Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

once_upon_a_time_in_the_westWith his Dollars trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Italian director Sergio Leone cemented his status as one of the great western directors of all-time. He was far from done. His follow-up to the immensely popular spaghetti western trilogy was another western, but one I consider to be his best. A classic in every sense of the word, 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

In the budding town of Flagstone, Arizona, a beautiful young woman named Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives via train expecting to meet her husband only to receive shocking news. Her husband and his children have been massacred by unknown gunmen. Getting far more than she bargained for, Jill finds herself at the center of a bloody battle for land rights that everyone wants, especially the railroad’s brutal hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill finds helps in odd places, including a mysterious gunman named Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and an on the run bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Everything is up for grabs with so much on the line in a growing, changing wild west.

If there was ever a film that didn’t need a plot description, ‘OUATITW’ is it. With a running time of 165 minutes, Leone’s western revolves one of the western’s biggest archetypes, the railroad moving west and all those involved who get caught in the wake. It’s so much more though, using character archetypes that you’ve seen before but in ways you’ve never seen before. Leone flips his own personal style on its side, favoring a deliberate pace with long, quiet scenes that can best be described as slow burns. The patient viewer will most definitely be rewarded in the end. It isn’t just a great western, it is a great film, and one of the great movies of all-time.

Leone is clicking on all cylinders here from beginning to end. His story is perfectly straightforward, but it requires you to pay close attention. I’ve seen ‘West’ repeatedly, but I always pick up something new with each viewing. This is a story of the changing times and dying ways of the wild west. Civilization is arriving, chasing the cowboys and the gunmen out the door. What happens in the meantime though? Beautifully filmed in both Spain and Monument Valley, ‘West’ is beyond visually stunning. The variety of American and Spanish locations links the two disparate types of westerns in a simple, deftly handled way. Throw in a hauntingly beautiful score from composer Ennio Morricone (more on that later), and you have a leisurely-paced story that is nonetheless able to pull you in more with each passing scene. It’s almost 3 hours long and for lack of a better description — not a ton happens — but the running time flies by.

Cardinale. Fonda. Robards. Bronson. I’m hard-pressed to identify too many western casts better than this one. Working off a script from Leone and Sergio Donati, the quartet brings these familiar characters to life. Cardinale is an all-time beauty, and I don’t know if she ever looked more gorgeous than she did here. More than that though, her Jill is what so many westerns were lacking; a strong female character. She receives help at different points from Harmonica and Cheyenne, but she’s far from a damsel in distress. Her chameleon-like ability to survive and thrive makes her a more than worthy lead. No small task considering her co-stars.

Going against a career’s built-up reputation, Fonda plays the villainous Frank and steals his scenes. He’s terrifying, an intimidating presence who overpowers seemingly everyone around him. No spoilers, but his introduction early is one of the most truly shocking entrances ever. Bronson has never been better. His Harmonica is a steely-eyed gunman seeking revenge, not saying much, instead playing the harmonica he wears around his neck. The reasoning for his revenge is nicely handled, a slow-developing flashback sequence that works so eloquently because it’s so straightforward. Robards too is a gem as Cheyenne, the bandit with a horrific reputation who takes a protective liking to Jill, hanging around nearby like a guardian angel.

Gabrielle Ferzetti so often gets overlooked in the cast, but his railroad baron, Morton, is maybe the most tragic character in the movie. Dying of tuberculosis, Morton desperately wants to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. To do so, he’s entered a deal with the power-hungry Frank to clear any obstacles they may meet. Also look for Paolo Stoppa, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, Frank Wolff, and a long list of familiar faces rounding out both Frank and Cheyenne’s gangs, notably Aldo Sambrell and Benito Stefanelli.

Oh, one more important member of the cast…well, sort of. Morricone’s score is worthy of being considered an essential addition to the cast. His GBU score is phenomenal, but this is phenomenal plus-one. In a career of amazing scores, this is his strongest, most beautiful, most haunting and most memorable. Give it an extended listen HERE. Each main character gets their own individual theme — Jill, Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica — that often plays over their key scenes. Ferzetti’s Morton earns the most beautiful theme in one of the movie’s most truly haunting scenes. A good score can bring a movie up a notch or two. A great score can catapult the finished product into one perfect mix, the on-screen action blending seamlessly with the score. Morricone, the master at work.

