Is this about how the fights in the films never got so out of hand they spilled over into other productions. The line between the reality of the film and our reality is never healed, the damage is done so why bother or try to return to what was. Something that still bothers me, becoming a comment on the reality of films that I have never liked, even in the Looney Tunes cartoons that had self-aware characters who spoke to the audience, yet that was far more apart of their appeal, to engage and entertain the audience by talking directly with them. I find that still disconcerting.”
Now I see it in a different light, as the world of the screen breaks into the real world, or that of the fabricated real world which we have been digesting for the course of the film. This could be taken further to the images of the then War in Vietnam which had been recently brought home. This is a film that wants to show up the illusions, reveal the truth of the mayhem of it all, that you can’t get away from what you have watched. Those who create the images have no idea what is really going on, as much as they stick to the plot it now unfolds closer to home, the fourth wall is not just broken its smashed into tiny pieces.
Looking back at this film for now the third time I finally get what this film is all about, on one level it’s all American, all about celebrating a genre which has shown overtime how flexible and durable it in when it comes to mocking it. It’s also one of the smartest films you can watch, if you get passed the gags which you could be found on the floor at times.
I have not laughed so much during a film in a longtime, the only films that come close are The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) both of which had me in stitches throughout. Two very different comedies, one pitching a little higher, the other a little lower Swiss Army Man (2016) hits somewhere in between, that can’t be a bad thing can it? With the bonus of Paul Dano who is always in roles that are never mainstream, going for the more interesting roles that keep him fresh and for the audience more excited about what he’s going to do next. He has definitely found a niche in the vulnerable man thought which never gets old or tired. I wasn’t so excited about Daniel Radcliffe who I’ve never really been a fan off, in terms of acting, so this may sound harsh but he was perfect for role of the corpse. Of course he share his character with a puppet double, ensuring all the new-found abilities don’t harm him.
Swiss Army Man is one of those films that rarely comes along, in a world where we have franchises, reboots and sequels this is a much-needed breath of fresh air, an indie film that has set the screen and really has rounded off a good weekend. The concept of a film, a man lost on a desert island who finds a corpse who slowly comes back to life with the added bonus of coming with special abilities such as enough gas to act as a speed boat, to a throat that doubles as a projectile when the bodies straightened.
Of course this film is much more than flatulence jokes and erections, which actually don’t get tiresome, all delivered with great and natural timing that make this all the more fun. What makes it better is that a corpse is responsible for half the jokes. We have a film that begins at the lowest point for Hank (Paul Dano) whose about to commit suicide, all ready to kick the box from under him when he spots Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) who washes up on the shore of the desert island where the film begins. The lowest point of the film is literally the very beginning as life is about to end for one when it has already happened for another, how can the film really move on. And so begin the fart jokes. We have come along way from the farts of Blazing Saddles (1974) when the first sounds were uttered around the campfire. Of course that’s just one element in a film that has so much more to offer.
With a corpse whose slowly waking up learning from Hank about life and what it’s all about. It’s a two-way relationship as Manny is reawakening what it is to be alive in Hank who had all but given up on living. It could be really depressing really but it’s anything but, its uplifting as they both are rediscovering what it is to be alive. You don’t even know as the audience that you’re being told to appreciate being alive.
Filmed entirely on location that’s littered with everything imaginable, these two guys are living off man’s trash. This is Cast Away (2000) in the woods, but Wilson has become a corpse that is able to hold a verbal conversation unlike that of Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) who befriends this basketball, externalising the best his can with an object that only stares back him for the better part of the film. A two-way conversation allows for comedy, personal growth in both Manny and Hank who are equally flawed, feeling unable to function in the world.
We see flashes of Hank before he found himself in the middle of nowhere (in the islands of the Pacific Ocean) teaching Manny to function again. Passing on his own flawed human ideas to a corpse that is at first a child who grows up innocent of the human condition, is ready to take on the challenge that is life. Whilst Hank is always holding back, we can tell from his phone he has a girlfriend back home, yet he really know very little about women or sex, yet Manny soon picks it up.
I was inspired for a time to make a piece of work based on the film as they two men travel through the island building structures that act not only as shelter but as tools of learning about modern life from the bus, to a cinema, you could easily map out and build this pieces in miniature. Might just do that one day. Yet the twist of an ending leaves me not as I had with Life of Pi (2012) when the film could be seen as fact, a preferred version of events. I am left instead confused by what has actually happened. Paired with a raw and original capella soundtrack that relies mostly on the two leads from anything that gets stuck in their head to theme tunes to films they grew up with.
I know that a beautiful relationship has taken place, however the premise is pulled from under us. Hank is finally revealed, first to Manny in his first about the girl on his phone, being human is being honest with yourself and those you love, reality is something we just have to deal with. I won’t spoil as my head is still processing what actually happened, yet I don’t feel cheated, it adds another layer to everything. Film is an itself an illusion and I have well and truly fallen under its spell here, left feeling exhausted with laughter, overjoyed too by the positive yet confusing and emotional ending that tells you to go out there, grab life and make the most of it.
I must say I wouldn’t have watched this film if it wasn’t for my manager at work who recommended I watch City Slickers (1991). And he’s someone who’s hard to impress when it comes to films. And luckily I had the chance to catch the film for myself, to see what all the fuss was about. I knew it was a comedy as soon as Billy Crystal was mentioned, I wasn’t put off by that, usually seeing comedy and westerns as very hit and miss. My mind is slowly changing when it comes to these two genres coming together. Even after seeing Blazing Saddles (1974) agin which made me re-think my position on the sub-genre.
