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And Some Came Alone… July 1, 2011

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 1 comment so far

Vera Cruz has unexpectedly and happily arrived on Blu-ray disc, courtesy of Fox/MGM in the US. Happily because it’s a film I love, and unexpectedly because it’s a film that has dropped off the radar of many folks, even western fans.

I first wrote about Robert Aldrich’s seminal western some time ago. That was before I was fully conversant with the mechanics of Superscope, and now that I am, it goes a long way to explaining the wildly inconsistent look of the film that I previously noted and which provoked the ire of contemporary critics.

Vera CruzI don’t intend to attempt to dissect the film further than I have already; this brief ‘drive by’ is simply another bid to encourage those that have not done so to seek out what I, and many others, see as an exceptional piece of work, now presented in high definition.

Fans will enjoy, as I did, John McElwee’s 2-part look at the film at his Greenbriar Picture Shows blog; his point regarding the prints, and Aldrich’s unhappiness at the Superscope conversion, makes sense - the cropping isn’t a huge disaster (setting aside the detrimental effect the Superscope process has on the film’s appearance in general), but I’d lay good money on it being framed by the brilliant Ernest Laszlo with a slightly more forgiving 1.85:1 frame in mind, whilst being protected for Academy Ratio*.

Having, like a kid on Christmas morning, only today ripped the cellophane off the case and watched the film through in high definition, I can’t say too much more about Vera Cruz than previously, except that, like a fine Californian Zinfandel, it gets better with age, with each and every viewing. And the barebones Blu-ray presentation (save for a garish 1.85:1 trailer in 1080p - it even lacks a conventional menu; left in the machine it plays on a loop…) is the best it has looked - or is ever likely to look - on home video.

Sourced from a very decent print, Vera Cruz has not been messed around with digitally, it’s clean and as colourful as Superscope allows and it looks like film - not much more you can ask. I’m indebted to McElwee’s blog above for, among many other things, pointing out the pocket Derringer in Duvarre’s hand at the end, which underlines the script problems they were facing. You can hardly see the gun in standard definition but it’s as clear as a bell at 1080p; the wonders of high definition.

I just love discovering something new about works I admire and am familiar with; I come over all Howard Carter standing on the threshold of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Was Duvarre to have taken a pot-shot at Joe? Was Lancaster to have gunned her down, while grinning like Captain Vallo’s evil twin? I’d still prefer a much bleaker ending; I think Aldrich had one in mind but was possibly over-ruled. It was a tough shoot.

Vera Cruz was total improvisation because the script was always finished about five minutes before we shot it, and we’d sit right down and work it out and then shoot it as we went along. I’m not sure that’s the right way to work…”

Robert Aldrich

I’m not altogether convinced (as McElwee says) that Cooper’s playing of Ben Trane was hamstrung by the star simply protecting his image; I think Trane is the ideal counterpoint to Erin, there’s no doubt he’s heavily conflicted - and having two amoral bad asses would not have made much sense. As you see from the contemporary New York Times review linked above, the savagery, the amorality, the bad table manners, didn’t go down well with critics - Aldrich was way ahead of the game in that respect.

Four final links; I have to give enormous credit to Glenn Erikson - not only did he point me at John McElwee’s blog entry, but it was the Savant who, in the first place, unlocked Vera Cruz’s potential for me as a political entity. His Blu-ray review is here. Need further convincing of the link between Aldrich and Leone? Read Roland Caputo’s wonderful essay Aldrich, Leone and Vera Cruz; Style and Substance Over The Border - I’m particularly taken with his examination and analysis of the ‘reveal’, a bravura camera move that is not only reminiscent of Leone in terms of style, but of Peckinpah in actual execution.

Vera CruzBlu-ray screen captures? We don’ do no steenkin’ Blu-ray ‘caps! No, beaten by technology on that front, so I have to point you elsewhere; Blu-ray.com review here and DVD Beaver’s review here. Please, please bear in mind that when it comes to screencaps, they can only be a rough guide to what you will see on your own equipment. Sound is provided by a DTS HD Master Audio mono soundtrack, which is more than good enough and another step up from previous home video incarnations.

As said, I’m far from alone in thinking Vera Cruz is an under-appreciated and influential western that deserves a greater following; punting out quality BD transfers such as this at bargain bin prices can only help do that surely?

By the way, it’s also available in Germany, but no sign, thus far, of it being offered on these shores; both discs are region free, so will play in your Blu-ray machine. No excuses, buy it now…

*2013 edit: Totally untrue according to widescreen guru Bob Furmanek, and if Bob says it’s so, it’s so…

How The West Was Hijacked? June 23, 2008

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 17 comments

How The West Was Lost

Rich Hall’s BBC 4 documentary How The West Was Lost, screened as part of the digital channel’s recent Westerns Weekend, was, despite my earlier - and as it turns out totally unfounded - fears, really very good. The American comedian’s take on the western was perceptive, intelligent, thoroughly researched and neatly presented; I trembled at the thought of a low-brow gallop through the stereotypes of the genre. What we got was 90 minutes of literate, articulate and energetic dissection, enlivened by Hall’s acerbic wit, and all of it coming from someone who clearly loves the genre.

Attempting to cram the entire history of the western into a mere hour and a half is clearly an impossible task, and I suspect many fans could have taken issue with some of Hall’s observations, but I found myself riding by his side from the off, from the moment he kicked the ass of the ‘film geek’ with his laptop, his bluetooth headseat and his braying assertions (shades of Woody Allen - if only life were like this…), to his description of what he was trying to do was film a documentary; no, not at all like An Inconvenient Truth - that was a ‘Powerpoint presentation’…

My estimation of Hall rose considerably as he not only exonerated Peckinpah from those misguided souls who would have him carry the can for the stomach churning horror pornography that passes today for ‘graphic realism’, but he also visibly coloured as he spat out the sobriquet ‘fuckwit’ in relation to George ‘Dubya’ and his cowboy politics (favourite film; alledgedly High Noon, which is a little redolent of the T.U.C. adopting ‘The Strawbs’ Part of The Union as their anthem). Not only do I, as most of us surely, like a little affirmation, but I stand and whoop at the passion. Go Rich.

The only point in the How The West Was Lost where Rich (and note, I feel we are on first name terms, buddies even; Richie, Richmeister, The Richster…) and I parted company was during his clear dismissal of the Spaghetti Western, principally, the entire western canon of Sergio Leone. Hall (because now I recall the calumny, we’re back to formalities), chucked the whole bowl of spaghettis into the air, damned them with (very) faint praise, and then disdainfully smacked ‘em waaaay out over the bleachers.

The problem, as it appeared to Rich, (deep breaths; forgiveness kicking in) is that the Italians contaminated this purest of American film genres with their Marxist / Catholic sensibilities. These pantywaist Europeans pissed long and hard into the water hole. Rich grimaced and narrowed his eyes at the thought; I wanted the screen to transmogrify into an enormous Leone-esque ’scope close-up, and then for me and him to circle each other in that slow dance of death. Cue Ennio…

Over the past few years, I’ve stared deeply into the part of my soul that wants to be buried at John Ford Point and I’ve come to the conclusion that - gulp - I too, am not a huge fan of the Italian Western per se (now we eschew the ever so slightly xenophobic connotations ‘Spaghetti’ brings to the table).

But I am a huge fan of Sergio Leone and the westerns he fashioned with various talented collaborators; yes, they’re pretty much all ’something to do with death’, which is in itself particularly Catholic, still, aren’t all westerns? Good meets evil; someone has to end face down in the dust. Though in Leone’s case, good meets evil…and usually a third character who straddles both heaven and hell. As for the politics, well, that’s a little more complicated, and more of that later.

Yet all Leone’s westerns are undeniably made by a filmaker who has a genuine passion for the genre, the films of his youth, those halcyon days before Benito came to town, made himself sheriff and buggered up the idyll. Westerns may affirm an idealised view of America for a country that even now seems desperate to hang on to a myth of nation building and it’s pioneers as the very apotheosis of rugged individualism, but their appeal fell far outside the borders of the country from which they sprang.

The whole world over, westerns spoke to small boys, little pardners of all ages, who just needed heroes; Leone simply aped his heroes, those behind as well as in front of the camera, at the same time bringing something unique to the table, an outsiders view of the western legend. Art sometimes reflected reality in an era when Walter Cronkite was bringing increasingly bad, and increasingly graphic, news from South East Asia into America’s comfortable and cosy living rooms. In life as in fiction, the lines between the good, the bad and the ugly were blurring.

It wouldn’t be the first time, or the last; I’ve touched on American interventionism as inspiration before - Leone’s idol John Ford’s Rio Grande approves of and reflects American foreign policy in Korea, and surely Vietnam informed The Wild Bunch. Among others.

In the States particularly, the hoopla that surrounded Leone’s supposed ‘realistic’ violence was not only turning into a very queasy joke, but smacked of Americans circling the wagons to protect their mythos, their westerns from them thar pesky furriners. Leone was accused of hijacking the western, but the truth is, before he burst on the scene so dynamically, the genre, if not drowning, was certainly going down for the second time. Leone didn’t hijack it as much as point a genre that was losing it’s way into a whole other direction, one which some talented directors would pick up and run with, and lesser artists would grubbily exploit, even to this day.

Either way, Leone must now be seen, surely, as among the giants; at the very least, as the Richmeister generously pointed out, no Sergio, no Clint. He still unforgiven Rich..?

Duck You Sucker (1971)

Some spoilers, I should warn you…

Produced at the height of the Vietnam conflict, Duck You Sucker - aka (the director’s preferred title) Giù la testa, A Fistful of Dynamite, Once Upon A Time…The Revolution, depending on which country it was released in - was Sergio Leone’s corrosive look at revolutionary politics. I will, by the way, stick with Duck You Sucker as the title, my comments here referring to the U.S. R1 DVD of that name, restored, mono sound and all, with scenes reinstated from various cuts following the première. Cuts. ‘Twas ever thus for the burly Italian.

James Coburn and Rod Steiger - Duck You Sucker

Duck You Sucker depicts a fly-blown, dirt poor Mexico, a country in complete turmoil with ragged arsed revolutionaries tearing at the throat of heavily armed Government forces, an army bolstered by foreign mercenaries and capable of breathtaking atrocities; the tools of any despotic regime.

The ruling classes, we are shown from the off, are powerful, rich, corrupt and contemptible of the poor. The poor simply want what the rich have; it’s the getting of it that’s at the heart of Duck You Sucker. Leone, scion of Italy, the country that down the centuries has embraced bloody change, opens his film with a quote from Mao Tse-tung:

“The revolution is not a social dinner, a literary event, a drawing or an embroidery; it cannot be done with elegance and courtesy. The revolution is an act of violence.”

We are, then, drawn into the first act of violence, but it’s hardly revolutionary; Mexican bandit Juan Miranda (a hugely enjoyable Rod Steiger, employing an outrageous accent) and his family of six boys (plus ageing father), hold up a plush coachload of characters who are the very definition of bourgeois excess, killing the driver and shotgun, Juan raping the only woman in the group. If it’s a political statement, it is one that is pure and simple; you’ve got it, I want it. And I have the gun.

Moreover, Leone portrays this ship of fools as wallowing in a cesspit of their own excess. The coach itself is massive, a railway carriage affair pulled by eight straining horses through the pisspoor countryside. Inside the pampered posse gulp down an epicurean feast, swilling it down with copious amounts of wine, the camera focusing on their mouths so that they become glistening anuses. They are talking, literally, out of their backsides. The amoral Miranda has no time for them, only what they have, and at the end of his particular rainbow, where they put it; a nice juicy bank.

Providence sends him John Mallory (another excellent performance, and another outrageous accent from James Coburn), an I.R.A. explosives expert turned soldier of fortune. As we learn from a series of unfolding flashbacks - Leone follows the old Fordian dictum of there being little use in discarding a good trick - John is both a fighter and a lover, one-third of a ménage à trois, but an act of betrayal, or more correctly two acts of betrayal that lead to the same end, culminate in a devastating act of vengeance. On the run, he has quit his native Ireland.

Mallory is both a revolutionary and an idealist. But his tacit partnership with Miranda means that he’s soon forced to reassess not only what revolution means for those expendable agents of change, the poor bloody proletariat, but also for those chattering classes who promote it, urging others onto the guns, while at the same time sharing the same self-serving morals as those they seek to depose. Viva Zapata this is not.

Leone, and his fellow screenwriters Sergio Donati and Luciano Vincenzoni, gift Miranda the dialogue which reveal their own feelings on the nature of armed struggle. A pivotal speech comes as John studiously reads a copy of Bakunin’s political tract The Patriotism, and makes a throwaway comment about ‘the revolution’. Juan, who is, much to his disgust, becoming an unwilling and unwitting hero of the struggle, angrily turns to the Irishman:

“I know what I am talking about when I am talking about the revolutions. The people who read the books go to the people who can’t read the books, the poor people, and say, “We have to have a change.” So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They’re dead! That’s your revolution.

Shhh… So, please, don’t tell me about revolutions! And what happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!”

John gives a thoughtful grunt, then tosses his book, with it’s series of earnest page markers, into the mud. Essentially, Juan’s speech neatly underscores the apparently glib opening Mao quote; no revolution without blood and sacrifice, but whose blood? Whose sacrifice? Well, Miranda’s for a start. In a scene that seems to echo the Mai Lai massacre of then recent notoriety, Juan’s family is wiped out, their bodies among the heaps of corpses that the camera glides over, touching on this body and that before settling on the image of the bandit’s tiniest son, his startled, innocent eyes wide open, staring into the dark.

Later, Leone’s camera sweeps majestically over the rail yards as the army machine guns pits of prisoners by their hundreds; if the Italian director has already forced his viewers to draw parallels with a contemporary revolution, here he shows us an image the could easily have come from the conflict of his youth, drawing both together. This is what happens in war; Mussolini and Hitler (to name but two) held no exclusivity when it comes to the authorship of unspeakable crimes against humanity. And the madness goes on.

Duck You Sucker

Mallory is again thrust before the realities when the revolutionary leader Dr. Villega (Romolo Valli) is captured and the Irishman, hidden in the shadows, spies him fingering compatriots for Government forces. When Villega is released and rejoins the struggle, presumably as a double-agent, only John knows the depths to which this hypocrite is capable of sinking and that there’s hardly a cigarillo wrapper between him and mealy-mouthed Governor Jaime (Franco Graziosi), the hated figurehead of the oppressive government forces.

It’s interesting that the Americans portrayed in the film are fat-cat peripheral figures; Donati and Leone’s story, however, has the U.S. as the country Juan and John choose as escape, to put the whole slaughterhouse of revolution behind them. America, a land of milk, honey and those ‘big fat juicy banks’. Another myth, and one that’s ultimately out of reach for them both.

If all this seems a little heavy going, then I apologise for giving that impression, for Duck You Sucker is a fun film. Time and again, Leone follows a great tradition (dare I mention Ford again?) of mixing sometimes grim narrative with humour and Steiger and Coburn (neither, incidentally, Leone’s first choices for their parts), consummate movie actors, are more than adept at both. In one scene, Juan contemplates his loss, and sits in twisted torment, tears streaming down his face as Mallory looks on unable to offer anything by way of comfort where no comfort can be found; from a cage above, a songbird shits on Juan’s head. Slowly he wipes the slime away, looks up in resignation and says; ‘But for the rich you sing…’ John’s face creases into that familiar toothy smile; tragedy and comedy - two sides of the same currency.

In the comparitively slight, but often astonishing, Leone canon, Duck You Sucker is usually overlooked. However, it is now being re-evaluated as one of his very best, beautifully shot by cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini and produced with all the love, care and budget which, from For a Few Dollars More onwards, fans had come to expect; the hundreds of extras that fill gorgeous - occasionally horrifying - vistas that go on forever in towering crane shots, the sets and costumes and particularly the period uniforms of the military, the wonderful Ennio Morricone score, the startlingly humongous explosions that put the wind up his leads who were cheerfully urged ‘closer, closer…’ by their safely out of range director.

