Quigley Down Under (1990)

quigley_down_underWorking regularly since the 1970’s, Tom Selleck has had plenty of success on TV, including Magnum PI, Blue Bloods and the Jesse Stone movies, not to mention recurring roles on several other series. He’s been a staple in the western genre too, especially a handful of memorable TV movies. One of his best though was released theatrically in 1990 and has been a fan favorite ever since, Quigley Down Under.

An American marksman who’s gained a reputation with his modified Sharps rifle, Matthew Quigley (Selleck) is traveling to Australia in search of a job. An Australian rancher, Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman), has searched around the world for the best long-range marksmen for a job, and he thinks he’s found his man in Quigley. The job? It’s not as advertised. Marston is having a problem with the natives with the Aborigines in the area killing his cattle. They’ve learned to avoid his men and their rifles though. In steps Quigley hopefully, picking them off from long-range. Quigley isn’t having it though and is double-crossed by Marston and his men. Along with a crazy woman, Cora (Laura San Giacomo), Quigley is left for dead in the Australian outback. Can they survive? Can they exact revenge on Marston in the process?

I learned something while researching this movie. This 1990 flick from director Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove) is known as a “neo-western.” It’s far from your typical western, obviously doesn’t take place in America, and is made with almost an entirely Australian cast. Whatever you wanna call it or classify it as, know this. It’s very good. It was filmed on-location in Australia and looks amazing. Wincer pairs again with composer Basil Poledouris again after their success with Lonesome Dove, and the result is a great, memorable score. It sounds part Lonesome Dove, part The Son of Katie Elder. Give it an extended listen HERE.

‘Quigley’ was in the works since the late 1970’s with Steve McQueen (can you imagine that?!?), Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford all considered for the part. It ultimately went to Selleck, and that’s just fine! Selleck looks like a cowboy. He acts like one. He sounds like one. I love his Quigley character because it is so fish out of water, and you don’t often see that with the archetypal western hero. Usually those stories take place in…well, the American west. He’s got an imposing presence and brings a calming energy to the proceedings. No matter what gets thrown at him — a lot gets thrown at him — Quigley rolls with the punches. He’s a man of his word and expects others to do so too. A great character to lead the way.

Fresh off the immense success of Die Hard, Rickman is a scene-stealer as Marston. If anything, he’s underused. Marston is fascinated by the American west, making himself into a fast draw artist and is like an adoring fan when he meets Quigley. And let’s get right to it. That voice….that voice. I’d listen to the man read the phone book. San Giacomo is good as Crazy Cora, but the character is a little overdone at times. Her backstory is fascinating and her chemistry with Selleck is excellent, but it gets laid on a little thick at times. Some of Marston’s men include Tony Bonner, Jerome Ehlers and a very young Ben Mendelsohn. Chris Haywood plays Ashley-Pitt, a British officer hunting deserters who has a history with Marston.

At 119 minutes, ‘Quigley’ drags a little in the middle portions. It drifts at times, all with an eye of where it needs to get. More of a character study than an action movie, there is more action in the last hour as Quigley and his Sharps rifle go to work on Marston’s empire. With Poledouris’ music, the outback backdrop and Selleck’s star power, there are some moments of pure perfection. The final showdown? A perfect twist that’s delivered in a great fast draw shootout.

Just a good western. Unique but nothing crazy, it’s a must-watch for Selleck and western fans.

Quigley Down Under (1990): ***/****

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The Train (1964)

the_train_posterIn the 1960’s, the war movie was king. More appropriately, the huge, epic, big-budget blockbuster with all-star casts. One of the best though? A film that’s equal parts art house and action-adventure with an immaculate style, impressive action sequences and two great lead performances. One of the best war films ever made, it’s 1964’s The Train.

It’s August 1944 and Allied forces are quickly advancing across France. With the liberation of Paris imminent, a German colonel, Von Waldheim (Paul Schofield), makes a drastic call, commandeering hundreds and thousands of historic paintings from countless famous artists/painters. He intends to transport the priceless art into Germany via a guarded train, potentially saving it from its destruction. The French Resistance is aware of Von Waldheim’s plan and intends to save the priceless art. The resistance leader, a railway supervisor named Labiche (Burt Lancaster), questions the value of saving the art, especially with so many lives on the line. He goes along with it though as the resistance all along the train line readies itself to help the cause. Should they though? Are lives worth art?

