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): **/****

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Firecreek (1968)

1968-firecreekIn a career spanning 6 decades, Henry Fonda became synonymous with heroic lead characters who always fought for what was right, fighting for the underdog, and often doing it at his own expense. And then he wasn’t! In 1968, he took 2 villain roles in westerns, one that’s a classic and pretty well-known, Once Upon a Time in the West, and the other a far lesser-known but still quality western, 1968’s Firecreek.

In the tiny, isolated town of Firecreek, farmer Johnny Cobb (James Stewart) lives with his wife and their 2 boys. His wife is also expecting their third child. Johnny doubles as the town sheriff, but the town doesn’t necessarily need him to do much as he quietly earns (sometimes) his $2 a month. The peaceful, even boring town is about to get some excitement though. A gunfighter, Bob Larkin (Fonda), and his gang of four fellow gunslingers have ridden into town. They don’t start off causing any trouble at first, but that quickly changes. Basically on his own, Cobb must decide what to do. Where’s his line? How far should he let these men push before he pushes back? Whatever his decision, the townspeople are scared to death of any possible repercussions, leaving Johnny seemingly on his own.

The obvious comparison for this 1968 western from director Vincent McEveety is the classic 1952 western High Noon. The basic connection is obvious, a small-town sheriff forced to defend his town on his own against a gang of bandits. The basic premise is there, but 16 years later, things had changed in the western genre. Stories were nastier, more adult, more violent and for lack of a better description…more uncomfortable. This is an excellent western, but it isn’t necessarily an enjoyable western. It’s not fun, it’s not exciting. Instead, it’s nerve-wracking, the tension building all the time to a tough but ultimately highly memorable finale.

It’s hard to beat a pairing of two Hollywood legends like Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. They co-starred in 1962’s How the West Was Won but didn’t have any scenes together, so this was the first pairing for the iconic pair. They would co-star 2 years later in another solid western, The Cheyenne Social Club. Here in Firecreek, they don’t share a ton of screentime, but what’s there is prime.

Where ‘Firecreek’ succeeds so well is as a character study of Johnny Cobb and Bob Larkin. Neither man is truly content with his life. Cobb begins to realize as much as he loves his family, he made an unconscious decision years before to simply…settle and not challenge himself. He’s capable, strong-willed and patient, well-respected by the small population of the town. Fonda’s Larkin is a gunfighter, pure and simple, but not necessarily a bad one. He’s a self-proclaimed leader of men, always riding out front into the dirtiest, hairiest jobs. When things take a turn for the worse, Larkin wants to see how far he can push, even though he might not agree with his men’s actions. Rock and a hard place, but something has to give. Memorable performances from two Hollywood legends.

In creepy supporting parts look for Gary Lockwood, Jack Elam, James Best and Morgan Woodward as Larkin’s gang. Lockwood is especially memorable as a possibly unhinged gunslinger, Earl, with Elam and Best also making the most of supporting parts. Inger Stevens plays Evelyn, a widow who’s basically hiding in Firecreek, wasting her life away. Robert Porter plays Arthur, a simple-minded stable boy who idolizes Johnny, with Dean Jagger, Jay C. Flippen and John Qualen as some of the townspeople. Ed Begley is a fire-and-brimstone traveling preacher. Barbara Luna plays Meli, an Indian woman with a half-breed son (oh, scandalous backstory) with Brooke Bundy playing Leah, a teenage girl oblivious to the gang’s intentions and Jacqueline Scott as Cobb’s wife. Good supporting cast all-around.

Clocking in at 106 minutes, ‘Firecreek’ takes place in a little over a 24-hour period. The story is set almost entirely in the small town with a couple ventures out into the country, giving it an almost theatrical feel. The town – small, dusty and depressing – becomes a key character in itself. Even as the gang rides in, there’s a sense of doom hanging in the air. What’s gonna happen? Who’s gonna light the match of this powder keg? That’s where the uncomfortable qualities take off from. ‘High Noon’ was a nerve-wracking final product, but there’s an added, harsher edge here because we’ve gotten to see the depths the gang has gone to.

There’s little in the way of action for the first 90 minutes, but then with one shocking reveal in the third act, things take off like crazy. It’s not a huge gunfight, but instead a cat-and-mouse hunt through the town with some surprising touches of violence. An incredibly tense ending to a lesser-known but high quality western. Definitely should check this one out.

