Wagon Master (1950)

Wagon Master 1950The late 1940s and early 1950s were undoubtedly John Ford‘s strongest era as a director. His strongest contributions, not so surprisingly, of the time (with the exception of The Quiet Man) came from the genre he’s most associated with, the western. And while his famed cavalry trilogy — Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande — is synonymous with the genre, another western of the time gets lost in the shuffle and is almost entirely forgotten. Here’s 1950’s Wagon Master.

It’s the 1880s in the American west and a group of Mormon settlers is being chased further west, populations in towns along the trail wanting nothing to do with the settlers. Looking to build a community in California, a Mormon wagon train — led by fiery Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) asks two horse traders, Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) to work as wagon masters, driving the train west. It takes some convincing, but the two amiable horse traders take the job on. They’re working against the seasonal clock though, the Mormons needing to reach their California valley and plant a harvest before winter settles in. Throw in some gunfighters, bandits and Indian attacks, and the trail is anything but easy.

Remembered with The Searchers and The Quiet Man as Ford’s best, the cavalry trilogy are Ford working at his absolute best. Even 3 Godfathers — released in 1948 — is a gem. Why then is ‘Wagon’ so generally forgotten? Well, the obvious answer is that there’s no big star, no John Wayne or Henry Fonda. Instead, Ford gives the spotlight to three instantly recognizable character actors who often played supporting parts in his movies; Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr. and Ward Bond. More on our stars later, but the key here is Ford turning into a simpler, more lyrical story. It plays a little like a serial, slightly disjointed at 86 minutes. The wagon train moving west is about as iconic as a western gets, and Ford doesn’t miss here.

How accurate are Ford’s westerns to the actual wild west American history? His films always looked authentic, always felt authentic. The moral of the story though is simple to describe. Maybe they’re not the most authentic or realistic. Instead, Ford presents the American west as it should have been. It’s good guys vs. bad guys, noble heroes vs. dastardly villains, beautiful vistas and damsels in distress. ‘Wagon’ has all of that, a stripped-down story of a wagon train. Filmed on location in Monument Valley, ‘Wagon’ is a black-and-white gem. The backdrops are simply stunning. With a film a little light on story, the locations (set to composer Richard Hageman’s score, a frequent Ford composer) end up stealing the show.

Coupled with the Monument Valley locations, the trio of character actors getting lead roles is what’s brought me back to ‘Wagon.’ A real-life cowboy before Ford discovered him, Johnson is at his laconic, scene-stealing best. When Johnson’s Travis is tearing across the Utah desert, that’s him doing the riding, not a stunt double. As his buddy Sandy, Carey Jr. is a naive but nice (somewhat dim-witted) cowboy. The duo actually starred the same year in Ford’s Rio Grande, playing characters with the same names. Is ‘Wagon’ an unofficial sequel of sorts? Throw in the always welcome Ward Bond as Elder, a converted Mormon with a hinted-at checkered past, and you’ve got a heck of a lead trio. No huge stars, no problem.

Starring as love interests are Joanne Dru and Kathleen O’Malley. Ford regulars Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson and Francis Ford (John’s older brother) playing supporting parts. The villains are the Cleggs gang, led by murdering patriarch Shiloh (Charles Kemper) and including supporting parts for Hank Worden, James Arness, Fred Libby and Mickey Simpson. Also look for Alan Mowbray as a snake oil salesman and Ruth Clifford as his dance hall girl partner.

As I’ve mentioned, ‘Wagon’ isn’t the most pointed story around. It drifts a little bit, and the ending is especially odd, as if Ford didn’t quite know how or when to end his movie. There is not a ton of action along the way, but you’re watching for the characters and the location backdrop. When the Cleggs are re-introduced in the second act, the introduction does provide some uncomfortable tension going forward. Still, even with its flaws, it’s still a pretty good western. A few too many songs too along the way, along with 2 different community line dances (usual Ford touches).

Not on the level of the cavalry trilogy or Ford’s other classics, but a must-watch for western and John Ford fans alike.

Wagon Master (1950): ***/****

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Big Jake (1971)

big_jake_ver2Over the last decade of his career — the late 1960s and into the 1970s — John Wayne was wary of following along with the Hollywood trend of ultra-violent movies. He even turned down the Dirty Harry role, later doing 2 pretty mediocre cop movies. It’s oddly appropriate then that over the span one of his best movies (and a fan favorite) is one that embraces some bloody violence. Here’s 1971’s Big Jake.

