Friday, January 27, 2017

A Father and Son Feud: Red River (1948)

For anyone doubtful of John Wayne's acting, Red River (1948) will disabuse you of that foolishness.
For anyone who isn't aware of the greatness of Montgomery Clift, this will set you on the right track. While dated at times and hampered by a sappy, slightly out-of-left-field end, this is one of the true Western classics.

Red River was directed by Howard Hawks. He was one of the most versatile directors in Hollywood. Among his numerous films prior to this one were the screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940) and two Humphrey Bogart classics, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). In 1959, he made another one of the best Westerns, Rio Bravo, again starring John Wayne. 

The script is by Borden Chase (who wrote several of the important Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann Westerns) and Charles Schnee. It was adapted from an original story by Chase titled "Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail" published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1946.

John Wayne plays hard-headed cattleman, Thomas Dunson. He abandons a wagon train to start a cattle empire, leaving his best gal, Fen, to die in a Comanche raid. 

The conversation between Dunson and Fen suffers from the worst sort of Hollywood melodramatic overwriting and syrupy music. She wants to go south with him, but he insists it's no place for a woman. She doesn't care, telling him:

"Do I feel weak, Tom? I don't, do I? You'll need me. You'll need a woman. You need what a woman can give you"

Matters aren't helped that she's in full makeup and styled hair. It mars a scene that's already creaking under sentimental writing. Still, it sets up Dunson for the viewer as a man willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to fulfill his dream. Before the end, there are other grim prices he will pay as well.

After crossing the Red River into Texas, they wander south in search of good ranch land. The land on the Rio Grande Dunson later claims is owned by a Mexican grandee four hundred miles to south. To secure it, he guns down one of the grandee's men. Later we learn he killed several more men to hold his territory.

Montgomery Clift, fresh from Broadway, co-stars as Matt Garth. Sole survivor of the Indian raid, he's adopted by Dunson. Along with sidekick Groot (Walter Brennan in full-on wheezy mode), the pair establish one of the mightiest cattle empires in Texas, with over ten thousand head of cattle.

Groot, young Garth, and Dunson 
The film then jumps ahead fourteen years to 1865. The Civil War has left the South broke, without a dime to pay for Dunson's beef. His only option is to take them to a railhead and ship them back East. It's at this point the movie really kicks into gear.

Dunson puts together a team of cowboys, including gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland), to drive his herd north to Sedalia, Missouri. After telling every man the trail will be brutal, he adds that any man who signs on must agree to finish the drive or forfeit all pay. All agree, unaware of just how miserable the conditions will really be and how hard a man Dunson is.

The trail is rough, and when Cherry tells the rest of the crew he heard about a new railhead in Abilene, Kansas, they're all excited. Abilene is closer and afford more places to water the cattle. Without any eyeball proof of the new railroad line, Dunson rejects the idea and keeps pushing on to Missouri.

Things start to fall apart as the trek gets deadlier. There are storms, short supplies, and a stampede. Dunson becomes more dictatorial and obsessed with completing the journey his way. Matt tries to settle things and act as the voice of reason, but it's clear he can't do this forever. Eventually, it leads to a split between the two, that seems only able to end in death.

A lot of John Wayne movies and roles suck. There's no way of putting it any better. He found an easy persona that he stuck to in way too many movies: the slightly arrogant and steady tone, the tilted-hip-swagger, and the no-nonsense attitude. Sometimes he mixed it up with a little humor, but a performance he delivered time and time again.

Even in his weakest films, though, he filled the screen with a towering presence. When gifted with the right role, he blazed with a deep brilliance.  At his best, he was as good as most of his contemporaries, and better than many. I hope to look at some of his other standout performances later (Stagecoach, The Searchers), but his Thomas Dunson is as good as any of those.

Thomas Dunson (Wayne)
When we first meet Dunson, he's a hard man, but he's good-natured. When the wagon train master tries to bully him into staying, Dunson makes it clear that won't be happening. He does it, though, with a smile and a reminder to the boss that he signed no contract. 

After the Comanche raid, the death of his girl and the loss of his small herd (also to the raiders), his hard edges emerge. It's then that he guns down the Mexican cowboy. Over the ensuing years we learn he's killed numerous other men who tried to take his land. Later, he's ready to bullwhip a man and gun down any standing across his path.

Wayne had a public image of the true-blue American hero, but he never had trouble messing with that image on the screen. This role and that of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers are some of his best work and both are damaged, nearly pathological men. There's an appealing raffishness to Dunson when he's introduced, but it's gone, replaced with a dead-eyed, affectless manner.

