The Professionals (1966)

The ProfessionalsWhen I think of men-on-a-mission movies, I typically think of war movies, maybe some adventure and heist flicks among the bunch. I think of movies like The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen and Kelly’s Heroes among others. The best one though? Of all genres, it’s a western, and it’s a dandy. Maybe the perfect adventure movie, it’s 1966’s The Professionals.

It’s 1917 and the Mexican Revolution is still raging strong all over the country. Along the U.S./Mexico border, four men, Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin), Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) and Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), have been brought together to perform a dangerous mission. The little group, each of them a specialist in one way or another, has been hired by rancher and oil tycoon Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy) to ride deep into Mexico and rescue his wife, Maria (Claudia Cardinale), who’s been kidnapped by a bandit and revolutionary, Jesus Raza (Jack Palance). Maria is believed to be stashed away in a hacienda in the mountains with Raza’s small army standing guard. This quartet is the best of the best with few equals, but even this job seems to be too much, especially if they haven’t been told the whole truth of what they’re riding into. Can they pull off the job?

One of Hollywood’s all-time best directors and writers, Richard Brooks earned 8 Oscar nominations over his distinguished career. He may have more respected movies, but ‘Professionals’ is easily his most fun and most entertaining (for me at least). It’s one of my favorites, and I always enjoy catching up with it. Mutually appreciated by both audiences and critics, ‘Professionals’ is one of the best westerns of the 1960’s and really, one of the best westerns of all-time. It picked up two Oscar nominations, one for Brooks’ directing and one for his script. Not a flaw in sight. Sit back and enjoy this one, hopefully with a big tub of popcorn.

Let’s get the boring technical stuff out of the way. Boring, but necessary. Brooks earned a Best Director nomination for blending a movie that features the technical, storytelling, characters, humor, action and visual look. With filming locations in the Valley of Fire, Death Valley, along with Nevada, California and Sonora, the visual appeal is evident. On the trail thanks to some key landmarks, you’re always aware of where you are. As well, the traveling and action scenes are aided immensely by composer Maurice Jarre‘s score, especially the main theme. Listen HERE. Throw it all together, and you feel like you’re right there with our Professionals in the sweaty, sun-baked desert where bandits and revolutionaries are there behind every rock waiting to ambush you.

The cast is pretty insane in terms of pure talent and star power, but with each repeated viewing, it always comes back to the script for me. Adapting a western novel called ‘A Mule for the Marquesa,’ Brooks transformed a good book into a great movie. This is a story that loves it characters, both the good and bad, and more importantly, knows them well. The script absolutely crackles, Lancaster and Marvin especially relishing delivering one memorable one-liner after another. I can’t think of too many westerns that have the ability to tread that fine line between serious action and a sense of humor. Read IMDB’s memorable quotes HERE. What’s impressive? Even out of context, they still can put a smile on your face, give you a good laugh. When you actually see Lancaster, Marvin and Co. deliver said lines? Oh my, you’re in for a treat.

I love a good men-on-a-mission movie, and this one belongs right at the top with The Magnificent Seven, The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen as my favorites. Seriously…Lancaster, Marvin, Ryan and Strode…oh, and Palance, Cardinale and Bellamy! That sound you hear is my head exploding from awesomeness. Brooks’ script introduces our characters with lightning-fast ease and we get to know them in that quick flash. Marvin’s Fardan is an ex-soldier, a leader, an organizer and a planner, Ryan’s Ehrengard a horse wrangler, a cowboy, Strode’s Jake an expert tracker/scout and specialist with bow and arrow, and last but not least, Lancaster’s Dolworth is a mercenary, a philosophizing dynamite expert. That is a ridiculously talented cast with a lousy script, but combined with Brooks’ script, the end result is some of the most memorable western characters ever with a story to boot. You can’t pass that up now, can you?!?

When I think of Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin working together here, it puts a smile on my face. Their Bill Dolworth and Rico Fardan are the heart of the movie, mercenaries, soldiers and adventurers who are good friends who have worked together in the past, including previously in the Mexican Revolution. They too have a history with Palance’s Raza, making their job a touch more difficult. What the script and actors do so effortlessly is bring these characters to life. They’re tough, rough-hewn men who live by their word and their hard-fought ability to survive. They fight because they’re good at it, and maybe, just maybe, they like it a little bit. Their one-on-one scenes are some of the most memorable in the entire movie. When you throw the always reliable Robert Ryan and Woody Strode into the mix, you’re in for a treat.

