Posts tagged “Henry Fonda

Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) & Rio Grande (1950)


After enjoying the process of reviewing 3 films previously I’m carrying on with another Western trilogy, this time John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, a chance to return to three classic films that I haven’t viewed properly in a long time. During which I have read up on how they function together and what they discuss singularly and together as a whole. Beginning chronologically with Fort Apache (1948) which I remember mostly for sewing the seeds for Ford’s later film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which I’ll come to later as I explore the first third of the trilogy.

In my opinion the trilogy is strongest at its start and end, with a weak middle with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), my view may change after another watch. For now having seen Fort Apache (1948) I can clearly see that Ford know’s his American history, focusing this film at least during the Indian Wars just as during the time of production the Korean War only a few years from breaking out in the early 1950’s. Taking Custer’s famous Seventh Cavalry, renamed Fort Apache under the command of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) whose at the opening of the film is making his way to begin his tenure there. In a stagecoach with his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). He’s not shy in expressing his frustration in his new posting in the wilderness, practically sent into oblivion to put him out-of-the-way for reasons we will soon begin to understand. A man whose world’s built on social order and the structure that comes with it, he’s a man easily ruffled. Whilst his daughters ready for adventure with her farther out in the frontier. We don’t even reach the Fort before we meet freshly graduated 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) awaiting an escort to the Fort. The first of many social insults for Thursday to endure, his presence is unknown to the sergeants who’ve arrived due to the broken cable. Also unaware of Philadelphia’s growing attraction to the Lt. 

Fort Apache is again filled with actors from Ford’s stock company creating for the audience a welcome set of faces on the screen. From Ward Bond to Victor McLaglen, who are not just used for comic relief, they become integral to understanding the structure of the world that Thursday is exploring and trying to take control of. As much as John Wayne is given top billing with Fonda owns this film, the ideas are all liked back to him, his actions affect the plot and all those around him. Whilst Wayne’s Captain Kirby York takes the brunt of it he does help to ground the film and sell it to the general public, not that takes much effort, his own star power rising over the past decade since Ford rescued him from the world of B-movies.

Turning to life of the Fort we have two worlds, one of domesticity and one of the soldier, the two can co-exist but following a set of precise set of rules that Thursday is constantly fighting. Coming from another class he’s a gentlemen of West Point training and high society etiquette, each with their own set of rules that are meant to exist in perfect sync. Whilst the reality of domestic life on the frontier which adapts to the Army fort it can work. Lead by Mrs. Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich) who sees knows she and other women have little place outside, take over the home, once crossing that boundary a soldier must follow another set of rules and regulations. First meeting them all at a dance with the other men, Thursday’s taken aback by the perceived lack of discipline, so swept up in his own arrival he forgets it’s George Washington Day 18th February, reminded by one of the only men who has the confidence to talk back to him – York.

Another strong example of this clash of worlds is when Thursday wants to escort his daughter back home, on learning that she has left to visit Lt. O’Rourke, the man the family and the audience know to be who she will marry. Thursday doesn’t see the young O’Rourke to be suitable to marry due to his social position, despite his West Point training, even through presidential approval, it’s not enough that the highest power in the land can afford a man to go up a class in society. It can’t be earned, it’s a birthright in the eyes of Thursday. There’s no problem for the rest of the family, who also see that his uniform is practically meaningless under the private residence of the O’Rourke’s, nearly causing an argument.

I now want to look at that seed that was sewn for Liberty Valance, the line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. After what we hoped would be a peaceful resolution between the United States government and the Apache. York’s meeting with Cochise’s thought to be enough for them to return to the reservation and get changes underway. The racism in Thursday prevents the talk of peace going any further than the crossing of the border, when he can lead a charge to kill the renegade Apache, solving yet another issue of the never-ending Indian problem. By this point I had forgotten that we see them all ride off into battle and all but fall under a 4 to 1 massacre. Not just an underestimation of the enemy, a complete disregard of cultural differences and promises previously made to ensure their return.

It’s not a pleasant sight to see, all those men we have come to know and love, ride off into the vast emptiness of Monument Valley to face a death that could’ve been avoided. The recording of that battle is not what we would have hoped but does ensure that the legacy of an officer’s maintained and also that of the Fort and ultimately the Army. York makes the bold decision in his report, not seen on camera to be complicit in the lie that must be maintained for a better history and that of the West to be told. Helping build the morale of the country, something which has been done which each conflict that the United States has entered, rewriting the events to convey a myth that can be shared for generations. Essential to the American story, when the facts don’t fit the legend why bother. With all the images, paintings and social impact of Thursday supposed sacrifice on the battlefield, he has become a hero just by fighting with his boots on, it doesn’t matter what lead him there. York knows that he can’t fight that, it’s bigger than him, bigger any man in the uniform.

Ford knows the power of the story telling and the American story that he’s help to shape into the cinematic form that has become its own legend and part of the greater myth of the West. I’m still not looking forward to Yellow Ribbon, even with the drunken scenes, I just can’t see how it will even come close to the complexity of the Apache that dives head first into the fabric of the genre.

My fears for what I thought would be a string of comic events was all but washed away coming away from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) the middle piece of the Cavalry trilogy. I could see why I saw this as potentially being the weaker of the three. Yellow Ribbon acts as a celebration of the Cavalry. Opening with narration over the vastness of Monument Valley in beautiful Technicolor. Ford is very much home in the desert landscape that stretches for what seems like a limitless distance. His playground to get out his actors and re-enact his countries past.

