Rocky Mountain (1950)

rockymountain1950One of the most bankable stars of the 1930s and 1940s, Errol Flynn had seen his star fade a bit by 1950. His partying lifestyle had started to catch up to him, and his films weren’t a sure thing anymore at the box office. That said…he was still the absolute coolest. In 1950, he starred in a western that’s been generally forgotten in the years since. Why is that? I’m drawing a blank. It’s one of my favorites. Here’s 1950’s Rocky Mountain.

It’s March 1865 and the last days of the Confederacy are on the horizon. Riding west for California, Captain Rafe Barlow (Flynn) and a small 7-man patrol have been tasked with a desperate mission, an almost suicidal objective of starting a new front in California. His plan takes a hit though when Barstow’s squad fights off a Shoshone attack and rescues a beautiful young woman, Johanna (Patrice Wymore), from a wrecked stagecoach. On their way to meet the hopeful leader of the uprising, Cole Smith (Howard Petrie), Barstow must now make a decision. Johanna’s fiance is a Union officer and will no doubt come looking for her. Barlow’s squad is stuck in the middle, forced to continue the mission or save Johanna, worrying about Shoshone war parties and Union patrols all around them and closing in.

I stumbled across this western from director William Keighley (and a story by Alan LeMay, who also wrote The Searchers) years ago via Netflix, then rewatching it recently off of Turner Classic Movies. I loved it both times, maybe even more so the second time around. ‘Rocky’ clocks in at just 83 minutes and pretty seamlessly blends the Civil War and western story.

The coolest part here is the filming locations. It’s filmed in black and white. Would it have been an interesting movie to watch in color? Yeah, you bet, 1948’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon coming to mind. But the rocky, barren desert is aided by the black and white filming, giving a starkness to the setting that color might have canceled out. He films on location in New Mexico, using some familiar locations including some that fans of John Ford’s Fort Apache will notice (more on that later). Also, ‘Rocky’ borrows an instantly recognizable musical score from composer Max Steiner, using his They Died With Their Boots On theme. Give it a listen HERE starting at a :49.

What impressed me here was ‘Rocky’s’ ability to get ahead of the curve with westerns of the time. The late 1940s and early 1950s were an important transition for the genre. It wasn’t so much the white-hat good guys vs. the black-hat bad guys. Most characters had flaws, even inner demons they had to deal with. ‘Rocky’ isn’t quite there….but it’s getting there. The Union and Confederacy teaming up was used several times after (Escape from Fort Bravo, Major Dundee), but this is one of the first I can come up with. It’s the little things here. The men have beards, stubble, and look like they’ve been sweating in the desert heat. At least some effort was made to make it seem authentic. I give points just for the attempt. When that attempt works? Win-win for the viewer.

Starring in his last western, Flynn makes the most of it. He just looks comfortable in the part. His Capt. Barstow is a strong leader, liked and respected by his men, but he also has a moral compass that won’t let him turn his back on what’s right and wrong. The only slow moments here are his not-so-surprising romance with Wymore’s Johanna. She’s engaged to Union cavalry officer, Lt. Rickey (Scott Forbes), but can’t help be drawn to the very attractive Capt. Barstow. Playing the sneaky, sniveling Cole Smith, Petrie is a background player, but his character plays a key role late. Also look for western vet and character actor Chubby Johnson as Craigie, the stagecoach driver with no allegiances to North or South, just himself, bringing some homespun charm to this small but funny part.

What drew me to the movie — right up there with Errol Flynn — was the story that sounded like such an obvious forerunner to movies like Escape from Fort Bravo and Major Dundee. Nowhere was that more evident than Flynn’s small squad of Confederate misfits. Not any huge names here, but western fans will get a kick out of the group. It includes Guinn Williams as Pap, the old man of the group, Dickie Jones as Jimmy, the soft-spoken youngster who fights like mad while also looking out for his dog, Slim Pickens (in his first credited role) as Plank, a plainsman who served time in prison, Robert Henry as Kip, a young man and heir to a plantation back home, Sheb Wooley as Rawlins, the steamboat man with a mean streak, Peter Coe as Pierre, the Frenchman from Louisiana, and Rush Williams as Jonas, the plainsman and dead shot with a rifle. Not a weak link in the bunch, but Jones especially stands out, including one scene he has with Wymore discussing his brief encounter with Robert E. Lee before Gettysburg. Just seven solid supporting parts for Flynn.