No spoilers given away — go in with as little background/story knowledge as possible — but ‘West’ impressed me more than ever on my last viewing. Each scene is almost a stand-alone set piece, one memorable scene after another. The entire story takes place over 3 days (I think, maybe 2ish) but never feels rushed. The opening sequence is profoundly classic, a dialogue-free 10-minute intro as 3 gunfighters (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Al Mulock) waiting for a train. Who are they waiting for? Bronson’s Harmonica of course, the scene fleshed out with natural noises and soundtrack until a blast from the train’s whistle breaks the silence. It’s the perfect way to kick things off.

It’s just the start. I’m rambling here, but it is the first of a long list of scenes that leave a lasting impression. A massacre at an isolated ranch, the ever-developing flashback we see in quick, foggy scenes, Jill’s entrance at the train station, Morton’s scenes imagining getting to the Pacific, and then there’s the last hour. It’s perfection, all leading up to a perfect ending. The scene between Frank and Harmonica before their showdown contains some of the best dialogue ever-written in a western. The showdown and the ultimate reveal of the flashback is just the capper, done in perfect Leone fashion, very theatrical with aggressive but patient camera work.

So, yeah, if you couldn’t tell, I love this movie. That said, it isn’t necessarily an easy movie to digest. Not everyone is going to like it. If you stick with it, know the payoff and the overall experience is one of the best the movie experience can provide. A classic and one of the best movies ever made.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): ****/****


The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)

Writing reviews about World War II, I’ve watched epics about large-scale battles, personal stories about the home front, behind the scenes stories about government/administration, but my favorite has always been the men-on-a-mission sub-genre, commandos, specialists and secret agents working together to pull off an impossible mission. One of my favorites I recently rewatched for the first time in quite awhile is 1955’s The Cockleshell Heroes.

Early in 1942 with WWII’s outcome still very much in question, Royal Marines Captain Stringer (Jose Ferrer) has been tasked with an improbable mission. German ships operating out of the French city of Bordeaux have been wreaking havoc on Allied shipping, and Stringer must attempt to reach the harbor city with a small group of commandos, destroying as many ships as possible. The catch? They’ll be doing it by paddling up the Garonne River in two-man canoes. With help from a career Marine officer, Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard), Stringer goes about training his team of volunteers for a mission that seems suicidal to everyone involved.

From star and director Ferrer (one of 7 films he directed), ‘Heroes’ is based on the true story of Operation Frankton which took place in December 1942. I watched it as a kid on the History Channel and have always remembered it fondly. Released in 1955, it is more of a heroic look at the bravery these commandos showed on their mission. It doesn’t yet have the darkness, cynicism or reality of so many WWII movies released a few years later in the 1960s. There is still an innocence to the story, a “nice” factor. The commandos are the heroes, their Nazi counterparts stereotypically evil. ‘Heroes’ is only 98 minutes long and was shot on a smaller scale (some cool English locations providing good background) with the focus on this specific mission. There’s no sense of a bigger issue or the state of the war. Instead, it’s about 8 commandos and the officers leading them. When handled right, who needs a bigger scale than that?

Not a hugely well known movie, ‘Heroes’ doesn’t have the same name recognition in its cast so many other war films have. Ferrer is solid but not particularly memorable as Major Stringer, the unlikely, volunteer commander of the mission. He has several strong dialogue scenes with Howard’s Thompson as a rivalry develops about how the mission should be handled, but there’s little doubt who the star is. Trevor Howard is a scene-stealer, putting a spin on the stiff upper lip British officer. He’s prim and proper and interested in the bottom line — the success of the mission — more than how the men feel about him. Thompson is the only character given any real background and Howard does not disappoint.

The commandos include Victor Maddern as Sgt. Craig, Thompson’s right-hand man, as well as the Marine volunteers; Anthony Newley as Clarke, the smart-alec, David Lodge as Ruddock, the strongest of the Marines, Peter Arne as Stevens, the capable Corporal, Percy HerbertGraham StewartJohn Fabian as Cooney, the Irishman, John Van Eyssen, and Robert Desmond (The Great Escape). Newley, Maddern and Lodge stand out from the group as memorable.

