Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

once_upon_a_time_in_the_westWith his Dollars trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Italian director Sergio Leone cemented his status as one of the great western directors of all-time. He was far from done. His follow-up to the immensely popular spaghetti western trilogy was another western, but one I consider to be his best. A classic in every sense of the word, 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

In the budding town of Flagstone, Arizona, a beautiful young woman named Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives via train expecting to meet her husband only to receive shocking news. Her husband and his children have been massacred by unknown gunmen. Getting far more than she bargained for, Jill finds herself at the center of a bloody battle for land rights that everyone wants, especially the railroad’s brutal hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill finds helps in odd places, including a mysterious gunman named Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and an on the run bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Everything is up for grabs with so much on the line in a growing, changing wild west.

If there was ever a film that didn’t need a plot description, ‘OUATITW’ is it. With a running time of 165 minutes, Leone’s western revolves one of the western’s biggest archetypes, the railroad moving west and all those involved who get caught in the wake. It’s so much more though, using character archetypes that you’ve seen before but in ways you’ve never seen before. Leone flips his own personal style on its side, favoring a deliberate pace with long, quiet scenes that can best be described as slow burns. The patient viewer will most definitely be rewarded in the end. It isn’t just a great western, it is a great film, and one of the great movies of all-time.

Leone is clicking on all cylinders here from beginning to end. His story is perfectly straightforward, but it requires you to pay close attention. I’ve seen ‘West’ repeatedly, but I always pick up something new with each viewing. This is a story of the changing times and dying ways of the wild west. Civilization is arriving, chasing the cowboys and the gunmen out the door. What happens in the meantime though? Beautifully filmed in both Spain and Monument Valley, ‘West’ is beyond visually stunning. The variety of American and Spanish locations links the two disparate types of westerns in a simple, deftly handled way. Throw in a hauntingly beautiful score from composer Ennio Morricone (more on that later), and you have a leisurely-paced story that is nonetheless able to pull you in more with each passing scene. It’s almost 3 hours long and for lack of a better description — not a ton happens — but the running time flies by.

Cardinale. Fonda. Robards. Bronson. I’m hard-pressed to identify too many western casts better than this one. Working off a script from Leone and Sergio Donati, the quartet brings these familiar characters to life. Cardinale is an all-time beauty, and I don’t know if she ever looked more gorgeous than she did here. More than that though, her Jill is what so many westerns were lacking; a strong female character. She receives help at different points from Harmonica and Cheyenne, but she’s far from a damsel in distress. Her chameleon-like ability to survive and thrive makes her a more than worthy lead. No small task considering her co-stars.

Going against a career’s built-up reputation, Fonda plays the villainous Frank and steals his scenes. He’s terrifying, an intimidating presence who overpowers seemingly everyone around him. No spoilers, but his introduction early is one of the most truly shocking entrances ever. Bronson has never been better. His Harmonica is a steely-eyed gunman seeking revenge, not saying much, instead playing the harmonica he wears around his neck. The reasoning for his revenge is nicely handled, a slow-developing flashback sequence that works so eloquently because it’s so straightforward. Robards too is a gem as Cheyenne, the bandit with a horrific reputation who takes a protective liking to Jill, hanging around nearby like a guardian angel.

Gabrielle Ferzetti so often gets overlooked in the cast, but his railroad baron, Morton, is maybe the most tragic character in the movie. Dying of tuberculosis, Morton desperately wants to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. To do so, he’s entered a deal with the power-hungry Frank to clear any obstacles they may meet. Also look for Paolo Stoppa, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, Frank Wolff, and a long list of familiar faces rounding out both Frank and Cheyenne’s gangs, notably Aldo Sambrell and Benito Stefanelli.

Oh, one more important member of the cast…well, sort of. Morricone’s score is worthy of being considered an essential addition to the cast. His GBU score is phenomenal, but this is phenomenal plus-one. In a career of amazing scores, this is his strongest, most beautiful, most haunting and most memorable. Give it an extended listen HERE. Each main character gets their own individual theme — Jill, Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica — that often plays over their key scenes. Ferzetti’s Morton earns the most beautiful theme in one of the movie’s most truly haunting scenes. A good score can bring a movie up a notch or two. A great score can catapult the finished product into one perfect mix, the on-screen action blending seamlessly with the score. Morricone, the master at work.

