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 This was originally made with Wayne — still working at Republic — attached as an actor.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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Rio Bravo (1959)

riobravoposterMore often than not, the movies you watched and loved as a kid stick with you. Case in point, my love of John Wayne movies. I started with The Alamo and never looked back. One of my favorites and hopefully always will be, 1959’s Rio Bravo is one of the best Duke westerns ever, and on a bigger scale, one of the best westerns ever. Simple as that.

In the border town of Rio Bravo, a man named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) has brutally gunned a man down and walked away from the scene. The town sheriff, John T. Chance (Wayne) and his drunken deputy, Dude (Dean Martin), track him down and throw him in a jail cell. Burdette’s brother, Nathan (John Russell), is a powerful rancher though with his hand in everything. With a small army of gunmen, Nathan bottles up the town. Chance can’t get Joe out of town, and he can’t bring help into town. Left with no alternative, Chance and his deputies sit back and wait. They think the Burdettes will make a move at some point, but in what capacity? The odds are definitely against them.

I can’t think of too many westerns that are more enjoyable, more fun, more charming. From director Howard Hawks, ‘Rio’ is a gem of the genre. It avoids most of the trappings that plagued so many “adult” westerns in the 1950’s, finding a balance among story, characters, drama, laughs and gunplay. Maybe a touch long at 141 minutes, but I’m still never bored. There aren’t any dark undertones or heavy-handed attempts at drama. Just all the separate pieces working together to create an even better final product, a true classic.

Since delivering maybe his career-best performance four years earlier in 1955’s The Searchers, Wayne had gone away from the western genre only to see his next 4 films struggle at the box office. His western return was a triumph! My opinion obviously, but I think this is Wayne’s coolest performance — for lack of a more well-spoken description. He looks the part, sounds the part and looks to be having a ball with a great cast that’s loaded with chemistry. This film began the second half of his career — as he became the Duke more than John Wayne — but his Sheriff John T. Chance becomes an iconic western character; the stout, stubborn, capable small-town sheriff. Odds be damned, he intends to do what’s right.

The cast in ‘Rio’ wouldn’t seem like a gimme if you just look at the cast listing. Odd choices, interesting choices, but you know what? They ALL work. Chance’s crew of deputies include Dean Martin as Dude, a gunslinger who’s fallen on hard times courtesy of a drinking problem, Walter Brennan as Stumpy, a motor-mouthed old man with a significant limp, and singer/teen idol Ricky Nelson as Colorado, a young gunslinger who’s quick on the draw but inexperienced. John Russell makes the most of a small part as intimidating gentleman Nathan Burdette while Claude Akins sneers and jeers as his punk brother, Joe.

According to Wayne and Hawks, Rio Bravo was at least partially a response to 1952’s High Noon. I’ve read Wayne even thought the Gary Cooper western was un-American as countless townspeople refused to help Cooper’s Will Kane. Not the case here. Chance has a drunk, a cripple and a youngster, but he’s got help. Many other people offer to pitch in and lend a hand, but Wayne’s Chance refuses almost all of it. The catch is that the chemistry of the oddball crew in Rio Bravo is amazing. This is a great dialogue-driven script. Check out the memorable quotes from IMDB HERE. It’s a gem from beginning to end, and the cast doesn’t disappoint in bringing it all to life.

One of the more interesting aspects of Rio Bravo is the casting of 28-year old Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a saloon girl that Chance tries to chase out of town but ends up butting heads with and eventually falling for. The age difference is noticeable with a 50-year old Wayne, but my goodness, every scene they have crackles together. Dickinson keeps Wayne on his heels at all times, talking and questioning and generally driving him nuts. Westerns so often waste their female leads with non-essential…well, everything, but Dickinson is such a scene-stealer, you can’t help but sit back and watch the on-screen chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Ward Bond plays Pat Wheeler, a wagon train leader who has a friendly history with Chance and wants to help. Also look for Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as Carlos, the hotel owner who is close friends with Chance as well. He has some great lines as he hams it up in certain scenes and underplays other scenes. Estelita Rodriguez plays Carlos’ wife, Consuela.

I caught something interesting on my most recent viewing. ‘Bravo’ has elements of a stage-based play with only two key locations, the jail and the hotel. Sure, the main strip in the town of Rio Bravo is key but almost the entire story is told in either those 2 locales (with some departures here and there for drinking at saloons and shoot-outs). Just an observation.

One of the qualifiers with classic westerns is memorable lines, memorable shootouts and set pieces that help it stand above the rest. The wordless opener is a gem, almost 7 minutes without a word spoken, no explanations given. I’ve always loved the scene too where Chance and Dude walk into a saloon looking for a murder suspect…except he disappeared. But how? A classic. With talents like Martin and Nelson too, there’s even a chance for some singing. Forced, even jammed, into the story? Sure, but it’s so good you don’t even care. Give the 2-song set a listen HERE. It’s all aided by a classic score from composer Dimitri Tiomkin, including a great main theme and a test run on his Deguello sample he’d use a year later in The Alamo.

