The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

Posted on April 26th, 2009 in 1970s, Westerns, Robert Duvall, Cliff Robertson by Colin

Poster

About a year ago I wrote a short series on the depiction of Jesse James in the movies. At the time, I skipped over The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) for the simple reason that I hadn’t seen the movie in years and didn’t have a copy to hand. Well I eventually got around to watching this a few days ago and thought I’d post my thoughts on it for the sake of completeness. I had recalled the film as being pretty good, but after my recent viewing I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it bad - it has too many interesting things going for it - but it did leave me feeling disappointed. The performances, and some of the ideas, save it but the direction is the weak point for me. I suppose I really should come clean here and say that Philip Kaufman isn’t one of my favourite directors, so that may have affected my opinion somewhat.

The whole film takes place within a fairly short space of time, concentrating on the lead up to, execution and aftermath of the bank robbery of the title. Mainly it’s a character study of Jesse James (Robert Duvall) and Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson), with the latter getting more screen time and coming across the more sympathetic of the two. With the possibility of an amnesty for their past crimes being granted by the Missouri state legislature, Cole Younger (recuperating after a run in with Pinkerton agents) rides for Northfield with the aim of heading off Jesse before he can raid the bank. Along the way, he learns that the amnesty he was hoping for won’t be forthcoming, so a change of plan is in order. The scenes in Northfield, which make up the central part of the story, represent both the best and worst aspects of the picture. It’s here that the yokel outlaws get their first glimpse of the new technology and customs that will soon change their world forever. Some of these scenes work very well, such as the shock of being confronted by an early motorized vehicle. On the other hand, the almost interminable baseball game, replete with Keystone Kops style pratfalls, comes across as needlessly self-indulgent and slows the whole film down. The idea of including it was sound enough but Kaufman drags it out to the point where it becomes distracting. It’s worth comparing this sequence to the camel race at the start of Ride the High Country as they’re essentially making the same point; the difference, however, is that Peckinpah knew where to draw the line.

The thinker and the zealot - Robertson and Duvall as Cole Younger and Jesse James

Robertson is excellent as the thoughtful and charismatic Cole. He plays him as a man of the world and a realist, a guy who sees change coming and who is smart enough to see that dwelling on the past does no good. Duvall’s Jesse is the complete opposite - an unbalanced psychotic who cannot let go of the past and who treats all who stand in his way with a ruthless contempt. He talks in grandiose terms of having visions and excuses his excesses by referring to the guerrilla action he’s involved in. Both men give strong, believable performances that help ground the film. The supporting cast is also noteworthy with R G Armstrong playing the ill-fated Clell Miller, and old-timers Elisha Cook Jr and Royal Dano getting small but important roles. One other point I’d like to make relates to the way Frank James was portrayed; in every other movie I’ve seen, this character was shown to be a tough, smart but very human figure. In this movie, however, John Pearce plays him as a vaguely simple-minded soul who lives only to carry out his brother’s wishes. I’ve no idea if this closer to reality or not, but it’s a marked contrast to all other portrayals. I said earlier that I wasn’t all that impressed by Kaufman’s direction and, apart from the aforementioned baseball sequence, he also handles the actual robbery poorly. The scenes in the bank are fine, but as soon as the action takes to the streets it falls down. It’s difficult not to compare this to Walter Hill’s superlative filming of the same events in The Long Riders, where I found myself riveted. Kaufman has the camera swooping all over the place, yet there’s none of the intensity or power of Hill’s version. There are some nice shots of landscape and forest but the whole thing has a slightly cheap look, which is odd since he almost perversely manages to evoke an authentic sense of time and place. I don’t know, I think if he could just have changed the emphasis here and there we could have had one of the best cinema versions of these events. As it stands, the movie seems like it’s trying too hard to be an art house representation of what is really a fairly straightforward story.

The R1 DVD from Universal is barebones, save for the inclusion of the trailer, but the picture quality is excellent. I certainly didn’t notice any significant damage and the colours, while subdued, are true. There’s a nice, tight 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and the disc is available very cheaply. In general this movie has some good ideas and fine performances, but I feel it could have been so much better. Like all other versions it’s littered with inaccuracies (for example, Jim Younger’s facial wound was sustained in Northfield, and not earlier as the film states) but that’s no big deal for me. I’m still of the opinion that The Long Riders remains the best telling of the story of the James/Younger gang, and that Kaufman’s movie is an interesting but flawed addition to the mythology surrounding these men. 

Rocky Mountain

Posted on April 16th, 2009 in 1950s, Westerns, Errol Flynn by Colin

Poster

Having already made seven westerns, Errol Flynn got into the saddle one last time in 1950 to make Rocky Mountain. The whole tone of the film is different to what went before, and that makes it somewhat atypical. Both They Died with Their Boots On and Silver River had their darker moments but neither was as relentlessly grim as this. From the opening moments, when a weary, unshaven Flynn leads his bedraggled soldiers across a bleak landscape, an air of resigned fatalism hangs over the characters. This makes for a superior little picture, and one entirely in keeping with the era in which it was produced. By 1950 the western was on the cusp of one of its regular periods of transition, about to enter that Golden Age when heroes were less than perfect and endings weren’t always happy.

