Category: the Western

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (Australia 2021)

Leah Purcell as Molly Johnson (all images courtesy Modern Films)

Australian Cinema has had periods of both innovation and exploration, as well as periods of stagnation, since the first films were produced in the early 1900s. Currently there is a distinct development with the increase of films made by Indigenous filmmakers about the lives of Indigenous characters, both contemporary and historical. The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell is the latest example of an Indigenous film reflecting on colonial history in Australia. In doing so it takes us back to some of the earliest Australian films that have been compared to American ‘Westerns’. These were, in Australian terms, ‘bushranger films’ and the earliest of these was the Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906. Like the American West, Australia in the second half of the 19th century and on into 1920s was a difficult territory to police, even after the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

Molly meets an Indigenous man who is ‘on the run’. This grab demonstrates the ‘Scope photography and the use of spectacular landscapes.

Bushrangers were ‘outlaws’ and Australia also experienced ‘gold rushes’, cattle drives and conflicts between settlers and Indigenous peoples. In Australian films up to at least the 1970s (and arguably much later), Indigenous characters were usually portrayed either as ‘exotic’ figures in the landscape, poor communities in shanty towns, children in mission schools or trackers working for the police – familiar ‘social types’ in both American and Australian ‘Westerns’. In the last few years more radical films have appeared with Indigenous characters central to the narrative and a serious intent to explore colonial issues of racism and exclusion. Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is set in the late 1920s while Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (Australia 2018) is set in the 1820s in Tasmania. Both films got a limited UK release and Sweet Country has been shown on UK TV. The contemporary TV crime series Mystery Road initiated by Ivan Sen has some links to the historical narratives and has also been seen on UK TV. David Gulpilil, who died in 2021, was perhaps the major Indigenous star actor and he appeared in several films which explored aspects of of Australian history featuring significant Indigenous characters. The one most relevant to the discussion here would be The Tracker (Australia 2002), set, like Sweet Country in the 1920s and featuring Gulpilil as a tracker working for the police searching for an Indigenous man accused of murdering a white woman.

Leah Purcell is a proud Goa-Gungarri-Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland. She is an internationally acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, director, novelist and actor and a cultural icon and activist, whose work stands at the forefront of the Black and Indigenous cultural renaissance and protest movement sweeping Australia and the world. Australian Financial Review named Purcell as one of Australia’s Top 10 culturally influential people because ‘she allows white audiences to see from an Aboriginal perspective’.  (from  Press Pack for The Drover’s Wife)

The Drover’s Wife was initially a short story by Henry Lawson, first published in a magazine in 1892. Lawson is one of the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers, especially in relation to ‘bush stories’. The story has been re-worked many times since and in 1945 a painting by Russell Drysdale was given the same title and appears to present the woman of the story depicted against the wild country (although the artist denied this). The short story offers only the initial scene in the film in which the woman and her children are threatened by a wild animal (a snake in the original story). The woman’s struggle in the story and the painting were long seen as representing the white settler’s attempt to survive in the harsh conditions of the ‘bush’. Leah Purcell extended the story in her stage play and now in her film offers a rich and complex narrative about a woman and her historical role viewed through the lens of Indigenous story-telling. The film follows what happens over the next few months to Molly Johnson and her children.

Russell Drysdale’s 1945 painting

Malachi Dower-Roberts as Danny, Molly’s oldest child attempting to defend himself as he has been taught.

Purcell manages to include the racism and exclusion directed towards Indigenous people, the social class hierarchy of Victorian England, the nascent suffrage movement and the ‘stealing’ of Indigenous children. All of this is offered in the genre context of a Western with Mark Wareham’s photography of the Snowy Mountains and Salliana Seven Campbell’s very effective score. I think all the performances are good and especially Malachi Dower-Roberts as the young Danny Johnson.