Despite growing up on a wave of western and war movies, I didn’t see this movie until I was probably 20 or so. Well, I loved it and I still do. It’s an all-timer. What I’ve found so impressive about this World War II film from director John Frankenheimer is that it balances in impeccable fashion an almost art-house style with an action-heavy story featuring some ridiculously cool stunt sequences that were far ahead of their time. As well, it deftly handles its anti-war message without being overbearing, questioning the value of art and culture compared to a person’s life, or sadly, many people’s lives. A classic that while is universally respected and well-reviewed, still doesn’t get its due. One of the best war movies ever.

The question that drives this WWII story is as simple as that…is it worth it to die for a universally renowned painting? Is it worth for many people, many of them innocent? Lancaster’s Labiche is the conscience of that movie in that sense. He’s seen his resistance group dwindle from 18 to just 3 (including himself) over the years. The seemingly never-ending death has worn him down. He sees no value in risking his life — or those around him — to save a painting(s), no matter how famous. Labiche simply wants to survive, to see his friends survive. It’s only when he’s fully pushed into the situation that he commits to helping the cause, to fully stopping the art-loaded train from reaching Germany.

Even though some of his most respected performances are a tad overdone, Burt Lancaster will always be a personal favorite. I like my Lancaster a little more subdued, like here, his Labiche one of his finest performances. It’s fascinating watching the transformation he makes from unwilling participant to ringleader putting his life on the line. It is a quieter performance, a weary man at wits’ end. Beyond the acting though, this is an incredible physical performance. Lancaster runs across the screen, climbing, leaping, sprinting and dominates the screen, handling most of his own stunts. In one scene, he slides down a ladder, lands, sprints, stops on a dime, reverses course and jumps onto a moving train. Oh, it’s all in one unedited, uncut shot. It’s incredible.

Schofield’s Von Waldheim is the counter, an educated, highly intelligent officer who becomes more and more obsessed with accomplishing his mission. Obsessed is the key word, Labiche his constant thorn in his side. He matches Lancaster scene for scene, constantly countering with every roadblock thrown in his way. Also look for Jeanne Moreau as Christine, a hotel owner wavering over whether to help Labiche, Suzanne Flon as the museum curator trying to get help from the resistance, Michel Simon as Papa Boule, a veteran train conductor who sees what’s on the line on the art train, Wolfgang Preiss as Von Waldheim’s very capable second-in-command, Albert Remy and Charles Millot as Labiche’s fellow resistance fighters, Jacques Marin as a station master along the rail line, and Donald O’Brien as a persistent German sergeant.

Filmed on-location in France, ‘Train’ is a joy to watch. Frankenheimer chose to film in black and white, giving his WWII story a stark look, a visual that gets right to the point. He was clearly impacted by the French New Wave movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, filming ‘Train’ in an incredibly unique visual style. Scenes featuring quick cuts and off-center camera angles are balanced with long, uninterrupted shots from far-off angles. Case in point? A long shot as a train makes its way through a train yard being bombed by Allied bombers. A truly incredible sequence. That’s the whole movie, one impressive scene after another, building to an incredible ending, equal parts moving and uncomfortable. Add a memorable, underplayed score from composer Maurice Jarre, and you’ve got some great pieces for a puzzle.

War message aside (if you choose to ignore it…but DON’T), ‘Train’ is at its heart a cat-and-mouse action movie. Schofield’s Von Waldheim makes a move and Lancaster’s Labiche counters. Lather, rinse and repeat. Who will win in the end? I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but how Labiche and the resistance actually slow down the German effort is executed in a memorable sequence that features some great twists, all of it pointing to how huge the resistance effort is to stop the train. The last 30 minutes especially deliver, Labiche single-handedly trying to stop the train. In an extended sequence on a French hillside with a looping rail line below them, Labiche does anything he can to get the job done. Nerve-wracking is an understatement as these scenes develop. Just go for the ride and try not to get too nervous.

A classic movie, one of the best war films ever made, starting with Lancaster at the top and Frankeheimer delivering an amazing final product. The Train was ahead of its time upon its release and it more than holds up now over 50 years later.

