Fort Utah

fort_utah_filmposterMy usual stance on B-movies, even low-budget movies, is that cheap does not necessarily equal a bad movie. There can be a charm and enjoyment from low budget, so yeah, it doesn’t equal a bad movie…until it does. Bad scripts, bad editing, bad acting and a cheap budget it all equals a real winner with 1967’s Fort Utah.

Riding west to California, ex-gunfighter Tom Horn (John Ireland) crosses paths with a worried Indian agent, Ben Stokes (Robert Strauss). A large group of warriors (I don’t recall a tribe specification) has left the reservation with Stokes on their trail to bring them back. Making it worse, an Army deserter, Dajin (Scott Brady), is leading a group of bandits and murderers wreaking havoc wherever they go. Horn teams up with Stokes to help the cause, trying to bring cavalry from nearby Fort Utah to quell the bloody uprising. It’s on the way to Fort Utah that Horn stumbles across a west-bound wagon train that is oblivious to the storm they’re riding into.

Last month I reviewed 1965’s Apache Uprising, a low-budget western from producer A.C. Lyles. It wasn’t good, but it had its moments. Lyles produced 12 westerns in the mid and late 1960s, and apparently Encore Westerns has a deal to air all of them, including Fort Utah! ‘Uprising’ was pretty bad, but ‘Utah’ is just plain awful. The script is lazy, and the low budget really shines through unfortunately. It wastes a decent cast and an at least interesting premise but is consistently hamstrung by any number of complaints in director Lesley Selander’s western.

Positives? Though much of the cast is sleepwalking, it is the familiar faces of the cast. Ireland looks especially bored as ex-gunfighter Tom Horn although it never specifies if he’s the actual Tom Horn. The forced love interest here is Virginia Mayo as a woman with a horrific secret about why she’s heading west (it’s not that shocking). Their long falling in love scenes cripple the pacing just like similar ones in ‘Uprising.’ A welcome face in many adventure films, Mayo seems here to wear a low-cut dress and show her cleavage to the camera in scene after scene. Not a complaint, just an observation.

Plenty of other names to look for. Strauss hams it up in buckskin as the unlikely Indian agent who teams up with Ireland’s Horn. He at least shows a pulse as things hit the fan. The always welcome John Russell plays Eli Jonas, the leader of the wagon train with a checkered past and reputation. Brady blusters and looks angry as Dajin, not showing up until the hour-mark in an 84-minute movie. Also look for Richard Arlen, Jim Davis, Don ‘Red’ Barry and James Craig in supporting parts.

The story has no energy overall and bounces from scene to scene, throwing random bits and pieces of other westerns into a blender. Whatever develops, that’s your movie. The fight scenes are really bad with horrifically obvious stunt doubles jumping in for our leads. Scenes drag on for 10 and 15 extra seconds as characters ride away, fleshing out an already dull 84 minutes. The worst is the editing in an attack on a wagon train that seems to be pieced in from about 4 different westerns. The rock formations around the train bounce from desert to rock formations to evergreen trees and then desert again.

A stinker. A real stinker. Steer clear.

Fort Utah (1967): */****

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My Darling Clementine

1946-my-darling-clementineI recently reviewed 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, one of many versions Hollywood has done of Wyatt Earp, the Cowboys and Tombstone’s infamous history in the 1880s. Not drifting too far here today with another version of one of the west’s most iconic moments, 1946’s My Darling Clementine.

As they drive a herd of cattle west to California, former lawman Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his 3 brothers stop outside the time of Tombstone. While visiting the town, rustlers steal the herd and kill the youngest Earp brother, James. In hopes of finding his brother’s murderer, Wyatt takes a job in Tombstone as the town marshal. It’s there he tangles with several key people in town, including gambler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and cattle rancher Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan). Now, all Wyatt has to do is get proof of who killed his brother and stole the herd of cattle.

Notice anything? This 1946 western has basically little to no connection the real-life historical incidents. Yes, there was a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Tombstone…and…well, that’s about it. The story takes place in 1882 (a year after the actual incidents), Holliday is a surgeon and not a dentist, Old Man Clanton was dead and never actually met Wyatt, and James Earp lived into the 1920s. So if you’re looking for a history lesson, this isn’t it.

What’s the end result then? Like many John Ford westerns, ‘Darling’ is more interested in the legend, the mythology and the romance of the old west. Based on a true story, this is as close to an arthouse western as there ever was. Filmed in black and white, it is episodic, romantic, idyllic, hauntingly pretty and has touches of a film noir in its use of shadow and light. Other than the song My Darling Clementine, the soundtrack is minimal. We’re transported to a little down in the Arizona desert with no sense of the rest of the world. There’s a sense we’re somewhere different, somewhere far-off. Little to no gunplay, style over substance, this western is one of a kind…mostly for the good.