Taking his cue once more from Custer,  who this times named to have fallen after The Battle of Little Bighorn (1976), a major blow for both the U.S. Army and the country during its long campaign to see the Native Americans rounded up onto reservations. The treatment of the nations is the complete opposite of Fort Apache. No longer are they respected or feared for the damage they can do. Now they are a nuisance that must be resolved. We’re told that a number of plains tribes have put aside old rivalries to come together to fight the army that’s trying to pen them into land they aren’t interested in. The failure of Little BigHorn really hurts, any future defeats aren’t allowed.

Yellow Ribbon is not so much concerned with legacy as it is with the history that it hopes to make. Instead there’s a focus on the people who populate the unnamed fort where we Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is 5 days away from retirement. He’s not so much concerned with what he is leaving behind but the future he’s going off to. With the focus of the film being his last patrol of the area before his retirement. Before he heads out we get to learn about his relationship with the men. First what is a long-standing friendship with Top Sgt. Quincannon (McLaghlen), you get the feeling they go back a long way. However it’s his time with both Lt. Flint Cohill (Agar again) and Second Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) new to the Ford Stock Company) who themselves are fighting for the affections of the only eligible woman on the fort – Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). The chemistry between the three makes for some great scenes, not so much sexual tension. It’s a charming fight between two young men for a woman whose far maturer than both. It’s also the origin of the film’s title, a fictional tradition that neatly ties into the richness of the film. A symbol of a woman showing her affection for a soldier. Matching the yellow handkerchief that was once part of the standard uniform until 1872 (four years before the film’s set). Ford takes creative licence along with the strong influence of Frederic Remington’s depiction of the accessory, that evokes a certain romanticism of the army that has carried through the classic cycle of the Western.

Never apologise, It’s a sign of weakness” another layer of masculine code that is laid down by The Duke, part of his image that defined his on-screen persona. Something that many men have tried to live up to during his life-time. Today however the idea of never apologising is both laughable and disturbing, that in itself is a strength in modern man. As a male myself I believe that the ability to own up to your faults or errors shows a sign of great strength. To understand you’re in the wrong and admitted is today respect, that way you can build on itself and grow as an individual. A sure sign that the image of man as defined by the duke is slowly being chipped away, becoming something of a dinosaur. Just saying that is depressing, however a raised awareness mental health in men shows that you have to understand and be in touch with your feelings instead of hiding behind a persona of a masculine mystique that can trap a man down the route of potential depression and even suicide. Looking at Wayne’s image of a man I can only take so much of it use for myself, mostly a sense of confidence and the ability to not take yourself so seriously, which he did much later in his life.

Whilst life on the fort is very pleasant, there’s a time for regulations and a time to relax and understand there’s more to life than the uniform. It’s out in the open that we see the cavalry showing what they’re made of. Out on patrol, with the addition of two women – the major’s wife Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) and Olivia Dandridge in female uniform and riding side-saddle. One complains of the rotating between riding and walking, whilst the older has had no stability in the last ten years. Both being escorted to a stagecoach to be taken East and away from very real dangers out in the open. The women reflect the negative side of a military life, one more from marital experience, whilst the younger is more frustrated.

Action finally gets underway each time we encounter either Apache, Southern Cheyenne etc, as much as they are pretty much faceless and nameless, they are ever present in the environment. From the cliched yells as they ride into battle to the broken English, building on the image that Ford had a hand in creating for the Native American on film. When not on-screen the patrol’s one of character and discipline, set against the backdrop of Monument Valley from butte to butte we traverse the desert for what feels like forever, I wouldn’t mind that in a Ford film any day. The riding reminds us that we are away from the security of the fort, open the elements and dangers of the open West.

Yellow Ribbon is very much a celebration of the cavalry, we didn’t have time for that in Fort Apache looked at the legacy of campaigns and the wider history that’s written. Yellow Ribbon looks more closely at the people who are in the uniform, mostly of Brittles wise old captain who has seen his share of warfare on the frontier. Wayne gives one of his best performances, something that Ford had a knack of doing on countless collaborations, maybe it was all the goading on set that forced him to give his best, or knowing that this man-made him who he was so owed him his best. Now I look forward to Rio Grande (1950) with a renewed excitement, knowing that the trilogy is a solid set of films that are all very different, showing varying sides of a history that was repeated and reflected during the production of the three films.

I’ve been itching to catch Rio Grande (1950) completing the cavalry trilogy, which came out of a contractual obligation with Republic studio. Ford wanting to make his pet project The Quiet Man (1952) was allowed to be made on the provision that he make another Western first. The director not one to just make a slap-dash film gave this final cavalry outing the time it deserved. Falling back on the character of Kirby Yorke now a colonel and posted out to Fort Rio Grande on the Texas/Mexican border we find the man who was once ensuring that the legacy of another senior officer remain in-tact. Here he has concerns of his own past that are brought to light. Grande focuses on the York family in particular. Noted as the first of 5 films they would make together, a pairing that worked very well on-screen. The only woman who could truly hold her own in front of The Duke, and one that he found to be his favourite too.

