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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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): ****/****

Bend of the River (1952)

bend_of_the_river_-_1952-_posterWhen you think of all the great western directors that worked at the height of the genre’s success — the 1950s through the 1960s — plenty of names comes up, directors like John Ford, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher to name just a few.  And then there’s Anthony Mann, who rarely gets the credit he deserves for an impressive filmography. He’s often known for his films with star James Stewart, (8 pairings, 5 of them westerns)like 1952’s Bend of the River.

It’s 1866 and a wagon train is heading west to Oregon. Scouting for the wagon train is Glyn McClintock (Stewart), a former border raider who’s looking to go clean and put his checkered past behind him. The families traveling aren’t aware of Glyn’s past though. To them, he’s just a more than capable scout and gunman. Along the trail, Glyn rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a lynching, Glyn not sure if he saved a guilty or an innocent man. Cole decides to tag along, help Glyn and the wagon train make it to Oregon. More and more challenges await though, from Indians and bandits to problems from within. Can Cole go straight? Can Glyn escape his past?

Like any of the western director/star pairings listed above, the Mann-Stewart westerns have a rhythm, a formula they stick with through thick and thin. I’ll get into that formula more in-depth later, but the gist of it is simple. Released in the 1950s, these movies still have that traditional western feel of the 1940s/1930s while starting to tackle more adult/realistic issues that became prevalent throughout the 1950s. Throw in some beautiful filming locations, solid score and deep casts, and you’ve got a winning formula.

A staple of the Mann westerns was Stewart’s flawed, often tragic anti-heroes. His Glyn McClintock certainly qualifies. Stewart played tortured like few others. These aren’t super-heroic gunslingers who can do no wrong. He’s genuinely trying to go straight, to prove he’s a good man. Oh, and he may have to prove that with the lovely Laura (Julie Adams), the daughter of one of the farmers (Jay C. Flippen) on the wagon train. So if Glyn is trying to go straight, what about Cole? Kennedy is a scene-stealer as the ruthless gunfighter who you’re not always sure of his intentions….but you really are. There is little doubt where this is going, but in the meantime, Stewart and Kennedy are excellent in starring roles.

Another frequent Mann collaborator and a rising star in his own right, Rock Hudson has a fun supporting part as Trey Wilson, a young gambler who finds himself working on the trail with Glyn and Cole. In the wasted villain department, Howard Petrie plays Hendricks, the owner of an Oregon town with his hand in everything that will make him some money. Chubby Johnson and Stepin Fetchit are misused in a politically incorrect subplot about a river boat captain and his assistant. Also look for Harry Morgan, Jack Lambert and Royal Dano as troublesome drifters, and Francis Bavier (later Aunt Bea on The Andy Griffith Show) in a small part.

‘Bend’ was filmed on-location in Oregon — including Sandy River, Mount Hood and Timberline — and looks stunningly beautiful. The mountainous backgrounds are provide quite the different look for the story as Glyn, Cole and the wagon train navigate through all the snow-capped mountains. It isn’t the quickest moving story, but it’s never slow. Some good action along the way, and a more than capable cast to lead the way. Not the best Mann-Stewart pairing, but an above average western that’s definitely worth a watch.

Bend of the River (1952): ***/****

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): ***/****

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): ****/****

 

Winchester ’73

winchester_73_-_1950-_posterIf you’re a fan of western movies and American history in the west in general, two firearms come to mind as the most iconic of the era. First? The Colt .45, a six-shot revolver made famous by gunfighters and cowboys. The second? The Winchester 1873 model, a repeating rifle that earned the nickname ‘the gun that won the west.’ The iconic rifle gets a starring role in an excellent western from 1950, Winchester ’73.

 

It’s July 4, 1876 in Dodge City with the town hosting a shooting contest bringing riflemen from all over the country. The prize? A so-called perfect Winchester rifle, dubbed the one in a 1,000 rifle. Among the competitors is Lin McAdam (James Stewart), a rancher/cowboy who’s a deadshot with a rifle. He wins via tiebreaker against a man from his past, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), but Dutch isn’t having it. He and two fellow gunfighters rob Lin of the prized rifle, racing out into the desert. Lin and his partner, High Spade Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell), aren’t far behind. In the aftermath of the massacre at the Little Bighorn, reports of Indians on the warpath are escalating. Can Lin and High Spade track down the man and the gun while still keeping their hair?

John Wayne had John Ford, Randolph Scott had Budd Boetticher, and James Stewart had Anthony Mann. The star-director combo team here for the first of five movies they would make together (6 if you add The Glenn Miller Story), and it’s a gem. I’d have to go back and rewatch all five, but this definitely belongs up at the top. At 92 minutes, it is an episodic story with an ensemble cast that moves along at a quick pace. There is almost the feel of a TV show with 15 or 20-minute segments as the prized rifle finds itself in new hand one after another. How though? That’s the fun. The Winchester ends up being a star, jumping from person to person with some bad luck, greed, violence, betrayals and some blood dotting the way.

 

Stewart rarely gets the credit he deserves in the western genre. Other than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he didn’t star in a classic western. This movie is close, as is The Naked Spur, and there’s a handful that are really, really good. My point? He plays a great anti-hero of sorts, although here he’s in more typical hero mode. His Lin — for lack of a better description — is a good dude, if a touch obsessed with exacting some revenge. His backstory is familiar but well-handled and feels a good twist. It’s leisurely revealed, but it’s Jimmy Stewart. You know he’s a good guy. His chemistry with Mitchell’s High Spade is excellent too, two driven cowboys who are stubborn, loyal and sturdy.

 

What appealed to me is that Mann’s film uses a whole bunch of genre conventions (you could say stereotypes) but manages to breathe some new, fresh life into it. Case in point is the cast, with the revenge-seeking cowboy, the saloon hall girl with a heart of gold, the unhinged gunfighter, the loyal sidekick and so many more. Everyone gets almost equal screen-time throughout. Look for Shelley Winters as Lola, the saloon girl, Dan Duryea as Waco Johnny Dean, a psychotic gunfighter, McNally as Dutch Henry, Charles Drake as Steve Miller, Lola’s fiance, John McIntire as gunrunner Joe Lamont, Will Geer as Marshal Wyatt Earp, J.C. Flippen as a cavalry sergeant and a young Rock Hudson as an Indian chief.

 

Also look for Tony Curtis and James Best as young cavalry troopers, Steve Brodie and James Millican as members of Dutch’s gang, and John Wayne stuntman Chuck Roberson late as a potential bank robber. Familiar face Ray Teal has a shadow-marked supporting part as a marshal leading a posse.

 

Winchester’ covers a fair amount of mileage in its brisk 92-minute running time. The early shootout is a highlight, but there’s also a manipulative gunrunner, an Indian attack on a cavalry patrol, a posse chasing bandits, a bank robbery, a not forced (thankfully) love story, and a genuine good twist late. Filmed in black and white, ‘Winchester’ has an almost artsy look — plenty of shadow and silhouette, almost a noir western — and definitely capitalizes on the Arizona shooting locations, including Old Tucson.

Held in high regard by many, ‘Winchester’ still doesn’t get the classic attention it probably should. It’s a great western, entertaining with some action but also well-written and well-executed. Highly recommended.

Winchester ’73 (1950): *** 1/2 /****