The Last Command (1955)

The Last Command 1955One of the three members of the Alamo trinity along with David Crockett and William Travis, Jim Bowie and his famous knife have been a ripe subject for Hollywood feature films. Often enough, those flicks have little to nothing to do with Bowie’s actual exploits, including a handful of B-westerns that look to bank on the famous name. A rare exception and a pretty decent little biography about the last 2 years of Bowie’s life is 1955’s The Last Command.

It’s 1834 as famous knife fighter Jim Bowie (Sterling Hayden) returns to Texas on his way back home to see his wife and children at their home in Mexico. A land owner and Mexican citizen, Bowie discovers the ever-increasing rumblings of revolution, the Texans looking to fight for their rights from a Mexican government seemingly hell-bent on ignoring those rights. Bowie preaches peace, only changing his mind after his wife and family pass away. Now, Bowie can throw himself into the conflict, especially when Stephen F. Austin (Otto Kruger) returns from Mexico City preaching that the only resolution will come from fighting. As Mexican dictator Santa Anna (J. Carrol Naish) leads an army north from Mexico, all roads point to San Antonio and a crumbling old mission turned into a fort, the Alamo.

Anyone familiar with John Wayne’s The Alamo from 1960 will no doubt notice some similarities between that film and this 1955 flick from Republic Studios. The reason? This was originally made with Wayne — still working at Republic — attached as an actor. He wanted to make an Alamo film, but disagreements with the studio drove the two sides apart. The end result was simple; Wayne left Republic, Republic made the film without Wayne, apparently out of spite. There are some similarities, from Davy Crockett’s death to the Alamo defenders raiding the surrounding Mexican army for artillery and many others. The biggest difference though is obvious, a focus on Jim Bowie.

I’ve often criticized Hayden for being one of the more wooden actors to ever grace the screen. Thankfully, he injects some life into his part here as the famous knife fighter. Read about Bowie’s life, and my goodness, this fella was up to no good seemingly as soon as he could walk. This 1950’s portrayal is a little tam, portraying Bowie as an upright citizen, a patriot, and a loyal, brave and capable fighter. Hayden has some fun with the part, bringing the right amount of energy to play Bowie. Like Wayne’s Alamo, the story here features an unnecessary love story, Bowie falling for 18-year-old Consuelo (Anna Maria Alberghetti), in scenes that do nothing but slow down the story. Hayden is up to the task overall though, leading a pretty impressive cast.

I’m an Alamo buff, so I’ve watched just about everything there is from Hollywood about the battle and the Texas Revolution. Director Frank Lloyd tackles the subject head-on, covering about two years (1834-1836) in a 110-minute movie. Things are a little slow-going early on as everything is laid out, but ‘Command’ really hits its stride about the 40-minute mark as the fighting kicks in, eventually leading to the siege and battle of the Alamo. Lloyd’s film gets credit for trying to set up the story, not just rushing to the Alamo. It plays kinda fast and loose with the facts at times — Bowie and Santa Anna are supposedly good friends, the Mexican dictator even calling him ‘Jimmy’ — but it’s a highly entertaining, mostly accurate(ish) story.

Telling a familiar story, we get some familiar faces along the way. Richard Carlson is excellent as Travis, idealistic Alamo commander (a little old but a good part), and Arthur Hunnicutt is a scene-stealer as a homespun, backwoods Davy Crockett. They aren’t flashy parts, but they cut to the core of who the 3 men were (or at least what I hope they were). Ernest Borgnine is also a scene-stealer as Radin, a rival turned friend for Bowie. Other Alamo defenders include young Jeb Lacey (Ben Cooper), Lt. Dickinson (John Russell), and familiar character actors in Jim Davis, Slim Pickens, Russell Simpson, Eduard Franz and Roy Roberts. Virginia Grey appears briefly as Susannah Dickinson. Some fun supporting parts, especially Hunnicutt and Borgnine.

The actual battle for the Alamo takes up about the last 40 minutes of ‘Command.’ The set is somewhat limited — we basically see one corner of the mission along with the wooden palisade — but there’s something oddly cool about the set built near Bracketville, Texas (where Wayne’s film was made). For a movie released in 1955, the final assault on the Alamo is surprisingly vicious and violent. Nothing graphic, but still pretty hardcore stuff for a 1950s audience. Each character gets their moment, their on-screen death with Bowie saved for last. And while not Wild Bunch bloody, many of the deaths leave a lasting impression. This was bloody, horrific hand-to-hand fighting at its worst, close combat on steroids, something the battle sequence definitely shows.

There’s nothing hugely memorable about this 1955 Republic picture, but I like it just the same. Composer Max Steiner’s score is a highlight — give it a sample HERE — and the Jim Bowie theme song (listen HERE) is pretty awful, but in an amazingly bad and memorable way. Lots of good actors, familiar faces and an enjoyable if unspectacular story. One IMDB reviewer points it out accurately. It’s neither a big budget A-movie or a low-budget B-movie, but it’s somewhere in between. Definitely check out the new Blu-Ray released in December 2018. It’s a beautiful print and far ahead of any other version I’d seen.

