Seen as an important early Western as the genre began to find its feet as Hollywood was starting to accept the genre to be taken seriously. All due to John Ford‘s Stagecoach that took not only a chance with a genre which had taken on the form of period epics of the Victorian era, such as Gunga Din (1939) and Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). All the basic elements that were refined in the silent era were recycled and reshaped as legends waiting to be retold. So with Stagecoach blowing the dust off the boots and spurs, the reins tightly held in place, the hat sitting a top the gunfighters head, the guns loaded once more, studios had to wake up and react to what was the rebirth of the Western. Warner Brothers delivered Dodge City (1939) in reaction to the tightly written multifaceted drama of misfits and outsiders, with bursts of exciting action.
I have been aware of this film for a few years, but never really took it seriously, it was only when I read about it in Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin I had to get hold of the film and watch it. With stronger foundations of how the history of the West was written and perceived at the time – the Myth of conquest’s seen here in terms of progress, the United States on the up after the Depression.
The film opens up in spectacular and very idealised. A steam train pounding freshly laid tracks that are about to meet at the join between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, complete with the nailing of the golden spike being hammered in completing the line. Before we see the that much forgotten, much passed spike there is a really nice piece of golden age Western cinema, a race between a stagecoach and a steam train. Nature vs. technology, progress out racing what has gone before. Its breathtaking to watch and daring to capturing on film, fair enough there was some camera trickery with the help of a rear-projection, however you can see that it was carefully staged, pushing both horses and the train out on location. You could imagine such ill-fated races occurring all over the country, as riders wanted to prove their relevance in an ever-changing country. Ultimately the train wins the race as it makes its way to the unnamed towns of wheels that have followed the lines production. All of this celebration even before we have met Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) in his first western role, a position that actors were all getting ready assume and have fun with in the coming decades, at this point it’s all still to come.
We meet him at his two sidekicks Algernon ‘Rusty’ Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) out near free-roaming buffalo, acknowledging the effect of their hunting on Native American’s, which leads him to lead a sheriff straight to Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his henchmen who are too casual about it all. Of course there is little that can be done without a jail or a court, law is still a few years off reaching this part of the world, it’s an idea that can be easily escaped on horseback. Hatton is not yet ready to assume the role of law. He’s far happier wandering from job to job, bringing with him his own legend, originally from Ireland, fighting in Cuba, before the Civil War, he’s lived quite the life before hunting buffalo for the railroad. A life that most audiences would be envious of, to those around him its hard to believe they are standing in his presence, he’s a living legend whose about to write a few more pages.
It’s very easy to draw comparisons between Watton and film versions of Wyatt Earp, which I will draw upon later. Before he takes up the badge he has to live his own life before living in the cause of others. Whilst he’s off the town of newly named Dodge is thriving and growing, seen through a humorous and rambunctious montage that depicts numerous saloons, bars, dance halls, this is a boomtown that is really brought to life for a minute or so. We see some of the footage used again, probably a last-minute creative addition which doesn’t detract from the film, however without you wouldn’t see a town in a state of such rapid growth and social collapse. The violence depicted has now become cliché but was brand new at the time of release. With all the violence going in it takes the elders, the businessmen of the town to come together to reach out to Watton to leave his job behind and tame Dodge City.
Watton is already having to tame those who he’s working with, a wagon train and cattle drive combined – not much is made of the wagon train, with more emphasis on the effect that a drunkard is having on the cattle Lee Irving (William Lundigan) trigger happy is unaware of his actions, it takes a near death stampede and a shoot or be shot decision to stop him dead. Watton is the reluctant killer who in turn horrifies Lee’s sister Abbi (Olivia de Havilland) who sees only a killer not a peaceful man doing the right thing. Protecting everyone around him, making the hard decisions that others aren’t prepared to. This decision-making is soon applied to Dodge City after chaotic barroom brawl that leads to Rusty nearly being hanged by Sturrett. It’s an act that Watton can’t be ignored. He has to assume the role of law which was taken on and abused by Sturrett. Bringing me back to the Wyatt Earp connection, a reluctant lawman whose brought out of retirement to slowly bring Dodge in line with the rest of the country, wanting to be civilised as the East. Bringing back settlers who we learn had been leaving in their droves before. He single handidly transforms the town into a safe, profitable and safe place to live, gun control and a shed load of laws which we see going to the extreme at times.
