Category: the Western

The Last Wagon (US 1956)

Delmer Daves was active in Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1960s. He studied law at Stanford and was initially a writer, part-time actor and ‘adviser’, working at MGM and Paramount and then contracted at Warner Bros. He didn’t become a director until 1943 when he was nearing 40. He is perhaps best known for the Westerns he made in the 1950s, the most well-known being Broken Arrow (1950) and 3.10 to Yuma (1957). The Last Wagon was a CinemaScope Western Daves directed for 20th Century Fox as another entry in the cycle of Westerns from the late 1940s/early 1950s which begin to engage with the representation of Native Americans and the racism of most Hollywood narratives, Broken Arrow being one of the first. The Last Wagon has some elements in common with Ford’s The Searchers which was also released in 1956. It is not as profound or as challenging as Ford’s masterpiece but I’m surprised that it hasn’t received more attention. In his Encyclopaedia of Western Movies, Phil Hardy suggests it might be Daves’ best Western, but doesn’t really say much about the film. Julian Petley in The BFI Western Companion (ed. Ed Buscombe) suggests that Daves didn’t get the recognition he deserved in the US, though he was rated by several French critics. In the UK it wasn’t until Michael Walker explored Daves’ Westerns in depth for The Movie Book of the Western (eds Cameron & Pye, Studio Vista 1996) that the film received proper attention. Walker refers to an interview by Christopher Wicking (Screen, July/October 1969) in which Daves says that the wagon train experience was part of his own family history and that after he graduated in 1926 he lived for three months with both Hopi and Navajo communities in Arizona. He also seems to have been a ‘liberal Democrat’ (Wikipedia).

The opening sequence of the film (pre-credits)

I would classify the film as a ‘liberal Western’, although it is uneven as a narrative, undermining any simplistic notion of a ‘message film’. The opening few minutes are spectacular and tremendously exciting. One man on foot is being hunted by four others on horseback across ravishing landscapes in Northern Arizona around Sedona in 1873. Much of this is in long shot compositions with tiny figures against the landscape by Wilfrid Cline, a Western film specialist, facilitated by the editing of the equally experienced Hugh Fowler and with a score by Lionel Newman. The lone man is ‘Comanche’ Todd, played with customary vigour by Richard Widmark. He manages to kill three of his pursuers but is eventually captured by the fourth who turns out to be Sheriff ‘Bull’ Parker (George Mathews). At this point the script seems to be flawed. Harper wounds Todd in the shoulder and then treats him brutally before a wagon train arrives on the trail led by ex-Colonel Normand, comprising his family and others. They accept Parker and his prisoner, but as a Christian group they are troubled to see Todd chained, almost like a crucifixion on a wagon wheel. The script problems are two-fold. First, Todd’s wound seems to disappear and secondly Harper will go on to state that there is a $1,000 reward for the arrest of Todd, yet his crime involves the killing of Harper’s three brothers which we have just seen happen. We won’t learn the truth about his crimes until the end of the film.

Richard Widmark as ‘Comanche’ Todd

The second section of the narrative sees Harper pitted against the wagon train community because of his ‘inhuman’ treatment of Todd. We learn from Harper that Todd was captured by Comanches as a young boy and grew up as an ‘Indian’. Harper’s stance is clearly racist – to justify his inhuman treatment. During an altercation between Harper and the wagoneers an axe is dropped and Todd picks it up, throws it and kills Harper. As Walker points out, this sequence seems almost like a collective ‘Freudian slip’. It’s as if dropping the axe and pushing Harper close enough for Todd to throw it was unconsciously willed by the group. Later that night a group of young people from the wagon train leave the camp to go skinny-dipping. When they return they find the camp has been attacked by Apache warriors (they are on a notorious trail through Apache territory) and everyone has been killed – except Comanche Todd who, still manacled to a wagon wheel, has miraculously survived when the wagon was pushed over a cliff.

