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): ***/****

Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)

Support Your Local SheriffI’m a fan of the western genre who likes his westerns played straight. Sure, there are comedic westerns that work, flicks like Blazing Saddles and the Three Amigos to name a couple, but for the most part….meh. While not a classic, 1969’s Support Your Local Sheriff! has plenty of positives, especially for a western comedy.

Following a gold strike, the town of Calendar, Colorado sprouts up almost overnight. The town founders can barely keep up with the ever-growing town as prospectors, gamblers, drifters, troublemakers, bandits and cowboys rule the town. Then, one day an amiable drifter named Jason McCullough (James Garner) rides into town and takes the unwelcomed job as sheriff. He’s on his way to Australia but figures he could use the work in the meantime. His first job? Arrest Joe Danby (Bruce Dern) for murder, a shooting Jason saw happen in the saloon. Joe’s father, Pa Danby (Walter Brennan), rules over the territory though and rounds up all his family to go rescue his son. Jason has to start figuring what to do; keep up with the job or bail and head for Australia.

By 1969, the western genre had changed courtesy of the spaghetti western and released the same year, The Wild Bunch. Things were darker, bloodier, more violent. ‘Sheriff’ avoids those changes, going for a lighter tone in a story that loosely resembles the 1959 classic Rio Bravo (and also has touches of High Noon). A veteran of the genre, director Burt Kennedy handles things well, adding some excellent humorous touches along the way without being too heavy-handed. It’s got the look of a TV western, but it’s fun throughout, clocking in at 92-minutes with an episodic storyline. It was followed up two years later with a like-minded, sorta unofficial sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter!

In the late 1960s, Garner was a frequent star in westerns, including Hour of the Gun and Duel at Diablo and even ventured into spaghetti westerns with 1971’s A Man Called Sledge. He’s perfect casting to play Jason, an amiable drifter with a somewhat cloudy past who is nonetheless lightning-fast with a gun but doesn’t like to use the gun if necessary. He stands by what’s right and has plenty of good ideas to keep folks on their toes. Garner plays the material straight, his charming on-screen presence underplaying scenes that could have been easily overplayed. He delivers lines with such ease, stealing his scenes with an impressive supporting cast. Garner manages to put a new, different and funny spin on that archetypal western character, the drifter riding along from town to town. Credit to Garner for an excellent leading role.

In the romantic lead department, Joan Hackett plays Prudy, the daughter of the town mayor (an excellent Harry Morgan). They’ve got some chemistry — Garner and Hackett — but the scenes feel a little forced, slowing down an otherwise fast-moving story. So often cast as a shifty-eyed, murdering back-stabber, Jack Elam steals the movie as Jake, Jason’s unlikely deputy. Quick with a gun and quick with a solid one-liner, Elam and Garner are perfect together, the duo returning two years later in ‘Gunfighter.’ Henry Jones, Willis Bouchey and Walter Burke round out the town board, the pleasantly corrupt folks running the town with Morgan’s Mayor Olly Perkins. Brennan looks to be having a ball as Old Man Danby, DernGene Evans and Dick Peabody as his dim-witted sons.

The problem too often with comedic westerns is that they’re simply trying too hard for the laughs. ‘Sheriff’ has those moments, a slapstick fist-fight in a muddy street notably early on. Its strongest moments are those instead that underplay the moment. Jason’s jail doesn’t have bars installed yet, but he convinces Dern’s Joe Danby to stay in the cell just the same. Sick of showdown after showdown with hired guns, Jason starts to throw rocks at a rival gunfighter. In the midst of a gunfight, Jason spectacularly finds a way to get across a street unscathed in a scene that always, always makes me laugh. The movie is full of those little moments that bring a smile to my face with ease.

A lot to like here, from the cast that looks to be having a ton of fun, notably Garner, Elam and Brennan with Dern stealing his scenes as well. The humor and comedy is perfectly played in this lighter-hearted western that manages to push a lot of the right buttons. I’m not a comedy western fan, but this one is a winner.

Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969): ***/****

Young Guns (1988)

Young GunsOne of the most iconic (maybe infamous is more apt a description), Billy the Kid is synonymous with the American west. His bloody, bullet-shattered life has been a frequent source for films, not too many of them actually any good. The odd exception? A 1988 western starring several up-and-coming stars and several established genre stars, it’s Young Guns.

A young gunfighter with a growing reputation, William H. Bonney (Emilio Estevez) is drifting along and on the run when he’s taken in by an English rancher, John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) in New Mexico. Tunstall has taken in a handful of young drifters who work his ranch and protect his cattle, but he finds himself facing the Santa Fe Ring, a group of cattle ranchers and businessmen trying to control the territory, including their leader, a cattleman named L.G. Murphy (Jack Palance). Things finally come to a head when Murphy-backed gunfighters callously gun down Tunstall. Bonney, also known as Billy the Kid, and Tunstall’s other men, the Regulators, are deputized to bring the men to justice. The Santa Fe Ring will not go quietly though, forcing Billy to take drastic action.

From The Left-Handed Gun to Chisum, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to The Outlaw, Billy the Kid has been the leading character in one western after another. The craziest thing? The 1980s western aimed at a younger audience…is one of the best! It’s probably right behind the 1970 John Wayne western Chisum. The history actually sticks pretty close to the facts of the Lincoln County War with only a few departures here and there. The look of the film feels spot-on (from the wardrobe to the New Mexico shooting locations), and the story doesn’t pull any punches, sticking to the dark, bloody source material.

Playing one of the American’s west most notable figures, Estevez is a scene-stealer as Billy the Kid. Past portrayals of Billy range from raging psychopath to petulant teenager, but Estevez finds a niche somewhere in between. His Billy is lightning quick with a gun, intelligent and always thinking…but he’s a little crazy, a little unhinged with an ever-growing ego. Estevez’s crazy, cackling laugh when Billy’s truly enjoying himself (usually after shooting someone) is downright creepy. But like so many western characters (anti-heroes or otherwise), Billy has a code he lives by, sticking with his fellow Regulators (his ‘Pals’) through — mostly — thick and thin. A solid, scene-stealing lead role.

The other Young Guns, the Regulators include Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland), Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips), Dick Brewer (Charlie Sheen), Dirty Steve (Dermot Mulroney) and Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko). We get little snippets of background as the story develops, but not much (Scurlock’s relationship with a young Chinese woman flops), so it would have been nice to learn a little more about the characters, all of them actual historical characters. With a touch of a younger, hipper Magnificent Seven though, the chemistry among Billy and the Regulators carries the movie as the Lincoln County War develops and grows bloodier and bloodier.

Hamming it up like only he can, Palance looks to be enjoying himself as the villainous Murphy. He’s not a developed, deep character. He’s just a sneering, intimidating villain so there’s that! Terry O’Quinn is excellent as Alex McSween, a lawyer who sides with the Regulators against the Santa Fe Ring. Western fans should also get a kick out of small parts for Brian Keith as a weathered bounty hunter and Patrick Wayne as Pat Garrett.

Clocking in at 106 minutes, ‘Guns’ follows an episodic story, bouncing along from one real-life incident to another. It makes for a somewhat slow, sometimes disjointed feel, but a quick gunfight always helps to get the blood and adrenaline flowing! Billy usually instigates the gunplay, all building to an impressive final shootout as the Regulators show down with the Santa Fe Ring and some Gatling Gun-toting cavalry. It’s a fun western with a cool cast and some always interesting history. It also produced an equally worthwhile sequel two years later. A surprisingly positive western that is definitely worth a watch.

Young Guns (1988): ***/****

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969)

Good Guys and Bad GuysThe end of the wild west has been an ideal setting for some of the most memorable western films, notably 1969’s The Wild Bunch. It reflects the end of an era, cowboys, gunfighters and drifters squeezed out by the advances of technology and time. Inherently dark, right? Not much room for comedy, right? You’d think. Reflecting the changing times in the west, 1969’s The Good Guys and the Bad Guys tries to tread that fine line right down the middle.

In the town of Progress, Marshall Jim Flagg (Robert Mitchum) catches wind of reports that a gang of outlaws has been spotted in the area. He figures they’re hovering around waiting to hit a train carrying an immense amount of money, but Progress’ mayor (Martin Balsam) isn’t having it. To shut up his veteran marshall, Mayor Wilker puts Flagg out to pasture, retiring him. Flagg instead takes matters into his own hand. He tries to stop the gang himself, a group led by young gunfighter, Waco (David Carradine), but his plan goes off course almost immediately. Now, Flagg must work with an old rival and an infamous bank robber, John McKay (George Kennedy), to stop Waco from hitting the train in time.

Between 1966-1969, Mitchum made 8 movies (so much for slowing down later in your career). Six of the eight were westerns ranging from near classics, 1966’s El Dorado to lesser flicks, like Young Billy Young. Mitchum seemed to know what his fans wanted — or at least what he liked doing as an actor. Reading his biography, Mitchum enjoyed making westerns, so he stuck with the genre. Why fix something that isn’t broken? From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Good Guys’ doesn’t rewrite the genre, but it’s pretty fun, able to inject some humor into a buddy story dynamic about the end of the wild west.

As the rivals who aren’t so different, Mitchum and Kennedy bring the movie up a notch from what would have been a much lesser western without strong actors in these roles. It’s the early 1900s and for better or worse, the duo has ‘outlived their usefulness’ as technology and the changing times have pushed gun-toting peace officers and bank robbers out the door. After they return to town, the two have a great scene as they discuss what used to be and how things aren’t like they used to be. Flagg’s been relieved of his duties and McKay has been left behind by his gang. So with nothing else to do, the former marshal and the former outlaw say ‘what the hell?’ and team up.

I’ll recommend this movie mostly because of Mitchum, a long-time movie star, and Kennedy, who was still relatively new to movies after spending years in guest starring spots on TV shows. As always, Mitchum has this ease of making characters likable, and it’s nice to see him in a good guy role. He was known for playing roguish brutes who were ultimately good, but Flagg is good through and through, even getting his own theme song. Kennedy gets some good laughs as McKay and has some great chemistry with Mitchum in their scenes together.

Balsam is a scene-stealer as Mayor Wilker, a local politician who has his eyes set on higher levels of government….while also seducing the married Tina Louise. Carradine isn’t given much to do (and no background), but he’s an impressive screen presence, even this young. John Davis Chandler is the only member of his gang to stand out as the unhinged Deuce. Douglas Fowley is excellent as Grundy, an old mountain man who sides with Flagg in trouble. Also look for Lois Nettleton, John Carradine, an uncredited Buddy Hackett, Marie Windsor and Dick Peabody.

The movie is at its best when dealing with Flagg and McKay in serious fashion. I’ve never been a fan of comedic westerns to begin with, and most of the attempts at humor here fall short. Balsam gets some genuine laughs, but the physical comedy comes up empty. The action is solid, especially the finale over the last 25 minutes or so as Flagg, McKay, Waco and his gang and Mayor Wilker and the entire town of Progress duke it out for control of the train. There are some pretty cool tracking shots — must have used a helicopter — showing the mass chaos of the chase.

Absolutely nothing spectacular about this one –check that, the New Mexico locations are beautiful– but as you’ve most likely figured out, a western has to be bottom of the barrel for me not to find something redeeming about it. Watch this one for typically strong performances from Robert Mitchum and George Kennedy and a great supporting part for Martin Balsam.

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969): ** 1/2 /****

 

Uncommon Valor (1983)

Uncommon ValorHere’s a trivia question for you. Are there more movies about the Vietnam War, or more movies about rescuing Vietnam War POWs? With the Rambo movies, the Missing in Action flicks and others, there were plenty of the latter. Lost in the shuffle at times is an underrated war film from 1983, Uncommon Valor.