I have to mention the role of Abbie Irving who began as a grieving woman to taking on a prominent role at the local paper. Yes its the women’s gossip column, but its a woman in the work place, communicating with the community. She’s not a woman to be walked all over, not even Watton until he has won her heart somethings never change. Looking at the other “prominent role” by Ann Sheridan as barroom singer Ruby Gilman whose connected to Sturrett, but her character is not really developed to be of any real consequence or danger to Watton who doesn’t even meet her. That’s the only real flaw in a Western that is brimming at the seams with ideas that are either explore or enjoyed. It’s having a lot of fun, you can see cast all are, and all in technicolor too, creating some classic imagery that has been repeated ever since.
Looking back at the film over a day later I can see a film with so much to talk about, I could be writing for days, I hope I have pinned down some of the main ideas of transformation, progress as well as the division still there after the civil war. The country maybe reunited politically and geographically the links are getting tighter by the passing of the years. Socially and lawfully there’s still away to go. Dodge City is one of the lesser known classics today, yet made during that incredible year of 1939 which transformed the medium and the genre, it can’t be forgotten.
A few months ago I wrote a review about Barbary Coast (1935) which saw the Western trying to survive in the guise of another genre, then the gangster which if you think about is/was an updated version of that genre. It was fascinating to see what is honestly a much forgotten film, even with Edward G. Robinson in the lead, a fish out of water whose the shark that swims with the fishes who are the genre. Staying with the 1930’s, and the struggling Western I came across the sub genre of the Victorian epic, a more familiar film is Gunga Din (1939) however I’d like to focus on Beau Geste (1939) also.
As Richard Slotkin explained in Gunfighter Nation it was the Western in a different guise, moving the action from one large nation to another, which could be England or France throughout their all-conquering empire. Here we have the French aristocracy and 3 English brothers who’ve been adopted into it. Before meeting the brothers we see a troop of the Foreign Legion arriving at an outpost, populate entirely with the dead soldiers who once occupied. You can see they all died in battle, hanging over the parapet in the fort. They have all met grisly ends, that much is clear, we don’t yet know how they reached that fate.
Jumping back 15 years we meet these 3 brothers as children in the comfort of a stately home in the country, playing war in the pond with model battleships complete with explosives. From a young age they want to go off and play war. When a side looses instead of leaving it as that, onto the next campaign they treat the loosing side with respect, sending the loosing side off into the waters, setting fire to them, enacting a Viking burial. They have a respect for the dead even at the tender ages of 10 if not younger. They have an understanding of gallantry and honor in the field of battle, something that we shall see come through in the film. After this scene we see the sale of a sapphire, however it doesn’t get passed the children who hide, one inside a suit of knights armor – Beau Geste, on the surface its funny to see the child hiding. He’s escaping into a soldier’s uniform that has probably seen battle. Now its acts as protection against unseeing eyes in peace time of France.
Moving forward 15 years again to almost the time we first started the film, we finally meet the adult brothers, who are not really English but young American stars, still who cares they sold tickets and I’m not going to knock Gary Cooper in anything from the 1930’s. It’s all happy families in the midst of the England which they will soon go out to protect. The young girl who knew the brothers, now a young woman Isobel Rivers (Susan Hayward) is now the affections for John Geste (Ray Milland). However before they leave the Blue Jewel, (not sure if it’s a sapphire goes missing in quick switching off of the lights. A family treasure’s stolen before them. Unusually before they begin to investigate they allow Isobel to leave, as she’s a woman she’s above suspicion. It’s gallantry of an old respectable world that sees her leave, Leaving only the men and Lady Patricia Brandon (Heather Thatcher) and the men to work it out.
They don’t get very far before the action soon moves to a desert in Morocco, two of the brothers Beau and Digby (Robert Preston) are now in uniform, they’ve done their training and now ready for to defend the Empire. It’s all one happy Empire out here, and the troops are keeping the peace. This can easily be translated to America, enlisted soldiers living on the fort, protecting civilians from “Indian attack”. In Geste the land around this is sand dunes for miles, they are the only civilisation for miles. The new recruits are about to be introduced, the scruff’s that have made it this far are ready to defend. These include the final brother John who can’t be separated from them for long, combined with a strong of duty to his country.
