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

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Undefeated (Fox, 1969)

One of Wayne's big commercial 60s Westerns

The Undefeated came right after True Grit in the chronology of John Wayne Westerns but actually it is much more like the earlier El Dorado or The War Wagon, that is a big, commercial 60s crowd-pleaser aimed at the fans and able to fill theaters all over the world, especially in the Mid-West. Which it did.
Duke got Rock Hudson to star with him. Hudson was good at Westerns, rode well and looked the part. He’d started with minor roles in Winchester’73 in 1950 and Tomahawk in ’51, had graduated to a second-billed part after James Stewart in Bend of the River and, after Horizons West with Robert Ryan in 1952, he had led for the first time in an Western, Scarlet Angel, later that year. There followed his implausible ‘biopic’ of John Wesley Hardin, The Lawless Breed, in 1953, Gun Fury and Seminole later the same year, and he was an Indian again, Taza, in Taza, Son of Cochise in ’54. In the early 60s he had co-starred with Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset. So he was used to ‘big’ Westerns alongside other big stars. And he carried them off.
Wayne and Hudson bonding
Wayne gathered round him his usual cronies, in force. Andrew V McLaglen, who died last year, directed. In my view he was never one of the great Western directors but he certainly was able to produce a box-office hit in the genre, no doubt about that. His very first work on a Western had been on a Wayne one, when he was production assistant on Dakota in 1945, and his first as director had been Gun the Man Down, with James Arness (another Wayne pal) in 1956. He famously directed Arness in many episodes of Gunsmoke (Wayne had toyed with being Matt Dillon but decided not to; he did have an interest in the series, though, and introduced the first one). McLaglen also worked on other series, notably Have Gun – Will Travel, and was, really, principally a director of TV Westerns. But he also did some big-screen ones. He helmed the rather dire but energetic Wayne vehicle McLintock! in 1963 and directed James Stewart in the so-so, rather soapy Shenandoah in ’65 and the perfectly dreadful The Rare Breed (one of the worst Westerns ever) in ’66. The Douglas/Mitchum/Widmark The Way West in 1967 was not terribly good and Bandolero! with Stewart again, and Dean Martin, wasn’t any better. In the 70s he would do the big Wayne Westerns Chisum and Cahill, US Marshal, which were about his best work, or maybe that was the Brian Garfield-written The Last Hard Men in 1976. Anyway, Duke liked him and McLaglen had the knack of handling the aging star in some big, and successful, theater-fillers. If you count all those TV shows, The Undefeated was his 255th Western!
Not my favorite Western director but he brought in the $$$
William Clothier, a favorite Wayne cinematographer, was behind the camera and, as ever, did a good job of the Durango locations beloved by Wayne. It’s in Panavision with color by De Luxe and looks big and glossy. There are some lovely shots of running horses.

As for the cast, it was a case of the usual suspects. Wayne is Col. John Henry Thomas, a Union cavalry man, and in his command are Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., obviously, but also in the cast are Bruce Cabot, Pedro Armendariz Jr. and Paul Fix, among others. These members of the Wayne stock company, many ex-John Ford (Ford was still alive; he died in 1973 but his last Western had been the Wayneless Cheyenne Autumn in 1964), were all stalwart Western actors, and a joy to see. When you see their names in the opening credits, you say “Oh, good.”
Ben the Great
An equally bearded Dobe
The movie was written by James Lee Barrett, another Wayne/McLaglen partner, who had done Shenandoah and Bandolero! and who would later do The Cheyenne Social Club. However, the writing is one of the weaker aspects of The Undefeated. Basically, there isn’t enough plot. The movie is two hours long but you get the feeling that more should have happened.

It’s a symmetrical story of two Civil War colonels and patriarchs (Wayne and Hudson) whose lives run on parallel lines but then these lines converge. Hudson is the patrician James Langdon, Southern gentleman in a frock coat and planter’s hat who, after the defeat in 1865, prefers to burn his old house rather than let carpetbaggers have it and sets off with his whole clan (Bruce Cabot is his sergeant) for Mexico to make a new home and fight in the service of the Emperor Maximilian. First he pays off his force of Negroes by giving one of them his granddaddy’s watch, so doubtless they were very satisfied.
Wayne wins the war before conquering Mexico
As for Col. John Henry Thomas (Wayne), after winning an engagement against one-armed Confederate Major Royal Dano, as it turns out three days after Appomattox, but who knew?, he hands his resignation in to General Paul Fix and is asked by Short Grub (Ben Johnson), “Where to, John Henry?” to which the reply is “West!” They aim to round up wild horses in New Mexico and Arizona and sell them to the Army. They duly capture a large herd, allowing for some pretty photography and mucho ropin’ and ridin’ by Ben and Dobe, but the Army buyers are crooks and two of Maximilian’s agents offer him much more, so John Henry agrees to drive the steeds over the border.