It’s 1982 and after 10 years of one frustrating roadblock after another, retired U.S. Marine Colonel Jason Rhodes (Gene Hackman) has finally had a breakthrough. His son, Frank, was captured in Vietnam in 1972 and has been missing in action ever since. Rhodes finally has been able to gain military intelligence that his son — and other missing Americans — are being held at a prison camp in Laos. Assembling a small team of specialists, including several members from Frank’s old unit, Rhodes begins to plan a dangerous mission into Laos to rescue the long missing Americans. The odds are stacked heavily against him, but for Rhodes, it’s been too long. Something needs to be done.

Where Rambo: First Blood Part II and the Missing in Action movies are basically thinly-veiled excuses for Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris to kill people in a variety of gruesome fashions, ‘Valor’ goes for a more straightforward, no frills approach. It’s the better for it. It doesn’t try too hard to pander to viewers, simply laying things out and going from there. Director Ted Kotcheff turns in a good one here, a film audiences went out to see in droves in 1983.

So if you’re new to movies, Gene Hackman is the Man. He’s always awesome, always able to play a variety of characters. His Col. Rhodes is the glue of ‘Valor,’ a career military man who’s tortured by the memory of his son. Is he alive? Dead? Why is nothing being done to bring him — and other prisoners — home? It’s a subtle part, mostly underplayed, as he holds his team together, all in hopes of them working together to accomplish something truly worthwhile. The sacrifice involved, well, that becomes the issue. Like in ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ is it worth to save a life if it costs several more to get the job done? A solid leading part for Hackman.

In the men-on-a-mission angle, ‘Valor’ borrows from The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven and many others. Assemble the team, train them and unleash them on their mission. If the recipe ain’t broke, why fix it? Right?!? There are some cool parts amongst the team, including Wilkes (Fred Ward), the hand-to-hand combat specialist and tunnel rat, Blaster (Reb Brown), the explosives expert, Sailor (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb), the burned out fighter, Scott (Patrick Swayze), the weapons trainer, Johnson (Harold Sylvester) and Charts (Tim Thomerson), the helicopter pilots, Jiang (Kwan Hi Lim, a Hawaii Five-O regular), a black market operator and trail guide, and Lai Fun (Alice Lau), Jiang’s more than capable daughter. A fun, oddball, rag-tag group to fill out the team!

I’ve always been a fan of this one. It doesn’t rewrite the genre, but it doesn’t need to. ‘Valor’ gets its message across without being heavy-handed in its delivery, especially as we get to know these Vietnam vets and the struggles they’re going through. A potentially suicidal mission into Laos? Yeah, maybe that’s the redemption they need, or at least some sort of closure. The forming of the team and the training sequences are excellent, but the best is saved for the chaotic attack on the POW camp in the final act. A big twist in the final minutes, as well as some surprises with who makes it out and who doesn’t.

Not a classic, but an excellent flick, especially its unsettling, almost wordless opening sequence set in 1972 Vietnam. Also look for Robert Stack as MacPherson, Rhodes’ payroll and financial backer who’s also hoping to reunite with his son, also believed to be a POW in Laos. Well worth tracking down/watching.

Uncommon Valor (1983): ***/****

 

 

Back to Bataan (1945)

One of the more horrific events in American military history, the Bataan Death March is hard to comprehend some 60-plus years later. As an event in time, it marks a low point for the U.S. military, but it often hides the rest of the Philippines involvement in WWII. While the fighting continued as the Allies island-hopped across the Pacific, guerrilla fighting raged on in the Philippines, small groups of left behind American soldiers fighting alongside Filipino natives, like 1945’s propaganda-heavy but highly entertaining Back to Bataan.

Commanding a company of Filipino scouts late in the Bataan defense in spring 1942, Colonel Joe Madden (John Wayne) is called back to HQ with special orders. In an effort to ease the pressure on the front line troops, Madden will be sent behind the lines to organize guerrilla units. As he arrives though, the Allies surrender, and the Japanese are now in charge of some 70,000 prisoners. With a small ragtag group of American soldiers, Filipino natives and Filipino scouts, Madden goes to work nipping at the Japanese war effort in the face of impossible odds. With Japanese reprisals instantaneous and brutal, Madden seeks help, one of his men, Capt. Andres Bonifacio (Anthony Quinn), the grandson of a Filipino hero, now a prisoner. Together they fight on, hoping the Allies will return to the Philippines in time.

