Four Guns to the Border

fourgunsposWhen a B-movie is bad, it can be really bad as its smallish budget and production value takes a toll. When it’s good though? You feel like you’ve stumbled into a hidden gem. That’s the case with 1954’s Four Guns to the Border, a snappy, fun little western based off a Louis L’Amour novel.

After a botched robbery results in nothing more than an empty safe that was supposed to be packed to the seams, a bandit named Cully (Rory Calhoun) and his gang ride out into the desert to plan their next move. Cully has an idea, but it is a desperate one. He’ll ride into the town of Cholla, a town he used to live in before he was run out of town by his friend-turned-marshal, Jim Flannery (Charles Drake). While he causes a distraction, his men will take advantage and rob the bank. That’s the plan at least. Cully and his gang come across an aging gunslinger (Walter Brennan) and his beautiful young daughter, Lolly (Colleen Miller), who has eyes for Cully. With an Apache war party in the area, everything is up for grabs.

There are hundreds and thousands of westerns out there in Movie Land just waiting to be found. Long story short? I’ll give any western a try. Flicks like this from actor-turned-director Richard Carlson are a welcome find. It’s the perfect example of a quality B-western. Small scale and small budget with a manageable cast, a straightforward story, some lovey-dovey for the ladies, and enough action to keep things moving. At just 83 minutes, ‘Guns’ drifts a little bit in the third act, but it’s fun from beginning to end. It never overstays its welcome and is a western I can highly recommend. Definitely track this one down.

I grew up reading Louis L’Amour westerns, and I still circle back every so often and give one a read. They’re like comfort food; familiar, always good and you always come back for more. There’s a formula too, one which ‘Guns’ follows along with. L’Amour’s anti-heroes — bandits, cowboys, drifters — were never that bad. When push comes to shove, they almost always made the right decisions — their bad guy-ness be damned. Throw in a gang of an old guy, a young firebrand and typically a minority, a pretty girl who has no business being on her own, some nameless, easily dispatched villains, and you’ve got a good mix!

Calhoun is an underrated gem in a variety of tough guy genres, especially the western. He was never a huge star, but he was always a welcome presence when I see his name pop up in a cast. I like his Cully, a tough, quiet, no-nonsense outlaw trying to outrun his past (and eventually get even). His gang is pure L’Amour, including Dutch (John McIntire), the old-timer looking for some $ to start a ranch, Bronco (George Nader), the young, fun-loving fast draw, and Yaqui (Jay Silverheels), the Indian tracker. These aren’t the dark, blood-lust bandits of so many later westerns. This is a likable bunch who I found myself rooting for. And let’s be honest…it’s cool to see Lone Ranger sidekick Tonto in a quasi-bad guy part!

Now for the interesting almost pornographic portion of our review! I’d never seen the very lovely Colleen Miller before in a movie, but….well, let’s say this is a pretty memorable turn. She’s a pretty decent actress, miles ahead of many pretty faces cast in B-movies! Carlson and the script call for some…I’ll say “Interesting” situations. Knocked out with a hit to the head, she gets a bucket of water poured on her, but Brennan misses her head and gets her shirt (a lot). She also flashes some leg getting into a dress, has a candy cane while the men ogle her, and runs out to the barn in a rainstorm while wearing a white nightgown. Not a complaint — she’s gorgeous — but the studio was clearly appealing to its male audience.

Also look for Nina Foch as Flannery’s wife, a woman who clearly has some history with Cully (uh-oh, unspoken love triangle!), and Nestor Paiva as Greasy, the owner of a saloon/store in the desert with some ties to our almost heroic outlaws.

I give ‘Guns’ credit. It’s pretty straightforward stuff, but it is also pretty unique. There’s some good twists and turns along the way in a story that doesn’t seem too familiar. I especially liked the twist about an hour into the movie as the gang makes a heroic decision. The ending itself could have been a whopper of a downer if Carlson wanted…but it’s 1954 America, not 1968 Italy in a spaghetti western. Still, it’s an excellent, generally little-known western. Well worth tracking down.

