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.
Another Western that I thought I would never see, so when it came up in the listings I grabbed the opportunity. A few weeks later I’ve finally caught this late period Western with an older Kirk Douglas. It first came to my attention when I found the trailer when I was working on Dancing in the West (2013), I eventually dropped the trailer from the final cut. The images of the trailer didn’t leave me, wanting to seek out the film which not so sought after in the genre. For me it was to see an older Douglas when his profile was not as strong as his son Michael. There’s enough room for two on the big screen – just.
Posse (1975) is not the longest of film by any stretch of the imagination, its straight into the action and it doesn’t really slow down, with a political edge that grabbed by attention. Texas State Marshall Howard Nightingale (Douglas) is leading a posse, we only know they are law by the badges they wear. Their actions are questionable, a nighttime raid on Jack Strawhorn’s (Bruce Dern) gang, having seen a great number of Westerns, there’s no honor in this raid, the men are caught off guard, with no chance to defend themselves. Even killed when they are clearly unarmed, which goes against the unspoken code which the audience has been educated in. All of Strawhorn’s men are killed within a few minutes, its systematic and cold, leaving the leader of the gang to ride off to fight another day.
The same systematic attacks carried out in daylight when the posse catch up with Strawhorn’s new less experience incompetent gang who are surrounded and killed one by one without really getting close. Strawhorn had briefed these men to shoot when they reach a certain point, no sooner. This doesn’t really sink in for them, firing when fired at, natural instincts come through, which the silent posse use to their advantage. Again these men are taken out one by one, some unarmed whilst others really don’t help themselves by getting in the line of fire. These are two sides where the leaders don’t directly get involved until the very end – could this be a proxy war in the West? Both men do deliver orders but don’t directly get involved until they are forced to. Nightingale finally arrests his man, bringing him one step closer to the office of Senator.
I’m reminded of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which saw Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who legend has it killed the outlaw Valance. This act raises his profile and helps him eventually reach the office of Senator. Except he knows he wasn’t the killer. His whole rise to power is based on a myth which he doesn’t argue with until the end of the film. Nightingale is purposefully building his own legend on the outlaws that he brings in or has killed. He is aware of his reputation and the power that it has to further his career.
We see that Nightingale has power or money at least, his own personal train that allows him to travel before breaking away with the horses that go with them. Pulling into Tesoto, a Texan town is later used for a political rally. A town where Strawhorn had previously shot a sheriff, leaving the town vulnerable to further attack, the arrival of Nightingale can only be a good thing. Bringing with him the man they wanted, Nightingale celebrated by most, but not all, the most influential man – the press – Harold Hellman (James Stacy) who won’t print favorable reports on the would be Senator.
With Strawthorn in jail, it’s time to ride the glory of the arrest, Nightingale holds an outdoor rally, which works pretty well for him, if only they went to the polls the next morning. Everything starts to go downhill from here on in. The train ride to the gallows comes to an abrupt end not too far out of town. Turning the tables on Nightingale who becomes powerless to do anything, his men are trailing behind unable to help. This is something I’ve never really seen, the hero so helpless to do anything up to the close of the film. Then again this is Douglas who has played some ambiguous conflicted men who we are somehow drawn to, neither good nor bad, this one is leaning towards the bad, riding on his political and legal powers to hopefully win the day.
None of that goes to plan, now a hostage, his men are forced to find the money to set him free, it’s the last job they’ll do for him before they cross over to other side and ride off Strawthorn. This is after they hear of their possible futures, less than desirable they hoped for. Less money for all, and for one less status, with that threat ahead they have to fight for themselves, and who can really blame them, with the opportunity they grab it with both hands. Leaving us with a very unusual ending in film, the hero is left alone, thwarted by the bad guy who rides off into the sunset. Yet our hero doesn’t really have the classic traits, sure he caught the bad guy, but he rode off with the men who first caught him. It shows the ambiguity of real life, also that politicians will always be politicians, using their position for their own gain.