The Train (1964): ****/****

Four Guns to the Border

fourgunsposWhen a B-movie is bad, it can be really bad as its smallish budget and production value takes a toll. When it’s good though? You feel like you’ve stumbled into a hidden gem. That’s the case with 1954’s Four Guns to the Border, a snappy, fun little western based off a Louis L’Amour novel.

After a botched robbery results in nothing more than an empty safe that was supposed to be packed to the seams, a bandit named Cully (Rory Calhoun) and his gang ride out into the desert to plan their next move. Cully has an idea, but it is a desperate one. He’ll ride into the town of Cholla, a town he used to live in before he was run out of town by his friend-turned-marshal, Jim Flannery (Charles Drake). While he causes a distraction, his men will take advantage and rob the bank. That’s the plan at least. Cully and his gang come across an aging gunslinger (Walter Brennan) and his beautiful young daughter, Lolly (Colleen Miller), who has eyes for Cully. With an Apache war party in the area, everything is up for grabs.

There are hundreds and thousands of westerns out there in Movie Land just waiting to be found. Long story short? I’ll give any western a try. Flicks like this from actor-turned-director Richard Carlson are a welcome find. It’s the perfect example of a quality B-western. Small scale and small budget with a manageable cast, a straightforward story, some lovey-dovey for the ladies, and enough action to keep things moving. At just 83 minutes, ‘Guns’ drifts a little bit in the third act, but it’s fun from beginning to end. It never overstays its welcome and is a western I can highly recommend. Definitely track this one down.

I grew up reading Louis L’Amour westerns, and I still circle back every so often and give one a read. They’re like comfort food; familiar, always good and you always come back for more. There’s a formula too, one which ‘Guns’ follows along with. L’Amour’s anti-heroes — bandits, cowboys, drifters — were never that bad. When push comes to shove, they almost always made the right decisions — their bad guy-ness be damned. Throw in a gang of an old guy, a young firebrand and typically a minority, a pretty girl who has no business being on her own, some nameless, easily dispatched villains, and you’ve got a good mix!

Calhoun is an underrated gem in a variety of tough guy genres, especially the western. He was never a huge star, but he was always a welcome presence when I see his name pop up in a cast. I like his Cully, a tough, quiet, no-nonsense outlaw trying to outrun his past (and eventually get even). His gang is pure L’Amour, including Dutch (John McIntire), the old-timer looking for some $ to start a ranch, Bronco (George Nader), the young, fun-loving fast draw, and Yaqui (Jay Silverheels), the Indian tracker. These aren’t the dark, blood-lust bandits of so many later westerns. This is a likable bunch who I found myself rooting for. And let’s be honest…it’s cool to see Lone Ranger sidekick Tonto in a quasi-bad guy part!

Now for the interesting almost pornographic portion of our review! I’d never seen the very lovely Colleen Miller before in a movie, but….well, let’s say this is a pretty memorable turn. She’s a pretty decent actress, miles ahead of many pretty faces cast in B-movies! Carlson and the script call for some…I’ll say “Interesting” situations. Knocked out with a hit to the head, she gets a bucket of water poured on her, but Brennan misses her head and gets her shirt (a lot). She also flashes some leg getting into a dress, has a candy cane while the men ogle her, and runs out to the barn in a rainstorm while wearing a white nightgown. Not a complaint — she’s gorgeous — but the studio was clearly appealing to its male audience.

Also look for Nina Foch as Flannery’s wife, a woman who clearly has some history with Cully (uh-oh, unspoken love triangle!), and Nestor Paiva as Greasy, the owner of a saloon/store in the desert with some ties to our almost heroic outlaws.

I give ‘Guns’ credit. It’s pretty straightforward stuff, but it is also pretty unique. There’s some good twists and turns along the way in a story that doesn’t seem too familiar. I especially liked the twist about an hour into the movie as the gang makes a heroic decision. The ending itself could have been a whopper of a downer if Carlson wanted…but it’s 1954 America, not 1968 Italy in a spaghetti western. Still, it’s an excellent, generally little-known western. Well worth tracking down.

Four Guns to the Border (1954): ***/****

The Deadly Trackers (1973)

the_deadly_trackersTwo actors who were stars but never quite superstars, Richard Harris and Rod Taylor are two of my favorites. Both did a wide variety of films, but they always seemed most at home in good, old-fashioned guy’s guys movies, westerns, war movies, science fiction stories. A pairing of the duo has to be worthwhile, right? Let’s see with 1973’s The Deadly Trackers.