Four Guns to the Border (1954): ***/****

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Winchester ’73

winchester_73_-_1950-_posterIf you’re a fan of western movies and American history in the west in general, two firearms come to mind as the most iconic of the era. First? The Colt .45, a six-shot revolver made famous by gunfighters and cowboys. The second? The Winchester 1873 model, a repeating rifle that earned the nickname ‘the gun that won the west.’ The iconic rifle gets a starring role in an excellent western from 1950, Winchester ’73.

 

It’s July 4, 1876 in Dodge City with the town hosting a shooting contest bringing riflemen from all over the country. The prize? A so-called perfect Winchester rifle, dubbed the one in a 1,000 rifle. Among the competitors is Lin McAdam (James Stewart), a rancher/cowboy who’s a deadshot with a rifle. He wins via tiebreaker against a man from his past, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), but Dutch isn’t having it. He and two fellow gunfighters rob Lin of the prized rifle, racing out into the desert. Lin and his partner, High Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell), aren’t far behind. In the aftermath of the massacre at the Little Bighorn, reports of Indians on the warpath are escalating. Can Lin and High Spade track down the man and the gun while still keeping their hair?

John Wayne had John Ford, Randolph Scott had Budd Boetticher, and James Stewart had Anthony Mann. The star-director combo team here for the first of five movies they would make together (6 if you add The Glenn Miller Story), and it’s a gem. I’d have to go back and rewatch all five, but this definitely belongs up at the top. At 92 minutes, it is an episodic story with an ensemble cast that moves along at a quick pace. There is almost the feel of a TV show with 15 or 20-minute segments as the prized rifle finds itself in new hand one after another. How though? That’s the fun. The Winchester ends up being a star, jumping from person to person with some bad luck, greed, violence, betrayals and some blood dotting the way.

 

Stewart rarely gets the credit he deserves in the western genre. Other than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he didn’t star in a classic western. This movie is close, as is The Naked Spur, and there’s a handful that are really, really good. My point? He plays a great anti-hero of sorts, although here he’s in more typical hero mode. His Lin — for lack of a better description — is a good dude, if a touch obsessed with exacting some revenge. His backstory is familiar but well-handled and feels a good twist. It’s leisurely revealed, but it’s Jimmy Stewart. You know he’s a good guy. His chemistry with Mitchell’s High Spade is excellent too, two driven cowboys who are stubborn, loyal and sturdy.

 

What appealed to me is that Mann’s film uses a whole bunch of genre conventions (you could say stereotypes) but manages to breathe some new, fresh life into it. Case in point is the cast, with the revenge-seeking cowboy, the saloon hall girl with a heart of gold, the unhinged gunfighter, the loyal sidekick and so many more. Everyone gets almost equal screen-time throughout. Look for Shelley Winters as Lola, the saloon girl, Dan Duryea as Waco Johnny Dean, a psychotic gunfighter, McNally as Dutch Henry, Charles Drake as Steve Miller, Lola’s fiance, John McIntire as gunrunner Joe Lamont, Will Geer as Marshal Wyatt Earp, J.C. Flippen as a cavalry sergeant and a young Rock Hudson as an Indian chief.

 

Also look for Tony Curtis and James Best as young cavalry troopers, Steve Brodie and James Millican as members of Dutch’s gang, and John Wayne stuntman Chuck Roberson late as a potential bank robber. Familiar face Ray Teal has a shadow-marked supporting part as a marshal leading a posse.

 

Winchester’ covers a fair amount of mileage in its brisk 92-minute running time. The early shootout is a highlight, but there’s also a manipulative gunrunner, an Indian attack on a cavalry patrol, a posse chasing bandits, a bank robbery, a not forced (thankfully) love story, and a genuine good twist late. Filmed in black and white, ‘Winchester’ has an almost artsy look — plenty of shadow and silhouette, almost a noir western — and definitely capitalizes on the Arizona shooting locations, including Old Tucson.

Held in high regard by many, ‘Winchester’ still doesn’t get the classic attention it probably should. It’s a great western, entertaining with some action but also well-written and well-executed. Highly recommended.

