Rio Bravo (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 August (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

I suppose there’s a sense of inevitability that at some point I would cover Rio Bravo on this site. It features in the schedules fairly regularly, always brushed over by me because I’m a bit nervous about discussing it. My worry is that I don’t like it as much as I ought to. The film’s seen as a classic of the Western genre, one of its finest entries in fact, and the first time I saw it I just wasn’t overwhelmed. Sure, it was a fine piece of work, technically very good and featuring some classic genre actors doing exactly what they were paid to do and doing it well. But around my initial viewing of this one, I was exploring many Westerns, often for the first time, and whilst I was really gripped by the likes of The Ox Bow Incident, 3:10 to Yuma and Shane, this one just felt like a good old-fashioned Oater. Nothing special.

The one Rio Bravo is most often compared with is Fred Zinneman’s High Noon, something I guess we should get out of the way early. As my comments on the earlier picture show, I love it to the extent that I think it’s about as good as cinematic entertainment tends to get. So no pressure on any challenger, then. I should add that what I like most about High Noon isn’t the political subtext at all, rather it’s the way Zinneman uses all elements of his craft to increase the story’s suspense. It’s a sublime exercise in mounting tension, one of the very finest for me, and entertainment doesn’t get much better than that. The socio-political climate in which it was made adds a neat contemporary spice to the mix, but if that’s all there was to it then High Noon would have little relevance to a viewer from the twenty first century, and I think it effortlessly transcends all that. It gets mentioned here because Rio Bravo was made in part as a riposte to its success. Director Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne were unhappy that High Noon’s hero was abandoned by all his friends and left to face destiny alone (the word ‘phony’ was dropped in there somewhere), and wanted to tell a similar story in which the villains are faced by people who happily band together to overcome them, in other words emphasising the qualities of comradeship and brotherhood.

It’s a nice message, and Rio Bravo focuses on the strength of the sum rather than the parts of its heroes by carefully showing how they are better together than apart. Alone, Dean Martin’s character is a pathetic drunk, a hollow shell of the man he once was, but it’s the stolid friendship of Wayne and Walter Brennan’s cackling Stumpy that gives him purpose. The alcoholic spiral of self-destruction into which he enters gifts Sheriff Chance (Wayne) with a cause, one he never shirks from. The relationship between the two is brilliantly played and shows what a generous performer Wayne was. In the scenes together, your eyes are drawn to Duke (Martin), who sweats, shakes and remonstrates, almost jumping across the screen as a consequence of being in deep with his personal demons. But watch Wayne. He stands and looks on, never judging, only getting involved when something’s to be done. The message should be clear enough – for Duke, he’s the rock, the one steady thing left in his life. Greater poignancy is lent when Duke realises that the guns and clothing he’s hawked years before for booze have all been bought by Chance and stored, ready and waiting for him to slip them back on.

Rio Bravo’s plot is simple enough. A man shoots someone in cold blood during the first act and is incarcerated by Chance, ready for the Marshal to deal with when he arrives in several days’ time. The prisoner happens to be the brother of Nathan Burdette (John Russell), the town’s Mr Big, who spends the rest of the film trying to get him out. Only Chance, Stumpy and Duke stand in his way, and they know it, facing Burdette’s legions of gunslingers in a small community that suddenly feels small and claustrophobic. There are people watching them on every corner, just waiting for the moment when they drop their guard. And so they don’t.

It’s the sort of story that underpins a thousand Westerns, and it’s perhaps this that made me under-value the film that first time. What I didn’t appreciate back then is that Rio Bravo is probably the quintessential classic Western, the culmination of talents pulling together for one great, last epic showpiece. Hawks directing. Dimitri Tiomkin’s thrilling score. Wayne and Brennan teaming up for the umpteenth time and bringing their A-Game, genuine affection between the pair punctuating their interactions and good natured barbs. Russell on reliable form as the baddie. Ward Bond putting in his customary support appearance, one year before he died from a heart attack, aged 57 and with nearly 300 screen credits to his name (god knows how many he’d have put in otherwise).

