Shenandoah (1965)

As far as directing powerhouses of the 1960s, Andrew V. McLaglen will never be remembered as one of the greats. He started off in television before making the jump to feature film, teaming several times with John Wayne while also specializing in audience friendly “guy movies.” Good guys versus bad guys, lots of familiar faces and situations, you know the formula. One of his best? An underrated Civil War drama, 1965’s Shenandoah.

It’s 1864 in Virginia, and the tide of the Civil War has turned as the Union forces are slowly beating down the Confederate armies. Doing his best to remain free of the bloody fighting, farmer and patriarch Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) wants nothing to do with the war. Both for himself and his family — seven kids, one daughter-in-law — Anderson simply wants to keep working his 500-acre farm and get through the war unscathed. Fight for Virginia? Fight for slaves he doesn’t have? He fights for what he believes in, his family and his farm. Well, that’s what he’d like to do. While the fighting rages on, Charlie is stunned when he finds out his youngest son (Phillip Alford) has been confused as a Confederate soldier and captured by nearby Union forces. Now the war and the fighting that Anderson has done so well to steer clear of has landed square on his front porch. Can he find his son amidst the hell of war?

This was a movie I watched often growing up when my sister and I had sleepovers with my Grandma. It made an excellent Civil War double feature with Friendly Persuasion, and let me tell ya, they both hold up! I watched this McLaglen-directed Civil War drama for the first time in years, and it resonated just as much now as an adult as it did when I was a kid, if not more. McLaglen had some excellent movies to his name — The Wild Geese is a favorite, Hondo, McLintock are also excellent — but this is his best movie overall. The story is a series of very effective, often moving and often disturbing vignettes, all held together by the Anderson family. Filmed on-location in Oregon and California, ‘Shenandoah’ is an underrated visual film, and the musical score from composer Frank Skinner is a gem. So what stands out viewing this one as a 32-year old, not a 13-year old kid?

That would be James Stewart, one of my favorites in just about any movie he’s in. This doesn’t get the attention or notoriety as one of Stewart’s best performances, but it certainly belongs in the conversation. I love what he does with the part of Charlie Anderson, a stubborn, feisty Virginia farmer and widower looking out for the best intentions of his family. He doesn’t care about the war, about slavery, about Union and Confederate. He will do anything, ANYTHING, to protect his family. Stewart has some great scenes with the younger supporting cast, especially Alford’s youngest son, only called ‘Boy,’ with his daughter, Jenny (Rosemary Forsyth), daughter-in-law, Anne (Katharine Ross), and his sons. There are too many memorable, emotional scenes to mention, but my favorites are the most simple. Minutes before the Andersons go to church each Sunday, Charlie visits his wife’s grave and just talks to her. Simple perfection, Stewart absolutely nailing the underplayed but charged scenes.

Stewart is the unquestioned star of McLaglen’s film, but ‘Shenandoah’ offers quite the ensemble of recognizable faces. Glenn Corbett and Patrick Wayne play Jacob and James, the two oldest brothers. Corbett especially stands out as Jacob who’s beginning to question if their choice to stay out of the war is the right decision. Wayne is solid too, especially in his scenes with Ross. In her film debut, Forsyth is excellent, a subtle scene-stealer as innocent, tough and thoughtful Jenny who’s also interested in a young Confederate soldier, Sam (Doug McClure). The other Anderson boys include Charles RobinsonJim McMullan and Tim McIntire. Maybe the best thing you can say about the story is that the family dynamic, it just works. You believe them as one cohesive unit, one that stands together through thick and thin.

But wait, there’s more! Also look for George Kennedy as a sympathetic Union officer, Gene Jackson as Gabriel, a friend of Boy’s, a slave, Paul Fix as the local doctor, Denver Pyle as the pastor, James Best as Carter, a fellow prisoner who takes Boy under his wing, Harry Carey Jr. as another Confederate prisoner, Tom Simcox as Lt. Johnson, a Confederate officer, with Kevin HagenDabbs Greer and Strother Martin also playing small but memorable parts.

So 32-year old me certainly picked up some new things, or at least was able to process things differently. This is one hell of an anti-war flick. The portrayal of the latter stages of the Civil War is unsettling and often times, disturbing. Death awaits around every corner, hiding behind every tree. The lines are up in the air as the war takes a turn toward its ultimate conclusion. A late battle between a small Confederate camp and a larger Union force with heavy artillery is quick and awful and uncomfortable, one of the more underrated battle sequences I can think of. The last half hour especially features one kick in the gut after another that truly hammers home the anti-war message. And that last scene? Pretty perfect, the possibility of hope lingering in the air amongst all this pain and suffering and death. One of my favorite movies.

