"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Raiders (Universal, 1963)

Pretty weak

The Raiders, no relation to Universal’s 1952 color outing of the same name set against the 1849 gold rush in California, is a tale of post-Civil War Texans, reduced to penury by a corrupt Reconstruction government (a standard Western plot) and seeking the salvation of the Lone Star state by making a cattle drive up to the railroad in Kansas.

They are led by Brian Keith, who also narrates in voiceover. Keith had debuted, Westernwise, in the unpleasant Charlton Heston movie Arrowhead in 1953 (he was indeed one of the few good things about that picture) and he continued to do quite a few big-screen Westerns, with reasonably big parts in the likes of The Violent Men (1955), The Run of the Arrow and Hell Canyon Outlaws in 1957, and Fort Dobbs in 1958, before starting the same year to head the cast in Villa!! and Sierra Baron. But it was really as a TV cowboy that Keith was known, especially of course for The Westerner in 1960, when as Dave Blassingame with his dog Brown (left) he roamed the West. He does a good job in The Raiders as a tough Confederate, beaten but unbowed, determined to bring better times to his state even if it means breaking (Yankee) law.

Among his compadres on the drive are Harry Carey Jr. and Paul Birch (right), so that’s good. But it doesn’t go well at all. First Jayhawkers raid the herd, take half of it and kill three of their men. Then the Cherokees demand a dollar a head to pass through their lands, money the Texans simply don’t have, and when they try to turn west and go round, Pawnees attack too and take all the rest of the cattle. Hell, they even kill Paul Birch. Keith realizes that the only thing to do is to get the railroad company to build a spur down into Texas. So he drives the remainder of his men, sans steers, on to Hays City to persuade the authorities to do just that.

Based in Hays and working for the Kansas Pacific RR are Wild Bill Hickok (Robert Culp) and Buffalo Bill Cody (Jim McMullan). I didn’t know Mr. McMullan. He’d been in a few TV Western shows and Sam Peckinpah had screen-tested him for a part in Ride the High Country the year before. He’s OK as Cody, I guess, though nothing special and he certainly doesn’t try to look like Cody at all. He has a hard job fulfilling his railroad contract because though it’s only 1867 the buffalo are hunted almost to extinction. Mr. Culp on the other hand, two years before I Spy, had started leading in the successful Trackdown in 1957 as well as guest-starring on many other TV Western shows, so he was pretty well known by ’63. For both McMullan and Culp this was their first big-screen Western. Culp’s Hickok costume is pretty silly and he also goes for the cynical, wry, urbane approach that became a trademark, which also doesn’t suit the character.
Hickok and Cody
Of course where you have Hickok and Cody, you have to have Calamity Jane Cannary, and she duly appears in the shapely form of Judi Meredith, in the last of only three Western movies she did. It’s rather ironic because at one point in the script Cody advises her to use more make-up to attract Wild Bill. Cody doesn’t appear to have notice that she is already bullwhipping across the plains slathered in the stuff with especially bright scarlet lipstick.
Calamity Jane
All three, Hickok, Cody and Cannary, are absurd caricatures of the reality and, honestly, unworthy of the tradition of those figures on screen.
Not very good, I fear
There’s an idiotic pig in command of the Army post (Alfred Ryder) who not only won’t help the impoverished Texans but decides to hunt them down. And the railroad man (good old Addison Richards) won’t help either. He explains lucidly why building a line down to their home is impossible, but the Texans don’t do lucid, and they announce that if the railroad won’t build south, it’s not going to build west either. They will stop it. Hence they become raiders.

It’s all fairly implausible (I toyed with the word preposterous) but that’s Hollywood Westerns for you.

They do have a rather fine train (shots of the Sierra Railroad, Jamestown, California) but a lot of the staging is pretty basic, not to say low-budget. The buffalo hunt is especially phony. The director was Herschel Daugherty, a prolific TV show director who had directed Fess Parker in a movie for Disney in 1958 but whose only second – and last - big-screen Western this was. And in fact the whole show has the air of a made-for-TV Western.
At least they had a train
It all climaxes with the evil Army captain mounting a sneaky camouflaged Gatling gun on a train he knows the raiders are going to hold up, in order to massacre them. When decent sergeant Tremaine (Simon Oakland) refuses to fire, the captain shoots him dead. Cody and Hickok rebel, the captain is put under the arrest, the situation defused and they all live happily ever after. The Texans don’t get a railroad but they find that later and bigger cattle drives do get through to Abilene so all’s well that ends well.