At its heart, this is a men on a mission movie. It just so happens to be based on a true story, the results of the movie mission exaggerated a bit relative to the actual history. Truth or not, ‘Heroes’ follows a familiar formula. The story is pretty clearly divided in two parts; the training for the mission and then the execution of said-mission. I would have liked some more character background on the commandos, but the training scenes do just enough to differentiate them from each other. There are some original, unique scenes, including Stringer parachuting his commandos into England…..dressed as German soldiers. No money, no identification, they must trek some 300-plus miles back to the base without getting caught. These are some necessary scenes, giving us a rooting interest in these men as they head off to their mission.

Not surprisingly then, the best parts of the movie are the actual mission, dubbed ‘Cockleshell,’ as Stringer’s team is dropped off by a British sub (commanded by Christopher Lee) and must paddle over 70 miles up the Garonne River to their target, ships waiting in the harbor. The final 40 minutes are tense and adrenaline-pumping as they navigate the river. It’s here where I started to question. If I didn’t know this was in fact a real mission, I’d say it was ridiculous. The bravery exhibited here in insane, commandos in 2-man canoes paddling exposed up a heavily guarded/defended river. HERE is a Google Map showing how far they actually traveled. The ending is downbeat with a sense of success, Howard delivering a very moving final line. Success at what cost though? Listen to some of the main theme HERE, a whistle-worthy score from composer John Addison. The link below is a documentary about the real-life mission. As for the movie, a hidden gem and one I’ve always enjoyed.

The Cockleshell Heroes <—documentary (1955): ***/****

The Glory Guys (1965)

glorguyposBy the mid 1960’s, Sam Peckinpah had written and directed many TV western shows, and also had 2 feature films to his name, The Deadly Companions and Ride the High Country. Peckinpah was quite a difficult person to work with – especially when he was directing – over his career, a trait he showed early and often. Depending on what you read, Peckinpah did a fair share of directing on 1965’s The Glory Guys only to be removed from the position.

In the American west, Capt. Demas Harrod (Tom Tryon) has been reassigned to the famous Third Cavalry stationed at Fort Doniphan. He’s served under the regiment’s power-hungry commander, General McCabe (Andrew Duggan), before and doesn’t relish the chance of doing so again. With a major campaign looming against massing Indian tribes, Harrod is assigned to D Company, a group of misfit recruits who are new to the regiment. Can he ready these inexperienced men in time for the upcoming campaign? Can he navigate a love triangle with a beautiful widow (Senta Berger) and the regiment’s chief scout (Harve Presnell)? Only time will tell.

It’s hard not to watch this film and not see the Peckinpah influence (he did write the screenplay). He would use many themes, characters and situations in his own 1965 western, Major Dundee (a personal favorite). And while it isn’t on the same level, ‘Glory’ is still pretty decent. A thinly veiled take on George Custer and the 7th Cavalry getting wiped out at the Little Big Horn, ‘Glory’ has flaws, but there are enough positives to give it a solid rating. Whether it was Peckinpah or fill-in Arnold Laven (a TV director), this western is pretty decent.

To say the least, the star power here doesn’t blow you away. Tryon and Presnell are okay, but they don’t command a lot of attention. Compare the duo to Charlton Heston and Richard Harris in ‘Dundee,’ and you see the disparity. Tryon’s Harrod is an interesting character, but there’s just not much life there. The same for Presnell’s Sol Rogers, an experienced frontier scout who should have been such a cool character. No one is done any favors by the love triangle storyline with the lovely Senta Berger, one of the dullest triangles I’ve ever seen. Harrod kinda wants her – he figures, I guess, kinda sorta – and there’s a fistfight or two but…pretty meh overall.

‘Glory’ is not surprisingly at its best when dealing with the inner workings of the Third Cavalry, and specifically Harrod’s D Company. His history with McCabe is checkered, so he wants to guarantee his inexperienced men are ready for battle. Is it traditional, even familiar stuff? Sure, but it’s handled well. Underused score (listen to the main theme HERE) from Riz Ortolani, and beautiful filming locations in Durango, Mexico (the same as ‘Dundee’) are big positives. The iconic shots of cavalry troopers silhouetted against a rising/setting sun, the traditional cavalry vs. Indians (never identified by tribe, just called ‘hostiles’), it all works pretty nicely.