Winchester ’73 (1950): *** 1/2 /****

Rio Bravo

riobravoposterMore often than not, the movies you watched and loved as a kid stick with you. Case in point, my love of John Wayne movies. I started with The Alamo and never looked back. One of my favorites and hopefully always will be, 1959’s Rio Bravo is one of the best Duke westerns ever, and on a bigger scale, one of the best westerns ever. Simple as that.

In the border town of Rio Bravo, a man named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) has brutally gunned a man down and walked away from the scene. The town sheriff, John T. Chance (Wayne) and his drunken deputy, Dude (Dean Martin), track him down and throw him in a jail cell. Burdette’s brother, Nathan (John Russell), is a powerful rancher though with his hand in everything. With a small army of gunmen, Nathan bottles up the town. Chance can’t get Joe out of town, and he can’t bring help into town. Left with no alternative, Chance and his deputies sit back and wait. They think the Burdettes will make a move at some point, but in what capacity? The odds are definitely against them.

I can’t think of too many westerns that are more enjoyable, more fun, more charming. From director Howard Hawks, ‘Rio’ is a gem of the genre. It avoids most of the trappings that plagued so many “adult” westerns in the 1950’s, finding a balance among story, characters, drama, laughs and gunplay. Maybe a touch long at 141 minutes, but I’m still never bored. There aren’t any dark undertones or heavy-handed attempts at drama. Just all the separate pieces working together to create an even better final product, a true classic.

Since delivering maybe his career-best performance four years earlier in 1955’s The Searchers, Wayne had gone away from the western genre only to see his next 4 films struggle at the box office. His western return was a triumph! My opinion obviously, but I think this is Wayne’s coolest performance — for lack of a more well-spoken description. He looks the part, sounds the part and looks to be having a ball with a great cast that’s loaded with chemistry. This film began the second half of his career — as he became the Duke more than John Wayne — but his Sheriff John T. Chance becomes an iconic western character; the stout, stubborn, capable small-town sheriff. Odds be damned, he intends to do what’s right.

The cast in ‘Rio’ wouldn’t seem like a gimme if you just look at the cast listing. Odd choices, interesting choices, but you know what? They ALL work. Chance’s crew of deputies include Dean Martin as Dude, a gunslinger who’s fallen on hard times courtesy of a drinking problem, Walter Brennan as Stumpy, a motor-mouthed old man with a significant limp, and singer/teen idol Ricky Nelson as Colorado, a young gunslinger who’s quick on the draw but inexperienced. John Russell makes the most of a small part as intimidating gentleman Nathan Burdette while Claude Akins sneers and jeers as his punk brother, Joe.

According to Wayne and Hawks, Rio Bravo was at least partially a response to 1952’s High Noon. I’ve read Wayne even thought the Gary Cooper western was un-American as countless townspeople refused to help Cooper’s Will Kane. Not the case here. Chance has a drunk, a cripple and a youngster, but he’s got help. Many other people offer to pitch in and lend a hand, but Wayne’s Chance refuses almost all of it. The catch is that the chemistry of the oddball crew in Rio Bravo is amazing. This is a great dialogue-driven script. Check out the memorable quotes from IMDB HERE. It’s a gem from beginning to end, and the cast doesn’t disappoint in bringing it all to life.

One of the more interesting aspects of Rio Bravo is the casting of 28-year old Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a saloon girl that Chance tries to chase out of town but ends up butting heads with and eventually falling for. The age difference is noticeable with a 50-year old Wayne, but my goodness, every scene they have crackles together. Dickinson keeps Wayne on his heels at all times, talking and questioning and generally driving him nuts. Westerns so often waste their female leads with non-essential…well, everything, but Dickinson is such a scene-stealer, you can’t help but sit back and watch the on-screen chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Ward Bond plays Pat Wheeler, a wagon train leader who has a friendly history with Chance and wants to help. Also look for Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as Carlos, the hotel owner who is close friends with Chance as well. He has some great lines as he hams it up in certain scenes and underplays other scenes. Estelita Rodriguez plays Carlos’ wife, Consuela.