At the time of City Slickers release there was a number of westerns around from Dances with Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992) before summing up with Tombstone (1993). There just the ones of the top of my head. There was a rebirth of sorts which I was too young to really enjoy, there is a slowly building wave now lead by Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained (2012) who is already working on his take of Magnificent Seven (1960) with The Hateful Eight (2015 at the moment) going into production at the end of the year. Of course back in the day when all I was bothered about more child related things comedies came out in response to this new wave of westerns such as City Slickers which took three men of the city and placed them on a working ranch. Each with their own problems, as they hit middle age. Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal) who feels lost in life, unhappy in his job, needing to be reminded what is important in his life. Whilst his two friends are hitting different dilemma’s in their life. For Phil Berquist (Daniel Stern) he is stuck in a loveless marriage to a woman who undermines him, yet is trapped by her and his father in law in a job that keeps them going. Ending up committing adultery with a checkout girl. And Ed Furillo (Bruno Kirby) who has just married a 20-year-old model doesn’t want to ruin what he has with children, wanting the couples life for as long as he can handle it.
What they need is to escape their everyday lives (conveniently arranged by Phil) to join a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. Not any old holiday, having to learn the ropes (no pun intended) before starting on the drive. The film is very aware of what it is, both a homage and a modern take on one of the oldest American genre’s. Setting up three men who are lost in life, having to come leave there lives to find themselves. Moving the action to a contemporary setting, the cowboy way of life lasted in reality for around 20 years, starting after the civil war before the rail road was completed and fences went up everywhere. The land was their full of the dangers open landscape, having to live by their wits alone. This drive is no different, except with a whole history that explores the myth that they helped to create.
Joined on the drive by a father and son dentists, two brothers who make ice-cream and a lone woman, all strangers to the outdoors they are put through their paces, having to adapt quickly to the cowboy life, from riding a horse to lassooing stray cattle. It’s all there. Before they begin the drive there is a reminder of the start of the drive in Red River (1948) its both fun and loving how they all howl, hee-haw before setting off that what they saw in the movies they are finally engaging with themselves, John Wayne and Montgomery Clift aren’t there to assist them, they are instead there in spirit to spur them on.
Leading the drive is an ageing cowboy Curly (Jack Palance) one of the remaining actors from the golden era of the genre, as both a nod to that era and a link to a way of life that is dying if we let it just pass us by. A tough character who is old and set in his way. You could say he’s a stereotype of the cowboy, or a link to a bygone era both on and off-screen. Passing on his knowledge to Mitch who after starting out on the wrong path they soon reach and understanding before his extended cameo comes to an end.
The streetwise cowboys are soon thrown in at the deep end, discovering what it’s like to live on a drive, not startling the cattle, the drunkenness at night (and day). It’s not what they expected. Causing them to take a hold of the drive and see it through, along with getting a new perspective on their lives. Some are stronger than others as we find out, leaving those behind to see the drive through, a real test of what it is to be a cowboy and ultimately a man when things get tough in the modern-day. Reality is what makes this film work, with a self-awareness of a genre, which is again seen in the guise of a film that pays homage to. Set against a landscape that I’ve seen countless times before filled with men on horseback. Going back again to retrace those footsteps once more. There is something magical about that which would be more so if I was there on a drive. The comedy is quick and still fresh today, we still have the same problems in our own lives, made more so by the reality of the cowboy who knew what happens to the cattle at the end of the journey. We are never far away from reality, kept back only by nostalgia.
I have avoided this film for sometimes, putting my nose up at the very idea of a western spoof, making fun out of the genre, mocking. It was another biting the bullet time when I decided to watch Cat Ballou (1965) which is so rich in not just the level of humour but the subtext of the plot.
A rare film that places a woman in the lead role, for a western being a male dominated genre that is a great leap, only a few that I can think of have been made with an actress in mind. Such as Rancho Notorious (1952) for Marlene Dietrich. With a member of the Fonda family in the lead, she cannot be easily sidelined, when it comes to Jane Fonda as Cat Ballou a newly qualified school teacher who comes home to her father, in hope of finding a job. Before she can even reach her home she is thrown into the company uncle and nephew team Clay and Jed Boone (Michael Callan and Dwayne Hickman) a duo of rustlers who lead Catastray.
Once she is back with her father, an elderly rancher Frankie Ballou (John Marley) who fears that his land and life are under threat from a slaughter-house that is being proposed. We see a black figure of a villain lurking in the shadows, a clear cliché of the western villain which had recently been personified by Lee Marvin who indeed plays the role of the man with a silver nose and brother of Kid Shelleen.
Many of the hallmarks/conventions of a western of commented on in some form. From the mob that is made up and chases the train robbers is sped up to mock the genre, which first did this back in the 1930s to speed up the action.
It took me a while to get used to the two singers who kept the pace with The Ballad of Cat Ballou by Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye which at first was full on more contemporary eyes. When at the time of release the genre was growing tired. Taking it back to its roots, and increasing the colour and design of the film we have a heightened experience of the wild west.
I would probably need more time and several re-watches to fully understand what the film is saying about the genre. From the drunken gunfighter, a dying breed of man, with the introduction of the law there is no place to celebrate the gunfighter’s. All the old towns that were a home to them are gone or going quickly, people no longer care for them as skilled men, men to be feared and respected. What is to be feared now is the train which has been rolling across America for around 50 years, allowing people to be connected in ways never seen or experience before.
Of course away from all the intellectuallising of the film which I really want to do, it’s a fun film, a break away from what a western can be, when they are at their best. I am now ready to take on another spoof – Blazing Saddles (1974) which really questioned the genre as it was facing a cruel death in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam.