Wagon Master (1950)

Wagon Master 1950The late 1940s and early 1950s were undoubtedly John Ford‘s strongest era as a director. His strongest contributions, not so surprisingly, of the time (with the exception of The Quiet Man) came from the genre he’s most associated with, the western. And while his famed cavalry trilogy — Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande — is synonymous with the genre, another western of the time gets lost in the shuffle and is almost entirely forgotten. Here’s 1950’s Wagon Master.

It’s the 1880s in the American west and a group of Mormon settlers is being chased further west, populations in towns along the trail wanting nothing to do with the settlers. Looking to build a community in California, a Mormon wagon train — led by fiery Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) asks two horse traders, Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) to work as wagon masters, driving the train west. It takes some convincing, but the two amiable horse traders take the job on. They’re working against the seasonal clock though, the Mormons needing to reach their California valley and plant a harvest before winter settles in. Throw in some gunfighters, bandits and Indian attacks, and the trail is anything but easy.

Remembered with The Searchers and The Quiet Man as Ford’s best, the cavalry trilogy are Ford working at his absolute best. Even 3 Godfathers — released in 1948 — is a gem. Why then is ‘Wagon’ so generally forgotten? Well, the obvious answer is that there’s no big star, no John Wayne or Henry Fonda. Instead, Ford gives the spotlight to three instantly recognizable character actors who often played supporting parts in his movies; Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr. and Ward Bond. More on our stars later, but the key here is Ford turning into a simpler, more lyrical story. It plays a little like a serial, slightly disjointed at 86 minutes. The wagon train moving west is about as iconic as a western gets, and Ford doesn’t miss here.

How accurate are Ford’s westerns to the actual wild west American history? His films always looked authentic, always felt authentic. The moral of the story though is simple to describe. Maybe they’re not the most authentic or realistic. Instead, Ford presents the American west as it should have been. It’s good guys vs. bad guys, noble heroes vs. dastardly villains, beautiful vistas and damsels in distress. ‘Wagon’ has all of that, a stripped-down story of a wagon train. Filmed on location in Monument Valley, ‘Wagon’ is a black-and-white gem. The backdrops are simply stunning. With a film a little light on story, the locations (set to composer Richard Hageman’s score, a frequent Ford composer) end up stealing the show.

Coupled with the Monument Valley locations, the trio of character actors getting lead roles is what’s brought me back to ‘Wagon.’ A real-life cowboy before Ford discovered him, Johnson is at his laconic, scene-stealing best. When Johnson’s Travis is tearing across the Utah desert, that’s him doing the riding, not a stunt double. As his buddy Sandy, Carey Jr. is a naive but nice (somewhat dim-witted) cowboy. The duo actually starred the same year in Ford’s Rio Grande, playing characters with the same names. Is ‘Wagon’ an unofficial sequel of sorts? Throw in the always welcome Ward Bond as Elder, a converted Mormon with a hinted-at checkered past, and you’ve got a heck of a lead trio. No huge stars, no problem.

Starring as love interests are Joanne Dru and Kathleen O’Malley. Ford regulars Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson and Francis Ford (John’s older brother) playing supporting parts. The villains are the Cleggs gang, led by murdering patriarch Shiloh (Charles Kemper) and including supporting parts for Hank Worden, James Arness, Fred Libby and Mickey Simpson. Also look for Alan Mowbray as a snake oil salesman and Ruth Clifford as his dance hall girl partner.

As I’ve mentioned, ‘Wagon’ isn’t the most pointed story around. It drifts a little bit, and the ending is especially odd, as if Ford didn’t quite know how or when to end his movie. There is not a ton of action along the way, but you’re watching for the characters and the location backdrop. When the Cleggs are re-introduced in the second act, the introduction does provide some uncomfortable tension going forward. Still, even with its flaws, it’s still a pretty good western. A few too many songs too along the way, along with 2 different community line dances (usual Ford touches).

Not on the level of the cavalry trilogy or Ford’s other classics, but a must-watch for western and John Ford fans alike.

Wagon Master (1950): ***/****

Advertisements

Garden of Evil (1954)

Garden of EvilThe 1950s were an interesting time for the western genre. While it’s easy to generalize an entire genre over a decade, it’s pretty easy here. So many ’50s westerns were heavy, adult stories that too often played out like a soap opera on a horse. The stories brimmed with intensity, often some unseen but very evident sexual intensity, and covered everything from racism to betrayal to greed and everything in between. A prime example is 1954’s Garden of Evil, an interesting mix with some heavy flaws.

In a coastal town on the Pacific side of Mexico, a steamer drops anchor needing repairs. On-board are three men trying to reach California and its gold fields, including Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark) and Daly (Cameron Mitchell). With repairs expected to take weeks, the trio preps for a long wait…until a beautiful woman, Leah (Susan Hayward), rides into town asking for help. Her husband is trapped in a gold mine several days ride away, and she needs help. Leah offers a payday of $2,000 (with more to come) to whoever helps her. The trio of American agrees, and with a Mexican gunfighter, Vincente (Victor Manuel Mendoza) joining in, the small group rides out into vicious, violent frontier where no one is telling the whole truth.