The Last Command (1955): ***/****

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The Five Man Army (1969)

The Five Man ArmyThe spaghetti western genre was built around the weird of the wild west, typically greedy gunfighters, murdering bandits and psychotic villains. How can you go wrong?!? Well, not all of the westerns. Made with backing from Italian and U.S. studios, here’s 1969’s The Five Man Army, a heist western. Not too many of those out there.

It’s the middle of the Mexican Revolution with President Juerta, the government and the army fighting an army of peasants and revolutionaries. Siding with the revolutionaries is an American on the run, known simply as ‘the Dutchman’ (Peter Graves) who has taken on a job of taking down a heavily guarded train carrying $500,000 in gold. Not able to do it alone, Dutchman recruits four specialists to aid the mission, including Mesito (Bud Spencer), Augustus (James Daly), Samurai (Tetsuro Tanba) and Luis (Nino Castelnuovo). How can 5 men take down a train with 100 guards, 4 machine guns, a cannon and patrols riding along the train line every few miles? Well, the Dutchman has a plan in mind.

I’m a sucker for men on a mission movies — The Professionals to Where Eagles Dare and a whole bunch in between — so it’s fair to say I fell for this one from the first time I saw it. From director Don Taylor (who reportedly filmed anywhere from some to none of the movie), ‘Army’ follows a familiar formula; recruit a team, introduce their specialties, reveal the impossible mission, let the team loose, and see who makes it out. ‘Army’ keeps you on your toes with a familiar story, throwing the audience a twist here and there. At its most basic, Taylor’s sorta-flick is an action-packed story that never waits too long in between gunfights and showdowns with Dutchman’s crew, revolutionaries, bandits and Mexican soldiers.

Westerns = awesome. Heist movies = awesome. Heist westerns? AWESOME. The calling card here (as is so often the case with quality heist flicks) is easily the actual heist sequence when the Dutchman and his crew hit the armored train. To this point, we’ve only been given hints as to how they’ll put off this impossible job. It all comes together in an almost wordless 26-minute extended sequence that is a masterful representation of how to shoot a tense, exciting heist action sequence. ‘Army’ was shot on-location in Spain (you’ll see some familiar locations from other spaghettis, including Once Upon a Time in the West), the heist sequence benefitting from those awesome locations. The heist does feature some crazy, absolutely ridiculous — and rather dangerous — stunts. Credit to the cast who look to be doing a majority of their stunts, and on a moving train at that. I love the movie on the whole, but the heist is the movie at its strongest.

So heist sequence? Check. Cool specialists for an impossible mission? Double check. Who better to lead an impossible mission than Peter Graves? Playing the Dutchman, Graves is the tough, no-nonsense leader of the team. His personal background and reason for leading the mission provides the movie’s most effective, emotional scenes. The team includes Augustus, the explosives expert, Mesito, the thieving strongman, Samurai, the sword-wielding Japanese fighter, and Luis, the bank-robbing acrobat. Each character gets his chance to shine, the ensemble working together in their scenes together. Daly is a scene-stealer as the doubting Augustus, convinced the mission will fail in bloody fashion. Spencer too has a ball as Mesito, providing some comic relief along the way.

The Five-Man Army is in just about every scene, but also keep an eye out for Claudio Gora as a revolutionary leader and Daniela Giordano as a Mexican girl who falls for Samurai.

Watch enough spaghetti westerns, and it gets to be an easy thing to overlook composer Ennio Morricone and his great musical scores. His ‘Army’ score is an underrated one (listen to the main theme HERE) mixing the big and epic with the quieter and emotional.  Augustus’ speech is aided by Morricone’s soothing score being played under his words, but then the action sequence is boosted by this perfect action score that keeps the story flowing at all times. If interested, the movie is available to watch on Youtube, which you can check out HERE. Well worth a watch. Just a damn entertaining heist western with a cool, underrated cast.

The Five Man Army (1969): ***/****

 

Cowboy (1958)

Cowboy 1958In a legendary career that earned him eight Oscar nominations and two wins, Jack Lemmon did it all. Equally adept at drama and comedy, he bounced back and forth between the two throughout his career. The genre he visited only once? The western. Here’s his lone western, 1958’s Cowboy.

It’s the 1870s and Frank Harris (Lemmon) is working as a clerk at a hotel in Chicago. It’s a dull life, Harris seeking something more. He gets that opportunity when Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) and his cowboys arrive in town after completing a long cattle drive from Mexico. Harris manages to convince Reese to let him on as a partner – he supplies some serious cash – to give him a chance to be a real-life cowboy. Reese is more than wary, even trying to back out of the deal, but ultimately takes the inexperienced Harris along. Reese, Harris and the cowboys head back south to build up another herd, but Harris has no idea of what he’s gotten into, but he’s a quick learner.