Posse is a rarity for sure that uses the genre to look at politicians in more detail in the Western guise, the image of the squeaky clean politician who fights for his people is blown clear away. One of the more overt political Westerns, a politician displaying his power which ultimtely fails in public view. The image of Stoddard cannot exist here, he like the others is corrupt, using power to fight wars and gains that they can only do with position. Lastly the casting of Dern opposite Douglas is very clever, Dern plays a darker Douglas, going that step further from questionable to being the all out bad guy or “son of a b****” that made him go for the bleaker roles in the 1970’s.
A film originally recommended to me during my last year at art-school. I caught Lone Star (1996) a few years ago and found it to be a richly rewarding film with a lot of depth. I thought this time around I could really do the film some justice after a few more years exploration of the Western. Released during the mid 1990’s when the genre had seen something of a resurgence, beginning with Pale Rider (1985) going through to, well Lone Star and Buffalo Soldiers (1997) it would not pick up much traction until a few years ago with True Grit (2010) and Django Unchained (2012) that began to rework and understand the genre for a new audience in a time of uncertainty and political tensions. Also just in time for me to catch a few at the cinema too.
So what makes Lone Star stand the test of time to some of the more forgotten films that played fast and loose with the tropes and language of the genre, they maybe fun and action packed. It also stands alone from the pack, at a time when the life in the genre had run out of steam once more it takes the history of the genre and the state of Texas becoming more introspective. You could say it’s another modern version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – more on that later. Beginning with the discovery of a pair of off-duty army officers who discover a skeleton, only a few meter’s away there’s a sheriff’s badge to go with it. Could this be relic from the old West now celebrate on film, or is the body of a more recent officer of the law?
We then travel back in time to the 1960’s finding it’s like the good old days with a crooked sheriff Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) who holds the Rio county in his pocket. He’s foul-mouthed, racist and greedy, he knows the power that his position gives him and abuses it to his own advantage. The other officers just let him do get away with almost anything. Except Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey) who has a conscience that doesn’t agree with the status quo. Sounds familiar when you look back at the genres golden age, a crooked sheriff and a straight-laced deputy, if only they could stand up to the corruption.
Except this doesn’t feel like the old West, its more like the new West that rose from the ashes of the civil war, corruption, the cattle boom and the demise of slavery. We have a more serious Western, or you could say straight drama that’s set in the same location as the Alamo. With a mystery at the centre of the film being led by Buddy Deed’s son Charlie (Chris Cooper) who wants to prove his suspicions right and put this case to bed before politics takes over for the upcoming election for Sheriff.
Whilst the case is going on, we take a closer look at the town of Rio County, the people who inhabit it. From the school that sees the parents fighting the teachers to educate their own ideas of the country’s history. The old saying that histories written by the winners really does shine through in these scenes. Mexican parents want a more honest account of the events leading up to the Alamo and beyond before they lost land to Texas. Whilst American’s want to hold onto the myth, a fabric and important part of their own past, informed by celebration, dime novels and of course the films that blurred that history into something far bigger and yet more vague in the process.
We focus on one of those teachers, Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) who previously had a relationship with Charlie. It’s like he returned from her past to haunt her now when she picks up her son who had been arrested. We also see tensions between her and her mother Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon) who has her own fight with her staff who are not helping the immigrant crisis. She identifies herself as a Mexican American, wanting to speak English North of the border, trying to assert that in others is a fight. You can already see it’s not just a murder mystery, we have the border problem – which has still not gone away. The discussion around what kids should be taught in schools, the identity of the county and the State of Texas.
The local Army base is also depicted, and it’s not just about following orders and the chain of command. We have a Black Colonel Del (Joe Morton) whose latest posting has brought him back home to his estranged father – Otis (Ron Canada) whose part of the counties history and as we see the demise of Charlie Wade. The father son-relationship has it’s moments that are about to repeat themselves in Don’s own son who aspires to go to join the army. Whilst a current soldier who sees the army as a form of security in a society that wont accept the colour of her skin.
