Rocky Mountain (1950)

rockymountain1950One of the most bankable stars of the 1930s and 1940s, Errol Flynn had seen his star fade a bit by 1950. His partying lifestyle had started to catch up to him, and his films weren’t a sure thing anymore at the box office. That said…he was still the absolute coolest. In 1950, he starred in a western that’s been generally forgotten in the years since. Why is that? I’m drawing a blank. It’s one of my favorites. Here’s 1950’s Rocky Mountain.

It’s March 1865 and the last days of the Confederacy are on the horizon. Riding west for California, Captain Rafe Barlow (Flynn) and a small 7-man patrol have been tasked with a desperate mission, an almost suicidal objective of starting a new front in California. His plan takes a hit though when Barstow’s squad fights off a Shoshone attack and rescues a beautiful young woman, Johanna (Patrice Wymore), from a wrecked stagecoach. On their way to meet the hopeful leader of the uprising, Cole Smith (Howard Petrie), Barstow must now make a decision. Johanna’s fiance is a Union officer and will no doubt come looking for her. Barlow’s squad is stuck in the middle, forced to continue the mission or save Johanna, worrying about Shoshone war parties and Union patrols all around them and closing in.

I stumbled across this western from director William Keighley (and a story by Alan LeMay, who also wrote The Searchers) years ago via Netflix, then rewatching it recently off of Turner Classic Movies. I loved it both times, maybe even more so the second time around. ‘Rocky’ clocks in at just 83 minutes and pretty seamlessly blends the Civil War and western story.

The coolest part here is the filming locations. It’s filmed in black and white. Would it have been an interesting movie to watch in color? Yeah, you bet, 1948’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon coming to mind. But the rocky, barren desert is aided by the black and white filming, giving a starkness to the setting that color might have canceled out. He films on location in New Mexico, using some familiar locations including some that fans of John Ford’s Fort Apache will notice (more on that later). Also, ‘Rocky’ borrows an instantly recognizable musical score from composer Max Steiner, using his They Died With Their Boots On theme. Give it a listen HERE starting at a :49.

What impressed me here was ‘Rocky’s’ ability to get ahead of the curve with westerns of the time. The late 1940s and early 1950s were an important transition for the genre. It wasn’t so much the white-hat good guys vs. the black-hat bad guys. Most characters had flaws, even inner demons they had to deal with. ‘Rocky’ isn’t quite there….but it’s getting there. The Union and Confederacy teaming up was used several times after (Escape from Fort Bravo, Major Dundee), but this is one of the first I can come up with. It’s the little things here. The men have beards, stubble, and look like they’ve been sweating in the desert heat. At least some effort was made to make it seem authentic. I give points just for the attempt. When that attempt works? Win-win for the viewer.

Starring in his last western, Flynn makes the most of it. He just looks comfortable in the part. His Capt. Barstow is a strong leader, liked and respected by his men, but he also has a moral compass that won’t let him turn his back on what’s right and wrong. The only slow moments here are his not-so-surprising romance with Wymore’s Johanna. She’s engaged to Union cavalry officer, Lt. Rickey (Scott Forbes), but can’t help be drawn to the very attractive Capt. Barstow. Playing the sneaky, sniveling Cole Smith, Petrie is a background player, but his character plays a key role late. Also look for western vet and character actor Chubby Johnson as Craigie, the stagecoach driver with no allegiances to North or South, just himself, bringing some homespun charm to this small but funny part.

What drew me to the movie — right up there with Errol Flynn — was the story that sounded like such an obvious forerunner to movies like Escape from Fort Bravo and Major Dundee. Nowhere was that more evident than Flynn’s small squad of Confederate misfits. Not any huge names here, but western fans will get a kick out of the group. It includes Guinn Williams as Pap, the old man of the group, Dickie Jones as Jimmy, the soft-spoken youngster who fights like mad while also looking out for his dog, Slim Pickens (in his first credited role) as Plank, a plainsman who served time in prison, Robert Henry as Kip, a young man and heir to a plantation back home, Sheb Wooley as Rawlins, the steamboat man with a mean streak, Peter Coe as Pierre, the Frenchman from Louisiana, and Rush Williams as Jonas, the plainsman and dead shot with a rifle. Not a weak link in the bunch, but Jones especially stands out, including one scene he has with Wymore discussing his brief encounter with Robert E. Lee before Gettysburg. Just seven solid supporting parts for Flynn.