As the sheriff of the border town of Santa Rosa, Sean Kilpatrick (Harris) goes about his job in unique fashion. Never wearing a gun, he insists on bringing prisoners in for justice, not just shooting them on the spot. That strategy works when a gang led by murdering outlaw Frank Brand (Taylor) tries to rob the bank only to get cornered by the townspeople. Brand desperately threatens to kill a little boy, Kilpatrick’s son. In the ensuing chaos, both the boy and Kilpatrick’s wife are killed as Brand his gang escape. Vowing revenge on the men, Kilpatrick pursues the gang into Mexico, ignoring his beliefs of law and order. Always close behind Brand and his men, the revenge-seeking sheriff keeps running across a Mexican federale, Gutierrez (Al Letierri), who insists on bringing Brand in the right way, the lawful way. Kilpatrick obviously has other plans…

This little-known western was apparently beset by an avalanche of production issues. Based off a short story from Samuel Fuller, it originally had Fuller as a director with Harris and Bo Hopkins co-starring. Production started but was quickly halted to revamp…well, everything. The studio basically half-assed it from there, even borrowing portions of the musical score from 1969’s The Wild Bunch. To show you how bizarre things got, the opening credits are still frames with voiceover narration, but they look like the camera shot through a thick blanket. What happened to the footage? Apparently there was a mishap sometime after filming but before editing. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Ultimately, the production issues aren’t deal-breakers. Instead, it’s just the general tone of ‘Trackers’ that provides its undoing. Far from a bad movie, this is just too morbidly, cynically brutal and dark. Like so many revisionist westerns of the 1970’s, ‘Trackers’ is interested in a more honest look at the wild west. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty and death never seems far away. There are no sympathetic characters, and it is only a matter of time before our cast of characters starts getting knocked off in gruesome fashion — scalping, trampled by horses, shot in the face, quicksand, gunned down by a flurry of shots, both blasts of a shotgun, stabbing…you get the idea — in this blood-soaked revenge western. It’s a movie in the vein of The Hunting Party, Soldier Blue, Lawman (actually pretty good), Ulzana’s Raid (also very good) and Chato’s Land but a little too uneven to be considered genuinely good.

The two leads deliver interesting performances, easily the highlight of the movie. Harris’ Kilpatrick has quite the character arc from law-and-order lawman to revenge-seeking, unhinged killer. It’s a physical performance, an intimidating performance. Not a ton of lines, just a man obsessed with the thought of brutally bringing his family’s killers to justice. Taylor plays against type in a big way — easily his most villainous, disturbing part — as Frank Brand, an outlaw and murderer who doesn’t think twice before shooting someone. Similarly unhinged, he’s an ex-Confederate soldier and a racist to boot! A villain you definitely love to hate.

In a supporting part, Lettieri gives one of his best performances, a subdued part as Gutierrez, a law-abiding peace officer who stands by his convictions through thick and thin. His conversations with Harris to provide some of the movie’s best-written scenes. As for Brand’s gang, look for Neville Brand as Choo-Choo, a bandit with part of a railroad rail for a hand (it’s kinda explained), Paul Benjamin as Jacob, a soft-spoken, educated gambler, and William Smith as Schoolboy, a mentally challenged killer with the mind of a child. Also look for Isela Vega as Brand’s former lover, Pedro Armendariz Jr. as a well-meaning blacksmith and William Bryant as one of Kilpatrick’s deputies.

Revenge stories are a staple of the western genre. A couple of those revisionist westerns I listed above are based solely on the revenge factor. Though I loved the cast here, I didn’t fall hard for the movie. You’re rooting more to see who gets killed and in what gruesome fashion. There’s not a ton of energy in the process in a rather slow-moving 110-minute movie. It’s never a good sign when horrific amounts of violence — oh, look! He’s getting scalped! — breaks up the relative monotony.

One of the most redeeming qualities in ‘Trackers’ is the filming locations in Mexico. Any western fans will see some familiar sites, including locations you would have seen in Major Dundee, The Wrath of God, Vera Cruz and (I think) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some of the ruins, the dusty villages, the rocky vistas, it all adds a very cool feeling of realism and authenticity. You believe the sweat you see pop up on foreheads. A mixed bag in the end. Worth a watch but keep expectations measured. The cast alone is enough to bring many viewers in.

