Welcome to Hard Times (1967)

welcomehardtimesSome westerns just defy genre conventions, whether intentionally or not. In America’s wild west in the late 1800’s, did everyone carry a gun? Was everyone a hard-boiled killer? It wasn’t all cowboys and Indians, gunfighters, sheriffs and bandits. It’s the rare western that tries to tell a story from the perspective of the normal people, like 1967’s Welcome to Hard Times.

In the isolated, one-street town of Hard Times, the population lives a quietly, lonely life, and then a murderous gunslinger (Aldo Ray) rides into town. Unchecked by anyone willing to stand up to him, he rapes and kills a saloon girl, kills a handful of people, burns several buildings and rides out. In the wreckage of the town, the mayor, Blue (Henry Fonda), decides to rebuild and put the incident in the past. Several survivors agree to stay on and help the rebuild, along with a variety of eclectic strangers who find their way to Hard Times. As they build the town back up though, Blue knows the potential the gunslinger comes back and ravages Hard Times again. Will someone be able to stand up to him this time?

Based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow (a good read), ‘Welcome’ asks an interesting question. Are guns the answer? Basically every western ever says….YES. Sure, characters question themselves, sometimes giving up their guns in the end as they settle down, but to stop bad, you need violence. From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Welcome’ doesn’t seek to give you an answer about the question, but it certainly throws it out there? Sticking relatively close to the Doctorow novel, it is a very literary film, stock characters — the peaceful mayor, the murdering gunslinger, the drifter, the broken woman, and so on — that tries to take a different look at a very familiar genre.

Unfortunately…it’s mishandled. It tackles too much and doesn’t know what it wants to say or how in a 103-minute movie. The first 20 minutes as Ray’s Man from Bodie attacks Hard Times is amazingly uncomfortable, playing out almost like a horror movie. The middle section is like a family western, eclectic, eccentric strangers moving into town, a far lighter tone with some foreboding undertones. The finale? Well, it ain’t pleasant with some surprising twists. But then after all that, the movie ends on an odd note. The story itself is too broad, the tone going up and down like a rollercoaster. It’s not a bad movie, just a potentially good movie that never quite rises to the occasion.

It’s hard to ignore the movie though because of the strong cast. Even in bad-to-okay flicks, Fonda was worth watching, and here’s no exception. His Blue is a former gambler and cowboy, now living peacefully who questions what picking up a gun would accomplish. It’s a fascinating character, far from your typical western hero. Janice Rule is one of the most shrill characters ever as Molly, the saloon girl attacked by the Man from Bodie and holds Blue responsible for the attack and his lack of action. It’s just an awful character with no shred of likability. Ray is an incredible presence as the Man from Bodie, a remorseless killer with no qualms about raping, ravaging and killing.

Also look for the always welcome Keenan Wynn as Zar, a traveling saloon owner who with partner/wife, Adah (Janis Paige), travels with their 3 prostitutes wherever the money takes them. Warren Oates is Leo Jenks, an amiable drifter who’s good with a gun, John Anderson plays dual roles as shopkeeping brothers. Some impressive character actors show up, including Denver Pyle, Paul Fix, Royal Dano, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook, Lon Chaney Jr. and Alan Baxter.

As much of a mixed bag at this western is and the mediocre rating I’m giving it, I’m still recommending it for western fans. The cast is pretty cool, and even if it doesn’t deliver, there is potential galore on-hand. Go for the ride and brace for some of the twists and turns you’ll get as opposed to a more traditional western.

Welcome to Hard Times (1967): **/****

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The Green Berets (1968)

green_berets_postOne of America’s most iconic and well-loved actors, John Wayne was never one to pull punches, especially when it came to his personal politics and beliefs. Nowhere was that more evident than his 1968 film The Green Berets, a film that earned a fair amount of money and has been ripped pretty uniformly in the almost 50 years since its release.

As the fighting intensifies in Vietnam, Colonel Mike Kirby (Wayne), a Green Beret officer, is prepping to go in-country with two A-Teams of Special Forces soldiers. Also along with the troops is an American journalist, George Beckworth (David Janssen), who questions why American troops are even involved in Vietnam to begin with. He tags along with Kirby and the Green Berets as they build a base camp near the border between North and South Vietnam. As the new arrivals help strengthen the camp, Beckworth is in for an eye-opening trip.

I wrote a review for this 1968 movie years ago on Amazon and struggled then with what to see about it. After watching Ken Burns’ PBS documentary about Vietnam these past few months, I’m struggling even more. I’ll watch any Wayne movie basically – and this one is entertaining – but it’s tough to watch. You don’t think a lot about propaganda movies from the 1960s, but this certainly qualifies. Its views on the war are uncomfortable and entirely one-sided, clearly an effort to convince American viewers what the fighting in Vietnam was really like. The results? Mixed to negative to hated depending on the reviews.

The only solution I can come up with? ‘Berets’ is more watchable if you look at it as an effort to highlight the ability of our Special Forces soldiers and their varying capabilities. It is a heck of a time capsule to the late 60s, dated and somewhat blind to just about anything going on in the world. Still, certain moments resonate, most of them having to do with the heroic actions of our soldiers. Heavy-handed? Obvious? Rigid? Yeah, ‘Berets’ bats 3-for-3 in those departments.

Some of the more superficial complaints about the movie are the ages of the cast. Wayne was almost 60 at the time, and yes, obviously a 59-year old man wouldn’t be leading a Green Beret team into combat. The same for the entire cast. If that’s your deal-breaker, you’re already in trouble here. Wayne is okay as Kirby, but it’s nothing flashy. Janssen is us, the viewer, questioning and struggling to grapple with any potential moral dilemmas. Wayne’s Kirby is telling us which way to think, detailing the horrors of war and the atrocities committed in a war unlike the world had ever seen.

The supporting cast has some interesting faces, but the movie isn’t really interested in hard-hitting, in-depth characterizations. Jim Hutton plays Sgt. Petersen, a scrounger attached to Kirby’s A-teams. Some lighter comedic moments, including one especially heavy-handed effort as Petersen quasi-adopts an orphaned Vietnamese boy (Craig Jue). Subtle it is not! Aldo Ray and Raymond St. Jacques play veteran Green Berets, Muldoon and Doc.

Plenty of other familiar faces rounding out the troops, including Bruce Cabot, George Takei, Patrick Wayne, Luke Askew, Edward Faulkner, Jason Evers, Mike Henry, Chuck Roberson and Rudy Robbins. Takei delivers an interesting part as a South Vietnamese officer with Askew also memorable as Sgt. Provo, a volunteer on the team with an interesting conundrum.

Watching ‘Berets’ is easier when you try and ignore the Vietnam War angle and just look at the story as a more traditional war story with plenty of stock characters, story conventions and genre features. An attack on the fire-base camp by thousands of VC and North Vietnamese troops highlights the middle of the movie, an extended sequence that runs about 25 minutes. Uncomfortable, violent and with some shocking moments to boot. A later mission to kidnap a North Vietnamese general feels tacked on to end the story on a more pleasant note, featuring supporting parts for Jack Soo and Irene Tsu.

Also, worth mentioning is composer Miklos Rozsa’s score with some familiar notes from King of Kings and Ben-Hur (listen HERE). I’m not going to completely rip this movie. I’ve always found it entertaining in a guilty pleasure sort of way. It hasn’t aged well and was released at the height of the American involvement in Vietnam. In fact, it was filmed before the Tet offensive when American opinion truly started to shift against involvement in South Vietnam. Timing? She can be a bitch to deal with!

 The Green Berets (1968): ** ½ /****