The Last Command (1955)

The Last Command 1955One of the three members of the Alamo trinity along with David Crockett and William Travis, Jim Bowie and his famous knife have been a ripe subject for Hollywood feature films. Often enough, those flicks have little to nothing to do with Bowie’s actual exploits, including a handful of B-westerns that look to bank on the famous name. A rare exception and a pretty decent little biography about the last 2 years of Bowie’s life is 1955’s The Last Command.

It’s 1834 as famous knife fighter Jim Bowie (Sterling Hayden) returns to Texas on his way back home to see his wife and children at their home in Mexico. A land owner and Mexican citizen, Bowie discovers the ever-increasing rumblings of revolution, the Texans looking to fight for their rights from a Mexican government seemingly hell-bent on ignoring those rights. Bowie preaches peace, only changing his mind after his wife and family pass away. Now, Bowie can throw himself into the conflict, especially when Stephen F. Austin (Otto Kruger) returns from Mexico City preaching that the only resolution will come from fighting. As Mexican dictator Santa Anna (J. Carrol Naish) leads an army north from Mexico, all roads point to San Antonio and a crumbling old mission turned into a fort, the Alamo.

Anyone familiar with John Wayne’s The Alamo from 1960 will no doubt notice some similarities between that film and this 1955 flick from Republic Studios. The reason? This was originally made with Wayne — still working at Republic — attached as an actor. He wanted to make an Alamo film, but disagreements with the studio drove the two sides apart. The end result was simple; Wayne left Republic, Republic made the film without Wayne, apparently out of spite. There are some similarities, from Davy Crockett’s death to the Alamo defenders raiding the surrounding Mexican army for artillery and many others. The biggest difference though is obvious, a focus on Jim Bowie.

I’ve often criticized Hayden for being one of the more wooden actors to ever grace the screen. Thankfully, he injects some life into his part here as the famous knife fighter. Read about Bowie’s life, and my goodness, this fella was up to no good seemingly as soon as he could walk. This 1950’s portrayal is a little tam, portraying Bowie as an upright citizen, a patriot, and a loyal, brave and capable fighter. Hayden has some fun with the part, bringing the right amount of energy to play Bowie. Like Wayne’s Alamo, the story here features an unnecessary love story, Bowie falling for 18-year-old Consuelo (Anna Maria Alberghetti), in scenes that do nothing but slow down the story. Hayden is up to the task overall though, leading a pretty impressive cast.

I’m an Alamo buff, so I’ve watched just about everything there is from Hollywood about the battle and the Texas Revolution. Director Frank Lloyd tackles the subject head-on, covering about two years (1834-1836) in a 110-minute movie. Things are a little slow-going early on as everything is laid out, but ‘Command’ really hits its stride about the 40-minute mark as the fighting kicks in, eventually leading to the siege and battle of the Alamo. Lloyd’s film gets credit for trying to set up the story, not just rushing to the Alamo. It plays kinda fast and loose with the facts at times — Bowie and Santa Anna are supposedly good friends, the Mexican dictator even calling him ‘Jimmy’ — but it’s a highly entertaining, mostly accurate(ish) story.

Telling a familiar story, we get some familiar faces along the way. Richard Carlson is excellent as Travis, idealistic Alamo commander (a little old but a good part), and Arthur Hunnicutt is a scene-stealer as a homespun, backwoods Davy Crockett. They aren’t flashy parts, but they cut to the core of who the 3 men were (or at least what I hope they were). Ernest Borgnine is also a scene-stealer as Radin, a rival turned friend for Bowie. Other Alamo defenders include young Jeb Lacey (Ben Cooper), Lt. Dickinson (John Russell), and familiar character actors in Jim Davis, Slim Pickens, Russell Simpson, Eduard Franz and Roy Roberts. Virginia Grey appears briefly as Susannah Dickinson. Some fun supporting parts, especially Hunnicutt and Borgnine.

The actual battle for the Alamo takes up about the last 40 minutes of ‘Command.’ The set is somewhat limited — we basically see one corner of the mission along with the wooden palisade — but there’s something oddly cool about the set built near Bracketville, Texas (where Wayne’s film was made). For a movie released in 1955, the final assault on the Alamo is surprisingly vicious and violent. Nothing graphic, but still pretty hardcore stuff for a 1950s audience. Each character gets their moment, their on-screen death with Bowie saved for last. And while not Wild Bunch bloody, many of the deaths leave a lasting impression. This was bloody, horrific hand-to-hand fighting at its worst, close combat on steroids, something the battle sequence definitely shows.

There’s nothing hugely memorable about this 1955 Republic picture, but I like it just the same. Composer Max Steiner’s score is a highlight — give it a sample HERE — and the Jim Bowie theme song (listen HERE) is pretty awful, but in an amazingly bad and memorable way. Lots of good actors, familiar faces and an enjoyable if unspectacular story. One IMDB reviewer points it out accurately. It’s neither a big budget A-movie or a low-budget B-movie, but it’s somewhere in between. Definitely check out the new Blu-Ray released in December 2018. It’s a beautiful print and far ahead of any other version I’d seen.