Tonaly looking back at Yellow Ribbon there’s a real shift from celebration of the uniform to that of reflection of what life in the uniform can be like. The consequences of past action or military engagements, how they effect those around you on a personal level, pretty deep stuff for a Western of this period. There’s also a return to the beautiful black and white cinematography, connecting it back to the world of Fort Apache where we last found York, Allowing us to focus on the action and drama without the distraction of colour.

From the opening dialogue free scene we know we are in the world of the military, the anxious wives and mothers waiting for their men to return home from battle. Looking onto find them in the column of exhausted troops returning home. Ford again focuses on the community that is directly effected by the cavalry, or any armed force. Due to his time in the Navy’s photographic department, reflecting his experiences in the most American of genres. He turns what could be a wild West scene easily into any conflict and any time in America’s military history. Handled with great sensitivity. Not one line of dialogue can express the emotions going through the women and children waiting for fathers, husbands and brothers to return home safely. It’s here we learn that York has a son whose just been expelled from West Point, the same school where only a few years before 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) who had to fight class distinctions with Colonel Thursday. The younger Trooper “Jeff” Jefferson York (Claude Jarman Jr.) who then went back to enlist as a regular. Showing determination to ensure he sees a military future and  carrying on his families legacy in uniform. The younger York doesn’t have that social stigma but could potentially carry another one – a West Point failure. The news of his failing in maths doesn’t come as a surprise to the father, which could be seen as a trait that he has passed onto his son.

Among the other enlisted men we have the youngest men of the Ford Stock Company, which are used successfully for lighter scenes and depicting the men in uniform with faces we can recognise and relate to. Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) and Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) allow us to get under the surface of what it takes to get into the uniform, what makes a man in the cavalry. Essentially average Joe’s who want to make a life for themselves. Becoming essential to the plot as it reaches the 3rd act, showing that solider with our without stripes and medals is needed on the field of battle.

It’s the addition of Kathleen York (Maureen O’Hara) which has the potential to turns things upside down, carrying with her a deep-rooted resentment of her plantation being burnt to the ground during the Civil War. Her main reason for being on the fort, to collect her son from the cavalry, something she learns is easier said than done. Not just needing her signature, but that the willingness of her son to also sign, which form him would be a sign of giving up on himself, essentially a sign of weakness. Her resentment towards York, extends also to Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) who carried out the order to burn hers, among other plantations in the Shenandoah Valley, part of a strategy to cripple the Confederacy at the heart, if the farms are scorched, no food can be grown to feed the army and the men fighting within them. Taking place over a 5 month period in 1864 under the orders of General Ulysses Grant. Seen in the context of Rio Grande as regrettable but necessary actions needed to speed up the wars process in the favor of the Union winning the war.

Looking at the depiction of the Native Americans who again are focus of the external conflict, the Apaches are again reduced to being vicious faceless, nameless pests for both American and Mexicans on both side of the border. When they are heard to be chanting by Quincannon they are seen as just a nuisance to be quelled with a threat. This is quickly undermined with an attack of three combined nations heading over to rescue to captured Apaches. There’s no effort to see their side of events, just something to be stopped at any cost. A cost that could lead to a court martial if the orders to bring their rein of terror to an end. Verbal orders which are carefully delivered as to avoid legal complications if they were to go horribly wrong.

These orders reflect the then contemporary policy towards Korea, if orders were made public of the countries intervention into the country were to go wrong. The social and political implications would be far greater than the result. Keeping the operation quiet until known to be a success and an American victory was far more important. Colonel York experiences the same dilemma. As much as he wants to carry out the orders, he knows the weight on the consequences o the mission failure on a personal level. I found this situation fascinating, how many failed political decisions that have been hidden from public scrutiny, probably very few with a decent press.

Concerning the York family dynamic we have a father whose hard on not just himself, understanding that historically he’s lost his family based on orders he was given that broke a family that was already split down the middle politically. Kathleen’s presence brings all of these emotions of guilt, honor and duty into question when it comes to his own family. The uniform comes before his own life and those of others, he has to follow the orders of his superiors without question, it’s the chain of command that has cost him his wife and son for 15 years. With the arrival of his son – coincidence I think not, see him begin to soften to life as a parent whilst maintaining his position. Whilst Kathleen softens over the film’s duration to realise that both the men in her life are in uniform and that comes before family. By the end of the film she sees herself more as a military wife who understands the importance of the uniform. Again ending with a scene that relies only on emotion, as the men return from another campaign, she looks on and waits for husband and son to return, finding the colonel on a travois injured, reaching out for his arm as they walk into the fort. Nothing mores needed to convey how far thy they have both come together.

Looking back at the trilogy they each explore different facets of the cavalry. Whilst celebrating they look at legacy of campaigns, the individuals involved and the impact they will have on history. The celebration of life on the fort at all levels and aspects of life from new recruits in training to those about to retire. Until the final installment Yellow Ribbon is the most romantic of the trilogy, Rio Grande pours it on thick musically with the Sons of the Pioneers and the carefully lit scenes with between Wayne and O’Hara. Ford doesn’t miss a trick, even if the last installment was purely by accident, creating a trilogy before the term franchise was even a thing in cinema, it was the actors who were the real attraction not so much the reliability of the content that guaranteed success at the box-office.