Gui la testa

There’s delight too in the ’Wicked Witch of The West’ outfit - to suggest a potent, but pantomime combination of power & evil - that he clads actress Rosita Torosh in for that opening scene. It’s that fine attention to detail, the smallest references which he enjoyed and knew would appeal to fellow film buffs, which underlines Leone’s love affair with movies and the western in particular. Leone didn’t simply hijack the western, he re-energised it, however briefly.

Incidentally, while Mallory’s I.R.A. backstory is another clear nod in the direction of Ford, one wonders if the very first shot of Duck You Sucker, of Juan urinating into a nest of ants - and onto his leg - is another sly dig at his rival Sam Peckinpah (Leone showed Sam dead and buried in My Name is Nobody), whose famous opening to The Wild Bunch, of a scorpion stinging itself as it is attacked by red ants is a clear foreshadowing of events to come. Leone’s ants end up drowning in foaming piss and trodden under foot - another foreshadowing; socio-political certainly, but Marxism be damned.

One can only imagine what the suits at MGM thought of that opening scene, not to mention a film that dealt with revolution, the caravan of chaos that routinely follows the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, at a time when well-fed, privileged middle-class kids were tearing up the Berkeley campus. They probably choked on their martinis. And of course, at some 160 minutes long, the running time became - yet again - one of the battlegrounds on which Leone fought and lost.

As much as 40 minutes was hacked out following the première, dismantling one of the central themes - and one rarely addressed by the director up until this point - the fulcrum of real human relationships; desire, love, lust, revenge, loss, regret. It’s only recently, following MGM’s restoration on DVD can we appreciate the fuller picture that Duck You Sucker paints. Yes, it’s long and languid - it would hardly be Leone otherwise - but it’s a beautifully involving piece of work that actually belies the apparently bum-numbing length. Ironic that Leone actually didn’t want to direct (he had Peter Bogdanovich in mind), but both his leads threatened to walk unless he took the chair; the Italian wouldn’t do so again, officially, for another 13 years.

The final shot of Duck You Sucker is of a bereft, angry Miranda staring into the lens of the camera, into the eyes of you and I. ‘What about me?’, a plaintive line of Juan’s dialogue from earlier in the movie is repeated and in response up comes the title ‘Duck You Sucker’ - keep your head down, and run the other way when they urge you to fight.

Or simply steal their money; much safer…

A Peckinpah Idolator Writes… September 19, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 9 comments

I was recently accused of being a Sam Peckinpah ‘idolator’. Stone me; accused. Like…this is a bad thing?

Being the internet, it’s not unknown for complete strangers to waft up to you and make what appear to be the most bizarre assertions, when in fact they’re only gently yanking your chain. Something I’m very well aware of myself; not being the most assiduous user of the ubiquitous ’smiley’ (the Luddite in me thinks the English language is a robust enough form of communication to illuminate without illustrations), my sometimes misplaced shafts of wit can be - have been - mistaken for declarations of war.

However, there was no doubt that this was an ‘accusation’, like being outed as a criminal - ‘YOU BOY! You’re a Peckinpah Fan!! SEIZE HIM!’ -  or having a small, er, member - ‘Look at the size of your tiny Peckinpah! HAHAHAHA’ - and, to me, quite baffling. Akin to being denounced as a lover of battered cod ’n chips out of the paper, Edward Elgar, The Beatles, dandelion and burdock, the sound of waves crashing on rocks and the smell of my wife’s skin. All perfectly scrumptious things, every single one of them guaranteed to press my buttons - guilty on all counts.

But it’s a puzzle. I mean, how can one not admire one of the cinematic giants of the last century? I’ll stand up and be counted, yelling to anyone within hearing: ‘I AM a Peckinpah idolator!’ It would make a perfectly good t-shirt slogan, well, that or ‘Peckinpah fans do it in slo-mo…’

So, yes; let’s go - Sam was, and remains, ’The Man’. In my (and many, many, others) opinion. And there’s the nub, for, gentle reader, I coudn’t give a trio of flying plaster ducks what anyone else thinks. You can’t see it? What’s all the fuss? You have my deepest sympathy, but, please, step away from the blog. Quickly now. Shoo.

Sam Peckinpah’s star shone relatively briefly, but oh so very brightly. In little more than a bare handful of films he served up tales that worked on many levels. Rattling good narratives, wonderfully photographed and edited, within which, should you choose to look, can be found the paradoxical nature of human beings, their perverse desires and emotions, ‘good’ co-existing on the same plain as ‘bad’. In truth, what we’re seeing is Peckinpah’s view of the world and his own bruised relationships with friends, colleagues, family, the women he treated so badly; the director stripped bare. It’s a sometimes romantic, sometimes charming or brutal, odd times shockingly painful auteurism, but Peckinpah’s great films are never less than fascinating and tremendously rewarding, even if the mirror that is thrust into our face makes us squirm and sweat. Finding out precisely why is what makes ‘Bloody Sam’ so bloody marvellous.

He was a genius with dialogue, could transform a banal sow’s ear of a script into a silk purse. His endless hours in the cutting room, sculpting down 1000s and 1000s of feet of film, trimming by a single frame here and there, produced unforgettable adrenaline fuelled, dizzying scenes, beautiful images that excite, enthrall and stir our emotions. That is, when he wasn’t mean drunk or drug addled, busy inflicting a death by a thousand cuts on that wiry, increasingly frail, body, or pushing everyone that mattered away from him. Some mistake his work for nihilism; his end makes the error understandable, but the great films are so damned…human.

Yes, I do kneel in awe; Ride The High Country, The Wild Bunch, Cross of Iron, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (to name but a few of the few) are all works to astonish. I haven’t seen a film that bears him name that doesn’t have at least something to commend it, even such late autumnal frippery as Convoy. Well, that is, until now…

The Deadly Companions

This being a painful experience, I’ll try to keep this brief, so I’ll begin by summing up Sam Peckinpah’s first feature; what should have been a dazzling debut on the Hollywood stage, is a God-awful mess. Badly written, badly acted, clumsily directed and edited, the only fascination is waiting for some spark, some small sign, that this is a Peckinpah film. It never really comes. The Deadly Companions is so risible, it might have ended Sam’s career right there and then.

The saving grace is that this isn’t a Sam Peckinpah film…

The Deadly Companions

Set in the late 1860s, ‘Yellowleg’ (Brian Keith), a former sergeant in the Union army, takes up with a couple of villains - Turk (Chill Wills) and Billy (Steve Cochran) - and together they plan a bank robbery. In a shoot-out, Yellowleg accidentally kills Mead (Billy Vaughan), the nine-year-old son of dance-hall hostess Kit Tilden (Maureen O’Hara). Riddled with guilt, Yellowleg seeks redemption by escorting the woman through Apache territory to the long abandoned gravesite of Kit’s husband, to bury her son next to him.

Now, come on; this is deep into Peckinpah territory (Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada provides the obvious echo), and all the elements are in place - children playing in the street, the preacher in the saloon (Strother Martin), Wills bad, mad ’Turk’ (a version of the character fleshed out properly in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid), betrayal, loss, remorse. None of it comes together; everyone seems to be acting in a different film. Only Keith, familiar with his director from their work together on television, appears to find anywhere near the right rhythm.

The characters, burdoned with clumsy dialogue, seem to be barely sketched in; Wills and Keith are occasionally interesting, but nothing is carried through to a proper conclusion. Poor Steve Cochran, resplendent in a slightly bizarre, pristine, gunfighter’s garb, is simply surplus to requirements and Lord knows what O’Hara is supposed to be. Kit is clearly meant to be a woman forced to do anything to make ends meet, and thus a town pariah; like Yellowleg, she’s an outsider. But dressed to the nines in immaculate make-up, even in the most harrowing circumstances, there’s not a hint of that in O’Hara’s performance, it’s all so…bland; a jigsaw puzzle where none of the pieces fit.

I didn’t care about Kit’s loss, about whether they’d make it or not, about who was going to live and who was going to die, there was no suspension of belief. What was fascinating was the fact I was watching A Very Poor Film bearing the name of A Very Great Director…and thus an absolute must see for Peckinpah completists.

The direction is barely adequate, the odd flash, nothing more, no-one paying any great attention to the continuity, the cutaways or editing. The frankly irritating score by Marlin Skiles would have disgraced a TV movie, the whole topped and tailed by la O’Hara warbling some pastiche of a melancholy ‘oirish’ ballad, penned by Skiles and the multi-talented ’Charles B. FitzSimons’.

Oh, yes. Not a Peckinpah film.

Rewind. Having given Sam an ultimatum to soften his approach on his hard-hitting, critically acclaimed television series The Westerner - and Sam being Sam, told them where to shove it - the next big step for Peckinpah was into film. His star in The Westerner, Brian Keith, had just had a huge hit with the sugary pap that was The Parent Trap with Maureen O’Hara and was offered the lead role in what was a pet project of O’Hara and her producer brother Charles FitzSimons.

Keith, who saw a ‘pretty bad’ script, was in; providing Sam Peckinpah was sat in the director’s chair. Sam would fix The Deadly Companions, no problem; it was the sort of challenge he relished.

Except. FitzSimons had laboured three years on that piece of crap, with the author of the novel ‘The Deadly Companions’ A.S. Fleischman, and believed that the film was destined for greatness. He had to take Peckinpah to get Keith, but that didn’t mean he had to use him. When Sam turned up with 20 pages of rewrites, according to David Weddle, author of Sam Peckinpah; If They Move Kill ‘Em, FitzSimons promptly stuffed them in the waste bin and told the stunned director that he’d been hired to direct, not write. If only.

The film has pretensions that it can’t hope to fulfill given the circumstances. Shot in Panavision - with a handful of glorious shots cobbled together by Sam and his veteran cinematographer Bill Clothier - the credits proclaim ‘Filmed in it’s entirity in THE STATE OF ARIZONA and at the town of OLD TUCSON’. Even the use of Clothier, who had worked with Ford, is a statement of sorts.

FitzSimons and O’Hara clearly wanted ‘greatness’ on the cheap. Their budget was a miserly $530,000, their schedule a bare 21 days. FitzSimons stood over Peckinpah every one of those days, ordering him, like a callow rookie, how to stage and shoot scenes. He also forbade - forbade - Peckinpah from giving his sister direction. Having been ordered about the set by Ford, O’Hara clearly felt herself too grand to submit to entreaties from this movie whelp.

Naturally, in her tedious autobiography, ‘Tis Herself, Ms O’Hara has a rather different version of events, recalling that it was a ‘fiasco’ because Peckinpah hadn’t got a clue how to direct a movie. “He was oblivious to the fact that he was missing shots that were necessary to cut together a cohesive story in the editing room” says Maureen of one of cinema’s great editors, adding that ‘Charlie’ had to come in each day to tell him which reaction and cutaway shots were needed. The final film was ‘too artsy’ because Sam wouldn’t shoot the big action scene in which our merry band fight off those pesky injuns. Oh, if only he’d have listened to his leading lady and her producer brother, but obviously our debutant director just would not be told…

When shooting was over, FitzSimons kicked Sam out of the cutting room and edited this patchwork melodrama together himself. The Deadly Companions was quickly seen for what it was, dumped into a few flea-pits and promptly disappeared. It was subsequently reissued in the States on the back of Sam’s later hits as Trigger Happy. So much for ‘greatness’. I would have paid good money to see the look on the faces of O’Hara and FitzSimons when Ride The High Country came romping home.

Optimum’s UK R2 disc of The Deadly Companions has no extras, not even a trailer. But the transfer is really very good, colourful and true and there’s barely a mark to be seen in this anamorphic ’scope presentation. The mono English soundtrack (the only option) occasionally goes in and out of synchronisation; this could be a disc / player related problem, but I’m not completely positive, the problems (not huge) reoccuring in the same places on multiple viewings. There are no subtitles. The menus are backed by O’Hara belting out that incongruous theme song, which is truly annoying; she has a decent voice, but what were you thinking Charlie? 

Despite my very large reservations over the film, I’m really glad to have The Deadly Companions and to have seen it, at last, in it’s original aspect ratio.

All the more in view of what arrived in the post - thank you Dave - only a few days later…

The Westerner: Jeff

If The Deadly Companions gives the impression that Sam Peckinpah went on a directorial crash course between that and his next project, the sublime Ride The High Country, then watching the 30 minute gem that is Jeff, the first jaw-dropping episode of 13 he made for Dick Powell’s Four Star Productions of The Westerner, will quickly reassure that this visionary’s talent was already very firmly in place.

Let’s rewind again, a year or so before FitzSimons needed a patsy. Peckinpah had come off a successful run of TV’s The Rifleman, nevertheless slightly disillusioned; he wanted to fashion something grittier, something over which he had absolute control - writing, editing, dubbing, the works. Powell gave him that freedom and Sam came up with the goods - The Westerner. Thirteen half hour episodes, starring Brian Keith as the eponymous drifter ‘Dave Blassingame’, produced by the finest talent Peckinpah could assemble, and at the top of the pecking order with final say, honing scripts, cajoling, yelling at his team, encouraging them to aim higher - Sam himself.

Opening the series was Jeff, an astonishingly tight (like the rest, shot in a mere three days), intelligent and gripping half-hour playlet that comes on like a short movie rather than production line television. Directed, like five other The Westerner episodes, by Sam and co-written by him with Robert Heverley, Jeff was photographed by Lucien Ballard, in stark, high contrast monochrome, beginning a partnership that would continue through five feature films together.

Jeff opens with a shot of Warren Oates, one of a gaggle of boozy cowhands, getting liquored up in a dingy little fly-blown border bar. It’s Oates first time with Peckinpah, certainly not his last, and he doesn’t utter a coherent word. On The Westerner, Peckinpah would begin to assemble his stock company.

The Westerner; Jeff

The drunks have their lascivious eyes on Jeff (Diana Millay), the bar’s ‘hostess’, there to serve more than just drinks at the behest of owner Denny Lipp (wonderfully played by Geoffrey Toone). Denny is an English bare-knuckle fighter, still in good shape, and not averse to using his meaty fists on the girl. His girl.

Into this God-forsaken town, on a dead beat horse, rides a weary Dave Blassingame (Brian Keith). Dave is accosted by an older woman, the light of God in her mad eyes, a copy of the scriptures for sale in her outstretched hands. Blassingame sees a charity case, pays the woman, and stomps off purposefully into the bar with his dog ‘Brown’.

Blassingame has come into town to rescue Jeff, a girl he knows from way back, from her nightmare existence. However, Denny returns to the bar with his cronies. Of course they fight, but the kicker is that Denny has a desperate need for the girl who has become his slave. Bested and humiliated, he yells at Blassingame to take her and get out…but she simply can’t leave her pimp and this abusive relationship; ‘You want something that isn’t here’ Jeff tells Dave sadly ‘You want something that maybe never was.’

The director / writer, whose own marriage was fast falling apart, gives voice to his own disillusionment, his own bitterness. As Dave goes to leave and Jeff tries to console him, Blassingame tells her softly:  ‘Why should I worry about you?’ while at the same time, oh, so gently unknotting a ribbon from her hair and palming it into his heart’s pocket. Pure Peckinpah.

‘My dad used to tell me women must be God’s favourites ‘cos He made ‘em finer than anything else in creation’ Blassingame informs a triumphant Denny, ‘Well He must hate your guts for what you’ve done to ‘em.’ The fighter retorts that Dave is a sore loser. ‘I sure am’ says Blassingame quietly before laying out Denny with a haymaker, an empty victory.