The Deadly Trackers (1973): ** 1/2 /****

Force 10 from Navarone

force_10_from_navarone_movieReleased in 1961, The Guns of Navarone was a huge hit with audiences, made a ton of money at the box office and impacted countless WWII and espionage movies in the years to come. It was so popular author Alistair MacLean was approached about writing a sequel in novel form that could also be a film sequel. Well, it took some time, and there was plenty of drama, but here’s 1978’s Force 10 from Navarone.

It’s 1943 some months after the successful raid on the island of Navarone, but Major Keith Mallory (Robert Shaw) and explosives expert Corporal Miller (Edward Fox) have been brought together for another impossible mission. They’re being attached to Force 10, a team of agents commanded by Colonel Barnsby (Harrison Ford) being dropped into Yugoslavia to help aid the partisan army battling the Germans. Mallory and Miller have a different mission though. A German agent who blew their cover on Navarone is now believed to be an officer among the partisans. Can they find him and kill him before he does more damage? Will Barnsby and his team pull off their seemingly suicidal job? The odds sure aren’t in their favor.

I re-read both MacLean novels about the Navarone team this May. They were favorites as a young reader. I liked them, the stories are fun and exciting with some great characters, but the twists, turns, coincidences and pure luck get to be a little much at times. Convoluted and confusing come to mind! The movies are the rare efforts better than the source novels. ‘Force 10’ probably would have been better suited as its own stand-alone movie. No cast members return and the connection to the original ‘Guns’ is forced at best. Still, the ingredients are there for a fun espionage story with one of the coolest casts ever.

From director Guy Hamilton, ‘Force 10’ had a smaller budget — which is reflected in some of the special effects and borrowing footage from other movies — and does have a disjointed feel at times. Different versions were released, one 118-minutes and the other 126-minutes, with some scenes transitioning in rough fashion as if there were more cuts with an even longer story. Hamilton’s sequel was filmed on location in Yugoslavia, and it looks great, like we’re really isolated up in the mountains with the partisans battling the Germans. Composer Ron Goodwin (Where Eagles Dare) turns in a whistle-worthy score as well to aid the espionage action.

Replacing Gregory Peck and David Niven is no easy task — I imagine — so Shaw and Fox make an interesting choice. The duo puts a different, lighter spin on Mallory and Miller. There’s a more comedic touch, some more laughs, as the two unassuming agents save the day again and again with their know-how and savvy in the field. A year after the somewhat successful Star Wars, Harrison Ford is solid as Barnsby, an experienced young agent who doesn’t think his two older tag-alongs are worth the risk….until he learns otherwise. The trio has an excellent chemistry among the crazy mission, even more so when an escaped prisoner, Sgt. Weaver (Carl Weathers), a medic, stows away on the mission. An eclectic, oddball mix of agents, but a good one!

Plenty more names worth mentioning though! The always-welcome Franco Nero plays Lescobar, a partisan officer working with Force 10 to accomplish the mission. Barbara Bach plays a double-agent seemingly working for both sides (but she’s got some secrets to reveal along the way, and a nude scene FWIW). James Bond villain Jaws, Richard Kiel, has a fun part as Drazak, a bear of a man and a dangerous, brutal knife fighter. Also look for Alan Badel as a partisan commander, Michael Byrne (Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) as a sinister German officer, Angus MacInnes as Reynolds, a member of Force 10, and Petar Buntic as Marko, a key resistance fighter.

A bit of a slow start in the 126-minute version, but once things get going, the momentum picks up in a big way. ‘Force 10’ really hits its groove in the last 60-70 minutes as the missions really come to light with some good twists and turns along the way. Fox’s Miller especially has a doozy to reveal in the closing scenes. A lot of fun though with Shaw’s Mallory delivering a great final line before the credits roll.

One more thing. The connection to the original ‘Guns’ is forced at best, making me think ‘Force 10’ may have been better suited to just be its own movie without the connection. It’s too goofy for its own good, but the resolution makes it worthwhile with a good reveal. All complaints aside, I’ve always enjoyed this WWII espionage adventure. It’s a movie with Quint, Han Solo/Indiana Jones, Apollo Creed, the always-welcome Edward Fox, a Bond girl, a Bond villain, and plenty of familiar faces. Not a great flick, but a highly enjoyable one.