The Tin Star (1957) Revisited


I’ve been meaning to return to The Tin Star (1957) for a while now, an under appreciated Western by Anthony Mann without James Stewart, his first Western without Stewart due to a falling out between the two of them. I wonder how he would have approached this role, making it the 8th together. Instead turning to Henry Fonda, a longtime friend of Stewart’s making for the film we have today. Paired opposite a young pre-Pyscho Anthony Perkins which itself makes for interesting reading.

I could come at this review as a could have been different with James Stewart but that would be doing a dis-service to decent film that takes on the apprentice/master relationship. Something that has been done countless times, to become a man you must be able to defend yourself. Here however you don’t need the guns to do so. They are simply tools, something that fresh-faced Sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) has to learn the hard way. When bounty hunter Morgan ‘Morg’ Hickman (Henry Fonda) arrives with bounty in tow he wants only to collect his money and leave, keep to himself and cause no trouble. His very presence in the town causes a stir with the establishment and business that have supported Ben who took over at little notice. “This is a law and order town” is mentioned a few times to warn Hickman off interfering on his way. This is not the Clint Eastwood bounty hunter whose very presence scares those he’s about to shout down and collect on. This town has moved on from this model of keeping law and order. It’s follow the law and live by the law. Yet we still have the classic Dead or Alive posters which contradict that thinking. criminals are still wanted, however the arrive is a different matter. Hickman’s  presence spreads fast through the town, no rooms at the only hotel, no room for his horse at the livery stable (on the edge of town). They don’t want him to stay, he’s a reminder of a different time, he’s outmoded.

Instead of being filled with rage, like many of Stewart’s roles, there’s no build up of emotion, not big release that leads to great dramatic scene. Instead he holds his own in a town that resists him. Taking up lodgings with another outsider Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her mixed race son Kip (Michel Ray) a curious boy who wants only to play with others. Not having many friends due to his Native American heritage (which isn’t really mentioned outside the house). Getting off to a rocky start, it could have increased in tension however it’s dealt with calmly the next day surprisingly well.

The main focus of the film is making a sheriff out of Owens who wants to assume the role with more confidence, something that he is lacking. This could also be seen in the actors hidden sexuality, hiding him true-self on-screen to conform and get work. Can only a heterosexual male become a sheriff? His skills with a gun are rough around the edges, it takes Hickman’s presence, a former sheriff himself to help him. It’s a reluctant help, after being pleaded by the sheriff, not the image we’re used to in our law enforcement out in the West. He’s still a boy who needs to learn the ways of being a man. It takes another to teach him. We get the classic target practice scene, not played so much for comedy, more to see how far he has to go. He wants to prove himself to the town and his woman – Millie Parker (Mary Webster) who wants him to take off the badge to live a safer life, unlike her father who died with it on.

Another test comes in the form of Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand) one of the ugliest men you could get caught up in a fight with. A man who should really be wearing the badge, instead he tests the sheriff to the limit. When a posse’s formed to catch two men responsible for the deaths of two elder men, he leads the mob mentality, which is stirred up. Owens seems powerless to really do much about him. If Ben can overcome him, stand up to the brute he has come a long way, learning how to hold himself in public and as the law. The bully of the playground has no one left to push around.

The real test comes as the posse are out chasing no-one after setting a light, Hickman has resisted the lure of the reward on the two wanted brothers Ed and Zeke McGaffey (Lee Van Cleef and Peter Baldwin), again mixed race with Native American heritage, these two face the full force of racism, whilst young Kip joins in from a distance playing sheriff on his new horse. Hickman is able to put his drive for money to one-side when he knows Kip’s caught up, becoming a father figure to him. Not forgetting his sheriff in-training Ben who just wont listen to reason, stay out of it and be safe. The life he wants is fraught with danger and heartache, which can be avoided. Instead he’s headstrong and blinkered, riding in to prove himself. Ultimately, no guns are used to safe the day and bring in the two men. Even when they face a lynch mob, guns are threatened not used, showing that can be used as tools not just weapons  for protection.

Tin Star is the beginning of a decline for Mann who had made some classic Westerns with Stewart, this could have been up there. Gary Cooper makes for a strong replacement in The Man of the West (1958). However from there on in it’s down and out, if we ignore a tense The Heroes of Telemark (1965) for a brief return to form. Here however we have a small budget film that tries to get into the characters, some more successful that others. There’s a lot going on in this 80 odd minute film, it’s tight with a bit of excess around the edges. I know I’ll be revisiting in future thanks to a fine performance from Fonda which gives it some weight and experience.


Captain Apache (1971)


Captain Apache (1971)Now I have to be honest, I never thought I’d be reviewing Captain Apache (1971), if anything I thought I’d have been ruthless and stopped watching it before the end. I even thought this was another Spaghetti Western. I am once again proven wrong, it’s a British shot and produced western that has the look of a Spaghetti Western, however maybe that’s purely on the aesthetics, it doesn’t have the richness of colours or the budget, not even the violence, sure people are shot every ten minutes or so, yet there is no blood, which Italian directors were not afraid to use and to excess sometimes. We don’t have the vocal dubbing either so we lose the out of sync dialogue in places. If anything its a low-budget entry into the genre during its period of falling out of favor with the public.

This is one of those rare British Westerns that (attempts to) follow in the footsteps of our Italian counterparts, with British restraint on the violence (maybe a budget issue), we have a star actor (Lee Van Cleef) surrounded by a practically unknown supporting cast. With exception to Carroll Baker and Stuart Whitman who have starred in a few westerns themselves. Here they have larger parts in the decidedly dodgy Western, which I’ll explain below.