As he leaves town, Dave once again meets the grubby religious woman (modelled certainly on Peckinpah’s mother, Fern) who asks him if he did in fact find salvation? Blassingame shakes his head; ‘And you?’ he replies. ‘I surely have’ she says smiling a lunatic smile, and behind her, scrawled on an adobe wall, we can see the words: ‘Tonight a soul is lost / He wonders the wide earth / But he finds only emptiness.’

The piece is a joy and must have hit 1960s America like a slap across the kisser; the dour, downbeat set, sawdust scattered on the floorboards, the vicious fistfights, the noir-like lighting, the glowering, deadly indian bartender, the whole seedy setting for this tale of romance, a love triangle. The script is finely tuned, the dialogue is clearly Peckinpah; the whole cast, but Denny’s preening pimp, dressed shabbily, their faces dirty, clothes torn and dusty, even - especially - the girl. And all, I’ll remind you, in just 30 blissful minutes, several years before Leone’s own western triumphs.

Weddle describes Jeff as a ‘minor masterpiece’, and it’s so far from Peckinpah’s work on The Deadly Companions that it’s impossible to reconcile Sam as author of both…but then, as described, he wasn’t.

Broken Trail March 5, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 2 comments

Prentice Ritter: I get rousted out of my sleep sometimes when Nature calls. I find there’s something frightenin’ ’bout that hour of the night ’cause there ain’t no foolin’ yourself ’bout what you done or what you hadn’t done with your life. 

The western, the genre that spawned the very first narrative film, has fallen on hard times. Critics have been writing the western’s obituary for around the past four decades, but while it’s taken an arrow, and is hurt bad, it’s not quite ready for Boot Hill yet.

Just when you’re ready to whistle up a coffin (or maybe make that three…), along comes an Unforgiven, an Open Range or a The Proposition, and there’s much talk of a dramatic revival. One that never really comes to pass.

What makes some great westerns so is seemingly, sadly, unfashionable for today’s Cineplex audiences - the comfortable longueurs of something that sprawls across the screen like Once Upon a Time In The West, the fresh-scrubbed, golden hued mythos of  a Stagecoach or a Shane, the subtlety of male relationships that is the bedrock of a Red River or a Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid.

In the decades that westerns were produced by their 100s, they covered practically every situation one can think of, and cross pollinated into other genres - musicals, comedies, noir, westerns that took their lead from Shakespeare, from contemporary events, there are psychological westerns, graphically violent westerns, westerns that deconstruct the myths they themselves espoused at cinema’s dawn.

And when cinema-goers fell out of love with the cattle drives, the saloon bars and the dusty, wooden fronted, frontier towns, westerns took off into other settings, into outer space, for instance, with blasters replacing six guns, special effects usually in place of literate scripts…

The common thread of this most malleable of genres - an individual, or a group of men, pitted against an adversary where only courage and muscle, their wits and a six-gun will bail them out - has endured, though the location, the untamed America of the late 19th century, seemingly no longer strikes a chord with the vast majority of modern audiences, or at least enough to make the western the sure fire hit it once was.

Ironically television, once the western film’s - indeed, the movies as a whole - mortal enemy in the small screen boom of the 1950s, looks to be riding to the rescue. Over the past decade there have been several decent westerns on TV, some of them suffering slightly by being evidently underfunded (the sheer scale of the battle got away from the makers of Gettysburg, a huge army of 1000s of extras being beyond their pockets). But big screen values are now trickling down to the small. Leading the charge is Robert Duvall and Walter Hill, an acolyte of Sam Peckinpah, and both self-confessed lifelong fans of horse operas.

Hill gave us three aces with The Long Riders, Wild Bill and Geronimo, and westerns in all but name - Southern Comfort, Trespass and Extreme Prejudice. The big, burly Californian also directed  the pilot episode and was consulting producer of HBO’s Deadwood, an exhilarating spittoon of a series; a foul-mouthed, entertaining, if ephemeral, hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Last year Hill was in the chair for Broken Trail, a terrific three-hour two-parter, the very first made specifically for the American Movie Classics (AMC) channel, produced by and starring the quite fabulous Robert Duvall, for whom this was the third part of his own western trilogy, following the hugely successful adaptation of Larry McMurty’s (he of the excellent Brokeback Mountain) Lonesome Dove for TV, and Kevin Costner’s admirable Fordian western movie, Open Range.

The latter was another of those films that was going to make the western fashionable again, but Costner’s follow up in the same genre appears to have stalled. The big screen turned it’s face from the traditional style and story of Open Range, and the best we’ve had, in recent years, has been the hard nosed, fly-blown and bloody Australian frontier of The Proposition, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, less of a western I suppose - despite it’s tedious ‘gay cowboy’ tag - more of a tragic love story, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Tommy Lee Jones’ ‘Peckinpah-esque’ Tex-Mex chilli pepper of a modern day western.

It has been down to Duvall’s production company, Butcher’s Run Films, to give us what is the real Open Range successor in the shape of Broken Trail, a small-screen project with those aforementioned lush big screen values.

Broken Trail - Tom and Prent

Like Open Range, I can’t think of a better description for Broken Trail than a ’good old fashioned western’, an elegiac ‘end of trail’ story of good versus evil. These events take place with the west on the cusp of the 20th century, and the death of a way of life and maybe of a whole set of values that, had they not been commonplace, is more satisfying to imagine that they should have been so. For if the men that built the west were wholly otherwise, is not an entire nation constructed on the most questionable foundations? Print the legend - it’s easier on the eye, and the heart.

Thus, Broken Trail gives us both good guys and bad, no anti-heroes here, no blurring of the lines. The good are straight and true, the bad are just plain nasty and the ugly, well, she runs the whorehouse…

A ‘broken trail’ is one that, through natural disaster, human intervention or just plain lack of use, runs no place. Broken Trail deals with a number of lives that, mostly through happenstance, come together, some going nowhere, others that are damaged through circumstance or the intervention of evil-doers. How these ‘trails’ are made whole again and put back on the map, or wiped off it, is the essence of Alan Geoffrion’s script.

The year is 1898 and Prentice ‘Print’ Ritter (Robert Duvall) invites his estranged nephew Tom Harte (Thomas Hayden Church) to join him driving 500 head of horses from Oregon to Wyoming, animals desperately needed by both the British Army for their war against the Boers, and by the United States Cavalry for the Spanish American conflict.

Print, tired after a life in the saddle and gambling all on this hazardous journey, tells the drifting Tom that his mother has died and effectively disowned him in her Will, leaving the family ranch to her brother rather than the son who left home under a cloud several years earlier. Print is offering Tom a chance not only to earn some real hard cash, but to make something of his wasted life at last along the tough Oregon Trail.

On their journey, Print and Tom pick up a number of waifs and strays; Henry ‘Heck’ Gilpin (Scott Cooper) is faded Southern aristocracy, who eschewed the comfortable life back home for the adventure of exploring the west. They take on five Chinese girls, sold into slavery by their poverty stricken families, and bound for a life of prostitution at ‘Big Rump’ Kate’s (Rusty Schwimmer) cat house. In freeing them, Tom has to mete out some rough frontier justice to ‘Captain’ Billy Fender (James Russo), an act wholeheartedly approved of by Print - ‘You didn’t blink; you did what was right - that’s good…’

Kate doesn’t take too kindly to her goods being bushwhacked, and offers ex-con ’Big Ears’ (Chris Mulkey) and his boys a reward to get them back, a job he takes on with some relish when he realises that Nola Johns (Greta Scacchi) is with them…and running off that herd for his own will be a useful bonus. Nola is a 50 cent hooker, a fading beauty on her way down the food chain of the human cattle market, and who lives in fear of the violent thug Big Ears. When she escapes his clutches, she too sees her chance of redemption.

The story is getting a little complicated at this point, unnecessarily so, with the sheer weight of characters that have joined a horse drive started by just two people, an aging ranch hand and his nephew. Whether they will make Oregon with their nags is the issue, but now we’re talking two cowboys, a down on his luck Southerner, five Chinese girls, a terrified good time gal and, as good fortune would have it for a party desperately in need of a translator and something other than beans, a Chinese cook.

Thankfully, with three hours to play with, none of this gets to be too confining and the compensations are Duvall stealing all the best lines for himself and the most breathtaking cinematography that really does do justice to the stunning Canadian locations, as in Open Range, shot in and around Calgary.

Broken Trail

Hill has long used Lloyd Ahern as his photographer, and it’s easy to see why here; the camera’s eye resting easy on the snowcapped mountain ranges, rivers snaking between the passes, the camp bathed in the golden glow of blissful sunsets. Painterly compositions, unbelievably beautiful and not a CGI shot in sight. If the locations themselves deserve star billing, then surely so does the herd itself. 500 head of horses, muscular and sinuous, driving pell mell along the meadows like ‘Billy Bejiggered’ is one hell of a sight, and Broken Trail makes the very most of them.

Along the drive, Print reveals more and more of himself to his nephew and his companions, and though he’s the catalyst for all these characters to redeem themselves, and so mend their own broken trails, it becomes clear that Print’s own path was damaged irreparably by a tragedy many years previously. Thus, why he’s so concerned for the welfare of his dead sister’s boy, why he wants to reassure himself that he is - and to help him become - a decent man that would have made his momma proud.

Some of Geoffrion’s dialogue for Print amounts to nothing more than gentle cracker barrel philosophy - ‘We’re all travellers in this world. From the sweet grass to the packing house. Birth ’til death. We travel between the eternities’ - some of it heart-breaking and deeply personal, but all of it is delivered with a quiet and utterly convincing veracity by Duvall, who shrugs off his 75 years with another bravura performance that is central to the success of Broken Trail. Duvall is easy in the saddle, and out of it, looking as if he’d spent all his life breaking horses, branding cattle, riding the range.

The rest of the cast usually just stands back and admires his work, though Thomas Haden Church - who I’d only seen previously in Sideways - is wonderfully understated as Tom, a reworking of the tactiturn ’Woodrow F. Call’ to a latterday take by Duvall on ‘Gus McCrae’. He also gets to wear a spanking stetson.

Sony’s R1 double-disc set (as said, the film is in two parts) comes with one meagre extra, a making of featurette, but no matter, the high-definition 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is absolutely jaw-dropping. Fine detail was never finer, colour never more beautifully represented. Time and again, scenes materialised in front of my disbelieving eyes and I craned my neck forward to drink in the images. It really is that good.

The 5.1 soundtrack is also a delight, with a beautifully subtle design, the thunder of hoofs putting you right in amongst the galloping herd, wagons making circuitous journeys across your viewing room. David Mansfield and Van Dyke Park’s score, which makes great use of contemporary folk themes and instruments is similarly pleasing. Broken Trail is also bound for release in the U.K. soon - look out for it.

Like Open RangeBroken Trail is by no means a perfect film but, produced by exceptional professionals with a love of their subject, it is very, very good indeed, and certainly several steps above the usual ‘made for TV’ fare. It’s not just the filming and acting that earn my admiration; for set design, makeup (at last, folk who look as if they’ve had their hair cut using a bowl and a dull knife), costumes (as alluded, western fans will be in hat nirvana), wrangling, location scouting, this film gets top marks. 

Time catching up with him, this could be Bobby Duvall’s last western round-up, but it’s not a bad way to sign off, and western fans will surely want to tip their hats to all concerned.

Letter From America… February 8, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Film General, Westerns , 7 comments

‘Swiss Toni’ might claim it is ‘…like making love to a beautiful woman…’ (’you get it all down, you think you’ve performed superbly…but there’s not much sign of any response…’), however, gentle reader, I have come to discover that blogging is much more like my golf game (with the added bonus that there is no need for fine wines or Belgian chocolates).

I play round after round, hacking away in the gorse, scaring the wildlife - myself and other golfers - scrabbling amongst more sand than Lawrence of Surburbia, trying desperately, but vainly,  to stay on the mown bit and keep my score beneath three figures.

And then I hit one.

That’s all it takes. Just one shot, one perfect long iron that as you connect you know is, unlike the other 94 you hammered at that day, just the right side of perfection. The mating of club head and ball makes that sweet and unique pinging noise that you hear every single damned shot as you meekly follow the club professional around the course.

Time is slowed right down, and you are granted a zen-like out of body overview of your ‘moment’. You don’t even seem to feel the impact as the ball lifts off the fairway, taking a beautifully sliced divot. The club shaft makes a perfect arc through the air, you can see with almost superhuman crystal clarity - and with just a little fade to bring it round to the green - your ball zipping, ripping, through the crisp, evening air. You can picture yourself even as you do it; your is swing is a thing of beauty, the follow through textbook perfection. You are a golfing God!

It is 219 yards from where you stand to the green and your shot, your beautiful, gorgeous, sexy shot, pitches, bounces three times before nestling a trifling eight inches from the cup. There are a couple of guys walking down the opposite fairway who look on with envious eyes. You try to maintain just a hint of decorum, as if you played every shot in the same, casual insouciant manner, heft your bag and saunter away. Just the merest hint of a swagger.

That was a four iron I played to the 15th, oh, maybe eight years ago; I can recall each delicious millisecond. I had never played a finer shot before or since; I will never better it. Never. But it doesn’t matter because it happened. Once. Thank you God for a truly beautiful experience. I wish I could have had it stuffed and mounted.

Where was I? Ah, yes. Blogging. Well here we are; you post on this or that subject, put a little of yourself into it, a tiny bit of sweat, a modicum of effort. And then when it’s finished and you look it and think ‘well, that’s not half bad’, you hit the ‘publish’ button and…get absolutely zero response.

No-one comes along pats you on the head and proffers a sugar lump. No-one pops up and says ‘that wasn’t so bad, but…’ (which my delicate ego could just about put up with). But worst of all, you have no indication that anyone, someone who cares, has even seen it. It might as well not exist.

The posts, one after the other, become sad-eyed orphans of the internet; unloved, unwanted and unread. It is, sometimes, terribly dispiriting, but I’m a big boy and quite aware that it comes with the territory. However, it doesn’t stop me whimpering at my computer screen, begging someone to pretty please (with sugar on) reassure me that this isn’t completely worthless? For most bloggers, I do suspect, post after post, the silence in their email inbox is deafening.

And then you hit one.

I was so pleased when John Mulholland replied to my piece on Vera Cruz; and very kind comments they were too. The utterly delightful thing is, that John is one of the leading lights at MODA Entertainment. As a writer and director of some rather spiffy documentaries, he possesses far, far more knowledge than I on Vera Cruz and High Noon, and imagine my delight when he was generously willing to share what he knows with me - and ultmately you, gentle reader - thus fleshing out both those blogs in a way I couldn’t have imagined whilst writing either.

John has kindly granted permission to share the emails he sent to me with you, and that is exactly what I intend doing here.

First off MODA Entertainment - it is, as you’ll see if you click on that link above, based on Madison Avenue, New York. By way of explanation: ‘…Its Board of Producers, uniquely consisting of estate holders of celebrated classic Hollywood actors, directors, and writers. MODA Entertainment spearheads many projects that introduce the history of Classic Hollywood films and actors to new generations. The Board of Producers are the decision makers, consultants, and active producers on all of MODA’s projects.

‘The Board of Producers consist of Writer and Director John Mulholland, Stephen Bogart (son of actor Humphrey Bogart and actress Lauren Bacall), Maria Cooper (actor Gary Cooper’s daughter), Pia Lindstrom (actress Ingrid Bergman’s daughter), Jack Hathaway (director Henry Hathaway’s son), and Peter McCrea (actors Joel McCrea and Frances Dee’s son) among others. The Producers provide a unique link and history to classic Hollywood and the entertainment industry. They have been instrumental in ensuring that MODA Entertainment continues preserving the integrity of Hollywood’s Golden Age.’