Toff shows the group the route they must take

The third section sees the rescue of Todd and the agreement that he will guide them through Apache territory to safety. The small group includes the Colonel’s two daughters, one of whom is white and one bi-racial after his second marriage to a Native American. There is also a younger boy who has become attached to Todd and his older sister Jenny (Felicia Farr). It was this couple who first supported Todd. Finally there are two other older teenagers, one of whom has been against Todd from the beginning. I won’t spoil the narrative from this point but it should be clear that it has taken a different turn. Todd has to convince the group to do things his way – the Comanche way – if they are to survive. This involves some philosophical debates and some explorations of Native American cultures. The aggressive boy displays the most open racism but the white step-sister Valinda is perhaps the most danger to Todd. She resents her own sister as well as contact with Todd. Her step-sister Jolie is played by Susan Kohner who in 1959 would be Oscar-nominated for her role as a young bi-racial woman who ‘passes’ for white in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Kohner’s mother, Lupita Tovar was a Mexican actor who worked for various Hollywood studios on Spanish language versions of English language films. Kohner’s role in The Last Wagon has more/different meanings in retrospect after her success in 1959. This is especially true in relation to a statement Jolie makes in the final sequence of the the film on her changed ideas about her own identity as a bi-racial woman. There were more Mexicans than Native Americans who became stars or leading players in the studio Hollywood era, but they were still discriminated against and subject to forms of racial type-casting.

Todd and Jenny (Felicia Farr)

This third section of the film is the most interesting for me and it is dominated by the idea that Comanche Todd is in effect teaching the youth about Comanche (and Apache) culture and why they need to know about it in order to survive. Widmark is central to the success of the film and his authority as a star actor is just as important as the good sense he speaks in the dialogue. The sequence is quite ‘talky’ for a Western but broken up by the long shot cinematography and bursts of action, each of which is in some way metaphorical in relation to the predicament facing the group.

General Howard (Carl Benton Reid)

In the final section, the script (by Daves, James Edward Grant and Gwen Bagni Gielgud) manages to bring the group to safety, once again through an action engineered by Todd. This then leads to a closing section in which Todd is ‘tried’ by General Howard, the historical figure (known as the ‘Christian General’) who also appears in Daves’ film Broken Arrow. Each of the group give their own testimony and even those who have shown racist views are prepared to support Todd. I did find this ‘closure’ to be too sentimental and it is interesting to note that it is the opposite of the closure of The Searchers in which Ethan Edwards is himself unable to rejoin the community, possibly because his own racial hatred is still too strong. I don’t intend to pursue a comparison of the two films here, but I do want to point to the way that both films deal with the ‘war’ waged by white settlers and Union cavalry against Native American peoples by means of a proxy – the bi-racial or bi-cultural characters that come between the two main protagonists. The production context in 1955-6 also suggests films which consciously or not refer to incidents in the Civil Rights struggle such as the furore following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954.  What’s interesting also is that The Last Wagon creates a narrative in which a group of ‘juveniles’ is ‘instructed’ by a character who has spent his adolescence learning to be a Comanche. Michael Walker usefully points out that in this period of ‘juvenile delinquency films’, it is often a ‘liberal’ figure who gains the respect of the youth who learn to trust him, e.g. the Glenn Ford character in Blackboard Jungle (1955) or  Edward Platt’s juvenile officer in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The same actor, Nick Adams plays one of the gang in Rebel and the most racist character in in The Last Wagon. Todd is not ‘liberal’ but he ‘knows’ both white and Native American culture. The film may well be radical in the ways in which it attempts to ‘recuperate’ Todd’s behaviour and make him eligible to return to white society, while still critiquing it. Michael Walker has much more to say about the ideological underpinnings of the film and his piece is a must-read for anyone interested in Westerns.

The Last Wagon is a ‘journey Western’ which enables a form of ‘conversion’ for its group of travellers and it also includes a romance but most of all it engages with the history of the West even if it doesn’t present us with a Native American actor playing a significant character – the Apache warriors are seen mainly in long shot. Here’s a trailer for the film which is available as a ‘complete movie’ on a well-known streaming site:

Apache (US 1954)

Apache was a box office hit in 1954 for the independent production company Hecht-Lancaster releasing through United Artists. Burt Lancaster was perhaps the most successful of the actor-producers who were part of the changing structure of Hollywood during the decline of the studio system in the 1950s. The film was directed by Robert Aldrich, one of the key directors of the period for ‘action pictures’ but here early in his directorial career on just his third feature shot in only 30 days. The story, based on incidents in the life of a historical character, was adapted from Paul I Wellman’s 1936 novel Broncho Apache by James R. Webb, a prolific screenwriter who would later pen John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.

In the early 1950s there was a cycle of films that featured Native American characters and unsurprisingly most of them were Westerns. Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow (1950), George Sherman’s Battle at Apache Pass (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise ( 1954) and Sam Fuller’s Run of the Arrow (1957) were just some of the films in the cycle. Historical Native American characters were generally played by white actors. Jeff Chandler plays the Apache chief Cochise in three of the above titles. The casting of Burt Lancaster as another Apache warrior Massai in Apache is therefore conventional for the period.