Henry Fonda is an all-time great for a reason. He has countless roles that I could identify as his most famous, best, most iconic, whatever description you want to say. His performance as Wyatt Earp belongs in that conversation, but I struggle with a specific reason. It’s his easy-going, laconic manner…until he’s not. It’s the smile that pops up. It’s the gentle physicality, like the iconic shot of him in a chair, leg propped up on a post as he surveys Tombstone. He moves so gracefully too, especially as he leisurely walks up the street to the O.K. Corral. I don’t know if this is what the real Wyatt Earp was like — history and revisions say it was not — but there’s something straightforward, charming and immensely likable about Fonda’s Wyatt.

Reading about ‘Darling,’ Victor Mature seemed to be Ford’s whipping boy during production. His Doc Holliday is interesting, but whether it’s the script (where I lean) or something else, Mature isn’t given a great chance to shine. His Holliday is too moody, too intense for his own good. There’s some good chemistry between Fonda and Mature — especially a scene early as they wait for a play — but the not so accurate history does them no favors. All records indicate they were at least partially friends in real life (Wyatt and Doc that is), but here, they’re barely on speaking terms. Some good potential for the character, but it falls short.

Who else to look for? Brennan as Old Man Clanton is an out and out villain, a sneering, intimidating murderer. John Ireland plays his youngest son, Billy, while Grant Withers mostly looks mean with a beard as Ike. The Earp brothers include the always welcome Ward Bond, Tim Holt and Don Garner. Linda Darnell plays Chihuahua, a Mexican saloon girl who loves Doc (and sings a couple songs), while Cathy Downs plays Clementine, a past love interest of Doc’s who Wyatt takes a shine to. Also look for Ford regulars Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, Jack Pennick and Ford’s brother, Francis Ford, in small supporting parts.

It had been years since I watched this western, but something struck me on the most recent viewing. I found myself bored with this first hour. There is little to no story with the pacing at an almost glacial pace as we meet Wyatt, Doc and Tombstone. An episodic story is one thing, but ‘Darling’ just sorta drifts along. I found myself drifting more than I remembered. Things definitely pick up over the last 40 minutes, but I had to at least bring up the pacing issue.

That said, definitely give this John Ford western a shot. Shot on location in Monument Valley (as  a background to Tombstone), ‘Darling’ is a visual treat. Ford’s movies have a reputation for their style, look and visual appeal, but this may be him at his best, right up there with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. An iconic western with plenty of memorable scenes, it’s an excellent film and well worth checking out.

My Darling Clementine (1946): ***/****

Ulzana’s Raid

ulzanasraidIt’s not a gunfighter, a cowboy, a sheriff or even the homesteader, but the group itself is one of the most iconic, memorable aspects of the western genre. That group? The U.S. cavalry. Immortalized in countless movies, I don’t know if there’s a more straightforward, brutally honest portrayal of the cavalry than the 1972 western Ulzana’s Raid.

It’s 1885 at the lonely desert outpost Fort Lowell when news arrives that an Apache chief, Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez), has left the reservation with eight warriors. No one has spotted them to know where they’re going, but their intent to burn, maim, rape and kill is evident. A small patrol commanded by an inexperienced lieutenant, DeBuin (Bruce Davison), is ordered to pursue Ulzana and his war party to either kill them, capture them or chase them to the U.S./Mexico border. Along for the patrol is a veteran scout, McIntosh (Burt Lancaster), who will provide some guidance for the recent West Point graduate. Can the patrol catch up with Ulzana? What damage can the Apache war party do in the meantime?

Revisionist westerns are so often heavy-handed and overdone for the sake of doing so. It doesn’t serve a purpose other than cynicism and meanness. This western from director Robert Aldrich (and a screenplay from Alan Sharp, based on a true story) is one of the best revisionist entries ever. Violent, brutal, uncomfortable and realistic, ‘Raid’ is an underrated gem. This is the wild west as it truly was, not as movies so often glamorized it. You’re alive one second and dead the next without warning. ‘Raid’ tackles the subject as effectively as any other western I can think of.

Where I give credit in the casting are the archetypal characters. We’ve seen the veteran scout, the inexperienced officer and more in countless westerns. Here though, nothing is cut and dry. There are edges and angles to all the characters. The Apaches do awful things, but the soldiers do equally horrific things at times. Aldrich wisely doesn’t paint anyone as simply a good guy or bad guy. The Apaches aren’t overtly vilified either. Instead, we see them as what they were, a brutal tribe that survived thousands of years because of their brutality and will to live.