No spoilers given away — go in with as little background/story knowledge as possible — but ‘West’ impressed me more than ever on my last viewing. Each scene is almost a stand-alone set piece, one memorable scene after another. The entire story takes place over 3 days (I think, maybe 2ish) but never feels rushed. The opening sequence is profoundly classic, a dialogue-free 10-minute intro as 3 gunfighters (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Al Mulock) waiting for a train. Who are they waiting for? Bronson’s Harmonica of course, the scene fleshed out with natural noises and soundtrack until a blast from the train’s whistle breaks the silence. It’s the perfect way to kick things off.

It’s just the start. I’m rambling here, but it is the first of a long list of scenes that leave a lasting impression. A massacre at an isolated ranch, the ever-developing flashback we see in quick, foggy scenes, Jill’s entrance at the train station, Morton’s scenes imagining getting to the Pacific, and then there’s the last hour. It’s perfection, all leading up to a perfect ending. The scene between Frank and Harmonica before their showdown contains some of the best dialogue ever-written in a western. The showdown and the ultimate reveal of the flashback is just the capper, done in perfect Leone fashion, very theatrical with aggressive but patient camera work.

So, yeah, if you couldn’t tell, I love this movie. That said, it isn’t necessarily an easy movie to digest. Not everyone is going to like it. If you stick with it, know the payoff and the overall experience is one of the best the movie experience can provide. A classic and one of the best movies ever made.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): ****/****

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The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)

Writing reviews about World War II, I’ve watched epics about large-scale battles, personal stories about the home front, behind the scenes stories about government/administration, but my favorite has always been the men-on-a-mission sub-genre, commandos, specialists and secret agents working together to pull off an impossible mission. One of my favorites I recently rewatched for the first time in quite awhile is 1955’s The Cockleshell Heroes.

Early in 1942 with WWII’s outcome still very much in question, Royal Marines Captain Stringer (Jose Ferrer) has been tasked with an improbable mission. German ships operating out of the French city of Bordeaux have been wreaking havoc on Allied shipping, and Stringer must attempt to reach the harbor city with a small group of commandos, destroying as many ships as possible. The catch? They’ll be doing it by paddling up the Garonne River in two-man canoes. With help from a career Marine officer, Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard), Stringer goes about training his team of volunteers for a mission that seems suicidal to everyone involved.

From star and director Ferrer (one of 7 films he directed), ‘Heroes’ is based on the true story of Operation Frankton which took place in December 1942. I watched it as a kid on the History Channel and have always remembered it fondly. Released in 1955, it is more of a heroic look at the bravery these commandos showed on their mission. It doesn’t yet have the darkness, cynicism or reality of so many WWII movies released a few years later in the 1960s. There is still an innocence to the story, a “nice” factor. The commandos are the heroes, their Nazi counterparts stereotypically evil. ‘Heroes’ is only 98 minutes long and was shot on a smaller scale (some cool English locations providing good background) with the focus on this specific mission. There’s no sense of a bigger issue or the state of the war. Instead, it’s about 8 commandos and the officers leading them. When handled right, who needs a bigger scale than that?

Not a hugely well known movie, ‘Heroes’ doesn’t have the same name recognition in its cast so many other war films have. Ferrer is solid but not particularly memorable as Major Stringer, the unlikely, volunteer commander of the mission. He has several strong dialogue scenes with Howard’s Thompson as a rivalry develops about how the mission should be handled, but there’s little doubt who the star is. Trevor Howard is a scene-stealer, putting a spin on the stiff upper lip British officer. He’s prim and proper and interested in the bottom line — the success of the mission — more than how the men feel about him. Thompson is the only character given any real background and Howard does not disappoint.