Massai (Burt Lancaster) and Nalinle (Jean Peters) have to survive a long, cold winter in the mountains

Many of the films in the cycle refer to the ‘final’ war between the US Cavalry and the Apache nations in the late 1880s in Arizona and New Mexico. Massai was a warrior invited to join Geronimo but he was disarmed around the time Geronimo surrendered. Like Geronimo he was put on a train to go to a prison camp in Florida but escaped and walked back 1200 miles to Arizona. These events are shown in the film, but the remainder of the film narrative is more creative with historical events. Lancaster is in his athletic mode in the film; leaping, rolling, riding and generally outwitting capture. The plot sees him being betrayed by a local chief, the father of a young woman he wants as his bride. Nalinle is played by Jean Peters and eventually she will overcome Massai’s anger about the betrayal (which at first he thinks involves her). Perhaps the crucial sequence in the narrative is when Massai on his long walk back to his home meets a Cherokee man who has ‘become white’, living in his own ranch house and adopting a white life. This man gives Massai the warrior a bag of seed corn and urges him to be a farmer not a warrior. Although Massai at first appears to dismiss the Cherokee man’s ideas, we know that what he has said has more meaning than it might have coming from a white settler or US government agent.

As Massai, Lancaster is athletic, intelligent but stubborn and brutal when he needs to be. The depiction of his treatment of Nalinle is disturbing to watch now but it’s important for the narrative. It’s a great performance and over the next couple of years Lancaster would reach his peak as the athletic and charismatic leading man. He went on to work with Aldrich on Vera Cruz, also released in 1954.

Charles Bronson (left) as Hondo and John McIntire as Al Sieber

The film does give time to what I would now see as the colonisers of the West, represented here by the US Cavalry, various private ‘agents’ and the important historical figure of Al Sieber, the ‘Indian hunter’ whose job was to find those Apache warriors who became ‘renegades’. Played here by John McIntire is the familiar figure who understands his quarry and will eventually find him and, sometimes reluctantly, deliver him to the coloniser. It’s also worth noting that the film represents the large numbers of Apache who take the US dollar and serve with the Cavalry as scouts and regular soldiers. Charles Bronson makes one of his early credited appearances as the scout Hondo working closely with Sieber.

The ending of the film was forced on Lancaster-Hecht and Aldrich by the distributor United Artist, but what we see in the main part of the narrative has been acknowledged by various film scholars who deem the film one of the strongest of the cycle. I enjoyed the film and it was interesting to see it and to be reminded of more recent films covering aspects of the same story, including Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) with Native-American actor Wes Studi in the lead role. It’s also interesting to see Aldrich and Lancaster working together on their first film and to be reminded of Ulzana’s Raid (1972) one of the most important of the ‘allegorical’ films commenting on the Vietnam War.

Reading some of the many blog entries of Western fans and scholars about this and similar films is a fascinating exercise. Much comment is made about Lancaster as a ‘blue-eyed’ Apache warrior. The eyes are certainly noticeable and like Lancaster’s flashing white teeth, stand out against the heavy make-up. As I’ve noted this casting decision was the convention at the time and we should remember how the film industry followed the racist attitudes of the wider society, but this shouldn’t mean we ignore the film. I noted one comment that suggests that ‘blue-eyed’ Native Americans are not that uncommon and may have been around for several generations. More disturbing for me was the significant number of right-wing commentators who want to dismiss Aldrich and Lancaster as having anything to say about American history. Some do this in a disguised way by simply arguing that this is a poor Western and laying out all its ‘inauthenticities’ – Apache was shot mainly in California with just a few landscapes in Arizona and New Mexico and the story is very much a fictionalised version of the events. I don’t think this distracts from the central purpose of the film which is to show us the final stage of the process of colonialist settlement from the perspective of the colonised, rather than the coloniser. Apache was a popular film and one of the more influential films of the 1950s.

The Sisters Brothers (Les frères Sisters, France-Belgium-Spain-Romania-US 2018)

The Sisters Brothers has been declared to have ‘bombed’ in the US because box office takings have been only a fraction of what might have been spent by American independent distributor Annapurna on screening rights. The box office results have been better in Europe. But I suspect in a few years time the film will start to receive a lot more interest from cinephiles. I like and admire Jacques Audiard’s work and that admiration is carried over to this his first English language film. But Audiard is not the only auteur involved. John C. Reilly bought the rights to the novel by Patrick DeWitt close to its publication date in 2011 and he is credited as one of the producers. The adaptation was by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain who collaborated with Audiard on his previous three films and who directed John C. Reilly in Les cowboys (France 2015).

