All I really remembered from The Hour of the Gun (1967) is mainly the blue skies and the train scenes which inspired a platform shelter I made a few years ago in the studio. After revisiting The Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) I knew I would ultimately be taking a look at the later take on the Wyatt Earp biopic’s that was also directed by John Sturges which I’ve never known why. John Ford never thought to return to the town of Tombstone after My Darling Clementine (1946). Maybe it was a chance for Sturges to rewrite what he made a decade earlier. Feeling he could have served the legend more respectfully. I suppose he could have also wanted to carry on the legend beyond the gunfight at the infamous corral where the Clanton/Earp war came to a head.
I wonder what these two films would be like if played back to back? As one finishes at the gunfight, the later begins just before, no bravado, just silent build up, no dialogue, a few meetings of the eyes as both sides meet. Already the second half is more mature, we lose the big screen personalities of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas for actors who can really be lost in the roles. James Garner (Earp) and Jason Robards (Doc Holiday) who are more suited, it’s not about the image of the actor, more about the legend which is being retold and extended. Going into more detail to the events after the gunfight that up to that point had been forgotten. That’s one thing film can do, draw on forgotten parts, all with a touch of Hollywood magic of course.
The first real attempt at full of realism of the events in both films comes in Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) I still can’t decided which is the better film. Back to John Sturges gunfight we are now looking at the consequences of what was ultimately a questionable act by lawmen, who killed the Clanton’s with such force, the gunfight is over before you even realise it’s begun. We do still have Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) who is out for revenge and power throughout the film. Even thought Ryan comes from the golden age of film, due to his age he’s better suited to the, never quite making it to the star status of his contemporaries but could easily act the socks off of them.
Looking at this as part of two the Wyatt Earp legend the characters are paired down to just a few brothers. We loose Holiday’s mistress friend Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), written out completely, not even being mentioned. Its all about that important relationship and seeking revenge for the deaths and attacks on his family. Using the framework of the law to get revenge, loosely called justice, or his version of justice. Holiday becomes Earp’s conscience as Earp is more ready to release the lead from his six-shooter. And you can’t blame him. The law and order he has built up is being under-mind. His family at the receiving end of violence. What started out as a cattle war becomes a family war, there’s more at stake, more drama when blood is involved, both sides have been hurt here.
If I’m honest, this is not my favourite incarnation of the legend, however it does start to really explore what these two iconic men of the Wild West. They are not just cooped up in the towns the helped bring law and order to, We explore their lives beyond, as they travel the Arizona territory, trying to stay alive and settle the wrongs that have been made. The Hour of the Gun (1967) is a maturer take on a historical figure that he had not yet received. There are not great big set-pieces in this film that focuses more on character and fact which works in it’s favor. Maybe Sturges has matured also as a director, wanting to bring more truth the legend that has become that facts that everyone takes for granted.
A Western I have been aware of but have been purposely avoiding, mostly out of ignorance and not really wanting to see a Western with Sidney Poitier I just didn’t see him fitting into that genre easily. I’d only ever seen him in less than a handful of films. I guess what changed all that nonsense when I saw him being given a lifetime achievement Bafta award, a massive selection of his films made up his show-reel. He’s had a ground breaking career, during a time when African-American roles on-screen were relegated to butlers, housemaids, the help around the house, all using stereotyped voices that today is just plain embarrassing. I could go on about the history of the African-American on-screen plenty has already been written.
Instead I want to turn my attention to Buck and the Preacher (1972) which depicts the African-American in a new light. Gone are the stereotypes, the bumbling help who look up to their white employers who they idolize, with a few sayings that they have throughout the film. I get the sense more of a Black Spaghetti Western at times with this one. It’s not even that really, its something in between as it has a sense of something really important going on. We’re told in the prologue that the now free slaves after the Civil War are moving West themselves, in search of a better life, it’s already in the history of the genre. The war was fought for them yet we hardly see them on-screen in leading roles. The closest we get in Woody Strode in a handful of roles, even then its supporting at most. However these now free slaves are being treated nearly as badly as the Native American who are historically entering the closing days of their own freedom.
Enter our hero of the film, Buck (Poitier) whose paid to be wagon master to black wagon trains. They are the pioneers of the film, wanting to make their mark on the country that is still being tamed and won. It’s a story as inaccurate as it maybe that goes unspoken on-screen for the most part. You could call him the black Kirk Douglas of the film, who means as much business as any leading white actor, he knows what he wants, will do anything to achieve it, with a lot more drive behind him as he has both the history of his race but that of the genre and the medium on his shoulders. That’s a lot of weight to bring to the role. The nearest we get to his role today is Jamie Fox in Django Unchained (2012) his Tarantino‘s Blaxploitation meets Spaghetti Western. I’ll turn to that is more detail later. Back to Buck who is a serious man who you can see has a heart and will do what is necessary.
So a black man leading a wagon train is not just rare, at the time groundbreaking, the exclusivity of the white man and his family who’re lead by men who know the open country and can survive “Indian” raids without losing too many heads along the way. This the Native American as we know them, now they play a more substantial role that really brings them into the plot beyond being obstacles, they are substantial elements of the plot. First seeing them as the potential enemy before being revealed as the ally to the Buck and his partner Preacher (Harry Belafonte) – the comic relief. Buck is able to negotiate with the Natives for safe passage (see video) for his wagon train that is about to pass through. He could have easily just ridden along through, but he decides to ask permission, instead of taking his chances like his once slave owners may have done. He has learned respect where white man have not.