Force 10 from Navarone (1978): ***/****

Operation Crossbow

operation_crossbowThe 1960’s were the heyday of World War II movies, epic films with all-star casts that became classics of the genre and in some lesser-known cases, immense fan favorites. I love The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Devil’s Brigade, The Guns of Navarone and many others…but everyone knows those, right? One of my underrated favorites is today’s review, 1965’s Operation Crossbow.

It’s 1943 and World War II is raging in both the European and Pacific theaters. While armies clash, efforts in Germany are being made to develop a devastating new weapon that could alter the course of the war. The Germans are building flying pilot-less bombs that can be thrown at London, but in more frightening fashion, the scientific effort is making startling discoveries in building an immense rocket, the first of its kind. Allied Intelligence is doing everything in their power to slow down, sabotage and cripple the continuing efforts, including one desperate ploy. Three agents (George Peppard, Tom Courtenay, Jeremy Kemp) are sent into Germany posing as engineers and scientists hoping to infiltrate the rocket facility. Their chances? Slim at best.

Loosely based on the true story of the Allied effort to thwart the German rocket effort, ‘Crossbow’ is rarely mentioned as one of the better WWII movies from the 1960’s. Director Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters) turned in a much longer finished product only to see it severely edited. What remains is a 116-minute running time that’s disjointed in spots but nonetheless very entertaining. The cuts give the movie three episodic stories — the German effort, the Allied response, the agents going in — while covering about three years worth of history. I’m curious what Anderson’s full version was intended, but what’s here is an above-average, highly entertaining finished product.

‘Crossbow’ doesn’t have the A-list star power of some of its 1960s WWII contemporaries, but this is a pretty cool cast full of true actors, recognizable faces and character actors. Anderson’s film is at its strongest when focusing on the three agents, Peppard’s Curtis, Kemp’s Bradley and Courtenay’s Henshaw. This trio isn’t true spies but highly intelligent members of the military with science backgrounds thrust into a life of a spy. The story delivers one intense, stomach-turning moment after another as they try and pull off the ruse. There are some cruel twists delivered along the way for one of the trio, and a general sense of the reality of what they’re doing. It isn’t glamorized or romanticized. This is life and death not only for the agents but thousands of other people.

Plenty more folks to look for. Richard Johnson is excellent as Duncan Sandys, the British official tasked with leading the anti-rocket effort, with John Mills as a ranking MI6 officer and Trevor Howard as a doubting scientist. Don’t miss Richard Todd either in a key part. On the German side, look for Paul Henreid, Helmut Dantine and Barbara Rutting. Other essential parts include Anthony Quayle and Lilli Palmer. Producer Carlo Ponti also managed to get his wife, Sophia Loren, a key part that stretches on a little too long in delivering a potentially cool twist that never quite delivers. Still, it’s Sophia Loren! She’s on-screen for about 10 minutes or so but still gets top billing!

Crossbow’s story covers a lot of ground — almost a year and a half — but never feels like we’re being let out.  Supposedly a much longer finished product was turned in by director Michael Anderson only to have it cut heavily to the movie we see now which clocks in at just under two hours.  You can see where certain segments were cut, especially the German segment to open the movie, and other odd instances like Peppard gaining a bandage on his forehead, but we never see why.  But these are little things, not big disturbances that could ruin the movie.

While the V-2 rocket was actually used by Germany in WWII — over 3,000 were fired at England — the movie does have to have some sort of resolution if not necessarily a happy ending.  The finale is a whopper as Peppard and Kemp desperately try to pinpoint their underground location to a passing bomber force.  The huge underground facilities sets look like something out of a James Bond movie and provide quite an ending to a strong story.  Not as well know as some of its 1960s WWII counterparts, but definitely worth a watch or two.

Operation Crossbow <—-trailer (1965): ***/****

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

the_man_who_shot_liberty_valanceAsk a western fan what John Ford movie is his favorite, and you’ll get any number of answers. Rightfully so too, Ford directing gem after gem. My personal favorite is 1948’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford’s tone shifted later in his career though, portraying the American west in a more realistic, negative view. I’d say more honest. Movies like The Searchers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge, and of course, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, all dug deeper, portraying a west unlike we’d seen in the director’s previous efforts.