I caught something interesting on my most recent viewing. ‘Bravo’ has elements of a stage-based play with only two key locations, the jail and the hotel. Sure, the main strip in the town of Rio Bravo is key but almost the entire story is told in either those 2 locales (with some departures here and there for drinking at saloons and shoot-outs). Just an observation.

One of the qualifiers with classic westerns is memorable lines, memorable shootouts and set pieces that help it stand above the rest. The wordless opener is a gem, almost 7 minutes without a word spoken, no explanations given. I’ve always loved the scene too where Chance and Dude walk into a saloon looking for a murder suspect…except he disappeared. But how? A classic. With talents like Martin and Nelson too, there’s even a chance for some singing. Forced, even jammed, into the story? Sure, but it’s so good you don’t even care. Give the 2-song set a listen HERE. It’s all aided by a classic score from composer Dimitri Tiomkin, including a great main theme and a test run on his Deguello sample he’d use a year later in The Alamo.

A movie I love a little more with each viewing. A true classic. So much to recommend. You’d better just go watch it to be safe.

Rio Bravo (1959): ****/****

Fort Dobbs

fost_dobbs_poster_smallStarring in TV’s Cheyenne for seven seasons, Clint Walker shot to stardom as the burly hero of the long-running western. He never transitioned into a huge star in movies, but with a few exceptions (his supporting part in The Dirty Dozen among others) he was always quite at home in the western. Natural jump, right, TV to film? An underrated, exciting, well-made western, 1958’s Fort Dobbs, was one he made during his Cheyenne run.

Having killed a man in the small town of Largo, Gar Davis (Walker) heads off into the desert ahead of a posse. Comanches are on the warpath and killing anyone in their path though, Gar stumbling across a dead man with an arrow in his back. He switches jackets with the corpse and manages to trick the posse into thinking the Comanches killed him. Gar is still on his own though amidst raiding Comanches until he walks onto a small ranch run by a wife, Celia Gray (Virginia Mayo), and her son, Chad (Richard Eyer), who are waiting for her husband to return. He agrees to help the Grays get to the relative safety of nearby Fort Dobbs, but Mrs. Gray begins to think that Gar has a secret, maybe even about her possibly missing husband.

This is an example of what a western can and should be. The story doesn’t have to be on the level of The Searchers, Shane or High Noon where it delivers a message. It doesn’t have to be mindlessly stupid either full of action and gunplay. From director Gordon Douglas, ‘Dobbs’ isn’t a great, classic western. It is just a really good western, and that’s fine with me. It is shot on a relatively small budget with Max Steiner‘s score sampling his score from They Died With Their Boots On and even borrows some action footage from 1953’s The Charge at Feather River. But even on a small scale, it knows what it wants to do and how to get there. Unspectacular, solid entertainment that any western fan should be able to appreciate.

In the vein of the traditional, white-hat wearing hero from the 1940s westerns, Clint Walker is a great lead as Gar Davis. For starters, he looks like a western hero. Walker stood an imposing 6-foot-6 and weighed 235 pounds so he towers over basically everyone around him. When he starts talking, that deep, baritone voice sounds like it’s going to bounce off of people and echo back. His backstory is explained late in the movie, giving Gar a slightly darker side albeit a righteous darker side. Don’t go in thinking he’s the flawless hero, but he is a good hero who will ultimately make the right choice. It’s too bad Walker didn’t become more of a star in films because as is the case here and yesterday’s Gold of the Seven Saints, he’s perfect for the western genre.

He is capably helped in three main supporting parts, all three of which could have gone obviously very wrong. We’ve got the damsel in distress, her possibly shrill, annoying son, and a smooth, conniving gunrunner. Credit to Mayo, Eyer and Brian Keith for making the most out of their parts. I’ve long been a fan of Virginia Mayo, an actress who was always able to hold her own against some of Hollywood’s best tough guys. She’s tough, smart and gorgeous, able to stand toe to toe with Walker. Eyer as her son, Chad, is also very good. So often in the 1950s (maybe more than any other decade), child actors could single-handedly ruin the movies they’re in. In other films like Friendly Persuasion, The Desperate Hours, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Eyer shows he can act, genuinely act. He has a great scene with Walker too late in the movie, a natural, emotional scene for a 13-year old actor.