Both Langdon’s and Thomas’s men cross the Rio Grande in the teeth of Yankee opposition and there, in Mexico, they meet, when Thomas warns Langdon of a gang of robbers under Pedro Armendariz who are about to attack him. Of course the two colonels bond right away and together foil the wicked bandido.
Bandido Escalante
There has to be lerve interest, also symmetrical, so Hudson’s daughter Charlotte (Melissa Newman, not Paul’s daughter but the other one, in her only Western) spurns suitor Lt. Jan-Michael Vincent (in his third of six Westerns) and instead falls for Wayne’s adopted son, the Cherokee Blue Boy (Roman Gabriel, also in his only Western). This match is daringly interracial and does not please the Southerners, though both dads seem very relaxed about the affair.

Dub Taylor is the obligatory dirty old cook and he has what he calls a mangy old cat, though the puss looked quite sleek to me. Sadly, both are casualties of the trip.

The music by Hugo Montenegro verges on the extraordinary, with one long scene played against an interminable sustained single note, perhaps to suggest tension, which, though, it doesn’t.
Noble profiles
There’s a fourth of July shindig in which both sides put up a dumb-ox prize fighter for a bout, which of course degenerates into a McLintock!-style free-for-all supposed to be highly amusing. You do get the feeling right about now that the writers and director were searching about for something to fill in the minutes, which are rather beginning to drag.

Normally in Hollywood movies Maximilian and his foreign forces are the baddies and the Juaristas are noble freedom fighters but here the Juaristas under General (pronounced Heneral, natch) Rojas (third-billed Antonio Aguilar, the famous Mexican singer-actor who was to write and star as Zapata in 1970) are rotters, stealing the horses and shooting people with a firing squad. Of course at the end the two colonels join forces and get the horses to Rojas before he can execute anyone else but suddenly the movie ends and you are left unsatisfied. The two ought certainly to have beaten Rojas and got their nags back.

Still, the lovers go off happily ever after and all’s well that ends well.

It’s a sort of Major Dundee without the quality. I prefer Chisum.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Walk the Proud Land (Universal, 1956)

John Clum in fact and fiction


John P Clum (1851 – 1932) was a most interesting figure of the old West and we know quite a lot about him. Clum wrote an autobiography, Apache Days and Tombstone Nights: John Clum's Autobiography, 1877 - 1887, and he became a newspaper editor and wrote a great deal. His son Woodworth produced a biography of him, Apache Agent, in 1935. A major modern two-volume life written by Gary Ledoux, Nantan: The Life and Times of John P. Clum, Volume 1 Claverack to Tombstone and Nantan: The Life and Times of John P. Clum, Volume 2 Tombstone to Los Angeles, came out in 2007 and 2008.

Clum is quite well known to Western fans because he appeared often in movies and on TV, usually in the context of Tombstone because he became editor of The Tombstone Epitaph, mayor of the town and a lifelong friend of Wyatt Earp. In both versions of Frontier Marshal he appeared, thinly disguised, played (as ‘Editor Pickett’) by Russell Simpson in ’34 and by Harry Hayden (as ‘Mayor Henderson’) in ‘39. Emmett Vogan played the part of ‘Editor John Clum’ in Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die in 1942. Roy Roberts was the unnamed Tombstone ‘Mayor’ in My Darling Clementine in 1946 and Whit Bissell was ‘John P Clum’ in Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957. Stacy Harris was ‘Mayor John Clum’ in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp on TV. In Hour of the Gun (1967), Doc (1971), Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) Clum was played by Larry Gates, Dan Greenberg, Terry O’Quinn and Randall Mell, respectively. That’s a lot of Clums.

But the only movie portrayal to concentrate on Clum’s work (which he considered his chief achievement) as Indian Agent on the San Carlos Reservation was Walk the Proud Land, in which he was played by Audie Murphy.