Okay, we need an actor in the mid 1960’s to play a Mexican revolutionary….naturally, it’s Jack Palance! His Raza though is an underrated character, an equal to our Professionals, a somewhat disillusioned fighter who fights on because he loves Mexico, the people, and wants those in power out.  Then there is Claudia Cardinale, maybe the most beautiful woman to ever grace the screen. Her Maria has some tricks up her sleeves as we’re introduced to her about halfway through. Bellamy is perfect in his part, beginning and end, as the worrying Joe Grant (or is he…). Also look for Jorge Martinez de HoyosJoe De Santis and Rafael Bertrand in key supporting parts. In a scene-stealing part, Marie Gomez plays Chiquita, one of Raza’s soldiers who has a history with Lancaster’s Bill.

What’s funny about ‘Professionals’ is that it isn’t an action-heavy story. Yes, there’s gunfights, chases and some memorable sequences, but it isn’t a 2-hour action scene. It’s the better for it. We get to know our characters really well in quick scenes featuring Brooks’ snappy dialogue. When the action does come, is it ever worth it, especially the pre-dawn attack on Raza’s hacienda deep in the mountains. Loud and chaotic, it is a gem. The other action is on a smaller-scale, tightly-edited firefights in claustrophobic canyons. So if there isn’t an overabundance of action, who cares? The general tone of the movie aids that cause. It’s not just a western. It’s also a buddy flick, a heist movie, a chase story, a love story, a history lesson of sorts, and with a bit of a twist mystery in the second half of a 117-minute feature film.

They don’t come along much better than this. One of those perfect action-adventure movies, one that’s hard to poke holes in. A phenomenal cast, a memorable script, and all you can ask for in a western. A true classic, for fans of the genre and even those who aren’t.

The Professionals (1966): ****/****

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): ***/****

Cowboy (1958)

Cowboy 1958In a legendary career that earned him eight Oscar nominations and two wins, Jack Lemmon did it all. Equally adept at drama and comedy, he bounced back and forth between the two throughout his career. The genre he visited only once? The western. Here’s his lone western, 1958’s Cowboy.

It’s the 1870s and Frank Harris (Lemmon) is working as a clerk at a hotel in Chicago. It’s a dull life, Harris seeking something more. He gets that opportunity when Tom Reese (Glenn Ford) and his cowboys arrive in town after completing a long cattle drive from Mexico. Harris manages to convince Reese to let him on as a partner – he supplies some serious cash – to give him a chance to be a real-life cowboy. Reese is more than wary, even trying to back out of the deal, but ultimately takes the inexperienced Harris along. Reese, Harris and the cowboys head back south to build up another herd, but Harris has no idea of what he’s gotten into, but he’s a quick learner.

The cattle drive is one of those perfect, iconic western storylines, right up there with cavalry vs. Indians, settlers and the gunfighters. It’s a cool jumping off point for this Delmer Daves-directed western that isn’t necessarily hugely remembered. It’s a hot, sunny western that does show the darker, more honest side of being a cowboy. The portrayal of a cowboy is always romantic, idyllic, but the truth couldn’t be further from the truth. It was long hours in the saddle for not much pay and the constant threat of danger from weather, stampedes, Indians and bandits. Fun, huh?

The guts of the movie is the rivalry between Ford’s Reese and Lemmon’s Harris, the two pros carrying the 92-minute movie. We see Reese pushing the men, the focus on getting the cattle to market. It’s a harsh, unpleasant job he has to do. Harris thinks he’s too harsh though, questioning how far is too far. As the drive develops though, the roles begin to switch, Reese seeing maybe he has gone too far and Harris viewing the drive as profit and money alone. It’s a pretty cool back-and-forth that develops. There’s some genuine heat too on the trail, either man seemingly one good push away from pulling a gun. Excellent performances from Ford and Lemmon.

