Category: the Western

Villa Rides (US 1968)

Charles Bronson as Fierro and Yul Brynner as Pancho Villa

Villa Rides is a would-be tribute to the Mexican revolutionary military leader Pancho Villa which somehow comes across as a Hollywood mish-mash of the Western and the war combat picture. I have wanted to see the film for many years since it represents a missing link in the writing career of Sam Peckinpah between Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969). In 1967 Peckinpah had been working in television after the disaster of Major Dundee and he was offered a job adapting a biography of Villa by William Douglas Lansford. Peckinpah was given an office at Paramount. He was told that Yul Brynner would star as Villa and that there had to be an American in the narrative. Peckinpah drew on Paramount’s research department and produced a script that played heavily in terms of the dichotomy expressed in Villa’s idealism for the cause of the revolution and his ruthlessness in terms of military action. Villa would become one of Peckinpah’s tortured characters. David Weddle’s 1994 Peckinpah biography (If They Move . . . Kill ‘Em) suggests that the script was flawed in several structural ways but presumably those could have been worked on. Much more problematic was Brynner’s rejection of the script because the complex personality that Peckinpah created  was nowhere near the the heroic figure Brynner expected and he declared that his fans would never accept him in the role. Paramount sacked Peckinpah and Robert Towne was hired to rewrite the script.

Robert Towne would later become one of the most feted writers of the so-called ‘New Hollywood’ in the 1970s but in 1967 his career was not unlike Peckinpah’s, although Sam had already directed big features. They had both written for television and Towne had been an uncredited collaborator on Bonnie and Clyde. Whatever Towne did with the script it was accepted by Brynner and shooting commenced in Spain with Buzz Kulick directing. ‘The American’ as required by Paramount became a gun-runner played by Robert Mitchum who flies from El Paso to sell guns to the rebel army opposed to Villa and the Mexican President Madero. He then switches sides and joins Villa after the first skirmish in the script in which Villa is victorious. It is after this engagement that Villa’s ruthlessnes becomes apparent, although the agent of the killings of opposition soldiers is the Charles Bronson character, Villa’s second in command Fierro. The suggestion is that Villa has also secretly delayed his attack so that many local villagers are killed by the rebel army. This, it is argued, will make the remaining villagers hate their enemies and support Villa more vehemently.

Robert Mitchum as Lee Arnold, the gun-runner with Bronson

I’m not sure how much of Peckinpah’s conception of Villa was changed by Towne. He does still seem to be conflicted or confused. Weddle does suggest some other examples of Villa’s behaviour that Towne changed to accommodate Brynner, but my main problem in this case is that Brynner simply appears miscast. With a wig and often a sombrero, he doesn’t resemble Brynner as the star of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and he doesn’t look much like the real Villa (a much photographed celebrity). Worse still, he is upstaged most of the time by Charles Bronson. Brynner and Bronson were Hollywood stars who often played different nationalities/ethnicities. But the major charges against this film are the casting and scripting of the American and the introduction of the aircraft. Much as with Brynner, there seems no connection between Robert Mitchum’s star persona and the role constructed as ‘Lee Arnold’. It’s worth pointing out here that Villa’s story does include the American journalist and socialist activist John Reed who rode with Villa in the period covered by the film, as a reporter on the Mexican Revolution in 1913. It is also the case that nearly every international film about the Mexican Revolution includes a foreign mercenary. In the two best films, sometimes referred to as ‘tortilla Westerns, A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani, Italy 1967) and Duck You Sucker! (Sergio Leone, Italy-Spain 1971) the narrative involves a relationship between a Mexican bandit leader and, respectively, an American and an Irishman. Weddle suggests that Peckinpah’s cynical American character would have made a last minute embrace of the revolution’s ideals and that this conversion to the cause was rather contrived. On the other hand Peckinpah had learned a great deal from his research. Many American mercenaries rode with Villa and Peckinpah felt that the questions about why these Americans were there and what it meant to them would resonate with audiences responding to the US presence in Vietnam in 1967. It reminded Peckinpah himself of his time in the US Marines in China in 1945-6. As well as the American, the script includes a Mexican woman, involved with both Lee Arnold and Villa, played by the Italian actress Maria Grazia Buccella. She seems too old to be an unmarried village girl. I’m assuming her casting and that of several actors from Spain, including Fernando Rey, was just a part of the Spanish location shooting.

Herbert Lom as General Huerta

None of these ideas and certainly no sense of the historical events come across in the Kulick picture. Mitchum seems lost and in some of the closing stages like a whiney child – not something I ever thought I’d write about a Mitchum performance. And then there is the aircraft. I was sceptical about this but it does seem that there is evidence of aircraft flown by mercenaries operating in Mexico in 1913 and indeed that one was flown to support Villa. However, the aircraft in the film is a much later design. The other problem is that the film offers no sense of the timing of events. There are no on screen credits that give dates. Villa’s involvement in the war covers a period from 1911 to 1923 when he was assassinated. The film deals with events that took place in 1912 and the chief ‘villain’ appears to be General Huerta, played with some gusto by Herbert Lom who is always worth watching. But most audiences will struggle to understand who Huerta is, what his relationship is to President Madero and why he turns on Villa. Villa Rides doesn’t really care. The final insult is an onscreen tribute to Villa and the fact that Peckinpah’s name is still on the film as joint screenwriter (though the red typography makes it almost impossible to read). The film looks good as shot by British cinematographer Jack Hildyard (in a ‘Scope ratio but shot using Panavision lenses) and has a serviceable score by Maurice Jarre. It just seems a wasted opportunity. There are many other films about Pancho Villa and Peckinpah got his own, more successful Mexican adventure into cinemas a year later. Villa Rides was broadcast on Talking Pictures TV.