The commandos include Victor Maddern as Sgt. Craig, Thompson’s right-hand man, as well as the Marine volunteers; Anthony Newley as Clarke, the smart-alec, David Lodge as Ruddock, the strongest of the Marines, Peter Arne as Stevens, the capable Corporal, Percy HerbertGraham StewartJohn Fabian as Cooney, the Irishman, John Van Eyssen, and Robert Desmond (The Great Escape). Newley, Maddern and Lodge stand out from the group as memorable.

At its heart, this is a men on a mission movie. It just so happens to be based on a true story, the results of the movie mission exaggerated a bit relative to the actual history. Truth or not, ‘Heroes’ follows a familiar formula. The story is pretty clearly divided in two parts; the training for the mission and then the execution of said-mission. I would have liked some more character background on the commandos, but the training scenes do just enough to differentiate them from each other. There are some original, unique scenes, including Stringer parachuting his commandos into England…..dressed as German soldiers. No money, no identification, they must trek some 300-plus miles back to the base without getting caught. These are some necessary scenes, giving us a rooting interest in these men as they head off to their mission.

Not surprisingly then, the best parts of the movie are the actual mission, dubbed ‘Cockleshell,’ as Stringer’s team is dropped off by a British sub (commanded by Christopher Lee) and must paddle over 70 miles up the Garonne River to their target, ships waiting in the harbor. The final 40 minutes are tense and adrenaline-pumping as they navigate the river. It’s here where I started to question. If I didn’t know this was in fact a real mission, I’d say it was ridiculous. The bravery exhibited here in insane, commandos in 2-man canoes paddling exposed up a heavily guarded/defended river. HERE is a Google Map showing how far they actually traveled. The ending is downbeat with a sense of success, Howard delivering a very moving final line. Success at what cost though? Listen to some of the main theme HERE, a whistle-worthy score from composer John Addison. The link below is a documentary about the real-life mission. As for the movie, a hidden gem and one I’ve always enjoyed.

The Cockleshell Heroes <—documentary (1955): ***/****

Rio Lobo (1970)

rio_lobo_1970Late in a career that spanned 6 decades (1920s through 1970s), director Howard Hawks went back to the well for what he knew audiences liked. Well, maybe what he liked too. After directing the classic 1959 western Rio Bravo, Hawks more or less remade the film 8 years later with El Dorado. He tried a third time, but didn’t wait as long for the trifecta with 1970’s Rio Lobo.

Late in the Civil War, a Union officer, Col. Cord McNally (John Wayne), is unable to stop Confederate raiders from stealing gold shipments being used for payrolls. He thinks one of his own men is selling information to the Confederate raiders, including Capt. Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivero) and Sgt. Tuscarora (Christopher Mitchum), but the duo won’t tell him who until after their war. Once the war ends and the men go their separate ways, Cord hears from Cordona that he’s found one of the traitors in Texas. Cord heads for the town of Rio Lobo looking to find his man and get some answers (read = revenge). That’s not all though as Cord, Cordona (and some friends) get caught up in a range war with land and water deeds on the line.

Rio Bravo is untouchable in my mind. El Dorado, it’s pretty good but not quite as good. And Rio Lobo? It’s got more of a B-movie touch, a smaller budget, and is more interested in just being an entertaining western overall. There are good and bad, some obvious flaws, but it is damn entertaining. If you’re comparing the three like-minded movies, ‘Lobo’ borrows from both, but it leans more toward ‘Dorado,’ especially with the range war element. It was filmed on location in Old Tucson — where both previous films were at least partially filmed — with literally the same street being used for 2 different towns. There’s also a memorable if underused score from the always reliable Jerry Goldsmith. If there’s a flaw, it’s what Hawks once said about his films; characters are more important than story. He took that to heart in a big way, apparently rewriting the script during production.

A good counter to that? By 1970, John Wayne could have done a role like this in his sleep. Thankfully, he didn’t. He’s clearly having a lot of fun with a character with a twist. Not many Duke characters were looking for revenge! 63 years old at the time, Wayne even pokes some fun at himself, passing the love interest off to Rivero’s Pierre Cordona. The running joke becomes that old man Wayne is “comfortable” with men. In other words, he’s safe and won’t make a move on them. Rivero’s accent is a little much at times, but he has decent chemistry with Wayne. Mitchum is underused as the second banana, but he’s a likable on-screen presence, much like he was a year later when he paired with Wayne again in Big Jake.

