Stalag 17 (1953)

Well, there are just certain movies I should have reviewed by now. I’ve mentioned on multiple occasions how much I like prisoner of war movies like The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai, but the first one to really put the WWII sub-genre came along in 1953, Stalag 17, a classic that doesn’t always get its due.

It’s nearing Christmas in 1944, and a breakout is planned in Stalag 17, a German prisoner of war camp deep in Germany for Allied fliers. The night of the escape, the two prisoners making the attempt are machine gunned outside the barbed wire fence, leaving the prisoners they left behind in Barracks 4 to question what’s going on. How did the Germans know details of the escape? The prisoners look to J.J. Sefton (William Holden) as the culprit, a possible stoolie who trades and bargains with the German captors for all sorts of luxuries from eggs to cigarettes to booze. Maybe Sefton has been giving away all their secrets for his own benefit, but Sefton knows otherwise. He may be a chiseler, but he’s not a traitor. The problem is simple though, he can’t prove it. Who among the other prisoners in Barracks 4 is the real culprit? He’s going to need an answer and need it quick before his bunkmates decide they’ve had enough of him for good.

From director Billy Wilder, ‘Stalag’ is a gem of a film, one of my favorites going back to when I was a kid. It was based on a Broadway play that had 472 showings over its run. The stage-based play roots are obvious, but in a good way. Filmed in a very appropriate, very effective black and white, ‘Stalag’ is set almost entirely in Barracks 4 as the story develops, Christmas approaching ever quicker. The only departures we have from the barracks are outside into the camp compound. We never leave the camp, the entire story based in Stalag 17. The crowded, claustrophobic barracks becomes another character with the bunks almost bumping into each other, the windows with the frost and ice sticking to the panes, the clothes hanging from lines hung from wall to wall. Franz Waxman‘s uncredited score is solid as well if underplayed, Johnny Coming Marching Home a key component of the story as well.

One of three nominations the movie received went to William Holden as Barracks 4 chiseler and general trouble-maker J.J. Sefton. Nominated for his part in Sunset Boulevard but not winning, Holden got a much-deserved win here, taking home the Oscar. More impressive? He was going up against Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity. Holden brings this character to life, a less than sympathetic but still appealing individual who’s decided to make the most of his prisoner of war status. He’s going to live in comfort, and if that means dealing/trading with his German captors, then so be it. It’s not an issue until his bunkmates decide he’s the traitor giving the Germans all their secrets. This is where Holden’s acting steps up a notch, a desperate man now fighting for his survival instead of his personal comfort. Not often remembered as one of his best, but it’s a goodie.

Holden’s performance comes as part of a very solid ensemble cast that doesn’t feature a ton of A-list stars, instead turning to a group of familiar character actors. Start with Robert Strauss as Animal and Harvey Lembeck as Harry Shapiro, the barracks cut-ups, Richard Erdman as Hoffy, the barracks chief, Peter Graves as Price, barracks security, Neville Brand as Duke, the hothead, and Gil Stratton as Cookie, Sefton’s mousey assistant, and Robinson Stone, Robert Shawley, and William Pierson rounding out the bunch. Don Taylor co-stars as Lt. Dunbar, a prisoner in transit who comes under SS questioning, Jay Lawrence his impersonating, smart-mouthed traveling companion, Sgt. Bagradian. The comedy between Animal and Harry gets to be a little much at times, Bagradian’s impersonations a little forced, but as a collective whole it’s a good, strong, deep group of interesting characters.

It is hard to watch this without seeing the obvious influences some 10-plus years later with TV’s Hogan’s Heroes. Director Otto Preminger stars as Von Scherbach, the Stalag commander, an old-school German aristocrat and gentleman while Sig Ruman plays barracks guard Sgt. Schulz, a VERY obvious influence on John Banner’s famous Sgt. Schultz character in the TV show.