First Cow (US 2019)

The woods of Oregon . . .

This film narrative begins with a long shot of a container ship moving at a good speed through a wide river passage. In a wooded area close to the river a woman discovers something which after investigation and careful scraping away of soil reveals two skeletons side by side. A cut takes us to a close-up of a man picking chanterelles, wild mushrooms, in the woods. The man’s rather tattered clothes and the introduction of non-diegetic music  – a harpsichord or a dulcimer? – suggests an earlier time. The man is ‘Cookie’ (John Magaro), hired by a bunch of unkempt trappers to keep them fed, partly through his foraging. A little later he finds a naked Chinese man in the woods. Unlike the squabbling trappers Cookie seems a kindly soul who gives the Chinese man a blanket, and food and drink and hides him from the trappers.

The opening sequence sees Alia Shawkat unearthing the skeletons

With this opening, writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond, whose novel they adapt, raise any number of intriguing questions about American history, myth-making, the concept of the Western narrative and also the writing of those narratives about ‘discovery’ and the early attempts by Europeans to live alongside indigenous peoples and other migrants in the North West of what would later become the United States. They don’t directly tell us when or where this long flashback is set but if we know their previous collaborations such as the feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010), we might reasonably assume that this is ‘Oregon Country’ a large area being exploited mostly for beaver pelts by both British and American interests. Raymond’s novel Half Life (2004) confirms that this is the setting. The time is the 1820s but I’m not sure how learned that.

King-Lu and Cookie, the central characters

After aiding the the Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie doesn’t see him again for some time but then he meets him again in the ramshackle settlement known as ‘Fort Tilikum’. King-Lu has somehow acquired a shack and he invites Cookie to visit. Soon the two men settle in together, learning a little about each other’s background. ‘Cookie’ is a skilled baker who dreams of owning a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. King-Lu is from North China and has travelled the world. Both have heard that this is the land of abundance and they discuss ways in which to make their fortunes. King-Lu is the more bullish but Cookie has the skills to make baked goods that would sell very well in the settlement – like ‘hot cakes’ in fact. The key to possible success is the ‘first cow’, a beautiful dairy cow that has been brought to the nearby grand residence of the ‘Chief Factor’. Played by Toby Jones this character and his main employee Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) represent the English/Scottish influence in the area. ‘Factor’ is the Scots word for someone who acts as the agent of a large landowner. It was also a word used to describe the entrepreneurs who were wheeler-dealers in the lands controlled by the Hudson’s Bay company, the main power in Oregon at this time. (Much of this background is also explored in The Sisters Brothers (France-Belgium 2018), though some twenty-five years later when the ‘Oregon Territory’ is being developed.)

The cow arrives by boat

The Chief Factor has bought the cow, the first to be seen in the area, to improve his hospitality but unfortunately the bull and calf that accompanied it died during shipment. Cookie declares that if he had access to milk he could bake anything, not just ‘flour and water bread’. Here could be the two men’s golden chance. But how will he and King-Lu get the milk? That’s basically the rest of the plot and you can probably work out what happens.

First Cow is a long film (122 mins), especially given the rather thin plot. It’s shot in the squarish Academy format that had mainly disappeared from American film production by the mid-1950s, certainly from ‘studio productions’ (but which Reichardt used in Meek’s Cutoff). Much of the film takes place in the murky world of interiors with candlelight or in the woods at night. For audiences more used to high key action pictures it must be a trial to watch. Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner are likely to be the only actors UK audiences will recognise, although the woman seen in the short opening sequence is Alia Shawkat, who has featured in many US TV series and independent films. The same is true of John Magaro and Orion Lee. Other actors, like the creative team may have been part of other Kelly Reichardt productions. There are three kinds of responses to the film: bewilderment and professed boredom from mainstream cinemagoers, a feeling that this isn’t the best of Reichardt’s work by some critics and acclaim by those who feel she has once again offered a unique and cogent statement about American culture. I’m with the last group and I would bracket her with Debra Granik as my two favourite US auteurs. I expect Chloe Zhao will join them when I’ve seen more of her films.

Toby Jones as the Chief Factor

Much of the discussion about the film is around concepts of naïvete, mythmaking and critiques of capitalism. It’s an interesting time to discuss these concepts alongside the fate of indigenous peoples and the assimilation of migrants in the expanding United States. The two central characters are both likeable men. They don’t mean harm to anyone, they just want to make something of themselves. They don’t realise that this ‘Eden’ or ‘land of opportunity’ is (a) the homeland of local North American peoples and (b) that Eden has already been corrupted by the early capitalist exploitation of the Hudson Bay Company, the rapacious agent of British colonialism. There is no going back, the indigenous people are being killed by European diseases, the local beaver population is being decimated by trapping and there is no law as yet. I was reminded of various Westerns, set later. Those in the North West like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) which shares an actor with First Cow, René Auberjonois, and Michael Winterbottom’s Hardy adaptation, The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Both these films share a sense of European miners and other migrants, but they also feature European women. First Cow has no lead female roles but there are many scenes when indigenous women are silently in the background. The one sequence in which there is dialogue is that between the Chief Factor’s wife and the wife of an indigenous man. The Chief Factor’s wife is played by Lily Gladstone, the actor with Native American heritage who also appears in a key role in Reichardt’s previous film, Certain Women (2016). I’m not sure yet what this presentation of indigenous women really means in this film, except that it was the European men who messed things up first. But were the European  women who followed complicit? And we mustn’t forget the presence of the East Asian men.