John P Clum, known to the Apaches as Nantan Betunnikiyeh, or chief with high forehead, because of his incipient baldness

Audie Murphy as Clum
The movie opens with the pronouncement “The story you are about to see is true” so of course alarm bells ring and we brace ourselves for a lot of historical tosh. As I have often said before, I do not expect accurate history from Western movies; that’s not what we watch them for and I am perfectly happy to put up with a lot of bunkum from a factual point of view. But movies that claim that they are historically accurate must expect to get it in the neck when, as is nearly always the case, they are not.

In many ways this is a classic 1950s Universal Audie Western. High production values belie a slight ‘B-ness’: Cinemascope color with appropriate Old Tucson locations nicely shot by Harold Lipstein (5 Audie Westerns but also Pillars of the Sky, Wichita and Chief Crazy Horse, all visually excellent), a screenplay by Jack Sher of Shane fame based on the Woodworth Clum bio, and all directed by Jesse Hibbs, who helmed the 1950s version of The Spoilers. Audie is noble and decent, as ever, gaining the day and getting the girl.
Earnest, slightly plodding perhaps but in the last resort a good film
But in other ways, Walk the Proud Land is a bit different from the run-of-the-mill usual Audie oater. It is a biopic, and the most ‘historical’ of Murphy Westerns, even if it takes considerable liberties.

We start in Tucson, Arizona in 1874, with a respectable Eastern Audie in a suit and a derby. Though not a minister, he has been nominated as a leading member of the Dutch Reformed Church to become Indian agent. This was in fact the historical case: the San Carlos reservation had been established in 1872 but had already had a number of corrupt agents who lined their own pockets at the Indians’ expense. After an investigation of political abuses within the Office of Indian Affairs, the government of President US Grant gave religious groups (Protestant ones, of course) the responsibility for managing the Indian reservations, and the Dutch Reformed Church was given charge of San Carlos.
Agent Audie
From the start Clum shows himself to be on the Indians’ side and willing to treat them with respect and as fellow humans. In the semiotic way Westerns have, Audie’s Clum is shown being friendly to first some small boys, then some dogs, so is clearly a goody. This brings him into conflict with the Army in the form of a General Wade (Morris Ankrum) a two-dimensional villain as scowling as he is short-sighted. Clum’s no pushover, though. When he finds the Apaches brewing tizwin he kicks over the cauldron and gets into a fistfight with good old Anthony Caruso. He changes his Eastern suit for Western duds and gradually adapts to the 1870s Arizona way of life.
In slightly more action-hero mode
He sets up an Apache tribal council and an Apache police force. “I’m not here to rule the reservation but to help you rule,” he tells Chief Eskiminzin (Robert Warwick, who had first appeared in a Western in 1914 and often played Indian chiefs, though sometimes changed sides and donned a blue uniform). So far, so quite factual.

But of course there has to be love interest and so Eskiminzin provides an Indian maid, Tianay, to, er, cater to his needs. But Audie is Audie and this was the mid-1950s, so no hanky-panky, obviously, though Clum’s fiancée Mary arrives from the East and suspects both hanky and panky. She should have known.  Mary is played by Pat Crowley, ‘safe’ and respectable actress who had nevertheless appeared in Red Garters with Rosemary Clooney a couple of years before; these were to be her only big-screen Westerns, though she appeared in many TV oaters. Tianay is Anne Bancroft, no less, getting second billing after Audie. This was her third Western, after co-starring with Van Heflin in The Raid and then playing Robert Preston’s Army wife but falling for Victor Mature in the Anthony Mann-directed The Last Frontier. The year after Proud Land she starred with Scott Brady in The Restless Breed. That was about it as far as Westerns were concerned (she was pipped at the post by Debra Paget for the part in The Last Hunt), and she didn’t always shine in the ones she did do, but well, she is Anne Bancroft after all and so definitely worth a watch.
Anne Bancroft as the Indian maid
Pat Crowley as the posh Eastern fiancée
Charles Drake is entertaining as ex-Sergeant Sweeny who becomes Clum’s right-hand man, though really prefers to be fighting in a saloon.

Clum is given a saloon fight and wears buckskins and much is made of his capture of Geronimo. Well, it is a Universal Audie Western, so what did you expect? Everyone’s pants are belted just under their armpits, in that 1950s way.