The cattle drive is one of those perfect, iconic western storylines, right up there with cavalry vs. Indians, settlers and the gunfighters. It’s a cool jumping off point for this Delmer Daves-directed western that isn’t necessarily hugely remembered. It’s a hot, sunny western that does show the darker, more honest side of being a cowboy. The portrayal of a cowboy is always romantic, idyllic, but the truth couldn’t be further from the truth. It was long hours in the saddle for not much pay and the constant threat of danger from weather, stampedes, Indians and bandits. Fun, huh?

The guts of the movie is the rivalry between Ford’s Reese and Lemmon’s Harris, the two pros carrying the 92-minute movie. We see Reese pushing the men, the focus on getting the cattle to market. It’s a harsh, unpleasant job he has to do. Harris thinks he’s too harsh though, questioning how far is too far. As the drive develops though, the roles begin to switch, Reese seeing maybe he has gone too far and Harris viewing the drive as profit and money alone. It’s a pretty cool back-and-forth that develops. There’s some genuine heat too on the trail, either man seemingly one good push away from pulling a gun. Excellent performances from Ford and Lemmon.

Not a huge supporting cast, but some recognizable faces pop up. Victor Manuel Mendoza is excellent as Paco Mendoza, Reese’s right-hand man. It’s cool (and ahead of its time) to see a Mexican cowboy in such a prominent role. The rest of the cowboys include Brian Donlevy, Dick York (later of Bewitched fame), Richard JaeckelStrother Martin and King Donovan. Donlevy is great as Doc Bender, a former gunhand turned cowboy. York is the ladies man and Jaeckel more of a villainous cowboy. Anna Kashfi plays Maria, Harris’ love interest living in Mexico.

My biggest complaint with ‘Cowboy’ is that at 92-minutes, it just doesn’t accomplish much. It takes quite a while to get going, and then when it reaches the cattle drive, it seems to be in a rush. We build to this big confrontation between Ford and Lemmon, and then it’s wrapped up in a flash, the story ending on an odd comedic note. The finale reminded me a fair bit of Red River, all build-up and then the payoff isn’t worth it. The drive itself feels especially rushed. The action is solid – including a showdown between the cowboys and a Comanche war party – but there’s not enough of it.

A lot of potential that never fully delivers. I still liked ‘Cowboy,’ especially with its Arizona and New Mexico locations and a good musical score from George Duning. I just wish it was a little better. The dark, honest story and its potential is there for the taking. Still, a western with Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon in memorable leading roles ain’t a bad thing.

Cowboy (1958): ***/****

Battle of Britain (1969)

Battle of BritainThe 1960s were the age of big budget war flicks, all-star casts leading the way in stories about World War II films. The most notable is The Longest Day – the telling of D-Day – but there were plenty more, including The Battle of the Bulge and today’s review, 1969’s Battle of Britain.

It’s summer 1940, and Germany’s Third Reich seems on the verge of winning World War II following the disaster at Dunkirk. But as Great Britain prepares for an inevitable invasion, the Germans crossing the English Channel, Germany pulls up and waits, giving the Brits time to prepare. What will decide the coming battle? Air superiority, the mighty German Luftwaffe and its 2,500 plans ready to square off against the British RAF and its 650-plus planes. With the odds overwhelmingly stacked against them, the British prepare for a battle that could save or lose the country.

As far as history goes, you wouldn’t believe that the history actually happened this way unless the books told us. It’s crazy. If Germany had kept pushing soon after Dunkirk, World War II may have been over in 1940. Instead, in one of the most world-altering decisions ever, German forces halted, basking in the win and prepping for the invasion. So…yeah, a story that makes for an excellent feature film.

From director Guy Hamilton, ‘Britain’ is a more than solid telling of the battle of Britain, condensing four months of fighting into a 132-minute final run time. At times, the story feels a little too quick, too condensed, but you always have a sense of what’s going on and where the British and Germans stand. It’s a whirlwind final product, but as a viewer, you never feel lost. You’re able to keep up and go for the ride, the exhilaration kicking in as we start to see the tide of the battle turning.

So I’ve written 4 paragraphs without a mention of any specific cast members. What’s wrong with me?!? ‘Britain’ isn’t the biggest all-star cast, but there are plenty of British and German actors filling out some major roles. The pilots include Michael CaineIan McShaneChristopher PlummerRobert Shaw and Edward Fox among several other familiar faces. The RAF higher-ups include Trevor HowardLaurence Olivier, Nigel Patrick and Patrick WymarkHarry Andrews, Michael Redgrave and Ralph Richardson also appear as British government officials.