And if you believe all this hokum, you’re a more gullible man than I am, Gunga Din.

Honestly, it’s all pretty low-grade stuff. If it hadn’t been for Keith, Carey and Birch the movie would have been less buoyant that the Titanic. They probably enjoyed it in Oakland.




Monday, February 20, 2017

My Pal Trigger (Republic, 1946)

The origin story

Right after the Second World War we got the Ur-Trigger story. Republic showed us how the smartest horse in the movies was born and raised by Roy and how he became such an equine genius. It must have been a relief after all that unpleasantness overseas.
Actually, My Pal Trigger is one of the better Roy Rogers pictures. I agree that isn’t saying too much, and Rogers Westerns were unlikely to be jockeying for Academy awards. But I can’t help it; I still have a soft spot for them. We oldies were all so much younger and more innocent then and while the movies come across now as patronizing and bourgeois, cheesy even, we thought they were great at the time, and secretly in my heart of hearts I still do.

All the classic ingredients are there: Trigger, Dale, Gabby Hayes, the Sons of the Pioneers; but this one is rather more somber in tone. Gabby (he’s Dale’s dad) keeps his antics in check and plays it (for him anyway) pretty straight. There aren’t even that many songs. Some of the story is quite tough.
Roy and Gabby don't hit it off at all at first
Gabby and his daughter Dale own and run The Golden Horse, a successful ranch raising palominos. Roy turns up on his mare Lady hoping Gabby will agree to a love-match between Lady and the prize stallion Golden Sovereign. “Golden horses,” Roy tells us in a voiceover intro, “that's what they call the palominos. And palominos have quite a history. You know, the history of my own palomino began right here at this ranch. If I hadn't-a gone through that gate a few years back, I'd never have gotten my pal, Trigger.”

But though welcomed by his chums the Sons of the Pioneers, who are the ranch hands, he gets short shrift from owner Gabby. Worse, when Golden Sovereign is killed, Roy gets the blame (highly implausible, I know) and is run out of the county. However, Golden Sovereign and Lady did get it together before Sovereign’s sad demise and Lady falls pregnant.

After the death of his prize nag Gabby goes downhill, losing interest in the ranch and gambling (and losing) too much at shady neighbor Jack Holt’s casino. Always good to see stocky Jack Holt (left), Tim’s dad, and he looks particularly smarmy and villainous here in that sleek suit and caddish mustache. Jack is casting covetous eyes over Gabby’s ranch and horses, and of course it was he who killed poor Golden Sovereign, not Roy at all.

Roy rides the West, through snow and ice, and eventually the foal is born. “Time to be here and there he is,” says Roy. “You're kind of quick on the trigger, son.” A man asks, “What are you going to name him, Roy?” and Roy answers, “I just did. It's Trigger!” So now you know.

Well, now young Trigger grows up and there are good lessons for the kiddies in the audience when disaster strikes, Roy has to shoot Lady after a mountain lion gores her, and Roy tells Trigger (really he’s telling us all) “It's like I told you, Trigger. Sometimes it's fun and sometimes it's tough. You got to take the breaks the way they come. Life is sort of like gambling. You can't always win.” Not sure the gambling metaphor was entirely suitable for the juvenile 1940s audience, but still.
There’s a climactic horse race with Gabby’s ranch riding on the result. Dale is racing for The Golden Horse and Roy is riding Trigger for Jack Holt. But Roy is conflicted. He wants to win, of course. But if he beats Dale (and he’s soft on her) her pa goes under. And villainous Jack Holt has got his henchmen jockeys to box Dale in and unfairly prevent her from getting ahead. Roy can’t stand that.

Well, you’ll have to watch it to see the outcome. Though I think you may have a shrewd idea even before you do.

It was directed by Frank McDonald, who did a lot of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry oaters for Republic, with 2nd Unit director Yakima Canutt also apparently contributing a lot, uncredited. It’s 79 minutes of acceptable black & white, though the movie now being in the public domain means that there are several shorter and less good quality versions out there.

Enjoyable in a nostalgic way.