It’s the rare western I can’t find something positive to talk about. And about an hour into ‘Rocky’ I was liking it a lot if not loving it. And then there’s the last 25 minutes. Somewhat short on action to this point (not a huge issue), the finale has Barstow and his squad making a dangerous decision separate from the mission. No spoilers here, but my goodness, the ending certainly resonates, catching me off-guard on both viewings. Flynn addresses his men after a chase, stating ‘They’ve seen our backs, let’s show them our fronts.’ It’s a line that could sound cheesy, but with Flynn delivering the line, it works in a big way. The finale was even filmed in the same canyon as the ending to John Ford’s Fort Apache. I loved the honesty of the ending. LOVED it. It takes a pretty good western and makes it a near classic.

Can’t recommend this one enough. Definitely worth tracking down.

 

Rocky Mountain (1950): *** 1/2 /****

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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): ****/****

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1968)

go_kill_everybody_and_come_back_aloneThough he starred in over 50 films, headlined a couple lesser-known TV series and was even a pro baseball player, Chuck Connors will always be remembered as TV’s The Rifleman, an iconic role and one of the great TV western heroes. By the late 1960’s though, Connors went the route that many American stars did and headed to Europe for the spaghetti western craze. He starred in an entertaining Dirty Dozen-esque knockoff with one of the coolest movie titles ever, 1968’s Kill Them All and Come Back Alone.

During the Civil War as fighting rages in Texas, a gunfighter/outlaw, Clyde McKay (Connors), is enlisted by Confederate forces for a dangerous mission. The Union army is sitting on a huge gold shipment at a well-guarded outpost in the mountains. The gold is actually hidden among bundles of dynamite, making a potential robbery even more dangerous. McKay recruits five other men — killers, cutthroats and thieves — to aid in the mission…destroy the gold at all costs. With a Confederate intelligence officer (Frank Wolf) along for the ride, McKay and his crew ride out into the desert. The thought persists though…why destroy the gold when you could just as easily steal it?

The name Enzo G. Castellari might not be synonymous with other great spaghetti western directors, notably the two Sergios, Leone and Corbucci. Castellari was still a young director in 1968 when he helmed this action-heavy western. Over the next 10-plus years, he would direct some high quality action flicks that were almost always crowd pleasers. There’s nothing much to this 1968 effort, just 96 minutes of crazy action, fun/cool characters and some twists, turns and betrayals along the way. Nothing classic but highly enjoyable and definitely a fun watch.

The formula here is a familiar one. Just a year earlier, The Dirty Dozen was released, the story of 12 convict commandos working together on a suicide mission. Countless knock-offs and reboots followed, both war movies and in westerns. The spaghetti western genre alone went back to the well several times, including A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die and The Five Man Army. There isn’t much in the way of star power here or even much character exposition (as in any), and no time wasted with anything but the streamlined action-heavy theatrics. Introduce the team, introduce the mission, let the fireworks begin. Easy-peasy, right?!?

Starring in his first spaghetti western, a very thin, vvvvery tan Chuck Connors is McKay, the intrepid leader of our suicide squad. Backstory? Nah! Connors is cool and looks to be having a ball. It is cool seeing him playing a pretty nasty character, especially relative to squeaky-clean Lucas McCain. Now we need some specialists to help! There’s Wolf as the suspicious Captain Lynch, then Hoagy (Franco Citti), a quick-handed killer with pistol or a unique rope garrote, Deker (Leo Anchoriz), a specialist with dynamite and an 1860’s dynamite launcher, Blade (Giovanni Cianfriglia), a half-Indian, half-Mexican knife expert, the Kid (Alberto Dell’Acqua), a steely-eyed killer, and Bogard (Hercules Cortes), the brutish strongman. A good team, star power be damned.

I was surprised when the main heist takes place just 45 minutes into the story. The attack on the mountain fortress is a doozy of gunfire, explosions and acrobatic death stunts. Our squad hits everything while an entire garrison of Union soldiers can’t even nick them. They also literally drop their weapons and charge at them for a good, old-fashioned fistfight instead. Noble, right? It’s big, overdone and dumb fun though. The last 45 minutes revolve more around some twists and betrayals that do slow the story down a touch. Castellari knows how to string together some action though. Criticize any number of things here, but the action is fun from beginning to end.