I was kinda surprised when I stumbled across ‘Garden’ recently on Encore Westerns. Considering the solid casting and talent behind the camera, I’d really never heard much about it. From director Henry Hathaway, it’s a solid effort, pretty typical of so many 1950s westerns. It’s moody, dark and violent, but it’s more the build-up and tension than actual action in the end. Moody and foreboding is typically a good thing, but the payoff has to be worth it. Here? Eh, it’s okay. It’s a little slow at 100-minutes, a lot of vvvvery slow build-up.

Enough here to recommend though, starting with the obvious. That cast? Yeah, pretty acceptable. Cooper does what Cooper does best, the quiet, resolute hero. His part reminded me a lot of his part in another western released in 1954, Vera Cruz, in a story that’s not too far removed either. His dynamic with Widmark’s Fiske isn’t unlike the relationship between Cooper’s Ben Trane and Burt Lancaster’s Joe Erin. Here, the rivalry is mellowed some, but it’s a lot of fun to see the veteran Cooper and the up-and-coming Widmark go toe-to-toe, mostly as allies but always feeling the other one out and his true intentions. Throw in the always capable Susan Hayward, and you’ve got a heck of a lead trio.

It’s fun to see Hayward in the part because though she needs these men’s help, she’s no damsel in distress. She’s holding onto some secrets too that are slowly parceled out. As for the rest, Mitchell isn’t given much to do other than be shifty in a key supporting part. Mendoza is a quiet scene-stealer as Vincente. Hugh Marlowe is basically unrecognizable as John Fuller, Leah’s husband waiting to be rescued…but from what? His introduction should accelerate the momentum, but it doesn’t. That part of the story isn’t worth the build-up. Also look for young Rita Moreno — just 23 years old — as a singer in a saloon in the first 10 minutes of the movie.

Westerns filmed in Mexico always have a unique feel to them, from Vera Cruz to The Magnificent Seven, Major Dundee to Two Mules for Sister Sara and many others. ‘Garden’ is a visual stunner, shot on location in Mexico in and around Mexico City. These are locations unlike any western I’ve ever seen. Much of the movie is our crew riding through this landscape — which could be dull — but you go along for the ride with them and soak it all in.

High on foreboding and foreshadowing intensity through the first 70 minutes or so, the action kicks in over the last 30 minutes. There’s some solid action — gunplay and fast chases across the land — building up to a bit of a surprising ending. Not a complete downer, but pretty close! My only complaint is that the Apaches chasing our group is wearing blue pants with a red stripe, wearing mohawks and look they walked in off the set from the most recent remake of Last of the Mohicans. Still, a good western overall with some flaws but more than enough to recommend.

Garden of Evil (1954): ** 1/2 /****

 

The Rawhide Years (1956)

The Rawhide YearsFrom 1949 on, Tony Curtis was acting regularly in films, starting off with supporting roles but quickly climbing into key and leading parts. It was in the late 1950s he truly hit his stride. Lost amidst that stretch? A fun, little western from 1956 generally forgotten by fans, The Rawhide Years.

Working with another gambler on a riverboat, a young con man/gambler, Ben Matthews (Curtis), takes down one confident gambler after another, robbing them of their purse on the way to the town of Galena. One night, a powerful rancher is murdered on-board and all signs and clues point to Matthews as the murderer. On the run, Matthews has to head east to avoid a lynching party, leaving his fiance, dance hall singer/dancer, Zoe (Colleen Miller), behind with the promise of coming back for her when the smoke clears. Three years pass before Matthews can return. With the help of an outlaw, Harper (Arthur Kennedy), Matthews heads back to Galena to get back his girl and clear his name.

An interesting, goofy western, one I’d never heard of before stumbling across it on Encore Westerns recently. From director Rudolph Mate, ‘Years’ is fairly different from most 50s westerns, avoiding heavy adult drama and overdone twists and turns. It has the feel of a buddy western at times — with Curtis and Kennedy — with some touches left and right of a murder-mystery. It clocks in at a quick 85 minutes and never truly slows down. There are some really dumb plot twists and transitions, but we’re not talking The Searchers here. Not quite a B-western — there’s some budget — but in the neighborhood at least.

With so much going on, the thing that keeps ‘Years’ grounded is the casting of Tony Curtis and Ben Matthews as two very different but still like-minded fellas on the run. Curtis established again and again that he was an excellent dramatic actor, but when he took on lighter roles, his charming, incredibly likable side came to the forefront. Kennedy could steal a western with a snap with a villainous turn, so the fun here is figuring out exactly which side he’s on. Throw those two characters together, and you have a lot of fun. Never quite trusting each other fully, they still have each other’s back through some twisting and turning involving a gang of river thieves. Two very fun parts.