Saturday, February 18, 2017

Copper Canyon (Paramount, 1950)

You'll find it in the Clunker rack in DVD stores

OK, yes. In the 1950s all film stars had to climb into the saddle at some point, even if they hated horses. Westerns were a studio staple and actors’ agents had little choice but to accept such parts. Some of these glitterati enjoyed the experience (hell, I would) and donned the Stetson and a gunbelt with alacrity. Others, however, were simply miscast in the West.

Such was the case of Ray Milland (left). Mr. Milland, one of Paramount’s most bankable contract players in the 1930s and 40s, was doubtless excellent as a posh Londoner getting his Cambridge pal to murder his wife for Alfred Hitchcock, but as a Western gunman he was plain ludicrous. They always had to invent a part for him which could present him as a ‘gentleman’ – in this case a former Confederate colonel – and that helped a bit, but it not really. He was only in four big-screen Westerns, luckily, but not convincing in any of them.

Hedy Lamarr was no better. Central European Ms. Lamarr was certainly glamorous, and indeed notorious (because of her Nazi past and the shocking nude scene in Ecstasy in 1933) but once again in a Western role she lacked credibility on a monumental scale. Apparently she and Milland hated each other viscerally and could barely act together.
You can sense the antipathy
So the picture suffers from a major handicap right at the outset.

Bosley Crowther in his review for The New York Times, rather perceptively wrote, “There is something slightly appalling about beholding Mr. Milland, a first-rate dramatic actor, engaging in saloon repartee and going through the conventional exercises of cowboy actors with horses and guns. And Miss Lamarr's top-flight luxuriance in a typical frontier-charmer role—the lady who switches from the villains to the hero—is patently absurd. If the whole thing were done as a travesty, it might be something else again. But Jonathan Latimer has written it without humor and John Farrow has directed it that way.”
John Farrow. Shoulda stuck to exotic dramas.
For yes, there was another snag: it was directed by John Farrow. Farrow, a screenwriter who penned Tarzan pictures and married Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) didn’t understand Westerns at all. He only directed four and even of these a couple (Red Mountain with Alan Ladd and Hondo with John Wayne) he did not complete, other directors being drafted in. His first had also been with Milland, the turgid 1947 potboiler California.

Mona Freeman is ‘the other woman’ but far too treacly to be believed. Fortunately the cast benefited from the likes of Harry Carey Jr. as an Army lieutenant, Macdonald Carey surprisingly good as a corrupt deputy, Frank Faylen in a colorful part and good old Percy Helton in an unusually prominent role. Without them, the picture would have sunk without trace.
Carey good anyway
We are in a copper boomtown in Arizona. Milland is a trick shot taking part in a vaudeville act under an assumed name. His shooting skills will come in handy, though he says he deplores violence. There’s a rarely seen evil mastermind, Henderson (Ian Wolfe) who has corrupt law officers carry out his dirty business, e.g. murder. They are managed bossily by saloon dame Lisa (Lamarr).
Not the ideal combo
The persecuted miners seek Milland’s help, especially because they are generally Southerners and the crooked town bosses are Unionist. He declares himself unwilling to commit – the war is over, he says – but actually does, behind the scenes.

There’s nothing original or different at all here and it isn’t even well executed. The script is pedestrian. Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer wrote some good noirs like The Glass Key but he too didn’t ‘get’ the Western. The action climax is as banal as the rest of the story.

Visually the picture is enjoyable. DP Charles B Lang shot some lovely Sedona locations in bright Technicolor. There’s also a good score by Daniele Amfitheatrof.
Pretty picture
But all in all, I fear it’s a clunker.
Of course I enjoyed it. It's a 1950s Western, so I would.



Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Jayhawkers! (Paramount, 1959)

For once, Jeff is neither an Indian nor an Army man

Regular readers of Jeff Arnold’s West, both of them, will be aware of the ALEPH, the Arnold Ludicrous Exclamation Point Hypothesis, which, well, hypothesizes that any Western with an exclamation point in its title is ipso facto suspect. Producers added the punctuation mark to make a bland title (and by extension probably a bland film) apparently more exciting. It rarely worked. So when I saw that this Paramount offering of ’59 was named The Jayhawkers!, well, I had my doubts.