You can see a lot is going on in this film, longer than the average Western, it gives time to develop all these facets of a town that is in a state of constant change. Attempting to grapple where they all are. For Charlie it’s too things, the truth behind the death of his predecessor that has taken on mythic stature, which ultimately he won’t try and break, the truth for him and to shut the case is enough. There’s little he can really do once the truth is out. Like that finally revealed by Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as much as he tries to set the record straight he can’t fight the myth, defeated by a journalist who refuses to publish it, knowing the power of the truth in the face of myth. Charlie understands that power far more than the old Senator who attends his old friends funeral. It’s bigger than him or anyone can really imagine.
With so much going on and little action it’s an incredible change in tone, placing this Western in the Revisionist category, one that maintains the language but has moved on in time. You can no longer settle your disagreements like men with guns outside, times have indeed changed. It’s a film that takes it’s time to spend time with characters and really get into the meat of what’s going on in that part of the world. It’s a nice change too to see where the genre has come from the rebirth in the mid-eighties that celebrated the genre to a film that really interrogates it and ask, where has it all gone.
I’ve been waiting to re-watch John Ford‘s apology for the/his depiction of Native Americans on-screen. Taking the events of the Trail of Tears (1878) that saw the Southern Cheyenne exit their reservation at Fort Robinson after having lived there for a year, waiting for more food and supplies to arrival after a group of Senators who were to see the condition of the reservation, barren, lifeless, unable to really support live. We’re told that originally over a thousand arrived, now just over 200 have survived that first year. This is the premise of the film, the rest is history. Ford took on the massive task of depicting this event in the genre that usually sees the Native American, either Apache, Cheyenne or Comanche, nations who stood up for themselves in the sight of the spreading settlers over the course of the 19th century. We know that one by one the nations tired, weak and hungry gave in and moved onto reservations after a series of unique events that would becoming the next chapter in their history.
Having read Dee Brown’s take on the event in Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, which I surprisingly have recently read is accepted by Native Americans, all but the fact it didn’t say they survived to tell the tale to future generations. Which gives my exploration of their history something concrete to build upon. I can see my readings and then reflect them into the film adaptations. I’m taking in Cheyenne Autumn as my next film in that journey.
A few weeks ago I caught Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which was the first apologetic film that Ford made, placing the African-American soldier at the centre of the film, in a court room setting, not the strongest of films, not helped by its setting. Also feeling awkward being told in flashback which is more unusual still for him. Then followed the much heavier Two Rode Together (1961) which is lost to the conversations and the ideas it deals with. Coming to Cheyenne Autumn we have an epic on our hands, which is fair when you look at the subject matter that’s being dealt with. I have to admit it is deeply flawed in many ways which I want explore in my revisited review of his third and final apology that attempts to depict the events in a more favorable light. If another director were to take the material it would than likely be abandoned or even completely rewritten to show the Cheyenne as the antagonist not the protagonist, or even the obstacle.
So where do I begin, well the biggest and most obvious flaw is the waste of 30 minutes spent in Dodge City, where we have some comedy courtesy of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday (James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy) who act as the comic relief, intended to take the edge off the heavy material at the centre of the film. A mass migration of people across open country to their homeland, I can see where Ford is coming from, the audience wouldn’t be used to seeing such content, even more so in Super Panavision 70mm which leaving the audience with nowhere to be distracted, the images plastered from the top to the bottom of the screen. The comedy is an unnerving, unnecessary and ultimately distracting really. You have real human drama playing out in Ford’s mythic West – Monument Valley lines of cavalry and Cheyenne moving across it, retelling this event from history. 50 years since release the comedy has lost its impact, if there was any to be had, it’s all played up clichés which Ford is honestly better than. It shows he was unsure about the content standing on its own, drawing in an audience for a different kind of Western. With big names such as Stewart is a sure sign you’ll get some through the doors. Here he’s just having a good time,you could say, just picking up a cheque and going on after a few days on set. I know that’s not what I want to type and you don’t want to read. Ford is or has lost his touch here which can be seen elsewhere.