Turn your brain off and enjoy this one. Some great looking locations in Spain, a fun musical score, and action popping at the seams throughout. I watched it on Youtube HERE if you’re interested. Definitely worth a watch, especially for spaghetti western fans.

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1968): ** 1/2 /****

Friendly Persuasion (1956)

poster_-_friendly_persuasion_01I grew up watching movies from the 1950’s and 1960’s so the back-to-back decades typically dominates my favorites list. Two I often associate with growing up are 1965’s Shenandoah and 1956’s Friendly Persuasion, two like-minded stories about families in the Civil War. I watched Shenandoah a few years ago, and it more than held up. ‘Persuasion’ is generally held in higher regard, but it’d been years since I’d seen it. What’s the verdict? Nothing to worry about!

It’s 1862 in southern Indiana, and the Civil War is in its second year of fighting. For the Birdwell family, including patriarch Jess (Gary Coooper) and Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), the War is a sore subject and one generally ignored with the fighting so far away. The Birdwells are a Quaker family, preaching peace and forgiveness, not death and violence. That peaceful mindset and ideal is being put to the test though as the war moves north, including rumors of a Confederate raid marching into Indiana. Jess and Eliza vow to stay free of the fighting, but their oldest son, Joshua (Anthony Perkins), feels conflicted. He believes in the Quaker ideal, but he also feels that he should do what he believes, do his duty, and protect his family, their land and well-being. If the raiding party is legit, that decision may come up quicker than anticipated.

It’s always a mixed bag revisiting movies you haven’t seen in years, movies you grew up loving. Watching ‘Persuasion’ had none of those worries. It’s a classic, standing the test of time. Director William Wyler‘s film earned six Oscar nominations, surprisingly winning exactly zero. I think one of the biggest compliments you can give a movie is that it is simply put…charming. ‘Persuasion’ is a wonderfully acted, well-told story with strong direction, cinematography and soundtrack. It is charming, likable, and enjoyable, all with a story that has a message that doesn’t go overboard or try too hard.

Gary Cooper doesn’t always come to mind as one of my favorites. He doesn’t have that one movie I just out of this world love. As I’ve watched more of his performances though, I’m continually impressed. His Jess Birdwell is a gem, a Quaker father with a wife and 3 kids who strongly believes in his religion…but not obsessively. He likes to play music, likes to race his horse to church, and isn’t above tweaking a rule here and there. McGuire as his wife, Eliza, is the polar opposite. She’s rigid in her beliefs as a Quaker minister and intends to live by those beliefs. Somewhere in between, they’re perfect together as a very believable couple. Two pros nailing their lead performances.

In just his second film role, Perkins is a strong supporting player as Joshua, the 17/18(?) year old Birdwell son. He’s trying to grow up, find himself, discover who he is, all amidst one of the most turbulent times in American history. Quiet, understated and a little twitchy at times, it’s an excellent part. Phyllis Love rises above a limiting part as Mattie, the Birdwells’ daughter and middle child, love struck by a young Union officer, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), from the area. One of the more prolific child actors working in the 1950’s, 11-year old Richard Eyer is a scene-stealer as Little Jess, the youngest Birdwell child, alway questioning, always a bit of trouble and a frequent target of the family’s goose’s attacks. Three strong parts to round out the Birdwells.

Also look for Robert Middleton as Sam Jordan, the Birdwells’ Methodist neighbor and Jess’ close friend and a bit of a friendly rivalry, especially when it comes to horse races. Joel Fluellen also has a memorable, if smallish, part as Enoch, an escaped slave who works on the Birdwells’ farm.

If ‘Persuasion’ has a weakness, I’d say it concerns the running time, a somewhat leisurely 139 minutes. An episodic storyline early on introduces the family, the setting and some other necessary background. A trip to the county fair sets the stage for much of what we’re to see, but some other coming ventures wander a little bit too much. The biggest culprit is Jess and Joshua on the road visiting a widower’s farm and her three man-starved daughters. A little much, a little overdone in the comedy department.