It’s 1909 along the Texas/Mexico border when an outlaw, John Fain (Richard Boone), leads his gang of murderers and cutthroats in a vicious attack on the expansive McCandles Ranch. Ten people are killed, and ranch owner Martha (Maureen O’Hara) sees her grandson kidnapped. Fain demands a ransom of $1 million, leaving a note that says simply “Follow the map.” Knowing her grandson could be killed no matter what she decides, Martha seeks out her estranged husband, Jacob (Wayne), to take the ransom money into Mexico and get his grandson (who he didn’t know) back. With help from his two sons, James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum), and an old friend, Apache Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), Jacob agrees, setting off to bring his grandson back alive or his captors dead.

I’ve long been a John Wayne fan, and this 1971 western from director George Sherman (although it is reported Wayne helped direct with an ailing Sherman) has long been a personal favorite. I watched TV edited versions for years, so it’s always fun to pop in the DVD and see the full 110-minute movie! With its surprising violence and even some uses of blood squibs, ‘Jake’ is obviously a departure for Wayne. It’s balanced out though with some odd comedy (mostly works), a familiar, deep cast, and beautiful filming locations in Durango, Mexico — a favorite spot of Wayne to make movies; The War Wagon, Sons of Katie Elder, The Undefeated. This isn’t a western that rewrites the genre and is far from its revisionist peers of the time, but it’s damn entertaining from beginning to end.

By this point in his career, Wayne could have done a part like this with his eyes closed. To his credit, he never did. He brings a certain energy to the part, a rough edge as we learn about his Jacob McCandles and his past. This is easily one of his most quotable parts, the Duke delivering one crackling one-liner after another. It never feels forced, Wayne’s gruff delivery bringing it all together. His chemistry with his supporting cast is impeccable, especially his early (and too short) scenes with frequent co-star Maureen O’Hara. On the tough guy angle, his dialogue scenes with Richard Boone are pppppperfect, especially the build-up to the final showdown. Throw in the estranged father scenes as he reunites with his sons, Patrick Wayne’s James and Mitchum’s Michael, and you’ve got a bunch of positives in an at-times eccentric western.

The cast is far from done there, especially an underused Richard Boone as the calculating, brutal John Fain. Most villains cower in Wayne’s shadow, but not Boone. Watch THIS scene for an example (apologies for the low quality). Fain’s gang includes O’Brien (Glenn Corbett), a half-breed gunslinger, Pop Dawson (an unrecognizable Harry Carey Jr.), Kid Duffy (stuntman Dean Smith), a deadshot with a rifle, John Goodfellow (Gregg Palmer), a machete-wielding psycho, Trooper (Jim Burk), an Army deserter, and Will Fain (Robert Warner), John’s brother who favors a shotgun. Singer Bobby Vinton makes a brief appearance as Jake’s third son. Also look for recognizable western faces John DoucetteJohn AgarJim DavisHank WordenChuck Roberson (Wayne’s stunt double), and Roy Jenson. Wayne’s real-life son, Ethan Wayne, plays the kidnapped Little Jake.

After the opening narration and bloody and bullet-riddled raid, things settle in at a decent pace. Wayne’s introduction off a memorable line from O’Hara is a gem. From there, it’s a story on the trail as Jacob, his sons and Sam, and Jacob’s dog…Dog, trail Fain and the gang into Mexico, finally catching up in a boom town named Escandero. The final shootout and hostage exchange is a gem and the obvious highlight of the movie. It takes place in a walled-off Mexican compound — historically a key location in the Mexican Revolution — in the dead of night. Some great dialogue, a couple genuine twists and plenty of bullets flying.

One of my favorites, and a John Wayne gem. Highly recommended.

Big Jake (1971): ****/****

Rio Lobo (1970)

rio_lobo_1970Late in a career that spanned 6 decades (1920s through 1970s), director Howard Hawks went back to the well for what he knew audiences liked. Well, maybe what he liked too. After directing the classic 1959 western Rio Bravo, Hawks more or less remade the film 8 years later with El Dorado. He tried a third time, but didn’t wait as long for the trifecta with 1970’s Rio Lobo.

Late in the Civil War, a Union officer, Col. Cord McNally (John Wayne), is unable to stop Confederate raiders from stealing gold shipments being used for payrolls. He thinks one of his own men is selling information to the Confederate raiders, including Capt. Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivero) and Sgt. Tuscarora (Christopher Mitchum), but the duo won’t tell him who until after their war. Once the war ends and the men go their separate ways, Cord hears from Cordona that he’s found one of the traitors in Texas. Cord heads for the town of Rio Lobo looking to find his man and get some answers (read = revenge). That’s not all though as Cord, Cordona (and some friends) get caught up in a range war with land and water deeds on the line.

