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.
This is one remake I have been avoiding for sometime, I’m not sure anyone who attempts to remake a John Ford western is going to succeed. There was news a few months ago that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is being remade and set in the 198o’s, that’s an interesting twist. There have been many films compared to The Searchers, (1956) however they are not remakes as we find with Stagecoach (1966) which was released 27 years after the original that changed the face of cinema. Thought to not only influence Citizen Kane (1941), it revitalised the genre and lastly launched the career of John Wayne who’d been stuck in a rut of b-movies for the best part of the 1930’s, he even made a few after its release – contractually.
You can’t apply the same effect to the genre or the medium of film to the remake which admittedly does expand on the film. Much like remakes of 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010), I’m waiting to see how The Magnificent Seven compares now. I must confess it has been a few years since I’ve seen the original 1939 Stagecoach which was as much about making the genre more appealing to an adult audience. Bringing together social misfits or outsiders into a confined space, a vehicle on a dangerous route in the open untamed West. It was ultimately the perfect showcase for John Wayne, still baby-faced he personified a young independent America standing up for itself, playing Ringo Kid a role that was given to him by Ford – “Pappy” who had been waiting to give him the right part at the right time. He was redeemed from years of working the circuit of formulaic westerns that had no room for either story or character development. They were the training ground that saw him grow and form the character he would then play until 1976, a 50 year career.
I can’t feel the same effect in the remake with Alex Cord who fills the role in terms of stature at least, there are times where he’s definitely trying to break free of the Dukes even taller shadow. In terms of the walk and tone of his delivery. His entrance into the film is not the event that we found in 1939, the cockiness of the gun play, as he stands in the road is replaced by sitting at the side of the road for the stagecoach to reach him, not that he’s waiting for them, they are both opportunist in that respect.
What makes this interpretation stand apart is the longer running time, at nearly 2 hours allowing for more development with all of the characters, making for a richer film in that respect. I say allowing I feel its a missed chance with some characters, they do have more screen time, however its given more to Dallas (Ann-Margret) who has more of a back story. Rumoured to be the cause of few brawls in the town, not just a typical prostitute that Claire Trevor played and pushed out by the Law and Order League, its more about cleaning up the town to keep the general crime rate. She feels cursed by the legacy of death. Another characters whose drawn well is the doctor, this time played by Bing Crosby taking over Thomas Mitchell‘s role who you can’t forget, so full of life. Both actors of the same generation we meet an older doctor in Crosby, unshaven atypical drunk in appearance, however he plays a drunk doesn’t try to give up the drink. Mitchells knows he has a demon, he delivers a baby sober and celebrates that. Crosby’s is looking for the next drink all the time.
Of course you can’t have a straight copy, or it wouldn’t be a film in its own right. Making the conscious decision to not film in Monument Valley which is John Ford country, to shoot there would be a bold move. Instead sticking to more traditional landscape, which makes for a more traditional western. What we do have which is practically a like for like swap is the stagecoach driver Buck, originally Andy Devine took the reins, a loud and large figure who was regular for Ford, with Slim Pickens we have another loud character actor who made an impression on his films.
What makes this film stand apart is the larger screen time of the Apache’s lead by Geronimo are more than just rumour, we see them at the beginning of the film attacking the U.S. cavalry. There is no rolling prologue to set-up the film. Geronimo is not really mentioned and they are still the faceless, nameless enemy of the genre. I’m not critiquing that here though, more a comment in terms of the films comparison. The gunfight’s are well choreographed make for a more fearsome other who attacks the white for no reason more than they are Apache. Which oddly makes up for the lack of Monument Valley and Ford. I do however wish they hadn’t re-staged Ringo jumping through the horses. It wasn’t as grand a set-piece, used more as a means to get the stagecoach through.
The problem is that for me Stagecoach is an iconic film, to remake it’s going to be a sensitive thing to do. Getting it right, this is a star-filled piece, well semi star-filled anyway. It’s longer, darker in some respect but overall a looser film that is conscious of the shadow that is hanging over this modern piece of Wild West folklore that he it hopes to meet at some point. I am actually now considering seeking out the Johnny Cash version, made 20 years later, just to see how the story translates and transforms over time. It does still confine outcasts into the one small and dangerous vehicle, but the chemistry has not been replicated successfully.
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)