It’s the rare western I can’t find something positive to talk about. And about an hour into ‘Rocky’ I was liking it a lot if not loving it. And then there’s the last 25 minutes. Somewhat short on action to this point (not a huge issue), the finale has Barstow and his squad making a dangerous decision separate from the mission. No spoilers here, but my goodness, the ending certainly resonates, catching me off-guard on both viewings. Flynn addresses his men after a chase, stating ‘They’ve seen our backs, let’s show them our fronts.’ It’s a line that could sound cheesy, but with Flynn delivering the line, it works in a big way. The finale was even filmed in the same canyon as the ending to John Ford’s Fort Apache. I loved the honesty of the ending. LOVED it. It takes a pretty good western and makes it a near classic.

Can’t recommend this one enough. Definitely worth tracking down.

 

Rocky Mountain (1950): *** 1/2 /****

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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

two_mules_for_sister_sara_posterFollowing his breakout success in Sergio Leone’s iconic spaghetti western trilogy – the ‘Dollars’ trilogy – Clint Eastwood returned to the states a marketable star. He wanted to distance himself some from the western genre, but still made a couple entries over the coming years. The best? A spaghetti-ish western with director Don Siegel, 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara.

It’s the years following the Civil War, and an American mercenary, Hogan (Eastwood), is working with the Juaristas as Mexican forces fight the French government. On the trail, he rescues a woman who is about to be raped by 3 drifters, killing her 3 attackers. Hogan is in for a surprise. The woman is a nun, Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), similarly riding south who is also working with the Juaristas. Knowing Sister Sara is seriously at risk traveling on her own, Hogan says she can travel with him as they ride through French patrols, bandits and Indian attacks.

Nothing too crazy here, just a good western story that leans heavily on its star, MacLaine and Eastwood, to do the heavy lifting. It’s an episodic story – clocking in under 2 hours – without any huge momentum. The focus is on the star duo who are working off a Budd Boetticher story (Boetticher apparently hated the MacLaine casting and the final product as a whole). It was originally intended for Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum (like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison) but was reworked and re-cast over the years for this duo instead. Apparently filming was troubled to say the least with some big personalities, but it doesn’t show in the end.

If they didn’t get along off-screen, MacLaine and Eastwood must have been saving their chemistry for filming. Eastwood’s Hogan is a spin on his familiar anti-hero gunfighter. He’s chomping cigars, gunning down bandits and just for good measure, he’s an explosives specialist (favoring dynamite). Thrust into a protector role, Eastwood is a quite scene-stealer to MacLaine’s religious antics. Her Sister Sara often repeats “God will provide…” all the while ignoring the constant dangers that could arise on the trail. They form a heck of a duo in the process.

No other huge supporting parts here to round out the cast. Manolo Fabregas is the most visible as Beltran, the leader of the Mexican revolutionary forces who are working with Hogan to take out a heavily-guarded French garrison. Western fans will recognize a couple faces here and there, but the focus is on MacLaine and Eastwood and their revolutionary adventures.

A lot to like here, especially filming on-location in Mexico. You feel like you’re there in 1860s Mexico on the dusty trails, the adobe-lined streets, the rock-capped mountains, and the ancient ruins. Throw in a memorable score from spaghetti western score extraordinaire Ennio Morricone – listen HERE – and you’ve got some excellent building blocks. It all fits together nicely. I defy you not to whistle the main Sister Sara theme for days after watching this western. Not much in the way of action here, but there are some pretty cool set pieces sprinkled throughout the film. Hogan taking out Sara’s attackers, a subtle but well-done chase with Sara, Hogan and French cavalry, and a later sabotage mission on a train trestle are all nicely handled. The final attack on the French garrison is nicely done and features some surprisingly gory action. And that twist in the last 25 minutes…it’s a gem but no spoilers here.