I’ve seen some reviews which don’t accept that First Cow is a Western at all. I would disagree. I know Western scholars tend to see the key period setting for the genre as 1865-1895, but the underlying themes of the Western run across the whole development of the United States and across those of the other nation states with similar human and physical geography. First Cow is a wonderful addition to the history of the Western and it prompts me to think about a whole series of other Westerns which I’ll get to at some point. The film has been acquired for UK distribution by MUBI which should see some cinema screenings and then availability on MUBI’s screening service. Not to be missed!

John Ford #4: Three Godfathers (US 1948)

This film is both like and unlike other John Ford Westerns. Many of the Ford stock company are present in the cast and crew and the film is dedicated to ‘The Memory of Harry Carey, Bright Star of the early western Sky’. Carey had starred in the first two adaptations of the story by Peter B. Kyne in 1916 and 1919. Ford directed the 1919 film. Carey became one of Ford’s closest friends and an important actor and mentor on Westerns. He died in 1947. Ford then invited his son, Harry Carey Jr. to appear in Three Godfathers and he would go on to become a regular member of the company. The same story was used also in 1921 (Ford Again), 1929 (William Wyler) and 1936. Ford’s status in 1948 meant that Argosy Pictures was able to arrange distribution via MGM with a substantial budget including Technicolor. The photography was by Winston C Hoch, who would go on to win an Academy Award for his Technicolor cinematography on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the next year. I have to say that I think Three Godfathers is even more beautiful in its use of colour than the later film – though it might simply be a down to the better quality DVD from Warner Video. The title by the way was originally 3 Godfathers in North America but I’ve always known it by its UK title. In Quebec it was known as Les fils du désert – I wonder what the Laurel and Hardy film was known as in France?

The dedication to Harry Carey Sr.

If you don’t know the story, it must be quite something to be adapted six times you might think. It is actually very simple as a kind of Christian fable, a take on the Christmas story. John Wayne, Pedro Armendiráz and Harry Carey Jr. are a trio of, presumably not very proficient, bank-robbers. After a raid on the bank in Welcome, Arizona they are chased by a posse led by the local sheriff Perley Sweet (Ward Bond) and end up stranded in the desert without water. Here they find a woman in a covered wagon about to give birth. Her husband has disappeared and I won’t spoil any more of the story. You can work out the plot by simply referring to the film’s title. I first saw the film in the early 1970s and I couldn’t remember anything except the sand dunes, John Wayne and the baby.

‘The Kid’ (Harry Carey Jr.) accepts the hospitality of Mae Marsh as the wife of Ward Bond’s Perley Sweet

Escaping to the desert . . .

An iconic image of the trio in the desert, framed by Hoch but under Ford’s instructions

This was one of Ford’s favourite films and there are a number of stories associated with it, several emanating from Harry Carey Jr. who was interviewed by Lindsay Anderson in 1978 and later wrote his own memoir. Carey’s father and Ford eventually fell out or perhaps simply couldn’t cope with each other on set, although Carey Sr. appeared for Ford again in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Each thought the other didn’t want to work with them. Ford arranged for a stunt rider to pose on Carey’s own horse for the dedication shot. He told Olive Carey that he would use Harry Carey Jr. on 3 Godfathers on the day that Harry Snr. died. Harry Jr. had already worked in small roles in a couple of films but Ford gave him an ‘Introducing Harry Carey Jr.’ credit. He also persuaded him to sing in the film. Harry Carey Jr. reveals that Ford actually treated him quite harshly on set, but taught him very well in terms of what was required. Harry Carey Jr.’s other story concerns Pedro Armendiráz. It appears that Ford always chose costume items for characters in Westerns. Armendiráz, who was a very popular and celebrated actor in Mexico, had already appeared for Ford in The Fugitive and Fort Apache and he turned up for the shoot in a tailored outfit fit for Mexico’s leading actor. Ford told him the outfit was completely unsuitable and chose one himself. Armendiráz had made a fatal error and after this film he never worked for Ford again. Ford was in charge and took all the decisions. You didn’t try to make your own. The stock company understood this and were rewarded with future parts. As well as Carey, Wayne and Bond, Ben Johnson was on this shoot in a minor role, Mildred Natwick was the woman having the baby and Mae Marsh was Ward Bond’s wife. Jane Darwell, Hank Worden and Jack Pennick also had small roles. This was definitely a stock company picture. Winton C. Hoch was new to the company and he quickly learned not to make too many suggestions to Ford.