Lancaster is known for his bigger-than-life characters, but what appeals to me about MacIntosh is the exact opposite. It’s one of Lancaster’s most underrated and understated roles. The cavalry scout is a frontiersman, well-respected and liked who simply knows the land, the people and how to survive. He’s firm and states his case but never overdoes it. The dynamic between him and Davison’s lieutenant holds it all together. Things get a touch slow at times with some longer dialogue scenes, but those scenes crackled for me. Very timely for when it was released – 1972 – as so many questioned what was going on in the world.

The strongest feature of ‘Raid’ though is Jorge Luke as Ke-Ni-Tay, an Apache scout and friend of MacIntosh’s. He’s a human being, a window into the Apache life, and a fascinating character, especially in his scenes with Davison’s Lt. DeBuin. It’s probably the most well-developed Indian character I can think of in a western. A highly memorable part. The same for Richard Jaeckel as an unnamed sergeant, a cavalry veteran and capable soldier trying to get himself and the patrol through things relatively unscathed. Also look for Lloyd Bochner, Karl Swenson and Richard Bull in key supporting parts.

An added element of ‘Raid’ is its realism. We don’t see cavalry horses sprinting across the desert. Instead, we hear Lancaster’s MacIntosh discuss the importance of the horses and not wanting to wear them down too soon. It may bore some viewers, but this is a script about tactics and the science of a looming battle. Horses, water, rest and the ever-hanging cloud of death in the air hovers around our story at all times.

Filmed in Arizona, this is a bleak, uncomfortable film to watch. The soundtrack is a little overdone and out of place at times. The guts of the nasty story is its realism. We see a cavalry trooper shoot a woman in the head rather than let her be captured, raped and tortured. He then turns the gun on himself because he knows the horrors that await him. I love the John Ford cavalry trilogy, but it ain’t the most realistic depiction of the American west. Know what you’re getting into, but a revisionist western that hits the right notes for a change. Look for a longer version too – about 104 minutes – because there are cut versions out there.

Ulzana’s Raid (1972): ***/****

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

gunfight_at_the_o-k-_corral_film_posterAmerican history in the wild west has a handful of instantly recognizable, oft-told stories that the film industry has visited time and time again. Just some include Custer’s Last Stand, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, the Alamo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and maybe most famous, Wyatt Earp‘s involvement in one of history’s most famous gunfights. Here’s 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

It’s the late 1870s and Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) is on the trail of several outlaws who he can’t quite catch up with. In Texas, Earp meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), a dentist turned gambler who’s dying of tuberculosis. The two become unlikely friends of sorts, each saving the other’s life in a do-or-die situation. Both men seem to be drawn to danger — for different reasons — but always seem to get through unscathed. That luck may be running out as circumstances drive both Earp and Holliday west to the mining town of Tombstone in the Arizona territory where a gang of rustlers, cowboys and gunfighters are a constant threat. All roads lead to a little two-bit corral where everything will be settled.

There aren’t too many directors better suited for a guy’s guy movie like this than John Sturges who would go on to direct The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in the coming years (among many other action-oriented, male-heavy casts). Sturges (and screenwriter Leon Uris) does a fair job bringing to life one of the American west’s most well-known stories. It is a big film that looks gorgeous, especially the sweeping plains and desert shots. Composer Dmitri Tiomkin turns in a familiar-sounding score that suits the historical story well. Some cool location shooting in Old Tucson especially stands out, especially the actual shootout in the finale.

What surfaces again and again in O.K. Corral westerns is the friendship and the bond between noted peace officer Wyatt Earp and dying gambler Doc Holliday. By far, the performances from Lancaster and Douglas are the best parts of ‘Gunfight.’ Lancaster as Earp — sans mustache — is steadfast, stubborn, loyal and an incredibly capable man who lives by his word. Dying of tuberculosis, Douglas’s Holliday is living one day at a time in hard-drinking fashion. Through their many differences, the two men find they also have many similarities. Their chemistry is smooth sailing throughout. Douglas is an intense scene-stealer as Holliday, even if the character isn’t too much like the real-life dentist-turned-gambler.

The lead performances are solid, but still not enough to rescue a western that has glacial pacing early. At 122 minutes, ‘Gunfight’ is slow to say the least. It takes 73 minutes for Wyatt and Doc to even reach Tombstone. Getting there is an episodic story that has some potential but typically gets bogged down too much. Go figure, there’s unnecessary love interests, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), Doc’s girlfriend with who he has a less than stable relationship, and Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a beautiful gambler who catches Wyatt’s eye. Taking the movie as a whole, there’s little historical truth to anything. Yes, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were in Tombstone, there was a gunfight at the O.K. Corral…and yeah, that’s about it.