The very title is today very controversial, Captain Apache a captain in the U.S. Army who is sometimes called a “Red Ass”, a derogatory term in the film and even more so today. Played with Van Cleef minus is signature tash that really makes the actors red make-up stand out even more. If he hadn’t shaved off the old tash we wouldn’t be recognise him as easily. A complete reverse of Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) for which he grew one especially, only to be told to shave it. Recognition was more important for the director and his audience, that is lost here, which takes a while to get used to.

I’ve never been happy, well no one is with the “redding-up” of white actors and this is no exception really, thankfully I have more to keep me occupied than the make-up. The plot is very disjointed, I wouldn’t say confusing as there’s not much of a plot. We follow Captain Apache and his soldiers who actually follow the Native American’s orders without question, they don’t even talk behind his back, they respect him to our knowledge. We are seeing the other, the enemy who has been fully assimilated into the white mans world. If that’s a good thing or not is another matter. It’s the people who are not in uniform who have a hard time accepting the Apache’s position in society. Historically they would never have put on the uniform of a Blue-coat which really takes this film into the realm of fantasy, history’s thrown aside for pure danger and drama.

Moving away from the depiction of the Apache we have a plot that really take a longtime to get going. We have the army investigating something about “April Morning” the last words by the Indian commissioner (not clearly mentioned), is this code for something, is April a person, for a while I thought it was Carroll Baker‘s character Maude who takes on the role of the prostitute and tacked on at the end, old love interest of the captains. We also have Stuart Whitman‘s Griffin whose hot on the trail also with his men that drop like flies around the captain. Its an odd murder investigation for sure as we just seem to get little bits of information.

For me it doesn’t make much sense, so why did I continue watching this bizarre unstructured western that tries to be a Spaghetti Western. I guess part of me was just curious to see what weird and wonderful things would happen. Maybe it was the final train sequence when everything comes together as people disappear and reappear in an assassination attempt, even then it doesn’t really make sense as the U.S. army come to the rescue out of nowhere. It’s an interesting mess of a British Western that tries to live up to others who have already made a distinctive mark on the genre.


Ulzana’s Raid (1972)


Ulzana's Raid (1972)I’ve been looking out for Ulzana’s Raid (1972) ever since I read about it a years ago, discussed in relation to Native American’s once again. Focusing this time on an army company of men in search of a band of Apache who had left the reservation at the beginning of the film. Something which I can relate to in my current work. Naturally the army’s notified of Ulzana (Joaquín Martínez) and his braves who have left over night. Today you would rightly be behind the Apache’s to make a break for freedom. I noticed as the film progress as much as it has dated it has a new relevance in the age of ISIS and Islamaphobia which has gripped parts of the world. I’ll explain my observation as I carry on. My initial reading (literally) was a comparison with McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) yes there’s more discussion about The Searchers (1956) this time focusing on how the white man functions with his knowledge of the other.

Much like my review of The Stalking Moon (1968) we have an army scout with knowledge of “Indians” for Edwards the knowledge comes from an undisclosed place in a back story that fuels his hate, scaring those around him to the point of alienation leaving him with his unwanted mixed race Cherokee Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) who stick with him throughout, thick and thin. We can only presume his knowledge comes after leaving the Confederate Army, being absent from the surrender he follows a different path from everyone else who has seemingly adjusted to post civil war life.

With Edwards out of the army, I turn to those still in the army, Varner’s (Gregory Peck) seen as a knowledge, the army want him to stay, they feel safer with him and his partner riding with them. I can’t really imagine Peck ever being as dangerous as Wayne could ever portray. Even the white woman Sarah (Eva Marie Saint) feels safe in his company as her escorts her home. Turning to Mcintosh he is as worldly-wise as they others, you can see it on his face, he has seen a lot, done a lot and even married a Native woman for his wife. Something that Edwards would never contemplate, his racism wouldn’t allow it. He is more willing to share his knowledge as advise not to scare the cavalry men he is riding with. He wants to educate not fear them, he doesn’t need to do that as the trail of blood-shed speaks for itself. He instead explains what they do and why.

If anything the explanation for all the atrocities is better explained by the sole Apache Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) whose allowed to have a good portion of the script. He’s better able to answer all the questions that the men have. Especially for wet behind the ears Lt. Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) who sees all this death as meaningless, he wants to act without fully understanding his enemy. He’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) before the racism has set in, wanting to make a career and a name for himself in the army. Here’s the chance to learn and change his perspective and direction in life. With the motives for the Apache’s explained by Ke-Ni-Tay, acting as the others representative. Today he could represent the hunted ISIS (and rightly so to) he becomes the misunderstood Muslim who has done nothing wrong, whose labelled the potential terrorist in their absence. Racism without cause, fear is wrong directed to Muslims when 99% of them are as decent as everyone else we meet on the street. It’s the 1% who are disillusioned, radicalized and want to inflict harm on the rest of the world. Back in the Western of the 1970’s the Native Americans act as the Vietnamese who have been wrongly killed because of the fear of communism (I know there’s more to it than that).

I want to look at some lines from the film, something I do rarely, a few stood out for me that I have to interrogate.

