The Mountain Road (1960)

mountain_road_posterWhen it comes to war movies, the 1960s were a decade often dedicated to huge, big-budget, blockbuster flicks with all-star casts. It was only later in the decade that anti-war films gained popularity as the United States’ involvement in Vietnam increased with each passing year. So an anti-war film from 1960? It would seem to be a little bit ahead of its time, no? Here’s 1960’s The Mountain Road.

It’s 1944 in China and a U.S. Army engineer, Major Baldwin (James Stewart), has been given a command after a year in country. With Chinese and Allied forces in retreat and the Japanese army in close pursuit, Baldwin and a small squad of engineers have been tasked with slowing up that advance. With several trucks full of explosives, Baldwin and his squad destroy bridges and the road itself, as well as blowing up ammunition dumps and other keep locations, anything that the Japanese can use against them. Along for the ride is the widowed wife (Lisa Lu) of a Chinese officer who must stay ahead of the Japanese advance. With no law and order and chaos reigning supreme, can Baldwin and his men accomplish the mission and still meet up with Allied forces?

From director Daniel Mann and based off  a novel from a WWII veteran, ‘Mountain’ is an almost entirely forgotten WWII movie that doesn’t get the due it deserves. It’s a gem. Above all else, it is ahead of its time, asking questions that most war movies wouldn’t go anywhere near for years. What’s the cost? Is a mission worth it? Who is the real enemy? Shouldn’t a human life be worth more than just a number or an objective? Filmed in black and white, ‘Mountain’ was shot on-location with Arizona replacing 1944 China. It’s a bleak, isolated movie. You feel alone with Baldwin’s squad and the seemingly endless line of refugees on the road. Musical score is not memorable, the focus instead on the characters and story.

A World War II veteran himself, Stewart made the decision to not make any war films, mostly because they simply weren’t realistic enough. This script obviously pulled him in. A touch old for the part — there’s several mentions of “young” Maj. Baldwin even though Stewart was 52 at the time — he still makes the part his own. He’s an engineer, not an experienced commander. He’s not a fighter or a killer. His adjustments he must make to accomplish the mission and comparing the value of the mission to the lives of his men, it’s all thrown at Stewart’s Maj. Baldwin. The love subplot with Wu’s Sue-Mei falls short, but Stewart and Wu’s conversations about China and war provide some memorable, intelligent moments.

Not a big cast, but the supporting ensemble is excellent. Glenn Corbett is a quiet scene-stealer as Collins, the young soldier who has fallen hard for China and its culture. Likable and smart, he clicks with Baldwin immediately. Harry Morgan is excellent too as Sgt. Mike, the veteran who’s experienced everything a soldier can, working as a bit of a sounding board for Baldwin through the mission. The rest of the squad includes Mike Kellin, James Best, Frank Maxwell, Rudy Bond and Eddie Firestone and Frank Silvera as a Chinese officer accompanying Wu’s Sue-Mei. Stewart, Corbett and Best would reunite 5 years later in Shenandoah, although they didn’t share any screen-time together.

Things take a dark turn near the hour mark with a surprise death. It’s in that moment that ‘Mountain’ truly embraces its anti-war statuts. Baldwin begins to question everything his mission entails. Are the Japanese his enemy or are his supposed Chinese allies the true enemy? Also check out 1959’s Never So Few for a similar story concerning Chinese involvement during WWII. There’s some good action — small-scale firefights — and some genuine twists, and to Mann’s credit, no easy endings.

Well worth seeking out. Turner Classic Movies has aired it in the past if curious. Keep an eye on their schedule.

The Mountain Road (1960): ***/****

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Hombre (1967)

hombre_28film29Ask most western fans what their favorite Paul Newman western is, and I’d say 9 times out of 10, you’d get “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” back. I’d say it. It’s a classic and deserves its status. Let’s not forget about 1967’s Hombre though, an underrated gem featuring one of Newman’s all-time best performances.