The Last Command (1955): ***/****

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The Dirty Dozen (1967)

One of the all-time great tough guy casts — if not the greatest — in one of my favorite genres. A movie that stands the test of time that is action-packed, darkly funny and amazingly entertaining. It has taken abuse over the years by some because of its shocking ending, but it also has built up a diehard following by those who will defend it to the last (including me). One of my favorite movies ever, and a Memorial Day themed review, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen.

An American army officer with a record a mile long, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has been given a mission that even he doesn’t believe is real. It’s late spring 1944, and as the Allies prepare for the D-Day invasion, the Allied high command (including Ernest Borgnine) delivers his impossible, suicidal mission. Reisman is to take 12 prisoners either sentenced to death or years of imprisonment and hard labor, train them, and then in the days before the D-Day landing, drop them into German-occupied France. Their mission? Attack a German chateau, killing as many high ranking German officers as possible, hopefully wreaking havoc on the high command. Can Reisman get the prisoners to work together before they kill him?

This is a movie that is a perfect storm of timing, casting and story. A story of 12 convicted criminals — rape, murder, robbery — turned commandos who resent any sort of authority given a mission to kill enemy officers in cold blood? Could that story even remotely fly in any time other than late 1960s America? It was a time when America was changing, a darker, more cynical time in our history. Director Robert Aldrich taps into something special there. ‘Dozen’ has a unique look to it, interesting camera angles, a catchy theme for the Dozen — listen HERE — and a general feel of giving the middle finger to any sort of power or authority figure. Could there be a more perfect movie for a 1967 audience?

I could write a whole review discussing the characters and the long list of tough guy actors who play them, but I doubt many people would read 10,000 rambling words about how the cast of The Dirty Dozen is the coolest thing ever. Let’s start with Lee Marvin, an all-around bad-ass who by the mid 1960s had become a major, bankable star. His Major Reisman, a sarcastic, quick-witted, smart-mouthed and brutally effective officer, is probably his most well known role, and he owns this movie. With the cast behind and around him, that’s saying something. Marvin delivers brutally funny one-liners left and right, handles the action scenes flawlessly, and is believable as the cynical leader of this group of crook commandos. With those type of men behind him, you need someone like him to lead.

Richard Jaeckel is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Bowren, the MP assigned to work with Reisman in training and execution of the mission. Along with Borgnine, the High Command and other Allied officers include Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker. Oh, and Robert Ryan as a stiff-collared officer from the 101st. Enough for you? No?

And then there’s the Dirty Dozen. The group includes Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, the former officer sentenced to hang for killing one of his own men, a medic carrying medical supplies away from battle. There’s former NFL star Jim Brown as Jefferson, an African American soldier who killed in self defense but is sentenced to hang nonetheless. John Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Franko, a Chicago hood who killed a London man for $10 worth of cash. Telly Savalas is Maggot, a psychopathic Southerner convinced God works through him. Clint Walker is Posey, an Apache with rage issues, Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a dimwitted soldier, and singer Trini Lopez plays Jiminez. Rounding out the Dozen are character actors Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini as Bravos, the smallest of the bunch but with a mean/funny streak. The focus is Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Walker, Savalas and Sutherland, none of them disappointing, all of them living up to the hype, all given a chance to shine.

What has helped ‘Dozen’ gain its cult-like following over the years is its humor in looking at and poking some fun at war in general. Sutherland’s dimwitted Pinkley is forced to inspect a crack platoon of Ryan’s Col. Breed in one of the most memorable, truly funny scenes. Watch it HERE. Reisman later arranges for eight London prostitutes to visit the Dozen as their training winds down. The facial expressions exchanged back and forth are priceless. The high point comically — however dark it is — comes in the War Games sequence, the Dozen forced to prove their worth by capturing Col. Breed’s headquarters. They resort to cheating, con jobs, stealing, and all sorts of trickery. After the extended training sequence — which has its fair share of funny moments — the War Games development and the eventual payoff provides some great laughs.

The portion of the movie though that tends to drive people away is the attack on the chateau. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS STOP READING Here’s the plan, courtesy of Reisman, which you can watch HERE. It of course, doesn’t go as planned, Reisman, Bowren and the Dozen forced to improvise. Their solution is simple; throw grenades and gasoline down air chutes and burn (think napalm) the German officers to death. Heroic? No, I would say not. It’s a movie though. These guys aren’t portrayed as heroes. These are prototypical 1960s anti-heroes! What does work? The entire finale sequence (around 45 minutes long) is dripping with tension, and once the adrenaline starts pumping, it doesn’t stop. The Dozen start to get picked off — including two legitimate shockers — as the bullets start flying. I’ve seen this movie 50 times and still root for two characters especially to make it, knowing all the while they won’t. The means are brutal, but as far as an entertaining action sequence goes, it is one of the best.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I grew up watching this movie a lot. Introduced to it via Memorial Day war movie marathons, it will be always be one of my favorites. I love its cynical, dark look at war. I love the ridiculously strong cast from top to bottom. It is funny, entertaining, action-packed, and a true example of ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ A classic.

The Dirty Dozen <—trailer (1967): ****/****

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

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): ****/****

Vera Cruz (1954)

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 /****