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 This was originally made with Wayne — still working at Republic — attached as an actor.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): ***/****

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): ***/****

Broken Lance (1954)

Broken LanceWhen it comes to pure acting chops, Spencer Tracy had few equals. In a career that spanned four decades, Tracy won two Best Actor Academy Awards and was nominated 9 times, a record he shares with Laurence Olivier. Let’s take a look at one of his only western performances, 1954’s Broken Lance.

For 25 years, Matt Devereaux (Tracy) worked to carve out a ranch and a life for his family in the American southwest. He accomplished his goal, creating one of the most well-respected ranches in Texas…but at the expense of his sons, elder Ben (Richard Widmark), Mike (Hugh O’Brian), Denny (Earl Holliman) and his youngest, Joe (Robert Wagner). The three older boys have long resented how they’re treated as workers and cowboys and not family. As he ages and as the west continues to develop, Matt has to face what to do next, both with his family and the cattle and mining empire he has created.

I’ve made no bones about my thoughts on 1950s westerns. (Spoilers Alert: They’re typically not my favorite). While ‘Broken’ has plenty of positives, my typical complaints are there. The family story plays out like a soap opera, heavy and brooding from the word ‘go.’ It feels like a Shakespearean play or a Greek tragedy as the Devereaux family tears itself apart. Director Edward Dmytryk has plenty of talent on hand, and the story is interesting but in the end I came away with a ‘meh’ review of a 96-minute flick.

In telling this story, Dmytryk uses a cool storytelling technique, Wagner’s Joe released from prison after a 3-year sentence. We don’t know why or what he did. Minutes later, we see him meet the governor and his three brothers, ominously, forebodingly offering him $10,000 to move along and never come back. It’s a great little intro…that never quite clicks once the story flashes back to what drove the story to this point. When the two stories click, it lacks that great energy, that connection that I was hoping for. Still, cool points for trying.

Playing the Devereaux family patriarch, Tracy does not disappoint in the starring role. He’s far from a heroic lead, his Matt a harsh, driving man who – usually – means well but has had to make some tough decisions along the way. He’s tried to build a life for his family and has succeeded, but it’s come at a price. His dynamic with his youngest son, Wagner’s Joe, provides the best moments in the movie. Wagner too delivers an understated, effective performance as Joe, a half-white, half-Comanche young man.

The coolest performance goes to Katy Jurado who plays Senora, a Comanche woman who married Matt after his first wife died. She’s not Mexican but people call her “Senora” because it’s easier than addressing the elephant in the room that a white man married an Indian. It’s a quiet, moving, scene-stealing performance as she tries to hold the family together as everyone starts grabbing for pieces to control. Jurado deservedly was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her part, ultimately losing to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront.

While the rest of the cast has some name recognition, they’re not given much to do. One of the best heavies ever, Widmark is the leader of the three older Devereaux boys, but unfortunately his character is off-screen for far too long. O’Brian may say 8 words the whole movie, and Holliman is the brother kinda sorta caught in between. Eduard Franz plays ranch foreman Two Moons, E.G. Marshall is the weakling governor, and Jean Peters plays his daughter, Barbara, a love interest for Joe that feels bleh and forced.

I wanted to like this one more, especially as I read reviews of folks who loved it. The cast is worth it alone, even if the storyline doesn’t give much of them to do. Some cool locations in Arizona spice things up with a true sense of the desert wilderness as well. Flawed but good, worthwhile for Tracy, Wagner and Jurado in solid performances.

Broken Lance (1954): ** 1/2 /****

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): ***/****

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): ***/****

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 /****

Attack (1956)

Attack 1956As long as there have been wars, there have been anti-war films. When I think of waves of anti-war films though, I start to think of the late 1960’s, especially in the U.S. as Americans grew disillusioned with the Vietnam War. But how about an early anti-war effort from the 1950’s that was ahead of its time in so many ways? Here’s 1956’s Attack.

It’s 1944 and Allied forces are advancing all over Europe on German forces. One infantry unit is dealing with a command issue though, especially as the fighting intensifies. Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance) is a platoon commander in an infantry company commanded by the cowardly Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert). In a recent engagement, Cooney’s outright cowardice and indecision cost the lives of an entire squad when he refused to commit a reserve to the fighting. As Costa tries to decide what to do, the Germans attack all along the front (the battle of the Bulge), pushing the American forces back. Can Costa hold his men together, or will Cooney’s inability to command cost the lives of even more men?

From director Robert Aldrich, this 1956 World War II movie is an oft-forgotten gem. Based off a Norman Brooks play, it never gets the credit it deserves for the truly dark, honest look it takes at war. These are normal, everyday soldiers trying to get through the war unscathed. These aren’t super-men single-handedly winning the war. Their commander’s general ineptitude at everything he does has some of the men, especially Costa, considering shooting Cooney because no one in the command system will do anything. The commanders are either inept or self-serving while the enlisted men simply want to survive the war.