It’s the late 1800’s in the Arizona territory. John Russell (Newman) is a white man who was kidnapped at a young age by Apaches and raised as one of their own. Now a grown man, he associates more with the Apaches than white people. His adopted father though has passed away, leaving him a boarding house to decide what to do with. Russell sells it for a string of horses and takes a stagecoach to finish the deal. On-board, he finds his presence is less than welcome by his fellow passengers. The irony? One of the passengers intends to rob the others on the trail, and John’s skillset as a capable fighter and more than capable frontiersman will be more necessary than ever.

Point of conversation: This is a difficult movie to write a plot synopsis for. I don’t want to give too much away because in a somewhat messaged-based story, there are some good twists and turns along the way. It has some touches of Stagecoach, but in a more brutal, honest way. Hey, it was 1967 as opposed to 1939. Times had a’ changed!

From director Martin Ritt, ‘Hombre’ is one of the first — and best — revisionist westerns that began to look at the American west in a more honest fashion. They weren’t as white-washed as some 1950’s efforts and weren’t as flashy or exaggerated as spaghetti westerns. ‘Hombre’ takes the side of the Apache tribe who by the late 1800s was mostly in poorly-run reservations. We hear more about their plight, especially in quick, understated dialogue, and through one of several twists revealed about halfway through the movie. The bad guys then? Well, technically, everyone. Let’s cut to the chase though. The white folks don’t come off smelling like roses. It’s a fascinating story because it is so different from so many other genre entries.

Now for that Paul Newman fella. Playing John Russell, Newman steals this scene, seemingly without breaking a sweat. His dialogue is minimal, and when he does speak, he gets his message across in short, direct lines. His physical mannerisms are striking, his movements similarly minimalist. It’s just a fascinating character. Russell has chosen basically to live as an Apache warrior, leaving his white roots behind. He feels more at home with the Apaches and their way of life. In his fellow white passengers, he sees prejudice, racism, brutality, and maybe in most aggravating fashion, assumptions based on nothing but rumors. It’s only too perfect that these individuals come to depend on Russell for their very survival.

‘Hombre’ is interesting for a whole lot of reasons, but the biggest? Even with Newman’s Russell, there isn’t really a single sympathetic character in sight. You come to appreciate Russell’s personality and general intention, but sympathetic? Nope. As for the other passengers, look for Jessie (Diane Cilento), an out of work boarding house owner, Fredric March as Favor, the Indian agent, Barbara Rush as his wife, Richard Boone as the surly Cicero Grimes, Martin Balsam as Mendez, the stagecoach driver, and Peter Lazer and Margaret Blye as young married couple working through some issues. Cilento is especially good, the conscious of the movie and a conversational counter to Russell as their situation gets ever more dangerous.

Who else to look for? Keep an eye out for western regulars Frank Silvera, Cameron Mitchell, Val Avery and a pre-All My Children David Canary. Silvera is also a scene-stealer as an unnamed Mexican bandit. His scenes with Newman crackle.

Clocking in at 111 minutes, ‘Hombre’ isn’t fast-paced or action-packed. It is more of a slow burn full of tension, betrayal and some surprises along the way. Composer David Rose’s score isn’t big and booming, mostly relying instead on one memorable, quiet theme. Filmed on location in Arizona, it is a stunner of a flick. The desert and its barren qualities end up being a key additional character.

It all builds to one of the more startling endings I’ve seen in a western. Sticking with its realistic, downbeat tone, the finale features one of the more realistic shootouts I’ve ever seen in a western. Newman owns the last scenes, spewing one-liners with a bite. The movie is full of quick, snappy and biting dialogue, and what would you expect from a screenplay based off an Elmore Leonard novel? I guess I forgot to mention that earlier! Any-hoo, so much to recommend here. I liked this western more on my recent viewing than I ever have before. A must-see for western fans.