The basic structure of the events are correct, a year on the reservation before packing up and wanting to live with the Northern Cheyenne who were living with the Sioux under Red Cloud at Pine Ridge reservation, with a few events in between that are more or less correct, others mixed around for drama, whilst others are added for pure effect. For once the nation leaders Little Wolf and Dull Knife are based on the actual Cheyenne that lead the exodus North. Played here by Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland both originally from Mexican, where the film starts to fall down. The main parts are played by non-natives playing native roles in a pro-native film. Also we have the lazily named Spanish Woman (Dolores del Rio) who really should have had more care given in developing her character. Was she a Mexican captive, or did she marry in of her own choice. Instead we here her called upon by Deborah White (Carroll Baker) the Quaker sympathiser who travels with them.
Baker’s role is allowing the audience into this group who are traveling across the open country (or going around in circles of Monument Valley (which isn’t too bad)), the audience’s supposed to understand the Cheyenne plight through the white voice who has supported them on the reservation and now acting as nurse to one of the young injured travellers. Her name is reminiscent of the female captive Debbie (Natalie Wood) in The Searchers (1956) we are getting an internal understanding of how the other is thinking. Ford not matter how much he is loosing his touch is still putting small links to his rich filmography.
Away from the trail we have the U.S cavalry who are all other place in terms of the side they take. We mainly follow Captain Archer (Richard Widmark) who is taking on the 20th century thinker or Captain Kirby (John Wayne) from Fort Apache and Rio Grande (1948 and 1950) who wanted to talk to the other instead of going in bugles blazing. Interestingly John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne plays the Colonel Thursday role – 2nd Lt. Scott, or could he be an extension of Ethan Edwards in another life, his son wanting to avenge his father. There are other links to the Cavalry trilogy that carry on throughout the film, even further back to Stagecoach (1939). We have a director using all his familiar characters in this very unusual Western from a man who is trying his best to make the subject matter relatable to an audience who are by now used to something far more cerebral than this far darker subject.
My first experience with this film came at the comedy break, my interest was pricked up. The second time around I saw the film more for what it is, a very different kind of Western, Ford having a conscience for a body of work that has depicted a nation in a poor light. Even if he employed them in several of his films. Now I see a flawed yet rich film of a director who is no longer in his prime, his last great film – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) was not yet celebrated as it is today. He’s putting his all into what could be a last ditch effort at greatness which could have been if only he was more sure of his instincts. He’s not so much hitting racism head on, more trying to say whilst we were making this great country, another was being lost. He half achieves that goal. If I could re-cut and recast the film in places maybe we would have another masterpiece on our hands.
This is one remake I have been avoiding for sometime, I’m not sure anyone who attempts to remake a John Ford western is going to succeed. There was news a few months ago that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is being remade and set in the 198o’s, that’s an interesting twist. There have been many films compared to The Searchers, (1956) however they are not remakes as we find with Stagecoach (1966) which was released 27 years after the original that changed the face of cinema. Thought to not only influence Citizen Kane (1941), it revitalised the genre and lastly launched the career of John Wayne who’d been stuck in a rut of b-movies for the best part of the 1930’s, he even made a few after its release – contractually.
You can’t apply the same effect to the genre or the medium of film to the remake which admittedly does expand on the film. Much like remakes of 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010), I’m waiting to see how The Magnificent Seven compares now. I must confess it has been a few years since I’ve seen the original 1939 Stagecoach which was as much about making the genre more appealing to an adult audience. Bringing together social misfits or outsiders into a confined space, a vehicle on a dangerous route in the open untamed West. It was ultimately the perfect showcase for John Wayne, still baby-faced he personified a young independent America standing up for itself, playing Ringo Kid a role that was given to him by Ford – “Pappy” who had been waiting to give him the right part at the right time. He was redeemed from years of working the circuit of formulaic westerns that had no room for either story or character development. They were the training ground that saw him grow and form the character he would then play until 1976, a 50 year career.