Do you hate Apaches, Mr. McIntosh?Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin

 No.McIntosh

Well, I do.Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin

Well, it might not make you happy, Lieutenant, but it sure won’t make you lonesome. Most white folks hereabout feel the same way you do.McIntosh

Why don’t you feel that way?Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin

It would be like hating the desert because there ain’t no water in it. For now, I can get by being plenty scared of ’em.McIntosh:

It feels like a conversation that could have taken place in Fort Apache if rank wasn’t a problem between Thursday and Capt. Kirby York (Wayne). Instead with have the advantage of age over experience. The time to consider whether there is enough time in life to devote so much to hating a race of people. McIntosh understand his commanding officers position but has given up on the emotion as it only gets in the way of living and functioning as a human being out in the frontier.

Turning now to the violence of the film, this isn’t one that young kids could watch and get a sense of fun, the cowboy and Indian dynamic of the past is not present in this film. The violence is more brutal. Animal rights groups would today have ensure animals were treated better. There’s nothing to suggest that any animals were harmed or not. This is a few years before Heaven’s Gate (1980) and exploding horses in the name of art. As much as the violence is tame in some respects, when you see a horses neck being cut you think twice about putting a young child in front of the screen. We are meant to see these violent acts, suggesting that the Apache are not civilised, they are capable of terrible acts, making the cavalry’s presence all the more relevant. The savages have to be tamed if possible at all costs. Although history would argue they only ever acted in self defense at the threat of losing their way of life. Once again I am mixing fact with fiction and in film that doesn’t always work.

The depiction of the Native American’s doesn’t really fare that much better than the animals, They are treated once again as savages with skills of the wilderness. They become more desperate over the course of the film, as if they are broken down. They way they treat their horses/ponies is not really as animals to respect but more as tools that can be disposed of. Practically seen as people you wouldn’t want to have dinner with. They are however seen as a people who can work together with only gestures, almost as if Ulzana is orchestrating his men from a distance which I can’t help but admire.

So to sum up as I explore The Searchers through other films I am building up a bigger picture of how it has influenced others films and the western genre. It’s clear that Edwards is a powerful and very human character that interests us even to this day. The role of the outsider and racist will always be a dangerous one. Lancaster doesn’t play that role, take cues from Peck, two trackers who are able to function, to take a step back from the other. Instead its given to the younger man Lt. Harry Garnett DeBuin who as much as he is eager to learn, he is being shaped in front of our eyes. This mission wont easily leave him, just as the 1956 classic will never leave me.


The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)


The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)A classic western I have been meaning to see for quite sometime, part of Richard Slotkin’s lecture series on the genre which I first picked up during the last few months at art-school. It really started to broaden my mind as to what the genre was about, the history and starting to pull apart the myth. I’ve just about seen all the films on the list and this was one of the last ones still up there I couldn’t listen until I caught The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). You could say this was well overdue essential viewing for me.

Running at just over 70 minutes you can’t expect too much from the film. There’s not a lot of action on the screen. Beginning with a drunken Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) drowning his sorrows, all he has hoped for is gone, a drifter venting at the wrong time when there is more important things at hand. We see a town consumed by the news of a rancher who apparently has been killed by rustlers. Its angers the men of the ghost town that becomes more populated as the news spreads and a posse forms. All against the wishes of the oldest member of the town Arthur Davis (Harry Davenport) who is fighting a losing battle against the young men who after this emotive news allows the anger they feel grows. It has to be legal, to find the men who have left.

There’s an internal fight to do things right from the start, I couldn’t help but think ahead to 12 Angry Men (1957) as one man tries to convince the majority to change their minds. Reasonable doubts is something that doesn’t really exist in the west, or this film, its all black and white. Literally as it is here allowing you to hopefully see the greys in between what we see. The audience is left shouting at the screen as the men and single woman Jenny Grier (Jane Darwell) who is more man than woman, a mean match to any of the men who she rides with. Making Darwells part all the more engaging, more used to seeing a softer woman on-screen, the mother figure. All that is lost here as she is more masculine than some of the men.

Figures such as the Major Tetley (Frank Conroy) is a throwback to the confederacy, a man of principle and ashamed of his son, a coward unlike himself. Living on past glories to sustain himself. Influencing  Jack Palance‘s Captain Quincey Whitmore in Chato’s Land (1972) wearing his uniform once more with pride as he hunts for the infamous Chato (Charles Bronson). It’s all about having one more chance at glory, to have a victory after the surrender. Also we have the preacher portrayed as an old and feeble, a judge fat and loud who gives into the demands of the posse who will leave at any time.

Once they leave the town, around 30 riders leave the back-lot for the sound-stage where the real drama and suspicion unfolds as the close in on the men they believe to have killed the much-loved rancher. A group of three men led by Donald Martin (Dana Andrews) who wants only to support his family. Is that not honorable enough? They are back into a corner as nooses are already being tied, horses positioned under a hanging tree. With little chance of interrogating they are fighting a losing battle reason against assumption.

The people’s trial before lynching takes place in the comfort of the sound studio which maybe a budgetary constraint with such a big cast, that makes the scenes all the more claustrophobic as these three men innocent or not are. I do have my doubts about Juan Martínez (Anthony Quinn) a Mexican with a colourful past. Our own prejudices are tested on-screen, is one of the group guilty and are they covering for one another. How can they with the sincerity of Martin who pleads to for reason, a fair trial, all the things they aren’t getting out there around their camp for their last night of life.