“Geronimo, you’re under arrest!” trumpets Clum to the Apache leader, and the agent claps the chief in chains. Geronimo is played by the excellent Jay Silverheels and he did rather corner the market in playing that Apache renegade, having portrayed him in Broken Arrow in 1950 and The Battle at Apache Pass in 1952.

The Governor of Arizona Territory, Anson Safford (Addison Richards, another old hand), sees the wisdom of Clum’s ways and comes round to supporting him. But the Army remains resolutely antagonistic.

The film is definitely in keeping with the Broken Arrow-style of pro-Indian movie of the 50s and is worthy for that reason. Indeed Clum is a sort of Thomas Jeffords figure in the story. It’s not action-packed but that’s good: we wouldn’t have believed a Clum winning the West with sixguns. Murphy’s Clum is sober and dignified.

Well, a state of emergency is declared and the Army is back in charge. In reality, Clum got support from hardly anyone. The government did not back him up, and certainly not the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Army hated him and many Arizonans mistrusted such an “Indian lover.” In the movie Clum quits but Eskiminzin tells him, “If you go, we are lost,” so Clum changes his mind, and he and wifey, who has seen the error of her ways, resume the Agent’s life. (He would have been better off with la Bancroft but we can’t change things that much). In fact, of course, he left San Carlos in July 1877, three years after his arrival, and moved to Florence, AZ, editing a newspaper, then went to Tombstone, and the rest, as they say is, if not history, then Hollywood history anyway. Clum’s successors as Agent at San Carlos were the corrupt men of the bad old days.
Clum as postmaster in the 1890s
In 1898 Clum was appointed Postmaster in the Alaska Territory. While in Nome, Alaska, in 1900 he met up with his old pal Wyatt Earp, who was running the Dexter Saloon there. Like Earp, Clum eventually retired to the Los Angeles area and like Earp, he died there an old man, in Clum’s case in 1932 at the age of 80. It was a fascinating career.
Clum (right) with Wyatt Earp in Nome, 1900
You do need to see Walk the Proud Land, despite its lack of historicity, but anyway, though some facts are distorted, you do get the feeling that they got the overall tone right. Clum really was a gutsy and decent man who did his best for the Apache.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Saga of Hemp Brown (Universal, 1958)

Rory rides again


Rory Calhoun first appeared in a Western (Sand) in 1949, got his first starring role in the saddle in the Jacques Tourneur-directed Way of a Gaucho (if you count that a Western) in 1952, and hit the semi-big-time when he was third billed after Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return in ’54. He then settled down to leading in B Westerns and did large numbers of them before becoming Bill Longley, The Texan, on TV in 1958. He made appearances in other TV Westerns too. His last big-screen lead in an oater was in the comedy Western Mule Feathers in 1977. He was 6’4” and handsome, he’d been a cowpuncher, among many other trades, in his youth, and he always looked good in the saddle. Some of his B Westerns, many for Universal, were really quite gritty.

There was a time when sagas were tales of daring deeds and valor; then they became just family soaps. But the makers of The Saga of Hemp Brown at least tried to tell a tale of a noble man on a quest. It’s about a cavalry lieutenant who is unjustly cashiered for cowardice and has to live a life of shame, shunned by ‘decent’ people. He is determined to track down the man guilty of framing him, the very mean Jed Givens (John Larch), in order to clear his name.
Badman Larch
Given that he wears his uniform after dishonorable discharge, with faded patches where the insignia once were, he was rather an obvious target for scorn. But eventually a floozy in a store sells him some range duds (and suggestively offers other services) and he blends into the scenery a bit better.
Lt. Rory

Rory in range duds
He gets on the trail of the evil Givens and travels south, south, ever south. He finds the renegade in a saloon owned by a Mr. Bo Slauter (Morris Ankrum), called, in a rather macabre way, The Slaughterhouse, but there is a fight and Givens escapes again. Our hero meets up with a traveling show and, despite a semi-derringer, forces the top-hatted and curly-mustached owner (Fortunio Bonanova, 5 Westerns, all B) to take him in the wagon, which is already occupied by the glam Mona (Beverly Garland, who was in a lot of B and TV Westerns from 1950 on). Naturally it’s soon lerve between Rory and Beverly.
Rory and Beverly pose
The best character is the outlaw Hook, who has a hook instead of one hand. He is played by Russell Johnson, the professor from Gilligan’s Island who had a good sideline in B and TV Western badmen.

There’s a daring bit when the camera zooms in on Mona’s legs.