I can’t feel the same effect in the remake with Alex Cord who fills the role in terms of stature at least, there are times where he’s definitely trying to break free of the Dukes even taller shadow. In terms of the walk and tone of his delivery. His entrance into the film is not the event that we found in 1939, the cockiness of the gun play, as he stands in the road is replaced by sitting at the side of the road for the stagecoach to reach him, not that he’s waiting for them, they are both opportunist in that respect.
What makes this interpretation stand apart is the longer running time, at nearly 2 hours allowing for more development with all of the characters, making for a richer film in that respect. I say allowing I feel its a missed chance with some characters, they do have more screen time, however its given more to Dallas (Ann-Margret) who has more of a back story. Rumoured to be the cause of few brawls in the town, not just a typical prostitute that Claire Trevor played and pushed out by the Law and Order League, its more about cleaning up the town to keep the general crime rate. She feels cursed by the legacy of death. Another characters whose drawn well is the doctor, this time played by Bing Crosby taking over Thomas Mitchell‘s role who you can’t forget, so full of life. Both actors of the same generation we meet an older doctor in Crosby, unshaven atypical drunk in appearance, however he plays a drunk doesn’t try to give up the drink. Mitchells knows he has a demon, he delivers a baby sober and celebrates that. Crosby’s is looking for the next drink all the time.
Of course you can’t have a straight copy, or it wouldn’t be a film in its own right. Making the conscious decision to not film in Monument Valley which is John Ford country, to shoot there would be a bold move. Instead sticking to more traditional landscape, which makes for a more traditional western. What we do have which is practically a like for like swap is the stagecoach driver Buck, originally Andy Devine took the reins, a loud and large figure who was regular for Ford, with Slim Pickens we have another loud character actor who made an impression on his films.
What makes this film stand apart is the larger screen time of the Apache’s lead by Geronimo are more than just rumour, we see them at the beginning of the film attacking the U.S. cavalry. There is no rolling prologue to set-up the film. Geronimo is not really mentioned and they are still the faceless, nameless enemy of the genre. I’m not critiquing that here though, more a comment in terms of the films comparison. The gunfight’s are well choreographed make for a more fearsome other who attacks the white for no reason more than they are Apache. Which oddly makes up for the lack of Monument Valley and Ford. I do however wish they hadn’t re-staged Ringo jumping through the horses. It wasn’t as grand a set-piece, used more as a means to get the stagecoach through.
The problem is that for me Stagecoach is an iconic film, to remake it’s going to be a sensitive thing to do. Getting it right, this is a star-filled piece, well semi star-filled anyway. It’s longer, darker in some respect but overall a looser film that is conscious of the shadow that is hanging over this modern piece of Wild West folklore that he it hopes to meet at some point. I am actually now considering seeking out the Johnny Cash version, made 20 years later, just to see how the story translates and transforms over time. It does still confine outcasts into the one small and dangerous vehicle, but the chemistry has not been replicated successfully.
This isn’t the first film that I would think to revisit of the Duke’s, However I’ve had a theory for some time, as my degree show piece really sums up in asking Did the Duke Take the Myth to the Grave? (2012), basically asking the question that with the death of John Wayne in 1979 the western was taken with him. I’ve noted before that it was definitely in decline during the 1970’s. I never thought about his own films as a contributing factor to that decline, which is far comment as he was still acting well into his 60’s. Upon finishing his biography by Scott Eyman who comments
“Perhaps it would be fair to say that McLaglen, Burt Kennedy and the other men who directed Wayne for Wayne’s own production company knew they were there to serve their star. Conversely, on a picture directed by Ford, Hawks, Hathaway or Wellman, Wayne was there to serve the director and by extension the picture” page 493.
