Showing posts from March, 2013

Chuka (1967)

Dir: Gordon Douglas - Cast: Rod Taylor, Ernest Borgnine, John Mills, Luciana Palucci, James Whitmore, Victoria Vetri, Louis Hayward, Michael Cole, Hugh Reilly, Barry O'Hara

Violent but clichéd cavalry versus Indians western, produced by and starring Rod Taylor, who also contributed to the screenplay. Taylor is the proverbial man-in-between, a knowing professional who may - or may not - be able to avoid a massacre. There are a few similarities to Director Douglas' own Rio Conchos, which was better paced and had more complex characters. 

In Rio Conchos, Richard Boone played an obsessive man, an Indian hater hired by the army to do an illegal job across the border. In Chuka, Taylor's titular character is also struggling with a few inner demons (his violent past and feelings for a long-lost love), but it all sounds a little hollow. However, the premise is interesting and there are even a few original story elements: The Cavalry unit is shown as totally inept, led by an alcoholic…

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Dir: John Ford - Cast: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers, Althea Gibson, Hoot Gibson, Stan Jones, Denver Pyle, Strother Martin, Ken Curtis
According to Philip French, the lion's share of the best Civil War pictures are situated in the margin of the historic event, directing viewers away from the divisive central issues of the conflict (1). They either use the Civil War as a backdrop or focus on a small group of characters, soldiers and/or civilians, whose lives are affected by the hostilities. John Ford's The Horse Soldiers is a good example of such a 'small-scale' Civil War movie: it focuses on three characters who are saddled which each other during a brief but decisive period. 
The movie is based on a little-known historic event, a suicidal mission, led by Union Colonel Benjamin Grierson, on the eve of the Battle of Vicksburg. Grierson was sent by General Grant across the Mississippi into Confederate territory, to destroy the railroad line to Vicksburg. I…

Colorado Territory (1949)

Dir: Raoul Walsh - Cast: Joel McCrea, Virginia Mayo, Dorothy Malone, Henry Hull, John Archer, James Mitchell, Morris Ankrum, Basil Ruysdael, Frank Puglia, Ian Wolfe
The title of this movie is a bit deceptive. The movie is set in Colorado Territory, but Colorado is also the name of a girl, played by Virginia Mayo. She's a beauty living in a remote place in the desert, who all of a sudden decides to stay with Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea), an escaped convict dreaming of a quiet life, after pulling off one last spectacular heist.

“You don’t want to go back to jail, others don’t want to go back to dance-halls”

McQueen heads off to the territory from the title, to meet the man who had masterminded his escape from jail. He’s supposed to meet him in a place called the Valley of Death, an exit to nowhere. One character describes it as follows:

“The Spaniards came first and called it Todos Santos, but then arrived the Indians, who massacred them. Then came the pox who wiped out the Indians. Only …

Heaven's Gate (1980)

Dir: Michael Cimino - Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotten, Mickey Rourke, Paul Koslo, Geoffrey Lewis, Willem Dafoe

I - A Cause Célèbre
With a running-time of nearly four hours, Heaven's Gate is one of the longest and most ambitious movies in film history. With a budget of 44 million dollars and earnings of no more than a little over 3 million, it's also one of the biggest flops. It led to the downfall of a studio, United Artists, and gave the final blow (or nearly so) to auteur film making in Hollywood. It has also been slammed for animal cruelty and turning history upside down. In other words: Heaven's Gate is as much as cause célèbre as a movie.

The different versions

The full-length version of 219 minutes opened in New York, November 19th, 1980. It was killed overnight with a stream of negative reviews and the Studio pulled it back after only one week, forcing Cimino…

The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972)

Dir: Dick Richards - Cast: Gary Grimes (Ben), Billy Green Bush (Culpepper), Luke Askew, Bo Hopkins, Geoffrey Lewis, Matt Clark, Anthony James, Charles Martin Smith

16 year old Grimes thinks life in town sucks, so he joins trail boss Mr. Culpepper, in the hope to become a real cowboy. He’ll soon learn the life of a cowhand is one of humiliation, boredom, random violence and only few moments of relaxation in-between.