Matt Garth (Clift)
Montgomery Clift had a meteoric career that began burning up when, following a terrible car crash, lost himself to booze. Between 1948 and 1956, the year of his accident, he made eight movies and was nominated for Best Actor three times.

In 1945, after several notable Broadway roles, he went to Hollywood, and the very next year cast in Red River. Watching his ease and naturalness, it's easy to see how his role as Matt Garth made him a star. If Wayne is a dark, menacing figure, Clift practically glows with compassion and life.

Clift doesn't appear until twenty minutes into Red River electrifies the film in a way it isn't before.  Both Garth and Dunson are highly self-controlled, but Garth is a calming, reassuring man, whereas his adoptive father is a vortex of domination. At the movie's heart is the clash between the two once the cattle drive goes off the rails.

Garth is the voice of reason, striving to keep Dunson's worst instincts from destroying the expedition. When he proves unable to keep the peace, he is forced to make a terrible choice, driving the two men apart irrevocably.

The final part of Red River, introduces Tess Millay (Joanna Dru) as the wagon train she's part of come under Indian attack. After a meet-cute during the raid (she takes an arrow to the shoulder, then she smacks him, then she faints), she falls for him hard. So hard, that even after he flat leaves her, she still risks her life to thwart Dunson when he rides up a few days later gunning for Matt. 

Tess Millay (Dru) and Matt Garth
The movie climaxes in the inevitable showdown between Dunson and Garth. Dunson is all black rage and murder. Garth is ready, but unwilling, to kill his father. It's the moment the film's been building to from the beginning. And then it's ruined by a cop out of the first order. Diverging from the original story, it ends on an utterly false note of unbelievable reconciliation. Still, if I squint my eyes, I can see the proper ending of Red River

There's some serious weirdness to Red River. The obvious starting place is the relationship between Dunson and Garth. Dunson wants his adopted son to be as strong and commanding as himself, someone who will inherit everything from him one day and then make it even greater. After his split with Garth, Dunson offers Tess half of all his wealth to bear him  a son. His fury at Garth seems fueled by his loss of an heir as much as the loss of control of the cattle driver. 

Then there's the infamous "gun scene" between Clift and Ireland. Just watch it for yourself.


Watch the two gunslingers size each other (and guns) up. Here's how Valance introduces himself to Garth.
"That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? Maybe you'd like to see mine. Nice. Awful nice."
To call their conversation homoerotic in a film with only two speaking women roles would be a disservice to the word homoerotic. Sadly, Ireland fell afoul of Hawks during production and found himself written out of most of the picture.

Despite a flawed ending and sloppy, melodramatically written women, Red River is one of the best Westerns. It's a distinct turning point in the genre where it matured into something more than entertainments filled with cowboys, Indians, and villains in black hats. 

In Hawks' movie there aren't any white hats or black hats, but instead, gray ones. He gives us an exemplar of American frontier independence, but it becomes twisted and evil. The conflict between its two stars is rooted in their personalities and their actions flow from them as well. They are recognizable, adult characters.

This is an A Western. There were plenty of great movies before it (ex. Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again), but Red River represents a real step forward. Parts are dated, but this movie is one of the best classic Westerns to come out of the Hollywood system with actors. 

Red River's Historical Locations

Map showing approximate position of Dunson's ranch, Sedalia, and Abilene
According to IMDB, Red River was filmed mostly in Arizona. 

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking;  one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: The utterly nutso Johnny Guitar (1954) starring Joan Crawford at her most glowering.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Movie Mail Bag

With some Christmas $s, I decided to fix a few holes in my Western collection. Some of them I specifically plan to review (Johnny Guitar, The Shooting, High Plains Drifter - a list that should make it pretty obvious I'm partial to the odder films). Others, I'm not sure about. I known I'll review at least one of the Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann movies, but which one I'm not sure of yet. If memory serves me right, they're all pretty good - maybe as good as the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher collaborations. 



The five Stewart/Mann pictures were Winchester '73, The Man from Laramie, The Naked Spur (which I already have), The Far Country, and Bend of the River. Now I'll have 'em all. Oh, and Night Passage was supposed to be directed by Mann as well, but he dropped out because he didn't like the casting of Audie Murphy.



Keith West reminded me of Clint Eastwood's fairly psychotic, nearly Gothic, supernatural revenge Western (enough adjectives for you?), High Plains Drifter. Clint has never had trouble playing an ambiguous "hero," and his gunslinger in this one might be the most so. There are scenes of psychological and moral degradation that might make the most jaded viewer's skin crawl.