The rest of the cast is hit or miss. A sex symbol of the 1970s, Jennifer O’Neill plays Shasta Delaney, a young woman with a checkered past searching for revenge. This is not a good performance to the point it is actually painful at times. The script does no favor for any of the female characters — Sherry Lansing and Susana Dosamantes — who aren’t given much to do and tend to overact/overdo it anyways. Still, for a lack of a better description, the babe factor is increased for a John Wayne western! The always welcome Jack Elam doesn’t show up until the second hour but hams it up as the shotgun-wielding Mr. Phillips. The villains — Victor French, Mike Henry, Robert Donner — make virtually no impression. Also look for David Huddleston, stuntman Dean Smith, Jim Davis, Edward Faulkner and Hank Worden in smaller parts.

A little slow at times and without much action, ‘Lobo’ doesn’t have much of a sense of urgency. The highlight is the first 35 minutes, a train heist with a unique twist unlike anything I’ve seen in a heist movie. The story goes the more traditional route after the first half-hour or so. It’s a touch disjointed blending the two and then adding another storyline, but it’s never dull. A bit of a guilty pleasure overall, but a worthwhile western just the same. Especially worthwhile for the Duke delivering a fun, even comedic part at times that balances out with the more action-heavy Duke. Also, see how many times you can spot Wayne stuntman Chuck Roberson in different roles!

Rio Lobo (1970): ***/****

 

The Glory Guys (1965)

glorguyposBy the mid 1960’s, Sam Peckinpah had written and directed many TV western shows, and also had 2 feature films to his name, The Deadly Companions and Ride the High Country. Peckinpah was quite a difficult person to work with – especially when he was directing – over his career, a trait he showed early and often. Depending on what you read, Peckinpah did a fair share of directing on 1965’s The Glory Guys only to be removed from the position.

In the American west, Capt. Demas Harrod (Tom Tryon) has been reassigned to the famous Third Cavalry stationed at Fort Doniphan. He’s served under the regiment’s power-hungry commander, General McCabe (Andrew Duggan), before and doesn’t relish the chance of doing so again. With a major campaign looming against massing Indian tribes, Harrod is assigned to D Company, a group of misfit recruits who are new to the regiment. Can he ready these inexperienced men in time for the upcoming campaign? Can he navigate a love triangle with a beautiful widow (Senta Berger) and the regiment’s chief scout (Harve Presnell)? Only time will tell.

It’s hard not to watch this film and not see the Peckinpah influence (he did write the screenplay). He would use many themes, characters and situations in his own 1965 western, Major Dundee (a personal favorite). And while it isn’t on the same level, ‘Glory’ is still pretty decent. A thinly veiled take on George Custer and the 7th Cavalry getting wiped out at the Little Big Horn, ‘Glory’ has flaws, but there are enough positives to give it a solid rating. Whether it was Peckinpah or fill-in Arnold Laven (a TV director), this western is pretty decent.

To say the least, the star power here doesn’t blow you away. Tryon and Presnell are okay, but they don’t command a lot of attention. Compare the duo to Charlton Heston and Richard Harris in ‘Dundee,’ and you see the disparity. Tryon’s Harrod is an interesting character, but there’s just not much life there. The same for Presnell’s Sol Rogers, an experienced frontier scout who should have been such a cool character. No one is done any favors by the love triangle storyline with the lovely Senta Berger, one of the dullest triangles I’ve ever seen. Harrod kinda wants her – he figures, I guess, kinda sorta – and there’s a fistfight or two but…pretty meh overall.

‘Glory’ is not surprisingly at its best when dealing with the inner workings of the Third Cavalry, and specifically Harrod’s D Company. His history with McCabe is checkered, so he wants to guarantee his inexperienced men are ready for battle. Is it traditional, even familiar stuff? Sure, but it’s handled well. Underused score (listen to the main theme HERE) from Riz Ortolani, and beautiful filming locations in Durango, Mexico (the same as ‘Dundee’) are big positives. The iconic shots of cavalry troopers silhouetted against a rising/setting sun, the traditional cavalry vs. Indians (never identified by tribe, just called ‘hostiles’), it all works pretty nicely.