It’s a western of words and few actions which speak louder than any firing of a gun. Loud ones confused and angry deafening out those of quiet reason. You want to shout at the screen along with Fonda one of the few to stand up and speak his own mind as the night goes on. Teaching us not to be led by our assumptions and to not forget the systems in place by society to ensure we are all treated fairly. It could easily be applied to a racial killing today, as people easily turn against innocent muslims when act of terrorism’s committed. It’s easy to do when you’re blinded by anger and hate which can consume you, leaving you later on with guilt and remorse as the consequences of that night dawn upon them. The act of lynching is seen from below, probably a mechanism to get around censorship at the time, working better for dramatic purposes we know they are up there, would seeing them make it any better for us, even a boot off the top of the screen? The lack of bodies allows the audiences imagination to run wild, what have this posse done, how could they let it happen so fast. We all know why it did.

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The Iron Horse (1924)


The Iron Horse (1924)I’ve been looking out for this silent John Ford for a while now, one of those early epic Westerns that helped to define the language that I explore in my practice. It’s also a rare chance to see Ford’s work before he made a star out of John Wayne who he shall always be credited with. He’s nowhere to be seen in The Iron Horse (1924) which predates all the Westerns I have seen by a few years. I was lucky enough to catch the original directors cut that was not seen outside of the U.S. during its original run. I always try to go for the director’s cut of a film if it’s available as the directors intentions are then  on the screen (that’s ignoring George Lucas).

Moving away from directorial choices and cuts of films to the meat of the film, the coming together of the East and the West of America, the progression of a nation. Laying down the foundations for the country to develop and prosper. I have seen the same basic story before with a much lighter tone attached, and running time slightly shorter too. That’s down to all the build-up and character development that Ford puts into the film so the running time is well deserved, not a meter of film is wasted really. As we know he never shot more than he needed, to ensure he got the picture that he wanted, not leaving anything to chance. He begins by adding a human story between a young boy and girl Miriam Marsh (Madge Bellamy) who at first I thought nothing of as the boy Davy Brandon leaves with his father to go Westward to begin to plan out a route for a transcontinental railroad. A bold journey that ends in heart for the boy when his father (James Gordon) who is killed by a two-fingered white Cheyenne who killed him to keep his secret from being revealed outside the nation he is now a part of. I can see even this early on in the depiction of the Native American, the lengths that are gone to in order to create the dark and dangerous image of the one-dimensional Native American, here a renegade white man, even more dangerous you might think, bringing together the ideas of two cultures.

Jumping forward a few years to during the Civil War we see Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull) sign a bill that allows work to begin on the transcontinental railroad, wanting to look beyond the present situation of the war, considering the peace in the future. The President’s depicted as almost god-like in his presence and screen-time. Even though limited to a few scenes his presence is felt through the rest of the film. Ford would later return to the 14th President with Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln  (1939). There is otherwise no other mention of the war that is going on back East between the North and the South. Instead it’s about this milestone in American history, at the time of the making of the film less than a hundred years had passed since its initial completion as the Continental and Union Pacific railroad companies laid the track that would eventually meet.

All this plays as backdrop to the drama that unfolds within the Union Pacific as they move Westward. We see all aspects of construction, from planning the laying of track to how to get around the country whilst still keeping under budget. We see all the classic clichés we take for granted from the striking work force after receiving no pay for months, to warring Cheyenne who are a constant threat as their land is being divided up before their eyes, the Buffalo population begin to diminish at the hands of the likes of Buffalo Bill (George Waggner). As I have found before with Ford his films are nothing without the rich mix of people that fill them, from the Italian ex-soldiers to the Chinese workers. He knows what America is built upon, a mixed immigrant population that made the country he loves great which he celebrates here. It’s not just Cowboys who have a score to settle.

The main drama is between Davy and Miriam who after spending years apart are now reunited, the childhood sweethearts may have a second chance. Before having to deal with her finance Jesson (Cyril Chadwick) the villain of the film tries to get him out of the picture. It’s really not as straightforward as Hollywood romance is today or even in the golden age, there is a price to pay before they can be together. Amongst the history there’s room for a little melodrama with Ford who keeps it to a minimum as we have a lot to look at and take in. 

Overall for of silent John Ford film I have not been let down, sadly there was no Harry Carey to be seen but we did have an okish replacement with George O’Brien as the older Davy Brandon who comes into the picture in the second act. We have the roots of the genre here, not all of them but a strong part of the foundation of what I love today. History beginning to be re-written on the screen. With all sorts of historical characters making an appearance, this is American folklore for the 20th century told in sweeping form.

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My Darling Clementine (1946) Revisited


My Darling Clementine (1946)I remember seeing My Darling Clementine (1946) very early on when I started to watch all these classic films which now inform my work. I wasn’t aware at all of what this film was really about. Seeing a man come into town taking the marshals job to ensure that he could seek out revenge for his brothers murder. It’s only with the passing of time, and seeing more film adaptations of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral that I can see a lineage going on here, as new information is found new films are made. Different directors give their spin to the events, John Sturges gave us two interpretations Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and The Hour of the Gun (1957) which expanded vasty on the events that we all know of. Here however in the events are told from the true perspective of Wyatt Earp who once met John Ford who’s version stands heads above the others I have seen, telling him how the shoot-out actually happened, making the audience wait until the end.