The misfit recruits of D Company end up being more interesting characters than the leads actually. James Caan hams it up and chews the scenery as Dugan, the hard-drinking Irishman, with Michael Anderson Jr. basically prepping for his ‘Dundee’ role as a young trooper in love, with Slim Pickens whipping them into shape as the veteran sergeant. Also look for Adam Williams (the inexperienced trooper) and Erik Holland as Gentry, the worrying Scotsman. Also look for Wayne Rogers as Harrod’s second-in-command, and Peter Breck as the condescending, bullying Lt. Hodges.

Maybe a touch long at 112-minutes, ‘Glory’ takes a little while to get going. No real action to speak of other than a company-bonding fistfight early, but the campaign against the hostiles gets going over the last 40 minutes. There are some truly impressive sequences, hundreds of riders battling in a grassy, hilled valley as the Third (or Custer’s 7th) march into battle. Genuine scope here as we follow D Company in a beautifully done extended sequence. Who knows what Peckinpah filmed, but it speaks to a potential what-if. The quality of these scenes certainly show what was to come, both with Major Dundee and The Wild Bunch among others.

Disjointed at times, slow in other instances, ‘Glory’ is far from a perfect western. It’s highly entertaining though when it gets things right. Not easy to find, but western fans should like this one. Definitely give a watch. As sure as I say “not easy to find,” I found the full movie via Youtube. The link is below!

The Glory Guys (1965): ** ½ /****


The Hills Run Red (1966)

the_hills_run_red_iWhen you think of spaghetti westerns, you think of a lot of names of American actors who traveled to Europe for a chance at stardom (or at least bigger stardom), names like Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. There were plenty of lesser-known stars though, like Thomas Hunter in 1966’s The Hills Run Red.

 It’s late in the Civil War and two Confederate soldiers, Jerry Brewster (Hunter) and Ken Seagull (Nando Gazzolo), have robbed a Union payroll and are on the run. About to be captured, they split a deck of cards to see who will stay behind and buy time, Jerry losing out. He begs Ken to take care of his family until he can get back to them. Captured by Union cavalry, Jerry spends 5 years in jail serving a brutal sentence. Upon his parole, he finds out that his wife is dead and his son is missing. What about Ken’s promise? His former friends has used the money they stole to start up a huge ranch, changing his name in the process. Jerry’s revenge starts NOW!

In the mid 1960s and into the late 1970s, over 600 spaghetti westerns were made (with some variations here and there). There are some classics, some good to really great entries, and some bad to downright awful ones at the bottom of the list. ‘Hills’ falls somewhere in between. It isn’t bad, it isn’t particularly good, but you know what? It’s entertaining in an oh so bad way. I don’t think it’s an insult to say a movie is fun, and that’s what you get here.

It’s hard to come down too harshly on this 1965 spaghetti from director Carlo Lizzani. The genre had started to take off with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, but many entries still had that feel of an American western. ‘Hills’ is pretty cheap with a small cast and a small budget. The score from the master himself, Ennio Morricone, isn’t his best, but even just okay or pretty good Morricone is excellent. Give it an extended listen HERE. Not too many familiar locations to mention.

Not much in the way of star power here. In a short career, Hunter only did about 15 movies with some TV parts mixed in. I’d only seen him before in 1968’s Anzio in a supporting part. The verdict here? For one, his dubbing is really atrocious (not his fault). His lips are moving where the words aren’t! Also, his Jerry Brewster is a tortured anti-hero, a cowboy desperately seeking revenge. Hunter’s acting range is him literally SCREAMING his rage and disappointment. It’s actually laughable to watch. Interesting character with potential, but Hunter struggles in an over-the-top performance.