However, while I would certainly not go so far as to say that this movie proves the ALEPH false (for The Jayhawkers! is a distinctly B-Western), I will at least concede that it is one of the better exclamation-pointed Westerns (he admitted, grudgingly).
Bonanza-ish titles
It’s not low-budget, being shot (by Loyal Griggs, no less) in color and VistaVision and with a large cast. The headliners are Jeff Chandler and Fess Parker, and while Chandler was perhaps sound but not at the very top of the Western tree, Parker was, then, enormously popular because of Disney’s Davy Crockett series, which had debuted in 1955. The hit song The Ballad of Davy Crockett, the Davy Crockett bubblegum cards and the Davy Crockett coonskin caps for kids were flooding the market. Fess could do no wrong, and he began to star in big-screen Westerns, for Disney but also for other studios. In March of ’59 he had co-starred with Robert Taylor in The Hangman, and he stayed with Paramount for The Jayhawkers! later that year. It didn’t stop there, of course, because in the 60s he became Daniel Boone too.
Fess sans coonskin cap
As you imagine, it’s a story set in Kansas just before the Civil War. Evil but charismatic Luke Darcy (Chandler) is a megalomaniac “backwoods Napoleon”, as the governor calls him (and indeed Darcy has a bust of Napoleon in his study) who dreams of transforming Kansas into a country. Nay, he has plans of empire building on a Napoleonic scale, so look out the whole USA. He has a devious scheme whereby he and his followers dress up as masked Missouri Redlegs and raid towns with mucho rape ‘n’ pillage, then they doff the maroon leggings and masks and present themselves as saviors and bringers of (rough) justice, being thus welcomed in town after town. Cunning plan, huh.
Backwoods Napoleon
However, the aims of the guerrilla bands are never addressed in the script and we don’t know if they are abolitionists, free-staters or what. The Jayhawkers here are just a gang.

Fess is Cam Bleeker, an escaped convict who discovers that it was Darcy who used and discarded his wife while he had been in the pen and the poor woman is now buried on the ranch, which has been appropriated and sold on to a glam French widow, Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey) - and we sense within a microsecond that said widow and Cam will soon be getting it on and forming a new family with the widow’s two young children (they’ll probably go to California at the end of the movie). So when the Govr. proposes a deal to Cam, bring in Darcy in return for a free pardon, well, he goes for it.
He finds a French widow in his house. Some people have all the luck.
That’s the basic plot. Though pretty two-dimensional, it’s reasonably interesting because along with being evil and mad, Darcy is also magnetic and charming, and despite the past hist., Cam can’t resist being drawn to the bandit leader, as a moth to a flame. So will he fulfill the bargain and deliver Darcy to the hangman’s rope? I wouldn’t say that there’s great suspense exactly, but there’s enough subtlety and ambiguity to give the story some spice.

Burly New Yorker Chandler had of course debuted, Westernwise, as the statesmanlike Cochise in Broken Arrow in 1950, and he returned as Cochise in The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) and, briefly (he dies in the first reel) in Taza, Son of Cochise (1954). When he wasn't an Apache, he was an Army man, as in Two Flags West, War Arrow, Pillars of the Sky and (in plain clothes) The Great Sioux Uprising. The Jayhawkers! was his eleventh Western. The Plunderers the following year was his last. He died aged only 42, during a routine operation for a slipped disc.

The picture was co-written, co-produced and directed by Melvin Frank. Frank and partner Norman Panama had a good contract with Paramount, working especially on Bob Hope movies and other comedies. The two didn’t dabble much in Westerns and those they did tended to be at the comedy end of the Western spectrum (A Southern Yankee, Callaway Went Thataway and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox). The Jayhawkers! was their only ‘straight’ Western.
Silva is Fierro-like executioner
Henry Silva is Darcy’s chief henchman and killer, with hints of Pancho Villa’s Rodolfo Fierro. He faces off against Fess but is humiliated so spends the rest of the movie trying to get even. Much good will it do him. Leo Gordon the Great is a gang member whom Fess saves from being lynched. But he breaks a cardinal rule by bringing Fess to Darcy’s hideout. And rule-breaking is not permitted…
Take me to your leader. Fess saves Leo from the rope. But it only delays the inevitable...
And then in uncredited bit parts we have Glenn Strange, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan and Harry Dean Stanton.

The music, by Jerome Moss a year after he scored The Big Country, is nice, sort of Coplandesque. In fact one reviewer has gone so far as to call it “one of the finest and least-acknowledged Western scores that Hollywood has ever produced, filled with the leaping fourths and fifths that are the musical equivalent of the open Western lands, and about as thrilling and beautiful as has ever been written to accompany a picture.” Well, I didn’t think it was that good. But whatever turns you on.