There’s a trial scene and a lynch mob and several fistfights, though the latter are unusually badly staged so you can see that the thrown punches miss the aimed-at jaws by miles.

Some of the writing (Robert Creighton Williams from a story by Bernard Girard) is a bit plodding. “You’ll never get away with this, Givens,” says Rory at one point. There are other clichés.

There’s lots of plot.

In the last three minutes the villain confesses, the crowd rehabilitates the erstwhile coward and Rory gets Mona, so all’s well that ends well.

This is a straight-down-the-line Universal B Western of the 50s and as such no great shakes but it has its moments, it's in Cinemascope color and is on balance enjoyable. You could give it a go, e-pards.



Monday, May 11, 2015

Law of the Badlands (RKO, 1951)

The series winds down

Regular readers will know that I have something of a penchant for Tim Holt oaters. They were so innocent, somehow, but they were full of energy and a lot of fun. RKO churned them out at a rate of three or four a year throughout the 1940s, though by the time of this one, Law of the Badlands, the formula was getting a bit tired. The series ended in 1952.

It’s a classic Tim & Chito Western directed by the very competent Lesley Selander, as so many of them were, and it has all the ingredients we have come to expect. There’s Chito Rafferty the Mexican-Irish sidekick (Richard Martin), and the two pals get into scrapes, then out of them. Chito chases the girls, though runs a mile when one proposes to him. Tim (he’s Dave Saunders this time) remains chaste and just concentrates on thwarting the nefarious schemes of the villain and smiling winsomely.
Only the poster was in color
Like many of the series, it had a screenplay by Ed Earl Repp, an advertising man and newspaper reporter who wrote a great many pulp-magazine stories before World War II, when he began to work as a screenwriter. He occasionally used the pseudonym Bradnor Buckner. It’s formulaic writing but tight and professional.

Music is again by Paul Sawtell, who churned out scores of scores for countless cowboy pictures, always stirring and energetic, and occasionally martial. This score is Lone Rangery.

The Holt-Martin/Selander/Repp/Sawtell team worked well for RKO and the theaters filled, mostly admittedly with juveniles, so they kept on making them until TV pretty well killed them off.
Every 40s cowboy had to have his spin-off fanzine
This one’s a tale of counterfeiting and Tim and Chito are Texas Rangers, sent under cover to the badlands to uncover the plot. They rob some robbers to get a rep and inveigle their way into the gang. The Silver Dollar saloon in Badland, TX is the base of operations of the bad guy. These villains usually had a saloon, a mustache, some henchmen and often a derringer, though sadly not the latter this time. This slimy town boss is Cash Carlton (Leonard Penn, 82 B and TV Westerns, 1938 - 58) in a series of suits of an ever-louder check.

There’s a bit of ‘business’ with carrier pigeons. It’s how Tim, sorry, I mean Dave, gets messages secretly to his Ranger boss in Willcox, Capt. McVey (not McNally), played by Kenneth MacDonald.

Joan Dixon is the saloon gal dame, Velvet. She was the go-to female lead for the last five Tim Holters, 1951 – 52. She blurts out that Chito and Tim are Rangers. Doh.

Oh well, you have missed little if you do not watch this movie. Still, if you’re like me, you wouldn’t feel that you had wasted your time if you did watch it.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Guns of Hate (RKO, 1948)

Tim & Chito ride again

I always thought hatred was the noun, not hate, but ‘Guns of Hatred’ doesn’t seem to work somehow. Whatever.
Not an epic of the genre but a lot of fun
It’s another Tim Holt programmer in the long series that began in 1940, 47 in all, and ended in 1952. Many of them were directed by Lesley Selander, a very safe pair of hands, and Guns of Hate is no exception. It was one of five Westerns Tim starred in during that rather epic year in the history of the oater. As was so often the case, he also has Richard Martin as Chito Rafferty, his Mexican-Irish sidekick, riding alongside, work-shy English-mangling philanderer that he was. It’s odd that while Chito remained Chito throughout, Tim Holt, confusingly for Chito, went under a whole series of aliases, including that of Tim Holt. In this one he is Bob Banning.
Tim & Chito
We are down in Rimrock in Arizona, where many of these movies were set, though they were shot in California. It’s the usual formula: skullduggery. The plot concerns a chap, Uncle Ben, who has found the legendary Lost Dutchman mine (no, it’s not Glenn Ford; audiences would have to wait a year for Lust for Gold) and a crooked assayer (Tony Barrett, who was in four Tim Holt oaters) who realizes where the sample has come from and tells even crookeder town boss Anse Morgan (Steve Brodie, Bob Dalton in Badman’s Territory). Morgan and his henchman Rocky (Robert Bray, Ranger Corey Stuart in Lassie) murder the honest miner Ben to get the money-belt of nuggets and the map giving the mine’s location which he just happens to be carrying. Such baseness. Worse, Tim and Chito get blamed for the crime, even though they were nobly trying to help.