Amongst the documentaries MODA has produced is Sergeant York: For God & Country on Warners recent SE disc of Hawks film, and The Children Remember, on Warners sublime Casablanca.

In his reply to my Vera Cruz blog, John said he had ‘just finished a documentary’ on Cooper and Hemingway and it was this that really set my juices flowing. Because my wheels turn exceedingly slow at times, I thought at first that John was just another enthusiastic fan, until - his name ringing loud bells in my head - I checked out IMDB.

It was then, bursting with curiosity, that I decided to email the documentary maker, and happily, as it turns out, he was just about to email me…:

“…the doc is called Cooper And Hemingway: The True Gen. It hasn’t been released yet. Just finished it - well, allegedly finished is perhaps more accurate. In some ways, we blew it. We were accepted at the Venice Film Festival this past year, after they saw a rough cut. But we were unable to finish it and we had to decline.”

John says the initial cut was some nine hours long, but has been trimmed to about two and a half hours now for theatrical purposes. A DVD will likely show up at some point, probably longer than that (but no doubt shorter than nine hours), which is quite excellent news.

“The Cooper who emerged from research was such an astonishingly different guy than his public image - rather slow-witted cowboy, not much intellectual breadth, etc. - that I found myself in genuine awe of the man.

“Numbered among his good friends were not just Hemingway, but Picasso, John O’Hara, Irwin Shaw, Robert Sherwood, Clifford Odets, the Shah of Iran(?!?), Abba Eban, James Watson (co-discoverer of DNA), Babe Ruth, etc. His epic philandering has been well established, but the art connoisseur, the man of seemingly bottomless curiosity, infinite loyalty (as with trying to get Ingrid Bergman back to America and Hollywood by personally offering the lead opposite him in Friendly Persuasion, promising he’d take the heat for the decision), etc, were revelations.

“During the making of High Noon, Cooper became embroiled in the whole HUAC disgrace. In 1947, he had testified on the first day of hearings - named no names, no scripts, nothing - he was there, as he put it, to inform the committee that Hollywood was not a nest of communists. That this was a mistake, simply appearing, Cooper later acknowledged. But the waters hadn’t yet been muddied.

“When seemingly half of Hollwood’s leading men - Kirk Douglas, Peck, Brando, Heston, Clift - turned down High Noon, and a lettuce grower offered to put up the remaining $250,000 to meet its budget of $750,000, he did it with the proviso that Cooper star. No Cooper, no money.

“So, he read the script and leaped at it. Which is when the complex and very loyal man behind the myth came out. Jonathan Foreman, Carl Foreman’s son, graciously shared all of his father’s papers and notes and correspondence with me.

“Foreman, a former member of the Communist Party, was very concerned about Cooper and his political stand. So, he went to lunch with Cooper several months before shooting began and told him about having been a member of the Party. To his surprise, Cooper said it was Foreman’s business, not his.

“They became very friendly. When Foreman was publicly named as a Communist by an HUAC witness, there was a call for Foreman to be fired. John Wayne was a vocal leader in this. Cooper issued a statement to the press that, ‘Carl Foreman was the finest kind of American. His politics were his business, and his alone.’

“Foreman’s date to testify was two weeks into ‘Noon’s’ shoot. Wayne and his cohorts - Ward Bond and Ginger Rodgers, among others - warned Stanley Kramer that the film would be blackballed if Foreman’s name weren’t removed as screenwriter. Kramer agreed. But when Cooper and Fred Zinnemann heard of this, they told Kramer they were walking off the film if Foreman’s name weren’t kept on. They got their way.

“Which incensed Wayne. He approached Foreman and urged him to name names or his career would be ruined and his passport lifted (both of which happened). Then, Cooper offered to testify on Foreman’s behalf, but character witnesses weren’t permitted. When Wayne heard about this, he warned Cooper that his career would be over if he didn’t walk off the film.

“Cooper, of course, told Wayne to go to hell. After the film was finished and Foreman had been blacklisted, and before it had become such a huge hit, Foreman formed his own company. Cooper publicly invested in the company. Big headlines in the trades, an article how they’d both produce, Foreman would write and direct and Cooper star, etc.

“But pressure over the next few days became so intense that Foreman realized they’d never get a film made and Cooper’s career would be ruined, too. He released him from any obligations and left for England.

“So impressed by - and grateful for - Cooper’s behavior, Foreman ever after sent Cooper his scripts for first refusal, including The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Key and The Guns Of Navarone. Cooper’s age and failing health forced him to reject all three.”

Gary Cooper, John Wayne…and Oscar

I asked John about the real reason Coop asked Wayne to accept his Best Actor Oscar for High Noon at the 1953 Academy Awards, always a puzzle in view of Wayne’s views on the film. His answer left me tickled pink…

Said John: “I had a long talk with Anthony Quinn for Cooper/Hemingway. He knew them both and especially admired Cooper, who had saved him from being fired on his first day ever on a set (during The Plainsman). They became close friends.

“In March, 1953, during the Academy Awards ceremonies, Quinn and Cooper were down in Mexico shooting Blowing Wild. Both were nominated. As Quinn told me, he wanted to go up to LA for the awards, but when Cooper said he wasn’t going, he decided not to.

“Quinn said: ‘Whatever Coop did, I would do. He was literally my idol’. So, a radio feed was set up. And Quinn was all excited, there was a party. But then he spotted Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck each grab a bottle of wine and start out. He asked Cooper if he wasn’t going to listen to the awards. Cooper said no and he and Stanwyck disappeared. Quinn said he really wanted to listen, maybe he’d win, but if Coop wasn’t going to listen, he wasn’t.

“Quinn grabs a bottle of wine and joins Cooper and Stanwayck, who’d settled up a hill, drinking their wine.

“After a while, the three of them are laying on their backs gazing up at the night sky, when Cooper starts chuckling to himself. Pretty soon, he’s laughing so hard that he has to sit up. Quinn and Stanwyck had no idea what he was laughing at. They asked him what was so funny.

“Cooper told them he’d run into Wayne a week before over in Cuernavaca. Quinn hoped that he’d belted him. But Cooper shook his head and said he’d asked him to pick up his Oscar should he win. Quinn said he couldn’t believe this, after Wayne had tried to get him blacklisted.

“But Cooper had this wonderfully dry sense of humor - both his parents were from England and he had spent three years in school in England - and Quinn said he almost rubbed his hands together with delight when he said: “What’s the sonuvabitch going to say if I win!”

“Well, Cooper did win and Wayne did pick up the Oscar. And with utter chutzpah, colossal hypocrisy, Wayne said that he was going to ask his agent why he wasn’t offered High Noon by such a great writer as Carl Foreman.

“Wayne’s acceptance is on tape, and it is absolutely jaw-dropping. Why be surprised, I suppose. This is the man who ducked WW II (claimed he was sole support of his two children, as if farmers and bank clerks and cops, etc. weren’t)…was such a force during HUAC, and then had the gall to tell young men in the 1960s that they were cowards for not willing to die for their country in Vietnam.

“When I was going through Cooper’s papers, researching Coop/Hemingway - they’re in three different bins on the east side of Manhattan; I’d sit there all day, sometimes with Maria, his daughter, other times alone, amazing stuff in them - I came upon a carbon of a letter from some producer, might have been Hal Wallis, can’t be sure. And it was offering Cooper a role in a film called Lewis And Clark. Cooper would be Lewis and Wayne would be Clark.

“There was a huge ‘NO!!!’ scrawled across the bottom half…”

On High Noon

MODA has also completed a new documentary Inside High Noon for Paramount for a 2-disc SE of High Noon that was slated for release last autumn in the U.S., but which has not materialised. Directed and written by John, it includes on screen interviews with Maria Cooper Janis (Gary Cooper’s Daughter), President William Clinton, Tim Zinneman (son of director Fred Zinneman) , Jonathan Foreman (son of screenwriter Carl Foreman), Prince Albert of Monaco, Brian Garfield, Lee Clark Mitchell, Stephen Prince and Meir Ribalow.

“Zinnemann sent Maria Cooper a letter in the late ’80s, in which he expresses frustration and, actually, some bitterness over the various lies about the final cut of ‘Noon’” John told me.

“Maria reads it on in the documentary. But he (Zinnemann) is especially angry over Kramer’s claim that he is the father of the final cut, claiming credit for inserting the clocks.

“But Zinnemann’s annotated script, which we use (and which he sent Bill Clinton a copy while Clinton was President), clearly shows the clocks were there from the beginning. There are lines - ‘Tight on clock, 11:07; close up clock, 11:25, etc.’

“As he explains in the letter, not only were the close ups there from the beginning, but that the script as written by Foreman precluded any realy editing magic. It was mostly precut because of the clocks in the background. To mess around with sequences would have been impossible, due to the clocks on the wall, on mantles, etc.

John added that far from what my research turned up for my original High Noon post, it was always, apparently, intended to play in ‘real time’, and Foreman’s shooting script, a couple of scenes aside (described in the afrementioned post), is pretty much what you see on the screen.

“So much of what you delve into in your article is what we cover in the doc. Stuff I thought few others had ever noticed. Like, for example, the sweaty, dirty, clothing worn by the men in the saloon. Never really focused on, merely a part of the tapestry, but there none the less. More than a decade before Leone.

“The swipes at Coooper’s performance have always annoyed me. That whole ulcer nonsense is such a canard. If it were so debilitating, then that makes the performance even greater. These people always knock Cooper for being so self-pitying, so put-upon, in High Noon.

“How do these “critics” miss that Cooper gives, in effect, two separate performances? When he is with others, when he is in public, he’s always got his masculine facade on, he is firm, in control, never showing a sign of weakness, even when asking for help, he’s strong. But when he’s alone, when no-one is watching, he’s anther man entirely. He’s angry, bitter, self-pitying, downright frightened.

“This is captured beautifully when he breaks down and cries, all alone, noon approaching. A man, crying! Then, when he realizes the boy has seen him, he sits back, stiffens his back, shifts his shoulders and his expression for an instant is startled, then the masculine mask is back on. He’s firm, in control.

“All man.

“It’s one of the most emotionally naked performances in all of film, though not emotionally naked in the style of a Brando or a Pacino.”

Again, my profound thanks to John Mulholland, not only for taking the time out to reply to my blog, taking the time to make a complete stranger happy, but for going several steps further and transforming a simple post into a wonderful treasure trove; seems we are both paid up members of The Gary Cooper Appreciation Society. Which is nice.

I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did.

Last Word…

If memory serves it was around 1963 or ‘64 that I won a wooden Doctor Who jigsaw (Daleks! Cor…) in a - I think - Century 21 magazine competition. To win the prize, I had to colour in a ‘Doctor Who’ picture, which I did to the very best of my ability, keeping the crayon (mostly) within the lines, my tongue lolling on my lips as I did it, concentrating fiercely

I was absolutely stunned and overjoyed when the box containing the prize came through the post with a signed letter from the editor telling me: ‘Congratulations! You Are A Winner.’ Blimey. Me?

Damn near wore out that jigsaw in a matter of weeks, fingering the thick, gaily coloured pieces, putting them in place, putting them back in the box, putting them in place again. Cleaning the pieces. Imagine that; cleaning! I was just so bloody grateful.

Being deemed FilmJournal’s current ‘Best Blog’, I feel much the same right now. I shall endeavour to keep on keeping within the lines. Well, mostly…

Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants February 4, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 2 comments

Joe Erin: Too bad you never knew Ace Hanna. He ran a gambling joint back in Laredo. He shot my old man in a stud game when I was a kid. Ace felt so bad, he gave me a home.
Benjamin Trane: What’s that got to do with my saving your life?
Joe Erin: Ace used to say, ‘Don’t take any chances you don’t have to, don’t trust anybody you don’t have to trust and don’t do no favors you don’t have to do.’ Ace lived long enough to know he was right. He lived 30 seconds after I shot him.

Stop me if I’ve banged on about this before (oh, I have? Well, here it comes again…), there are some that believe that westerns made the great leap from The Great Train Robbery to A Fistful of Dollars and The Wild Bunch in one mighty bound, that we had years of singing cowboys, cavalry charges and low-rent horse operas before the genre was abruptly taken by the scruff of the neck and given a danged good shake.

As any serious western fan will tell you, nothing could be further from the truth. The path to Peckinpah and Leone was an evolution rather than a revolution, through the maturing mastery of John Ford, the so-called ‘psychological’ westerns of Anthony Mann, the films of Howard Hawks, Bud Boetticher, Nicholas Ray and many more. All these movie makers had a tremendous influence on ‘Bloody’ Sam and the western ‘nut’ from Rome, who drew on the best and then added inspiration of their own.

Standing on the shoulders of giants as it were. Indeed there were giants standing on those giants shoulders…

In 1954, Robert Aldrich, a thoughtful and dynamic young director, produced a double header of westerns, scoring impressive home runs with both; Apache and Vera Cruz. The prime common denominator in each was Burt Lancaster an actor of immense skill and charisma, then at the height of his fame as a genuine Hollywood star. Lancaster obviously detected a burgeoning talent in Aldrich, who had made only one film the previous year, when he signed up for Hecht-Lancaster Productions to the two picture deal.

Aldrich, however, was no ‘freshman’ having been in Hollywood since the early 1940s. He’d served as assistant to Wellman (The Story of G.I. Joe), Lewis Milestone (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Red Pony), Robert Rossen (Body and Soul), and Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil). By the early 1950s, Aldrich was more than ready for ‘The Chair’.

Though rarely considered as such in his homeland, quite early in his career Aldrich was judged by European film fans to be a true auteur; indeed, his work covered many genres and he seemed the easy master of each. Kiss Me Deadly is quintessential noir, Ulzana’s Raid one of the very best of westerns, The Dirty Dozen a seminal twist on the war film. A lifelong liberal and the co-worker of many HUAC blacklist victims, Aldrich himself escaped being cast out into the wilderness, save for a brief period after an argument with Harry Cohn, and few who banged heads with Cohn escaped unscathed. Aldrich became President of the Directors Guild of America. Ironically for a director seldom regarded as a true artist by American critics, Aldrich’s union activism alienated studio heads and is reckoned to have cost him work at the end of his career.

Looking at Vera Cruz today, it’s easy to see what might have impressed Leone, then still an assistant director in Cinecittà, or Peckinpah, just beginning his working life as a lowly production assistant.

Set amid the fly-blown poverty and chaos of the post American Civil War Mexican Revolution, Lancaster’s ‘Joe Erin’ starts the movie by selling ‘Benjamin Trane’ (Gary Cooper) a bag o’ bones that looks vaguely like a horse for an extortionate $100 knowing that (a) it belongs to the Emperor of Mexico’s Lancers (b) should they catch Trane, they’ll hang him like a slaughtered pig, and (c) they’re just over the hill and heading straight for them…

From then on it’s downhill all the way as far as the dirty double crossing Erin is concerned; he lies as easily as he cheats, steals and kills; he pins a Lancer to the ground, spearing him through the throat, and he laughs while he does it. You know; that Burt laugh, flashing white gnashers and all. He has terrible table manners too. Joe Erin is not a nice man.

But Lancaster’s great trick is to make you like this rat, to actually care about him. And we do, very much; here’s a character that doesn’t give fig about anybody but himself and we like him. It’s a very neat trick from a most accomplished screen actor, achieved in that knowing manner - an amoral, land-locked, ‘Captain Vallo’. Perhaps not quite as broad as The Crimson Pirate, easily in ‘Tuco’ territory.

Cooper’s Trane, on the other hand, is an ever so slighty curved ’straight arrow’. He’s decided to head down south to see what he can pick up because he’s on a mission. A former Confederate officer, he wants to restore his little piece of Louisiana to its former glory: “I made the mistake of fighting the last battle on my own property” he says bitterly. Trane knows the difference between what is right and what is wrong, but if his South is to rise again, and it’s going to take him to become a thief, to join a band of cut throats, to make it happen, then so be it. The end justifies the means, even if he’s conflicted by it.