Mildred Natwick as the mother who chooses her ‘3 godfathers’

John Wayne with the baby

Jane Darwell and Ward Bond at the railway halt

The use of the stock company almost exclusively in this film, coupled with the absence of Ford’s usual interest in exploring myth and the history of the West in his films of this period, means that audiences only have two choices. One is to dive into the sentimentalism and religious celebration of the Christmas story and the other is to look for meanings in the relationships of the familiar Ford actors and characters. I can usually cope with Ford’s sentimentalism but on this film I did find it too much in the last section. I’m happy to simply enjoy the playing and the cinematography. The players are generally very good. Some like Mae Marsh and Mildred Natwick seemed to me to be eccentric or deliberately provocative casting decisions and Jane Darwell is definitely ‘excessive’ as a man-hungry woman looking after a remote railway halt. To add to the melodrama (a comedy melodrama of redemption?), Ford uses songs both diegetically and as part of the score. Richard Hageman’s score uses ‘The Streets of Laredo’ as a motif in the opening titles and Harry Carey Jr.’s rendition of ‘Gather at the River’ (one of Ford’s favourite hymns) is matched in the closing sequence with a choral version of ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ by the women of the town (a more joyous crowd than the women of the town driving out Claire Trevor in Stagecoach). The whole town then gives a second rendition of ‘Gather at the River’ to close the film. 3 Godfathers was a hit with audiences even if some critics didn’t like it.

John Ford #1: Fort Apache (US 1948)

One of the iconic images of Fort Apache. Wayne is positioned below Fonda but note Wayne’s relaxed posture (e.g. his hands), his loose torso and the stiffness of Fonda

Fort Apache seems like a good start for thinking about John Ford’s films in the current context. It comes at a precise moment in Ford’s output and is possibly one of his most misunderstood films. Tag Gallagher in his magisterial book on Ford (University of California Press 1986), posits a ‘periodisation’ of Ford’s long career. He suggests five periods, taking the first as an ‘apprenticeship’ between 1917 and 1926. Period 1: 1927-35 is ‘Introspection’ and Period 2: 1936-47 is ‘Idealism’. Fort Apache is then the first film of the Third Period (1948-61), ‘Myth’. (The ‘Final Period’, 1962-65, is the ‘Age of Mortality’.) In the ‘Idealism’ period Ford had directed big ‘prestige’ pictures, including his two ‘straight’ literary adaptations How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath and his study of Young Lincoln. He’d made two ‘art films’ in The Long Voyage Home and The Fugitive. He’d also been to war and served his country well. He was a popular and ‘serious’ filmmaker producing films respected by his industry peers. Then, just as European producers and aspects of Hollywood production were turning towards forms of realism and stories about social issues, Ford seemed to turn in on himself and make highly personal films, which were often couched in popular genre terms. One very pragmatic basis for Ford’s decision was to make money for his company Argosy Pictures. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Ford tended to work ‘with’ major studios through his own company (which he started with Merian C. Cooper). He had lost money on The Fugitive after taking only minimum payment for his wartime work.

Fort Apache is the first film in Ford’s unofficial ‘7th cavalry trilogy’. All three films were adapted from short stories by James Warner Bellah that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1947. The story ‘Massacre’ became Fort Apache and, as adapted by Ford’s new scriptwriter Frank Nugent, it fictionalised aspects of General Custer’s actions in 1876, changing the Native American warriors to Apache rather than Plains warriors from further North. Ford’s Custer-like character is a West Point officer with no knowledge of ‘Indian Affairs’ who refuses to listen to his officers with real experience – but it’s also much more than that.

The opening to the film is quite brilliant at introducing the narrative and all the layers of meaning. The credit sequence offers a montage of shots from scenes across the whole narrative and the narrative proper begins in Monument Valley, which during this period becomes a kind of ‘Fordlandia’ seemingly extending across Arizona and Texas (it is actually between Utah, where Ford also shot on location, and Arizona). A stagecoach is heading for a staging post and on board is a sarcastic, stiff-necked officer Lt. Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda). With him is his lively daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). Fonda had starred in four of the top Ford pictures between 1939 and 1946 and in The Fugitive. Temple was the star of Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie in 1937. At the post Philadelphia is delighted to find a bare-chested 2nd Lt. John O’Rourke (John Agar) who is waiting for transport to take him to Fort Apache, returning after his commission at West Point.

The Scottish inn keeper and the stagecoach driver and guard are all old friends and recognisable Fordian characters. To emphasise this it is Ford’s older brother Frank, playing the stagecoach guard, who hawks with astounding accuracy to make the spitoon several feet away dance a little jig. When the fort’s ‘ambulance’ arrives it’s manned by a quartet of sergeants led by another Ford regular Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Mulcahy, who will turn out to be O’Rourke’s godfather (McLaglen was the star of Ford’s first Oscar winner The Informer (1935) and he played alongside Shirley Temple in her Ford film in 1937. If we’ve noted the credits we can probably guess that Ward Bond will be the boy’s father and we know that Wayne is in the film and that he will be the opposite of Fonda as a presence. The crucial exchange in the staging post is the news that the telegraph wires are down – a potential sign of Apache action. With this information and the arrival of the three ‘outsiders’, Ford has effectively set up his narrative. We note that the Fonda character is a WASP Bostonian who gets O’Rourke’s name wrong twice and treats him curtly while Philadelphia is already smitten (Temple and Agar were married just before shooting started). At least Thursday buys a round of drinks.