The film’s narrative has a complex structure and also includes several ‘reveals’ that I don’t wish to spoil. It is necessary, however, to explain that Purcell uses devices such as flashbacks/flashforwards, ‘dream figures’ and occasions when edits seem to confuse the meaning of certain scenes. Her commitment to Indigenous storytelling may also create questions about the final sequence which acts as an epilogue. On a second viewing I noticed a number of metaphors including for instance the animal which threatens the family in the opening of the story. The snake has become a bullock, which for me symbolises the alien intrusion of a non-indigenous beast brought by settlers in order to fully exploit the land they have stolen.

Louisa (Jessica De Gouw) and the heavily pregnant Molly.

This film has been described as an ‘Indigenous feminist Western’ and Purcell has created a secondary but parallel narrative about the young wife of the district’s new police sergeant. Both the sergeant and Louisa, his wife, are newly arrived from England. Louisa is a proto-feminist character, concerned about the widespread domestic abuse handed out by male settlers towards their wives. She’s determined to publish a women’s newsletter and to build a campaign. I don’t know whether this is historically accurate for the 1890s but it enables Purcell to set up the question of white feminism and whether it is possible for Louisa to ‘give a voice’ to Indigenous women. Molly Johnson has her own ‘voice’ and she intends it to be heard. Just as important, the extended story that Purcell puts onscreen also includes the issue of ‘stolen children’, the attempt by the authorities to take the children of mixed race families and to select those with least ‘Indigenous blood’ to be brought up as white children in foster homes (while ‘darker’ children are trained as servants). This practice is the central focus of Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002), set in the 1930s but only properly being discussed some sixty years later in the 1990s. The Drover’s Wife is certainly a narrative rich in questions and challenges for audiences, not just in Australia but everywhere experiencing exclusion an inequalities, i.e. most definitely the UK and US. But it’s also an exciting and engaging popular narrative. Its use of familiar conventions from Hollywood Westerns is effective and helps audiences outside Australia to begin to explore the colonial legacy of British settler culture.

Sergeant Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his trooper with, in the background, the local clergyman representing the gentry in the town of Everton

The Drover’s Wife  is a début film. It’s asking a lot to script, direct and star in your first feature but I think that Leah Purcell pulls it off with real passion and commitment. Initially released by Modern Films on just 37 prints in May, the film has slowly moved around the UK and Ireland. It appears to have a traditional release pattern and will be available to stream in August in the UK. Modern Films are also committed to supporting local independent venues through ‘various events’ so it’s worth checking out their website. The Drover’s Wife is definitely worth looking out for but do try and catch it in a cinema on the big screen if you can. In the US, The Drover’s Wife will be released by Samuel Goldwyn Films in August 2022.

Robbery Under Arms (UK-Australia 1957)

In 1956 the film adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel A Town Like Alice was a big commercial and critical success. It starred Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch with Joseph Janni as producer and Jack Lee as director. Finch was a bankable name in Australia and in the UK, partly because of his well publicised drinking and affairs with female celebrity figures. Because the film had an Australian dimension involving the capture of Australian troops as well as British settlers in Malaya at the time of the Japanese invasion in 1941, Janni and Lee were eager to to make another film with Finch in Australia. They eventually decided on a new version of an already four-times adapted novel set in the late nineteenth century. They used the same pair of writers, W.P. Lipscomb and Richard Mason plus an additional writer, Alexander Baron and two of the other cast members from the earlier film. The experienced Harry Waxman shot the new film mainly in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia as well as in the Pagewood Studios in Sydney and Pinewood in the UK. This adventurous production links the film to both the Australian genre of the ‘bushranger’ film and to the cycle of British-Australian films produced by Ealing Studios starting with The Overlanders (1946) and finishing with The Siege of Pinchgut (1959). Peter Finch was a supporting player in one of these, Eureka Stockade in 1949, and he starred in The Shiralee in 1957, immediately before working on Robbery Under Arms. Ealing had in fact tried to make their own adaptation of Robbery Under Arms at several points over the course of their Australian production period.