At the same time a revisionist western and a coming-of-age movie, The Culpepper Cattle Co is an enjoyable ride all the way – or maybe I should say: nearly all the way. It’s deliberately paced and instead of telling a straightforward story, it seems more concerned with giving us a fragmented (but often incisive) impression of the harsh reality of frontier life. It has a fabulous look - some have noticed that various images look like Remington paintings (1) - but never glorifies the life it depicts. It's also one of a series of westerns related to the Vietnam …

Non-Western: Prometheus

Note:This is not a review of the movie Prometheus, I only discuss some aspects of it

No need to mention the name of the director, year of making, etc. Prometheus is Prometheus. The movie everybody was looking forward to. Me too. Anticipation causes frustration. A couple of friends told me that I wouldn't like it for very specific reasons. I trusted them and therefore avoided the film when it was shown in theatres, but now it was released on DVD, I could no longer look the other way.

Let me tell you first what I did like, apart from the glorious look and production design. I liked the presentation of this interdisciplinary research group, in the beginning of the movie. Everybody who has ever worked with (or within) such a group knows scientists are small children: put five of them in one room and what you get is a kindergarten. And nobody will be able to tell you who is the android. They look weird and often talk with funny accents. One of the crew members even talked with the same S…

The War Wagon (1967)

Dir: Burt Kennedy - Cast: John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Howard Keel, Bruce Cabot, Robert Walker Jr., Keenan Wynn, Joanna Barnes, Bruce Dern, Sheb Wooley

Unpretentious, tongue-in-cheek, this slam-bang action movie is one of the best vehicles John Wayne appeared in during the last two decades of his long career. The tone for the movie is set early on, with Kirk and Duke exchanging funny remarks after they have gunned down two opponents:

"Mine hit the ground first"

"Mine was taller."

Basically John and Kirk are anti-heroes, thieves, villains, but apparently this was still a bit of a daring idea in '67 Hollywood, so the mine owner (Cabot) they try to rob, is a corrupt businessman, who stole the Duke's properties in the first place. In other words: the Duke is stealing his own gold back, and what is essentially a caper movie, is turned into a revenge movie.

The wagon from the title, is an armor-plated stagecoach, provided with a revolving turret with a fixed…

Barquero (1970)

Dir: Gordon Douglas - Cast: Lee van Cleef (Barquero), Warren Oates (Jack Remy), Forrest Tucker (Mountain Phil), Mariette Hartley (Anna Hall), Kerwin Matthews (Marquette), Maria Gomez (Nola), Craig Littler (Reverend Pitney) Harry Lauter (Steele)

First of all: Barquero is not a spaghetti western. It's a full-blood American western, shot in Colorado, directed by a Hollywood veteran, Gordon Douglas, who had made several action packed westerns in the previous years, such as Rio Conchos (1964) and Chuka (1967). The presentation of its protagonist as a taciturn cynic surely bespeaks some influence of the Italian western, and so does the location, near the Mexican-American border. As Philip French put it, the Italian western had pushed the Hollywood western further south, and made the western hero more cynical, and less verbose.

Bandit leader Jake Remy (Oates) and his gang of cutthroats want to cross the Rio Grande as soon as possible after they have pillaged a town and massacred the entire…

The Professionals (1966)

Dir: Richard Brooks - Cast: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Claudia Cardinale, Jack Palance, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Ralph Bellamy, Marie Gomez

One of the most successful 'great' westerns of the mid-sixties, and with three Academy Award nominations also one of the critically most acclaimed. But its reputation has faded a little. It nevertheless seems to have it all: explosive action, a lot of tough and cool guys, and Claudia.  

The story is set in 1917. Lee Marvin is Fardan, a mercenary asked by a business man J.W. Grant to lead a small group of professionals into revolutionary Mexico, to rescue Grant's wife (Claudia), who has been kidnapped by revolutionary leader Raza (Palance). Both Fardan and explosives expert Dolworth (Lancaster) have a history with Raza, but decide to fulfill their task even when they discover that the lady prefers Raza to Grant and probably wasn't even kidnapped to begin with. 

The film is well-paced and beautifully shot (by Conrad H…

Rio Lobo (1970)

Dir: Howard Hawks - Cast: John Wayne, Jennifer O'Neill, Jorge Rivero, Jack Elam, Christopher Mitchum, Victor French

Hawks last movie, and also the third and final part of the Rio Trio, arguably the weakest of the lot. Actually there's no doubt that it can't hold a candle to either Rio Bravo or El Dorado, but it's still a Hawks movie and a pleasant ride (nearly) all the way.