Cooper, who, as you may have gathered from previous posts, I have immense admiration for, is at his understated best, full of the dignity of a Southern gentleman, with enough steel to suggest a man of action and an accent redolent of, but in a different class from, his sketch of the dirt poor Alvin York.

So this ‘odd couple’ - a hero and an anti-hero (before the term became common currency) - join forces; an unashamed thief, back-shooter and double-crossing dog, his band of like-minded reprobates, and a sharp shooting military man who will do most anything for money. Lots of it.

The man in Mexico with heaps of the stuff, Emperor Maximilian (an Austrian noble placed on the throne by the French) hires them, and their fast shooting Winchester repeating rifles, to take the ‘Countess Marie Duvarre’ (Denise Darcel) to Vera Cruz. Though he plans to pay them off with a rope, he keeps their real mission a secret. When they find that what they’re actually doing is guarding $3m in French gold, the Countess hatches a plan to split the booty three ways. But the gold is also coveted by the rebel Juaristas whose spy, ‘Nina’ (Sarita Montiel), desperately tries to persude Ben to help.

There are myriad reasons why Vera Cruz should be considered a cut above, not the least of which is that it’s a fabulous romp, tautly directed, and lushly presented in ‘SuperScope’, Aldrich and cinematographer Ernest Laszlo making the most of his filming locations; quite literally the ‘Halls of Montezuma’, with the wagon train of mounted cuirassiers, their armour flashing, flags fluttering, and Yankee mercenaries riding on past the Aztec temples, the old Gods looking down on the new, would-be ‘Conquistadors’.

Typically, Aldrich also undermines the contemporary definition of the ‘hero’; it’s not just the casual violence - the aforementioned skewering of the ‘tin soldier’ to the ground is quite breathtakingly brutal, even by today’s standards - which we might expect from Erin, but Trane? When Erin commands that children be taken hostage to escape from the rebels, Trane knows that the threat to butcher them is no bluff, and still he goes along with it. Trane is our all-American hero…isn’t he?

Politically, the film could also be read as a condemnation of American interference abroad. With the recently ended Korean War costing 1000s of American lives, interventionism was a hot potato. As the film was in production, President Eisenhower and the CIA were overseeing the overthrow of the leftist government in Guatemala, to be replaced by a much more favourable (to the U.S.) administration. Meanwhile in far-off Vietnam, the death throes of the French occupation of colonial Vietnam made front page news worldwide with the dramatic fall of Dien Bien Phu.

It isn’t hard to read Aldrich’s liberal sympathies into the finished film; Joe and Ben representing the schizophrenic nature of American foreign policy, the desire to help…and to help themselves. The French are shown as duplicitous and condescending to the Americans (plus ça change…), casually savage to the indigenous freedom fighting Mexicans, those ill-equipped rabble (secretly armed by the U.S.), who would soon end French interests by a startling military victory.

At a time when HUAC - and it was at this period when the House Committee on Un-American Activities was at its height - was more than ready to enter on to their blacklist anyone they perceived to harbour leftist views, it would have been foolhardy in the extreme, one would think, for Vera Cruz to be perceived as critical, in any way, of U.S. foreign policy. Professional suicide even.

However, the film is clothed in the armour of the American right. The story was provided by Borden Chase. Besides being the author of the screenplays for Anthony Mann’s 1950s westerns, Winchester ‘73, Bend of the River and The Far Country, Chase also got an  Academy Award nomination for Howard Hawks’ wonderous Red River. Chase was also an active member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization of politically conservative movie workers who wanted to defend the industry against supposed Communist infiltration. John Wayne was once its president, another prominent member was Gary Cooper. How could Vera Cruz be read as ‘un-American’ with those credentials?

Aldrich wouldn’t be the first, or last, director to take the story or screenplay of an avowed right wing writer and give it a good hard liberal twist of his own. John Ford is probably - you may not be surprised to read - the best other example I can think of, and that he did so (if indeed he did; though it’s impossible to believe otherwise) right under the noses of HUAC is to his, and Lancaster’s credit. Cooper, three years on from the HUAC baiting High Noon, must have least have seen that the story was essentially one of poor leftist rebels taking on their colonial masters, with capitalist Yankees not quite knowing which way to turn. Cooper too, something of an enigma in this respect, earns my admiration.

Working on Chase’s screenplay was Roland Kibee (who’d already provided The Crimson Pirate screenplay for Lancaster, and whose last job was to write Harrison Ford’s voiceover narration for Blade Runner), and James R. Webb, writer of the screenplay for Apache, and among others, Pork Chop Hill, The Big Country, How The West Was Won and the highly underestimated Cheyenne Autumn for Ford.

By the by, Eli Wallach has said that the Mexican government was so upset about the negative portrayal of Mexicans in the film that they insisted that the making of The Magnificent Seven be monitored by censors. They didn’t do a very good job; the Mexicans in Sturges film being far more naive and childlike than shown in Vera Cruz. Perhaps they were more upset that Sara Montiel, ‘introduced’ in this film and a big, big star in Mexico, had so little screen time and was perceived as having been insulted by her character being given the nickname ‘papayas’.

As a piece, Vera Cruz simply works; time has possibly diminished the impact its amorality, its violence and even its language - Lancaster mouthing the words ‘I’ll be a son of a bitch’; we don’t hear them, the Production Code preventing our ears being soiled. But to contemporary audiences who lapped this up to the tune of an $11m gross, it must have come almost as much of a slap in the kisser as Leone’s Man With No Name would a decade later. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the Eastwood’s iconic and deadly loner is a combination of both our protagonists? That Erin and his gang are a proto-‘Wild Bunch’?

All Vera Cruz lacked, perhaps, was a slightly more cynical ending and had Aldrich been totally in charge of affairs, that might have been on the cards. It may, I might suggest, be one of the reasons why he formed his own production company in quick time after this. But darker endings, more cynical days, were to come all in their own good time.

The cast is full of familiar faces; Ernest Borgnine as the heavy ‘Donnegan’ (still a year away from his breakthrough in Marty), Cesar Romero as the scheming ‘Marquis Henri de Labordere’, the quite wonderful George Macready as ‘Maximilian’, Henry Brandon as the ‘tin solider’ ‘Capt. Danette’, Jack Elam as ‘Tex’ and Charles Bronson (still listed in the cast as Charles Buchinsky) as ‘Pittsburgh’ - a character who, note, plays the harmonica throughout.

Having the film bookended with the written prologue that ends ‘…and some came alone’ and having Coop walk away from the camera, devastated and solitary (despite a cutaway shot - possibly an afterthought - showing Nina calling to him), eyes brimming with tears, should be worth the price of admission - or the DVD - alone.

The R1 anamorpically enhanced MGM disc isn’t quite as wide as the 2:1 ‘SuperScope’ it claims it is, but it’s a little wider than 1:85.1. This obviously was not sourced from original vault elements; there are reel change marks throughout. It is reasonably free of dirt and dust but the quality does vary from reel to reel - from ‘okay’ to ‘eye-popping’ and everything in-between. On the plus side, it is very film like (rough edges and all) and when those Technicolor shades pop, boy do they pop. The mono sound is also simply ‘okay’, the dialogue and Hugo Friedhofer’s score sounding a little crushed; but if all that sounds like you should maybe just rent it, don’t.

Plunk down the cash - you’ll enjoy Vera Cruz, a work of remarkable maturity from an intelligent, throughly schooled and immensely talented director, that 53 years on still has much to say, again and again.

…Young Man, Go West! December 9, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , add a comment

The fire’s a dyin’ down, the cattle are peaceful, and those beans have yet to do their work; guess it’s time, little pards, (oh, do get on with it!) for a look at three more westerns…

Jeremiah Johnson (1972)

“Ain’t this somethin’? I told my pap an’ mam I was going to be a mountain man; acted like they was gut-shot. ‘Make your life go here, son. Here’s where the people is. Them mountains is for Injuns ‘n wild men.’ ‘Mother Gue’, I says, ‘the Rocky Mountains is the marrow o’ the world,’ and by God, I was right.”

John Milius was co-author of the screenplay for Sydney Pollack’s 1972 mountain man epic Jeremiah Johnson alongside Edward Anhalt. Who wrote what, I couldn’t really say, but Milius’ stamp lies on most of the rich dialogue that runs like a skein of pure gold in this story that is also notable for its stunning cinematography of the towering mountain ranges of Utah.

We first see our eponymous hero (Robert Redford), a young man, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, fresh from the army and the Mexican American War of the 1840’s. He’s determined to start a new life by becoming a trapper and hunter; one of the legendary mountain men. Johnson buys his supplies, a 30 calibre Hawkin rifle and makes his way into a vast wilderness, where he’ll either flourish or die lonely.

The greenhorn discovers his new environment to be incredibly hostile, and is just about to throw in his lot when he happens across a grizzled old bear hunter, ‘Bear Claw’ Chris Lapp (a really nice vignette by Will Geer). Lapp takes pity on the naif and teaches him the raw basics of staying alive. And staying alive is the trick, for Johnson faces not only nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, but also Crow indians whose land he will be trapping on. Land is life; it’s possession, to paraphrase John Lennon, ‘nine tenths of the problem’.

Leaving Lapp and striking out on his own, Johnson comes across a settler’s cabin, recently raided by Crow. There he finds a woman driven mad after the slaughter of her son and daughter, and another child who is mute. Of the woman’s husband there is no sign. The mountain man reluctantly takes the boy after a plea by the woman, in a rare moment of lucidity. Later he also acquires (in an echo of The Searchers) a bride, a sullen, plain, Flathead, ’Swan’.

Against all the odds, Johnson, decides to settle down with his new family. Swan blossoms and very soon he achieves something he’s been struggling to find but has stumbled on by sheer accident - contentment. But back into his life rides the U.S. Cavalry. Searching for lost settlers, they turn to Johnson to help guide them and again, reluctantly, the mountain man agrees. To get to the wagon train in time they must cross and therefore desecrate a Crow burial ground…and Johnson must thereafter face the wrath of the tribe and their ‘big medicine’.

At this point the film, scripted from a combination of the Vardis Fisher novel Mountain Man and Raymond W. Thorp’s story Crow Killer, switches tone entirely. Pollack orchestrates Johnson’s transformation from a man defending what is his, to a vengeful and bloody killer with great aplomb. We see the breathtakingly savage killing of a war party, a shocking scene though without any really graphic violence, and Redford, pretty boy looks and all, is convincing, as he becomes a ‘dead man’, devoid of any emotion, any pity, any hope.

Johnson, once an irritant to the Crow and an intruder, is now a targetted by the tribe, who send out brave after brave to match him in single combat, anywhere, anyplace, at any time. Killing many braves is another test for the mountain man, and for the Crow, their courage and manliness can only be measured by the strength of their enemy - and Jeremiah Johnson is a mighty enemy.

The story seems to become a simple allegory for life itself; can any man face the day to day trials of existing, of putting bread on the table, of loss and emotional trauma and survive, his wits intact? And, of course, the central question; what’s the point of it all, why do we exist? What’s it all for? Johnson meets Chris Lapp again, who looks more God-like than ever in furs and long white beard. ‘T’were it worth the trouble?’ asks the Deity / Lapp. ‘Huh? What trouble?’ says Johnson jutting out his jaw, daring life to smack his chin good and hard again.

Tired, and haunted, Johnson returns to the cabin where he discovered the mad woman and the boy. He finds it now occupied by another terrified settler who has put his family in the grain store, at the mountain man’s approach, for safety. Johnson looks at the upturned faces of the women and children sadly, and tells the settler ‘It won’t do any good’. What’s the message here? That we should stop hating each other and get on instead with the business of living together? That when tempted to dance to the tune of the military, you should run, and run fast? Vietnam-era American films were full of this kind of stuff; but if the message lacks subtlety, it’s probably understandable.

Jeremiah Johnson has been labelled an ‘eco-western’, yet there’s no huge ‘man bad, nature good’ subtext to be found in the movie, though it is, surely more than just a simple tale of one man’s struggle to stay alive in a beautiful but deadly environment. The Utah locations provide a blinding cathedral of snow, they give the film the feeling of a vast emptiness that can both embrace or destroy. Johnson is insignificant in a world such as this, his battle with the Crow the struggle of ants, and world looks on, as it always has and will, without judgement, or pity.

Pollack’s film is pretty good, but has probably suffered over the years because potential viewers may now be expecting some kind of Grizzly Adams adventure. Thank ’Chris Lapp’, there’s none of that here; Redford is not the best - nor is he the worst - actor in the world, nor does he have a huge range, but within certain perameters he’s always been more than quite watchable. Like many stars, he was protective of his image, and despite a beard, he still looks like, well, the ’70s movie star Robert Redford, and could have done with at least a haircut in keeping with the mid-19th century. His female fans would have run riot and sacked the cinema.

Will Geer is utterly superb in a his small (Godlike) role, and Delle Bolton, as ‘Swan’, is charming. Special mention for Stefan Gierasch as the somehow achingly sad ’Del Gue’, because every film like this needs someone who can speak authentic frontier gibberish (especially when it’s so well written). But, as said, the real star is Utah. Did I mention Will Geer as the Almighty? Well, I like him…

This is a disc produced in the early days of the DVD format by Warners, and still comes (if such things bother you) in a snapper (at least my R1 did). Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 Panavision, the picture is pretty good, with decent colour and contrast. Warners have also retained the original overture and entr’acte music; nothing special by John Rubenstein (I actually prefer Tim McIntire’s song). There’s a little print damage and dirt on show, particular in the last reel with some white speckling, but nothing too serious. The sound is also acceptable; could be worse (it’s a little thin), could be improved on. There’s a back slapping, brief, featurette, a trailer and some production notes.

Warners would do much better today, and there have been some hints of Jeremiah Johnson coming again, possibly in ‘07 in a Robert Redford box set. I’ll also have Downhill Racer and The Candidate please.

Another potential double-dip then; I’ll be there for more of Jeremiah Johnson

Along Came Jones (1945)

In 1945, a still youthful looking Gary Cooper, produced and starred in Along Came Jones, a witty and exciting comedy western that made the most of the 44-year-old star’s talents. The film was written by Nunnally Johnson, an urbane and intelligent former New York Post journalist who’d made his mark in Hollywood scripting for John Ford (The Prisoner of Shark Island, The Grapes of Wrath), Henry King (Jesse James), William Wellman (Roxie Hart) and many, many others.

Such was Johnson’s reputation by the end of WWII, that not only does he get a rather large screen-writing credit (at a time when ‘written by’ was usually tucked away with ‘Associate Producer’), but the title shows it is Nunnally Johnson’s Along Came Jones. Impressive stuff.

All the better then that this amiable western tale boasts an intelligent and quip-filled script, and while it’s a ‘comedy western’, it never forgets that it is really a ‘western comedy; the jokes subservient to the story and not the masters of it. ‘Always shoot ‘em in the right eye’ Cooper is advised, ‘Spoils their aim…’ Made me laugh.

Our tale starts with evil bad guy Monte Jarrad (deliciously played by the evil Dan Duryea), wreaking havoc while holding up a stagecoach, stealing a saddle bag full of loot and getting winged in the process. The law wants Jarrad, a quick shooting tyrant who holds the town of Payneville in his thrall, and puts a price on his head and that of his dull-witted sidekick.

So…into Payneville rides Melody Jones (Cooper), a man described as a ‘butter-fingered gun juggler’ and his partner George (the brilliant Bill Demerest). The good folk of Payneville haven’t seen Jarrad for some time, they spot ‘MJ’ stamped on Jones’s saddlebags, and his sidekick does indeed seem to be a few cartridges short of a full revolver. Two and two quickly make five.