Not a huge supporting cast, but some recognizable faces pop up. Victor Manuel Mendoza is excellent as Paco Mendoza, Reese’s right-hand man. It’s cool (and ahead of its time) to see a Mexican cowboy in such a prominent role. The rest of the cowboys include Brian Donlevy, Dick York (later of Bewitched fame), Richard JaeckelStrother Martin and King Donovan. Donlevy is great as Doc Bender, a former gunhand turned cowboy. York is the ladies man and Jaeckel more of a villainous cowboy. Anna Kashfi plays Maria, Harris’ love interest living in Mexico.

My biggest complaint with ‘Cowboy’ is that at 92-minutes, it just doesn’t accomplish much. It takes quite a while to get going, and then when it reaches the cattle drive, it seems to be in a rush. We build to this big confrontation between Ford and Lemmon, and then it’s wrapped up in a flash, the story ending on an odd comedic note. The finale reminded me a fair bit of Red River, all build-up and then the payoff isn’t worth it. The drive itself feels especially rushed. The action is solid – including a showdown between the cowboys and a Comanche war party – but there’s not enough of it.

A lot of potential that never fully delivers. I still liked ‘Cowboy,’ especially with its Arizona and New Mexico locations and a good musical score from George Duning. I just wish it was a little better. The dark, honest story and its potential is there for the taking. Still, a western with Glenn Ford and Jack Lemmon in memorable leading roles ain’t a bad thing.

Cowboy (1958): ***/****

100 Rifles (1969)

100 RiflesA true Hollywood movie star, Burt Reynolds passed away this past week at the age of 82. The star of Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, Reynolds was one-of-a-kind. He was always having fun on-screen no matter the role. One of my favorite Reynolds’ flicks, a 1969 western, 100 Rifles.

It’s 1912 in Sonora and the Mexican Revolution rages on. In the town of Nogales, an American sheriff, Lyedecker (Jim Brown), is on a mission to bring a bank robber back to Phoenix. His bounty? A half-breed bandit, Yaqui Joe (Reynolds), who used the $6,000 he got from the bank robbery to buy 100 rifles for revolutionary forces. Lyedecker isn’t the only one hunting Joe though with the local military commander, Verdugo (Fernando Lamas), also desperate to get his claws into him. Catching the ire of the bloodthirsty Verdugo, Lyedecker must work with Joe to escape with his life. The duo become unlikely revolutionaries, on the run with the true revolutionary, Sarita (Raquel Welch), with Verdugo hot on their trail.

Far from a classic, ‘Rifles’ is still a highly entertaining western, mostly due to its cast and some solid action along the way. From director Tom Gries, it’s actually an off-shoot of the spaghetti western genre; westerns shot on-location in Spain and with European and American backing, but almost entirely American crews. You’ll see some familiar sandy, sun-drenched locations along the way, and the Mexican Revolution background provides a bloody, violent backdrop to the story (another sub-genre if you’re looking, the Zapata western). Also worth pointing out, Jerry Goldsmith — no stranger to memorable scores — steals the show with an underused soundtrack (listen HERE), including a great, booming chase theme.

Jim Brown, Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds. More movie stars than hugely dramatic actors, the lead trio is excellent in their parts. Interestingly enough, there was supposedly a fair amount of tension between Brown and Welch during filming, Reynolds often playing the peacekeeper. There’s a cool dynamic among the three, Lydecker the unwilling revolutionary, Sarita the true, devoted believer and Joe the bandit who’s unintentionally found a purpose. Lamas hams it up like his life depended on it and has a ton of fun as Verdugo. There aren’t a ton of speaking roles with a smaller cast, but those four do the heavy lifting.

Also look for Dan O’Herlihy as Grimes, the railroad execute looking to protect his train and its line, Eric Braeden as Von Klemme, the German military advisor (a staple of Zapatista westerns, Michael Forest as Humara, Sarita’s mute enforcer, and spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell as Paletes, Verdugo’s loyal sergeant.

I’m hard-pressed to say there’s much of a story here, instead a sorta extended chase scene broken up by action scenes that runs about 109 minutes overall. Lack of story? Not a huge problem here because the action and chases are pretty good — and surprisingly bloody and vicious. Gunfights, fistfights, chases and much of it on a moving train, it all adds up to a solid final product. Brown and Reynolds were two of the most physically capable actors around with the duo handling most of their own stunts, including several exciting fights with the two men handcuffed together. ‘Rifles’ saves its biggest explosions for the finale, an attack on the army train and then the train attack on Nogales. All-around good stuff though.