Lafe Barstow (Flynn) is a captain in the Confederate army who, in the dying days of the Civil War, has been sent west to California to raise a guerrilla force which his superiors hope will cause sufficient havoc to take the heat off their forces back east. We get our first sight of the small band of rebels as they near their rendezvous with the bandit warlord who has pledged his men to the cause. From there on the action is confined to the titular mountain and the barren valley below. Things go awry almost immediately when Barstow and his men take it upon themselves to rescue a stagecoach being pursued by a raiding party of hostile Shoshone. This act of gallantry is destined to backfire when it’s revealed that the sole surviving passenger is Johanna Carter (Patrice Wymore), the fiancee of a Union lieutenant stationed nearby. Not only has the secrecy of their mission been compromised but the rebels soon find themselves besieged by the vengeful Shoshone. A tense waiting game ensues and hard decisions will have to be made by all concerned. This is quite a downbeat story and, despite the misleading publicity blurb on the poster, the romantic aspects are largely ignored. There’s also a conspicuous lack of the kind of broad comedic moments that frequently characterise westerns starring Flynn.

Errol Flynn about to make a fateful decision in Rocky Mountain

I really enjoyed Flynn’s performance as the doomed soldier struggling to choose between duty and human decency. It’s sort of ironic that it should be his last western, and a low budget picture, where he finds a role that he could get his teeth into. Rocky Mountain was to be one of Flynn’s last good parts before he experienced a mini revival in his last years. It proves that the man could certainly act when the right material was offered to him - it’s just a shame that he chose, or had to accept, such poor vehicles thereafter. Patrice Wymore was soon to become the third Mrs. Flynn and she does fine as the reluctant hostage, appearing remarkably assured in what was only her second film. The support cast is generally good and there’s the bonus of seeing Slim Pickens making his screen debut as one of Flynn’s men. Long-standing sidekick Guinn Williams is also prominently featured (looking quite old and weathered, it has to be said) and he indulges in none of the comic pratfalls with which he’s often associated. Director William Keighley shot this sparse movie very professionally; both the action set pieces and the more thoughtful, talky passages work equally well, and he really gets the best out of the New Mexico locations. There’s not one interior in the whole film, and that’s always a good thing when the budget is restricted.

Warner’s R1 DVD of Rocky Mountain is another excellent transfer that shows off the crisp black and white photography to good effect. There’s the usual package of extras with three more of the very welcome western shorts that appeared on the disc for Montana. The film has also been granted a commentary track by Thomas McNulty, which I found both enjoyable and informative. All told, we get a classy presentation of a very fine movie which I’d recommend highly.

So, that brings me to the end of this little series on the westerns of Errol Flynn. I’m not sure how I’d rank them, but Rocky Mountain, They Died With Their Boots On and Silver River would have to be in the top three, with the first two probably sharing the top spot. I’d have no hesitation in placing San Antonio and Montana at the bottom of the pile, with the other three jockeying for position in the middle. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed viewing and writing down my thoughts on these films, and I hope others have taken some pleasure in reading them.

Montana

Posted on April 13th, 2009 in 1950s, Westerns, Errol Flynn by Colin

Poster

After watching Silver River, with it’s strong plot, good cast, and high production values, it’s a bit of a disappointment to view Montana (1950) next. What we have here is a B movie that uses technicolor in a vain attempt to disguise that fact. It’s a real struggle to find anything good to say about this film; the story is flat and unengaging, the cast largely anonymous, and the action (what little there is) is dull and devoid of tension. On the plus side, the colour photography adds a little sheen to a few scenes and it’s mercifully short, clocking in at just 76 minutes.

Montana falls into that small sub-genre of westerns that deals with the conflict between the cattlemen and the sheepmen. Now, there’s a very good reason why such stories never gained much popularity - it’s essentially a dull subject that doesn’t grab you. The plot deals with the efforts of Morgan Lane (Flynn) to drive his herd of little woolly guys into Montana and graze them on the open range. The cattle ranchers, who have already established themselves, are implacably opposed and are prepared to use whatever means are necessary to keep the sheepmen out. The ranchers, in the shape of Maria Singleton (Alexis Smith) and her betrothed Rod Ackroyd (Douglas Kennedy) have the range carved up between them and are preparing for war. Lane manages to trick Miss Singleton into signing over a lease, and the stage is set for a showdown. The problem is that there’s no real tension generated and the on-off romance between Flynn and Smith just feels contrived and serves only to pad out what is basically a lean tale. By the time you get to the appallingly poor climax it’s hard to care what the outcome will be.