The build up is really non-existent as we drift from scene to scene, even over the short running time of the film, a lot actually takes places, from the very start we are introduced to the Earp brothers who are not as we expect them, out in the open country with cattle it feels out of place, yet strangely not, they just are. We are introduced to the Clanton’s lead by Walter Brennan who fitted easily from role good to bad guy with ease. Whilst Henry Fonda personifies the up standing Marshall Wyatt Earp who reluctantly takes on his old job in Tombstone to give him licence to avenge his brother James’s death. His remaining brothers follow.

Tombstone is not the classic boom-town that we know from later films, located once more in Monument Valley a location that becomes John Ford country in years to come. Photographed as a mythical land where these events take place, creating instead a small town in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilisation which is creeping up on the people of the town. Lit as a classic film and heavy lighting you could easily mistake it for a film-noir or one of Ford’s earlier films such as The Informer (1935) in the streets of Ireland. The lack of music is eerie at times, whilst other times you hardly notice it, swept away by the people who inhabit this small town.

The main characters of course are all there, from Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) taking on a more adversarial role, competing to enforce the law, whilst still suffering from tuberculosis. All of the Earp and Clanton brothers are present, with the addition of two women who create tension for the two lead men as they try and see eye to eye. Is this the truth or just a Fordian touch to the legend?

It’s classic Ford at his best, writing his own passages of American legend that easily tips into fiction into facts with a sense of grandeur with the lightest of touches. We can see a love for the open country and the people who helped shape it. Defined here by the stars of the day who were seen as god like figures who graced the screens. With breathtaking scenery and by chance shots of the sky that encapsulate everything that Ford is known for. This is what I missed the first time around with this film, all the little touches from the first shot of Earp/Fonda from below, a historical figure and hero of a not so distant past. Complete with the homely touches of the Ford Stock Company who becoming like a travelling band of actors who bring to life the ideas and visions of Ford. I love the director more now than I did a day ago.

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A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)


A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)Ever since the reviews came out for this film, telling me that it wasn’t funny etc I was cautious from then on in. Being a Family Guy fan I had to see this, knowing that I would get the humour that was in A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014). Sadly I was let down after seeing Ted (2012) that really scored high on comedy. Here the jokes felt too forced and unnatural. Of course the context being that shepherd Albert (Seth MacFarlane) was born out of his time, he is just too aware of the world around him. Going onto basically tear apart a genre and a time in his own countries history, he doesn’t even know that he’s doing it which is even worse. Wasn’t it brave people who went out into dangerous unexplored country, wanting to make a better life at any cost. Walking all over it for comedy value which is even worse. It’s a clever idea to comment on how dangerous living in the frontier but the joke runs sour after half an hour. Needing to keep things fresh which he does it to a point which he sticks with throughout and never lets up.

In keeping with western lore the shepherd is seen as pathetic and weak, not going for the stronger more respected cattle farming. Made even worse he gets his way out of most dangerous situations. Instead of standing up like a man of the frontier and having some courage. Something which does grow as the film progresses. He rightly looses his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) after seeing him weasel out of a gunfight. For a man living in the west he’s just plain “Yella” even simulating a fight to avoid getting hurt.

Things don’t really move on from the comical deaths in the street which I’ve seen all in the trailer a million times until Liam Neeson‘s (Clinch) is brought in with his gang, we are back on some track to having an entertaining western when a prospector is held up. His wife Anna (Charlize Theron) is told to wait in Albert’s town for a while. The woman with a conscience, throughly modern for her time yet not to the extreme of Albert who is going on 21st centuryCatching him in the nick of time to train him to handle a gun. Reminding me of the gunfighter/mentor relationship between Henry Fonda‘s Morgan ‘Morg’ Hickman and Anthony Perkins Sheriff Ben Owens in The Tin Star (1957) which took a man who wanted to be strong and gave him the confidence to handle his gun a necessary tool in enforcing the law. Here it’s embarrassing for a man in the west to be taught by a woman to be strong. Shouldn’t it be the other way around in the west?

There are some good points to be find in this film. The landscape of Monument Valley was beautifully capture at sunrise and sunset, the magic of that location is something you can’t loose in any western. The musical sequences are to be expected from MacFarlane who is always giving his best, singing or not. When we are away from the obvious dangerous of the West there are some half decent jokes, whilst others are very questionable.

It’s not Macfarlane’s best work, spreading himself too thin these days with not just the animated comedies, (you can see why The Cleveland Show is doing so badly). He is reviving The Flintstones and thats just what I can think of the top of my head. You can see he’s not really comfortable in the lead role, something that should have been given to Theron and switched the perspectives which may have improved the flow of the film. It’s also part autobiographical, after reading an interview Macfarlane mentioned his lack of success with women because he is too nice, maybe this is an attempt to say that he can improve, become less of a nice guy with a chip on his shoulder. But that doesn’t mean take on all the big roles to make a film, from, directing, producing, writing and starring in the lead role. This would have made a nice comedy series or a short one-off comedy there is something in there, if only he hadn’t spread himself so thin. I know other directors can take on all these responsibilities and still give great performances. Yet there is a point where you compromise what you are doing. In either role he would have his name on it, just choose more wisely.  Hopefully Ted 2 when the lawsuits are cleared up will be a return to form?