Peter Finch as Captain Starlight

Robbery Under Arms was written by the Australian author Thomas Alexander Browne using the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood. It first appeared serialised in a Sydney magazine from 1882 and was then published in book form in 1888 and has remained in print ever since, becoming a classic of ‘Australian colonial fiction’. Originally used to refer to ‘transported’ men who escaped into the bush to evade the authorities, ‘bushranger’ became a descriptor for any criminals who carried out ‘robbery under arms’ as the official charge sheet put it. Film versions of the novel were among the first Australian films in the 1900s with further adaptations in 1911 and 1920 and a later TV movie in 1985 starring Sam Neill. The novel is long with several episodes. The 1957 version cuts several of these and presents a more linear narrative. It also sets the story slightly earlier in 1865. The most striking decision is the casting of Peter Finch as ‘Captain Starlight’, the rather glamorous and seemingly aristocratic leader of a bushranger outfit. Although Finch was appropriately cast as the character, Starlight isn’t the leading character in the narrative. Instead, the leads are two brothers Dick (Ronald Lewis) and Jim (David McCallum) Marston. Dick is the leader of the two and the narrative begins when, exhausted after a successful spell of sheep shearing, the pair decide to seek adventure. They find this when they discover that their ex-convict father is working with Starlight on a cattle drive of a thousand stolen head. It seems like exciting and lucrative work but they will find themselves always having to avoid the colonial police force as well as angry ranchers. Their involvement with a pair of sisters (Kate, played by Maureen Swanson and Jean, played by Jill Ireland) causes further complications. The main events in the narrative are familiar from Hollywood Westerns – a stage hold-up, saloon brawls etc.

A publicity still of Indigenous warriors (from the Network DVD gallery) The black & white publicity shots were standard at this time – although the film was in colour, most print publications were still monochrome in the UK

Indigenous Australians appear in the form of trackers, working with both Starlight’s gang and the colonial police, and warriors encountered in the bush. The resolution of the narrative is inevitable as a ‘posse’ of locals aids the colonial police to hunt down Starlight’s gang. He may be the ‘gentleman’ thief but some of his companions are more brutal. Mothers will lose young sons and settler culture in Australia does not come out well, apart from a local brother-sister combination who seem honourable. The Marstons might have followed their example but that would not fulfil the genre expectations.

This tableau composition of the Marston family is a publicity still presenting Marjorie Anderson as the mother with her sons Dick (back left), Jim and daughter Eileen (Dudy Nimmo)

As with other British productions in Commonwealth/Empire territories, the appeal of the film is found in the Eastmancolor images of the mountains and plains that present the action. One of the odd aspects of the production is the IMDb suggestion that the film was shot in ‘open matte’ Academy ratio (1.33:1) but intended to be projected with masking to create a widescreen (1.75:1) image. I watched the Network Region 2 DVD in Academy and that seems to be the format for other DVDs as well. I think the amount of cropping/masking for a widescreen image would destroy many compositions so that suggestion sounds unlikely to me. There is also a discrepancy in the running times listed for the UK, US and Australia. The Region 2 DVD runs 95 minutes which with PAL speed-up is closest to the UK cinema running time of 99 minutes. Australia seemingly got 5 minutes more but the US 16 mins less.

A major release by Rank

The film received a mixed response from critics but was certainly a box office hit in Australia and seems to have got a wide release in the UK. The two main criticisms seem to have been about the quality of the performances and the poor script. Personally, I found all the performances to be fine. There is some criticism of the mix of speech patterns by the British actors as leads and Australians as support but this probably matches some of the interchanges of the 1860s. For the critics in the 1950s the script was on the one hand filled with passages, especially in the opening scenes, when the pace was too slow but overall included two many ‘action scenes’ and didn’t develop the relationships between characters. I think it likely that the film was seen as both very similar to American Westerns but also vastly inferior. This seems to miss the film’s genuine interest in its Australian story and I’ve written about it here in preparation for work on other Australian Westerns. Australian film history begins with such films but production declined during the 1930s and didn’t fully revive until the ‘New Australian Cinema’ of the 1970s. The British productions in Australia between 1946 and 1959 at least helped to keep local production alive during the lean years.