A movie I love a little more with each viewing. A true classic. So much to recommend. You’d better just go watch it to be safe.

Rio Bravo (1959): ****/****

Fort Utah (1967)

fort_utah_filmposterMy usual stance on B-movies, even low-budget movies, is that cheap does not necessarily equal a bad movie. There can be a charm and enjoyment from low budget, so yeah, it doesn’t equal a bad movie…until it does. Bad scripts, bad editing, bad acting and a cheap budget it all equals a real winner with 1967’s Fort Utah.

Riding west to California, ex-gunfighter Tom Horn (John Ireland) crosses paths with a worried Indian agent, Ben Stokes (Robert Strauss). A large group of warriors (I don’t recall a tribe specification) has left the reservation with Stokes on their trail to bring them back. Making it worse, an Army deserter, Dajin (Scott Brady), is leading a group of bandits and murderers wreaking havoc wherever they go. Horn teams up with Stokes to help the cause, trying to bring cavalry from nearby Fort Utah to quell the bloody uprising. It’s on the way to Fort Utah that Horn stumbles across a west-bound wagon train that is oblivious to the storm they’re riding into.

Last month I reviewed 1965’s Apache Uprising, a low-budget western from producer A.C. Lyles. It wasn’t good, but it had its moments. Lyles produced 12 westerns in the mid and late 1960s, and apparently Encore Westerns has a deal to air all of them, including Fort Utah! ‘Uprising’ was pretty bad, but ‘Utah’ is just plain awful. The script is lazy, and the low budget really shines through unfortunately. It wastes a decent cast and an at least interesting premise but is consistently hamstrung by any number of complaints in director Lesley Selander’s western.

Positives? Though much of the cast is sleepwalking, it is the familiar faces of the cast. Ireland looks especially bored as ex-gunfighter Tom Horn although it never specifies if he’s the actual Tom Horn. The forced love interest here is Virginia Mayo as a woman with a horrific secret about why she’s heading west (it’s not that shocking). Their long falling in love scenes cripple the pacing just like similar ones in ‘Uprising.’ A welcome face in many adventure films, Mayo seems here to wear a low-cut dress and show her cleavage to the camera in scene after scene. Not a complaint, just an observation.

Plenty of other names to look for. Strauss hams it up in buckskin as the unlikely Indian agent who teams up with Ireland’s Horn. He at least shows a pulse as things hit the fan. The always welcome John Russell plays Eli Jonas, the leader of the wagon train with a checkered past and reputation. Brady blusters and looks angry as Dajin, not showing up until the hour-mark in an 84-minute movie. Also look for Richard Arlen, Jim Davis, Don ‘Red’ Barry and James Craig in supporting parts.

The story has no energy overall and bounces from scene to scene, throwing random bits and pieces of other westerns into a blender. Whatever develops, that’s your movie. The fight scenes are really bad with horrifically obvious stunt doubles jumping in for our leads. Scenes drag on for 10 and 15 extra seconds as characters ride away, fleshing out an already dull 84 minutes. The worst is the editing in an attack on a wagon train that seems to be pieced in from about 4 different westerns. The rock formations around the train bounce from desert to rock formations to evergreen trees and then desert again.

A stinker. A real stinker. Steer clear.

Fort Utah (1967): */****

Apache Uprising (1965)

220px-apache_uprising_posterIs the name A.C. Lyles familiar, western fans? It might ring a bell if you watch enough of the genre. A producer who dealt with typically low budget B-westerns, Lyle isn’t exactly a household name. Some of those efforts — there’s 12 by my count — are pretty decent, like 1965’s Black Spurs, and then…well there’s the not so good efforts, like 1965’s Apache Uprising.

Riding to the town of Lordsburg, drifter Jim Walker (Rory Calhoun) and frontiersman Bill Gibson (Arthur Hunnicutt) barely make it out of a gun battle with Apache warriors. They join up with a cavalry patrol in the area and make it to Lordsburg with the news of the Apache uprising. No one quite believes them, leaving the duo high and dry. They find themselves on an outgoing stagecoach headed for Apache Wells. If Apache warriors are on the warpath, they will no doubt run into some trouble along the way. Jim, Bill and Co. can’t know what’s coming though as a gentlemanly gambler, Vance Buckner (John Russell), intends to rob the stage of its hidden, important treasure.

Seems innocent enough, right? These A.C. Lyles-produced westerns used the same sets, familiar storylines (some would say copied) and the same cast members popping up in multiple movies. Nothing wrong with low budget B-movies, but this was simply not very good. At 90ish minutes, it creaks along without any real regard for the script that was supposedly out there. The high point unfortunately was actually the musical score from composer Jimmie Haskell which seems really familiar, but I can’t place from where.