Errol Flynn in Montana - angling for a drink, and who could blame him!

This is one of Flynn’s poorest performances and it’s clear his heart just wasn’t in it. He looks tired for most of the running time and even his likability can’t lift this drivel. Worst of all there’s the unedifying spectacle of the star gritting his teeth and warbling along to a godawful ditty in a duet with Alexis Smith. Miss Smith wasn’t really served any better by this material and spends much of her time flouncing around playing a character whose behaviour perpetually alternates between the arch and the petulant. The  rest of the cast is filled up by a bunch of instantly forgettable nobodies giving one flat, one-note performance after another. Oh, S.Z. Sakall makes another of his unwelcome appearances but his character abruptly disappears and no explanation is offered - he’s just there, and then he’s not. This kind of continuity lapse, and the short run time, suggests that portions of this movie ended up on the cutting room floor. Ray Enright was one of those journeyman directors who could produce something passable given the right material, but his point-and-shoot handling of Montana is underwhelming and uninspiring. His filming of the big stampede at the climax is an object lesson in how not to shoot an action scene. We get pointless images of rampaging cattle interspersed with head and shoulder shots of Flynn and others bobbing up and down, pretending to be riding horses, against a painted backdrop!

For such a weak film Montana is presented handsomely on DVD in R1; the transfer is clean and the colours are strong. There’s a good selection of extras from Warners with trailers and shorts - best of all are three western shorts, which I actually found more entertaining than the main feature. Prior to this viewing I hadn’t seen Montana in over twenty years. I had forgotten most of the story and I have to say it really is a forgettable movie. If you’re a Flynn completist, like me, you’ll probably want it just to plug the gaps but I seriously doubt it’s the kind of movie anyone is likely to return to in a hurry. Next will be Flynn’s final western, and the last in this short series of reviews - Rocky Mountain.

Silver River

Posted on April 8th, 2009 in 1940s, Westerns, Raoul Walsh, Errol Flynn by Colin

Poster

What a difference a director makes. One of my gripes with San Antonio was the fact that it was made by a man who didn’t seem to be in touch with the genre. The western is one kind of film where such a lack of association is especially damaging. Despite the fact that it encompasses so many themes and types of story, the western has its own look, rhythm and ethos - that’s what makes it unique, in my eyes anyway. Silver River (1948) is an odd mix of western and slightly soapy melodrama but, at heart, it’s really an old-fashioned morality play. Raoul Walsh was very much at home making oaters and his steady hand on the tiller ensures that this movie holds true to its course. 

Silver River is a tale of one man’s rise, fall and ultimate redemption. It opens towards the end of the Civil War, when Mike McComb (Errol Flynn) deliberately disobeys an order, for the best of reasons, and is subsequently court martialled and cashiered. This has the effect of hardening his resolve to succeed at all costs in civilian life, and look out solely for number one. The first half of the movie charts his seemingly unstoppable rise both socially and financially, as he acquires capital, transport, a gambling house, interests in the mining business, and another man’s wife in rapid succession. As we follow each step of McComb’s progress, the script throws in one reference to the classical world after another (ranging from Julius Caesar to King David) to draw parallels with the character’s actions. McComb’s ruthless pursuit of power and glory drives him right to the brink of moral bankruptcy, but results in the financial bankruptcy that is necessary if he is to avoid slipping into the abyss. The aptly named Plato Beck (Thomas Mitchell) is on hand all the while to act as the voice of conscience. The drunken lawyer first assists McComb in his meteoric rise and then presides over his downfall, knowing that he must destroy his friend in order to save him.

Ann Sheridan casts a distrustful glance at Errol Flynn.

Silver River is one of those movies that was almost perfectly cast. Flynn, nearing forty and with a few rough years behind him, is fine as the man still young enough for grandiose dreams but tinged with the kind of realism that comes from having lost a few rounds. His own personal troubles and the knowledge of what he was doing to himself at this point must surely have coloured his performance. Some of the scenes in the latter half of the film, where he is confronted with the ugliness of his actions and the prospect of abandonment, really ring true and one can read the resignation and despair in his eyes. Ann Sheridan is wholly believable playing the tough as nails frontier woman who first rails against Flynn before finally succumbing. Sheridan was one of those actresses who brought a lot of honesty to her playing and I thought she was especially convincing in the early scenes where she eschewed all of the usual Hollywood glamour to portray a woman who was the equal of any of the men around her. I always enjoy seeing Thomas Mitchell in anything and, although some may have a problem with his admittedly hammy style, find he brings an enormous amount of pathos and humanity to every part. His role in Silver River is a pivotal one and it’s entirely to his credit that it would be hard to imagine anyone else playing it. As I said earlier, Raoul Walsh holds everything together expertly and succeeds in preventing the melodrama from becoming too suffocating. The outdoor scenes and the action are everything you would expect from a director of Walsh’s calibre, and the more dramatic indoor confrontations are well shot with plenty of emphasis on the actors’ faces - something of a characteristic with this director.