Rio Bravo is untouchable in my mind. El Dorado, it’s pretty good but not quite as good. And Rio Lobo? It’s got more of a B-movie touch, a smaller budget, and is more interested in just being an entertaining western overall. There are good and bad, some obvious flaws, but it is damn entertaining. If you’re comparing the three like-minded movies, ‘Lobo’ borrows from both, but it leans more toward ‘Dorado,’ especially with the range war element. It was filmed on location in Old Tucson — where both previous films were at least partially filmed — with literally the same street being used for 2 different towns. There’s also a memorable if underused score from the always reliable Jerry Goldsmith. If there’s a flaw, it’s what Hawks once said about his films; characters are more important than story. He took that to heart in a big way, apparently rewriting the script during production.

A good counter to that? By 1970, John Wayne could have done a role like this in his sleep. Thankfully, he didn’t. He’s clearly having a lot of fun with a character with a twist. Not many Duke characters were looking for revenge! 63 years old at the time, Wayne even pokes some fun at himself, passing the love interest off to Rivero’s Pierre Cordona. The running joke becomes that old man Wayne is “comfortable” with men. In other words, he’s safe and won’t make a move on them. Rivero’s accent is a little much at times, but he has decent chemistry with Wayne. Mitchum is underused as the second banana, but he’s a likable on-screen presence, much like he was a year later when he paired with Wayne again in Big Jake.

The rest of the cast is hit or miss. A sex symbol of the 1970s, Jennifer O’Neill plays Shasta Delaney, a young woman with a checkered past searching for revenge. This is not a good performance to the point it is actually painful at times. The script does no favor for any of the female characters — Sherry Lansing and Susana Dosamantes — who aren’t given much to do and tend to overact/overdo it anyways. Still, for a lack of a better description, the babe factor is increased for a John Wayne western! The always welcome Jack Elam doesn’t show up until the second hour but hams it up as the shotgun-wielding Mr. Phillips. The villains — Victor French, Mike Henry, Robert Donner — make virtually no impression. Also look for David Huddleston, stuntman Dean Smith, Jim Davis, Edward Faulkner and Hank Worden in smaller parts.

A little slow at times and without much action, ‘Lobo’ doesn’t have much of a sense of urgency. The highlight is the first 35 minutes, a train heist with a unique twist unlike anything I’ve seen in a heist movie. The story goes the more traditional route after the first half-hour or so. It’s a touch disjointed blending the two and then adding another storyline, but it’s never dull. A bit of a guilty pleasure overall, but a worthwhile western just the same. Especially worthwhile for the Duke delivering a fun, even comedic part at times that balances out with the more action-heavy Duke. Also, see how many times you can spot Wayne stuntman Chuck Roberson in different roles!

Rio Lobo (1970): ***/****

 

3 Godfathers (1948)

3_godfathers_1948_posterThe late 1940s and into the 1950s was an important stretch for John Ford, the legendary director turning in some of his finest work. His cavalry trilogy — She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, Rio Grande — are the movies he’s most often associated with, but it was during the same stretch that Ford directed one of his best westerns, 1948’s 3 Godfathers, a flick that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

Three outlaws, Bob Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William Kearney (Harry Carey Jr.), have robbed the bank in the tiny, usually peaceful town of Welcome, Arizona. They hightail it out of town with a saddlebag full of gold, the town sheriff, Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), managing to shoot their water bag in a chaotic chase across the desert. Now, it’s a chess match for water, and who can go longer without it, the outlaws or the sheriff and his posse. Out in the desert, Bob, Pedro and William stumble across a pregnant woman alone and about to give birth. She dies soon after, leaving the trio in survival mode…and now caring for an infant. Without any horses, can they get him to safety?

There’s an aura often when you watch a Ford western, especially in this stage of his career. Trademark, signatures, whatever you want to call them, but they’re easily visible. Though ‘Godfathers’ has some darker moments, it’s one of Ford’s relatively lighter westerns. There’s drama but humor to balance it out. And there’s no other way to say it, this is cheesy, downright corny at times. My point though? It doesn’t matter. It’s a gem.

Not filming in his usual Monument Valley, Ford films instead in Death Valley, a sparse, dangerous stretch of land if there ever was, but an oddly beautiful land. Filmed in Technicolor, it’s a visual stunner, even the colors from 1948 popping to life. The skies, the clouds, even the costumes all leave a lasting impression. Add a familiar but memorable score from composer Richard Hageman (a frequent partner in Ford movies), and that halfway decent cast, you’ve got a winner.

This was actually the third retelling of the basic story, Ford even filming a silent version in 1919 (it was remade again in 1936, a solid flick all-around). What holds it together — however cheesy/corny/overdone at times — is the casting. A 40-year old Wayne steals the show as Bob, the no-nonsense leader of our little “gang” who’s long rode with Pedro and looks out for Kearney (AKA The Abilene Kid) as he goes on his first job. Armendariz and Carey Jr. match him step-for-step, chemistry to burn as first just survival is the key, but then so much more and something bigger when the infant’s survival is at stake. No matter whether it’s the lighter, comedic moments or the harsher, darker realities setting in, I absolutely love the 3 Godfathers characters. Basically the three nicest “bad guys” ever in a western.