There’s a saloon gal who helps the pals. She’s Dixie, who naturally loves Chito (the girls rarely show an interest in Tim, nor he in them). Now don’t get confused: this is not the saloon gal Trixie, the one who broke them out of jail by hiding a derringer in a cake; that was in Rustlers the next year. No, this is Dixie (Myma Dell) but Dixie is just as resourceful as Trixie. There’s a great bit where she opens her parasol right in front of the lawman and makes him miss his shot at the fleeing jailbirds.
Tim with a pipe signs autographs for a probably representative audience
Uncle Ben is played by Jason Robards Sr., no less. Mr. Robards had been in Westerns since the silent and early talkie days, but he also did a lot of post-war B and TV oaters. He has a glam niece, Judy (Nan Leslie, also a Tim Holt regular) so there’s plenty of pulchritude to go round. There was often a slightly posh dame and a more louche one in these movies. Usually, the hero dallies with both before going off in the last frames of the final reel with one, usually the more respectable lady but not always. But in Tim Holt Westerns he nearly always leaves the dallying to Chito.

A posse chases Tim and Chito but there are only five members so the boys easily give them the slip (everyone knows there ought to be seven in a posse) and set off to prove their innocence of all felonies.

Of course that same year Tim Holt appeared in the magisterial The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and showed he could really act.
In Treasure of the Sierra Madre
In Guns of Hate and the other programmers he made he didn’t really get the chance to do that. But do not scorn these one-hour Tim & Chito Westerns. They are a lot of fun.

Tim in 1948

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Tumbleweed (Universal, 1953)

A superior Audie oater

Tumbleweed, though not a Western to rival some of the great productions of 1953 such as Shane, Hondo or The Naked Spur, was nevertheless a solid Audie Murphy oater that repays a watch.

It was directed by Nathan Juran. Mr. Juran had won an Oscar for art direction on John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley in 1941 and was later to become famous for directing the epic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman but he was involved in one way or another with many Westerns. He did the art direction on Belle Starr in ’41 and also worked on the James Stewart/Anthony Mann Westerns Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River. The first oater he directed was the Ronald Reagan version of Law and Order, in 1953, and Tumbleweed the same year was his second. He did three Audie Westerns in all. Later, he directed My Friend Flicka episodes. The pace and action of Tumbleweed are more than satisfactory and Juran was a very adequate helmsman of oaters.
Nathan Juran
Like the vast majority of these universal Audie pictures, Tumbleweed is a B movie but is no ultra-low-budget affair. It is attractively shot in Technicolor in Red Rock Canyon and Vasquez Rocks locations with Russell Metty (The Misfits, The Man from the Alamo, Man Without a Star, et al) at the camera. There’s also Henry Mancini music.
Sheriff Chill with Audie
The entertaining Chill Wills is third-billed and plays the stern but sympathetic Sheriff Murchoree. Lee Van Cleef is a lesser bad guy, Marv, and Harry Harvey has a cameo as a prospector but most of the cast is a bit on the ho-hum side. Lori Nelson from Bend of the River plays the rather perfunctory love interest Laura. Russell Johnson (the professor from Gilligan’s Island) is the evil Lam Blanden (who shoots Lee, the swine). Johnson was a regular of TV Western shows but also took small parts in big-screen Westerns from Rancho Notorious in 1952 to A Distant Trumpet in 1964.
Lee is disposed of
Audie is Jim Harvey, who is hired as a guard/guide to a three-wagon train in Yaqui country. When the train is attacked and the men killed, innocent Audie gets the blame and is imprisoned. In the opening scene he has generously dug a bullet out of Tigre (Eugene Iglesias, another regular of TV Westerns), son of the Yaqui chief, the ferocious Aguila (Ralph Moody, yet another TV stalwart), so Tigre frees him from jail, murdering a deputy. Adventures follow as Jim/Audie tries to clear his name. There’s a cliff-hanging ending filmed in the rocks of Coyote Spring in which, with an appropriate “Aaagghh!”, the villain falls to his doom.

