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 /****

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Air Force (1943)

air_force_-_1943_-_posterThe opening days of World War II for the United States in the Pacific have provided some of the best war movies ever made, stories documenting the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor and the subsequent fighting at Wake Island, the Philippines and Midway (among other places). Movies like Tora Tora Tora, From Here to Eternity, Wake Island, Bataan and Back to Bataan among others are all very good to classic films. One that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves? That’s 1943’s Air Force.

Taking off from a runway in San Francisco, a B-17 bomber named ‘Mary Ann’ piloted by ‘Irish’ Quincannon (John Ridgely) and Bill Williams (Gig Young) heads out over the Pacific bound for Hickam Field in Hawaii. With several new members of the nine-man crew, they have little experience working together but quickly find themselves needing to get on the same page.  They fly into Hawaii on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941 just hours after the sneak attack by the Japanese Navy that almost cripples the U.S. Pacific fleet.  They land and are are quickly given orders to continue flying to the west.  Reports of Japanese attacks throughout the Pacific have the High Command on a major alert, and every man, pilot, and plane is needed to hold back the advance if the U.S. has any chance of staying in the conflict.

Director Howard Hawks did a wise thing setting this story in and around the opening days of the U.S. involvement in World War II. Looking at the story as simplistically as possible, we get a tour of the Pacific in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  We see Battleship Row still in flames, we see the heroic defenders of Wake Island as they await a Japanese attack, we see military bases in Manila falling back under waves of Japanese attackers.  It serves two purposes, one being a jumping off point for everything that’s going on, and two, it shows these heroic efforts put forth by American soldiers, Marines, sailors, civilians and pilots throughout the Pacific against impossible odds.  And make no mistake, many of the people on Wake and throughout the Philippines were either killed or captured by the Japanese.

Credit is due though. For a movie released in 1943, the heavy propaganda is held relatively in check. ‘Air’ is more interested in the heroism of the soldiers fighting back against the Japanese push all across the Pacific. A couple exceptions though. An American machine gunner is forced to bail from his plane, and as his parachute descends to the ground, he’s machine-gunned by a Japanese pilot. As he lies dying on the ground, the pilot flies over again and finishes him off in brutal fashion. There are documented cases of Japanese pilots doing this throughout the war, but it is a truly uncomfortable scene to watch. Second, as pitch perfect as the first 90/95 minutes are, the final 30 is a little heavy-handed as the story insists on ending in a positive fashion.

You appreciate the sentiment for a 1943 audience that desperately needed a win, but it feels forced watching the movie now in 2018. Minor complaints in the big picture. The first 90 minutes are some of the best-ever in a war film.

Those complaints aside, I loved the movie starting with one of Hawks’ biggest strengths as a director.  He had a knack for working perfectly with predominantly male, ensemble casts, and Air Force has a good one.  Ridgely and Young play the pilots of B-17 Mary Ann with the crew including Harry Carey as veteran crew chief Robbie White, John Garfield as new machine gunner Winocki, Arthur Kennedy as bombardier McMartin, Charles Drake as navigator Hauser, George Tobias as mechanic Weinberg, Ward Wood as radioman Peterson, Ray Montgomery as newbie Chester, and James Brown as tag-along fighter pilot Tex Raider. With such a big ensemble, we only get tidbits of info about each man, but they cover a melting pot of the Americans fighting in WWII.  They bond through their common goal and will to survive, doing whatever they can to take the war back at the Japanese.

When propaganda works, it is typically because it hits a nerve.  I’ve long been a fan of war movies across the board, and you can’t help but root in patriotic fashion for this B-17 crew.  For a start, they’re very easy to like, all of them.  When one of the crew dies following a Japanese attack, you see the others throw caution to the wind in hopes of reassembling the plane so they can rejoin the war effort.  Carey and Garfield cradling machine guns in their arms fighting off Japanese Zeroes hits you in the gut.  It’s over the top and hammy, but it’s perfectly portrayed. Obviously now in 2018, we know the Allies won WWII.  But in 1943 the war was still up for grabs, and Americans could always use a positive jolt.  This certainly qualifies.

Underrated on all accounts. An excellent movie portraying the early weeks of World War II in the Pacific from director Howard Hawks with an excellent ensemble cast.

Air Force (1943): *** 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): ***/****