An episodic story that clocks in at exactly 120 minutes, there really isn’t a slow moment in Wilder’s Stalag 17. In directing his film, Wilder decided to shoot chronologically so that way the cast and crew wouldn’t know the twist — the identity of the barracks traitor — until the end of filming. The first hour or so of the movie blends the drama and comedy nicely setting up the second half of the movie. As the barracks traitor story comes to the forefront, that’s when ’17’ is at its best. The last 30 minutes are pretty perfect, Holden’s Sefton starting to piece the clues together in a great couple scenes, Wilder’s talent fully on display in shooting style, while the actual reveal and the finale are spot-on. This is a movie that doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves, but it sure deserves it. One of my favorites.

Stalag 17 (1953): ****/****


3 Godfathers (1948)

3_godfathers_1948_posterThe late 1940s and into the 1950s was an important stretch for John Ford, the legendary director turning in some of his finest work. His cavalry trilogy — She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, Rio Grande — are the movies he’s most often associated with, but it was during the same stretch that Ford directed one of his best westerns, 1948’s 3 Godfathers, a flick that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

Three outlaws, Bob Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William Kearney (Harry Carey Jr.), have robbed the bank in the tiny, usually peaceful town of Welcome, Arizona. They hightail it out of town with a saddlebag full of gold, the town sheriff, Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), managing to shoot their water bag in a chaotic chase across the desert. Now, it’s a chess match for water, and who can go longer without it, the outlaws or the sheriff and his posse. Out in the desert, Bob, Pedro and William stumble across a pregnant woman alone and about to give birth. She dies soon after, leaving the trio in survival mode…and now caring for an infant. Without any horses, can they get him to safety?

There’s an aura often when you watch a Ford western, especially in this stage of his career. Trademark, signatures, whatever you want to call them, but they’re easily visible. Though ‘Godfathers’ has some darker moments, it’s one of Ford’s relatively lighter westerns. There’s drama but humor to balance it out. And there’s no other way to say it, this is cheesy, downright corny at times. My point though? It doesn’t matter. It’s a gem.

Not filming in his usual Monument Valley, Ford films instead in Death Valley, a sparse, dangerous stretch of land if there ever was, but an oddly beautiful land. Filmed in Technicolor, it’s a visual stunner, even the colors from 1948 popping to life. The skies, the clouds, even the costumes all leave a lasting impression. Add a familiar but memorable score from composer Richard Hageman (a frequent partner in Ford movies), and that halfway decent cast, you’ve got a winner.

This was actually the third retelling of the basic story, Ford even filming a silent version in 1919 (it was remade again in 1936, a solid flick all-around). What holds it together — however cheesy/corny/overdone at times — is the casting. A 40-year old Wayne steals the show as Bob, the no-nonsense leader of our little “gang” who’s long rode with Pedro and looks out for Kearney (AKA The Abilene Kid) as he goes on his first job. Armendariz and Carey Jr. match him step-for-step, chemistry to burn as first just survival is the key, but then so much more and something bigger when the infant’s survival is at stake. No matter whether it’s the lighter, comedic moments or the harsher, darker realities setting in, I absolutely love the 3 Godfathers characters. Basically the three nicest “bad guys” ever in a western.

Ford fills out his supporting cast with more than a few familiar faces from his Stock Company (character actors who were in many Ford movies). Ward Bond is excellent as Buck “Perley” Sweet, Welcome’s sheriff who unintentionally befriends the outlaws before realizing who they are, Mae Marsh playing his wife. Mildred Natwick is excellent in one quick scene (but a highly memorable one) as the Mother who as she’s dying asks the three outlaws to be godfathers to her infant son, who she names Robert William Pedro after them. Other familiar faces include Jane Darwell, Guy Kibbee, Hank Worden, Jack Pennick, and in his first credited role, Ben Johnson. It obviously wouldn’t be the last we heard of him in the western genre.