All of Wayne’s later pictures were part or in full funded by Batjac and distributed by bigger companies. There is further mention of the directors on Waynes films by writer/director Larry Cohen –
Was Wayne working with lesser but just competent directors as the old guard were either dying off or retiring. You could say they weren’t that good-looking at the Box-office receipts of the day. However time is a different matter. Anything with Wayne in the film is usually shown on a regular basis from the 1940s up to his death there is not a day/week goes by when I don’t see one of his films in the listings. Maybe it’s his screen presence in this “inferior” films that keeps them in demand. It’s argued by Richard Goldstein in 1967 that
“Duke sees the Western as an eternal form, solid and unchanging. He is dead wrong. The Western is a living mythology, and like a vital folklore it evolves with the times. The American saga is a continuing story. The John Wayne hero is built to survive massacres, tidal waves and corruption. But it can never bear the erosion of style” page 504
Much like I have found the genre has to adapt for the times. The strength of the Dukes films withstanding all that is due to his screen presence, the role model his has created of his career. He’s the personification of America to rest of the world. Also its pure nostalgia for a film with an actor who rarely lets you down onscreen no matter his age. And that’s what I found again with The Train Robbers (1973) which I had not seen in a few years. I try to space out how often I re-watch a film among all those that are new to myself.
For me, I was originally caught up in the gold hungry riders that followed Lane (Wayne and his men along with Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret) are tracking down gold that’s buried in an abandoned steam train. I found that the riders who had no dialogue, just seen riding in pursuit against mysterious music, catching up with Lane and co who don’t stop and fight. And that is what I noticed most about the film this time. Wayne avoids action that a lot and is picked up on by others with him. Is this a sign of age?
The cast isn’t exactly a young one either, as I mentioned with the The Hellfighters (1968), the majority of the cast was over 50 with only a few younger, in this case Ann Margaret who is the only woman in the film. The Train Robbers was clearly written or tailored Wayne’s specifications. Which is fair enough if your own production company are making the film. However, you could have had a younger cast with Margaret still in there. However saying that you would loose the rich back stories that come with age.
You can tell I’m biased even in my critical thinking, to have this film with anyone but the Duke it might never have been made. It catered to a certain audience who had grown up with his films so they got the standard Wayne western. However it doesn’t really do much for the genre that was going through a state of change, questioning its own history and formal qualities, without forgetting the politics. A genre that had grown to a certain extent out of Wayne who still wanted to work in film and the genre.
You could say that his later films, with possible exception to The Shootist (1976) which is a beautiful swan song to him with a troubled production are not his best. It becomes about being more of the same, a chance to let him work once more without pushing him too much. I mean he was working with one lung and his health was slowly in decline. I take exception to The Cowboys (1972) which has a real charm to it that the others lack. The Train Robbers (1973) isn’t a bad film, it’s just not a great western which you come to associate with Wayne. There’s simple and engaging script, the characters are all likeable. The set-pieces are fun and allow you to enjoy the landscape, it’s just not got the presence of a film that he had made over a decade previously. True Grit (1969) is a tour-de-force for him, a culmination of past roles, happy in his assumed role of an older man in the West. It is however not as strongly connected to the genre as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with John Ford questioned the genre, how it’s created, what we believe and the fabric of the country that was dear to his heart.
I thought I understood The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) on my first encounter a few years back. I didn’t give my best review so obviously my understanding wasn’t that informed. You could say John Ford has given us an early revisionist western before we knew what we were getting. Shaking up the genre whilst still very much in the classic form of a stranger coming into town. The first time we see two of the screen most popular actors sharing the screen, James Stewart and John Wayne who equally have made an impact on the genre.
The tale of the shooting of bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) begins in retrospect with the death of Tom Doniphon who ready to be buried. A poorly aged Stewart (Ransom Stoddard) arrives back to the town of Shinbone a senator. Why could he possibly want to be in this town, to pay his last respects to an old man? This is all before the tale is told before the local paper newspaper, eager to know why he and his wife Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles). The connection becomes clearers as we leave the turn of the century town for a territorial frontier town on the cusp of great things or collapse.