Jarrad’s girl (the eye-candy that is Loretta Young), does her bit to finger Jones as Jarrad to aid her man’s escape, but then they fall for each other, and all hell breaks loose as Jones attempts to (a) stay alive, (b) prise the girl away from a man she describes as ‘mean..and getting meaner’, (c) neatly sidestep the bullets of Jarrad, his gang, the sherrif, and a private detective.

Johnson’s script manages to cram alot of narrative into the 90 minutes run time, but it never seems forced or contrived. Cooper is excellent; he was as delightfully a sly light comedian, adept at handling bits of business, as he was terrific in action roles. And this son of a real westerner always seemed at home on a horse or wearing a stetson.

Hack director Stuart Heisler’s helming is competent. If I have a criticism it’s that some of the action seems a little studio bound, but the cast and the writing make up for that, and for a war-weary America, this dleightful piece of fluff was probably just the tonic.

Along Came Jones is available in R1 as part of the MGM ‘Western Legends’ series. There is good news and bad. The good is that the transfer isn’t half bad; nice & sharp, decent contrast and no signs of white blooming or edge enhancement. The bad is that MGM haven’t done a great deal by way of restoring the print. There’s a deal of damage, speckling, a little dirt, some ‘wonky’ frames, lines and what appears to be water damage. Not disasterous, but it could have been better. The mono sound is okay and the only extra is a trailer.

When The Daltons Rode (1940)

George Marshall started his Hollywood career churning out westerns in 1916, and he finished some six decades later still knocking ‘em out for TV. One of the great solid and reliable directors of the movie industry, there are some little gems in his CV including The Blue Dahlia, (due to be released in the UK soon by the way)Destry Rides Again and The Ghost Breakers (probably Bob Hope’s finest hour).

And then we have his 1940 oater When The Daltons Rode, part of the Universal Western Series. Topping the bill is Randolph Scott, later to make quite a name for himself in this genre, but not courtesy of this film. More of that later.

When The Daltons Rode was fashioned at a time when the public were eating up westerns with a ‘Robin Hood’ twist. Henry King had scored a huge and deserved hit with his film Jesse James in which the brave James boys - Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda - were forced into a life of crime by the real bad guys, carpet baggers / banks / ranchers (delete as applicable). And so, Universal figured that anything that Fox could do…

Thus we have the four Dalton brothers - played here by burly Broderick Crawford, the usually hissable Brian Donlevy (but wearing the white bad guy’s hat if you see what I mean), Stuart Erwin and Frank Albertson - being railroded by all and sundry, forced to leave their ailing Ma, and in the case of Bob Dalton (Crawford) his girl Kay Francis. The truth - for, gentle reader, the Daltons really did ride - was rather less savoury but then again it wouldn’t have been a family oriented shoot-’em-up western without a little embellishment or the addition of Andy Devine as Dalton buddy and comic relief ‘Ozark Jones’. Jones, by the by, has woman trouble. Just go back and read that again, make sure you saw  it right. Andy Devine. Woman trouble. Yep, that’s right.

I’ll return to that billing. Randolph Scott plays ‘Tod Jackson’ a tenderfoot lawyer who moseys into town, falls for Bob’s gal just as the gang are forced to flee. There’s a great moment midway through the film when Scott takes Francis into his arms, tells her that surely they’ve waited long enough, that their love cannot wait and the long gone Bob cannot still be enamoured of the girl he’s left behind? At that very same moment a brick crashes through the window with a note attached and a rider gallops away. ‘Don’t forget you’re still my girl’ Bob’s scribbled. Damn! And Jackson’s ardour is suitably and understandably cooled…

But Scott is simply there as window dressing, as a box-office draw. He’s hardly in the darned film and when he is it is to indulge in some pretty ropey dramatics.

Despite it being a second rate western there are some things to recommend When The Daltons Rode not least of which is a series of quite excellent stunts with the Daltons holding up trains, leaping on to moving carriages from horses and vice-versa, from bridges, and on and off stagecoaches. For the latter the legendary Yakima Canutt once again pulls the stunt he made famous in Ford’s Stagecoach only this time it’s not an indian who falls beneath the horses and stagecoach, it’s Bob Dalton. Bob plunges ‘neath the hooves and the stage, grabs the carriage’s trailing straps, pulls himself up and completes the hold-up. Indiana Jones eat your heart out.

When the boys leap on to a passing train - seriously, it’s presented almost as: ‘There’s a train! Lets rob it!’ - they find it stuffed to the baggage car with armed to the teeth marshals and deputies out for their hides. Nonetheless, in a scene which would later be emulated in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, they carry out their hold up, then steal the posse’s horses, on the backs of which they jump from the train into a river. It’s breathless stuff and gallops along at a frantic pace.

Even the ending is redolent of the Newman / Redford romp (Bill Goldman would probably call it a ‘homage’), though ‘Butch Cassidy’ didn’t have the film’s marquee star popping back in again at the end, almost as an afterthought, to grab the gal.

Universal’s R1 DVD is the usual for this seemingly stalled series; no extras and a decent if far from stellar transfer. The mono sound is adequate.

In truth When The Daltons Rode is not a great classic western, but it’s fair, good natured fun for those of us that remember the blue remembered hills of childhood, the fringed cowboy hats (’Kiss Me Quick’ removed when your older brother has done with it) and chrome silver six shooters, accompanied by much slapping of thighs as we galloped into sunsets on endless summer evenings. Of course, home in time for a glass of Dandelion and Burdock plus a hastily slapped together salmon paste and butter doorstep.

And we had to water the horses…

Go West… December 7, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 4 comments

Gather round the campfire boys, for a tin plate filled with something indeterminately brown, a mess ‘o beans, some hot joe, and a peek through suitably narrowed eyes at three ’70s westerns…

Breakheart Pass (1975) 

Tom Mix meets Agatha Christie could possibly sum up Tom Gries’s 1975 western Breakheart Pass. Based on the eponymous Alistair MacLean novel, this is not so much a ‘whodunnit’ as a ‘whatthehellisgoingon?’. But it’s decent, undemanding fun that’s enlivened by a good cast, beautiful Lucien Ballard cinematography, a very hummable Jerry Goldsmith main theme, and some excellent stuntwork choreographed by the legendary Yakima Canutt.

A train is speeding through the snowy mountain passes of Nevada (actually it’s Idaho, but we’ll not nit-pick…), taking much needed medical supplies and troop replacements for the stricken men of a U.S. Army outpost. Stopping for water, they also pick up a Deputy Marshal (the ever excellent Ben Johnson) who has just apprehended a low down skunk killer and - gasp - card sharp (we’re not told which crime is worse) John Deacon (Charles Bronson).

But something nasty is waiting at the end of the line and no-one on the train is quite what they seem…

MacLean, who also scripted this couldn’t really write a damn; but his books had a certain popular ‘unputdownable’ appeal that meant millions of readers worldwide and film deal after film deal. His real skill was in the story; he could plot up a storm even if his prose was considered clunky and his dialogue, risible. Example; Bronson to the only man on board wearing cooks whites: “You must be Carlos; the chef.” Well, duh, Sherlock.

Most of the time we don’t know what on earth’s happening (a MacLean signature) as we are drip fed little bits of narrative - men disappear, men die, the train ploughs on and on through a chilly, snowbound landscape. Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna) is clearly up to no good (he is a politician after all), the Reverend, he’s played by shifty Bill McKinney, so he’s got to be a bad ‘un (or is he..?), and Charles Durning’s there, so he could go either way, as could Ed Lauter and David Huddleston. As for Deacon the neon light flashes early on that he’s no killer and soon we, and Maria (Bronson’s wife Jill Ireland) are rooting for him to, well, do whatever the hell he’s doing.

The gorgeous scenery and veteran locomotive make for striking imagery for Ballard to play with. The veteran Canutt, second unit directing a stunt team that includes his own son, does so with great verve and we get the obligatory fight atop the train scene; we even get a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ indian attack - hurrah!

If anything, in style and plotting, Breakheart Pass almost has the structure of a silent western. The dialogue, thankfully, is pared down to a minimum and there’s a decent amount of action to keep us on the edge of our seats. What do you mean those aren’t medical supplies? The men in the Fort aren’t sick - they’ve been taken prisoner by Red Beard (a badly dubbed John Mitchum, brother of Robert and clearly not on the same acting planet) and a band of renegade injuns? Hang on, who just decoupled the troop carriage…heavens to Betsy, who will save the day? At the risk of repeating myself; well, duh…

The denouement is a tad disappointing, as both the train and MacLean seem to run out of steam. The odds are firmly in favour of the men in the white hats, of course, and there’s a gunfight for Deacon to win before he can ride off with the girl. As said, undemanding stuff, but this is damn fine fluff, Bronson is always watchable and it’s entertainment that leaves one smiling. Breakheart Pass remains one of my many guilty pleasures. I love the stylised Saul Bass influenced (who hasn’t he influenced?) main titles, which for some reason I can’t explain (though it’s almost certainly time, place and genre), remind me of TV’s The Virginian; but then again it is a cracking Goldsmith theme playing behind them. Once in my head, I just can’t get it out…

This R1 disc is from the MGM/UA range, and as such I always approach them with fear and trepidation such has been MGM’s treatment of the UA catalogue generally. It’s not bad; a decent 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer (and full screen on the flip side), with a few nicks and marks and a little dirt, but nothing too intrusive. Colours, in the main, are pretty good. The mono soundtrack is quite good. The only subtitles are French and Spanish.

The Hunting Party (1971)

You know exactly where you are with The Hunting Party right from the off; Frank Calder (the brilliant, much-missed Oliver Reed) and his gang butcher a calf, cutting hunks of flesh off its still warm carcass and greedily devouring them. At the same moment, brutal cattle baron Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman) - whose animal we assume Frank has killed - is viciously raping his wife Melissa (Candice Bergen), the last act before he sets off on an annual hunting trip with his millionaire buddies. Not Riders of The Purple Sage then.

When Frank mistakes Melissa for a schoolteacher and kidnaps her in order to get her to teach him to read, Ruger and his hunting party decide to set their long range rifle sights on a much more dangerous game than buffalo…

Dismissed by some as a throwaway Euro-western, it’s a tale that stumbles (sometimes awkwardly) into Peckinpah territory (and that’s not simply because of the presence of LQ Jones). Indeed, hack director Don Medford, a mainstay of American TV from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to The Untouchables, Mrs Columbo (I know, I know…) and The Colbys, even tries a little fast editing and slow motion to quite good effect, but Frank’s relationship with his fellow gang members - which Peckinpah would have explored in greater depth - is, understandably perhaps, rarely touched on.

Bergen’s character’s fate is to be raped and raped again (then nearly raped), but her decision to turn to Frank is not as baffling as it might seem. Indeed all the lead roles are nicely done (even some of the second string roles, where the English members of the cast blend seamlessly with the Americans), particularly Reed who pulls off the western ‘hard man’ role with greater success than Connery did in Shalako. Hackman doesn’t have a lot to do save glower and be thoroughly nasty, though who better?

It’s an almost great film, but nevertheless an engrossing tale that almost manages to transcend its graphic brutality; it doesn’t revel in buckets of blood as many from this era did (trying to ‘out-Leone’ Leone, the misguided seemed to think that pointless violence was the way), it simply attempts to be as realistic as it can, though, it has to be said, the repeated rapes are hard to take. The ending is shocking, almost inevitable, yet thought provoking; I can only imagine that writer Lou Morheim must have gone through, or been the observer of, a particularly messy divorce. Kill ‘em all; let the lawyers sort ‘em out.

MGM’s 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer on the R1 disc I viewed is merely okay. It’s quite soft, and watching the nice full colours in the trailer (which is in good shape), it appears a little washed out too. So, it could be better, but I think this is about as good as it’s going to get, and at the price it’s hard to gripe too much. The mono sound is fine; and a word here for Riz Ortolani’s sub-Morricone score, which is nicely done.

Valdez is Coming (1971)

Mexican American Bob Valdez (Burt Lancaster) is a constable, a deputised lawman in the Mexican quarter of a fly-blown, pissant little Texan border town. Bob is tired and weary, worn down from years of being kicked around by his white bosses, his hunched shoulders and wheedling obsequiousness coming as second nature. But it wasn’t always like that.

Our film opens as Bob comes across a riotous carnival of racist viciousness; men and boys -  whole families - pound away with rifles, shotguns and pistols at the pitiful shack of a man the local gang boss, Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher), has fingered as the killer of the one-time husband of his current squeeze. The fact that the man is black and has an Apache squaw in tow, only adds to the ‘fun’.

Lawman Valdez takes it on himself to stop the violence, but when it all goes horribly wrong, thanks to cowardly R.L. Davis (Richard Jordan), Bob finds himself degraded, abused and ultimately tortured - crucified indeed - by Tanner and his men.

Valdez must make a stand; and it’s now that Tanner finds out he’s not dealing with the town ‘greaser’, but with a highly skilled professional manhunter and former 7th Cavalry sergeant, a man who fought the Indian wars, who went toe to toe with Geronimo, under the command of Brigadier General George Crook.

1971’s Valdez is Coming is a neat, intelligent, western with a fine cast; former theatre director Edwin Sherin handles not only the consummate professional Lancaster, but also first timer Cypher and newcomers Hector Elizondo (who delivers the fateful message ‘Valdez is coming…’) and Jordan pretty well, though only Lancaster manages to make his character thoroughly interesting. The others are mere sketches of stock characters; the rat (Jordan), the sadistic boss (Cypher), loyal friend Diego (Frank Silvera), and so on. Having said that, Susan Clark makes the most of not very much in the part of ‘Gay Erin’, Tanner’s woman, and Barton Heyman does the same as Tanner’s ambiguous lieutenant ‘El Sugundo’.

But it’s Lancaster’s movie and it’s fascinating watching him morph from the town punch bag into a one-man army, capable of taking a man down at 1,000 yards with his Sharp’s buffalo rifle. It could easily have become cliched in the hands of one less skilled, but Lancaster, baby blues and all, gives his honourable Mexican American an innate nobility even when he is shamelessly playing the white man’s game. And you’ll see that this legendary actor, well into middle age, doesn’t shirk from his role’s more physical aspects.

This is never less than interesting material provided by screenwriter Roland Kibbee who adapted Elmore Leonard’s source novel; it’s not the first time Leonard has tackled racism in a western setting. He covered much the same territory in the excellent Hombre, filmed four years earlier with Paul Newman.

There’s a wonderful scene with Lancaster and Silvera who act out the roles of master and slave, the latter a role that their characters have played all their lives, their sad smiles saying much about the hand that life has dealt them. Sherin underscores this when old Bob gazes at a dog-eared photograph of General Crook and the 7th; a uniformed Valdez is there standing tall and proud on his own, away from the group, an outsider even then. Late on there’s a super exchange between Valdez and El Segundo, with the latter weighing whether he should kill the former:

El Segundo: “You ever hunt buffalo?’”
Valdez: (looking at him with a quiet defiance) “Apache.”
El Segundo: “When?”
Valdez: (slight pause) “Before I knew better.”

If Sherin has a major flaw it’s that he doesn’t handle the action scenes too well, he doesn’t engage viscerally in the same way as Peckinpah. But what both Leonard and Sherin do very well is set up a terrific ending; don’t worry I won’t give it away for those that haven’t seen it, save to say it’s one of these satisfying yet totally unexpected endings that’s so well written, so well performed that it leaves the viewer with a warm glow, having been slapped right in the kisser by a tremendous cinematic high.