Firecreek (1968): ***/****

Midway

midway_movie_posterWorld War II had countless key engagements and battles that helped turn the tide of the war, and in a bigger sense, changed the tide of history. D-Day is obviously at the top of the list, but many others have been given a film treatment, like Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal, and with today’s review, 1976’s Midway. What if the Japanese had won the battle? Would WWII have a vastly different path and end result? Things you can’t help but wonder while watching this underrated gem.

It’s late spring in 1942 and the U.S. Navy is still incredibly vulnerable following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. A Naval Intelligence officer and pilot, Capt. Matt Garth (Charlton Heston), talks to a fellow intelligence officer who thinks clues point to a Japanese attack coming at the key Pacific island of Midway. Washington seems to think it could all be a trick, an ambush for what’s remaining in the Pacific Fleet. Admiral Chester Nimitz (Henry Fonda) thinks otherwise though, committing his fleet, including two essential aircraft carriers and one carrier fresh off a battle that almost crippled the ship. An immense Japanese fleet is sailing for Midway, the outnumbered, undermanned Americans racing to meet them. The young war potentially hangs in the balance in the Pacific…

In the vein of The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, The Battle of Britain and Tora! Tora! Tora! (among many others) comes this 1976 wartime battle drama from director Jack Smight. It isn’t a classic, but it’s really solid. Flaws? Sure, one major one I’ll discuss later, but when the story sticks to the war-turning battle, ‘Midway’ is at its best. It definitely gets points for portraying the battle from both perspectives, both the American and Japanese forces. It isn’t the horrific, evil Japs vs. the saintly, heroic Americans. This is a battle between professional soldiers, sailors and pilots with the battle hanging in the balance. It isn’t the most personal story — more of a BIG picture story — but the history itself is fascinating and doesn’t need much else added.

One of the best parts of these big battle epics is typically the all-star casts assembled. Some are bigger, meatier parts, others are cameos, but the star power is always impressive. ‘Midway’ doesn’t disappoint. Heston gets the biggest part — and the personal subplot — as tough, stubborn, knowledgeable Capt. Garth. Heston specialized in these big movies, whether it be war movies, disaster flicks or historical epics, throughout his career, and he’s solid as usual. Fonda makes the most of an extended cameo, if a bigger cameo than the others in the cast. He brings some charm and personality to Adm. Nimitz. Other high-ranking Naval officers include Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Robert Webber and Hal Holbrook as the intelligence officer who sniffs out the Japanese plan.

Who else to look for? James Coburn and Cliff Robertson make lightning-quick appearances (like Mitchum’s). So does Robert Wagner. On the Japanese side, Toshiro Mifune cameos as Adm. Yamamoto while James Shigeta plays Vice Adm. Nagumo, the commander of the task force. As for the pilots, Christopher George, Glenn Corbett and Monte Markam represent the Americans with varying amounts of screentime. Also look for young Tom Selleck as an officer on Midway, Erik Estrada as a pilot and Dabney Coleman as a ranking naval officer. Pretty decent cast, huh?

If there’s a weakness in the story, it’s Garth’s subplot with his son, a young Naval pilot who has fallen in love with a Japanese woman. It feels forced to say the least, to add a human element to a story that didn’t really need it. The pacing drags a bit in the first 60 minutes as the story bounces among the American and Japanese forces and then the Garth family trials. The interment camps are one of the most horrific things to come out of WWII but in a story about the Battle of Midway, the story is out of place.

Giving the story a sense of realism is real footage filmed during the actual Battle of Midway in 1942, footage used in John Ford’s award-winning documentary about the battle. Once the two fleets begin to fight, that’s where the story takes off. The naval battle begins a chess match as the two sides put plans into effect, then re-plan and adjust. The history is pretty spot-on. You see how the battle turns with some good and bad luck, some chance, some poor decisions and some calculated decisions that pay off with war-changing events. Fascinating to watch it all develop.

It’s an impressive movie. It genuinely makes you appreciate the sacrifices made on both sides. Several American squadrons attacked the Japanese fleet with little hope of success, but they flew into battle anyways. Their actions and their subsequent deaths ended up altering the battle and in a far bigger picture, the war itself. A switch here, a change there, and maybe history is dramatically altered. A film well worth checking out.