And the set includes Stewart's early pairing with Marlene Dietrich, Destry Rides Again



Finally, low-budget genius Monte Hellman's two Westerns. Both feature young, yet-unmannered Jack Nicholson, and Millie Perkins. Ride in the Whirlwind also has Harry Dean Stanton. The Shooting is one of Warren Oates' best performances. The latter film was described thus:
Imagine a Spaghetti Western written by Rod Serling, adapted from a Samuel Beckett play. Throw in the following: the great Warren Oates, an evil Jack Nicholson, a bitchy Millie Perkins, some hellish desert locales, and a truly bizarre ending -- a definite must-see.


Monday, January 16, 2017

Westerns - It's All About the Cowboys



Spurred on by Raphael Ordoñez's film noir reviews, I thought I might try my hand with some similar, but with Western movies. Unlike noir, which is bound together by an attitude and style, the only things a Western needs to qualify as such is to be set during a time of open frontiers (or while in the process of closing). Most Western films take place after the US Civil War, before the Great War, and west of the Mississippi River (and still with plenty of room for variants by locale and even time period). After that, all bets are off.

By which I mean, Westerns aren't bound by anything else. It really just comes down to cowboys (and Indians, lots of times). Roy Roger's singing cowboy flicks count just as much as Monte Hellman's low-budget revisionist ones. That's a little glib, but seriously, for me, boiled down to basics, Westerns are all about the cowboys.


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From the earliest days of film making to today, there have been Westerns. Wikipedia says the first one is Edwin Porter's 12-minute long The Great Train Robbery. While not the industry behemoth they were in the forties and fifties, after a dearth of them in the eighties, they've made a substantial comeback.

There was a spate of Louis L'Amour tv-movies featuring Tom Selleck among others, and I can't speak for them, never having seen any, but that was pretty much it for that decade. Okay, so there was Silverado too, but I never liked that one, so I try my best to forget it.

Brad Pitt as the late Jesse James
Over the past few years there've been a fair number of good or at lest significant Westerns. While often described as revisionist, Andrew Domink's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Forward is a very good, almost reverent, invocation of many classic Westerns.  Quentin Tarantino's last two movies, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, were both Westerns, more revisionist than classic by all accounts, but still seemingly respectful (I haven't seen either one yet, but folks seem to like them). Those other genre-dabblers, the Cohen Brothers, were bold enough to revisit the Charles Portis novel, True Grit. S. Craig Zahler's 2015 Bone Tomahawk, one of the most unsettling horror movies I've ever watched, proves how far a movie can range from one of John Ford's epics and still without any doubt be called a Western. For genre fans, it's been a pretty grand time.



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So, it's not just cowboys that make a Western a Western. There are a few other things to note that cut across much of the genre.  

The frontier setting, allows these films to strip away the complications of civilization, and let a man face off against high odds, be it other men or the elements. Even many of the lighter ones are about some lone hero facing off against a dastardly gang of rustlers or a criminally minded rancher looking to take over the whole county. The same itch for bravery and adventure scratched by swords & sorcery is satisfied by Westerns.

Many stories examine that point when civilization reaches the frontier. Sometimes it's an elegiac look at a lost time of freedom, others, a time when violence is supplanted by law and justice.

from Fort Apache (1948)
More than any other genre, Westerns are movies of the natural world. Sometimes it's just there, making even mundane scenes look beautiful. Whatever else you remember about John Ford's movies, you will never forget the shots of Monument Valley. Other times  it's integral to the film's atmosphere. Whether it's the Grand Tetons rising up in nearly every outdoor shot in Shane undescoring the precariousness of the farmers situation, or the barren Andalusian countryside in the Man With No Name trilogy depicting a landscape that seems to have been poisoned by corruption and cynicism.

from Shane (1953)
But the cowboy thing is important. To the casual watcher, it's the one consistent thing, linking John Wayne to Gene Autry to Clint Eastwood. There's the whole panoply of the cowboy: six-guns, Stetsons, horses, jingling stirrups, all those things.  The cowboy (or gunslinger), is one of the most iconic looks in the world. Some folks use it as an description of American over aggressiveness in foreign affairs, but most people see the cowboy as a model of independence and boldness.

I don't know when I saw my first Western. I was definitely very young and probably saw it with my dad, a bigger fan than even I am. All I know, is from an early age, my friends and I always had Colt pistol and holster sets. One year, I even got a rawhide vest, chaps, and cowboy hat for Christmas. I just thought the look was cool and I still do.