One of Sturges’ specialties as a director was leading the way for male-dominated casts, like Great Escape and Mag7 among others. The star power isn’t huge here, but western fans will appreciate the depth of familiar faces you’ll see. John Ireland plays quick-on-the-draw gunfighter Johnny Ringo while baddie Lyle Bettger plays the slimy Ike Clanton. Also look for Dennis Hopper, Frank Faylen, and Jack Elam as other members of the Clanton gang. The underused Earp brothers include DeForest Kelly, Martin Milner and John Hudson. There’s also supporting parts for Earl Holliman, Ted de Corsia, Whit Bissell, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef and Olive Carey.

Now how about that titular gunfight? In a movie that’s generally light on action and gunplay in general, the showdown at the O.K. Corral runs about 5 minutes — about 4 minutes and 30 seconds longer than the real gunfight — and packs quite a punch. Again, the history is garbage relative to the real event, but as a cinematic gunfight, it is pretty exciting. A mixed bag in the end with a fair share of positives and negatives mixed in one bag. Western fans will definitely get some enjoyment out of it, if for nothing else than the casting of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Also worth checking out? The very catchy, whistle-worthy theme song sung by Frankie Laine which you can listen to HERE. Listen to the soundtrack itself HERE.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957): ** 1/2 /****

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

sheworeayellowribbonpostDirector John Ford is known, remembered and respected for any number of westerns from a long, distinguished career. For me, I’ve always been a big fan of his ‘Cavalry trilogy,’ starting with 1948’s Fort Apache and 1950’s Rio Grande. Smack dab in the middle? A movie featuring — for me — star John Wayne‘s best role, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

It’s the fall of 1876 and the U.S. cavalry is dealing with the fallout following the massacre at the Little Big Horn where George Armstrong Custer and much of his Seventh Cavalry was wiped out. At isolated Fort Starke, Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is just days away from retirement after a distinguished 40-year career. He’s been given one last mission; to take a patrol out and see if he can’t drive a growing Indian force back to the reservation. Brittles is saddled with an additional job though, transporting two women to safety in the wake of the likely coming attacks. With a potentially huge assault mounting as the Indian tribes band together, Brittles and C Troop has their work cut out for them.

Recently I reviewed Ulzana’s Raid, a cynical 1972 revisionist western that showed what the cavalry, the Indian wars and the American west was really like. Ford’s Cavalry movies? More like the way the west should have been. I liked ‘Ribbon’ as a kid but didn’t love it. It’s too slow with not enough action. It’s only as I grew up that I appreciated it more and more. Now, I think of it as John Wayne’s best role (along with The Searchers and The Shootist) and in general, one of the best westerns ever made. Other Ford-Wayne pairings usually get the attention, but this definitely belongs in the conversation.

What an enjoyable movie. The kicker? There’s little to no story in a 103-minute running time. Brittles is retiring in a few days, an Indian uprising looms…and go! ‘Ribbon’ features an at-times leisurely pace, moving from episode to episode. It doesn’t need a detail-oriented story. We’ve got the situation, a laundry list of great characters and so much more. Filmed on location in Monument Valley (a Ford favorite), ‘Ribbon’ is visually stunning, the Technicolor filming absolutely popping off the screen. The cinematography rightfully earned an Academy Award win. Throw in a memorable score from composer Richard Hageman, and you’ve got a lot of key pieces kicking into place left and right.

As an actor, Wayne often gets the short end of the stick. With the right script, the man could A-C-T. After seeing Wayne in Red River, Ford exclaimed “I didn’t know the SOB could act,” resulting in this pairing. Wayne as Brittles is pitch-perfect. Here’s the Duke playing a man 20 years his superior (gray in his hair and mustache, lines on his face), and nailing it. Brittles is a career officer, a loyal, brave and honorable soldier who gets the job done but looks out for his men in the process. What’s always appealed to me about the performance is that it never feels like show-boating. This is understated, emotional and never feels forced.

Two memorable scenes come to mind. One early on has Brittles visiting the grave of his wife who passed away some 9 years before. Watering plants on the grave and sitting in a small folding chair, he tells her about the new developments in his day-to-day life. He smiles, filling her in on all the details. A scene that easily could have been overdone or fake, but Wayne delivers in subtle, scene-stealing fashion. The same for a late scene when Brittles receives a silver watch with an inscription from C Troop. An embarrassed Brittles reaches for his glasses and holds back tears as he reads the inscription. Anyone who thinks Wayne couldn’t act should watch those scenes and then re-evaluate their opinion.