Beginning with the classic hold up on a dark night, masked gun men bring a stagecoach to a stop to rob all of their money. Not counting on the young(er) and eager lawyer (Stewart) packing only the law in the form of books. Using on words as his weapon of choice in a land ruled by the draw of a gun. Laughed at, beaten he is left for dead by Valances men. This is however just he beginning of the legend.
Eventually brought into town by Tom Doniphon the man we have all been waiting for, the anticipation after seeing Wayne’s name in the opening titles has been held back until nearly the first half hour, building up his part after his demise. The legend that is the Duke is larger than life in now iconic dress even in black and white the colour transfer image of his role takes nothing away from the black and white masterpiece of the western genre, instead lifting him to a higher status. His first beaming smile, his presence is known, we are at ease when he is on-screen. The image is engrained on the genre and the legend. Not forgetting the numerous times he says “pilgrim” aimed at the gunless Stoddard meant he was a newcomer to the western, whilst also on a pilgrim of religious reasons, his religion being the law which he wanted to bring out with him. Which develops into both a term of affection towards the stranger and minor insult which only seems to make little difference to the stubborn lawyer.
It’s not just about bringing the dangerously wild cowboy Valance to justice, something that that town Marshall Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is not too interested in doing, instead happier to stuff his face, having the easy life which comes with his position. The political landscape of their region is in a state of change. The unnamed territory could easily fall into the hands of the cattlemen who built it up, or into a state which would allow them to be looked after as a community. The beginning of a proper infrastructure, paid for by taxes that go to the government. Stoddard is a force for change and he doesn’t even know it. With the growing support of Shinbone through education which opens their minds to the possibilities beyond simple gun-play.
With the help of local newspaper-man Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) he builds a position of power and influence that eventually brings him back to Valance and the influence of fear and guns in the town. The showdown must take place in order for a few things to happen. For progress to move forward, for Stoddard to have some self respect and defend himself and make the town safe. This is the moment we have been waiting for, all the build-up and practice is what we sat down for. Its a long drawn out beginning which become a triumph of good over bad as Valance is finally slain down. The legend is born in those few minutes that s last longer than the length of the film. Itself is a construction of all involved, the actors, lighting, special effects and the director, it happened countess times before too and even after.
It’s a short gun battle just a few shots, nothing like as many as those fired in Tombstone, Arizona which actually took place at the OK Corral in 1881. Because it was caught on camera, its adds another dimension, built up by the characters who believe they know what happened, a new man is born after that day. Ready for office even on the foundations of a killing, lawful or not. Not politician today would be brought to office with a criminal record as colourful as his.
Going into full political mode its time to get Shinbone’s territory represented democratically and full Fordian style. Making full use of his stock company of actors he has built up over the years we have a raucous time inside that meeting, characters showing their true colours. It’s rich in people, sound and events. All before the truth of that gunfight is revealed to Stoddard, built on the foundation of a lie, a sacrifice of one mans feelings for another’s. To settle a score that could have gone on for years to come between to equal skilled gunmen. A great man who could have had more gives it all up for the pilgrim who has taken all he’ll ever have.
The legend is sealed between the two of them. only to be revealed to a journalist who in the end doesn’t want to publish that story, which is what it will remain to all of, yet in the west it is a prime example of an event becoming screwed and taking on a life on it’s on. A grand delusion part of a countries image that fought to contain itself and prove to the world that the young nation could set an example, making hard decisions. It’s another myth of conquest, not over a native nation, but good over evil to progress and not regress to never moving forward. Why spoil something that a country has taken into their hearts, becoming part of the fabric. If the truth should be known, don’t share too loudly. Ford is rewriting the western genre as we knew it a creator of myths that could so easily be built up and smashed back down, are they lies, points of view and conjecture, its all of them and the passage of time growing into being part of history, something which Stoddard never escapes from.
- Masterpieces Classics: The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) (thescreenteen.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) (birth-of-a-notion.blogspot.co.uk)
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) (westernsontheblog.blogspot.co.uk)
- 1962: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford) (cahierspositif.blogspot.co.uk)