As for Mr. Keith, he’s a scene stealer as Clett, a gunrunner who keeps crossing paths with Gar and Celia as they make a run for Fort Dobbs. He obviously has had some past run-ins with Gar, and that tension comes out in these scenes, especially when Keith’s Clett goes after Mayo’s Mrs. Gray. I’m used to seeing him as more of a straight-laced good guy (like in Nevada Smith) so it’s great seeing him as a bad guy. It’s more of a smooth, quick-talking bad guy, but you get the idea. The final confrontation between Gar and Clett is appropriately epic featuring some great dialogue that feels right at home in the western. It’s not a huge part, but one that Keith knocks out of the park nonetheless.

The fairly straightforward story does just enough to keep you interested and/or guessing until the end. The Utah locations serve as a gorgeous backdrop to the trip to Fort Dobbs which upon arrival delivers quite a twist. The last 25-30 minutes are the more traditional cowboys and settlers vs. Indians story, but it’s handled perfectly. The action is exciting, even surprisingly graphic, and in the end everything wraps up nicely. Russ Conway has a good part as the Largo Sheriff in this final portion. Good, underrated western. Definitely worth checking out.

Fort Dobbs <—Youtube montage (1958): ***/****

Bad Day at Black Rock

bad_day_at_black_rockDirector John Sturges helmed two of my all-time favorite movies, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1963’s The Great Escape. He specialized in tough guy movies, and in 1955 directed an interesting mash-up that features elements of several different genres, including film noir, mystery and western. How could that not work? Here’s 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock.

It’s late in 1945 in the isolated western town of Black Rock. After four years of not stopping, a train stops at the station and one man steps off. His name is Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). He’s outfitted in a black suit and black hat and is carrying a suitcase, but no one has ever seen him before. No one in town has ever even heard of him. Polite and mannerly, he drifts around the one-street town, instantly arousing suspicion to his intentions. A local rancher, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), owns the town, intimidating anyone who gets in his way. Smith and his men are concerned about what Macreedy is up to but they can’t figure it out. What is he looking for exactly in Black Rock?

What a great movie. Clocking in at a brisk 81 minutes, this is a movie without a wasted moment. It does effortlessly combine film noir, mystery and western archetypes in a way you wouldn’t expect. You think the story is going one way and then WHAM we’re going a different way. There is a minimalist style to it, but all these separate pieces meld together perfectly. Definitely a must-see movie.

Leading the way is Spencer Tracy as our mysterious lead, John J. Macreedy. He enters town with an unannounced mission, a smile on his face and some questions he’d like answered. An established Hollywood legend by 1955 (and then some), Tracy makes it look easy. Met with interference, stone faces and roadblocks everywhere he turns, he seamlessly moves along down another avenue. It’s only late when he’s pushed too far that he finally pushes back. His eventual confrontation provides one of the movie’s great moments, a genuine shock as he handles the situation. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give an actor is it doesn’t seem like they’re trying too hard. Tracy is a prime example, stealing scenes without us even realizing he’s doing it.

Typically directing guy’s guys types of movies, Sturges does not disappoint here. Ryan is the steely-eyed Smith, the town owner who knows more than he’s letting on. His scenes with Tracy crackle, intimidation just seeping through all his lines. His henchmen of sorts are pre-star Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, equally intimidating and ominous. The rest of the townspeople include Walter Brennan as the doctor, Dean Jagger as the washed-up sheriff, Anne Francis as Smith’s girl and the garage owner, John Ericson as the hotel owner (and Francis’ sister), Russell Collins as the telegraph operator and Walter Sande as Sam, the bartender. Some good characters all delivering with key supporting parts.