Midway (1976): ***/****

My Darling Clementine

1946-my-darling-clementineI recently reviewed 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, one of many versions Hollywood has done of Wyatt Earp, the Cowboys and Tombstone’s infamous history in the 1880s. Not drifting too far here today with another version of one of the west’s most iconic moments, 1946’s My Darling Clementine.

As they drive a herd of cattle west to California, former lawman Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) and his 3 brothers stop outside the time of Tombstone. While visiting the town, rustlers steal the herd and kill the youngest Earp brother, James. In hopes of finding his brother’s murderer, Wyatt takes a job in Tombstone as the town marshal. It’s there he tangles with several key people in town, including gambler Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and cattle rancher Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan). Now, all Wyatt has to do is get proof of who killed his brother and stole the herd of cattle.

Notice anything? This 1946 western has basically little to no connection the real-life historical incidents. Yes, there was a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in Tombstone…and…well, that’s about it. The story takes place in 1882 (a year after the actual incidents), Holliday is a surgeon and not a dentist, Old Man Clanton was dead and never actually met Wyatt, and James Earp lived into the 1920s. So if you’re looking for a history lesson, this isn’t it.

What’s the end result then? Like many John Ford westerns, ‘Darling’ is more interested in the legend, the mythology and the romance of the old west. Based on a true story, this is as close to an arthouse western as there ever was. Filmed in black and white, it is episodic, romantic, idyllic, hauntingly pretty and has touches of a film noir in its use of shadow and light. Other than the song My Darling Clementine, the soundtrack is minimal. We’re transported to a little down in the Arizona desert with no sense of the rest of the world. There’s a sense we’re somewhere different, somewhere far-off. Little to no gunplay, style over substance, this western is one of a kind…mostly for the good.

Henry Fonda is an all-time great for a reason. He has countless roles that I could identify as his most famous, best, most iconic, whatever description you want to say. His performance as Wyatt Earp belongs in that conversation, but I struggle with a specific reason. It’s his easy-going, laconic manner…until he’s not. It’s the smile that pops up. It’s the gentle physicality, like the iconic shot of him in a chair, leg propped up on a post as he surveys Tombstone. He moves so gracefully too, especially as he leisurely walks up the street to the O.K. Corral. I don’t know if this is what the real Wyatt Earp was like — history and revisions say it was not — but there’s something straightforward, charming and immensely likable about Fonda’s Wyatt.

Reading about ‘Darling,’ Victor Mature seemed to be Ford’s whipping boy during production. His Doc Holliday is interesting, but whether it’s the script (where I lean) or something else, Mature isn’t given a great chance to shine. His Holliday is too moody, too intense for his own good. There’s some good chemistry between Fonda and Mature — especially a scene early as they wait for a play — but the not so accurate history does them no favors. All records indicate they were at least partially friends in real life (Wyatt and Doc that is), but here, they’re barely on speaking terms. Some good potential for the character, but it falls short.

Who else to look for? Brennan as Old Man Clanton is an out and out villain, a sneering, intimidating murderer. John Ireland plays his youngest son, Billy, while Grant Withers mostly looks mean with a beard as Ike. The Earp brothers include the always welcome Ward Bond, Tim Holt and Don Garner. Linda Darnell plays Chihuahua, a Mexican saloon girl who loves Doc (and sings a couple songs), while Cathy Downs plays Clementine, a past love interest of Doc’s who Wyatt takes a shine to. Also look for Ford regulars Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, Jack Pennick and Ford’s brother, Francis Ford, in small supporting parts.

It had been years since I watched this western, but something struck me on the most recent viewing. I found myself bored with this first hour. There is little to no story with the pacing at an almost glacial pace as we meet Wyatt, Doc and Tombstone. An episodic story is one thing, but ‘Darling’ just sorta drifts along. I found myself drifting more than I remembered. Things definitely pick up over the last 40 minutes, but I had to at least bring up the pacing issue.

That said, definitely give this John Ford western a shot. Shot on location in Monument Valley (as  a background to Tombstone), ‘Darling’ is a visual treat. Ford’s movies have a reputation for their style, look and visual appeal, but this may be him at his best, right up there with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. An iconic western with plenty of memorable scenes, it’s an excellent film and well worth checking out.

My Darling Clementine (1946): ***/****