The ‘Sisters Brothers’ are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of hired guns who work as assassins for ‘The Commodore’ (Rutger Hauer) in Oregon Territory in 1851. This is the time of the Gold Rush in California and finds were made near Jacksonville in Oregon Territory. The Brothers are given the task of finding and assassinating Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who is being followed by a detective also employed by The Commodore, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two brothers are quite different. Charlie is the younger, but he acts as the leader and is much more aggressive. Eli is more philosophical and reflective – although he still kills efficiently when he needs to. The journey they take south towards California and what happens when they find Morris and Warm gives the narrative plenty of time to fill out the characters.

The brothers cut each others’ hair.

My feeling about the film, which I very much enjoyed, is that it resembles several other ‘literary’ Westerns such as The Missouri Breaks (US 1976) from the novel by Thomas McGuane or, more recently, The Homesman (France-US 2014) from the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Both these films were also relatively big-budget films that flopped and both had ‘name’ directors and stars, Arthur Penn with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando for the first and Tommy Lee Jones as both director and star (with Hilary Swank) in the second. The Homesman is also an ‘international production set in the same time period as The Sisters Brothers.

The Sisters Brothers

Morris treads carefully in the new towns thrown up quickly

There is a featured review of The Sisters Brothers by Nick Pinkerton in Sight and Sound (May 2019) in which he refers to the film as having an unusual setting in the pre-Civil War era. The review makes some interesting points but I think that Pinkerton hasn’t seen enough Westerns – there are enough pre-1861 Westerns to form a separate classification and the pre-war period includes both the Gold Rush and the migrations via wagon trains to Oregon before the coming of the transcontinental railroads. The opening up of Oregon was remarkably fast-paced over the first few decades of the 19th century, moving from a territory of fur trappers and the Hudson’s Bay company through British and American claims to sovereignty and the subsequent formation of the ‘Oregon Territory’ in 1848 south of the 49th Parallel and admission as a new state of the Union in 1859. There were periods of lawlessness as jurisdictions changed and the pace of development is neatly represented by the surprise for both the educated Morris and Eli when they find themselves both brushing their teeth with toothbrushes and tooth powder. But this is a very male early Oregon community. Women are usually bar girls. Wives and mothers are not very visible.

The Sisters Brothers

Eli looks after his horse – one of several interesting details of travel in the narrative

One of the criticisms of the film is the dialogue which includes some modern speech which seems anachronistic. But it also includes some literary language, especially when Morris is writing his diary. Eli too uses some formal language which Charlie derides, but the most articulate character is Warm, who has big plans, first for gold extraction and then for a new utopian society he wants to set up in Texas. There was a real attempt by democratic socialists from France, Belgium and Switzerland to set up a community known as ‘La Réunion’ in Dallas County in 1855 based on the ideas of Charles Fourier. (Fourier called the building in which a small community might live a phalanstère.) The American writer Henry David Thoreau is also mentioned in the script, although as Pinkerton points out Thoreau’s best known work, Walden, was not published until 1854. However, he had published earlier papers and the script suggests that Warm is not just formally educated like Morris, but also much more aware of new ideas. I did notice the language ‘mix’ and I’m still not quite sure how to read it – but I don’t see it as a ‘mistake’.

Against this minutiae of American life, the film offers us the landscapes of Spain and Romania, because this is very much a European production from Why Not Productions in France as the lead company. It includes scenes shot in Almería in Andalusia (like all the classic European Westerns) as well as mountain scenes in Navarre and Aragon and other landscapes and studio sets in Romania. There is a tradition of pitting history against myth in European Westerns and this film continues that process. This doesn’t make The Sisters Brothers a ‘realist film’, but it does suggest an intelligence ‘playing’ with Western conventions and historical discourses. The problem is that audience expectations are perhaps for clearer narrative drives and for a rousing climax and resolution (see this typical US review). I’m not in the spoilers game, but there is a relatively downbeat ending. There are at least three big shootouts but the emphasis is on the characters. I’m not sure that the balance between ‘action’ and ‘talk’ is actually that different from the majority of Western films. It’s more a case of what the ‘talk’ is about. I found the talk very interesting and enjoyable and I’d be happy to watch the film again.