The three principal women in the melodrama of life in the fort, (from left) Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich), Emily Collingwood (Anna Lee) and Philadelphia Thursday (Shirley Temple)

This is quite a long film for a Western (128 minutes) and the first part is almost a ‘cavalry fort procedural’ with new recruits to be trained, dances to be organised and the daily life of the fort before the first evidence of Apache action is presented. Then the battle between Fonda’s West Point martinet and Wayne’s Captain Kirby York as the soldier with local knowledge will begin in earnest. But there are other layered narrative strands. Philadelphia and John will have a romance even if Colonel Thursday’s social class rigidity (and army tradition) outlaw it. The sergeants will fall from grace, led by Mulcahy and there is yet another ‘couple narrative’ with the outgoing captain Collingwood (another Ford actor, from the 1920s, George O’Brien) and his wife (Anna Lee, yet another Ford actor from How Green Was My Valley who would go on to other Ford roles later). If actors appeared for Ford and he liked them and what they did, they invariably appeared for him again. The one star name I haven’t mentioned so far is Pedro Armendáriz. He was one of the great Latin American actors of the period and had worked on Ford’s previous picture, The Fugitive (1947), made in Mexico. His role in Fort Apache as Sergeant Beaufort is as the interpreter who enables Thursday to speak to the Apache leader Cochise using Spanish (Cochise is played by the Mexican actor Miguel Inclán). But Armendáriz must have riled Ford on his next picture as one of the three leads in 3 Godfathers (1948), because he never appeared for Ford again (and Henry Fonda only appeared in two further films in which Ford directed alongside others). Ford had his ‘stock company’. He was hard but loyal towards his actors who accepted and embraced his methods or didn’t repeat the experience.There are several well-known Ford character players in the fort including Mae Marsh as one of the officers’ wives and Hank Worden as a raw recruit. Both would go on to play multiple roles for Ford.

The NCO’s dance. At the front are Sgt Major O’Rourke and his wife between Philadelphia Thursday and her father

Ford’s films of this period are ‘personal’, almost keeping narratives ‘within the family’. Part of this communal family ‘feel’ also comes through the use of music – for marches, for dances and as folk songs/romances. Music is a feature of all three cavalry pictures, reaching a peak in Rio Grande (1950) with the Sons of the Pioneers. In Fort Apache the NCO’s dance is a high point and for me the most important scene in the film. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment, so let’s just say it is Ford at his finest in exploring protocol and comradeship and Western culture. When the dance ends with Capt. York’s return and Thursday’s decision to betray York, Ford makes a clear statement. Ford was working with RKO but he didn’t use any contracted studio creatives. The music was score scored by one of the many European émigrés in Hollywood, the Dutch composer Richard Hageman. He had worked with Ford on three previous films and would continue on the next three before his retirement in 1954.

As with the music, Ford had his own preferred cinematographers. Ford had poor eyesight and eventually wore a patch over one eye. Before that he wore dark glasses. However, he had a brilliant internal eye and knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. As Gallagher points out, Ford worked with big names like Gregg Toland and Arthur Miller, with their own distinctive styles, yet their films with Ford always looked like ‘Fordian films’. Archie Stout had photographed many Westerns in the 1930s including some of John Wayne’s B Westerns. His son was part of Ford’s wartime Photography Unit. Ford trusted him and admired his black and white work. On his Monument Valley shoots Ford would often use infra-red stock to achieve high contrast. One of Harry Carey Jr.’s stories about Ford sees Ford quizzing him about compositions and telling him that “if you can work out why the horizon is near the bottom of the frame in some shots and near the top in others, then you might become a picturemaker”. We can be sure Archie Stout new precisely why and delivered some of Ford’s most distinctive shots just as his director required. Ford also had William Clothier on Second Unit and he would become cinematographer on later Ford films such as The Horse Soldiers (1959) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Archie Stout is one of my heroes because he worked with Ida Lupino on three of her early features as director.

A Fordian sky, a low horizon, a rider on the skyline – what’s not to love?

Fort Apache made the money that Ford had aimed for – though Red River with Wayne made more in the same year. But if it was popular with audiences, the critical reaction was mixed. In the UK, the short Monthly Film Bulletin review praised the look of the film and the spectacular action and picked out John Wayne’s performance but the anonymous reviewer thought there were two many shots of mesas and buttes and riders silhouetted against the sky. They also had no time for Shirley Temple and the narrative strand of the romance. This last criticism is echoed in some American reviews. On the plus side the influential New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther praised Ford’s representation of the Apache as a breakthrough. It is the seeming contradiction inherent in the closing scenes of the film that has proved a stumbling block for many critics. Since the story is based on the historical events involving the death of George Armstrong Custer, I’m not spoiling the narrative by analysing the ending of Fort Apache.

Thursday not only ignores York’s advice but pushes aside his objections about breaking his word to Cochise. Thursday is depicted as a racist from the East, obsessed with his own honour and adherence to Army regulations. The reason he is so bad-tempered throughout is that he believes he has been doubly punished by an ungrateful US Army. His wartime promotion to General was downgraded after the war ended (this was standard practice, not a personal rebuke) and he was sent to the “God-forsaken outpost” of Fort Apache. By contrast, Kirby York accepted his posting after similar success in the Civil War and has found a way to negotiate with the Apache and also to be at ease with the community of the fort. Why then does York at the end of the film praise Thursday’s bravery and attachment to discipline when asked a question by a journalist visiting the fort? The answer, I think, is embodied in the way in which York praises the whole cavalry regiment and maintains that those lost in Thursday’s fatal charge are not gone but ride on with the everyday soldiers who now defend the frontier.