As for his villainous counter, Henry Silva also hams it up, chewing the scenery like his life depended on it as Mendez, Ken’s right-hand man and brutal enforcer. Decked out in all black, Silva rattles off Spanish in almost incomprehensible fashion, laughing maniacally basically every scene. The weird part? He’s the bad guy…but never does anything too bad, except for the maniacal laughing. Dan Duryea plays a mysterious supporting part that looks like he accidentally boarded a plane to Spain and walked on-set. Spaghetti western beauty Nicoletta Machiavelli is wasted as Mary Ann, Ken’s naïve sister. Playing the not so intimidating Ken Seagull (not Segal), Gazzollo leaves little impression, letting Silva do the heavy lifting.

 Fueled by revenge, but not much in the way of story, ‘Hills’ is an odd one. I’ve watched it 3 times I believe, and each time, I keep thinking ‘Meh, this isn’t very good.’ The shootout at the end is laughable, Hunter and Duryea running around an abandoned town dispatching bad guys like a Tom and Jerry episode. The twist in the final scene is unnecessary and comes out of left field. But then again, everything here feels a bit disjointed and kooky! Not good, not bad, just stupidly fun and entertaining.

 The Hills Run Red (1966): **/****


The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

sons_of_katie_elder_1965John Wayne is my all-time favorite. He is, was and always will be the coolest. By the mid 1960’s, he was still one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood and around the world. His lifestyle — and smoking packs a day — took its toll though, with production on one of his movies being delayed for several months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One lung and two removed ribs later, Wayne came back with a vengeance, turning in one of his most underrated performances in 1965’s The Sons of Katie Elder.

It’s been 10 years since gunfighter John Elder (Wayne) has returned home. When he gets word that his mother, Katie, has died, John heads home to Clearwater, Texas. There he finds his three brothers, Tom (Dean Martin), a gambler/cardplayer, Matt (Earl Holliman), a hardware store owner, and Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.), the youngest brother and a college student. John and his brothers find out how much things have changed, not only the circumstances that led to Katie’s death, but their father’s death some 6 months earlier. The family ranch is now owned by an aspiring businessman/rancher, Morgan Hastings (James Gregory). John intends to find out what happens, righting any wrongs that may have been done on the family, but mostly, he wants to honor Katie and leave the Elder name in a positive way.

This was an interesting turning point in Wayne’s career. The health scare woke the Hollywood legend up in a way. From this point on, Wayne finished his career with more fan-friendly roles. He knew what his fans wanted and delivered. They weren’t always the deepest or most hard-hitting roles — there were exceptions, The Shootist, True Grit, The Cowboys — as Wayne surrounded himself with family, friends and plenty of familiar faces. As for ‘Sons,’ I maintain that it belongs in the list with the trio of movies listed above. It is one of my favorite westerns, not just a John Wayne western.

A lot to recommend here. It’s an old-fashioned good guys vs. bad guys western, but there’s more to it (in a big way). From director Henry Hathaway, ‘Sons’ blends familiar western elements and mixes in family drama and a bit of a murder mystery. Now that’s a unique premise! The filming locations in Durango, Mexico are a gem, a beautiful backdrop with cinematographer Lucien Ballard turning in one gorgeous scene after another. Oh, and music composer Elmer Bernstein delivers one of his best, most unheralded scores, including a highly memorable main theme. Give it a listen HERE.

I liked this movie as a kid, but I’ve loved it as an adult. Why’s that? I love the idea of family here, brought to life by Wayne, Martin, Holliman and Anderson. Their chemistry is impeccable. It’s simply perfect, brothers who haven’t seen each other in years and must get back together, reminiscing, bonding, arguing and fighting. Some of the movie’s best scenes are the quartet of brothers sitting at their Mom’s house talking…and arguing and even starting a fist fight. Katie ends up being an off-screen character too, a woman you feel like you’ve met by the end of the movie. Family is a key element in countless westerns, but it’s rare it felt this authentic from beginning to end.

It’s easy to shrug and say ‘Oh, that’s Wayne just playing the Duke.’ It’s fair depending on the role you look at. When he did it right though, it was just so perfect. He’s the iconic western hero — flawed but upright, fighting for what’s right, loyal and honest. His John Elder makes it look easy. Martin was always an underrated dramatic actor — just look at his other pairing with Wayne, 1959’s Rio Bravo — and he doesn’t disappoint here as Tom, always ready with a quip or a line or a gimmick. Holliman isn’t flashy, just solid as Matt, the brother who went straight. And Anderson holds his own as young Bud, no easy task with the talent around him.