The misfit recruits of D Company end up being more interesting characters than the leads actually. James Caan hams it up and chews the scenery as Dugan, the hard-drinking Irishman, with Michael Anderson Jr. basically prepping for his ‘Dundee’ role as a young trooper in love, with Slim Pickens whipping them into shape as the veteran sergeant. Also look for Adam Williams (the inexperienced trooper) and Erik Holland as Gentry, the worrying Scotsman. Also look for Wayne Rogers as Harrod’s second-in-command, and Peter Breck as the condescending, bullying Lt. Hodges.

Maybe a touch long at 112-minutes, ‘Glory’ takes a little while to get going. No real action to speak of other than a company-bonding fistfight early, but the campaign against the hostiles gets going over the last 40 minutes. There are some truly impressive sequences, hundreds of riders battling in a grassy, hilled valley as the Third (or Custer’s 7th) march into battle. Genuine scope here as we follow D Company in a beautifully done extended sequence. Who knows what Peckinpah filmed, but it speaks to a potential what-if. The quality of these scenes certainly show what was to come, both with Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch among others.

Disjointed at times, slow in other instances, ‘Glory’ is far from a perfect western. It’s highly entertaining though when it gets things right. Not easy to find, but western fans should like this one. Definitely give a watch. As sure as I say “not easy to find,” I found the full movie via Youtube. The link is below!

The Glory Guys (1965): ** ½ /****

There Was a Crooked Man (1970)

crooked_man

Kirk Douglas just turned 101 this past December. Douglas hasn’t worked in film in years, but pick a film of his and sit back and enjoy. He could play a noble, heroic character and then turn around and play a roguish villain, or often times somewhere in between. In a movie that bizarrely works in spite of some odd style choices, Douglas steals the show as a charming criminal in 1970’s There Was a Crooked Man.

After a successful robbery nets him more than $500,000, outlaw Paris Pitman Jr. (Douglas) is caught not too long after the robbery in a whorehouse. He’s only caught after hiding his massive haul though, but he refuses to give it up. Paris receives a 10-year sentence and is sent off to the territorial prison isolated in the middle of the desert. Figuring out the lay of the land (along with meeting his fellow inmates), Paris begins to plot his escape. The catch? Just about everyone knows he’s trying to bust out to get his money. A new warden, Lopeman (Henry Fonda), sees Paris in a different way. Looking to rehab prisoners rather than punish them, Lopeman thinks Paris can help the cause. Who blinks first?

What a weird western. As westerns tried to figure out what they were as a genre, ‘Crooked’ came along and chose just to go for it. First off, it is director Joseph Mankiewicz‘s only career western. Quite a departure from his usual films. Next, it tries to be equal parts folksy, comedic, dark and slapstick. There are sex jokes, plenty of nudity (male and female, including Douglas), odd slapstick scenes during a prison riot, poorly timed jokes, and a pretty awful theme song from Trini Lopez (listen HERE) that tries to play like a dark western fairy tale. Seems like a gimme, right? Aaaaaaaaand…..twist! It’s really odd and weird and very good!

The weirdness is held together by a cast that is clearly having a lot of fun, embracing all that weirdness! It starts at the top with Kirk Douglas, perfecting that roguish bad guy who can’t help but disarm everyone around him with that too perfect smile. Favoring some bright red hair and a pair of spectacles, Douglas’ Paris is able to manipulate anyone and everyone around him to get what he needs. As bad as he is, you can’t help but like him (at least a little bit). His scenes with Fonda are excellent, Fonda a new-age warden who wants the best for his prisoners. It sure takes him a while though to see through Paris’ scheming facade. Put 2 Hollywood legends together, and let them do their thing. They co-starred in 1965’s In Harm’s Way, but it’s cool to see them share some more screentime here.