I don’t want to make this another study of the depiction of Native Americans but I can’t help it as their role’s transplanted to the Black characters who are wanting live the life of the White man, It’s all messing about with the genre that for decades had laid down the rule almost in stone of where everyone should be. The White men, for a while are ten men who are after Buck wanting to restore order, to pre-Civil war life, not accepting the changes, lead by Deshay (Cameron Mitchell) whose driven by racism, unable to the future like once town sheriff (John Kelly) who will allow anyone in his town as long as they obey the law, they can pass through unharmed. They are men from different sides of the war, most probably would have fought on different sides two. Its only when Deshay and most of his men are killed and robbed is the law on Buck’s back and rightly so, he’s broken the law, and wants to bring him in to face justice, a white man would face the same destiny.
It’s unusual to have a majority black cast, that’s supported by Harry Belafonte who is loosely a man of the cloth. Like most preachers in the genre, they usually carry a gun, or carried one in a previous life, ready to survive the open and dangerous wilderness which is the West. He is the other half of Buck, the excitement, the comedy and a more danger at his side. The opposite of determined Buck, are they the Black Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, they are polar opposites yet work well together when pushed into a corner which makes the on-screen duo work. History would probably tell us differently.
Turning now briefly to Django Unchained you can see this is a very influential film. Again we have a freed slave, not so literally, the rise to glory is far quick, it’s an origin story to an extent. With Buck that’s already built-in with the prologue, he has a history of leading freed slaves to new lives, this time Colorado. The aim of Django was to find and free his wife Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) yet he’s supported by a white man Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) he does enable him to get where other black men can’t. The White men are generally depicted as idiots and backward in their thinking, which is not so overt in the older film.
Looking at the film on the perspective as a Western it’s a bit of an oddity, the soundtrack is the first thing that hits you, it’s so unique, it doesn’t grate on your ears as much as it grabs you attention, informing you this is not your average Western, the protagonists not the usual white men, these are the underclass that are rising through, its a long fight that wont be won and some would argue is still not. In other respect the action and chase scene are as standard as any other Western, classical in style but modern in terms of themes which makes it really stand out in the genre.
Noted as Gary Cooper‘s last starring western I knew he had something special in The Man of the West (1958) could the same darkness be replicated? The answer is complicated really. One you don’t have Anthony Mann behind the camera, Man of the West was really his last great film before his death. What we have in The Hanging Tree (1959) is a film about our primitive urges as human beings, not exploring all of them in real depth but at least scratching under the surface of the idea to reveal just how easily lead we can be as a group, a society when pushed, and not even that hard.
When Dr. Joseph ‘Doc’ Frail (Cooper) rides into yet another boom town, gold is being found and spent. A good ol’ fashioned hanging is taking place over a a crime that is never made clear. The whole town i is there, driven by revenge and a sense of justice, a law and order that they all get behind, you break the law and you break your neck. The Doc looks on saying little, is he different from these average townspeople who are hungry for gold, living on a shoe-string at times until their luck comes in. In this opening sequence you can see no expense is spared as the surrounding landscape is built upon to bring this gold-mining community alive of only for a few month as filming got under way in Washington-state, a landscape straight out of the classics which we identify as the old west, a perfect setting for a forgotten way of life.
We don’t have to wait long to discover what the Doc is like as he treats his first patient Rune (Ben Piazza) for a gunshot wound after stealing gold from another mans (Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden) mine. With no money to pay him for his services another method is needed, becoming his man-servant, a slave almost to the doctor, a public figure who the community should look-up to. A private arrangement based on blackmail brings these two men together, one of slave and master, both white so invisible to those around them. The Doc’s reputation is one that precedes him, one of dark acts that they cannot forget. Having both friends and enemies in the town.
A hard man who is tough to break until a stagecoach hold-up leaving one survivor who suffers badly under the sun. Its set-up like a car crash hit and run, rolling down the hill, minus the explosion. The Doc takes his time to visit his latest patient a foreign girl Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell) who is to become his most important patient after taking all kinds of payment for his work. From a simple kiss from a child on the cheek, to receiving horses. He’s more like the traditional image of Doc Holiday than your average frontier doctor wanting to treat the sick and heal the wounded after gun0fight. He does have compassion and drive to do his job, sometimes his motives can be questioned.
Once he has comet the aid of Elizabeth he hardly leaves it until she is on the road to recover, when we see another side to Cooper’s character, something I didn’t find as Link Jones in Man of the West whose violent past came back to haunt him. Here we have a man driven by his urges, unable to shake them off, something bathing in them as he lashes out, especially opposite Frenchy who at least admits that he’s only human. You could say he’s a pervert by todays standard, washed down for the 1950’s. He can much like Rune can see through the doctors image to find a possessive figure who won’t let Elizabeth go once better.
When the three (Elizabeth, Rune and Frenchy) of them team up and stake a claim which is propped up by Doc behind the scenes. Never far away from the trio, pulling the strings, supporting Elizabeth, a confident woman who won’t take any messing about. When the success comes the trio’s away, striking gold, mayhem ensues in the town. Giving into basic urges following the few leading to destruction and eventually death in the town, bringing us back full circles, that little seen or spoken of tree of justice is brought back, Showing just how human and flawed we are, following the crowd, our greed and desire for safety are out of control, no measure of fairness, witness and crime and prosecute.
For Coopers last western, not quite his last leading role but certainly in the American frontier he has come full circle from being the all round hero who saves the day to being a flawed and complicated man. The male figure is not so straight forward in reality, not even in the west are things that simple, finding ways to survive, making mistakes in their past and trying to live with them. All in the midst of all the progress in the gold rush and the drive for law and order. What I can take away from this film is the landscapes and complicated characters who try to look into the darker side of life.