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.
It’s been a few years since I caught Nevada Smith (1966), then a few months ago we it was on as background, I had completely forgotten what the Western was actually about. Meaning it was time for a revisit. I’m doing quite a few in recent months, parts because I want to understand the films more, and there’s little to watch, this was a little of both really. I originally found the film to be about a mixed race half white/Kia whose out for revenge for the death of his parents at the hands of gold thieves meeting people along the way as he tracks down the three men responsible for the deaths. Which essentially the film is.
What else is this take on the other in the Wild West? Again the other’s played by a popular White actor Steve McQueen who is able to play the naive young man (white, Kiowa or mixed race) and draw in the audience which it clearly does. However as time has proven the draw if money takes away a decent representation of the Native American on film. Usually employing them in films more as extra’s, if on-screen they are not their for more than a few seconds, or pushed to the background to allowing the box-office draws or foreign English speaking actors caked in make-up to the fore. Its not practiced today in Hollywood (one lesson they have learned from except for Johnny Depp).
Nevada Smith begins being reminiscent of The Searchers (1956) (yes I know I keep returning to that film) but only briefly, where I wonder about the direction of the rest of the film. Instead of the white man being attacked the mixed race are attacked, leaving the often forgotten Native to fend for himself. Here we follow him after returning to the family home, complete with inset shot of the massacre in low light. Where we were once kept away believing the image would be too much for the audience to take in. We are still not given much information, even ten years later. We we are given a bleak description of how his parents were killed later on. Ford doesn’t like to linger with the images, the horrors of the Comanche are too much to accept. When it’s a white man inflicting the violence we can take more.
Moving away from that striking connection to the older film which it doesn’t try to replicate, instead it moves on making its own narrative. Instead of burying himself in hate for the killers of his family. Can this illiterate young man who can’t eve defend himself be a match for this killers who have not just skill but the edge of life experience on their side, whilst Smith has to learn all of this from scratch or die in the process.
In that process he is ready and pretty much willing to ignore his mixed heritage, adopting or assuming the ways of the White gunslinger. The preferred image of the Western. I don’t thin it would be the same film if he went around the film wearing his Native dress, the film would not have the same appeal, and would probably not one McQueen’s better films. It would lean more towards Burt Lancaster‘s role in Apache (1954) which is laughable (as straight as he may play the part) today.
Smith learns to draw and fire a gun, does his mixed heritage work to his advantage. However he also has to learn to read in order to pass himself as a white man, live in a white mans world that demands to be civilised not living as a savage Indian that may not understand, held back by these differences. If Smith accepted his Kiowa this would be a very different film, becoming in the eyes of a white audience a savage, played by a white man, he could be a more dangerous man to watch and fear also.
Moving away from the Native American themes (that dominate my own thinking at the moment) I can see a decent revenge film with the added texture. Looking at it today, it’s innocent but that doesn’t take away from the journey that Smith goes on to track his families killers, one by one he finds them and kills them as justice allows him. The deaths slowly reach Tom Fitch (Karl Malden) who begins to fear him. It takes the rest of the film for us to catch up with him, building him up to a dangerous man. Along the way Smith allows himself to be humiliated by others if it allows him to get to the next man. He does however use his skills and Kiowa knowledge to stay ahead of everyone (most of the time), right up to the end. helped with the christian intervention of Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) who introduces him to the bible. Allowing him to leave his Kiowa heritage for the white christian that was apparently waiting to come out. Or is it a combination of the two spiritual sides coming out and together, giving him a perspective on life that leads to the final showdown where violence is no substitute for forgiveness.
My thinking on the film has greatly improved or even deepened you might say, not the strongest of films exploring the Native American. The standard white cast and lead who we are supposed to accept as the other (without as much make as Lancaster). It was Hollywood of its day so what are we to know. We do have a decent revenge film which is entertaining which what you want at the end of the day, which I had the first time round, now its a richer experience.