Ford fills out his supporting cast with more than a few familiar faces from his Stock Company (character actors who were in many Ford movies). Ward Bond is excellent as Buck “Perley” Sweet, Welcome’s sheriff who unintentionally befriends the outlaws before realizing who they are, Mae Marsh playing his wife. Mildred Natwick is excellent in one quick scene (but a highly memorable one) as the Mother who as she’s dying asks the three outlaws to be godfathers to her infant son, who she names Robert William Pedro after them. Other familiar faces include Jane Darwell, Guy Kibbee, Hank Worden, Jack Pennick, and in his first credited role, Ben Johnson. It obviously wouldn’t be the last we heard of him in the western genre.

What may surprise some viewers here that ‘Godfathers’ become a variation of Three Men and a Baby meets an American wild west version of the Three Kings story from the Nativity story. So….yes, it is a bit of a Christmas movie! The 3 godfathers must travel to New Jerusalem in hopes of saving the baby, often looking to a bright star for guidance. There’s some faith, some religion, some good and evil along the way, and a story with some surprising twists in its last third. It is cheesy at times and may drive some viewers away, but it’s always been a favorite. Definitely worth a watch.

Ford actually dedicated the film to his longtime friend and star, Harry Carey (Carey Jr.’s father), who had died the year before in 1947. His son more than holds his own, stealing some scenes, especially when he sings Streets of Laredo to the baby as a lullaby. Any-hoo, give it a watch!

3 Godfathers (1948): *** 1/2 /****

Apache War Smoke (1952)

apache_war_smokeSometimes the most straightforward stories are the best. There’s nothing particularly fancy about 1952’s Apache War Smoke, but it gets the job done, relying on a familiar but always entertaining premise, a solid, familiar cast, and some good shoot ‘em up action. That’s all you need at times with a good western.

A bandit on the run, Peso Herrera (Gilbert Roland) is infamous throughout the American Southwest. While visiting friends (and maybe family), Peso begins to follow a passing stagecoach full of passengers. The stagecoach pulls into Tonto Valley Station on the line, a stop run by Tom Herrera (Robert Horton), Peso’s son. Smoke signals have been seen in the desert hills, leading Tom to suspect an attack is coming. With about a dozen people inside the adobe-walled stage station, Tom preps for an attack. As for Peso, the bandit has his eyes on the Wells Fargo box weighted down with gold.

This 1952 B-western from director Harold Kress has been sitting on my DVR since mid-October after an airing on Turner Classic Movies. I ain’t timely, but I caught up! It’s become harder for me to find westerns I haven’t seen before, but ‘Smoke’ was pretty entertaining. There’s a feel of a TV episode with a few extra minutes with a final running time of just 67 minutes.

The main locale is the walled-off stage station which works to show off the danger and isolation. There’s also the sense of almost a western stage play. We see Apaches at times, but the threat of an attack from outside the walls is just as effective. Stage stations are a familiar locale for countless westerns, and ‘Smoke’ manages to have some fun with that familiarity. As well, there are some secrets and mysteries to be revealed along the way.

So how about some ensemble cast? Roland hams it up in stereotypical fashion as Mexican bandit Peso Herrera. He’s duded up like a western star of the 1930s and looks a little too polished all-around. He plays his guitar, woos the ladies, yells ‘Ay, Chihuahua!’ too much and resorts to basically every stereotype of a Mexican bandit ever. Horton comes off in better fashion as his son, Tom, a capable worker, a good shot, and similarly able to woo the lades. The father-son western dynamic is cool but is underdone at times by Roland’s theatrics.

The rest of the ensemble doesn’t boast much star power, but there’s some welcome familiar faces. Glenda Farrell plays Fanny, a middle-aged saloon/casino girl who knows Peso quite well. Barbara Ruick (angelic daughter of cavalry officer Douglas Dumbrille) and Patricia Tiernan (sexy, back-stabbing ex of Tom’s) fight for Horton’s attention as potential love interests. Gene Lockhart is the business-like stage rep, a young Robert Blake is Luis, a half Mexican, half-Apache worker, Myron Healey as Pike Curtis, a drifter, Harry Morgan as stagecoach driver Ed Cotten, Argentina Brunetti as Madre, the station cook, and Hank Worden, Emmett Lynn and Chubby Johnson as workers at the stage station. Also look briefly for Iron Eyes Cody as an Apache chief.

Not too much to analyze here with ‘Smoke.’ It’s fun. A little slow in the beginning, but it picks up steam pretty quick. I was surprised by the lack of casualties in the action-packed finale, but I guess those walls were pretty protective! A decent western that fans will definitely appreciate.

Apache War Smoke (1952): ***/****