The romantic lead in a handful of 1950s westerns, Miller faded away from the limelight pretty quickly. She isn’t given much to do here other than sing (she gets three songs) and look pretty in dance hall girl outfits. William Demarest plays the well-respected brother of the murdered rancher, William Gargan plays the tough town marshal, Peter van Eyck plays the double-dealing saloon owner and Minor Watson is the rancher Matthews meets on-board the riverboat. Western fans will appreciate Robert J Wilke in a supporting part as a sneering, gun-toting villain.

Not gonna over-analyze or go into too much detail here. Nothing ground-breaking, but it’s a fun western with some cool leads. Worth checking out if you stumble across it.

The Rawhide Years (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Never So Few (1959)

Never So FewWith his role on TV’s Wanted: Dead or Alive playing bounty hunter Josh Randall, Steve McQueen introduced himself to American audiences in a big way. And though he had starred in several feature films — The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, the cult classic The Blob — he got his first true big break in a major studio release with 1959’s Never So Few. It’s a good — if flawed — flick, but the star power is evident, even in a supporting role with an all-star cast.

It’s 1943 in Burma with Captain Tom Reynolds (Frank Sinatra) and Capt. Danny DeMortimer (Richard Johnson) command a small group of OSS operatives leading a unit of Kachin resistance fighters. Less than 1,000 men are holding back some 40,000 Japanese troops, Reynolds, DeMortimer and the native Kachins leading raids all over the country. They’re outnumbered, undersupplied and constantly fighting an uphill battle. The duo earns a leave, both officers enjoying a break. First up on their list? Find a doctor for the wounded men and then go to HQ to demand the support the guerilla fighters so desperately need. In the meantime, Reynolds finds some time for romance, seeing a beautiful Italian girl, Carla (Gina Lollobrigida), currently with an arms dealer.

I love WWII movies, love Sinatra and love McQueen, so when I stumbled across this 1959 war drama from director John Sturges years ago, my first thought was simple. How the hell had I missed this flick for so long?!? The answer is pretty simple. It’s a mixed bag of a final product. ‘Few’ is an above-average war flick when…it focuses on the war! Go figure, right? Far too much time — at least half of the 124-minute running time — is spent on a chemistry-less “romance” and “love triangle” among Sinatra, Lollobrigida and an underused Paul Henreid as the arms dealer. It goes absolutely nowhere and is almost uncomfortable to watch. Sinatra gives the old college try, but it’s a romantic subplot that’s DOA.

The unfortunate part is that the war story aspect of ‘Few’ is pretty dang good. It’s based on a true story concerning the fighting in Burma before the Allies retook the country in late 1943 and into 1944. It’s not a romantic portrayal of war. We see blood in the firefights. The action isn’t graphic but can be startling. Reynolds has to mercy kill one of his men, a gutshot soldier with no relief in sight. It’s an at-times bleak, downright cynical portrayal of guerrilla fighting. The most interesting angle taken? A third act issue with American forces battling both Japanese infantry and Chinese troops supposedly on the Allied side. It gets some interesting points for going down a road (and story) not often addressed, especially as early as 1959.

So here’s a shocker; the director of classics The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven (among several other very good to near-classic films), Sturges is able to helm a damn exciting WWII adventure with an impressive all-star cast of some badass dudes. Sinatra always played variations on his own charming, confident persona, and that’s no different here. His Reynolds is a capable, tough as nails officer who knows the task he’s been given is near impossible. Johnson is a scene-stealer as DeMortimer, Reynolds’ second-in-command, a very British officer (who favors a monocle) but is coolly efficient under fire. They have an excellent Batman-Robin, Butch-and-Sundance vibe, that of two men who have been to hell and back in combat.

And then there’s that McQueen guy. What a presence on display, McQueen stealing scenes left and right with his physical presence and his quick-firing line delivery. You see the little touches McQueen would become famous for, stealing a scene with a quick movement, a twitch here and there. As for Reynolds’ team, also look for Peter Lawford as Travis, the surgeon, Dean Jones as Norby, the radioman, Charles Bronson as Danforth, the Navajo code-talker and Philip Ahn as Nautang, the ranking Kachin. There is a camaraderie and a bond among these men that carries the war scenes through the much slower romantic portions of the story.

In other smaller supporting parts, look for Brian Donlevy, Robert Bray, John Hoyt and Whit Bissell. Also keep out for George Takei, Mako and James Hong in quick parts.

Filmed on location in Thailand, Burma, India and Sri Lanka, ‘Few’ has a great authentic look with a great backdrop to the story. Composer Hugo Friedhofer turns in an excellent score as well, give it a listen HERE. As for the action, what’s there is choice. Three separate battles are well-handled, loud and chaotic and crazy, the highlight being an attack on a heavily-guarded Japanese airfield in the dead of night. It’s a flawed film overall — a bit of a two-face — but what’s good overpowers the bad, weaker parts. Know those flaws going in, and you should enjoy it.

Never So Few (1959): ***/****