David McCallum with Jill Ireland as Jean

Two repercussions for the actors involved in the Robbery Under Arms production were that David McCallum and Jill Ireland married during the production, having met on Hell Drivers which was released in the UK earlier in 1957. They later migrated to Hollywood where McCallum starred in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Maureen Swanson, who shares second billing on the UK poster above with McCallum, was a rising star at this point and she had featured in A Town Like Alice and other Rank productions, including a second billing in a Norman Wisdom comedy, Up in the World (1956). As Ronald Bergan points out in her obituary (she died in 2011), Swanson didn’t fit into the group of ‘Charm School starlets’ as she had trained as a ballet dancer but she was also not one of the young ‘sex bomb’ types such as Diana Dors or Joan Collins. Yet after Robbery Under Arms, in which the Monthly Film Bulletin reviewer says she gives a “Rhonda Fleming-like performance”, she moves into UK TV and then retires in 1961 after marrying into the aristocracy. Her performance as Kate reveals an actor with passion and Rank lost a potential major star.

A publicity shot of Maureen Swanson as Kate in Robbery Under Arms

Robbery Under Arms is a film with flaws certainly but I don’t think it deserved the critical reaction it received. I enjoyed the film and particularly the cinematography and the performances by Maureen Swanson and David McCallum (both initially from Glasgow). This is an interesting introduction to Australian stories on screen before the emergence of the 1970s New Cinema. As well as on the Network DVD, the film has also appeared on Talking Pictures TV in the UK.

John Ford #8: Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960)

The ‘noble’ Sergeant Rutledge, seen from a low angle (Screengrab from dvd.beaver.com)

(This post was first published in 2017 before I began a long project aimed at re-assessing the output of John Ford by re-watching and writing about as many of Ford’s films as I could find, numbering the posts as I go.)

Given that John Ford was the most lauded director of the studio era with four Academy Awards and one of the most critically appraised filmmakers during the development of contemporary film studies in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s perhaps surprising that some of his films have not been given more attention. Ford was prolific and ‘independent’. There are a lot of films to choose from, so perhaps that’s the reason, but the more I think about it – and the more I enjoy watching Ford’s films on TV – the more I wonder about how his films have been studied. Sergeant Rutledge certainly deserves more attention.

This 1960 release is unusual in several ways but primarily because it places Woody Strode as the Cavalry Sergeant of the title at the centre of the narrative. As one blogger has pointed out, it gives us an African American character in a courtroom drama accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman a couple of years before the more celebrated To Kill a Mockingbird. For John Ford it marks something of a change in his representation of both African American and Native American characters (though he seemed to slip back again in later films). The Apache in the film generally appear to be ‘authentic’, though the narrative does not give them speaking roles. But at least we are spared the conventional speeches in English. Overall, I don’t think Sergeant Rutledge is ‘coherent’ as it mixes genres and Fordian elements such as casting and acting styles in unusual ways, but this is possibly a good thing. It’s certainly worth investigating.

The film begins with the arrival of Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter, one of the leading actors in Ford’s 1956 film The Searchers) and  the opening of a military trial in the 1880s when Arizona was still a ‘territory’. As the first witness Mary Beecher (Constance Towers) begins her testimony, we flash back to her return from the East after many years away. She is heading for her father’s remote ranch and on the train she meets Lt. Cantrell who reluctantly drops her off at a lonely railway halt. A band of Apache warriors have broken out of their ‘reservation’ and Mary is rescued from danger by Woody Strode’s Sergeant Rutledge, who appears from the darkness, wounded but still able to attack the two warriors who approach her. We realise that Rutledge was escaping a crime scene and now he has been brought back to the fort where Cantrell is representing him. The rest of the film narrative unfolds through flashbacks as each of the witnesses give statements. At first, we don’t know what Rutledge is supposed to have done and Ford uses the courtroom drama mixed with the suspense story. Gradually the story unfolds and we see that Rutledge is taken into custody but then, along with Mary Beecher, is taken on Cantrell’s mission to return the Apache to their reservation. This then introduces the third genre repertoire of the action stories of the ‘Indian Wars’.

Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) with Cpl Krump (Rafer Johnson?) (uncredited)

Woody Strode (1914-94) was a football player and imposing athlete (6’4″) who began to get bit parts in films and then later TV from the early 1940s onwards. By the 1950s he had regular screen work, but mainly in action adventure films, several set in Africa. In 1956 he played the King of Ethiopia in The Ten Commandments. Sergeant Rutledge was his first film for John Ford and one of his first leading roles. He would go on to appear in three more of Ford’s late films followed by other major Westerns (famously in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)). It is significant that Ford had not used Strode before, especially as Strode had Native American as well as African American ancestry. Because of his imposing physique, Woody Strode would struggle to escape the confines of stereotypical roles. He was both ‘imposing’ and also ‘noble’. It’s worth noting that the other significant Black role in the film, Sgt. Skidmore, is played by Juano Hernandez (1901-70) an actor from a Puerto Rican background who doesn’t have the same physical presence as Woody Strode, but whose credits suggest a more varied range of roles. His first role was in an Oscar Micheaux ‘race’ film (i.e. an all Black cast and intended for a Black audience) in 1932.

The release of Sergeant Rutledge came at a crucial time for the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the possibilities for African American actors. Major stars such as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were still mainly involved in social or crime dramas/melodramas/musicals at this point. It was still unusual to find African American actors in Westerns. In one sense, Sergeant Rutledge was undoubtedly progressive in featuring a ‘Negro troop’ in the 9th Cavalry based on the historical records of two such cavalry regiments (and four, later two, regiments of infantry) in the US Army after 1865. The troop presented a variety of ‘types’ and provided small roles for several uncredited Black actors. This didn’t go far enough for cultural activists but it was a start. Tag Gallagher in John Ford: The Man and His Films (1986) is one of several scholars who repeat the words of Woody Strode quoted in Joseph McBride and Michael Wilmington’s John Ford (1975) in which the actor says he will never forget Sergeant Rutledge and how Ford “put classic words in my mouth . . . You never seen a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne before . . . I carried the whole black race across the river”. Strode is referring to the long sequence in which the Sergeant first escapes and then returns to help the troop under attack.

Sergeant Rutledge was not a commercial success in North America. I’m not sure how the film played in Europe but as with The Searchers, the European film posters shown below are interesting. The French title of The Searchers translated as ‘Prisoner of the Desert’ which always struck me as more acute than the US version. Sergeant Rutledge appeared in two guises, both of which highlighted the Black soldier. One uses the title Le Sergent noir and the other Capitaine Buffalo (this is the Belgian poster with the Flemish title listed as well).

The French poster

The Belgian poster

Captain Buffalo was in fact the working title of the film in Hollywood and the film opens with the Captain Buffalo song. The reference here is to ‘Negro soldiers’ who were known as ‘Buffalo soldiers’. The name is said to have come from the Native Americans who fought Black soldiers in the Indian Wars after 1866. Although the name was commonly used in the US Army, it didn’t circulate quite so widely in the mythology of the Hollywood Western. Although I have been reading and watching Westerns on TV and at the cinema since the 1950s, I don’t think I heard the term until the 1970s and it was really Bob Marley’s song, released in 1983, which popularised the history outside the US. ‘Captain Buffalo’ is an ironic title, referring to Rutledge’s leadership qualities in a troop which was ‘all Negro’ but with a white officer. The French poster is more explicit in its reference to the ‘Black Sergeant’ and both posters announce the controversial elements for a film from 1960 – the Black fist in handcuffs and the frightened white woman seemingly running from the sergeant – depicted in ‘noirish’ lighting. Compare this explicit representation with the UK ‘quad’ poster, which I believe was based on the US poster (UK posters have generally been ‘landscape’ rather than ‘portrait’ shaped).