What is most appealing and interesting about this Edward Dmytryk-directed WWII story is the timing. It was released in theaters in the United States in late May 1945. The war was still very much going on, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still two-plus months away. I’ll go into the propaganda angle later, but there’s just something appealing about the story. It is straightforward, honest and even in its force-fed attitude, entertaining. The action is kept to small doses, but when it’s there, it’s loud, chaotic and doesn’t have that whitewashed feel of a 1940s war movie, including several impressive stunts for the Duke. The military-themed score isn’t real subtle, but it works in its obvious ways. Japanese…DUN DUN DUH! Americans….Cue the hero music!

Not one of his best roles, this is nonetheless one of my favorite John Wayne performances. The 38-year old Wayne was just heading into his prime as an actor, and it ends up being an interesting middle  ground. He doesn’t look like a kid anymore, but he doesn’t look like the heavier Duke of the 1960s. As the main star here, Wayne’s Col. Madden ends up being the face of the American involvement in the guerrilla movement. Who better to lead a warring nation against invaders? A similarly very young looking Quinn gets the showier part, the disillusioned Filipino trying to decide if the fighting and cost in lives is worth it. Knowing that both Wayne and Quinn would go on to become huge stars, it’s fun seeing them in early parts as rising stars. Quinn also gets a love interest, Fely Franquelli as Dalisay Delgado, an American agent working undercover for the Japanese (think Tokyo Rose).

And then there is the propaganda. By spring 1945, the Allied forces would win the war in the Pacific, it was just a matter of time. ‘Bataan’ nonetheless lays it on pretty thick in the propaganda department. The Japanese officers (including Richard LooPhilip Ahn, and Leonard Strong) are maniacally evil, sneering, conniving and diabolical whenever possible. Loo’s Major Hasko actually pets a Filipino girl’s hair at one point, seemingly practicing to be a Bond villain. Granted, the Japanese war effort in general was despicable, inhuman and horrifically awful, but ‘Bataan’ makes it cartoonish in its portrayal. There’s also the opposite. A Filipino teacher (Vladimir Sokoloff) is hanged rather than pull down an American flag. Instead of ripping the Japanese, it builds up the glory of America, especially young Filipino fighter, Maximo (Ducky Louie), and his American teacher, Ms. Barnes (Beulah Bondi), arguing. Late, a mortally wounded Maximo wishes he could have learned to spell ‘liberty’ correctly. The weird thing? Even in its cheeseball corniness, it works somehow.

While it isn’t a classic WWII film, ‘Bataan’ is a highly entertaining movie to watch, especially in a double-bill with 1942’s Bataan. The history is interesting, the prologue showing the freeing of Allied prisoners at Cabanatuan Prison Camp (read more HERE), the real-life incident depicted in 2005’s The Great Raid. An excellent story in 2005, but in 1945 it was just four months removed from the actual incident! Timely much? The real-life P.O.W. survivors even make an appearance (watch HERE). How cool is that? Talk about a time capsule. There’s some humor as well, Paul Fix‘s displaced American hobo, Bindle, talking with Alex Havier‘s loyal and capable Filipino scout, Sgt. Bernessa, about the beauty of being a hobo. Also look for Lawrence Tierney as Lt. Waite, an American officer debriefing the guerrillas before the action-packed finale. Just a good, old-fashioned war movie, one that could have gotten bogged down in its propaganda message but manages to rise above it.

Back to Bataan (1945): *** 1/2 /****

Death Rides a Horse (1967)

The middle film in Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy, 1965’s For a Few Dollars More, is considered one of the best spaghetti westerns ever made and is also my personal favorite of the genre. Two years later, 1967’s Death Rides a Horse hit theaters, and hhmm, something sure seems familiar. Borrowing liberally from Leone’s earlier western, it uses the same basic storyline with some almost identical scenes. Thankfully it does enough to stand on its own.