What’s cool here is though the story is British-heavy, the Germans are fairly portrayed and not shown as monsters, simply soldiers trying to accomplish a mission. Well, except Goring, he’s a lunatic. Curd Jurgens makes a quick appearance as a German representative while Karl Otto Alberty appears briefly as a high-ranking German officer.

It’s an interesting mix, following the high command in their war rooms with maps and radar equipment spread everywhere mixed in with the footage of the pilots waiting for the call to take off and battle the incoming German fighters and bombers. Plummer gets a love interest too, romancing Susannah York in his free-time. Not just lovey-dovey story either, but an actual emotional subplot. A good mix overall in an encompassing story that strives to do a ton and mostly succeeds.

High point beyond the cast is pretty straightforward. The aerial sequences are second-to-none here. World War II-era planes go toe to toe, battling over England for aerial control. The action is set to composer Ron Goodwin’s energetic, patriotic score (reminiscent of his Force 10 from Navarone theme), and you can just sit back and watch the crazy action develop. It’s never overly graphic, but the violence can be startling too, both blood squibs and then just the quicker, more visceral explosions as a plane blows up.

An excellent World War II film, solid casting and amazing aerial sequences.

The Battle of Britain (1969): ***/****

100 Rifles (1969)

100 RiflesA true Hollywood movie star, Burt Reynolds passed away this past week at the age of 82. The star of Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, Reynolds was one-of-a-kind. He was always having fun on-screen no matter the role. One of my favorite Reynolds’ flicks, a 1969 western, 100 Rifles.

It’s 1912 in Sonora and the Mexican Revolution rages on. In the town of Nogales, an American sheriff, Lyedecker (Jim Brown), is on a mission to bring a bank robber back to Phoenix. His bounty? A half-breed bandit, Yaqui Joe (Reynolds), who used the $6,000 he got from the bank robbery to buy 100 rifles for revolutionary forces. Lyedecker isn’t the only one hunting Joe though with the local military commander, Verdugo (Fernando Lamas), also desperate to get his claws into him. Catching the ire of the bloodthirsty Verdugo, Lyedecker must work with Joe to escape with his life. The duo become unlikely revolutionaries, on the run with the true revolutionary, Sarita (Raquel Welch), with Verdugo hot on their trail.

Far from a classic, ‘Rifles’ is still a highly entertaining western, mostly due to its cast and some solid action along the way. From director Tom Gries, it’s actually an off-shoot of the spaghetti western genre; westerns shot on-location in Spain and with European and American backing, but almost entirely American crews. You’ll see some familiar sandy, sun-drenched locations along the way, and the Mexican Revolution background provides a bloody, violent backdrop to the story (another sub-genre if you’re looking, the Zapata western). Also worth pointing out, Jerry Goldsmith — no stranger to memorable scores — steals the show with an underused soundtrack (listen HERE), including a great, booming chase theme.

Jim Brown, Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds. More movie stars than hugely dramatic actors, the lead trio is excellent in their parts. Interestingly enough, there was supposedly a fair amount of tension between Brown and Welch during filming, Reynolds often playing the peacekeeper. There’s a cool dynamic among the three, Lydecker the unwilling revolutionary, Sarita the true, devoted believer and Joe the bandit who’s unintentionally found a purpose. Lamas hams it up like his life depended on it and has a ton of fun as Verdugo. There aren’t a ton of speaking roles with a smaller cast, but those four do the heavy lifting.

Also look for Dan O’Herlihy as Grimes, the railroad execute looking to protect his train and its line, Eric Braeden as Von Klemme, the German military advisor (a staple of Zapatista westerns, Michael Forest as Humara, Sarita’s mute enforcer, and spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell as Paletes, Verdugo’s loyal sergeant.

I’m hard-pressed to say there’s much of a story here, instead a sorta extended chase scene broken up by action scenes that runs about 109 minutes overall. Lack of story? Not a huge problem here because the action and chases are pretty good — and surprisingly bloody and vicious. Gunfights, fistfights, chases and much of it on a moving train, it all adds up to a solid final product. Brown and Reynolds were two of the most physically capable actors around with the duo handling most of their own stunts, including several exciting fights with the two men handcuffed together. ‘Rifles’ saves its biggest explosions for the finale, an attack on the army train and then the train attack on Nogales. All-around good stuff though.

Couple other points worth making. ‘Rifles’ is — I believe — the first movie to have an interracial love scene, Brown and Welch passionately kissing and rolling around in bed. It’s pretty tame now but caused quite a stir in the socially charged 1960s. Welch’s Mexican accent is pretty cliched too, but the script seems hell bent on getting her nude, sorta nude and wet under a water tower. Not a complaint, just an observation! It’s a fun western overall, especially for the action and the buddy chemistry between Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds. Not a classic, but a lot of fun.

100 Rifles (1969): ***/****