Shenandoah (1965): ****/****

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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): **/****

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

the_man_who_shot_liberty_valanceAsk a western fan what John Ford movie is his favorite, and you’ll get any number of answers. Rightfully so too, Ford directing gem after gem. My personal favorite is 1948’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford’s tone shifted later in his career though, portraying the American west in a more realistic, negative view. I’d say more honest. Movies like The Searchers, Two Rode Together, Sergeant Rutledge, and of course, 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, all dug deeper, portraying a west unlike we’d seen in the director’s previous efforts.

A lawyer from the East, Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is on a stagecoach heading to the town of Shinbone in a western territory when the coach is attacked by an infamous bandit, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and his gang. Stoddard is savagely beaten but nursed back to health in Shinbone. It is turbulent times in the budding town and territory with a potential push for statehood on the line. Stoddard becomes a key person in the fight, all the way trying to figure out what life in the west is like. Valance constantly berates the lawyer, but a small rancher who’s fast with a gun, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), always seems to be in the right place at the right time. With so much on the line for so many people, Stoddard must decide how far he wants to push his luck.

By all accounts, ‘Liberty Valance’ is the anti-John Ford western. Shot in black and white on the Hollywood backlot, there are no sweeping vistas, no majestic shots of riders on the horizon. Instead, this is a story about the people, their relationships and the turbulent times they find themselves in. There’s little in the way of gunplay/gunfights. It’s just not your typical western, but it is a film that’s firing on all cylinders. A classic that deserves its reputation.

Never a bad thing when two Hollywood legends star together. They were in How the West Was Won together but had no scenes together. They were excellent together in several great scenes in The Shootist. What’s so cool here is the dynamic. Both Ransom and Tom believe in the same things, just different ways of accomplishing those things. I love Stewart’s Ransom and the character arc he goes through. It’s a fascinating character. He hates guns, hate violence and abhors bullies. He sees Tom’s ways of doing things and can’t get on-board with it…until he does. Not your typical western hero — by a long shot — but one that brings a great, unique edge to a familiar genre.

Ford and Wayne go together like peanut butter and jelly, albeit PB that’s abusive to the J. Wayne did some of his best work in Ford films — especially She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers — but Ford was infamous for railing on his star non-stop. So was the case here as Ford picked on Wayne mercilessly. Well…it worked. This is one of Wayne’s more underrated parts. His Tom Doniphon is a bit of a bully himself, constantly calling Ransom ‘Pilgrim,’ but he’s a small rancher who’s well-respected (even feared) and is lightning quick with a gun. Like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Doniphon is a tragic character here too, an arc that all comes together in a fitting, moving and at times, tough to watch conclusion. Kudos to the two Hollywood greats.

Easily one of Ford’s strongest casts from top to bottom. Vera Miles is Hallie, the uneducated waitress who’s drawn to both Tom and Ransom (oh no! A love triangle!), avoiding plenty of awkward pratfalls. Marvin is terrifyingly perfect as Liberty, an unhinged psycho capable of all sorts of violence. Edmond O’Brien hams it up and steals his scenes as alcoholic newspaper editor Dutton Peabody. Andy Devine is the cowardly sheriff because of course he is. Gotta mention Woody Strode who in subtle fashion steals his scenes (as he usually did) as Pompey, Tom’s “man,” almost a right-hand man kind of deal, not a slave but always at his side.

Also look for John Carradine, Denver Pyle, Lee Van Cleef, Strother Martin, Jeanette Nolan, John Qualen and plenty more familiar faces to round out the cast.

Earlier in his career, Ford’s films tended to have a broad, obvious sense of humor that bordered on too much (and sometimes was just way too much). His later films lost that innocence. Sure, Devine gets some laughs, but it’s far more subtle. There’s a darkness here that hangs in the air. It’s always building to that inevitable showdown, but even there, a twist is revealed in a lightning-quick noir-esque flashback that’s beyond perfect. There is an edge, a violence, a meanness (especially in Valance) that brings the movie up a notch. The black and white filming goes a long way toward aiding the cause in that department.

‘Valance’ is famous for one of the best lines in western history. Simpy put, it’s “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The story is held with a framing device that adds some additional layers to the story. I won’t spoil it here, but it works on basically all levels. Some great storytelling from beginning to end as we try to piece it all together as an audience.

I can’t say enough about this western. It’s not your typical Ford western, not even your typical western in general. It had been years since I watched it, and I loved catching back up with it. I came away very impressed with Stewart’s performance this time. There’s a moment late where he’s simply a man who’s had enough. He’s been pushed too far. If he has to die righting a wrong, his Ransom Stoddard — educated to the bone — is ready to pick up a gun and die for it. The end result propels the last 25 minutes of the movie to a highly memorable finale. Go watch this one.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): ****/****