Couple other points worth making. ‘Rifles’ is — I believe — the first movie to have an interracial love scene, Brown and Welch passionately kissing and rolling around in bed. It’s pretty tame now but caused quite a stir in the socially charged 1960s. Welch’s Mexican accent is pretty cliched too, but the script seems hell bent on getting her nude, sorta nude and wet under a water tower. Not a complaint, just an observation! It’s a fun western overall, especially for the action and the buddy chemistry between Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds. Not a classic, but a lot of fun.

100 Rifles (1969): ***/****

Broken Lance (1954)

Broken LanceWhen it comes to pure acting chops, Spencer Tracy had few equals. In a career that spanned four decades, Tracy won two Best Actor Academy Awards and was nominated 9 times, a record he shares with Laurence Olivier. Let’s take a look at one of his only western performances, 1954’s Broken Lance.

For 25 years, Matt Devereaux (Tracy) worked to carve out a ranch and a life for his family in the American southwest. He accomplished his goal, creating one of the most well-respected ranches in Texas…but at the expense of his sons, elder Ben (Richard Widmark), Mike (Hugh O’Brian), Denny (Earl Holliman) and his youngest, Joe (Robert Wagner). The three older boys have long resented how they’re treated as workers and cowboys and not family. As he ages and as the west continues to develop, Matt has to face what to do next, both with his family and the cattle and mining empire he has created.

I’ve made no bones about my thoughts on 1950s westerns. (Spoilers Alert: They’re typically not my favorite). While ‘Broken’ has plenty of positives, my typical complaints are there. The family story plays out like a soap opera, heavy and brooding from the word ‘go.’ It feels like a Shakespearean play or a Greek tragedy as the Devereaux family tears itself apart. Director Edward Dmytryk has plenty of talent on hand, and the story is interesting but in the end I came away with a ‘meh’ review of a 96-minute flick.

In telling this story, Dmytryk uses a cool storytelling technique, Wagner’s Joe released from prison after a 3-year sentence. We don’t know why or what he did. Minutes later, we see him meet the governor and his three brothers, ominously, forebodingly offering him $10,000 to move along and never come back. It’s a great little intro…that never quite clicks once the story flashes back to what drove the story to this point. When the two stories click, it lacks that great energy, that connection that I was hoping for. Still, cool points for trying.

Playing the Devereaux family patriarch, Tracy does not disappoint in the starring role. He’s far from a heroic lead, his Matt a harsh, driving man who – usually – means well but has had to make some tough decisions along the way. He’s tried to build a life for his family and has succeeded, but it’s come at a price. His dynamic with his youngest son, Wagner’s Joe, provides the best moments in the movie. Wagner too delivers an understated, effective performance as Joe, a half-white, half-Comanche young man.

The coolest performance goes to Katy Jurado who plays Senora, a Comanche woman who married Matt after his first wife died. She’s not Mexican but people call her “Senora” because it’s easier than addressing the elephant in the room that a white man married an Indian. It’s a quiet, moving, scene-stealing performance as she tries to hold the family together as everyone starts grabbing for pieces to control. Jurado deservedly was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her part, ultimately losing to Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront.

While the rest of the cast has some name recognition, they’re not given much to do. One of the best heavies ever, Widmark is the leader of the three older Devereaux boys, but unfortunately his character is off-screen for far too long. O’Brian may say 8 words the whole movie, and Holliman is the brother kinda sorta caught in between. Eduard Franz plays ranch foreman Two Moons, E.G. Marshall is the weakling governor, and Jean Peters plays his daughter, Barbara, a love interest for Joe that feels bleh and forced.

I wanted to like this one more, especially as I read reviews of folks who loved it. The cast is worth it alone, even if the storyline doesn’t give much of them to do. Some cool locations in Arizona spice things up with a true sense of the desert wilderness as well. Flawed but good, worthwhile for Tracy, Wagner and Jurado in solid performances.