A pretty cool cast backs up our brothers. James Gregory does what he does best, playing a smarmy, backstabbing villain with George Kennedy as his hired gun, Curley, Dennis Hopper as his bookish son, and Rodolfo Acosta as another enforcer. Martha Hyer plays Mary, a young woman who knew Katie well and tries to tell her boys what an impressive woman their Mom really was. Paul Fix and Jeremy Slate are excellent as Sheriff Billy, a calming, longtime peace officer and Deputy Ben, a hot-headed youngster trying to make his way. Plenty more familiar faces including Strother Martin, John Doucette, John Qualen, Rhys Williams, Sheldon Allman and even Karl Swenson playing dual roles.

At 121 minutes, ‘Sons’ is far from action-packed. There’s actually only one major set-piece, one major gunfight, set at the famously beautiful El Saltito waterfalls in Mexico. The beauty of it all? You don’t need the action. The story builds and builds, the tension growing as we learn the truth of what’s happened. It’s just a gem of a western that doesn’t always get its due. It should though. ‘Sons’ is an underrated classic.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965): ****/****


El Dorado (1967)

el_dorado_28john_wayne_movie_poster29With 1959’s Rio Bravo, director Howard Hawks turned in one of his finest films in a career that spanned 6 decades. How good is it? Over 11 years, Hawks remade the film twice, first with 1967’s El Dorado and then 3 years later with 1970’s Rio Lobo. Here we go with the first remake, El Dorado.

A hired gun with a reputation for a fast draw, Cole Thornton (John Wayne) has agreed to sign on with a powerful rancher, Bart Jason (Ed Asner). He doesn’t know exactly what the job entails, ultimately deciding to not take the job when he realizes Jason is trying to drive a fellow rancher out by any means necessary. In the process, Thornton takes a bullet in his back that causes him to lose all feeling in his right arm. Months pass though, Thornton eventually ending up back in the valley. He decides to join the effort against Jason, joining his old friend, JP Harrah (Robert Mitchum), who’s retreated into a bottle after a woman left him. Now, Thornton, Harrah and a motley crew must band together to stop Jason from taking over the valley.

Sound familiar? It should, ‘Dorado’ a loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, made 8 years earlier. It isn’t spot-on, but it’s pretty dang close, a sheriff and a ragtag band forced to band together to keep their town going against a power-hungry rancher. Sure, there are tweaks here and there, but let’s call it what it is, a remake. The same filming locations — notably Old Tucson — are even used! The analysis is pretty cut and dry. If you liked ‘Bravo,’ you’ll like ‘Dorado.’

Though they were both in The Longest Day’s massive cast, Wayne and Mitchum were never on-screen together (that I remember). So naturally, the pairing of the two Hollywood legends is enough reason to watch any movie. There are flaws here in ‘Dorado,’ but let me tell you, the casting ain’t one of those flaws. Wayne and Mitchum make it look easy from the word ‘go,’ just two pros doing their thing and playing effortlessly off each other. Thornton is the hired gun (a bit of a darker part for Wayne) with Mitchum as the drunken sheriff, good with a gun but down on his luck. Naturally, there’s history between the two men, former rivals turned longtime friends. Just go for the ride with these two. You won’t be disappointed.

According to a Mitchum biographer, Hawks approached him with the idea of casting him opposite Wayne. Mitchum asked about the script/story to which Hawks said ‘Nah, no story. Just characters.’ It’s a dead-on description. Yeah, there are bad guys, things to be dealt with, but that story (I use the word lightly) is sorta kinda not really something that ties one scene to another. It’s 126 minutes long, but that second hour feels much longer, seemingly watching the same scenes over and over again. There isn’t much energy, little momentum, and then it just sorta ends. It’s never bad, just not as good at it could have been. ‘Bravo’ is 14 minutes longer, but it crackles, always on the right path.