Well, the cast has some fun with it. Calhoun does a part he could do with his eyes closed, a roguish anti-hero who actually isn’t such a bad guy. His partnership/friendship with Hunnicutt’s Bill, a hard-drinking frontiersman who’s lived with Indians for years, is also pretty solid in typical buddy dynamics. Russell (TV’s Lawman) is also having some fun as Vance, the duded-up gentleman gambler with a mean streak who has a plan to rob the coach. His henchmen are Star Trek’s DeForest Kelly as the unhinged gunhand, Toby Joe (a bad guy because his name is Toby Joe), and dimwitted horndog, Jesse (Gene Evans).

Also look for horror fixture Lon Chaney Jr. as another hard-drinking stagecoach driver, Corinne Calvet for a scandalous woman with a past –an overdone, monologue-driven past — who just might have feelings for Walker, Richard Arlen and Roy Jenson as cavalry troopers, and Robert H. Harris as the director of the stagecoach line who’s got a bug up his butt.

Just too disjointed to be good. Touches of countless westerns — most noticeably Stagecoach — are on display, but never in an interesting or even unique way. The story bounces from scene to scene with little to no unifying link. As for the action, what’s there is okay, but there isn’t enough. The ending limps to the finish, wrapping up a disappointing western.

Apache Uprising (1965): */****

Cannon for Cordoba (1970)

cannoncoverI have three movie genres I claim as my favorites; westerns, war movies and heist flicks. Westerns are my favorites pretty much across the board, but there’s a unifier among the trio, a sub-genre of sorts that stretches across countless bigger genres. What is it exactly? A little thing I call ‘Men on a Mission’ movies. Stick around, and you’ll see plenty of them. Today’s entry? From 1970, Cannon for Cordoba.

It’s 1912 in the midst of the Mexican Revolution and U.S. Army General John “Black Jack” Pershing (John Russell) has been tasked with defending the U.S.-Mexico border. Bandits and revolutionaries are raiding across the border, including one power-hungry “general,” Hector Cordoba (Raf Vallone). Cordoba has stolen six heavy artillery pieces from Pershing’s forces and retreated to his mountaintop fortress deep into the Mexican desert. With no other options available, Pershing is forced to take desperate measures. He tasks one of his officers, Captain Rod Douglas (George Peppard), to assemble a small team of men, ride into Mexico, infiltrate the fortress, destroy the cannon and hopefully bring Cordoba out alive. Simple, right?

It took me years to track this western down, first watching it via rental on Amazon, and this time via MGM-HD on TV. ‘Cannon’ follows the men-on-a-mission formula to a T. Introduce your leader, give him an impossible mission, let him assemble his team, and light the fuse to the mission hijinks. ‘Cannon’ has touches of The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Professionals, The Guns of Navarone and plenty others. It isn’t the most original idea, but it’s a lot of fun.

From director Paul Wendkos, ‘Cannon’ came along at one of my favorite times in westerns, the late 1960s, early 1970s. Influenced by spaghetti westerns, the American westerns became more violent, dirtier, sweatier, and far-more cynical. There aren’t good guys so much as less bad guys. Filming locations in Spain are gorgeous for the sun-baked mission, and Elmer Bernstein turns in a solid score with some unique touches. Still, his signature notes are quite noticeable.

Who better to lead our team here than George Peppard, future star of TV’s The A-Team? No one. That’s who! Even chomping on a cigar, Peppard’s Douglas is your typical anti-hero, smug, capable, dangerous and intensely focused on pulling off the suicide mission. His team includes the always-welcome Don Gordon as Jackson, his right-hand man who’d like to exact some revenge on Douglas, Pete Duel as Andy, the amiable, capable, guitar-toting killer, Nico Minardos as Pete, the Greek immigrant and specialist with explosives and mechanics, and Gabrielle Tinti as Lt. Gutierrez, a Mexican officer tasked with bringing Cordoba in. There’s also Giovanni Ralli as Leonora, a beautiful Mexican woman seeking revenge against Cordoba. A bit underdeveloped in terms of character to say the least, but a cool, eclectic group.

Not given much to do other than sneer and be a stereotypical Mexican bandit/general, Vallone is nonetheless a welcome addition to the cast, even if it is just as an intimidating presence. He gets a stock character out of the Mexican Revolution genre/canon, Hans Meyer as a sadistic Swedish officer, Svedborg, working for Cordoba, while spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell gets a decent-sized part as Ortega, a sergeant in Cordoba’s forces.

‘Cannon’ isn’t a hugely action-packed western, but when it’s there, it’s good. Cordoba’s opening raid to steal the artillery is a good scene-setter, and a running firefight at a ruined church about halfway through is pretty cool as well. The highlight though is not surprisingly the raid on Cordoba’s well-guarded mountaintop fortress. When the explosions set off the guns start firing, things get pretty chaotic. Lots of action, some cool camera angles, and plenty of wholesome carnage.

This is a movie that’s heavily flawed and is too slow for its own good at times. I would have liked even a little more characterization among Douglas’ team but also Cordoba. Still, it’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it just as much on second viewing. Worth seeking out for sure. YouTube has several “full movies” available, but they’re cut versions. The full version runs 104 minutes.

Cannon for Cordoba (1970): ***/****