Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

drumsalongthemohawkDirector John Ford is synonymous with the western genre, especially his films with John Wayne over a legendary career. One of Ford’s more underrated flicks covers a time in American history that hasn’t received much in the way of attention in films, the American Revolution. Oh, and it was released the same year as Ford’s iconic Stagecoach. Overshadowed much? Here’s 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk.

It’s 1776 in colonial New York and newlyweds Gil (Henry Fonda) and Lana Martin (Claudette Colbert) are heading to their new home in the wilderness in the Mohawk Valley. The American Revolution is in its early stages, and though the main fighting between the American and British armies seems far away, the conflict still reaches the isolated community of Deerfield in the Mohawk Valley. As they start their lives together, starting a family and building a farm from the ground up, Gil and Lana and their neighbors must protect themselves against Torries and their Indian allies.

‘Mohawk’ was a family favorite growing up, so it’s always fun to go back and revisit a movie I watched countless times as a kid. It holds up, an entertaining, well-told story that manages to do a lot in its 103-minute run-time. An absolute stunner visually — with filming locations in Utah standing in for colonial New York — with colors popping in each scene (Gil’s green shirt, Lana’s blue dress), and a score from Alfred Newman moving the action along with each passing scene. The key though is rather obvious…the two leads.

With a story that covers a ton of ground (maybe too much in a relatively short film), you’ve got to be invested with the characters. Fonda and Colbert are perfectly cast together, Gil an able frontiersman and farmer, Lana, his beautiful wife and a city girl unaccustomed to life in the settlements but who loves her husband so much she goes along with the movie. There is a straightforward, very believable chemistry between the duo, both Colbert and Fonda breathing some life into familiar characters that could have been stereotypes, cardboard cutouts in the hands of lesser actors. You genuinely like this young couple trying to carve their lives out of the wilderness. Two excellent lead performances.

In an Oscar-nominated part, Edna May Oliver is a scene-stealer as Mrs. McKlennar, a wealthy, sassy widow who takes the Martins in for help around her farm. Feisty, hard-headed, intelligent and not putting up with any BS, Mrs. McKlennar breathes life into each and every scene she’s in, both dramatic and those scenes with a lighter touch. Also look for villainous John Carradine, Arthur Shields, Francis Ford (John’s brother), Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Chief Big John Tree, Jack Pennick, Jessie Ralph, Eddie Collins and Roger Imhof in key supporting parts. Bond is a fun, boisterous presence (as always) and Imhof is excellent as General Herkimer, an aging officer who’s gained the respect of the militia.

A lot to recommend here. There’s a big, wide-open quality to ‘Mohawk,’ the Utah locations proving to be a key character. You truly get the sense of being alone, of being removed from the rest of the world. It’s what these first settlers truly faced, a dangerous life with constant threats in all directions. A scene with an Indian war party raiding the community is intense and uncomfortable, Seneca warriors running through the woods after fleeing settlers. Ford also does some of his best work not in action scenes, but moving monologues of characters talking about an off-screen battle. Cheaper, and just as effective!

There are some slower moments here and there in the first 50 minutes. ‘Mohawk’ is at its strongest when dealing with Gil and Lana, Mrs. McKlennar and of course, the Revolution. It is at its absolute strongest in the final 30 minutes when the Deerfield settlers fort up and are attacked by a large Indian/Tory force. An extended chase scene with Gil racing ahead of three pursuing warriors is exhilarating, a beautifully-cut sequence. There are plenty of those moments sprinkled throughout. A gem for many audiences. Highly recommended.

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939): *** 1/2 /****


3 Godfathers (1948)

3_godfathers_1948_posterThe late 1940s and into the 1950s was an important stretch for John Ford, the legendary director turning in some of his finest work. His cavalry trilogy — She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, Rio Grande — are the movies he’s most often associated with, but it was during the same stretch that Ford directed one of his best westerns, 1948’s 3 Godfathers, a flick that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

Three outlaws, Bob Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro Fuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William Kearney (Harry Carey Jr.), have robbed the bank in the tiny, usually peaceful town of Welcome, Arizona. They hightail it out of town with a saddlebag full of gold, the town sheriff, Buck Sweet (Ward Bond), managing to shoot their water bag in a chaotic chase across the desert. Now, it’s a chess match for water, and who can go longer without it, the outlaws or the sheriff and his posse. Out in the desert, Bob, Pedro and William stumble across a pregnant woman alone and about to give birth. She dies soon after, leaving the trio in survival mode…and now caring for an infant. Without any horses, can they get him to safety?

There’s an aura often when you watch a Ford western, especially in this stage of his career. Trademark, signatures, whatever you want to call them, but they’re easily visible. Though ‘Godfathers’ has some darker moments, it’s one of Ford’s relatively lighter westerns. There’s drama but humor to balance it out. And there’s no other way to say it, this is cheesy, downright corny at times. My point though? It doesn’t matter. It’s a gem.

Not filming in his usual Monument Valley, Ford films instead in Death Valley, a sparse, dangerous stretch of land if there ever was, but an oddly beautiful land. Filmed in Technicolor, it’s a visual stunner, even the colors from 1948 popping to life. The skies, the clouds, even the costumes all leave a lasting impression. Add a familiar but memorable score from composer Richard Hageman (a frequent partner in Ford movies), and that halfway decent cast, you’ve got a winner.