Hombre (1967): *** 1/2 /****

The Appaloosa (1966)

the_appaloosa66One of the original methods actors –if not the original method actor – Marlon Brando did it all in his career. His acting was often powerful, intriguing, fun to watch, and at other times, downright weird and featuring too much mumbling. While they aren’t remembered as some of his great films, Brando did three westerns, One-Eyed Jacks, The Missouri Breaks, and today’s review, 1966’s The Appaloosa.

Matt Fletcher (Brando) is a buffalo hunter returning home riding from Mexico and crossing the border into Texas. In a quiet border town, he’s accosted by Chuy Medina (John Saxon), a powerful bandit, for something that wasn’t his fault. He continues on his way, reuniting up the trail with his half-brother, Paco (Rafael Campos). With Matt’s speckled appaloosa pony, he intends to start a horse ranch and with Paco’s help, he knows he can do it…until Medina intervenes again. The bandit steals the appaloosa and retreats into Mexico where he’s protected by his many pistoleros. Paco tells Matt to forget about the horse, but Fletcher is having none of it. He intends to bring his horse back one way or another.

It’s harder and harder for me to track down quality 1960’s westerns that I haven’t seen before. When ‘Appaloosa’ popped up on Encore Westerns, I had to jump. I’m glad I did, but what a weird little western! Released in 1966, this western came along a time when the entire western genre was a-changing. Old-fashioned westerns were on the way out, and more violent entries like the spaghetti westerns were on the way in. Bleak, dreary revisionist westerns were still a ways down the road. Where does ‘Appaloosa’ fall? Oddly enough, right in the middle.

From director Sidney J. Furie, ‘Appaloosa’ ends up being an artsy, minimalist, beautifully shot, cynical and sinister little western. I didn’t love it overall, but there’s a ton to recommend. For starters, the look of the film. Furie and cinematographer Russell Metty do some impressive work with the camera. The extreme use of close-ups reflects spaghetti westerns as conversations are often handled from eye-to-eye. The composition is interesting. The camera shoots through objects, at odd angles, from low angles and is rarely just straight-on. Without going into horrifically specific detail of shot-to-shot analysis, I can say that the visual look of the film is a huge positive. It’s a cool movie to watch.

The most traditional aspect of ‘Appaloosa’ is the main character, Brando’s Fletcher, a buffalo hunter and a drifter. What isn’t traditional? Brando’s always-unique spin on the character. The western hero doesn’t always have high-arcing, high-reaching goals. He wants his land, wants his wife/family to be safe, to right a wrong. It’s simple, straightforward stuff. That’s all Fletcher wants; his horse back so he can start a new life. But…it’s Brando so Fletcher is quiet, sinister, intimidating, a wild card from beginning to end. He also shows off a pretty decent accent that could have been painful to watch, but it works.

As his opposition, Saxon is excellent as Chuy Medina. It isn’t a stereotypical villain. Sure, he’s one nasty dude, but it’s not big and bad and blustering. Saxon’s Chuy is equally intimidating and menacing, especially when it comes to his woman, Trini (Anjanette Comer), who he bought years ago and is beginning to beat. In Fletcher, both individuals see potential, one for danger, one for help. Campos is solid as Fletcher’s brother and friend with Miriam Colon as Paco’s wife. Also look for Emilio Fernandez as Chuy’s enforcer and right-hand man, Lazaro, and Alex Montoya as another pistolero, Squint Eye. Frank Silvera is excellent in a smaller part as Ramos, a sheep and goat-herder who crosses paths with Fletcher.

Filmed in California and Arizona, ‘Appaloosa’ has an isolated, almost other-worldly look to it. This is a less-populated west than we’re used to. It’s beautiful as the story bounces back and forth between “Mexico” and “Texas.” The musical score is fairly traditional but solid and used in positive fashion. It disappears for the most intense scenes as the on-screen action speaks for itself. The ending? A little disappointing, a little too traditional, but an underrated western overall.

Worth checking out, especially for Brando, Saxon and the generally non-traditional everything going on.

The Appaloosa (1966): ***/****