The picture is all rather long at 100 minutes. I won’t say it drags, exactly, but the director needed a little more zip and pace. At least it ends with a climactic quick-draw showdown in a saloon.


Monday, February 13, 2017

Chuka (Paramount, 1967)

Low budget and it shows

Chuka (pronounced with a short u, like the polo boot) is a man, one of those brave, savvy tough types, a man who knows Indians, smoldering you might say, taciturn but with deep passions beneath. Portrayed by Rod Taylor, who also produced the picture, he is a Shalako-like scout in buckskin, wise in the ways of the West. Mr. Taylor, who heads the cast, was an Australian, quite famous as George in The Time Machine and Mitch Brenner in The Birds, but he was in fact a good actor, as John Ford understood (he was Young Cassidy), and an intelligent and thoughtful person. He didn’t do a lot of big-screen Westerns but his rugged looks suited the roles. He started with a small part in Top Gun in 1955 and Chuka was his second (true) Western and first as lead. Later he would be the star of The Oregon Trail and Outlaws on TV. He is more than competent in Chuka, it must be said, and probably the best thing about the movie.

The rest of the casting is verging on the bizarre. A very isolated US Army fort lies in the middle of a plain in Spain, besieged by Arapahos, and its commandant is posh Brit Sir John Mills. South African Louis Hayward is an unpleasant and corrupt major who secretly keeps an Indian girl as a sex object. Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi is a Mexican countess (well, Italian, Mexican, it’s all the same; they’re both Latin, ain’t they?) and Ernest Borgnine is a German sergeant. Only James Whitmore as the post scout really convinces.
Whitmore's good anyway
It’s one of those traditional plots were the knowing Westerner comes up against the rigid by-the-book martinet commander from the East (in this case very far East), a bit like John Wayne and Henry Fonda in Fort Apache, except that Fort Apache was a good film. This commandant is impotent and a drunkard (they are related matters) and also pretty damn stupid. (It’s one of those Roger Ebert ‘Idiot Plots’ where the whole mess could have been avoided if only the characters hadn’t acted like complete imbeciles.)
He tries in vain to convince idiotic by-the-book commandant to do the right thing
It’s a flashback movie which starts with an officer dictating a letter to his superiors recounting the mystery of the burned, empty and abandoned fort. Then the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, and we get the events which caused the disaster.
Rod as the man-who-knows-Indians
The very improbable story was written by Richard Jessup from his own novel, his only big-screen Western screenplay. The budget was minimal and the fort looks like a papier maché toy. The director was Gordon Douglas, who did direct a few fun Westerns (I like Yellowstone Kelly, The Nevadan, Fort Dobbs and Rio Conchos) and his Only the Valiant with Gregory Peck in 1951 had certain aspects in common with Chuka, but who also churned out some pretty low-grade ones, and I fear this one belongs in the latter category.

You could watch it – well, you gotta – but probably only once.

It ought to have two K's in it, I feel

Saving her from a fate worse than death by, er, death. This scene was an oldie - used by Francis Ford in The Invaders, John Ford in Stagecoach, Cecil B DeMille in Union Pacific, and so on ad infinitum.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Westerns of Henry Fonda


That rangy walk, those steely blue eyes, that quiet drawl: Henry Fonda (left) was ideally suited to Westerns. Whether as Frank James, Wyatt Earp or any number of other Western characters, Fonda would become one of the most memorable Western leads of all.

Though Fonda started acting in movies in 1935, Westerns – or at least adult ‘A’ picture Westerns - were not common then. It was not until 1939 that the grown-up genre really staged a comeback, when all the big studios wanted a Western. John Ford directed Stagecoach, released by United Artists in February. In April Warners showed Errol Flynn cleaning up Dodge City and Paramount had Joel McCrea nation building in Union Pacific. In November Universal gave us Destry Rides Again, with Fonda’s great pal James Stewart. But before all these, in January 1939 (and what a stunning year for Westernistas ‘39 must have been) Fox cast Tyrone Power as Jesse James. And when Fox needed Jesse’s brother Frank, they chose Henry Fonda.