Silver River was a surprise omission from Warners Errol Flynn western package, but it is freely available on DVD from them in France. The image quality looked pretty good to my eyes, save for a little softness in the first ten minutes or so. Thereafter the picture remains clean, sharp and quite consistent. The disc has removable French subs and is completely barebones but, on the positive side, it’s not all that expensive. I think this is a bit of an undervalued film that deserves to be rediscovered, so I’d recommend it. I’ll be looking at Montana next.

San Antonio

Posted on April 3rd, 2009 in 1940s, Westerns, Errol Flynn by Colin

Poster

It’s often difficult to put your finger on exactly why a film doesn’t work for you. I’ve frequently found that such films suffer from two basic flaws; they can’t seem to make up their minds what style to adopt, and/or the director is someone who has no real affinity or feel for the genre in which he’s working. The existence of one of these factors can easily hamstring a production - when they appear in tandem it’s never good news. I feel that San Antonio (1945) is one of those films that falls into this unfortunate category. There’s actually the makings of a fine film in there, and indeed it contains some well executed sequences, but it ultimately loses its way and winds up as a pretty unsatisfactory experience.

San Antonio is basically revenge western. The prologue places the action in Texas in the 1870s at a time when a struggle is taking place between ranchers and rustlers. Clay Hardin (Flynn) was once a big time rancher who’s been run off his property and left for dead. The early part of the movie finds him holed up in a Mexican pueblo, recovering from his wounds and preparing to return across the border with the hard evidence that will finally doom the rustlers. The plot follows a fairly straightforward line as Hardin tries to bring his enemies to book and they in turn try to find and dispose of his proof. The high point of the movie is the duel that takes place in the ruins of the Alamo between Hardin and the two principal villains (Paul Kelly & Victor Francen). This is a nicely shot sequence that generates a bit of tension but loses much of it’s impact due to the fact the story is allowed to dribble on when it should have ended there at its natural climax. Along the way there’s also time for a romance to develop between Hardin and visiting actress Jeanne Starr (Alexis Smith) - an attempt is made to turn this into a love triangle involving Paul Kelly’s character, but it quickly fizzles out as there’s never any doubt as how the chips are going to fall in this situation. The irritating thing is that all this forms the basis of what could have been a pretty good western. Unfortunately, there are far too many instances of jarringly inappropriate comedy and overblown musical numbers that stop the movie in its tracks. Any dramatic tension that had been building just gets killed stone dead in these moments.

Errol Flynn, in the aftermath of one of San Antonio's more dramatic scenes.

Flynn played his part fairly straight throughout, and gives a generally sound performance. His features  were just starting to show a bit of wear at this point, but I thought that was fitting for a character who has taken a bit of a beating. Alexis Smith made a number of films as Flynn’s co-star and they work well enough together; her character remains believable and she certainly photographed nicely in technicolor. As the villains, Messrs Kelly and Francen are passable if fairly generic - their performances being of the snarling and moustache-twirling variety. One of my biggest problems was the casting of S.Z. Sakall, one of those acquired tastes I’ve never managed to develop. In my opinion, his presence is unnatural and unwelcome, adding nothing of worth to the picture and, most damningly of all, draining the dramatic clout out of a number of scenes. In his defence, he does manage to raise a smile when, early on, upon observing a riderless horse, he slips in a sly dig at fellow English language-mangler Michael Curtiz by announcing: “There goes an empty horse!” Unfortunately, the exact same gag is repeated at the end, just in case the audience were too dumb to catch it first time round. Generally, I’m not one to grouse about the injection of humour in a western, Ford, Walsh, Hawks and others managed to do it effortlessly and successfully. The problem with the jokes in San Antonio is that they come at the wrong time and verge on the surreal - a lime green parrot with a southern drawl and a whisky-drinking cat being conspicuous examples. When you get a script from Alan Le May and W.R. Burnett, it’s not unreasonable to expect something better, so I’d lay the blame at the feet of director David Butler. His western credentials are nearly non-existent and I have to say it shows up in the final result here.

San Antonio was clearly an expensive production and that’s apparent in the technicolor renditions of the lavish sets. Warner’s DVD shows these production values off to good effect, but the clean, sharp picture also highlights a few dodgy painted backdrops for exteriors. Nevertheless, the colours are strong and really pop off the screen, especially some of Alexis Smith’s costumes. All in all, this is an excellent looking DVD that I couldn’t fault - it’s just a pity that the movie itself doesn’t measure up. It’s part of the Flynn western collection but if it were available separately I couldn’t, in all good faith, recommend it. Coming up - Silver River.