An additional member of the cast is the on-location shooting in Lone Pine, California and the nearby Alabama Hills. The little one-street town features five or six small, rickety buildings with one main road splitting the town. Mountains hover in the distance over the town, a train zipping through once a day but never stopping. Sturges films the streets scenes low, both the cast and the mountains seemingly looking down at the camera. You feel the isolation and loneliness, a town seemingly separated from the rest of the world. That uneasy feeling of being trapped plays a key feature as Macreedy continues to ask questions. Has he dug himself too deep? A sun-drenched, uncomfortable setting for a story that takes place in a period of just 24 hours.

A classic that doesn’t always get its due. A must-see.

(1955): ****/****

The Man from the Alamo

poster_of_the_movie_the_man_from_the_alamoOne of the legends of the battle of the Alamo is that late in the siege, Colonel Travis drew a line in the sand, asking the men who were willing to stay and fight to cross over the line. Supposedly, only one man chose not to, a Napoleonic veteran named Louis Rose. Did it really happen? Probably not, but it remains an enduring story almost 200 years later. The premise is certainly interesting though, and here it is, delivered with a twist, 1953’s The Man from the Alamo.

With the Mexican army surrounding the fort, the defenders of the Alamo desperately wait for reinforcements. Word has reached the defenders that raiding parties are attacking settlers and homesteads, including one area well-represented in the Alamo. A group of defenders draw straws to see who will leave the potentially doomed mission to look after the families. The one chosen? John Stroud (Glenn Ford), a tough, hard-working farmer who’s never run from a fight before but now he must. Stroud rides out of the Alamo only to find that he’s too late when he gets home. Farms and homes alike have been burned by raiding parties, but not Mexican soldiers. Instead, it is a gang of Americans who have sided with the Mexicans in hopes of acquiring land. With a stigma attached to his name, Stroud goes about exacting his revenge.

Ever since watching Disney’s Davy Crockett episodes as a kid, I’ve been hooked on the Alamo. This film effort was one that took awhile to track down, but it was worth the wait. It’s on my Alamo rotation I watched every year during the siege — Feb. 23 through March 6 — as it unfolds.

‘Man’ is an interesting entry, mostly because it uses the Alamo as a jumping off point and not an end result. The opening 15 minutes or so depict the siege, a high-walled, claustrophobic fort under heavy bombardment. We meet Crockett, Travis and Bowie briefly as we learn that time is running out on the defenders. Certain death awaits. What the opening lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for in tension and a no-holds barred feeling. It gives you a real sense of what it must have been like to be part of the siege from the Texan perspective. A very cool intro that sets the stage nicely for the rest of the movie.

Once John leaves the Alamo, we return to a pretty standard B-western. We’ve got six-shooters and cowboys who look more appropriate for the 1870’s than 1830’s, but it’s fun. Director Budd Boetticher was still a relative unknown as he would pair up with star Randolph Scott in the coming years for his most memorable movies. ‘Man’ is solid though. It clocks in at just 79 minutes and is always on the move. Some good action, an interesting, unique story and entertaining throughout. The potential of the story — a man leaves the Alamo, mostly against his will — certainly could have been more involved, more in-depth to explore the character, but what’s here is entertaining, streamlined fun.

Glenn Ford has always been an actor I welcome when I see him in a cast listing, but one I’ve never thought of as one of my favorites either. A good actor, but he doesn’t have many classic or close classics to his name. He does what he can here as supposedly cowardly John Stroud, but the story never lets him slow down and breathe. Stroud finds out what happened to his wife and son but never gets a chance to show any frustration. He’s just immediately on the road to revenge! Not a flashy part, but a good one.

Also look for Julie Adams, Hugh O’Brian, Chill Wills (he’d star in John Wayne’s The Alamo 7 years later), Victor Jory as the villain, and Neville Brand as one of his henchmen. Marc Cavell has a solid supporting part as Carlos, a young Mexican boy who worked with his father on the Stroud farm. Even keep an eye out for Dennis Weaver as one of the Alamo defenders.

Nothing too flashy here, but a western I’ve enjoyed with repeated viewings. Especially noteworthy for its Alamo opening, ‘Man’ also features some pretty cool stunts in the finale as a gang of murderers chases across the prairie after eight wagons full of women, children, and a big old safe of gold. Worth a watch if you can track a copy down.