What may surprise some viewers here that ‘Godfathers’ become a variation of Three Men and a Baby meets an American wild west version of the Three Kings story from the Nativity story. So….yes, it is a bit of a Christmas movie! The 3 godfathers must travel to New Jerusalem in hopes of saving the baby, often looking to a bright star for guidance. There’s some faith, some religion, some good and evil along the way, and a story with some surprising twists in its last third. It is cheesy at times and may drive some viewers away, but it’s always been a favorite. Definitely worth a watch.

Ford actually dedicated the film to his longtime friend and star, Harry Carey (Carey Jr.’s father), who had died the year before in 1947. His son more than holds his own, stealing some scenes, especially when he sings Streets of Laredo to the baby as a lullaby. Any-hoo, give it a watch!

3 Godfathers (1948): *** 1/2 /****

El Dorado (1967)

el_dorado_28john_wayne_movie_poster29With 1959’s Rio Bravo, director Howard Hawks turned in one of his finest films in a career that spanned 6 decades. How good is it? Over 11 years, Hawks remade the film twice, first with 1967’s El Dorado and then 3 years later with 1970’s Rio Lobo. Here we go with the first remake, El Dorado.

A hired gun with a reputation for a fast draw, Cole Thornton (John Wayne) has agreed to sign on with a powerful rancher, Bart Jason (Ed Asner). He doesn’t know exactly what the job entails, ultimately deciding to not take the job when he realizes Jason is trying to drive a fellow rancher out by any means necessary. In the process, Thornton takes a bullet in his back that causes him to lose all feeling in his right arm. Months pass though, Thornton eventually ending up back in the valley. He decides to join the effort against Jason, joining his old friend, JP Harrah (Robert Mitchum), who’s retreated into a bottle after a woman left him. Now, Thornton, Harrah and a motley crew must band together to stop Jason from taking over the valley.

Sound familiar? It should, ‘Dorado’ a loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, made 8 years earlier. It isn’t spot-on, but it’s pretty dang close, a sheriff and a ragtag band forced to band together to keep their town going against a power-hungry rancher. Sure, there are tweaks here and there, but let’s call it what it is, a remake. The same filming locations — notably Old Tucson — are even used! The analysis is pretty cut and dry. If you liked ‘Bravo,’ you’ll like ‘Dorado.’

Though they were both in The Longest Day’s massive cast, Wayne and Mitchum were never on-screen together (that I remember). So naturally, the pairing of the two Hollywood legends is enough reason to watch any movie. There are flaws here in ‘Dorado,’ but let me tell you, the casting ain’t one of those flaws. Wayne and Mitchum make it look easy from the word ‘go,’ just two pros doing their thing and playing effortlessly off each other. Thornton is the hired gun (a bit of a darker part for Wayne) with Mitchum as the drunken sheriff, good with a gun but down on his luck. Naturally, there’s history between the two men, former rivals turned longtime friends. Just go for the ride with these two. You won’t be disappointed.

According to a Mitchum biographer, Hawks approached him with the idea of casting him opposite Wayne. Mitchum asked about the script/story to which Hawks said ‘Nah, no story. Just characters.’ It’s a dead-on description. Yeah, there are bad guys, things to be dealt with, but that story (I use the word lightly) is sorta kinda not really something that ties one scene to another. It’s 126 minutes long, but that second hour feels much longer, seemingly watching the same scenes over and over again. There isn’t much energy, little momentum, and then it just sorta ends. It’s never bad, just not as good at it could have been. ‘Bravo’ is 14 minutes longer, but it crackles, always on the right path.

So no story? Better be some damn good characters then! A very young James Caan more than holds his own with Wayne and Mitchum, playing Mississippi, a young gambler who’s proficient with a knife…but can’t shoot a gun to save his life. A strong part with some good laughs along the way. Charlene Holt and Michelle Carey are the love interests, two strong women and not your typical damsels in distress. Christopher George is underused as Nelse McLeod, a gunslinger with a code, his scenes with Wayne’s Thornton excellent. It’s just two guys sizing each other up. Also, Arthur Hunnicutt plays Arthur Hunnicutt, um, I mean Bull, an old Indian fighter who’s always talking.