Thursday with York and Collingwood in the desert. Thursday wears the kepi and neck cloth

When York, now Colonel, rides off to finish the picture he is wearing Thursday’s kepi and neck cloth. We are here in the territory of ‘fact’ and ‘legend’ in Ford, presented more directly in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Gallagher argues that in most of the films of this ‘Myth’ period, Ford’s focus is on community and often the military community. In his historical films he explores how these communities survived and grew. It is clear that Thursday is a threat to the community, but that to denigrate his memory would hurt the community by undermining the image of the military. But that’s a relatively clear explanation. Ford does more because he shows the ways in which all the members of the community contribute to upholding the social codes of Army life, even if it means they will be individually hurt, so in a crucial scene, Emily Collingwood does not attempt to stop her husband, whose recall to Washington has just come through, from riding out with Thursday. To do so would be to cast him as running from danger. A review of the film by Dennis Schwartz includes comments on Ford’s Irish characters and this:

 . . . while the women on the outpost are made into saints. Emily Collingwood (Anna Lee), the wife of Captain Collingwood, is a picture of an ideal wife, who makes Philadelphia feel at home, while the sergeant major’s wife, Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich), is the perfect Army wife and whatever she does is seen as noble.

The danger is in trying to see Ford’s depictions of the historical American West as ‘realist’ – though they are imbued with carefully researched accurate details. I think all the women in Fort Apache have important roles in the narrative and in this case they operate partly within the mythic narrative of army life and partly within the family melodrama which exists within the fort and which is in turn mixed up with the formal codes of social interaction. Thursday treats the O’Rourke family with disdain, safe in the knowledge that as 2nd Lt. O’Rourke is the son of an enlisted man and therefore not a ‘gentleman’ he cannot court Philadelphia. Sgt. Major O’Rourke was highly honoured during the Civil War and this enabled his son to enter West Point. Mrs O’Rourke understands these social codes. Note in detail how Ford directs the Grand March and the dance that follows during the NCO’s ball when Mrs O’Rourke must dance with Owen Thursday and her husband with Philadelphia as the ‘Colonel’s Lady’. Irene Rich does so much here with a few glances (She first worked with Ford in 1921 as a leading lady and then often with Harry Carey Sr. and Will Rogers, two major Ford collaborators.)

The Apache wait . . .

Several aspects of Fort Apache, including the representation of the Apache warriors (who apart from Cochise, never speak) will have to wait for commentaries on the rest of the cavalry trilogy, but I don’t want to leave the film without mentioning Richard Dyer’s analysis of Fonda and Wayne together in Stars (1979, 165-168). Dyer offers an early analysis of how Wayne has developed his performance skills in terms of his body movements and gestures in Fort Apache (see the still at the head of this post). I was impressed by this and it prompted my first attempts to work on the film in the 1980s. Since then I’ve read more about how Wayne learned about performance from both John Ford and Harry Carey Sr. and the big group of cowboy performers from early Hollywood. Quite why Fonda was replaced by Wayne in Ford’s casting at this point isn’t totally clear. Much of it was because of the change in the kinds of films Ford wanted to make, but I have seen some suggestions that Fonda himself changed around this time. Perhaps it was something to do with politics? Again, we’ll have to return to this later. The late 1940s became a fraught period when Wayne and Bond became leading ‘hawks’ and anti-communists during the HUAC and McCarthy periods. Ford’s politics were complex and he routinely mixed actors he knew were strongly opposed to each others views – as we will see in later posts.

There is a re-worked and expanded version of these notes produced for an online discussion event available to download from the ‘FREE Education Resources to download’ page

The Glory Guys (US 1965)

Harve Presnell and Tom Tryon lead the troop across the river

There are two reasons why this film interests me, or rather two namesSam Peckinpah and James Wong Howe. This was a film Peckinpah might have hoped to direct. He’d written an adaptation of the novel by Hoffman Birney, The Dice of God, in 1956 when he started working for the production company founded by Arnold Laven, Arthur Gardner and Jules V. Levy which owned the rights to Birney’s story. Laven and Peckinpah worked together on the successful Western TV series The Rifleman before Peckinpah got the chance to direct his first two film  Westerns, The Deadly Companions (1961) and Ride the High Country (1962). In 1963 Peckinpah directed Major Dundee which would turn out to be his first truly disastrous confrontation with a studio after completing a film that ran significantly over budget and was far too long for a standard release. Columbia butchered the film which was eventually released in 1965. In the meantime he was fired from his fourth picture as director, The Cincinatti Kid which was taken over by Norman Jewison. Arnold Laven had decided to direct The Glory Guys himself and the film was released in July 1965 with Peckinpah still credited with the script. The next couple of years were arguably the lowest in Peckinpah’s career with his previously high reputation as the innovator on TV Westerns now trashed by producers associated with Columbia and MGM. In the latter case he also suffered from a fabricated scandal about the shooting of a nude scene.