UK poster

This poster tells us nothing about the story as such. Rutledge is simply ‘a MAN’ and Woody Strode is listed as a secondary star to Billie Burke (who has a minor role as the judge’s wife). The sergeant in the poster has a skin tone very similar to Hunter’s Lt. Cantrell – you have to look closely for signs of ‘blackness’. Why is he shown with unfastened handcuffs? The contrast to the French poster is remarkable. Sergeant Rutledge was a commercial flop despite its similarity to The Searchers in terms of setting. It was based on a novel by James Warner Bellah whose short stories had formed the basis for Ford’s earlier ‘Cavalry trilogy’ of the late 1940s – She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache and Rio Grande. He would also write the screenplay for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the best reviewed of Ford’s later works. Why did Sergeant Rutledge flop? I can’t help feeling that besides the lack of confidence shown by Warner Bros. in their promotional material, the film’s uneasy mixture of drama, suspense and comedy might have created poor ‘word of mouth’. Comedy is nearly always present in Ford’s films but it is usually better integrated in relation to the drama. I wonder too if the film suffers from the lack of a strong central performance from John Wayne or one of Ford’s other familiar leading men. Willis Bouchey as the Colonel and courtroom judge is a good character actor, but doesn’t dominate the group of officers who run the trial. It’s no surprise that the action sequences with Jeffery Hunter and Woody Strode holding the action together work more successfully. It wasn’t until after the screening that I realised that Constance Towers had been in Ford’s previous film The Horse Soldiers, the 1959 cavalry picture set during the Civil War and not written by Bellah. In Sergeant Rutledge she seems to be older (or perhaps more mature) than the young women linked to the young officers in the earlier cavalry films, but on reflection she seems well cast. Later she would appear as the lead in two strong Sam Fuller films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).

As well as a film of its time, indeed of its ‘moment’, Sergeant Rutledge has to be read as a film in the final third of John Ford’s long career. One aspect of this is its role in confirming Ford’s long attachment to the ideals of the American military. It is important that the Rutledge character is finally exonerated by the Army and through the Army’s procedures. It may be the last such film in Ford’s list. The last few films seem to offer evidence of a director being deliberately playful with some of those traditions among groups of men. The second aspect of Sergeant Rutledge is more problematic in representing Ford’s ideas about race and identity. I think the film stands up alongside The Searchers as an attempt to question the attitudes in most Westerns of the 1950s, but I don’t think it’s possible to make any judgements without referring back to Ford’s earlier films about Judge Priest, and especially The Sun Shines Bright (1953) which needs to be a future task. It also requires a return to Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), two films which revert to the practice of casting Europeans as Native Americans, while still questioning representations.

‘The Three Godfathers’ – novel and film

The original version of this story was a short story, “Broncho Billy and the Baby”,  which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1910 and was the basis for an Essanay short film of the same name. The short story  is credited as the basis for Kyne’s later novel ‘The Three Godfathers’ in 1913; an online version is dated 1916 and would seem no longer than the original story. Set in Arizona, the basic plot has a gang of bank robbers stumble on a covered wagon where a dying woman entrusts her baby to their care; thus they become the ‘godfathers’ of the title.

” The Youngest Bad Man had just been the recipient of a serious thought. He hastened to get it off his mind. Boylike he interrupted and rose to a question of information.

“What’s a godfather, Bill? What job does he hold down?”

“You’re an awful ignorant young man, Bob,” replied The Wounded Bad Man reproachfully. “You been raised out in the woods somewheres? A godfather, Bob, is a sort of reserve parent. When a kid is baptized there’s a godfather an’ a godmother present, an’ for an’ on behalf o’ the kid they promise the preacher, just the same as the kid would if he could only talk, to renounce the devil with all his works an’ pomps——”

“What’s his works and pumps?” demanded The Youngest Bad Man.”

“Well—robbin’ banks an’ shootin’ up deputy sheriffs, et cetry, et cetry.”