I haven’t even looked at the broken chain of command, the power-driven Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy) who will do anything to take command from the dying outpost commander Lieutenant Martin has died after a long fever leaving disciplinarian in command of the fort. This allows him to work on the men, bearing down hard on them like never before, making life hard for them. Training is over and a new regime has come into force. Teaming up with none thief and spy Rassinoff (J. Carrol Naish) who inform him of an impending mutiny among the men. They’ve had enough of being worked to death in this inhospitable landscape, time to rebel.
With all this set-up we go into a much darker second half that sees the fort pushed to the limit of endurance of following the chain of command. The Mutiny is soon thwarted when Markoff blows it wide open, placing all but the Geste brothers under arrest, they are the only ones with bayonets, armed but unable to fire at their fellow-men. The chain of commands being tested when hostile or Moroccan forces who surround them. It’s time to put the mutiny and prisoners to one side and defend, it’s all men to their stations – about 30 odd. You can see from the first wave that it’s futile to keep up the attack for too long. However this is a film and the Legionnaires must win, at least for now.Each wave represent an attack by Native Americans, coming back with more expendable warriors to fall at the guns of the Blue coats.
As the men start to fall they aren’t left as they fell, instead in a unorthodox manoeuver the fallen are propped up, acting as number of things. A second defence to take the bullets, as decoy soldiers acting as an improvised illusion, the appearance of more men when there are far less. The men left alive carry on, but know that once they fall they’re bodies will receive the respect of the fallen. I’ve never seen such a tactic used in on-screen battle, it’s a desperate move by a desperate man who wants not only power but wealth that’s promised in the rumor of the Sapphire being in the possession of one of the Geste brothers, Markoff will do anything for it. The rules if war and chain of command mean nothing to him. In the far off outpost they are alone and at times have to make up their own rules. It’s up to the Geste brothers to finally remind us of what they learned back home in England, they are the opposite of what the officers above them represent.
Maybe now I need to see more Victorian epics and see how they translate to the Western, see how the legends are created for another empire that can easily be rewritten for another. My exploration of this genre never ceases to amaze me.
During my reading of Gunfighter Nation by Richard Slotkin I read how the Western went into decline during the 1930’s during the depression, John Wayne‘s career failed to take off with The Big Trail (1930), leading him to working on b-movies and serials for almost a decade. The genre went the same way, or did it really? The basic formula for the western may have left the frontier, the open spaces yet to be tamed for the civilised East in the guise of the Gangster genre, lead by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who were the rebels against society pressing down on them. A few films were mentioned in the book, which also mentioned Barbary Coast (1935) which is a rare return to the frontier age – the gold rush of the late 1940’s in San-Francisco. Admittedly it was also a chance to see a younger Robinson on-screen, during his early on-screen appearances, this was a rare, very rare side-move to the western (of sorts).
A blend of the gangster and the western, an interesting combination by Howard Hawks who would have better success over a decade later with the straight Western including The Big Sky (1952) and Red River (1948). Staying in the mid-Thirties for now we have a strange cast line-up which would not out of place for the decade, it’s the genre which sticks out like a sore thumb. Until you really think about it, the arrival of a ship from New York to the coast of San Francisco, carrying people hoping to find their fortune in the new state. The genre typically depicts the long journey to the California, add a Gangster with a ring in his ear to make him look exotic we have Luis Chamalis (Edward G. Robinson) we have our owner of a casino in period dress. Enter his new girl fresh of the boat from New York we have Mary ‘Swan’ Rutledge (Miriam Hopkins) who initially has her own intentions of getting rich quick, marrying a man who died off-screen before the film begins.
So we have the need to get rich quick, which was a strong desire during the depression, the rise out of poverty that held the country back. The Gold-rush was a similar (not guaranteed) way of getting rich, something the audience can relate to, finding that gold and starting over again. I can now see where this film sits, so time to sit back, enjoy and read between the lines of the two genres that have been brought together. As in the Westerns the casino game are rigged in favour of the house, run (under duress) by Swan a woman who came to easily accept her situation, yet still being able to see what is going on around her. She’s not your average screen female, holding her own in front of Chamalis who runs the town.