It was an interesting time in Mexican history as French invaders took over the country and the government. It’s provided some ripe pickings for westerns, including Vera Cruz, Major Dundee, The Undefeated and some others I’m no doubt forgetting. As for ‘Sister Sara,’ it’s well worth a watch.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970): ***/****

The Mountain Road (1960)

mountain_road_posterWhen it comes to war movies, the 1960s were a decade often dedicated to huge, big-budget, blockbuster flicks with all-star casts. It was only later in the decade that anti-war films gained popularity as the United States’ involvement in Vietnam increased with each passing year. So an anti-war film from 1960? It would seem to be a little bit ahead of its time, no? Here’s 1960’s The Mountain Road.

It’s 1944 in China and a U.S. Army engineer, Major Baldwin (James Stewart), has been given a command after a year in country. With Chinese and Allied forces in retreat and the Japanese army in close pursuit, Baldwin and a small squad of engineers have been tasked with slowing up that advance. With several trucks full of explosives, Baldwin and his squad destroy bridges and the road itself, as well as blowing up ammunition dumps and other keep locations, anything that the Japanese can use against them. Along for the ride is the widowed wife (Lisa Lu) of a Chinese officer who must stay ahead of the Japanese advance. With no law and order and chaos reigning supreme, can Baldwin and his men accomplish the mission and still meet up with Allied forces?

From director Daniel Mann and based off  a novel from a WWII veteran, ‘Mountain’ is an almost entirely forgotten WWII movie that doesn’t get the due it deserves. It’s a gem. Above all else, it is ahead of its time, asking questions that most war movies wouldn’t go anywhere near for years. What’s the cost? Is a mission worth it? Who is the real enemy? Shouldn’t a human life be worth more than just a number or an objective? Filmed in black and white, ‘Mountain’ was shot on-location with Arizona replacing 1944 China. It’s a bleak, isolated movie. You feel alone with Baldwin’s squad and the seemingly endless line of refugees on the road. Musical score is not memorable, the focus instead on the characters and story.

A World War II veteran himself, Stewart made the decision to not make any war films, mostly because they simply weren’t realistic enough. This script obviously pulled him in. A touch old for the part — there’s several mentions of “young” Maj. Baldwin even though Stewart was 52 at the time — he still makes the part his own. He’s an engineer, not an experienced commander. He’s not a fighter or a killer. His adjustments he must make to accomplish the mission and comparing the value of the mission to the lives of his men, it’s all thrown at Stewart’s Maj. Baldwin. The love subplot with Wu’s Sue-Mei falls short, but Stewart and Wu’s conversations about China and war provide some memorable, intelligent moments.

Not a big cast, but the supporting ensemble is excellent. Glenn Corbett is a quiet scene-stealer as Collins, the young soldier who has fallen hard for China and its culture. Likable and smart, he clicks with Baldwin immediately. Harry Morgan is excellent too as Sgt. Mike, the veteran who’s experienced everything a soldier can, working as a bit of a sounding board for Baldwin through the mission. The rest of the squad includes Mike Kellin, James Best, Frank Maxwell, Rudy Bond and Eddie Firestone and Frank Silvera as a Chinese officer accompanying Wu’s Sue-Mei. Stewart, Corbett and Best would reunite 5 years later in Shenandoah, although they didn’t share any screen-time together.

Things take a dark turn near the hour mark with a surprise death. It’s in that moment that ‘Mountain’ truly embraces its anti-war statuts. Baldwin begins to question everything his mission entails. Are the Japanese his enemy or are his supposed Chinese allies the true enemy? Also check out 1959’s Never So Few for a similar story concerning Chinese involvement during WWII. There’s some good action — small-scale firefights — and some genuine twists, and to Mann’s credit, no easy endings.

Well worth seeking out. Turner Classic Movies has aired it in the past if curious. Keep an eye on their schedule.

The Mountain Road (1960): ***/****

The Bridge at Remagen (1969)

Bridge at RemagenIt seems so obvious when you think about it, but a majority of war films are told from one side or another. Sure, there are exceptions, like The Young Lions, The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far — but there certainly aren’t many. One of the best is a film that’s rarely mentioned as a classic war film, a favorite of mine too, 1969’s The Bridge at Remagen.