The Glory Guys is a mainstream cavalry Western. Laven was mainly known as a producer and a prolific director of TV drama. He made only a handful of cinema features mostly for the Laven-Gardner-Levy company. One of Laven’s strategies in the 1950s was to register a title with the Writers’ Guild and then look for a property that might produce a script for the title. The Dice of God was intended to become a film titled ‘Custer’s Last Stand’, but a film with a similar title was underway at around the same time and thus the title change. How much of Peckinpah’s vision remains in the script used for The Glory Guys? There are certainly some familiar elements that turned up in Major Dundee, released earlier but written later. Peckinpah ‘contributed’ to the script for Dundee, seemingly unhappy with the work of Harry Julian Fink. How much he might have changed it is open to question, but Amos Dundee feels very much like a Peckinpah character. When he first tackled The Dice of God, Peckinpah arguably saw himself updating the familiar John Ford cavalry picture and there are recognisable elements in The Glory Guys. But the crucial device is to offer double male leads who might be in conflict because of different beliefs or histories, even if they have other things in common. (This is the basis for Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) with John Wayne and Henry Fonda as the mismatched pair.) In a Peckinpah film the two might have different views about the future of ‘the West’ and its codes of honour being replaced by capitalist exploitation. This was evident in Ride the High Country and would be repeated in many later Peckinpah films. In The Glory Guys, Tom Tryon plays Captain Demas Harrod, an officer with a past who is paired again with General McCabe (Andrew Duggan), a commanding officer he distrusts. At one point I thought McCabe could be the second leading male, but the second lead turns out to be the General’s scout Sol Rogers (Harve Presnell) and the ‘conflict’ is over a woman played by Senta Berger who has inherited the gunsmith’s business in Moose City close to the cavalry fort. General McCabe is the Custer figure who will disobey orders and send men to their deaths in an heroic but senseless attack on a larger force of ‘Plains Indians’ (who are never individualised in the film). As well as these four characters, only three others emerge in any detail from the large cast of smaller parts.

A lobby card featuring Tom Tryon and Senta Berger

Slim Pickens plays the recruiting sergeant who first gathers the raw recruits at a railhead and his charges include Michael Anderson Jr. as a young man who has enlisted to escape his overbearing family and James Caan as a wise-cracking young Irishman seemingly always in trouble and up for a fight. Pickens was already a bona fide ‘character star’ of Westerns and Anderson was a young Englishman making his mark in three major Westerns in 1965. One of those three was Major Dundee in which he was again joined by Senta Berger and Slim Pickens. James Caan plays ‘large’ in only his second appearance in films after a successful stint in TV. He is entertaining but sometimes appears to be in another film altogether. However, if we play the game of mapping characters against those found in Ford’s Westerns and especially his cavalry pictures, these three all correspond – the regular Sergeant and the young naive trooper/young officer and Caan combining the Victor McLaglen fighting Irishman and any number of young bucks such as the Jeff Chandler or Ken Curtis characters in The Searchers. Peckinpah clearly didn’t buy the Caan combination but he did take Berger. He is reported to have said that he wouldn’t have cast Tryon or Presnell – and whatever their merits they don’t seem like Peckinpah players.

The structure of The Glory Guys fits the typical three-act sequence. The first act culminates in the recruits arriving at the fort and their reception and settling in while Captain Harrod re-acquaints himself with the other officers. Act two focuses on the preparations for the campaign and develops the Harrod-Rogers feud over Lou Woddard (Senta Berger). Act three comprises the action against the enemy. I think the general consensus is that acts one and two are a little ‘ho-hum’ but that act three is in many ways magnificent. The first two acts are notable for a cavalry dance referencing John Ford and a rolling saloon fist fight led by the James Caan character. Both of these feel like Peckinpah has written in some Fordian tropes. Alongside Caan, Michael Anderson Jr features in a sub-plot about him not being cut out for army life and possibly being ‘bought out’ by his father (and therefore missing out on his first romance). This too has its Fordian reference and indeed, because Ford made so many Westerns, much of the rest of the ‘action’ could be similarly seen as ‘referencing’. The real problem for me is Harve Presnell who just doesn’t belong in the film (he came out of musicals and was an accomplished singer but perhaps the most unlikely ‘Westerner’ ever to appear as a character in a Peckinpah script). But if I imagine James Coburn (who plays the scout in Major Dundee), everything might look different. Arthur Laven was an efficient director and on this film had a reasonable budget (including time spent in Durango) and a great cinematographer. I’m not criticising his direction apart from suggesting that it needed different leading personnel and a bit more ‘umph’ (partly to balance out the James Caan character’s antics).

Movin’ out!

James Wong Howe (1899-1976) was one of the most important cinematographers in ‘studio Hollywood’, shooting pictures from the late ‘teens to the mid 70s, just before he died. Wong Howe was already well-established before the studio era and soon found himself on major pictures in the 1930s. He filmed virtually every kind of feature, including Westerns. Previous to this film he’d worked on Hud (1963) and Outrage (1964), the first a ‘contemporary Western’ and the second a version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Both films starred Paul Newman. Wong Howe was known for his innovative lighting tricks and his attempts to always create lighting that had a logical source in the scene. As far as this film is concerned he mentioned some of the careful lighting of indoor/studio scenes. But I think he comes into his own for the action scenes. There are some beautiful sequences of men on horseback in different forms of natural light against the landscape. Laven also choreographs the action well. I should add that several Western fansites that I’ve checked out also praise the production design of the fort (see above) as close to the real forts used in the ‘Indian Wars’. I couldn’t find any good quality images to illustrate the comments about the troop movements (which might be directly compared to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949). The Japanese poster below does make a stab at creating a collage of scenes. Westerns like this had a world market, but it’s interesting that Senta Berger doesn’t appear on the poster.