Also look for Paul Fix, Asner, R.G. Armstrong, Jim Davis and Robert Donner in supporting parts. Johnny Crawford also makes a quick appearance as a young rancher’s son. Any Rifleman fans will get a kick out of seeing young Mark McCain grown up a bit!

The first hour is excellent, the second hour just not able to keep up. There are so many plates spinning — a lot of characters — that it all gets muddled. The villains are weak at best, and there’s very little action. Still, the star power — Wayne, Mitchum and Caan especially — makes it worthwhile. Hawks does focus almost entirely on characters over story, and while risky, it pays off. A very good western, but not a great one. The theme song, well, you’ll be singing it for days. Listen HERE.

El Dorado (1967) ***/****


The Great Escape (1963)

I have two favorite movies, neither of which I’m able to pick one over the other.  I love them both, and all other movies come after it, first is 1960’s The Alamo which I’ve reviewed before and then there’s 1963’s The Great Escape. Introduced to it at a young age when I showed an interest in history, I’ve probably seen it 25 or 30 times straight through, and another 75 or 100 catching bits and pieces. For me, it is that rare perfect movie. Great story, impressive cast, exciting action, and one of the best soundtracks ever. You can’t ask for much more.

In World War II, both the Allies and Axis forces had to deal with how to handle prisoners of wars. In Germany, the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, was placed in charge of these Allied prisoners, placing them in P.O.W. camps all over their occupied territory. These prisoners — as was their sworn duty — tried countless escapes over the length of the war in typically small groups, sometimes getting as many as a dozen out. But one true story set the bar for heroism and courage among the prisoners, the true story of 76 prisoners escaping Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Literally hundreds of prisoners were involved in the effort as the escape even had an impact on D-Day some three months later.

It’s 1943, and a new prison camp has been built. The German Luftwaffe has taken the worst prisoners from all their camps and thrown them in this new camp that features all the security aspects they’ve learned from previous camps.  In this “perfect” camp, the Germans (Hannes Messemer is the commandant) intend to watch these men very carefully. Leading the prisoners is Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), dubbed ‘Big X’ for his leadership at the top of the ‘X Organization,’ a team of prisoners working together to bust out as many captured soldiers as they can. Bartlett has bigger plans though this time around. Instead of just getting two or three prisoners out, he intends to get 250 out of the camp with a large-scale plan that includes three extremely long tunnels under the barbed-wire fence. The plan seems impossible, but the prisoners go to work, slowly working their way toward escape.

Do you know the line ‘They don’t make them like they used to?’ This movie applies. Director John Sturges (one of my favorites and an underrated filmmaker overall) turns in his all-time best film, one that stands at or near the top in the lexicon of World War II movies. It is based in fact, sticking to the details and truths in the story, without getting bogged down.  There is action, humor (never overplayed, just natural humor arising from the situation), and characters you love and are generally rooting for. Composer Elmer Bernstein turns in a score that is one of the greats, especially the main theme, listen HERE. Bernstein’s score both drives the story as needed and keeps it grounded in the quieter, emotional scenes (including one where a tunnel is discovered and its tragic consequences).  Sturges filmed in Germany — as his assistant said, ‘Germany looks like Germany.’ An entire camp was built, an exact duplicate of the actual camp, bringing this 1963 epic up another notch in terms of realism and authenticity.

Sturges’ movies were famous for their male-dominated ensemble casts, but this may be his most impressive. Start with Steve McQueen as Hilts, the motorcycle-riding ‘Cooler King,’ the role that shot him to international stardom. Then there’s James Garner as Hendley, the scrounger, and Attenborough as Bartlett, the prisoner’s top man, a brilliant mind who comes up with this improbable plan. Not bad, huh? Oh yeah, there’s also James Donald as Ramsey, the senior British officer, Charles Bronson and John Leyton as Danny and Willie, the tunnel kings, James Coburn as Sedgwick, the manufacturer, Donald Pleasence as Blythe, the forger, David McCallum as Ashley-Pitt, “dispersal,” and Gordon Jackson as MacDonald, the intelligence officer. Other prisoners include Nigel StockJud Taylor and Angus Lennie in a small but essential part as Ives, Hilt’s progressively wire-happy partner. A more impressive cast could be impossible to assemble.