His organisation doesn’t work from shadowary crime underworld of the streets, instead he is able to flex his muscle in broad daylight. If anything the gangster character he usually played in the decade has more visible power than before. With his right-hand man Knuckles Jacoby (Brian Donlevy) who makes that power known around town, the then much smaller San Francisco which is deep in fog for the duration of the film which creates a depression look to the film. Adding to that cast we have a Western standard in Walter Brennan who plays a Old Atrocity an odd character who switches sides based on his conscience. Not the usual character he would play for Hawks in future films. Nonetheless he’s always a delight to watch, wondering if he will have his false teeth on or not, which adds another little layer to any of his roles.
A nice addition to the cast is Joel McCrea who I find to have much better roles in the 1930’s before he got trapped in his B-movies playing the by-the book cowboy which really leave me bored, by his reliable persona. Here he plays a young romantic who has struck gold, lived alone for a few years, not seeing a woman during that time. When he meets Swan in her moment of escape from San Francisco, for both it’s a moment of weakness, finding the good in each other. For me it’s his youthful optimism that make him more interesting to watch on-screen, here we see him discover what his woman is really like as he leaves his home to return to New York he has a realisation. We also have Harry Carey who is always an added bonus to any film he’s in, you know it’s going to be half-decent film
Back in the boom-town, we have a fight for the freedom of the press, which is controlled by Chamalis who oppresses the local paper to stopping spreading the idea of law and order which was going to feature in the first issue. It’s a power that organised crime can control in the frontier more easily unlike 80-90 years later when papers became more powerful, able to expose criminals for who they are, financially able to stand up against the low-lives of the street. That dynamic is not yet in place, out here in the frontier there is more power to be had.
Taking this as a mix of genre’s Barbary Coast is an interesting study of how the Western attempted to resurface during the depression from the standard formula and tropes of the genre which were already established in the previous 30 years. In terms of success, it stands out for being different, the fog, Robinson feeling a little out of place playing the same role except not on a city back-lot which we more easily associate with him, and that’s what I take away from this film more than anything else.
Yet another western I have been meaning to revisit to better understand. My first reading of the film was completely off, as I realised after listening to a lecture from Richard Slotkin, now I really do have a far better understanding of The Wild Bunch (1969) which does indeed overshadow the rest of Sam Peckinpah‘s work, when he has so much more to offer to cinema. Instead of going over the plot I want to more analyse the film interns of how I read it, looking at certain elements and quotes which really do stand out for me, which probably shows why it stands out more so than others. It’s not just the violence that he wanted to amplify to the audience, Peckinpah, hated violence (not that you’d know it from his films) almost glorifying it, yet this has a knock on effect as we see the action, the deaths, the falls shot in slow-motion, we’re forced to look at the image for longer, it’s a form of torture, you want violence, here it is, in all of its bloody form, you look on staring at this beautiful image not really comprehending that you are seeing someone die before your eyes. At full speed and on the streets we don’t have that luxury, our memory replays the moments of real violence in real-time, or sped up we have no time to really process what has happened until it’s over in a flash. Peckinpah stretches those moments to allow us to process, to understand and if we want…enjoy the brutality.
With the more obvious element that stays with you long after the credits have rolled I want to focus on the Wild Bunch themselves, who in history were really Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and their gang. Taking the title and placing it on to an equally dangerous group of men, lead by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his right hand man Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), playing old men who lead a bunch of gunfighter’s who we meet in the close of their era and the death of the West. Their time is almost up and they know it. Hoping that they will be carrying out no more jobs after the bank-robbery, which leads me onto my first quote which struck me.
If they move, kill ’em! – Pike Bishop
To be honest Pike
delivers most of these lines, this one is led with such military precision, there is no thought for the casualties. Those held up in the bank are collateral damage they just don’t matter in the mission, get the money and go. It’s cold blooded. Yet we spend most of our time with these men, much like most westerns, focusing on the heroes, these are reversed, leading us to believe the heroes lead by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who was once a member of this gang, given a chance to redeem himself. He is the anti-hero (of sorts) that are ordered to lead a gang of misfits, the scum of the earth in search of the wild bunch. Thornton has his own lines which such as
We’re after men. And I wish to God I was with them. – Thornton
There’s a yearning to even for him for the old days, for the male companionship he no longer has, surrounded by idiots who can’t even shoot the right men. Yet they are his only hope of ensuring his freedom which is in the hands of a railway man. He wants to feel alive, to be a man, to have some honour again.