MGM’s R1 disc, under the ‘Western Legends’ umbrella, is available very cheaply; I point this out because, like many of their United Artists back catalogue DVD releases, it’s not much to write home about. First we have a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer that is a times awful and then really quite good often in the same scene. Early on there’s evident print damage, scratches, even what appear to be water marks, but things do improve. Colours are pretty faded, and the Spanish filming locations look pretty drab as a result. I repeat, things do pick up in particularly in the last couple of reels; the picture is nice and sharp, colours are excellent and marks are fewer - a mixed bag. The mono sound is adequate.

Despite that slightly worrying DVD report card, Valdez is Coming is a good enough western to earn a recommendation without hesitation.

High Noon; Dutch Delight November 14, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : DVD News & Info, Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , 2 comments

‘Kane will be a dead man in half an hour and nobody’s going to do anything about it. And when he dies, this town dies too. I can feel it. I am all alone in the world. I have to make a living. So I’m going someplace else. That’s all.’
Helen Ramirez

Life very much imitating art, Carl Foreman’s world was going to hell in a handcart as he was writing the script for High Noon. He was under investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (commonly known as HUAC, presumably because it doesn’t make much of an acronym any other way…), as were many of his colleagues, indeed, many of the cast and crew that were working on what - in fact if not in spirit - is a low budget ‘quickie’ western.

Foreman faced a moral dilemma. He either danced to HUAC’s tune or, in imitation of his pragmatic woman of ’dubious reputation’ Helen Ramirez, who quits Hadleyville because she has to ‘make a living’ somehow, he can get out of the country of his birth…before the clock strikes noon. Foreman, unlike his protagonist Will Kane, chose to flee.

There was a hokey slice of condescending cold war wisdom that went, if I can recall it correctly, ‘if you’re not a communist when you’re 18 there’s something wrong with your heart. If you’re still a communist when you’re 80, there’s something wrong with your head.’

As a working class Jew in the 1930s, young Carl saw the effects of the Great Depression on his countrymen, and, like many 1000s of other American young men and women of conscience, joined the American Communist Party. He later told HUAC, when he was called before them during the production of High Noon, that, yes, he had been a party member, but had become disillusioned with ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin and had quit. Yet he steadfastly refused to give the Commission names of fellow party members, was labelled an ‘unfriendly witness’, and blacklisted. Can’t work, can’t eat. Not HUAC or Senator Joe McCarthy’s problem.

By the time High Noon was finished, a storm bursting over Foreman’s head, the Chicago born Oscar nominated (for Champion) screenwriter had decamped to England, to continue making his living, but behind he left a picture that, though ostensively a simple western tale, left few in doubt of its allegorical origins. And while Foreman would liked to have been Will Kane - a man alone, strapping on his gun for the final confrontation -  his screen doppelganger is actually a combination of the frontier marshal and his former squeeze, the proud but practical Ramirez, a woman who fears that her town is about to die and die bloody at the hands of something evil, like her former lover Will, and so gets the hell out from under.

It’s something of a triumph that High Noon made it to the screen at all in the political climate of ’50s America. Foreman’s script is particularly and deliberately unsubtle, and word got out as filming was taking place. The hounds of the right were soon on the trail of the Reds under this particular bed, and were subsequently let loose not only on screenwriter Foreman (he was also associate producer but producer Stanley Kramer, in a bid to placate the witch hunt, had that credit removed and bought him out of the Kramer company. The two never spoke again), but also on Lloyd Bridges, who was also blacklisted alongside cinematographer Floyd (father of musician David) Crosby.

Laughter was in short supply for many in Tinsel Town, but it was Foreman who enjoyed a last guffaw, albeit from beyond the grave. High Noon won four Oscars (not bad for a film with a budget of $750,000, shot in less than a month), Foreman’s script was nominated (again, though he didn’t win), but he later did in fact win one of the little statuettes, while blacklisted, for The Bridge on The River Kwai (he was originally uncredited, but, like fellow writer Michael Wilson, finally received recognition posthumously from the Academy in 1984. Better late than never…).

Ironically, it was John Wayne who picked up Gary Cooper’s Oscar award for Best Actor at the 1952 ceremony, though the old cold warrior couldn’t resist having a verbal pop at the absent Foreman and his film. Wayne always professed a distaste for High Noon, but it would be seven years before the ‘Duke’ and the equally right wing Howard Hawks delivered their riposte, the tremendous Rio Bravo. Both director and lead actor thundered that High Noon was somehow anti-American, that real heroes didn’t go around begging for help and, as Wayne would erroneously recall, grinding their badges into the dust. “I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off…” said Hawks (from Hawks on Hawks by Joe McBride).

My deep suspicion is that it wasn’t High Noon either man had a problem with as such, it was Foreman and what they deduced were his politics. Wayne later said that he was ‘proud’ to have helped drive Foreman from the country. And while reactionaries at the centre of the HUAC storm might have been affronted by the allegory, your average cinema-goer wasn’t that concerned; what they saw was an exciting, thrilling, ground-breaking western. In fact, up until the moment Kane drops that badge on Main Street (and as far as Wayne was concerned, he might as well have pissed on the Stars and Stripes) and looks at the townspeople with utter contempt, it could be read entirely the other way; a triumph of rugged individualism over the collective will. Most people just bought their popcorn and had a great time.

As for Cooper, well, therein lies one of the stranger aspects to all this. First off, let me get this out of the way, for it seems the fashion today to compare Gary Cooper to the knottiest of 3 x 2 pieces of pinewood. Various reports say that ‘Coop’ had trouble with bleeding ulcers and / or back trouble while filming, thus explaining how easily the look of a man with the troubles of the world on his broad shoulders. I suppose it couldn’t have hurt (no pun intended), but the man from Montana, whose father was a genuine western pioneer, who, though untrained, had been acting on screen for three decades (and had been a 24-carat Hollywood star most of that time), was very fine actor indeed.

I’ll say that again for those who prefer to believe the idiocy put about that Coop was as wooden as a cigar store injun. Gary Cooper had a style that was almost wholly transparent, on set he appeared to be doing very little, in fact when it came to the rushes, it was apparent that he and the camera were made for each other. As a screen actor he was almost perfection itself; watch the close-ups (of which there are many) in High Noon. Zinnemann knows what his star, though entering the autumn of his career, is capable of and trusts him with the tightest of tight shots. This is how good Coop is; there’s a brief exchange with Katy Jurado in Spanish. You don’t have to know the meaning, Cooper invests his two words - two words - with a tear-jerking mixture of love, loss, pain and sadness. I’m a fan; I hope it shows.

But, far more intriguing for me at least, is the fact that Cooper, whose politics were very much on the liberal wing as a young man, willingly, almost eagerly, volunteered to testify before HUAC.

Far from stupid, he must have known not only of Foreman’s troubles, but also the subtext must have leapt from the pages of his copy of the screenplay. Cooper knew that one of the dangers of getting involved with High Noon was a guilt by association, a fact Foreman confirmed later after Cooper defended the screenwriter. And yet he stuck that chin out and went ahead and took the role, a role in a movie that few predicted would end in glory, in an Oscar, and in movie immortality. Will Kane would have been proud.

So, backstory over. The main feature.

It’s not clear where Hadleyville is (the name is only seen on signs, never spoken), but it’s probably Texas / New Mexico, possibly mid-1880s, the town (it thinks) having put it’s lawless past behind and looking to the future, for growth, for investment. An injection of capital(ism). It’s summer in this ‘dirty little village’, and the sun beats down mercilessly from a cloudless sky.

It was the late, great Dimitri Tiomkin’s idea to have the film open with the three members of the Miller gang meeting by a ‘hanging tree’ just outside of town, then riding in, the scene covered by no natural sounds, just Tiomkin and Ned Washington’s song, sung in stripped down country fashion by ’oater’ star Tex Ritter. By the time the credits end, pages of narrative have been covered (sing this; come on, sing dammit!);

Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
On this, our weddin’ day
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
Wait, wait along

I do not know what fate awaits me
I only know I must be brave
And I must face a man who hates me
Or lie a coward, a craven coward
Or lie a coward in my grave

Oh, to be torn ‘tweenst love and duty
S’posin’ I lose my fair-haired beauty
Look at that big hand move along
Nearin’ high noon

He made a vow while in state’s prison
Vowed it would be my life or his’n
I’m not afraid of death but oooh!
What will I do if you leave me?

Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
You made that promise as a bride
Do not forsake me, oh my darlin’
Although you’re grievin’, don’t think of leavin’
Now that I need you by my side

Wait along, wait along, wait along
Wait along…

It was a brilliant concept (not least Washington’s rhyming of ‘prison’ with ‘his’n’). Tiomkin always said that his favourite score was the one he wrote for Wayne’s The Alamo, but it’s in this film that we have the almost perfect marriage of music and image, the notes pounding out like a metronome, tick-tocking down the the seconds of Marshal Kane’s life. Tiomkin uses the tune throughout, sometimes giving it a romantic lilt, but also as part of proceedings, jauntily knocked out by the saloon pianist, it’s played on harmonica by Colby (Lee Van Cleef; the only sounds he makes onscreen, otherwise, he doesn’t utter a word), heard in church, and it’s there on on a small portable pump organ as Kane marries Amy. And then dramatically, at the climax, each note, each second is marked, down to the terrible shriek of the train whistle as it, Kane’s doom, enters plain view. Noon.

By the time the Miller gang - Ben Miller (Sheb Woolley), Jim Pierce (Robert Wilke), Jack Colby (Van Cleef) - get to town, and the credits have ended, we’re already well into the story.

Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) and his new bride (the gorgeous Grace Kelly, like Van Cleef, making her film debut) are getting hitched in the company of all their great and true friends; all of them, including Amy Fowler Kane, would within a few short minutes ’forsake’ Kane when they hear that an evil they thought had been eradicated five years previously is about to hit their town like a twister. Kane, unlike many western heroes, is an everyman, as far away from a social outsider like John T. Chance as is possible. Kane’s cleaned up the town, he’s part of the community, and he’s about to give up being a law man to settle down and become a storekeeper. Practically everyone that matters, is, after all, at his wedding. They are, as said, his ‘friends’.

But those ‘up north’ commuted Frank Miller’s death sentence and now, for some unexplained reason he’s been pardoned. He’s out and he’s coming back to town. And not for the wedding. Both Kane and Miller (Ian McDonald) go against the grain of typical western characters good and bad. Kane is willing to face down his nemesis, indeed he knows he has no option, but he also seeks help. And he’s not only afraid, he’s not afraid to admit it.

Miller, well, for well over an hour this black demon is never seen and what he’s done, what dark crimes he’s committed, are never made clear. There are obtuse references, Kane tells Ramirez (Katy Jurado): ‘You know how he is…’ and an odd look comes over her face, as if the Marshal has dredged up a memory from the dark recesses of her mind of something particularly nasty, and painful.

In fact, at the mere mention of his name, grown men grow queasy and bolt their doors, yet the most we see of him during this period is the empty chair from which he was sentenced to hang. It’s not a dead man that’s coming back to Hadleyville, but like the spectre at the feast, Miller’s presence is tangible, we share their fear, and he dominates the whole proceedings. By the time we do see him, the boys, as dirty and dusty as all get out, greet him off the train, and Frank is the real city slicker, in brand new, expensive store bought duds, quite the dude. As if he’s ready to go to that little white boarded church with the rest of the folks. All the same, he has a killer’s blank eyes.

One by one, as Kane tries to gather a posse, they desert him. First and foremost his Quaker bride, who has taken many months to persuade her man to forsake the gun, but is horrified that he now has to kill, or be killed on the day of their betrothal. Will’s deputy, the feisty and opportunistic Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) sees a chance to get the job of Marshal that he feels Kane has denied him. In turning his back on Will, he shows just why. Kane’s former mentor Martin Howe (a lovely understated cameo by Lon Chaney) will not help him. Living on the edge of town in a small wooden shack (a future Kane has seen and was determined would not be his), Marty tells him: ‘You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn ’em loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you’re honest you’re poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.’

The town fathers, all his old back-slapping buddies deny him, talk themselves out of helping the man they all agree has made their town the peaceful law-abiding place it is; Kane is reduced to considering, then almost reluctantly rejecting, aid offered by first a one-eyed drunk, then a 14 years old boy (’I'm big for my age’). And the clock is ticking.

Foreman brings them all on; men who disappear at the first signs of trouble, the excuses they dredge up (’Go on home to your kids Herb’), those that are desperate to see him get his ‘comeuppance’, all of whom are telling him to get out of town, and by implication, take his trouble far away with him.

Vienna born Fred Zinnemann hadn’t directed a western before and he clearly comes to the project with an open mind, not bound by convention; indeed for such a thrilling story, it’s something of a surprise that it’s 73 minutes before there’s anything we can accurately describe as western action (i.e. gunplay). It was Zinnemann, with the help of cinematographer Crosby, who determined to give his movie a stark, high contrast look; it’s beautifully shot in black and white, dry and dusty, those lines deeply etched in Cooper’s tired and dirty face. Time and again we return to two central motifs, a simple shot of miles and miles of empty railroad, down whose parallel tracks, death is coming. And those clocks; the seconds ticking away on huge clock faces, pocket watches, train station chronometers, the pendulums swinging like bodies at the gallows. Kane can’t stop time and we, the audience, are able to feel the sands trickling through his fingers.

When they produced the first cut, Zinnemann and his editor Elmo Williams, were dissatisfied. Then Williams screened a cut he’d made as an experiment. It was trimmed to almost real time, so two minutes into the picture Kane would wed at 10:35am, and while it be wrong to say the whole film is played out in ‘real’ time, it’s as near as dammit, a succession of those clocks would count us down to ‘high noon’, the tension becoming palpable as each clock face, each watch is checked, time slipping inexorably away. Out went a whole back story, of another sheriff bringing in a wanted man to Hadleyville, and a comic interlude with town drunk Jack Elam in the saloon. The normally taciturn Zinnemann almost jumped for joy; this was it, this was his film.

From Ben Miller rearing his mount at the Marshal’s door -‘You in a hurry?’ ‘I sure am.’ ‘You’re a fool…’ - to Judge Mettrick (Otto Kruger) pointing at that empty chair (’…have you forgotten what he said? …’I'm going to kill you Will Kane…’), Mayor Henderson’s (Thomas Mitchell) stunning betrayal, Tiomkin’s score hammering down those final few seconds to noon as Will scratches away at his last will and testament, the blast of that train whistle and the score rising in time with a magnificent towering crane shot of Cooper, alone in an empty street to face his destiny - it’s spine-tingling cinema, cinema that makes the pulse race, that feeds those neural pleasure receptors the good stuff. The real good stuff.

And the Academy agreed, giving it - despite a behind the scenes campaign firmly against it - awards for Best Actor (Cooper’s second after Sergeant York), Editing, Best Original Song (the first time a non-musical had scooped this) and Best Score. In 1953, the defiant Writers Guild of America awarded Foreman, in absentia, their prize for ‘Best American Written Drama’ for High Noon. Screw you, Senator Joe…

Today, there’s a growing school of thought that is of the opinion that Leone and later Peckinpah came out of nowhere with their ‘revisionist’ westerns, which is total and utter tripe. Indeed there are many fans of Italian westerns in particular that would never dream of watching a Hollywood western.

Theirs wasn’t a revolution as such; High Noon is yet another step on the western’s evolutionary ladder. Leone’s bad guys weren’t the first ones to look as if they’ve been dragged through sagebrush backwards. The denizens of the Hadleyville saloon are a bunch that would sit well in any Leone casting call, and by the time he faces down the Miller gang, Marshal Kane is bruised, battered and dirty, his clothes torn, his nerve almost shredded. Indeed Leone, a western fan since he was a child, crammed as many references from his favourite westerns as he could into the delectable Once Upon a Time in The West (and, of course, that opening sequence is the heaviest nod possible to Zinnemann’s masterpiece). From John Ford to Raoul Walsh, Budd Boetticher, Sam Fuller, Anthony Mann and many more; both ‘Bloody Sam’ and Sergio would acknowledge the debt they owed to the masters of cinema’s oldest genre.