Probably the hero of the movie, however, is the eponymous Tumbleweed, a scruffy old nag who turns out to be distinctly fleet of foot.
The hero
Tumbleweed was Audie’s seventh Western for Universal (of a long series of 23 from 1950 to 1966) and he had grown in confidence. He does a solid job in it and was beginning to shuck off his baby-faced kid roles. He appears unshaven with far-from-pristine duds. Dyed-in-the-wool Audie fans consider it to be one of his best, and indeed Murphy himself thought it one of his better efforts.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Last Frontier (Columbia, 1955)

A weaker Anthony Mann Western

The Last Frontier is ‘important’ as being an Anthony Mann Western (the seventh of eleven or twelve, depending on your definition of a Western). It stars Victor Mature, is shot largely at night and deals with the domination of the ‘noble savage’. The characterization is unusual. It is essentially pessimistic.
Opinion is divided as to its quality: many are very complimentary about Mature’s acting (and indeed he could be very good in Westerns) and others have praised the film’s quirkiness but Brian Garfield the Great wrote that the movie was “trashy big-budget junk”. It was shot in Cinemascope and in Technicolor in Popocatécatl Volcano, Puebla, Mexico locations by William C Mellor of The Naked Spur and Bad Day at Black Rock fame, so is visually powerful. The screenplay is by Phillip Yordan (The Man from Laramie, Johnny Guitar, The Bravados, Broken Lance) and Russell S Hughes (Jubal) so it ought to have been good, and often is. And of course Anthony Mann directed it. Yet it never really ‘gels’ and it remains one of the least satisfactory of Mann’s works. Both Mann and Yordan had always looked down on cavalry Westerns and although they had finally decided to do one, perhaps it shows.
It’s a Civil War story, in the sense that it set during the war, but out West in a wild Wyoming outpost. The plot has the traditional cavalry Western element of a stupid by-the-book Army Colonel (Robert Preston) and a level-headed Captain (Guy Madison) who finally prevails. Naturally, the hero Jed Cooper (Mature) falls for the Colonel’s wife (Anne Bancroft), to provide love interest. Been there, done that. Yet it has subtlety, and the essential theme is the ‘civilizing’ of the wild man, but this applies more to the white mountain-man trapper Jed than to the Indians under Red Cloud (Manuel Dondé). Jed is tamed and domesticated, which arouses mixed emotions in the audience.
Mann was famously interested in landscape and the visual composition of his pictures. Even the titles reflect that and it may not be too fanciful to suggest that just as The Far Country set the tale of a hard and cold man in the frozen north of the title and Bend of the River described a turning point in the life of a man putting behind his past in a distant land, so The Last Frontier told of a free frontier spirit finally being tamed by 'civilization'. Or it may be.

Jed, Gus and Mungo (the latter two played by James Whitmore and Pat Hogan) are a sympathetic trio of trappers who are robbed of a year’s worth of pelts by the Sioux, who are angry at incursions of the US Army. The mountain men seek redress at the fort and are recruited by Capt. Riordan (Madison) as scouts.

The colonel’s wife (Bancroft) is, as was also traditional, at first snooty and stand-offish but is gradually wooed by Jed’s energy and naïf charm. Her martinet husband, a sort of Colonel Thursday figure, is thought dead but then turns up and assumes command, catastrophically.
Though seduced by the fine uniform, Cooper is insubordinate and drunk, and hated by Sergeant Decker (Peter Whitney). There is an epic fight between the two, much of it on the roof, shot from below.

There is a battle with the Indians, Jed heroically saves the day and the colonel is killed. This provokes a weak happy-ever-after ending, out of kilter with the rest of the film.

Though la Bancroft is not at her best, Preston was reliably excellent and as for Mature, this and his Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine are his best Western roles. Matinée idol Mature was in some ways an unlikely figure in the saddle and indeed he only made five oaters but he was surprisingly good in them.

So The Last Frontier a mixed bag. I myself don’t think it’s “big-budget junk” but nor do I think it has the power and intensity of the Mann/James Stewart Westerns. It has weaknesses but it provokes thought and has real qualities too. Definitely worth a try.