Broken Lance (1954): ** 1/2 /****

Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

Sergeant RutledgeWoody Strode was a Hollywood legend. A former college football player, Strode transitioned into films, starting off in bit and supporting roles before building to scene-stealing roles and appearances, one of the first African-American actors to do so in Hollywood history. He truly broke through in 1960 with a trio of roles, The Last Voyage, Spartacus (the most iconic of the 3) and Sergeant Rutledge, an interesting — if flawed — western that was ahead of its time.

It’s 1881 in the American Southwest and a trial is set to begin at a cavalry outpost. On trial is Sergeant Braxton Rutledge (Strode) from the 9th Cavalry — a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers —  who is well-respected by the officers and the troopers for his unquestioned ability and leadership as a soldier. The charge against him? The rape and murder of a young white woman and the murder of her father, the outpost’s commander. Rutledge’s defense is Lt. Tom Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter), the sergeant’s previous commander. The evidence is damning against Rutledge with no hope of an acquittal, both because of the evidence but also the horror of what he’s believed to have done, a black soldier raping a white girl. Will the truth come out?

Before a Congressional hearing, director John Ford famously said “I’m John Ford. I make westerns.” In a long, distinguished career, Ford is especially associated with the western genre, from his cavalry trilogy to The Searchers to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. ‘Rutledge’ is interesting because of the subject matter and of its ahead of its time portrayal of the west. For one, the Buffalo Soldiers are a focus, the film playing almost like a tribute to the bravery of the black cavalry troopers. For two, the counter, the depiction of racism in a dark, uncomfortable story about rape and murder. As the trial develops, it’s just that, it’s incredibly uncomfortable. Where he started with The Searchers in a more realistic west, Ford continues here and returns again in Cheyenne Autumn.

Ford’s westerns typically stuck to pretty traditional storytelling devices. Later in his career, he branched out with ‘Rutledge’ a prime example. It’s a courtroom drama told with a flashback developing within witnesses’ testimonies. The storytelling technique works out nicely, the drama unfolding almost like a stage play. Ford is synonymous with the outdoors, huge vistas and natural landscapes, so it’s pretty cool to see him thrive filming indoors on a set (more on locations later). Unique lighting, cool camera work, it’s a change of pace, but it works.

Strode’s Sgt. Braxton Rutledge is a character that steals the show. At times, Strode can be a little wooden, but he definitely gets his chances to show off his acting chops! His testimony is a highly memorable scene, a very human moment. You get little touches of his history too — Hunter’s Cantrell finding a piece of paper Rutledge carries with him that gave the former slave his freedom — as well as the sergeant’s fellow soldiers and the respect we see they have for him. Strode delivers his best performance in a distinguished, history-making career. Juano Hernandez is excellent too as Sgt. Skidmore, another Buffalo Soldier and a former slave.

Having worked with Ford five years earlier in the classic The Searchers, Hunter actually gets more screentime as Lt. Cantrell. He’s a solid lead to keep the story moving, a character who takes part in both the courtroom and the flashbacks as an Apache war party goes on a murderous rampage. Hunter was an underrated actor, and he was always likable on-screen. His budding romance with Constance Towers (a key character Rutledge saves from Apaches) never really develops, taking away the more interesting focus of Rutledge, the trial and the cavalry patrol. Ford regulars Jack Pennick, Chuck Roberson and several others play supporting/background parts.

Other than the romance that goes nowhere, my biggest issue is the usual light-hearted Ford touches he always insisted on in his movies. Case in point, the wives of the officers, the old white ladies ‘ooohhhhing’ and ‘aaahhhing’ at the more scandalous moments of the trial as they fan themselves. It’s a story about a rape and murder, and these comedic touches are HORRIFICALLY out of place. Willis Bouchey plays the president of the court martial, balancing the trial and the officers’ wives. Carleton Young delivers a harsh, overdone performance as Captain Shattuck, the prosecuting officer.