Another Sam Peckinpah film in as many days, and one I was unaware that even existed, being a much earlier film in his back – catalogue of work. Probably made with more studio control, yet The Deadly Companions (1961) does have some of the hallmarks of his later work. I do feel it’s slightly more successful than his next film Major Dundee (1962), but that’s for another review.
Focusing on his debut film he has pulled together an interesting cast, with Maureen O’Hara who became synonymous with the Westerns, a woman who could easily stand up to men, one that even earned the admiration of John Wayne on and off-screen. It is also her Irish roots that makes her come across as someone not to cross. However I feel she was miscast in the role of dancer Kit Tildon who is a social outcast, shunned by the other women in her town. Mirroring Claire Trevor‘s Dallas in Stagecoach (1939) a prostitute just trying to make a living, whilst also aspiring to be more. I feel age is the real factor as O’Hara is clearly not in her 20s or 30’s who has a son of ten.
Looking at the rest of the cast we have recurring actor Chill Wills and Strother Martin who are strong and defined character actors in the genre. Also surprisingly for me as I have never seen Brian Keith in a leading role delivers a strong performance, here as known simply by the name of Yellowleg after saving the life of confederate runaway Turk (Wills) and Billy Keplinger (Steve Cochran). Together they are an odd group, lead by the ex-Union soldier (Kieth) who we are left puzzled by. Barking orders at everyone, joining these two men as they ride out to rob a bank. Always keeping his hat on, even in spite of the Parson (Martin), leaving us to wonder what is under there. It’s believed that he has been scalped during the war and doesn’t want to show his scar. We fear him and don’t trust the man yet are intrigued as to his motivations as much as Turk and Billy are.
On meeting Kit’s son Mead Tildon Jr. (Billy Vaughan) we believe that he maybe the father although this is never really made clear to us even as the film progress, and probably why it’s a much-forgotten film of Peckinpah, because of the plot holes that leave is wondering what is his connection. We also learn that Yellowleg has been wounded by a bullet in the shoulder that affects his aim with a gun which sadly takes the life of Tildon Jr. filling him with guilt and a need to right his wrong towards the grieving mother (who should really have been played by someone younger, or cast an older son).
It’s the sense of guilt and obligation that comes with the guilt in hopes of redeeming Yellowleg in order to move on. To have that forgiveness from a social outcast who has been terribly wronged. He wants to escort Kit to the burial place of the son’s father, her husband that now lies within Apache territory, something that she is willing to do alone, probably why O’Hara was chosen for the role, her stubbornness and strength of character over the other aspects of the role. Heading off alone she is soon followed by Yellowleg and his two friends (I say that lightly) who are ordered as if they are in the military, They are more bothered about robbing a bank thank riding with him, They are seen was his troops or backup that are obligated by association alone to follow him. Turk strangely has dreams of rejoining the Confederate army, carrying an officer’s cap with him which begins to consume him as the film progresses.
Where the film starts to fall down in the love interest that develops it doesn’t feel natural for Peckinpah to have that in his films. Of course having the only woman and lead actor pair-up is natural for films of that era, there are worse on-screen pairings. It’s the outsider element which draws them together, however it does detract from what the characters have, that dynamic of a mother’s child killer escorting her to his final resting place, whilst also having his own demons. Also the added element of the Apaches is very unique and not really explored in great detail. They are seen as unhinged, affected by the western society as they play around with a stagecoach they have previously stolen.
On the face of it The Deadly Companions does have strong themes which seem to be lost along the way, with interesting casting that really doesn’t help the film. Still this is a debut film and very much not in the same vein as most Westerns of the day. No killer would be seen to wear his guilt on his sleeve as openly as Yellowleg who coming from civilised society maybe bring that sensibility with him to the west.
- The Deadly Companions (1961) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Deadly Companions (1961) (westernsontheblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Deadly Companions (Paramount, 1961) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- Beginnings and Endings: Sam Peckinpah’s The Deadly Companions (1961) (movingpicturetrash.blogspot.co.uk)