What is amazing is that even with all those stars — some on the rise, some already established — is that they all register, they all make a lasting impression in a positive way. More on McQueen later, but Attenborough delivers a career-best as Big X, the driven even obsessed leader who wants to take the war back to the Germans, not sitting out the war comfortably as his captors intend. Garner’s Hendley bonds with Pleasence’s Blythe in some of the movie’s most touching scenes, two very different people forming a friendship. Bronson and Leyton as the tunnel kings certainly make an impression, carving three tunnels out of the Earth 30 feet below the surface. Bronson is at his best, a Polish flyer with claustrophobia who hides his fear of small, enclosed spaces and digs. Coburn doesn’t get a ton to do compared to the others, but is his usual, laconic self. There is not a weakness in the cast from top to bottom.

When movie fans think of The Great Escape, they usually go right to Steve McQueen, a rising star who got his crack at the big time here and didn’t disappoint.  His Capt. Virgil Hilts is one of his most iconic roles, the loner, trouble-making American prisoner who attempts escape attempt after attempt.  What’s funny is that his character basically disappears for vast stretches of the movie, only to reappear after a stint in the cooler and steal every scene he is in. This is McQueen at his laid back, scene-stealing best. With all the notable actor’s actors around him, he is the unquestioned star thanks in great part to the finale, a motorcycle chase across Germany with his captors in hot pursuit. It is one of the greatest chases sequences ever, caped with one of the most impressive stunts ever, a 7-foot jump by stunt man Bud Ekins over a high-strung barbed-wire fence. McQueen is my favorite, but this is always his best to me.

With a final run-time of 2 hours and 53 minutes, Sturges’ true story doesn’t have to rush along at a lightning pace…but does anyway. The first 105 minutes or so focus exclusively on the escape attempt, putting all the little details together that need to happen. The first and biggest of course is the digging of the tunnels, 30 feet down and over 300 feet straight out. A track is built to transport prisoners/diggers, and wooden boards are needed to shore up the entire length of the tunnel. Up above, forgers create documents, tailors make clothes, Intelligence gathers information, all part of an elaborate system of security and watchmen to make sure nothing is discovered by their ever-vigilant German guards. It would have been easy for this movie to get bogged down in these details, but The Great Escape revels in them, making the mundane and possibly boring, exciting at a breakneck pace.

It is a movie called ‘The Great Escape’ though, and it is at its most exciting once the prisoners do escape, 76 of them in the dead of night spread out all over the German countryside. The escape attempt covers the last hour of the movie, an incredible extended sequence that is hard to top. It is almost entirely dialogue free, Bernstein’s score playing over the action the whole way. Finally free of their camp, the prisoners make their efforts to hopefully reach freedom, some by train, some by bikes, others by planes, and in Hilts’ case, a stolen German motorcycle.  Sturges was an action master, and this may be his tour de force sequence.

I could go on and on with this movie, and I’ve already sort of done so. My head is full of little tidbits of information that I’ve picked up over the course of repeated viewings.  Above all else through the drama, the facts, and the action is that Sturges gets the tone right from Paul Brickhill’s source novel, and most importantly, the true story it is based on. These men did the impossible in an impossible situation. Knowing their chances of escape back to freedom were slim, they plodded on when they could have just as easily quit. If you didn’t know and just read the details — check out the Wikipedia entry HERE for more details — you would say there’s no way this happened, but somehow, some way, it did. The ending hits you square in the stomach as it should, but the movie ends on a positive note; McQueen’s Hilts once again in the cooler, bouncing his baseball off the wall.  You may capture him again, but you’ll never stop him from trying.