So no story? Better be some damn good characters then! A very young James Caan more than holds his own with Wayne and Mitchum, playing Mississippi, a young gambler who’s proficient with a knife…but can’t shoot a gun to save his life. A strong part with some good laughs along the way. Charlene Holt and Michelle Carey are the love interests, two strong women and not your typical damsels in distress. Christopher George is underused as Nelse McLeod, a gunslinger with a code, his scenes with Wayne’s Thornton excellent. It’s just two guys sizing each other up. Also, Arthur Hunnicutt plays Arthur Hunnicutt, um, I mean Bull, an old Indian fighter who’s always talking.

Also look for Paul Fix, Asner, R.G. Armstrong, Jim Davis and Robert Donner in supporting parts. Johnny Crawford also makes a quick appearance as a young rancher’s son. Any Rifleman fans will get a kick out of seeing young Mark McCain grown up a bit!

The first hour is excellent, the second hour just not able to keep up. There are so many plates spinning — a lot of characters — that it all gets muddled. The villains are weak at best, and there’s very little action. Still, the star power — Wayne, Mitchum and Caan especially — makes it worthwhile. Hawks does focus almost entirely on characters over story, and while risky, it pays off. A very good western, but not a great one. The theme song, well, you’ll be singing it for days. Listen HERE.

El Dorado (1967) ***/****


The Great Escape (1963)

I have two favorite movies, neither of which I’m able to pick one over the other.  I love them both, and all other movies come after it, first is 1960’s The Alamo which I’ve reviewed before and then there’s 1963’s The Great Escape. Introduced to it at a young age when I showed an interest in history, I’ve probably seen it 25 or 30 times straight through, and another 75 or 100 catching bits and pieces. For me, it is that rare perfect movie. Great story, impressive cast, exciting action, and one of the best soundtracks ever. You can’t ask for much more.

In World War II, both the Allies and Axis forces had to deal with how to handle prisoners of wars. In Germany, the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, was placed in charge of these Allied prisoners, placing them in P.O.W. camps all over their occupied territory. These prisoners — as was their sworn duty — tried countless escapes over the length of the war in typically small groups, sometimes getting as many as a dozen out. But one true story set the bar for heroism and courage among the prisoners, the true story of 76 prisoners escaping Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Literally hundreds of prisoners were involved in the effort as the escape even had an impact on D-Day some three months later.

It’s 1943, and a new prison camp has been built. The German Luftwaffe has taken the worst prisoners from all their camps and thrown them in this new camp that features all the security aspects they’ve learned from previous camps.  In this “perfect” camp, the Germans (Hannes Messemer is the commandant) intend to watch these men very carefully. Leading the prisoners is Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), dubbed ‘Big X’ for his leadership at the top of the ‘X Organization,’ a team of prisoners working together to bust out as many captured soldiers as they can. Bartlett has bigger plans though this time around. Instead of just getting two or three prisoners out, he intends to get 250 out of the camp with a large-scale plan that includes three extremely long tunnels under the barbed-wire fence. The plan seems impossible, but the prisoners go to work, slowly working their way toward escape.

Do you know the line ‘They don’t make them like they used to?’ This movie applies. Director John Sturges (one of my favorites and an underrated filmmaker overall) turns in his all-time best film, one that stands at or near the top in the lexicon of World War II movies. It is based in fact, sticking to the details and truths in the story, without getting bogged down.  There is action, humor (never overplayed, just natural humor arising from the situation), and characters you love and are generally rooting for. Composer Elmer Bernstein turns in a score that is one of the greats, especially the main theme, listen HERE. Bernstein’s score both drives the story as needed and keeps it grounded in the quieter, emotional scenes (including one where a tunnel is discovered and its tragic consequences).  Sturges filmed in Germany — as his assistant said, ‘Germany looks like Germany.’ An entire camp was built, an exact duplicate of the actual camp, bringing this 1963 epic up another notch in terms of realism and authenticity.

Sturges’ movies were famous for their male-dominated ensemble casts, but this may be his most impressive. Start with Steve McQueen as Hilts, the motorcycle-riding ‘Cooler King,’ the role that shot him to international stardom. Then there’s James Garner as Hendley, the scrounger, and Attenborough as Bartlett, the prisoner’s top man, a brilliant mind who comes up with this improbable plan. Not bad, huh? Oh yeah, there’s also James Donald as Ramsey, the senior British officer, Charles Bronson and John Leyton as Danny and Willie, the tunnel kings, James Coburn as Sedgwick, the manufacturer, Donald Pleasence as Blythe, the forger, David McCallum as Ashley-Pitt, “dispersal,” and Gordon Jackson as MacDonald, the intelligence officer. Other prisoners include Nigel StockJud Taylor and Angus Lennie in a small but essential part as Ives, Hilt’s progressively wire-happy partner. A more impressive cast could be impossible to assemble.