In a career that featured one memorable tough guy performance after another, Palance delivers one of his best here. His Lt. Joe Costa is as tough as hell and an ideal platoon commander, but he’s human too. After years of fighting, all the death is starting to wear on him, especially when there was potential to stop those deaths. His Costa becomes obsessed with stopping Cooney, no matter how and no matter the consequences. Eddie Albert is frighteningly good as the inept Cooney, a company commander with some serious emotional issues, from alcoholism to daddy issues to fear of failure to…well, just about anything you can think of. Two amazingly different but incredibly memorable parts.

Aldrich had a knack for assembling some damn good casts, and though ‘Attack’ doesn’t have a ton of star power, it’s a damn good cast. In one of his first major roles, Lee Marvin is a scene-stealer as Lt. Colonel Clyde Barrett, the battalion commander using Cooney for his pull back home politically. William Smithers is excellent as Lt. Woodruff, Cooney’s executive officer caught in between his commander and the men in the company. The men in Costa’s platoon include Richard Jaeckel, Robert Strauss, John Shepodd, Jim Goodwin and a scene-stealing Buddy Ebsen as Sgt. Tolliver. Also look quick in the opening scene for Strother Martin as an infantry soldier and Peter van Eyck as an SS officer.

Considering the film’s rather dark subject matter and the timing in the Happy Days-esque 1950’s, it’s not surprising that the US Army wanted nothing to do with Aldrich’s film and offered no support. The result? A lower budget, gritty war film shot on the backlots in a Hollywood studio. It works nicely, ‘Attack’ reflecting its stage-based roots with some long dialogue scenes broken up by some surprisingly realistic, chaotic combat scenes. It’s hard not to look at the bombed-out French town and see the similarities with the finale to Saving Private Ryan.

A lot to be said here, ‘Attack’ getting progressively darker and darker with each passing scene. Aldrich leans on his film noir roots for some great uses of darkness and shadow as tensions rise. Even on repeated viewings, I’m surprised where the story ends up going in the final third of a 107-minute movie. It’s never gotten the credit it deserves, but it’s an anti-war classic. A must-watch.

Attack (1956): *** 1/2 /****

Bend of the River (1952)

bend_of_the_river_-_1952-_posterWhen you think of all the great western directors that worked at the height of the genre’s success — the 1950s through the 1960s — plenty of names comes up, directors like John Ford, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher to name just a few.  And then there’s Anthony Mann, who rarely gets the credit he deserves for an impressive filmography. He’s often known for his films with star James Stewart, (8 pairings, 5 of them westerns)like 1952’s Bend of the River.

It’s 1866 and a wagon train is heading west to Oregon. Scouting for the wagon train is Glyn McClintock (Stewart), a former border raider who’s looking to go clean and put his checkered past behind him. The families traveling aren’t aware of Glyn’s past though. To them, he’s just a more than capable scout and gunman. Along the trail, Glyn rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a lynching, Glyn not sure if he saved a guilty or an innocent man. Cole decides to tag along, help Glyn and the wagon train make it to Oregon. More and more challenges await though, from Indians and bandits to problems from within. Can Cole go straight? Can Glyn escape his past?

Like any of the western director/star pairings listed above, the Mann-Stewart westerns have a rhythm, a formula they stick with through thick and thin. I’ll get into that formula more in-depth later, but the gist of it is simple. Released in the 1950s, these movies still have that traditional western feel of the 1940s/1930s while starting to tackle more adult/realistic issues that became prevalent throughout the 1950s. Throw in some beautiful filming locations, solid score and deep casts, and you’ve got a winning formula.

A staple of the Mann westerns was Stewart’s flawed, often tragic anti-heroes. His Glyn McClintock certainly qualifies. Stewart played tortured like few others. These aren’t super-heroic gunslingers who can do no wrong. He’s genuinely trying to go straight, to prove he’s a good man. Oh, and he may have to prove that with the lovely Laura (Julie Adams), the daughter of one of the farmers (Jay C. Flippen) on the wagon train. So if Glyn is trying to go straight, what about Cole? Kennedy is a scene-stealer as the ruthless gunfighter who you’re not always sure of his intentions….but you really are. There is little doubt where this is going, but in the meantime, Stewart and Kennedy are excellent in starring roles.

Another frequent Mann collaborator and a rising star in his own right, Rock Hudson has a fun supporting part as Trey Wilson, a young gambler who finds himself working on the trail with Glyn and Cole. In the wasted villain department, Howard Petrie plays Hendricks, the owner of an Oregon town with his hand in everything that will make him some money. Chubby Johnson and Stepin Fetchit are misused in a politically incorrect subplot about a river boat captain and his assistant. Also look for Harry Morgan, Jack Lambert and Royal Dano as troublesome drifters, and Francis Bavier (later Aunt Bea on The Andy Griffith Show) in a small part.

‘Bend’ was filmed on-location in Oregon — including Sandy River, Mount Hood and Timberline — and looks stunningly beautiful. The mountainous backgrounds are provide quite the different look for the story as Glyn, Cole and the wagon train navigate through all the snow-capped mountains. It isn’t the quickest moving story, but it’s never slow. Some good action along the way, and a more than capable cast to lead the way. Not the best Mann-Stewart pairing, but an above average western that’s definitely worth a watch.

Bend of the River (1952): ***/****