I suppose there’s more than a touch of the evangelist in me when it comes to film classics (maybe you’ve noticed?)

Whisper it, gentle reader, but sometimes I have been known to, well, shall we say, be slightly economical with the truth in a bid to spread the word when an older, sometimes, little known, or less-loved, film debuts on DVD. It’s not that I aim to dupe anyone - heaven forfend - but, damn it, I just want to share the joy. So, sometimes a quite decent transfer becomes ‘brilliant’. Come on; just watch the bloody thing.

This is no ‘little known or less-loved’ film and so you can trust me, Scouts honour, when I tell, I have just watched Paramount’s Region 2 Dutch Special Edition of High Noon, and it was akin to looking into the face of God.

In the UK, rights issues mean we’ve had to put up with Universal’s nasty, worn and tattered transfer for years (the only good news is, aside from being included in their Grace Kelly Screen Goddess set, it appears to be out of print). In R1, fans were looking forward to the home video rights for a whole slew of back catalogue classics owned by Republic, returning to the ownership of Paramount, after several years with Artisan (now Lion’s Gate), who, shall we say, failed to do many of them justice. In mitigation, for most, they didn’t hold the best elements, which are securely in Paramount’s Los Angeles vaults.

The twist is that Paramount actually declined to take the whole catalogue back, save for some TV titles, it’s said, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Quite why this should be is a puzzle, though rumours abound that the current suits could not care less about classics on DVD (except, obviously, Capra’s fable), which is why their output has slowed to a crawl. In fact, a crawl would be welcome.

We should be thankful then, that the above doesn’t seem to be the case the world over. The new High Noon Special Edition has been issued in Holland, France and Australia. In terms of extras there is no difference between the new disc and Artisan’s R1 50th Anniversary release, with ‘Hi - I’m Leonard Maltin…’ present and correct with a ‘Hi - I’m Leonard Maltin…‘ type featurette, and interviews with a whole slew of people, some, sadly no longer with us - Fred Zinnemann, David Crosby, John Ritter (son of Tex, who is himself heard in a vintage radio interview), Jonathan Foreman, Tim Zinnemann and Maria Cooper, all of whom also feature on the commentary track. So far so good.

But the transfer, the transfer - it’s truly blissful.

Look, when I had a first peek at it, I was so thrilled I sat down and practically watched the whole thing straight through. At breakfast. I shed tears of joy - I swear - when Grace Kelly’s luminous face turned upwards to gaze lovingly into Cooper’s at the wedding. It’s so good, it makes the Artisan - both iterations, one being slightly better than the other - look like VHS. It’s clean as a whistle, beautifully defined and detailed, and not only, as is their practice at Paramount bless ‘em, does it have a stereo track (phooey…), but also a full throated restored mono track (huzzah!), so that ol’ Tex and his chug-chugga-chug-chugga-chugga-chugga-chug can be heard loud enough to make the china rattle with no distortion.

It is, without a shadow of a doubt one of the best presentations of a black and white movie of this vintage (or possibly any other) extant on DVD. Screencaps simply do not do this justice (they never can tell the whole story) - you must see this yourself to believe just how good a job Paramount have done here - but there are a few stills of the R4 version posted in The DVD Forums Westerns Thread here.

I picked up my R2 Dutch copy - English friendly, right down to the menus - from Mediadis.com for €8.99 plus postage. And after all that good news, there’s more; more European (and possibly Antipodean) R2 Paramount classics on the way in 2007 apparently - newly restored versions of The Godfather, Godfather 2, we can expect Don Siegel’s Invasion of The Body Snatchers, Ford’s The Quiet Man, a lip-smacking prospect if it is restored at last, Looking for Mr Goodbar and more (full list here). If they are anywhere near the standard of High Noon, then I can see a lot of fans in the UK and US ‘going Dutch’ next year…

Hearts and Bones October 11, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Action / Adventure / Thriller, Film & DVD Reviews, Westerns , add a comment

It’s slightly odd that Steve McQueen followed up Le Mans with another film that has a documentary feel to it, Junior Bonner. Both films take realistic looks at real sporting events, with huge amounts of footage shot both during the famous French 24 hours race, and the oldest rodeo in the world, at Prescott, Arizona. And you can write the plots of each on the back of a fag packet (actually the ‘plot’ of Le Mans, is virtually contained within the title.)

But that’s where the similarity ends. It’s as if Peckinpah had seen McQueen’s personal and very, very expensive racing movie and decided he’d show him just how it could and should be done.

If Le Mans is about anything at all, it’s about a racing driver doing what most racing drivers do at some time in their lives; confronting his fears, coming to terms with a past failure. Ostensibly, Junior Bonner’s main plot-line - not the theme it must be pointed out - is precisely the same, but while we know absolutely nothing about the characters at the of Le Mans - and frankly could care less - Peckinpah lays out the life of a family about whom we come to care very much indeed.

Le Mans (1971)

By the time negotiations for Le Mans began, Steve McQueen, a ‘petrol head’ since his teens, was a true Hollywood superstar, his place in the firmament having been cemented by Peter Yates’ thrilling Bullitt. He could pick and choose his roles, practically name his own price, and thus had at his disposal the best damned toy box in the world.

Fulfilling a dream, he choose to make a film about motorsport; the American race scene had already been covered (by Paul Newman at the Indianapolis 500 in 1969’s Winning), as had the Grand Prix circuit in John Frankenheimer’s eponymous 1966 film (McQueen was courted for the part that eventually went to Jim Garner); so the day / night race at Le Mans it was.

Jointly produced by McQueen’s company Solar and Cinema Center 100, the movie making arm of CBS (who ploughed a vast $6m into the project, which included $750,000 for the star, plus points). Nothing was too good for McQueen who demanded, and got, total control. Can you hear any alarm bells yet, gentle reader?

The best racing drivers in the world were hired, not simply to give the race scenes an adrenalin fuelled vérité, but also, one suspects, so that McQueen could join their company for a while, get behind the wheel and actually become one of these tarmacadam gladiators. The stuff of fantasy…or a recipe for disaster.

It was at this point that the wheels started to come off…

Director John Sturges had a vision of a tragic love story with Le Mans simply as the backdrop. McQueen demanded that the focus of the film be on the track. One of them had to go, and with Sturges went much of his footage, which the star deemed unusable. In came hired gun Lee H. Katzin (largely a TV director) at the helm, but it was McQueen calling the shots. Reshooting meant the budget ballooned and there was also the little problem of the script. Which wasn’t quite finished…

CBS smelt trouble, shut down production and even considered paying off McQueen and bringing in a more pliable name. $1.5m over budget and two months late they completed the film; McQueen was involved in two horrendous smashes (from which he walked away), former F1 driver David Piper wasn’t so lucky, losing part of a leg (he’s thanked ‘for his sacrifice’ in the end credits). Not long after the film’s release in the States, McQueen went bankrupt and Solar virtually ceased to function as a production company. No, it wasn’t a happy time for the man who was - is - the very essence of cool.

So what do we have? In the end, we have a film with almost no narrative and the fact that it’s some 37 minutes in before we hear a line of intelligible dialogue tells its own story. McQueen’s Michael Delaney arrives at Le Mans staring moodily at the repaired Armco barrier where, the previous year, his car had been involved in an accident that lead to the death of a young Italian driver.

The driver’s widow Lisa Belgetti (Elsa Anderson) is back again, having hitched her wagon to another racer. Delaney and Belgetti are joined by tragedy and…well, there’s not much ‘and’, just the glimmers of the love story Sturges wanted. The rest is just racing, and it’s on the track that Le Mans excels with some terrific footage.

Whatever else you might think - and critics hated it - Le Mans does have what is undoubtedly some of the finest racing footage captured on film. It puts the viewer right in the centre of the action, particularly in the pivotal crash sequence which is beautifully staged and edited, breathtaking in its violence, and sheer daring; remember folks - no CGI. But, ultimately, it’s not enough. The action is exciting only in a superficial way; we simply don’t really care whether Michael wins, gets the girl, or dies in the attempt. It’s somehow a little too dry and dusty, like old bones. Not enough meat, too little flesh.

What is fascinating however, is that, today some 35 years after seeing it for the first time, it can be viewed as a wonderful period piece, a beautiful snapshot of time and place. With it’s shots of the crowds - watching, waiting, under canvas in the forests - it’s a time capsule, from the fashions and hairstyles, to the brutish cars, even the people look different, inhabitants of a very different planet. Pale and wan, badly fed, badly groomed; 36 years ago and it might as well be a 100.

It easily conjures smells of spilt petrol and greasy lukewarm burgers, hot rubber, cold petit déjeuner, summer rain and the dregs of last night’s Bordeaux glugged as a morning pick me up. It’s this documentary aspect of Le Mans that means, for me at least, that the film is getting to be a better viewing experience with age.

In both R1 and R2, Le Mans comes barebones, but it does have the benefit of a very nice transfer by Paramount, with good strong, vibrant colours and decent sound. Not up to the standard of Warners recent Grand Prix, but still acceptable.

What is the point of this story?
What information pertains?
The thought that life could be better
Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.

Paul Simon

Junior Bonner (1972) 

Junior Bonner also failed to set the box office on fire, but having almost worked with McQueen on The Cincinnati Kid, Sam Peckinpah - fired from that film after only a few days - and Steve set to work together again, ultimately coming up with a film that stands today as amongst the best in both their filmographies. In fact, they enjoyed the experience that much that it was a matter of months before they were both back before the cameras again in a film that put both of their careers back on track. Huzzah!

Ironically one of the reasons Junior Bonner failed at the box office was that it was marketed as some kind of all-action cowboy flick, and failed signally to meet those expectations. While The Getaway, which satisfied both wrong-headed critics and audiences that here was a ‘typical’ outing from ‘Bloody Sam’, was the huge hit that both Sam and Steve needed. But it was far from being representative of Peckinpah, who knew what was was needed of him and completed the film with a consummate professionalism. You want action flick? You got it…

It was the artist, not just the artisan, then that chaired Junior Bonner, getting the most out of a slight story and the most out of Steve McQueen, one of the most charismatic stars of the past half century, and a man who could dictate to the camera a page of dialogue with a single look.

The film starts with fading rodeo star Junior ‘JR’ Bonner, riding old Sunshine; never was there more contrarily named animal. He’s a Herculian black bull from Hell, two tons of snorting, bucking, stomping, plain ornery beefsteak. JR straps himself to the back of this beast, his bête noir, and his job is to stay there for eight seconds. Eight long seconds.

After picking himself up out of the sawdust and nursing a couple of cracked ribs, JR decides that he’ll ride ol’ Sunshine again, at his home town Rodeo at Prescott, and he’ll beat him. Or to hell with it. Once back in town, JR’s appearance gradually brings the disparate Bonner clan back together one last time - while waiting in the ring is Sunshine, as mean and moody as ever.

This is a modern day western, but it’s suffused with that ‘end of trail’ melancholy that Peckinpah did so well. McQueen is perfection itself as JR, grimacing as he straps up those ribs, walking, shoulders slumping, back to a battered old convertible that, like its owner, has seen better days.

We know exactly the territory we’re in within minutes of the opening, JR pitching up at his dad’s tar-paper shack, finding it abandoned, along with the framed photos of ‘Ace’ Bonner’s own glory rodeo days. Both Ace and his boy are men out of their time, a fact underlined when Peckinpah has JR staring down a gigantic earth mover on the road outside, and having to back down in the face of this, this…progress. As he tries to find his way out of a maze of construction workers and machinery, JR looks on helplessly as Ace’s home is ripped apart and flattened by predatory ‘dozers, seeming for all the world like jackals at the carcass of a lion.

We never find out exactly why Ace (Robert Preston), and Ellie (the excellent Ida Lupino) parted; we don’t need to. Ace has always been a dreamer, a ‘good times just around the corner’ guy, who can’t keep a dollar, or his dick, in his jeans. He needs just one more grubstake, enough to get him to Australia where the streets are awash with gold just dying to leap out of the dusty earth into his hands. One last dream.

Ace’s youngest son, Curly Bonner (Joe Don Baker) and his joyless, pinched-up shrew of a wife, sure won’t be the ones to provide it. They slapped $15,000 into Ace’s sweaty hands for his dirty little spread, not the full market value, but then, Ace was in debt up to his bandana and Curly was on hand with the greenbacks. No more from Curly; thanks to that little deal, he’s heavy into real estate and as he tells JR, he’s on his way to his first million ‘while you’re still trying to get to eight seconds.’

Ace tries to stick JR for the dough; Junior has to tell daddy he’s ‘busted’. That first meeting in God knows how long between father and son is beautifully done; Ace signs himself out of the local hospital, steals JR’s horse to join the Rodeo parade through Main Street, and JR catches up with him. They gallop through the parade, whoopin’ and hollerin’, Sam editing the scene with the touch of a master, before he gets them to the railroad station - father and son.

Curly might be like his mom, intelligent, ambitious, but the apple that is JR didn’t fall far from the tree that is Ace. Peckinpah has them split, figuratively, and literally by the tracks, when Ace realises his last chance has been lost. Wordlessly, he draws them back together as Ace sees in JR what he once was, and Junior sees what’s coming up for him.

If elegiac westerns are largely about decay and death, and how we cope with those twin inevitable, inexorable shadows, then Junior Bonner deals with them on two levels. JR is not a ‘has been’, he’s a ‘never really was’, and he’s got one last chance to prove to nobody other than himself that he’s still capable of looking the world right in the eye and spitting in it. He’s at ‘that’ age, not that old, not that young, it’s all just a state of mind.

Ace, with 20 or so years on his kid, has the same dream, that vision of all old men, of riding into the sunset head held high. Somewhere out there Ace will make it. He knows it, all he needs is a chance. One last chance to make it big. And who can deny him that?

Peckinpah is said to have put much of himself into the film, and in particular his relationship with his own father. He mostly kept his own demons at bay throughout the shooting, only hitting the bottle towards the end of the schedule; he needed to be fully focused. It might sound as if it’s a heavy, somewhat miserable slice of cinema, and if I’ve given you, dear reader, that impression I apologise wholeheartedly for my ham-fisted prose. It is in fact a beautifully acted and directed piece, at it’s core a joyful film and tremendously life affirming. Above all, a very human story with a great big heart - Peckinpah does great ‘human’.

The rodeo scenes are choreographed and seamlessly edited with Peckinpah’s customary precision, the comedy punch-up has a Fordian charm, the whole has an air of romance, of genuine affection for the characters, for place and for family. Even the minor roles are wonderfully played, some of the good folks of Prescott getting in on the act (not to mention the Peckinpah offspring). On screen are ‘real’ people we can all identify with, even the grasping Curly and the delusional, but eternally charming Ace.

I’ve mentioned it before, but nowhere better than associated with this film to bring it up again; I believe that Sam Peckinpah was the true successor to John Ford. It’s a crying shame Hollywood didn’t appreciate the fact when he was alive.

If you’re considering buying Junior Bonner on DVD for goodness sake don’t purchase the UK R2 which is a pan and scan travesty. The R1, like all the ABC catalogue films presented by MGM, might be non-anamorphic, but it’s in OAR ’scope, quite a decent if not stellar transfer and has the benefit of a commentary track from the guys who shall be forever known as ‘The Peckinpah Posse’ - Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, moderated by Nick Redman…and very informative it is too.

*Oh, before I forget; those Paul Simon lyrics? Well, obviously they don’t feature in either of the films. But Hearts and Bones has been buzzing about my head recently, and, well, those words seem so right…let’s dedicate it to Ace Bonner shall we? 

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