A perfect movie, one of the best around, and one of my two favorite movies.

The Great Escape <—trailer (1963): ****/****


A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972)

a-reason-to-live-a-reason-to-die-posterIf a formula ain’t broke…don’t fix it! Nowhere is that more applicable than with movies. If a movie succeeds, tweek it, twist it, spin it and do your thing. Released in 1967, The Dirty Dozen is a gem, an American army major tasked with leading 12 convicts sentenced to death or hard labor on a suicide mission. A classic! In its wake, countless war and western flicks followed the formula, like 1972’s A Reason to Live, a Recent to Die.

It’s early in the Civil War in the Southwest territory as Union and Confederate forces battle back and forth. A disgraced Union colonel, Pembroke (James Coburn), is seeking some revenge but his plan is suicidal (at best). The former commander of the impregnable Fort Holman, Pembroke surrendered the fort to the Rebs without a shot fired. Now, he’s approaching his former commanders with a way to take back the mountaintop fort. His men? Eight men rescued from the gallows at the last second, including an amiable drifter, Eli (Bud Spencer). All the while, Fort Holman and its psychotic commander, Major Ward (Telly Savalas), awaits. Pembroke can’t wait to exact his revenge, if he can keep his death squad in check.

As is so often the case with spaghetti westerns, it can be difficult to track down the full versions of so many of these movies. The genre itself was hugely popular in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, especially in Europe and plenty of third-world countries around the world. The versions that made it to America at times? Heavily cut, heavily edited, and often times a shell of what the original, intended version really was. The version I’ve seen is the heavily-edited 92-minute version. The full version — about 111 minutes — is available at Amazon for $90 if anyone wants to split it with me and just share the DVD…

What remains is a fun, entertaining but somewhat disjointed western from director Tonino Valerii (also directed My Name is Nobody, Day of Anger, and The Price of Power). An introduction to Coburn and Spencer was cut entirely, now we actually are spoiled by the ending in the opening minutes unfortunately. Then, it’s a quick flashback to where the mission all started (sorta). What follows a little barebones. Little time for exposition, quick, aggressive cuts that leave scenes jumping from one to another without much in the way of a transition. It’s all built around getting the story to the attack on the fort with no interest in characters, story or background. So if you’re patient for some action…

All that said, it’s hard not to be excited for a western starring Coburn, Spencer and Savalas, right? The backstory — however rushed — between Coburn and Savalas does provide a good twist in the film’s last half, explaining why Pembroke surrendered the fort without a shot. Coburn is the leader tasked with an impossible mission, leading his death squad without the squad actually killing him! His manipulation continually holds his men at bay. Spencer gives the movie a lighter touch as Eli, a drifter who sides with Pembroke during the mission. Savalas’ part amounts to an extended cameo, a script that doesn’t give him much to do, especially considering his backstory and how crazy we’re told he is. Eh, story is overrated!

The star power is in our lead trio. As for Pembroke’s death squad, spaghetti western fans will enjoy seeing some familiar faces, but it’s not big stars by any means. The wild west convict commandos include Sgt. Brent (Reinhard Kolldehoff), the questioning NCO — who potentially killed Pembroke’s wife? I don’t know…cut scene! –, MacIvers (Guy Mairesse), the murdering deserter, Wendel (Ugo Fangareggi), the horse thief, Pickett (Benito Stefanelli), a murderer and rapist, Fernandez (Adolfo Lastretti), a black market seller who’s latest deal killed 30 Union troops and Turam Quibo as a half-breed Apache. Quibo is also in Adios, Sabata and miscredited here in the ‘Reason’ casting listing. Not a likable group by any means, but an interesting mix for sure.