At an isolated ranch where $100,000 is being guarded one rainy night, a gang of bandits and killers descend on the ranch, taking the money as they kill the guards and family. All except one that is…a young boy. Some 15 years later, the boy has grown up, and Bill (John Phillip Law), is looking for the men responsible for his family’s murder. A dead-shot with pistol or rifle, Bill is still inexperienced, but he has specific memories that will help him identify the killers without having seen their faces. As he travels though, he meets up with Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older gunman fresh out of prison. Their plans seem the same as both men are gunning for the same bandits. Will they work together or as foes?

Sounds like For a Few Dollars More, doesn’t it? The young gunslinger teaming with the older, more experienced gun-hand isn’t unique to just FAFDM, but it is an example of a movie that handles it really well. But in the wave of movies that were released after the Leone westerns, some similar stories popped up, and director Giulio Petroni uses that story as a jumping off point. Similar elements are there — the dynamic between characters, the blood-tinted flashbacks — but this is a movie that stands on its own. There’s a reason it is remembered as one of the best spaghetti westerns around. And wouldn’t you know it? This Lee Van Cleef guy is a big reason why.

By 1967, Van Cleef was a star thanks to the spaghetti western. He’d already starred in FAFDM, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Big Gundown, and with ‘Death’ adds another classic to his name. His Ryan is a slightly different version of Col. Mortimer, albeit a little more down on his luck. Even when his characters are in the right though, Van Cleef gave them a mean streak right up their back. He’s an anti-hero, but one you’re never sure of his intentions. Cool as gunfire starts, he knows what he wants and plans on getting it. Playing Colonel Mortimer for Leone is probably his most iconic role, but this is one of my favorites of his. Unfortunately John Phillip Law just can’t match Clint Eastwood’s part, but he does a respectable job as the revenge-seeking Bill. It’s hard to tell if it’s his acting or a bad dubbing, but wooden aptly describes the character. There is a chemistry with Van Cleef’s Ryan though and that goes a long way in saving the story.

So who should our revenge-seeking gunmen go after? ‘Death’ fills out a cast will plenty of recognizable faces, all just waiting to be picked off. Law’s Bill as a child saw little things he could remember about the killers; a tattoo, an earring, a scar, and now he’s looking for those clues. The killers include Luigi Pistilli as Walcott, now a respectable banker (saw him clearly), American actor Anthony Dawson as Cavanaugh (chest tattoo of four aces), a saloon owner and town boss, with two bandit brothers, including Jose Torres as Pedro (scar over his left eye) and Angelo Susani as Paco (an earring from his right ear that dangles). Also look for Mario Brega as one of Walcott’s henchmen, an actor continuing his trend of dying horrifically in spaghetti westerns, and Bruno Corazzari as another hapless henchmen. Don’t forget about him in the finale. Where is he hiding?

All the touches of a successful spaghetti western are here from the anti-heroes and the despicable villains to the dusty border towns and extreme close-ups. For a movie that’s 114 minutes though, it is not action-packed. The story builds up the tension as Bill and Ryan hunt down their revenge, but it’s rarely dull. Just don’t think you’re seeing two hours of shootouts and gunfights. The ending though is one of the more memorable finales of the genre; Bill and Ryan in an isolated Mexican mountain village shooting it out with Walcott’s men. A wind storm whips across the mountains, enveloping the town as sand, dirt and wind swirl around. If you were looking for action, this is the best place to find. Also worth mentioning, a twist that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it works nonetheless in terms of the two characters involved. Great finale, great ending.

Now in a spaghetti western, you’d be safe guessing that composer Ennio Morricone did the musical score, and here, you would be 100% correct. It never ceases to amaze me this man’s talents. Some scores had touches of familiarity, but his ‘Death’ score is unlike any other he did and in general, one of his most underrated scores from a long and distinguished career. Listen to the main theme HERE for an idea. Another sample comes late in the movie — dubbed Mystic and Severe — which you can listen to HERE and watch in context HERE. Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of the score, using both those music cues in his movies Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Inglourious Basterds. A great score though to keep things moving in a great spaghetti western. Van Cleef was rarely better in bad-ass mode, and you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with too many that are better than this movie. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube, but the quality isn’t great.

Death Rides a Horse  (1967): *** 1/2 /****

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 /****