The drama then follows as the men battle the Colorado Desert and a lack of water to carry the baby to safety. Their destination is the mining town of New Jerusalem. One item the men carry is a bible, found in the wagon. The story is full of religious symbolism from the New Testament and the passion sequences. A burro stands in for the donkey of Palm Sunday and there are several references to the ‘good thief’ of the crucifixion.

The novel has proved a popular source for film adaptations;

Three Godfathers, a 1916 film with Harry Carey

Marked Men, a 1919 remake of the 1916 film, also starring Harry Carey, considered a lost film

Action, a lost 1921 film

Hell’s Heroes, a 1929 film directed by William Wyler

Hells Heels, a 1930 ‘Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’ animated short directed by Walter Lantz

Three Godfathers, a 1936 film featuring Chester Morris

3 Godfathers, a 1948 film starring John Wayne [Three Godfathers in Britain].

Ice Age, 2002, where a mammoth, a  tiger and sloth rescue a child; but neither the novel nor the earlier films are credited.

Tokyo Godfathers, a 2003 Japanese animated film loosely based on the novel.

Roy has reviewed a digital version of the 1948 title. I had the pleasure of viewing the 1929 version on 35mm at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1994. This was my second visit to the Festival, then still presented in the old 1930s Verdi Theatre. The film appeared in both silent and Movietone sound versions. We viewed the silent version in a 35mm print with English title cards from the George Eastman House. The film had some inspired additions to the novel. Neil Brand provided the piano accompaniment. The climax of the film had additional music in one of the finest cinema experiences that I have enjoyed. In this film version the surviving  Bob [Charles Bickford] staggers into New Jerusalem, carrying the baby; it is Christmas Morning rather than the night of Christmas Eve in the original story. He  collapses in front of the town’s people gathered in the wooden framed church. This sequence was accompanied by a burst from a choir out of the darkness singing ‘Silent Night’.  In the darkness they had gathered in the two small musician’s balconies either side of the proscenium. There was not a dry eye in the theatre. Unfortunately the old Verdi is no more. However Universal Pictures together with The Film Foundation is producing a restoration of the film.

The film notes in the Catalogue comments:

“Poignant camerawork and naive yet effective  symbolism shouldn’t make you overlook the director’s early evidence of Jansenist obsession with falling from grace and the struggle for forgiveness.”

As Roy notes, this is based on a comment  by Andre Bazin and Bert Cardullo. Jansenism  rose in the C17th and 18th; it was condemned as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. The perceived error was an emphasis on ‘justification by faith alone’ rather than the  embracing of God’s grace through free well. In ‘The Three Godfathers’ the reader senses that the three bad men are forced, by their encounter with mother and baby, to reveal an innate goodness that overcomes their evil ways. One could see a similar personal development in Wyler’s later masterpiece, The Best Years of their Lives (1946). But the scriptwriters presumably were also responsible in translating the themes of the novel to  film.  Tom Reed and C. Gardner Sullivan were both experienced dramatists for popular film including work for the western genre.

Wayne and Pedro Amendáriz with Harry Carey Jr. in the 1948 version 

The 1948 version, directed by John Ford, is not of the same calibre. However, Roy rightly praises the Technicolor cinematography of Winston C Hoch. The screenplays, by Laurence Stallings and Frank S. Nugent, credits the Kyne novel. However, there are quite few changes from that and they also differ from those in the Wyler version. In particular the ending completely lacks the drama and tragic overtones of the 1929 version. This is partly down to the writing but also to the way that the Wayne persona differs from that of the young Bickford. And whilst the music presents Ford’s particular favourite melodies and songs it does not offer the impact of the live choir of 1994.

Calamity (Calamity, une enfance de Martha Jane Cannary, France-Denmark 2020)

My French Film Festival has often included an animated feature in its programme and this year it is Calamity which offers something slightly different to Josep (France 2020) and The Swallows of Kabul (France-Luxembourg 2019) in previous years. First it has a different drawn style with bold colours and strong lines but little detail in the background or characters, though it has plenty of energy. Second it is arguably a film for all ages with a mythical storyline rather than the political context of the earlier films. The film has had a theatrical release in France and Japan as well as some other European countries but in the UK it has gone straight to digital download and is widely available on streamers – more on this later.