Japanese film poster

I’m glad that, as a Peckinpah completist, I was able to see this and it adds to my sense of a ‘Peckinpah film’. This film is out of date now, but the title is nicely ironic. There was little ‘glory’ in the Indian Wars but at least this time the Native Americans won – even if it was because of an American General’s vanity.

GFF20 #12: Bacurau (Brazil-France 2019)

Carmelita’s funeral – everyone attends

Bacurau is released in the UK on Friday and is likely to make quite a splash. It’s a long film (130 mins) and has an 18 Certificate in the UK. This is primarily for the spectacularly violent killings. It’s a difficult film to classify but a film that seems remarkable timely, especially in the context of Brazilian politics. The film’s opening suggests that the narrative is set ‘a few years in the future’ but the only obvious reference to this is the decision to present a contemporary piece of technology modelled as something that might have appeared in a 1950s science fiction movie. Everything else could be happening now – and some of it probably is.

Teresa on her way to Bacurau in the water carrier

Teresa (Bárbara Colen) is heading back to her village in the sertão (the Brazilian ‘bush’ or ‘outback’) in the North East of the country, hitching a ride on a water wagon. The area’s water supply has been cut off. Teresa is returning for the funeral and wake of Carmelita, her grandmother who has died at 94 as the matriarch of the (fictional) village of Bacurau. When she arrives she pops a pill, a traditional psychotropic drug taken in the village on specific occasions. The proceedings of the wake are interrupted by a drunken Domingas (played by the veteran Brazilian star Sonia Braga), the local doctor and presumably a rival for Teresa’s grandmother. Perhaps more significantly, a visit by the local politician ‘Tony Jr.’ is met with derision. The village leaders do however take his ‘bribes’ of out of date food and distribute them. This feels like a village which is isolated and possibly under siege. It suddenly ‘disappears’ off Google Earth and then the first killings of local farmers are discovered.

Domingas and the defenders

Bacurau won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2019 and its writing and directing duo, Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, have themselves hinted at their main genre inspiration, the Western. They have fashioned a film which presents a region of Brazil in new ways and makes reference to Brazilian history and culture and to periods of American domination of Latin America. It also reminds us of the films of Glauber Rocha such as Black God, White Devil (1964) and Antonio das Mortes (1969), both Cinema Novo Westerns set in the sertão. Many of the references will only be accessible to some Brazilian audiences. The film’s title, the name of the village, for instance is the name of

a nocturnal bird with excellent camouflage when it’s on a branch . . . it evokes the mystery of something that is there, in the darkness, alive but unseen, and that will only be noticed if it wants to be. The same is true of Bacurau the town: it is familiar with darkness; it knows how to lay low; in fact it prefers not to be noticed. (The directors quoted in the Press Notes).

But for some reason this multiracial village, with a collectivist attitude towards helping each other, is now under threat. Where does the threat come from? Who is behind the killings? Is it Tony Jr.? Who is the English-speaking German (Udo Kier) who seems to be the ‘contract killer’ leading the attacks? My viewing companions both agreed that the battle that takes up the second half of the film is reminiscent of ‘spaghetti westerns’. It seemed to me that some scenes were modelled on Seven Samurai or it’s Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven – except that the numbers are reversed, so a small group of heavily armed foreigners takes on a larger group of villagers. The directors also show their hand with the choice of music score which includes the memorable music devised by John Carpenter for his early breakthrough, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), another famous siege movie. It’s difficult to analyse other aspects of the production when the action is so tense but my impression was of long takes and long shots. The directors speak of miles of tracks laid down to enable a mobile camera. One thing I did notice which refers back to Seven Samurai was the use of Kurosawa style wipes, used here with the CinemaScope framing more associated with Leone. (Well done Simran Hans in the Observer for reminding me.)

Udo Keir as the contractor of the attackers

It’s not difficult to link the film’s main ideas to contemporary politics with Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing President who came to power on 1st January 2019 (when shooting would have been completed) and who represents the opposite of everything that the villagers celebrate. The power of the film is to oppose the threats of politicians like Bolsonaro by reference to traditional modes of resistance. The Press Notes refer to two traditions in Brazilian culture. One is the cangaço genre which featured a form of ‘social banditry’ and was popular in 1950s and 1960s Brazilian cinema. The character of Lunga, a young man who has made his base in the disused dam embodies this kind of social bandit. The film also reflects various political divides in Brazil, including the American incursions and within Brazil the North v. South. A specific concept related to this Coronelism:

Coronelism was the political machine that dominated Brazil during the Old Republic (1889-1930), when local power was in the hands of powerful landowners, coronels, who controlled a particular area and its population’s vote. More broadly, the term applies to this model’s enduring influence in the life of the country. (from the Press Notes Interview by Tatiana Monassa)

I hope that Bacurau finds the large audience it deserves in the UK. It could be a worthy successor to Parasite in attracting audiences to films with subtitles and which explore the basic inequalities of contemporary life. And, unlike Les misérables, it has several important roles for women.