Herrmann Warm (Riz Ahmed) and John Morris (Jake Gyllenaal)

The casting of Riz Ahmed, a fine actor, worked for me. I was reminded of another very good and unusual Western, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) written and directed by Maggie Greenwald. Set in roughly the same mid-19th century period and again in a mining camp, the central character, a woman trying to ‘pass’ as a man, meets an Englishman played by Ian McKellan sporting his own ‘real’ Lancashire accent. The film also features the Chinese migrant community. Another British connection is to Michael Winterbottom’s wonderful Thomas Hardy adaptation (of The Mayor of Casterbridge) The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Again associated with the ‘mining Western’ this is set slightly later in the 1860s when the railroad is coming, but the ‘back story’ is the 1849 Gold Rush. This film too has its migrant characters. I think I need to watch both these other films again! Riz Ahmed’s character is, I think, meant to be a European migrant and his character’s name suggests German/Belgian/Dutch? (But his middle name ‘Kermit’ seems to be American- and possibly anachronistic).

We watched the film on the big screen in Pictureville at the Museum in Bradford. I thought Alexandre Desplat’s score worked well and Benoît Debie’s cinematography is equally impressive. All the performances are good but it’s clear that John C. Reilly is the most invested in the project he started. Nick didn’t like the film and perhaps he’ll add a comment as to why not. I’ve really enjoyed researching the film and if you like Westerns I’d say this is a ‘must see’ – unless the issues I’ve described above are ones you know will be a problem for you. The trailer below doesn’t give out as many spoilers as the usual Hollywood trailer, but I don’t remember anything like the song in it appearing in the film.

Lust for Gold (US 1949)

This odd film offered Ida Lupino a lead role that paid the bills as she was preparing projects for her new production company now that her Warner Bros. contract work was completed. Her new husband Collier Young was a producer at Columbia and according to Lupino’s biographer William Donati she hoped that by choosing a Columbia script she would at least see Collier on a regular basis. However, Lust for Gold was a location shoot in Arizona for much of the time. Lust for Gold, as the title baldly suggests, is a story about a real life mystery – a ‘lost gold mine’ on Superstition Mountain in Arizona – and the people who will go to any lengths to find it. In fact, this is arguably the most often quoted ‘lost treasure’ story in the Americas with many references in American popular culture and the development of what is now a mythical story based on ‘real’ events.

Julie (Ida Lupino) meets a cleaned up Jakob Walz (Glenn Ford)

The script embraces the mythological/real basis of the ‘Lost Dutchman’s Mine’ by setting the story in the present and revealing the original events as a Western narrative via a prolonged flashback. In the present, ‘Barry Storm’ (the pen name of the writer of a 1945 book about the myth) travels to the mountain, claiming he is a descendant of the original ‘Dutchman’, the German migrant Jakob Walz. Storm is involved in a shooting on the mountain and encounters the local sheriff and his men. With what the sheriff tells him and further research in newspaper archives of the 1880s and talking to elderly locals he pieces together a possible scenario – which leads into the flashback with Glenn Ford, Columbia’s go-to leading man for this kind of film. He plays Walz who finds the original mine and then hits town where Ida Lupino is Julia Thomas, from a German family in Milwaukee and who runs a small bakery shop. Julia is married to the spineless Pete (Gig Young) but she sees an opportunity to seduce Jakob and find the gold for herself. It’s a risky business as the whole town knows about the find. What follows is a classic Western melodrama which ends in disaster and takes us back to the present where Barry Storm becomes involved in a typical Hollywood ‘resolution’ that maintains the integrity of the ‘lost gold’.

Julie and her husband (Gig Young) on Superstition Mountain

I need to admit that at times this is very serviceable entertainment. At other times it threatened to lose my interest. The film was originally intended to be directed by the highly experienced director George Marshall but when he was not available it was passed to S. Sylvan Simon who was arguably better known for comedies. It turned out to be Simon’s last film as director as he died suddenly aged just 41 a couple of years later. Ida Lupino gives a committed performance as usual and the other leads are fine. Glenn Ford with beard and unruly hair certainly looks different and his character is vicious, even by the standards of later Westerns. Several of the minor players are of interest, including Jay Silverheels as a sheriff’s deputy in the contemporary-set scenes. For children of my generation he was ‘Tonto’ in The Lone Ranger series on TV and, as the sheriff, Paul Ford is fondly remembered as the commanding officer trying to keep Sgt. Bilko in check in the Bilko/Phil Silvers TV series in the 1950s.

Ford and Lupino with (I presume) director S. Sylvan Simon

For Ida Lupino this was one of the films she worked on with Archie Stout as cinematographer. Stout, like other crew members was impressed by the way Ida stayed out on location in the blazing sun in order to see how the production functioned rather than heading back to town as soon as her scenes were completed. Stout would become one of her own loyal crew members happy to tell anyone who asked that Ida Lupino knew more about angles and lighting than most of the directors he worked with. Certainly, the experience on Lust for Gold must have been very useful when The Filmakers were shooting on location in similar terrain for The Hitch-Hiker in 1953.