It’s March 1945 and German armies are in full retreat back into Germany, Allied forces nipping at their heels. The German High Command has ordered all bridges over the Rhine river blown up in hopes of slowing down the Allied advance, but one bridge at the town of Remagen remains. A German general (Peter van Eyck) sees that 75,000 German troops will be cut off if the bridge is destroyed, and instead sends a close friend and fellow officer, Major Paul Krueger (Robert Vaughn), to hold the bridge as long as possible. Just miles from the bridge, an armored American infantry unit commanded by Lt. Hartman (George Segal) is leading the charge to Remagen, hoping to catch the Germans napping. After weeks at the point, Hartman’s men are exhausted, but pressure from HQ keeps the men going, hoping to end the war as quickly as possible. All roads lead to Remagen for both sides.

One Memorial Day I don’t know how many years back, I stumbled across this WWII movie on Turner Classic Movies. I’d never seen it, much less heard of it. It’s based on a real WWII battle — read more HERE — but because of a general lack of star power doesn’t get the attention/credit it deserves. From director John Guillermin, ‘Remagen’ is a product of the times as America was fully involved in Vietnam in ’69, a dark story about the closing days of the war in Europe. It doesn’t often get the attention of its many 1960’s MGM brethren, but it should.

 

Where this reflects the times is the portrayal of a war near its end, the soldiers deteriorating with pure exhaustion.  The end of the war is close, and the Germans are turning on each other.  Vaughn’s Krueger is promised a defense that doesn’t exist and reinforcements that can’t be moved.  The SS and Gestapo run rampant, ruling with an iron fist.  The ranks are thinned by deserters, and refilled with old men and young boys.  The Americans are always on the move, pushing themselves and the Germans to their absolute limits.  They’re bone tired but they have no option but to follow orders.  The rules of war are gone to a certain point, and survival has taken priority over everything else.  It is a cynical story at times, the effects of war wearing men down on both sides.  Frightening at times to see the portrayal of the closing days of the war presented in a realistic fashion.

The portrayal of the opposing forces is seen through the eyes of two junior officers, both with different missions but driven to the same point.  Segal is perfect as Lt. Phil Hartman (no relation to the SNL star), a company commander at his wit’s ends when it comes to commanding.  He’s trying to protect his men as best as possible, but HQ has their objectives.  Guest star E.G. Marshall as an American general callously states “100 may die, but 10,000 will be saved.” An honest statement in the big picture, but when you’re part of the 100, does it matter?  Across the river is Vaughn’s Krueger, a career German officer — not a Nazi — disobeying orders but still trying to save as many men as possible.  The two actors don’t share any scenes together, but there is a bond between them nonetheless.  They may be on opposite sides of the war, wearing different uniforms, but in many ways they’re the same.

In the honest portrayal of a war in its closing days, both sides aren’t shown as particularly heroic.  Ben Gazzara is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Angelo, one of Hartman’s men who is a good soldier under fire but rubs the Lt. the wrong way by picking clean the bodies of dead German soldiers.  Gazzara is so good in the part that you forget at times how despicable his actions are. Forced to kill a Hitler Youth teenager, he almost snaps when confronted.  All of the Americans aren’t shown in a positive light, including Hartman’s unit which includes Bo Hopkins, Matt ClarkRobert LoganSteve Sandor, and Tom Heaton. Bradford Dillman‘s Barnes is a good officer but he has no idea how to interact or treat his men. The Germans too are at each other’s throats.  Look for Hans Christian Blech in a solid supporting part as one of Krueger’s officers.

Bouncing back and forth between the American and German perspective could have caused a disjointed story, but that’s never really a problem.  Instead, it drives the pace at a lightning speed as the Germans fall back, the Americans pushing forward.  The action scenes are well-handled and nicely choreographed starting with the filming locations in Czechoslovakia where a bridge similar in appearance to the actual Remagen bridge was used.  There is an epic scale to the battles with the end result possibly being an earlier end to the war, but on a personal level we see Hartman’s men ordered across a bridge fully expecting it to blow at any moment.  Full of tension from the beginning, the battle sequences are aided by Guillermin’s camerawork, right there on the ground with the foot soldiers. You always have a sense of where the battle is, where all the men are stationed.

A highly underrated WWII story. Elmer Bernstein‘s score (listen HERE) borrows from some of his more notable musical scores, and at times sounds more like a western theme, but for the most part it’s good. An all-around solid look at the closing days of WWII and one of its key engagements. Highly underrated, well worth a watch.

The Bridge at Remagen (1969): ****/****