What is amazing is that even with all those stars — some on the rise, some already established — is that they all register, they all make a lasting impression in a positive way. More on McQueen later, but Attenborough delivers a career-best as Big X, the driven even obsessed leader who wants to take the war back to the Germans, not sitting out the war comfortably as his captors intend. Garner’s Hendley bonds with Pleasence’s Blythe in some of the movie’s most touching scenes, two very different people forming a friendship. Bronson and Leyton as the tunnel kings certainly make an impression, carving three tunnels out of the Earth 30 feet below the surface. Bronson is at his best, a Polish flyer with claustrophobia who hides his fear of small, enclosed spaces and digs. Coburn doesn’t get a ton to do compared to the others, but is his usual, laconic self. There is not a weakness in the cast from top to bottom.

When movie fans think of The Great Escape, they usually go right to Steve McQueen, a rising star who got his crack at the big time here and didn’t disappoint.  His Capt. Virgil Hilts is one of his most iconic roles, the loner, trouble-making American prisoner who attempts escape attempt after attempt.  What’s funny is that his character basically disappears for vast stretches of the movie, only to reappear after a stint in the cooler and steal every scene he is in. This is McQueen at his laid back, scene-stealing best. With all the notable actor’s actors around him, he is the unquestioned star thanks in great part to the finale, a motorcycle chase across Germany with his captors in hot pursuit. It is one of the greatest chases sequences ever, caped with one of the most impressive stunts ever, a 7-foot jump by stunt man Bud Ekins over a high-strung barbed-wire fence. McQueen is my favorite, but this is always his best to me.

With a final run-time of 2 hours and 53 minutes, Sturges’ true story doesn’t have to rush along at a lightning pace…but does anyway. The first 105 minutes or so focus exclusively on the escape attempt, putting all the little details together that need to happen. The first and biggest of course is the digging of the tunnels, 30 feet down and over 300 feet straight out. A track is built to transport prisoners/diggers, and wooden boards are needed to shore up the entire length of the tunnel. Up above, forgers create documents, tailors make clothes, Intelligence gathers information, all part of an elaborate system of security and watchmen to make sure nothing is discovered by their ever-vigilant German guards. It would have been easy for this movie to get bogged down in these details, but The Great Escape revels in them, making the mundane and possibly boring, exciting at a breakneck pace.

It is a movie called ‘The Great Escape’ though, and it is at its most exciting once the prisoners do escape, 76 of them in the dead of night spread out all over the German countryside. The escape attempt covers the last hour of the movie, an incredible extended sequence that is hard to top. It is almost entirely dialogue free, Bernstein’s score playing over the action the whole way. Finally free of their camp, the prisoners make their efforts to hopefully reach freedom, some by train, some by bikes, others by planes, and in Hilts’ case, a stolen German motorcycle.  Sturges was an action master, and this may be his tour de force sequence.

I could go on and on with this movie, and I’ve already sort of done so. My head is full of little tidbits of information that I’ve picked up over the course of repeated viewings.  Above all else through the drama, the facts, and the action is that Sturges gets the tone right from Paul Brickhill’s source novel, and most importantly, the true story it is based on. These men did the impossible in an impossible situation. Knowing their chances of escape back to freedom were slim, they plodded on when they could have just as easily quit. If you didn’t know and just read the details — check out the Wikipedia entry HERE for more details — you would say there’s no way this happened, but somehow, some way, it did. The ending hits you square in the stomach as it should, but the movie ends on a positive note; McQueen’s Hilts once again in the cooler, bouncing his baseball off the wall.  You may capture him again, but you’ll never stop him from trying.

A perfect movie, one of the best around, and one of my two favorite movies.

The Great Escape <—trailer (1963): ****/****