At first sight, the story has little in common with the other two movies. John Wayne is Cord McNally, a Union Army colonel who is searching, in the aftermath of the Civil War, for the two men who sold information to the other side about a shipment of gold entrusted to McNally. The betrayal led to a raid in which a young loyal officer was killed. McNally is assisted by two ex -Confederate soldiers who were involved in the raid (he holds no grudge against them because they we're only doing their job) and a young woman who has her own personal score to settle with the traitors. 

It's a…

El Dorado (1967)

Dir: Howard Hawks - Cast: John Wayne (Cole Thornton), Robert Mitchum (J.P. Harrah), James Caan (Mississippi), Arthur Hunnicut (Bull Harris), Charlene Holt (Maudie), Michele Carey (Joey), Ed Asner, R.G. Armstrong, Paul Fix, Christopher George

The second of Howard Hawks' Rio Trio, the three movies with John Wayne battling the evil forces with the help of a friend, an old timer and a greenhorn. It's virtually a remake of the first movie, Rio Bravo, but some people think it's one of those remakes that are better than the original.

Duke is a professional gunfighter called Cole Thornton, who's asked by cattle baron Bart Jason to join his army of gunmen. But he turns down the job because his former friend J.P. Harrah, now the sheriff of El Dorado, has told him that Jason is a tyrant who drives farmers off their ranch. One of those farmers is the stubborn MacDonald and Thornton feels an obligation to him, because he has accidently killed his son. When Jason is arrest…

The Man from Laramie (1955)

Dir: Anthony Mann - Cast: James Stewart (Will Lockhardt), Arthur kennedy (Vic), Donald Crisp (Alec Waggoman), Cathy O'Donnell (Barbara Waggoman), Alex Nicol (Dave Waggoman), Aline Macmahon (Kate Canady), Wallace Ford (Charley), Frank DeKova (Padre)

The fifth and final collaboration between director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart, one of the best and visually most striking of the lot. Mann and his cinematographer Charles Lang capture the harshness and forlornness of the landscape masterfully, offering an image of people desperately trying to fulfill their mission in life, in a world that will eventually have the better of them.

Officially the movie is based on a story by Thomas T. Flynn, first published in the Saturday Night Post, but it owns as much to Shakespeare's King Lear. Mann had been thinking for years of a western version of Shakespeare's play and an earlier script by Philip Yordan was called The King, a man from Laramie. John Wayne was supposed to…

Wild Rovers (1971)

A western directed by Blake Edwards, the man behind the Pink Panther movies? To some this may come as a surprise, but Edwards had a life-long penchant for the genre. With this bleak, melancholic movie he also wanted to prove that he was more than just a skilled entertainer, but his film was drastically cut by the studio and edited against his wishes. Most of the footage has been restored in the course of the years, but the longest available version, running 132 minutes, is still not the version Edwards had in mind. Compared to the theatrical release (109 minutes) the longer version solves a few problems, but creates a couple of others as well.

William Holden and Ryan O’Neal are two cowboys who realize they will be poor, hardworking cowboys forever, unless they take matters into their own hands. The only way out of the deadlock, seems robbing a bank, so that’s what they decide to do. But they’re destined to be cowboys, not bank robbers, and the robbery is the beginning …

The Unforgiven (1960)

Director: John Huston – Cast: Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, John Saxon , Charles Bickford, Lillian Gish, Albert Salmi, Joseph Wiseman, Doug McClure, Carlos Rivas

The Unforgiven is an adaptation of a novel by Alan Le May, who also wrote The Searchers, the source novel for John Ford’s famous movie. Both novels were supposed to be ‘adult’ western stories about racial hatred and tension.

The story is about a young girl, Rachel, who was adopted as a child by the Zachary family. This is stipulated early on in the movie, most probably to avoid suspicions of an incestuous love affair. The point is that Rachel (although she is courted, more or less successfully, by the neighbors’ son) adores her older ‘brother’ Ben, and we soon understand it’s not just sisterly love. There’s also a mysterious old man who claims the girl wasn’t a foundling, as stated by her ‘mother’, but was stolen from the Kiowa. When this tribe is on the warpath, Rachel’s fiancé is killed, provoki…

The Deadly Trackers (1973)

Dir: Barry Shear - Cast: Richard Harris, Rod Taylor, Al Lettieri, Neville Brand, William Smith, Paul benjamin, Pedro Armandariz Jr., Isela Vega

This movie falls into that special category "Not great, but not as bad as it's reputed to be". It was started by one director, the notorious Sam Fuller, in Spain, but finished by another, the less notorious Barry Shear, in Mexico.  The footage shot by Fuller was not used, and his original script was entirely re-written. Officially Lukas Heller was credited for it, but according to Rod Taylor's website, large parts of the script were written on the spot, by Harris and Taylor, who both were very dissatisfied with Heller's work.