Fonda was not an obvious choice. The New York Times called him “the most likable of the new crop of romantic juveniles”. He had never been in a Western movie. But he was born in the prairie city of Grand Island, Nebraska, in 1905, and those roots must have helped equip him for future Western roles. There were Western tinges to the Henry Hathaway-directed feud story The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in 1936, in which Fonda was third-billed. He was in a stage production of The Virginian in 1937, a play I for one would love to have seen. He starred as the Virginian with Dan Duryea (as Trampas or as Steve I am not quite sure; I can’t find the cast list – probably Trampas). So there were at least some Western credentials.
Hank as Frank
Fonda’s Frank James put him on the Western map. So much so that Fox decided on a sequel in 1940 and Fritz Lang directed The Return of Frank James – in some ways a superior picture. In both, Fonda’s Frank James is far from the historical reality; he is a noble figure with a deep fund of decency. But that’s Hollywood for you. And Fonda was superb in the part.

It is said that Fonda’s next involvement with the Western came in 1941 when he acted as (uncredited) technical advisor on the set of Fritz Lang’s follow-up oater, Western Union. But it was 1943 that saw him lead in a truly fine Western film: The Ox-Bow Incident. Fonda was fourteen years old when he observed a lynching. He watched a mob from the second floor window of his father's print shop. "It was the most horrendous sight I'd ever seen… We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope." Fonda made several films condemning the evil of lynching and questioning capital punishment in general; few are as grim and dark as the first, The Ox-Bow Incident, which Fonda and director William Wellman had to nag Darryl Zanuck into making. Zanuck agreed to the uncommercial vehicle only if Wellman and Fonda signed up to more audience-friendly movies. As Zanuck predicted, it did little at the box office in the darkest hours of the Second World War when Westerns were popular but only if they contained color and shooting and scenery. But it became one of the best ‘serious’ Westerns in the history of the genre and is still to be admired.
A dark, powerful Western and a great performance
John Ford had immediately seen Fonda’s potential. Fonda’s early Western career was tied to that of Ford. He would work for Ford twice in 1939, as Young Mr. Lincoln and in Drums Along the Mohawk, and in 1940 he would be a truly great Tom Joad in one of the Ford masterpieces, The Grapes of Wrath.  Though none of these movies was a true Western, together they created Fonda’s profile as a salt-of-the-earth American. You might say he specialized in playing ordinary, decent Americans from humble origins. And they established in the public consciousness a tough, quiet man ready to what is right whatever the cost. The perfect Western hero, in fact.
As pioneer
Fonda served three years in the US Navy in World War II and on his return resumed his acting career. John Ford’s first post-war project was to be a Wyatt Earp story, and Fonda was ideal for the part – and the fact that he done service in the Navy helped too. Fox's My Darling Clementine (1946), despite Ford’s protestations as to historical accuracy, was complete baloney from a factual point of view but it was perhaps the greatest of all the mythic representations of Wyatt Earp as town-taming marshal, and Fonda was absolutely superb in the part. The film is a landmark Western and can be watched any number of times.
The famous pose. Fonda as Wyatt Earp.
In the late 1940s John Ford produced some of the finest Westerns of the century, and the cavalry trilogy of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) is a suite of stunningly good films. John Wayne starred in all of them, of course, but the power of Fort Apache also owed much to Henry Fonda. His rigid Easterner Colonel Thursday, opposite Wayne’s free-spirit Westerner Captain York, was another perfectly splendid role. Fonda was now incontestably one of the greatest of Western actors.
Outstandingly good
But it was followed by a Western hiatus. A decade passed before Fonda would climb into the saddle again. He was first and foremost, in his own thinking, a stage actor and he spent much of the 50s on the boards. The early and mid-1950s, that heyday of the Western movie, would pass Fonda by. He would be a celluloid Russian aristocrat or an obstinate juror but he wouldn’t don a Stetson again until 1957, when he appeared as a bounty hunter in Paramount’s The Tin Star, directed by Anthony Mann (Fonda sure worked for some of the great directors).
As mentor to young sheriff Perkins
Fonda? A bounty hunter? Surely not! But never fear, like most Hollywood bounty hunters of the period, Fonda’s was a goodie, deep down. He becomes the mentor of young sheriff Anthony Perkins, and he falls for widow Betsy Palmer and forms a family with her and her young son, going off to a new life in California together. There’s that ordinary decent American again, doing what a man’s gotta do and then settling down on a ranch.
Mentor again, this time on TV
In 1959 Fonda’s agents persuaded him to do a TV series, The Deputy, almost a Tin Star spin-off. NBC accepted the idea that Fonda would be the narrator-host, with occasional appearances as star. He would be ‘Chief Marshal’ Simon Fry in Arizona in the 1880s, with Allen Case in the title role. This allowed Fonda to travel and do other work. In fact Fonda featured as lead in only six of the thirty-nine episodes. The series did well enough to be renewed for a second season.