This was actually the third retelling of the basic story, Ford even filming a silent version in 1919 (it was remade again in 1936, a solid flick all-around). What holds it together — however cheesy/corny/overdone at times — is the casting. A 40-year old Wayne steals the show as Bob, the no-nonsense leader of our little “gang” who’s long rode with Pedro and looks out for Kearney (AKA The Abilene Kid) as he goes on his first job. Armendariz and Carey Jr. match him step-for-step, chemistry to burn as first just survival is the key, but then so much more and something bigger when the infant’s survival is at stake. No matter whether it’s the lighter, comedic moments or the harsher, darker realities setting in, I absolutely love the 3 Godfathers characters. Basically the three nicest “bad guys” ever in a western.

Ford fills out his supporting cast with more than a few familiar faces from his Stock Company (character actors who were in many Ford movies). Ward Bond is excellent as Buck “Perley” Sweet, Welcome’s sheriff who unintentionally befriends the outlaws before realizing who they are, Mae Marsh playing his wife. Mildred Natwick is excellent in one quick scene (but a highly memorable one) as the Mother who as she’s dying asks the three outlaws to be godfathers to her infant son, who she names Robert William Pedro after them. Other familiar faces include Jane Darwell, Guy Kibbee, Hank Worden, Jack Pennick, and in his first credited role, Ben Johnson. It obviously wouldn’t be the last we heard of him in the western genre.

What may surprise some viewers here that ‘Godfathers’ become a variation of Three Men and a Baby meets an American wild west version of the Three Kings story from the Nativity story. So….yes, it is a bit of a Christmas movie! The 3 godfathers must travel to New Jerusalem in hopes of saving the baby, often looking to a bright star for guidance. There’s some faith, some religion, some good and evil along the way, and a story with some surprising twists in its last third. It is cheesy at times and may drive some viewers away, but it’s always been a favorite. Definitely worth a watch.

Ford actually dedicated the film to his longtime friend and star, Harry Carey (Carey Jr.’s father), who had died the year before in 1947. His son more than holds his own, stealing some scenes, especially when he sings Streets of Laredo to the baby as a lullaby. Any-hoo, give it a watch!

3 Godfathers (1948): *** 1/2 /****

Operation Pacific (1951)

operation-pacificThe buzz for the World War II submarine movie truly picked up in the mid 1950’s and has been a consistent source for solid to entertaining to classic flicks ever since. The first true gem was 1943’s Destination Tokyo, but getting in on the formula before it truly took off, here’s 1951’s Operation Pacific.

It’s 1943 and American forces are pushing back against Japan in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. One submarine, the USS Thunderfish, is commanded by Commander Pop Perry (Ward Bond), with his second-in-command, Lt. Cmdr. Duke Gifford (John Wayne). Both experienced submariners, the duo has a strong, reliable crew. When back in port, Gifford is trying to reunite with his ex-wife, Mary (Patricia Neal), who’s now working as a nurse in a naval hospital. Out in the Pacific though, the war is up for grabs, and the Thunderfish and countless other American submarines are working to fix malfunctioning torpedoes that are not exploding on contact.

This 1951 WWII flick from director George Waggner is never mentioned as one of Wayne’s best films. Instead, it’s one of those movies that his fans and war movie fans will like, but ‘Operation’ won’t be remembered as a classic by any means. It clocks in at 111 minutes and is a little slow-moving at times but mostly entertaining, especially because of the three leads. Later submarine movies are more fondly remembered, but this one’s pretty good, if flawed.

Wayne and Bond were best friends on and off the screen, and their chemistry always shines through when they’re starring together. By 1951, Wayne was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, a trend that would continue for years. He’s the out and out American hero here, saving babies and nuns, defeating the Japanese navy with some gutsy decisions, and being a cool dude too (because that never hurts). Bond is excellent in an underplayed part, the veteran commander who has an inkling he knows what’s wrong with the malfunctioning torpedoes.

If there’s a weakness here, it’s that the love story slows things down to a snail’s pace. Wayne and Neal have some strong chemistry, which is funny because Neal apparently DID NOT get along with Wayne during filming. It doesn’t show. Their scenes together are solid, and Neal doesn’t get overshadowed, more than holding her own against the Duke. Still, their history simply isn’t that interesting, the problems they had never really get fixed, and you still know he’s gonna get the girl in the end.

In the supporting cast, look for Philip Carey as Lt. Bob Perry, Pop’s little brother, a fighter pilot, and a rival to Duke for Mary’s heart (but you know how that’ll go). As for the Thunderfish crew, look for Scott Forbes, Paul Picerni, William Campbell, Martin Milner, Jack Pennick and Sam Edwards. It’s especially cool to see Pennick get more screentime – and even some lines! – as Chief, the Thunderfish’s veteran chief petty officer who helps develop the officers and keep the crew together. Not a big part, but a worthwhile one.

‘Operation’ is at its stongest when it is in the Pacific with the Thunderfish out on patrols. Not a ton of action, but what’s there is enjoyable. A lot of tension, some good twists and turns, and one genuine shock about a character’s demise. Nothing flashy, but a good, old-fashioned war flick with the Duke and Ward Bond leading the way.

Operation Pacific (1951): ** ½ /****


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): ****/****


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): ***/****