If the courtroom drama isn’t pulling you in, the flashbacks of the cavalry patrol  should appease the more traditional western fans. The filming locations in Monument Valley and Mexican Hat in Utah are appropriately beautiful, an authentic backdrop to the wild west story. The movie overall is a unique gem though, both for its traditional elements and its more innovative, unique elements like the courtroom drama. Definitely give this one a watch.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960): ***/****

Wagon Master (1950)

Wagon Master 1950The late 1940s and early 1950s were undoubtedly John Ford‘s strongest era as a director. His strongest contributions, not so surprisingly, of the time (with the exception of The Quiet Man) came from the genre he’s most associated with, the western. And while his famed cavalry trilogy — Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande — is synonymous with the genre, another western of the time gets lost in the shuffle and is almost entirely forgotten. Here’s 1950’s Wagon Master.

It’s the 1880s in the American west and a group of Mormon settlers is being chased further west, populations in towns along the trail wanting nothing to do with the settlers. Looking to build a community in California, a Mormon wagon train — led by fiery Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) asks two horse traders, Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sandy (Harry Carey Jr.) to work as wagon masters, driving the train west. It takes some convincing, but the two amiable horse traders take the job on. They’re working against the seasonal clock though, the Mormons needing to reach their California valley and plant a harvest before winter settles in. Throw in some gunfighters, bandits and Indian attacks, and the trail is anything but easy.

Remembered with The Searchers and The Quiet Man as Ford’s best, the cavalry trilogy are Ford working at his absolute best. Even 3 Godfathers — released in 1948 — is a gem. Why then is ‘Wagon’ so generally forgotten? Well, the obvious answer is that there’s no big star, no John Wayne or Henry Fonda. Instead, Ford gives the spotlight to three instantly recognizable character actors who often played supporting parts in his movies; Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr. and Ward Bond. More on our stars later, but the key here is Ford turning into a simpler, more lyrical story. It plays a little like a serial, slightly disjointed at 86 minutes. The wagon train moving west is about as iconic as a western gets, and Ford doesn’t miss here.

How accurate are Ford’s westerns to the actual wild west American history? His films always looked authentic, always felt authentic. The moral of the story though is simple to describe. Maybe they’re not the most authentic or realistic. Instead, Ford presents the American west as it should have been. It’s good guys vs. bad guys, noble heroes vs. dastardly villains, beautiful vistas and damsels in distress. ‘Wagon’ has all of that, a stripped-down story of a wagon train. Filmed on location in Monument Valley, ‘Wagon’ is a black-and-white gem. The backdrops are simply stunning. With a film a little light on story, the locations (set to composer Richard Hageman’s score, a frequent Ford composer) end up stealing the show.

Coupled with the Monument Valley locations, the trio of character actors getting lead roles is what’s brought me back to ‘Wagon.’ A real-life cowboy before Ford discovered him, Johnson is at his laconic, scene-stealing best. When Johnson’s Travis is tearing across the Utah desert, that’s him doing the riding, not a stunt double. As his buddy Sandy, Carey Jr. is a naive but nice (somewhat dim-witted) cowboy. The duo actually starred the same year in Ford’s Rio Grande, playing characters with the same names. Is ‘Wagon’ an unofficial sequel of sorts? Throw in the always welcome Ward Bond as Elder, a converted Mormon with a hinted-at checkered past, and you’ve got a heck of a lead trio. No huge stars, no problem.

Starring as love interests are Joanne Dru and Kathleen O’Malley. Ford regulars Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson and Francis Ford (John’s older brother) playing supporting parts. The villains are the Cleggs gang, led by murdering patriarch Shiloh (Charles Kemper) and including supporting parts for Hank Worden, James Arness, Fred Libby and Mickey Simpson. Also look for Alan Mowbray as a snake oil salesman and Ruth Clifford as his dance hall girl partner.

As I’ve mentioned, ‘Wagon’ isn’t the most pointed story around. It drifts a little bit, and the ending is especially odd, as if Ford didn’t quite know how or when to end his movie. There is not a ton of action along the way, but you’re watching for the characters and the location backdrop. When the Cleggs are re-introduced in the second act, the introduction does provide some uncomfortable tension going forward. Still, even with its flaws, it’s still a pretty good western. A few too many songs too along the way, along with 2 different community line dances (usual Ford touches).

Not on the level of the cavalry trilogy or Ford’s other classics, but a must-watch for western and John Ford fans alike.

Wagon Master (1950): ***/****