If you’ve made it this far, it must be because of the action. Using the same awesome filming set as 1970’s El Condor, the Fort Holman location is awesome, providing an incredible backdrop for an impressive attack that runs about 25 minutes. Explosions, dynamite, Gatling guns, twists and turns, a crazy body count, and who can make it out from our death squad? A whole lotta fun in a beautifully choreographed final action sequence.

Flawed though it is, ‘Reason’ is pretty fun, and I’ve watched it 3 different times over the last 6 or 7 years. Familiar locations from El Condor, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Deserter and plenty others, and a cool — if somewhat out of place — score (listen HERE) helps make for a fun if flawed final product. In the vein of ‘Deserter’ and Kill Them All and Come Back Alone. A mess but an entertaining mess!

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972): ** 1/2 /****


Land Raiders (1969)

landraidposBefore he became instantly recognizable as TV detective Kojak, Telly Savalas was a staple in tough guy movies in the late 1960’s and through much of the 1970’s. While many American stars went to Europe during this time to star in the spaghetti western flicks, Savalas sorta did that, heading to Europe for a trio of American-backed westerns that are quasi-spaghettis. The look, the feel…it’s almost there. The list includes 1972’s Pancho Villa, 1971’s A Town Called Hell and today’s review, 1969’s Land Raiders.

In the Forge River Valley in the Arizona territory in the 1870’s, rancher Vince Carden (Savalas) is king. With his immense cattle ranch, Carden keeps scooping up land as other smaller ranchers simply can’t keep up, both with him and raiding Apaches. One day, Carden’s younger brother, Paul (George Maharis), rides back into town after several years away from the family’s ranch. The reason? A tragic incident from their past, Paul forced to ride away. He’s drifted back home now, but his timing couldn’t have been worse. Vince continues to try to sweep away the raiding Apaches nearby, but efforts are being made to broker a peace treaty. Vince though…he may have ulterior motives. Right in the middle, Paul returning and simply looking for some answers.

I caught this western a couple times as a kid when it aired in the afternoon on TBS (oh, those were the days). From director Nathan Juran, ‘Raiders’ is a pretty good example of a wave of spaghetti western knockoffs that American studios released trying to duplicate the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. None reached those levels, but they’re almost uniformly entertaining. The filming locations here are familiar (in a good way) and frequent Ennio Morricone collaborator Bruno Nicolai turns in an excellent score that’s fairly reminiscent of the iconic Dollars scores (also in a good way). Give it a listen HERE. It doesn’t rewrite the genre, but I’m always entertained here.

My favorite Savalas role is in 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes, the rare role where he isn’t the villain. Man, he was so good at playing that dastardly, bastardly, bloodthirsty bad guy. That’s the case here in ‘Raiders,’ his Vince — actually Vincente Cardenas — is as greedy as they come, and he doesn’t care how many bodies he has to climb over to get to the top. Maharis is solid as Paul — actually Pablo Cardenas — who returns to deal with his past, a former love who died under suspicious circumstances. Not quite a heroic good guy, he nonetheless is far better than his brother. A cool dynamic between the Carden/Cardenas brothers.

Not much star power on display here in ‘Raiders’ other than our lead duo. Arlene Dahl plays Vince’s wife, oblivious to her husband’s actions, Janet Landgard as Kate, the sheriff’s daughter returning to town at the wrong time, Guy Rolfe as Major Tanner, the cavalry commander with an English accent (?), and Phil Brown as Sheriff Mayfield, torn between his boss (Vince) and his morals. Also, in some bizarre casting, Paul Picerni plays two different roles, one as Vince’s henchman and another as Arturo, an old friend of Paul’s. Are we not supposed to notice? Also look for John Clark as Ace, another Vince henchman, and familiar face Fernando Rey as a priest who makes a lightning-quick appearance.