Plenty of the John Ford Stock Company join Wayne in an impressive cast. Joanne Dru plays Olivia Dandridge, a young woman visiting her uncle at Fort Starke who’s also caught the attention of two lieutenants in C Troop, Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.). The dynamic isn’t great and is the weakest aspect of the movie, but it’s not as bad as Red River! Ben Johnson is another scene-stealer (as usual) as Sgt. Tyree, the scout and point man for C Troop, the man Brittles relies on most. He’s also a real-life cowboy so all those scenes of Tyree tearing across the horizon are legit. Ford regular Victor McLaglen is a welcome addition to the cast as Quincannon, a similarly retiring veteran soldier who’s longtime friends with Brittles.

Also look for George O’Brien, Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields and an uncredited Paul Fix in a small scene.

Ford movies lean toward the romantic side of the cavalry and the west. He has a respect for the men who donned the blue uniforms and curled campaign hats for $30 a month and constant danger over the next rise. These are good, old-fashioned stories with strong characters (if at times stereotyped) and style for days. Just a gem of a movie. Not always identified as Ford or Wayne’s best, but it should be. A classic worth checking out and/or re-visiting.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949): ****/****

The Hangman

the_hangman_posterGrowing up, I wasn’t always a fan of Robert Taylor movies. As I look
back now, I figure it’s because I just didn’t see many of his movies.
I was too busy with John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood
flicks. I’ve caught up though in the years since and have definitely
come to appreciate Taylor, especially in his western and war movies.
He gives an interesting turn in a flawed 1959 western, The Hangman.

After several years and hundreds of miles on the trail, Marshal
Mackenzie Bovard (Taylor) has put all but one member of a gang behind
bars from a notorious stagecoach robbery. His last man? Johnny
Butterfield, a former cavalry trooper who Bovard can’t identify. How
do you arrest a man you’re not sure what he looks like? His leads have
led him to an isolated town when he finds out a woman, Selah Jennison
(Tina Louise), who worked at the outpost Butterfield served at, may
know what Butterfield looks like. Offering her a large reward and
telling her where to meet, Bovard heads off looking to close the book
on the case and retire as a successful peace officer and move to
California.

This western from director Michael Curtiz aired recently on Encore
Westerns. I’d never heard of it – much less seen it – so I gave it a
shot. Filmed in black and white, ‘Hangman’ doesn’t have much in the
way of action (there’s basically NO action), and the majority of the
story is set in a town. In several ways, it reminded me of an extended
TV western, a la Bonanza, Gunsmoke or The Rifleman meets The Twilight
Zone. It surely is not a traditional western which isn’t a
deal-breaker in itself. The deal-breaker? Slow pacing, kinda dull and
an odd tone at times.

What drew me in here was the casting. Taylor, Louise, Fess Parker and
Jack Lord headline the cast. How’s that for an eclectic quartet?
Taylor gets the archetypal western peace officer, looking to retire
and close out his career by getting the stagecoach rivalry off the
books. Louise proves what a great actress she was, even though she’s
remembered almost solely for playing Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.
Parker is solid too as amiable Sheriff Buck Weston, potentially
hurting and helping Bovard’s case. Lord plays Johnny Bishop, a mule driver who Bovard believes is the man he’s looking for.

It’s four main characters that never quite click because of that too
slow-moving story. The potential is there, and I especially liked the
build-up over the first 30 minutes. The last hour though drags once
Bovard arrives in town. Then we get a kinda cat-and-mouse game that
feels repetitive at best and downright dull at its worst. Then there’s
the shifts in tone to comedy – an older woman in town constantly
pursues Taylor’s Bovard – and an ending that (to me at least) feels
like a romantic comedy that could have starred Rock Hudson and Doris
Day. By the time ‘The End” popped up on-screen I was both extremely
pleased and extremely confused. So be it.

Also look for Gene Evans, Mickey Shaughnessy, Jose Gonzales-Gonzales,
and Lorne Green. Fans of The Andy Griffith Show should watch out for
Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn) as a waitress who serves Bovard and Weston.

Not an awful western, but one I didn’t enjoy that much. The biggest
thing going for the proceedings is Tina Louise, a strong female
character, something all too rare in the western genre. A budding sex
symbol, ‘Hangman’ has its fair share of Louise in low-cut, no-cut,
swimming shots to play up the sex kitten status – never a bad thing,
have you seen her?!? – but the character itself is a welcome addition
to the story, even if things fall apart in the end.

The Hangman (1959): **/****