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I love Westerns, whether traditional John Ford ones or bonkers Sergio Corbucci ones. I particularly love that all sorts of stories can qualify as a Western. It's the sort of genre that encompasses all sorts of genres. They can be epic like The Big Country (1958), romantic like Shane, or even horror like Bone Tomahawk. They're big enough for heroes, rogues, and villains to star as the protagonists - just look at The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Without having to be twisted out of shape, they can be transported to other frontiers and lawless zones - Quigley Down Under (1990) and Nick Cave's grimy The Proposition (2005) move the genre to Australia effortlessly.

Jack freakin' Elam
and James Garner in
Support Your Local Gunfighter
I've tried to think of my ten favorite Westerns and it turned out to be a fool's errand. I've seen and loved too many to have only ten.  Besides, it varies from day to day. I might be Peckinpah mood one month and a Leone or Ford another. Maybe I'm itching for more comic movies like Burt Kennedy's James Garner-starring Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971).

Jones and Duvall in
Lonesome Dove
I've been watching a lot of Westerns, so I figured I might as well write 'em up as well. It gives me an excuse to finally put on a couple of low budget Spaghetti Westerns I've picked up over the years, but never watched, and dig out Lonesome Dove (1989) (the greatest Western ever made).

Saddle up and ride along with me. I suspect a fair number of regulars hereabout have watched more than a few of the films I'll write about. Heck, I'm hoping there're some I've missed you can hip me to along the way.

I'll start out this coming week with Howard Hawks' Red River (1948), starring John Wayne in old man makeup and Montgomery Clift in one of his earliest roles. It's a searing journey into the heart of father-(adopted) son hatred marred by a sappy ending and blessed with this "What in the Wide, Wide, World of Sports?" moments, a weirdly homoerotic scene about guns.




Friday, January 13, 2017

Germanpalooza! Tveir: the Vikings


Having just finished Michael Crichton's ibn Fadlan/Beowulf mashup (with cannibal troglodytes!), Eaters of the Dead, followed with a rewatch its filmic adaptation, The 13th Warrior (perhaps the best heroic adventure movie), I'm in a Vikingy sort of mood.

The roots of the Germanic peoples were in southern Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). A Bronze Age culture grew up in Denmark and southern Norway and Sweden. It's proposed that climatic changes started the migration of tribes out of the region out along the eastern coast of Germany and to the Vistual River. Over the next few centuries they began expanding southward and then westward, eventually running up against the might of Rome.

The Vikings were the descendants of those original Germanic tribes who remained in Scandinavia. Eventually they spread north into the rest of contemporary Scandinavia. Later, during the their ascendancy, roughly the late 8th through 11th centuries AD, they established kingdoms and trade networks up and down the rivers of Russia, the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and even, for a short while, North America.

Growing up with a Norwegian/Danish grandfather who grew up in Sweden, and a Swede-Finn grandmother who spent her teen years in Finland, I heard a lot about the Vikings. There wasn't a lot of detail in their stories and my gradma's stories tended to be more fairytales than history (she claimed she saw tomtegubbes on her farm), but they manage to fill me with pride in my tough, adventurous ancestors.

At some point, maybe when I saw The Vikings (a 1958 Technicolor extravangaza starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas - and Ernest Borgnine), I realized my ancestors were sorta bastards. Like the ancient Greeks, they were as apt to act the pirate as merchant when encountering foreign ships. Worse, they raped and pillaged the British Isles, France, and anywhere else they could get their ships. Icelanders are 20-40% Celtic because of the large slave population held by the Vikings over the years. 

And still I'm fascinated by the people. They were brave and daring, sailors probably only exceeded in skill by the Polynesians. Their myths, the Northern Thing, are still my favorite 

Over the course of centuries, the Vikings were outclassed as thieves and conquerors by a host of other nations and peoples. The kingdoms they founded were all either destroyed, or their peoples subsumed into the larger populations they had conquered. Today, the Scandinavians are the most peaceful folks out there. 

Like in the last Germanpalooza! post, I've snagged some illustrations from various Osprey books.

 The Vendel culture in Sweden flourished between the period of migrations and the rise of the Vikings in the 8th century.


Generic Vikings killing and looting, 9th-10th cent. AD


Generic Vikings on a raid, 9th-10th cent. AD


 Generic Vikings on the beach, 9th-10th cent. AD


King Olaf Trygvason's last stand at the Battle of Svolder, Sept. 999 or 1000
 Generic Viking raid with dead monks and capture civilians
Eastern Vikings 10th-11th cent. AD - this is what the Northmen in The 13th Warrior should have looked like

Rus and Varangian Guards, 11th Cent. AD

Aside from the scarcity of game, the Norse settlers in Newfoundland did not get on well with the locals.