The Man from the Alamo (1953): ***/****

Vera Cruz

vera_cruz423The 1960’s have often been identified as the decade that did in the western genre. Too many TV shows, shifting styles and tones, and a general cynicism in the viewing audience turned old-fashioned westerns into violent, nasty and bloody stories. The process continued well into the 1970s with the concept of revisionist westerns. Let’s be honest though, the trend started before the 60s, notably with 1954’s Vera Cruz.

After his Louisiana plantation was destroyed during the Civil War, former Confederate officer Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) rides south into Mexico. He’s looking for work as a gunhand, willing to take just about any job he can as a mercenary. On the trail, he meets Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), an American gunman with quite a track record. Joe is at the head of a gang of American gunfighters, bandits and outlaws, all looking for work. They find it in French emperor Maximilian who’s looking for help. Along with a company of French lancers, Ben and Joe must help transport a beautiful countess (Denise Darcel) to the coastal town of Vera Cruz. There’s more to the convoy though which Trane and Erin quickly find out. Betrayals, back-stabbing and double-crosses await in abundance on the trail.

I can’t imagine what audiences thought when they saw this 1954 western from director Robert Aldrich. It’s unlike any western released to that point and for several more years to boot! Violent, cynical and other than Cooper’s Ben Trane, not even a remotely sympathetic character in sight! Everyone is out for themselves, and $ is the end-all, be-all no matter who gets in the way. Case in point? Lancaster’s Joe Erin uses children as a hostage in an early scene, and it doesn’t seem like it’d take too much for him to call a bluff. Characters willing to go to those depths wouldn’t be common in westerns until spaghetti westerns exploded in popularity about a decade later. 10 years! We’re still 3 years from Leave it to Beaver even premiering on TV!

‘Cruz’ is influential in any number of ways, but my favorite influence is the casting of its two leads, Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Trane is a true Southern gentleman, but a desperate one in search of cash and a new beginning. Erin is a killer, a gunslinger, and not above doing anything to get that money. Their chemistry is flawless, Cooper’s understated charm and Lancaster’s showier style, especially when he flashes that toothy smile when you know he’s up to no good. The relationship — unlikely and untrusting — is the inspiration for countless future westerns, especially The Wild Bunch and For a Few Dollars More. Not often thought of as their best performances, but clearly two parts the duo had some fun bringing to life.

Aldrich specialized in guy’s guys movies — The Dirty Dozen, Flight of the Phoenix — and he brings a cool supporting cast together here, including several budding stars. Erin’s gang includes Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and several other familiar faces. Also look for Archie Savage as Ballad, a black soldier who served with the Union. Along with Darcel, Sara Montiel is a potential love interest as Nina, a Mexican girl working with the revolutionaries. Rounding out the powers that be on both the Mexican and French side are Cesar Romero (a French Marquis), Henry Brandon (a French lancer), Morris Ankrum (revolutionary leader), and George Macready (Maximilian).

Filmed on location in Mexico, ‘Cruz’ is the better for it. You feel like you’re part of the revolution itself with the worn-down ruins, the dusty streets, and the mountains in the background. Filming even took place at Teotihuacan, at its time one of the largest cities in the world and a beautiful backdrop, even if it is only for a scene. The final battle is the same location as the finale in The Wrath of God (one of my favorites too). The locations go a long way toward the realism, adding a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings. It’s also a cool triple- or quadruple-feature with The Treasure of Pancho Villa, Bandido, The Wonderful Country and others.

A western that is ahead of time and incredibly entertaining. There is plenty of action, and even having seen it before, the story keeps you guessing until the end with betrayals and double-crosses galore. Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster are excellent together, a pairing of two of Hollywood’s all-time greats living up to expectations.

The historical setting is also familiar among westerns, with the French involvement in Mexico also in Major Dundee, The Undefeated, Two Mules for Sister Sara, El Condor and Adios, Sabata. An interesting time in history that isn’t necessarily well-known.

Vera Cruz (1954): *** 1/2 /****