Martha acts as mother for her siblings

It took me a while to make the direct connection between Martha, the hero of the story, and the real ‘Calamity Jane’, mainly because I didn’t know about the historical Martha Jane Cannary. The film, directed by Rémi Chayé and co-written by Chayé with Fabrice de Costil and Sandra Tosello, does not set out to be an accurate partial biopic but the broad idea of the story fits the mythologising of her life that Cannary herself embellished. We meet a young teenage Martha on a wagon train in 1863 with her father and siblings. They are a relatively poor family compared to some of the other travellers. The wagon train is led by a rather strict ‘elder’ of the community, whose teenage son Ethan becomes something of a tormentor of Martha. I recognised some of the conventions in representing the wagon train crossing the plains and the mountain ranges from classic Hollywood films such as John Ford’s Wagon Master from 1950. Martha’s train doesn’t have a professional guide or ‘wagon master’ and that means that the narrative develops partly because of the mistakes the leader makes and accidents that befall the wagons. Several scenes reminded me of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010) – but that film framed the Western landscape in Academy ratio. Calamity offers us a CinemaScope view of the landscape which references Westerns from 1954 onwards.

Martha starts to learn how to use a lasso

The plot sees Martha leaving the wagon train in an attempt to clear her name after an incident which also sees her changing into trousers rather than a skirt and eventually cutting her hair. After learning to ride and lasso horses and cattle, her adventures see her being taken to be a boy. (This reminded me of Maggie Greenwald’s 1993 Western, The Ballad of Little Jo.) Many wagon trains suffered disasters and lives were lost, especially on the Oregon trail but this narrative has a happy ending, making it suitable family entertainment. There was a moment (in a mine) when I thought it was going to become frightening but the danger was quickly overcome. One of the main features of the film is its fast pacing with frequent actions. It’s a relatively short feature of around 80 minutes plus end credits. In addition there is a lively mountain music/bluegrass score by the Argentinian composer Florencia Di Concilio and the soundtrack can be sampled on YouTube. Martha meets various characters on her travels including another renegade character, a young man not that much older than herself. At one point Martha meets a trio of trappers who I think are Native Americans but otherwise the use of colour and the drawing techniques do not necessarily attempt to denote ethnicity. It is worth remembering that the date is given as 1863, before the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the migration of freed slaves across the Missouri.

The short-haired Martha on her lone adventures . . .

I enjoyed the film which I think demonstrates strong story-telling. The film seems to have gone down well with audiences and has won prizes, including at the Annecy International Animation Festival. I’m not an expert on animation and I’m not sure I appreciate the visual style as much as some of the animation experts. I’m also not sure that I find the rebellion of a young girl fighting against gender norms to be such a novel experience as some reviewers – in some ways Martha seems like a Miyazaki hero (and what I presume Disney has been trying to achieve more recently). But if the film works to inspire young women that’s great. I think the version of the film released in Japan has a Japanese dub but one of the few English language reviewers of this film bemoans the fact that there is no English dub – and that this will restrict and possibly exclude entirely the young audiences it might otherwise find. In industry terms I think that is a fair comment. In most European countries that regularly subtitle foreign language films, provision is usually made to dub animated films with children as a target audience into the local language. On the other hand this is not a dialogue heavy film and I think young audiences will probably be able to follow the English subtitles. I discovered that the film has been available for some time on BFI Player (subscribers only) and that it is now also available on Google and YouTube to stream. The Amazon and Apple streams may be linked to BFI Player subscription offer which ends soon. The trailer below has English subs. If you have a MUBI subscription, I’ve discovered that Rémi Chayé’s previous film Long Way North (France-Denmark 2015) is available to stream currently.

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.