A lawyer from the East, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is on a stagecoach heading to the town of Shinbone in a western territory when the coach is attacked by an infamous bandit, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and his gang. Stoddard is savagely beaten but nursed back to health in Shinbone. It is turbulent times in the budding town and territory with a potential push for statehood on the line. Stoddard becomes a key person in the fight, all the way trying to figure out what life in the west is like. Valance constantly berates the lawyer, but a small rancher who’s fast with a gun, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), always seems to be in the right place at the right time. With so much on the line for so many people, Stoddard must decide how far he wants to push his luck.

By all accounts, ‘Liberty Valance’ is the anti-John Ford western. Shot in black and white on the Hollywood backlot, there are no sweeping vistas, no majestic shots of riders on the horizon. Instead, this is a story about the people, their relationships and the turbulent times they find themselves in. There’s little in the way of gunplay/gunfights. It’s just not your typical western, but it is a film that’s firing on all cylinders. A classic that deserves its reputation.

Never a bad thing when two Hollywood legends star together. They were in How the West Was Won together but had no scenes together. They were excellent together in several great scenes in The Shootist. What’s so cool here is the dynamic. Both Ransom and Tom believe in the same things, just different ways of accomplishing those things. I love Stewart’s Ransom and the character arc he goes through. It’s a fascinating character. He hates guns, hate violence and abhors bullies. He sees Tom’s ways of doing things and can’t get on-board with it…until he does. Not your typical western hero — by a long shot — but one that brings a great, unique edge to a familiar genre.

Ford and Wayne go together like peanut butter and jelly, albeit PB that’s abusive to the J. Wayne did some of his best work in Ford films — especially She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers — but Ford was infamous for railing on his star non-stop. So was the case here as Ford picked on Wayne mercilessly. Well…it worked. This is one of Wayne’s more underrated parts. His Tom Doniphon is a bit of a bully himself, constantly calling Ransom ‘Pilgrim,’ but he’s a small rancher who’s well-respected (even feared) and is lightning quick with a gun. Like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Doniphon is a tragic character here too, an arc that all comes together in a fitting, moving and at times, tough to watch conclusion. Kudos to the two Hollywood greats.

Easily one of Ford’s strongest casts from top to bottom. Vera Miles is Hallie, the uneducated waitress who’s drawn to both Tom and Ransom (oh no! A love triangle!), avoiding plenty of awkward pratfalls. Marvin is terrifyingly perfect as Liberty, an unhinged psycho capable of all sorts of violence. Edmond O’Brien hams it up and steals his scenes as alcoholic newspaper editor Dutton Peabody. Andy Devine is the cowardly sheriff because of course he is. Gotta mention Woody Strode who in subtle fashion steals his scenes (as he usually did) as Pompey, Tom’s “man,” almost a right-hand man kind of deal, not a slave but always at his side.

Also look for John Carradine, Denver Pyle, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen and plenty more familiar faces to round out the cast.

Earlier in his career, Ford’s films tended to have a broad, obvious sense of humor that bordered on too much (and sometimes was just way too much). His later films lost that innocence. Sure, Devine gets some laughs, but it’s far more subtle. There’s a darkness here that hangs in the air. It’s always building to that inevitable showdown, but even there, a twist is revealed in a lightning-quick noir-esque flashback that’s beyond perfect. There is an edge, a violence, a meanness (especially in Valance) that brings the movie up a notch. The black and white filming goes a long way toward aiding the cause in that department.

‘Valance’ is famous for one of the best lines in western history. Simpy put, it’s “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The story is held with a framing device that adds some additional layers to the story. I won’t spoil it here, but it works on basically all levels. Some great storytelling from beginning to end as we try to piece it all together as an audience.

I can’t say enough about this western. It’s not your typical Ford western, not even your typical western in general. It had been years since I watched it, and I loved catching back up with it. I came away very impressed with Stewart’s performance this time. There’s a moment late where he’s simply a man who’s had enough. He’s been pushed too far. If he has to die righting a wrong, his Ransom Stoddard — educated to the bone — is ready to pick up a gun and die for it. The end result propels the last 25 minutes of the movie to a highly memorable finale. Go watch this one.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ****/****