In spite of all these rewritings, some of Fuller's original ideas about a once peaceful sheriff who becomes a renegade after the violent death of his wife and child, still shine through. The opening scene with Harris as the legendary sheriff of the town of Santa Rosa, is quite good. Har…

MacKenna's Gold (1969)

Dir: J. Lee Thompson, Cast: Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas, Camilla Sparv, Julie Newmar, Ted Cassidy, Eli Wallach, Edward G. Robinson, Burgess Meredith, Lee J. Cobb, Keenan Wynn, Anthony Quayle - Narrated by Victor Jory 

I wouldn't call this a great movie, but it was the first western I ever saw in cinema so it has a special place in my heart. It must have been an Easter or Christmas holiday, since the cinema was filled with boys of my age, about thirteen or fourteen years old. Temperatures rose to tropical heights when Julie Newmar took off her clothes and jumped into a mountain lake, and I guess temperatures weren't the only things rising. 

Mackenna's Gold was released in 1969, a remarkably good year for the American western. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, The Wild Bunch and True Grit were all released in this pivotal year,  but these westerns were all events in their own very special right: True Grit was Duke's Oscar winning movie, Butch &a…

Joe Kidd (1972)

Knowing that the movie was directed by John Sturges, also stars Robert Duvall and was scripted by Elmore Leonard, it may come as a surprise that Joe Kidd is often called Clint's dullest western. It is probably best known for a scene in which Eastwood runs a railway engine through a bar. Some have noticed similarities to Sergio Corbucci's The Great Silence ('that western in the snow'). A persistent rumor says Clint once bought the rights to a remake of Corbucci's movie (which was never released in the US), but then decided to do this movie instead. There are couple of similarities (locations, weapons) but they're rather vague and they might as well be totally coincidental.

The premise sounds very interesting: at the end of the Mexican-American war, Mexico has ceded a part of its territory to the US (1). The local Mexican population are being systematically cheated of their land rights by American land barons. One of the locals, a farmer called Cha…

Hang 'em High (1967)

Dir: Ted Post - Cast: Clint Eastwood,  Inger Stevens, Ed Begley, Pat Hingle, Ben Johnson, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, L.Q. Jones, Bob Steele, Charles McGraw

The first western Clint made back in his home country after his Italian adventures, often called the first stateside spaghetti western. It was produced by his own Malpaso Company and he knew both director Post and composer Frontiere from his Rawhide days. According to some sources he co-directed it, and this wouldn't surprise me a bit. Hang 'em High announces some of the rather complex ideas about personal revenge versus legal justice, that would become a recurrent theme in Clint’s movies.

Set in 1899, at the brink of a new millennium and era, Hang 'm High depicts a West in which personal revenge is gradually being replaced by a still rudimentary legal system. The process is presented as ‘natural’, as ‘in the line of things’, so when Clint survives his own hanging by a blood-thirsty lynch mob, and wants reven…

Rio Bravo (1959)

Dir: Howard Hawks – Cast: John Wayne (John T. Chance), Dean Martin (Dude), Angie Dickinson (Feathers), Ricky Nelson (Colorado), Walter Brennan (Stumpy), Ward Bond, John Russell, Claude Akins, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, Harry Carey Jr. – Music: Dmitri Tiomkin

Rio Bravo usually is interpreted as a riposte to Fred Zinneman’s High Noon. The stories are different, but like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, John Wayne’s character is a lawman under pressure. He has arrested the brother of a wealthy rancher and must now defend himself against the hired guns sent to free the prisoner. But whereas Gary Cooper begs for help and gets none, sheriff John T. Chance does not ask for help, and gets some. Two people offer their assistance: his former deputy, now an alcoholic, and a crippled old timer. A fourth person joins this club of old pals, a young man who is quick on the draw, but has not yet put his abilities into practice. Again Chance doesn’t ask him to join the club, he smoothly walks in, apparently beca…