I’ll give ‘Raiders’ credit. It deals with familiar territory — Indians vs. settlers/ranchers — but manages to make it interesting and unique. Some foggy, stylish flashbacks help illuminate the Carden/Cardenas history, revealing a twist that’s not so twisty in the end. It clocks in at 101 minutes, fleshed out with some footage from a 1950’s American western I can’t place. Much of the budget seems to have been saved for an action-packed finale as the Apaches finally attack a forted-up town defended by the townspeople and the cavalry. Pretty dark ending all-around.

A classic? Nope, but pretty entertaining, and decidedly different. Worth a watch.

Land Raiders (1969): ***/****


Welcome to Hard Times (1967)

welcomehardtimesSome westerns just defy genre conventions, whether intentionally or not. In America’s wild west in the late 1800’s, did everyone carry a gun? Was everyone a hard-boiled killer? It wasn’t all cowboys and Indians, gunfighters, sheriffs and bandits. It’s the rare western that tries to tell a story from the perspective of the normal people, like 1967’s Welcome to Hard Times.

In the isolated, one-street town of Hard Times, the population lives a quietly, lonely life, and then a murderous gunslinger (Aldo Ray) rides into town. Unchecked by anyone willing to stand up to him, he rapes and kills a saloon girl, kills a handful of people, burns several buildings and rides out. In the wreckage of the town, the mayor, Blue (Henry Fonda), decides to rebuild and put the incident in the past. Several survivors agree to stay on and help the rebuild, along with a variety of eclectic strangers who find their way to Hard Times. As they build the town back up though, Blue knows the potential the gunslinger comes back and ravages Hard Times again. Will someone be able to stand up to him this time?

Based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow (a good read), ‘Welcome’ asks an interesting question. Are guns the answer? Basically every western ever says….YES. Sure, characters question themselves, sometimes giving up their guns in the end as they settle down, but to stop bad, you need violence. From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Welcome’ doesn’t seek to give you an answer about the question, but it certainly throws it out there? Sticking relatively close to the Doctorow novel, it is a very literary film, stock characters — the peaceful mayor, the murdering gunslinger, the drifter, the broken woman, and so on — that tries to take a different look at a very familiar genre.

Unfortunately…it’s mishandled. It tackles too much and doesn’t know what it wants to say or how in a 103-minute movie. The first 20 minutes as Ray’s Man from Bodie attacks Hard Times is amazingly uncomfortable, playing out almost like a horror movie. The middle section is like a family western, eclectic, eccentric strangers moving into town, a far lighter tone with some foreboding undertones. The finale? Well, it ain’t pleasant with some surprising twists. But then after all that, the movie ends on an odd note. The story itself is too broad, the tone going up and down like a rollercoaster. It’s not a bad movie, just a potentially good movie that never quite rises to the occasion.

It’s hard to ignore the movie though because of the strong cast. Even in bad-to-okay flicks, Fonda was worth watching, and here’s no exception. His Blue is a former gambler and cowboy, now living peacefully who questions what picking up a gun would accomplish. It’s a fascinating character, far from your typical western hero. Janice Rule is one of the most shrill characters ever as Molly, the saloon girl attacked by the Man from Bodie and holds Blue responsible for the attack and his lack of action. It’s just an awful character with no shred of likability. Ray is an incredible presence as the Man from Bodie, a remorseless killer with no qualms about raping, ravaging and killing.

Also look for the always welcome Keenan Wynn as Zar, a traveling saloon owner who with partner/wife, Adah (Janis Paige), travels with their 3 prostitutes wherever the money takes them. Warren Oates is Leo Jenks, an amiable drifter who’s good with a gun, John Anderson plays dual roles as shopkeeping brothers. Some impressive character actors show up, including Denver Pyle, Paul Fix, Royal Dano, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook, Lon Chaney Jr. and Alan Baxter.

As much of a mixed bag at this western is and the mediocre rating I’m giving it, I’m still recommending it for western fans. The cast is pretty cool, and even if it doesn’t deliver, there is potential galore on-hand. Go for the ride and brace for some of the twists and turns you’ll get as opposed to a more traditional western.

Welcome to Hard Times (1967): **/****