I found that over the course of the film it wasn’t just a swan-song to the classics of the genre, such as John Ford’s, Hathaway’s, and Hawks etc that focus on the hero of the hour, there are no heroes here, their words and ideas are flawed, not those of men with honour that you would look up to. An argument between Pike and Dutch about a man’s words is a great example of this moral western that takes the violence by the throat and shakes it up.
What would you do in his place? He gave his word – Pike
He gave his word to a railroad. – Engstrom
It’s his word. – Pike
That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it *to*! – Engstrong
The idea of a man’s word is a powerful masculine idea, a man’s word is worth more than a signature on a legal document to some people. It’s on the same level as the strength of a man’s hand-shake, a judgement I use myself, it’s a greeting with a stranger, or a positive start to an interview etc. A man’s word is a step further, a promise that binds two men together intrinsically. What’s being discussed here is who Thornton gives his word to, the enemy that is the railroad man (Harrigan) Albert Dekker who employs him, making him a traitor to Dutch who was like a brother to Thornton, this is a betrayal much like a partner having an affair and living with them. You could say; sleeping with the enemy. Where it becomes blurry is Pike arguing the point of the fact he still gave his word, it doesn’t matter who to, he;s accepted that he has changed sides and has to live with that, respecting him. Giving your word and keeping it shows the sign of a strong man.
Another quote to look at is
(talking about the railroad) There was a man named Harrigan. Used to have a way of doin’ things. I made him change his ways. A hell of a lot of people, Dutch, just can’t stand to be wrong. – Pike
Pride. – Dutch
And they can’t forget it… that pride… being wrong. Or learn by it – Pike
How ’bout us, Pike? You reckon we learned – vein’ wrong, today? – Dutch
I sure hope to God we did. – Pike
The glory days of their ability to strike fear into people, forcing them to change, to act fast. They are glorifying themselves as being almost gods, people to fear. Harrigan has become a man to fear as he has finally come after him, taking the law into his own hands, that at the start of the film caused countless innocent victims shot in cross-fire. Pike and Dutch are also reminiscing of better times, the height of the gunfighter that they were a part of it is no longer there. They encounter the latest vehicles that even outmoded the horse, a form of transport they have come to rely on and is synonymous with the western. Ironically used to kill Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) the good old days are over.
I want to touch one other aspect that is the US Army that is never portrayed in a positive light throughout the film. Traditionally the cavalry are the trooping the colours, riding in, sounding their bugles before quelling and pacifying the enemy in no time. Peckinpah portrays them as incompetent, even the main men think little of them. This could easily reflect Peckinpah’s and many other liberal directors who wanted to hit out at the Vietnam War, a divisive war, reflected into the countries own domestic past we see a different army that is unable to get up and react to weapons being stolen from under their noses. An embarrassment for any army, filled with raw recruits unaware of what they have to do.
It may have took a few attempts to really understand The Wild Bunch for me is a morality western, a Neo-Western if you want to be picky as its questions the genre and the countries past, taking it and reforming it to be viewed by an audience who is drawn by violence and the legend that has blurred the countries past, the two myth and fact is intertwined, only those who study American history (before 1900) really know what happened. I am slowly seeing the connections and the differences between fact and film fiction. I can see why this film overshadows the rest, the characters are painted on a wider canvas, morality is blurred and the violence is heightened. It’s a sweeping western that doesn’t even show a Native American, replaced with the Mexican Army who are more intelligently depicted than before, they are not just drunk gringos who sleep out in the afternoon sun with a sombrero covering their faces. They are fully formed people, which is something we don’t get from the Natives. The main cast is filled with actors who have hugely played the good-guys in westerns, here playing cold killers who have their own moral code that if you think about it would frighten you. Should we really listen to what these cowboy role models oft he silver screen have told us?
- The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) (forrestinfocus.wordpress.com)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) ** (1001moviesblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) A Film by Sam Peckinpah (arethehillsgoingtomarchoff.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) (buddiesinthesaddle.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (1969) (dfordoom-movieramblings.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch (Warner Bros, 1969) (jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Wild Bunch…Part 1 (myfavoritewesterns.com)