Red River (1988)

redriverSo what’s more unnecessary than a remake of a classic? A TV movie remake of a classic! Released in 1948 and starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift from director Howard Hawkes, the original Red River is a classic western that’s undone by one of the worst endings in the western genre. So some 40 years later, the TV remake hit TV screens on CBS. Here’s 1988’s Red River.

It’s 1865 in the months following the Civil War, and the cattle market has dried out in Texas. A cattle rancher for 15 years, Thomas Dunson (James Arness) has decided the only way to save his ranch and his cattle is to drive an immense herd north to a railroad and sell the herd for a pretty penny. It’s never been done before though, and the dangers are everywhere from Indians to bandits to weather and nasty trail. With his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Bruce Boxleitner), an ex-Confederate soldier, his longtime right-hand man, Groot (Ray Walston), and a crew of cowboys, Dunson sets off north for Missouri. His ranch and well-being are at stake, and he pushes his men and the herd to the absolute limit. His intentions are genuine, but the means are less than pleasant, pushing Garth to make a decision that could tear the whole thing apart.

So for starters, there’s no real reason to remake the ’48 Hawks version. Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way…the ’88 version is pretty good. It’s limited by an obvious TV budget at times with stock and insert footage filling in for the bigger shots of the herd moving north, but the quality is pretty decent. Some fun was spent, and that’s all a TV movie really needs. The Borden Chase story is there with a decent cast. It’s hard to mess that up other than that ending. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll get some enjoyment out of the remake.

It’s hard to step into the shoes of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, but Arness and Boxleitner make a willing go of it! Arness certainly had the presence and attitude for the part. Years earlier, it was Wayne who recommended Arness play Marshal Matt Dillon TV’s Gunsmoke, and that worked out for everyone. Boxleitner — a reliable actor who never quite became a star — delivers the movie’s best performance as Garth, capable, well-meaning and loyal but only when right is on the line. The chemistry is solid between Arness and Boxleitner, and throw in an underused but always welcome Walston for good measure.

The ’48 version is infamous for some of its latent homosexual tendencies between Clift’s Garth and John Ireland’s Cherry Valance, another young gunfighter. Gregory Harrison steps in here as Valance, and the dynamic is better. We have 2 young gunfighters, two type-A personalities, and let’s face it…there’s only room for ONE. The tension is solid, and the resolution is better than the original. The doomsday moment is the unnecessary addition of a female character, widowed Kate (Laura Johnson), for the two to fight over in predictable fashion.

Who else? The depth of the cast might not blow you away, but there’s some good stock characters here. A black cowboy, Jack Byrd (Stan Shaw), is added to the mix, injecting some life into the story. There’s also the troublemakers, L.Q. Jones and Jerry Potter, the youngster, Zachary Ansley, and the reliable cowboy, Burton Gilliam, who many will recognize from his key part in Blazing Saddles. Western fans should also keep their eye out for a quartet of cameos — blink and you’ll miss them — including Guy Madison, Ty Hardin, John Lupton and Robert Horton. Definitely cool to see some familiar western faces pop up, even if it’s only for a scene.

The cattle drive western is one of the archetypal genre set pieces. Including its predecessor, Lonesome Dove, one of the best segments from Centennial, The Cowboys, and plenty of others, it helps average stories rise above to something better. Familiar? Even repetitive? At times, but they’re always entertaining. This ’88 remake is a tad rushed in spots at just 94 minutes — comparing to the original’s 133 minutes — but it is never dull. If it is too familiar, so be it. I liked it. A solid, if unnecessary remake.

Red River (1988): ** 1/2 /****

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The Hunting Party (1971)

poster_of_the_movie_the_hunting_party

The history of the western genre took quite a turn in the late 1960’s with the growing popularity of the spaghetti western. Sam Peckinpah took things one step further with his classic, extremely violent western, 1969’s The Wild Bunch, setting the genre on its way to a revisionist decade that looked at the American west with a more honest, cynical eye. Then, there’s 1971’s The Hunting Party, a western that defies descriptions or labels. Brace yourself for this one.

A cattle baron with few if any equals, Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman) is leaving his ranch to go on a two-week hunting trip with four wealthy friends of his. His wife, Melissa (Candice Bergen), will be left behind at the ranch, but that changes in a flash. Not long after Brandt leaves on a luxurious train, Melissa is kidnapped by an infamous outlaw, Frank Calder (Oliver Reed), and his gang of 20-plus bandits. She desperately tries to escape time and time again, but Calder is always there to stop her, not to mention holding his men off from raping her. It’s down the trail that Brandt receives the news of his wife’s kidnapping. He has a plan, an altered hunting trip. Outfitting his friends with newly-fitted telescopic rifles, Brandt intends to ┬áhunt the gang down one-by-one from a distance. Safe, right? What about his intentions with his wife?