‘Crooked’ boasts a pretty impressive supporting cast from top-to-bottom. Paris’ cellmates include Dudley (Hume Cronyn) and Cyrus (John Randolph), two older gay con men, Floyd Moon (Warren Oates), an antisocial outlaw, the Missouri Kid (Burgess Meredith), an aging bank robber who’s become used to prison life, Coy (Michael Blodgett), a naive youngster sentenced to hang for murder, and Ah-Ping (Olympic decathlete C.K. Yang), a Chinaman who murdered his boss on the rail gang. Cronyn and Randolph are a scream together, the duo stealing scenes right and left. Meredith does the same, a smaller part but a worthwhile one. And Oates is excellent, underplaying his part as gunfighter Floyd Moon who believes he’s found a friend in Paris. An eclectic, quirky group to back up Paris.

Also look for Alan Hale Jr., Victor French, Arthur O’Connell, Lee Grant, Bert Freed and Gene Evans in smaller supporting parts. Throw in a goofy, similarly quirky musical score for some extra oddness. The filming location of the isolated, high-walled rocky prison is a gem. Most of the movie takes place within the walls, the territorial prison becoming an additional character in this oddball western.

What sets ‘Crooked’ apart through the odd tonal shifts and general goofiness is where it ends up. The last half hour of the 123-minute movie has some major surprises in store. Then, when you think the twists are all finished, the final scenes hold a huge twist. It’s not often you watch a western with some worthwhile twists, so take advantage of this one. For all its faults, it’s worth it. ‘Crooked’ is a generally forgotten western, but it is definitely worth a watch, especially with Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda leading the way. No trailer below (for a change) because there’s some really stupid revelations about where the movie ends up, and you don’t need that in your life.

There Was a Crooked Man (1970): ***/****

 

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

the_ox-bow_incident_posterThe western isn’t often thought of as a genre that delivers a lot of message films. There are exceptions of course, like The Searchers (in a way) or Dances With Wolves (good but heavy-handed). One of the best was released in 1943, The Ox-Bow Incident.

It’s 1885 in Nevada as small-time cattle ranchers Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into a quiet, small town in the hills looking to get a drink and a good meal. Rustlers have been working in the area, putting the ranchers and townspeople on high alert, especially when news reaches town that a popular rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen. An angry, murderous posse forms, led by a former Confederate officer, Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), that heads out on the trail, following reports of three men herding cattle into the mountains. Are they the rustlers? If they catch up, will they be brought to justice or promptly lynched?

Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel of the same name, ‘Ox-Bow’ is a western ahead of its time. A box office flop, there’s no action, no romance (except for one odd exception), and a story that is bleak and depressing to say the least. What’s not to love?!? From director William Wellman, it’s a gem, an honest look at the wild west. There’s no romance, no perception of the glory or honor of America’s history in the west in the late 1800s. Just an indictment of mob mentality who thinks they know what is right and wrong.

Wellman filmed ‘Ox-Bow’ on basically two sets, one a western town in the Hollywood backlots and the other an indoor set standing in for the spot where the posse catches up to the believed rustlers. It’s equal parts uncomfortable, quiet and claustrophobic, all wrapped up in a 75-minute movie. There’s one odd scene where Fonda’s Carter meets a former love on the trail, but other than that, it’s a tight, well-executed final product.

Throughout his career, Fonda had a knack for playing the Everyman, the average Joe thrust into not so average situations. He can underplay a part (in a good way) and then come to life in a flash. That’s his Gil Carter, a cowboy and rancher who wants to know the truth before acting, to think things through as much as possible. Morgan is solid as his sidekick, equally quiet and worried they might be thought of as rustlers if they start acting funny.

The rest of the cast is broken down into 2 groups, the posse and the believed rustlers. The trio of potential rustlers includes Dana Andrews in a scene-stealing part, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford (John Ford’s older brother). Three very different parts, but the best kind of variety as the trio tries to convince the posse that they’re innocent. Andrews delivers a memorable turn especially, desperately trying to convince the posse they’ve got the wrong guys. The posse is frightening, a group of men who get angrier and angrier, their fury and rage blinding their decision-making. Along with Conroy, look for Jane Darwell, Harry Davenport (a voice of reason), Marc Lawrence, Paul Hurst, William Eythe (Tetley’s son) and Dick Rich.