Back on the big screen in ’59, again at Fox, Fonda flirted more with being a baddie again in the Edward Dmytryk-directed Warlock. He was a clean-up-the-town marshal once more but this time only a semi-official one, not Earpish, a man of dubious reputation hired to shoot to kill, and, with close friend Anthony Quinn, a saloon owner. But it’s Fonda, so in the end he does the decent thing again. Still, The Tin Star and Warlock did suggest a hint of a new Fonda, with tinges of bad-guy here and there.
A hint of a homosexual relationship
As the 60s dawned Fonda was beguiled into appearing in MGM’s lumbering (but commercially successful) How the West Was Won. It was in fact a pretty bad film and all the big stars in it had little more than cameo parts. At least Fonda’s crusty old buffalo hunter was more convincing than his pal Jimmy Stewart’s frankly ridiculous mountain man. John Ford was one of the (three) directors, so perhaps that was what enticed Fonda.
A painting of Fonda in How the West Was Won
How the West Was Won was one of six Westerns Fonda made in the 1960s, a time when the true glory of the genre had somewhat departed. Still, there were some delights in store. The Rounders in 1965 was a charming light Western written and directed by Burt Kennedy and starring Fonda alongside that excellent Western actor Glenn Ford. It has a bawdy side but also a slight tinge of melancholy.
Partnered with Glenn Ford
Warners’ A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966) was a poker drama, only coincidentally a Western, with Fonda and Joanne Woodward as his wife as super-skilled con artists. It’s clever, and entertaining.
Playing poker with Robards and Bickford
That was followed the year after by Welcome to Hard Times, which I must get round to reviewing soon, another Burt Kennedy effort which was an interesting flop. Kennedy wanted gritty reality and Fonda could give him that. He plays a townsman reluctant to face up to a gunman and accused of cowardice. The picture was probably too hard (and too slow) for its own good but Fonda is fine in it.
With pal Stewart
In 1966 Fonda got back together with his old friend James Stewart in a not-great but still quite gripping Western, Firecreek. Stewart is an amateur town marshal and Fonda leads a band of desperadoes into the town. So once again Fonda is on the wrong side of the law. But again he is (of course) a baddie with saving graces. Vincent McEveety was no John Ford and the picture has a slight ‘B’ feel to it but once again Fonda is brilliant. In 1970 Stewart and Fonda would team up again (for the last time) in another light-hearted Western, The Cheyenne Social Club, directed, rather surprisingly, by Gene Kelly. Fonda was a talented amateur artist and it was while on the set of The Cheyenne Social Club that he presented his friend Jimmy Stewart with a painting of Stewart's beloved horse Pie.
With director Gene Kelly on the set of The Cheyenne Social Club
But between Firecreek and The Cheyenne Social Club came the big shock for Fonda fans when in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) a bandit shoots a small boy dead, in cold blood, the camera pans round and who should the killer be but Henry Fonda! Those steely blue eyes were now put to another purpose. As railroad assassin Frank, Fonda is scary, and one of the baddest badmen you will see. It was brilliant casting. It worked.
Widescreen blue eyes
Fonda’s last two Westerns were, quite frankly, sad. Warners’ There Was a Crooked Man paired him with an overacting Kirk Douglas in a red fright wig and was a prison drama, with Fonda as a bearded prison governor. It was really bad. Even worse was to come when Fonda appeared, aged nearly 70, in an Italian Western of no merit whatsoever, My Name is Nobody, and, poor man, seemed to be wandering round the set vaguely, wondering what on earth he was doing there. The two pictures were his last Westerns, and his worst.

But we shouldn’t remember him for those (they aren’t worth watching, not even for Fonda) but for the likes of The Ox-Bow Incident, My Darling Clementine or Fort Apache. These are great Westerns in which Fonda is absolutely splendid.

Henry Fonda had a fine talent as an actor and he brought a subtlety and nuance to Western lead roles that was quite rare. Only Wayne in his better efforts (Hondo, say, or Red River; The Searchers, of course) or Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter or The Bravados, or Gary Cooper in High Noon, Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, only these matched his ability, and Fonda is one of the best ever Western leads.
Thanks, Hank.