Well, I’m usually not one to struggle with describing a western. I can typically find something redeeming about any western from a big epic to a low-budget B-movie. This 1971 western from director Don Medford is surreal at times, horrifically violent, cynical, downbeat, masochistic, slow-moving, uncomfortable and a whole lot of other adjectives I’d use if I could just find my thesaurus. It isn’t a good western or one I particularly enjoyed (even a little), but I’ll give credit where it is due. This is a ballsy western. It’s fascinating to watch, albeit in incredibly dark fashion. Recommended for die-hard western fans only, but my goodness, what a movie.

One of the biggest changes to hit the western in the 1960’s was the farewell to traditional good guy vs. bad guy stories. More anti-heroes came along, gunfighters and cowboys who found themselves somewhere in between. By the 70’s though, even anti-heroes were used less and less. Here in ‘Hunting’? There’s NOTHING but bad guys. No character is even remotely sympathetic, much less likable. Reed’s Calder oddly enough becomes the most sympathetic character (however little that sympathy is) only because everyone around him is so despicable. You’re actually rooting for no one. Not one character! The story gives no reason to, and even Bergen’s Melissa makes some inexplicable decisions, seemingly for the sake of the story moving along.

The cast certainly helps keep things interesting through the gory violence, masochistic tendencies and slow-moving story (winning trio, huh?). Reed’s Calder is a fascinating character, an outlaw who kidnaps a woman he thinks is a schoolteacher because he’d like to learn to read. As his gang is picked off from long range, he begins to unravel. He’s helpless, a pawn in someone’s rifle sights. A moody, physical part, one Reed handles nicely. Hackman’s Brandt becomes the villain, a man rich with everything in life who thinks only of himself, of his pride, of his reputation. He’s not worried about his wife’s well-being but instead how the kidnapping and repercussion will make him look. Bergen throws herself into the mix, but the script does her no favors in the process. Her actions are odd to inexplicable depending on the scene.

Western fans won’t be disappointed in the supporting cast backing up our lead trio. Calder’s gang includes Mitchell Ryan as Frank’s right-hand man, Doc, L.Q. Jones, William Watson, Rayford Barnes, and Richard Adams. For the most part, the gang is nameless fodder for Brandt’s hunting party. Brandt’s friends and fellow riflemen include Simon Oakland, G.D. Spradlin, Ronald Howard and Bernard Kay.

It’s not that ‘Hunting’ is one of the most violent westerns I’ve ever seen. It’s that it seems to revel in its violence. It has echoes of a snuff film, of an exploitation film, of graphic violence meant solely to shock. The opening scene shows a cow’s throat being graphically cut. No CGI. It happened. Once Brandt and Co. go on the hunt, it’s a series of long-range shooting with heavy-caliber bullets tearing men apart. Head shots and body shots and squibs galore with blood and rain matter all over the screen. In The Wild Bunch, the violence was on par with what we see here, but it made an emotional impact. That’s not so here. ‘Hunting’ wants to push the boundaries and keep on pushing for the sake of doing it. There’s no end-game in sight. The Missouri Breaks would use a similar storyline with the capability of long-range rifles five years later.

Unfortunately, that feels like the whole point of the movie. Brandt rapes Melissa in their opening scene and later tortures a prostitute by burning her with a lit cigar. Calder’s men want nothing more than to have their way with Melissa. Calder himself ends up raping her instead. Pleasant, right? Things never let up in a western that runs about 110 minutes. It’s exhausting and because there’s no real connection — other than wishing horrible things upon certain characters — with characters, the story moves at a slow, deliberate pace. So much negative in a film that with some tweaks (rather aggressive tweaks I guess) could have been infinitely better. Similar storylines have been tackled in The Professionals, Big Jake, The Last Outlaw, The Naked Spur and many others.

Some positives? Sure, there’s a few. ‘Hunting’ was filmed on-location in Spain with countless familiar backdrops from spaghetti westerns dotting the scenery. It’s a dreary, dusty and sweaty world but the visual backdrops can be beautiful with a variety of terrain from sandy deserts to a desert oasis to tree-capped mountains. Also, Riz Ortolani‘s score is haunting in a good way in helping bring the slow-moving story to life. Listen to the main theme HERE.

I can’t outright recommend this 1971 western because it simply isn’t very good, but as I mentioned, it is horrifying and fascinating throughout. The solid cast, the location shooting and a memorable soundtrack ever so slightly outweigh the immense negatives in this horrifically morbid revisionist western.

The Hunting Party (1971): ** 1/2 /****