When I think of dark movies like this, I describe them having a “sense of doom.” You just know watching ‘Ox-Bow’ that things aren’t going to end well. You just don’t know how it’ll go down. No spoilers here, so go in fresh without any knowledge of where the story goes. It’s a movie and a story that will no doubt stick with you long after viewing. A western classic for a reason.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): *** ½ /****

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

drumsalongthemohawkDirector John Ford is synonymous with the western genre, especially his films with John Wayne over a legendary career. One of Ford’s more underrated flicks covers a time in American history that hasn’t received much in the way of attention in films, the American Revolution. Oh, and it was released the same year as Ford’s iconic Stagecoach. Overshadowed much? Here’s 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk.

It’s 1776 in colonial New York and newlyweds Gil (Henry Fonda) and Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert) are heading to their new home in the wilderness in the Mohawk Valley. The American Revolution is in its early stages, and though the main fighting between the American and British armies seems far away, the conflict still reaches the isolated community of Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley. As they start their lives together, starting a family and building a farm from the ground up, Gil and Lana and their neighbors must protect themselves against Torries and their Indian allies.

‘Mohawk’ was a family favorite growing up, so it’s always fun to go back and revisit a movie I watched countless times as a kid. It holds up, an entertaining, well-told story that manages to do a lot in its 103-minute run-time. An absolute stunner visually — with filming locations in Utah standing in for colonial New York — with colors popping in each scene (Gil’s green shirt, Lana’s blue dress), and a score from Alfred Newman moving the action along with each passing scene. The key though is rather obvious…the two leads.

With a story that covers a ton of ground (maybe too much in a relatively short film), you’ve got to be invested with the characters. Fonda and Colbert are perfectly cast together, Gil an able frontiersman and farmer, Lana, his beautiful wife and a city girl unaccustomed to life in the settlements but who loves her husband so much she goes along with the movie. There is a straightforward, very believable chemistry between the duo, both Colbert and Fonda breathing some life into familiar characters that could have been stereotypes, cardboard cutouts in the hands of lesser actors. You genuinely like this young couple trying to carve their lives out of the wilderness. Two excellent lead performances.

In an Oscar-nominated part, Edna May Oliver is a scene-stealer as Mrs. McKlennar, a wealthy, sassy widow who takes the Martins in for help around her farm. Feisty, hard-headed, intelligent and not putting up with any BS, Mrs. McKlennar breathes life into each and every scene she’s in, both dramatic and those scenes with a lighter touch. Also look for villainous John Carradine, Arthur Shields, Francis Ford (John’s brother), Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Chief Big John Tree, Jack Pennick, Jessie Ralph, Eddie Collins and Roger Imhof in key supporting parts. Bond is a fun, boisterous presence (as always) and Imhof is excellent as General Herkimer, an aging officer who’s gained the respect of the militia.

A lot to recommend here. There’s a big, wide-open quality to ‘Mohawk,’ the Utah locations proving to be a key character. You truly get the sense of being alone, of being removed from the rest of the world. It’s what these first settlers truly faced, a dangerous life with constant threats in all directions. A scene with an Indian war party raiding the community is intense and uncomfortable, Seneca warriors running through the woods after fleeing settlers. Ford also does some of his best work not in action scenes, but moving monologues of characters talking about an off-screen battle. Cheaper, and just as effective!

There are some slower moments here and there in the first 50 minutes. ‘Mohawk’ is at its strongest when dealing with Gil and Lana, Mrs. McKlennar and of course, the Revolution. It is at its absolute strongest in the final 30 minutes when the Deerfield settlers fort up and are attacked by a large Indian/Tory force. An extended chase scene with Gil racing ahead of three pursuing warriors is exhilarating, a beautifully-cut sequence. There are plenty of those moments sprinkled throughout. A gem for many audiences. Highly recommended.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): *** 1/2 /****