If the film has false notes, it’s in two further appearances. Ricky Nelson plays a young gunslinger, Colorado, who joins Chance’s team, and while there’s nothing especially wrong with him he strikes a callow note within a production of sure hands that plays very comfortably together. He was in the film to encourage teenage ticket sales, already gaining number one status in the American Billboard charts, and in a celebrated scene that actually strikes me as a little cloying he leads the gang in a sing along, watched over by a smiling, fatherly Wayne. The other problem arrives in the comely shape of Angie Dickinson, in her mid-twenties and in the script to provide a love interest for romantic lead Wayne. The trouble is that Dickinson’s a bit too good for the role, injecting real character and interest in her thinly drawn part, and distracting from the main plot. Leigh Brackett was a regular screenwriter for Hawks and added sizzling lines to Dickinson’s good time girl. She comes to dominate her scenes with Wayne, whilst as with his moments alongside Martin the Duke has little to do, perhaps another instance of him yielding the stage to his fellow actor.

The action scenes in Rio Bravo are few, but they’re good. In one of the best, Chance and Duke hit a saloon that’s filled with hostile Burdette men. They’re there to chase down a shootist who’s hiding there after he killed a man, and Chance lets his deputy take the lead, despite the worries that persist over his alcoholism. But this is the start of Duke’s redemptive arc. Eschewing the offer of a drink that comes several times, the effort of the villains to nullify him, refusing to remove the coin from the spittoon that he’s clearly done many times before to his own humiliation and everyone else’s ridicule, Duke instead learns the location of the shooter from a glass on the bar counter slowly filling with blood. He takes the guy out with a single shot. Wayne shows off his action chops also, pirouetting to club a man to the ground, good light footwork from the big man.

Perhaps my favourite bit arises from a piece of music. The 1950s was a great decade for the Western, the home of many classic entries before the genre started slowly waning. 1959’s Rio Bravo marks a late high point, but there’s an emphasis on the ‘late’ with the likes of Wayne clearly ageing. Holed up in the jailhouse with his friends, he hears a haunting instrumental drift across the town, Degeullo, also known as The Cutthroat song, a sign that no mercy will be given when Burdette – who’s ordered its playing – and his men come to get his brother back. The tune is very different tonally from Tiomkin’s orchestral overture and, with its heavy horn section, sounds more like something from a Spaghetti Western featuring the stylings of Ennio Morricone. In hindsight, it’s a little like the baton being passed, a sign of the things that would follow for the Western feature film.

Rio Bravo: ****

The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 15 July (12.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Only 800 miles more to go
Only 800 miles more to go
And if we can just get lucky
We will end up in Kentucky
Only 800 miles more to go

It’s been some time since I last covered a John Wayne picture on these pages. Back in FOTB’s formative weeks, when I was writing an entry per day – my goodness, how?!? – the Duke was kind of its leading man, figuring heavily, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Whilst there remains a tendency to knock him for his conservative politics and the countless films he starred in where he played by and large the same character, the fact remains he was one of the biggest stars of his age, and a very long ‘age’ at that. Millions loved his films, the ‘constancy’ of the characters he played turning them into reliable entertainments that gave the public what they wanted, and it seems that’s just as true now as it was then. Wayne was more than capable of subverting his on-screen image in films like The Searchers and Red River, but more often than the psychological complexities tapped into by the likes of Ford and Hawks were the hundreds of Oaters he churned out, offerings that may not be as well remembered or as critically admired but all the same live up to what the people would have expected when going to see a John Wayne picture.

Wayne produced his own starring role in Republic’s 1949 entry, The Fighting Kentuckian, a fun film that played up to its lead actor’s on screen persona as an easy going and romantic man of action. He plays John Breen, part of a Kentucky militia unit that is marching across the country. Making its way through Alabama, the soldiers find themselves in ‘French’ country, a part of land given to veterans from the Napoleonic Empire after its fall in 1815. Breen quickly finds himself in love with a General’s daughter, Fleurette De Marchand (Vera Ralston) and resolves to stay near her, but she’s promised to another man, wealthy landowner Blake Randolph (John Howard). The wedding is part of a deal to guarantee the Bonapartists’ security. Whilst there however, Breen uncovers a plot to steal land from the French exiles and decides to thwart it, along with stopping the arranged marriage as the feelings between Fleurette and him blossom.

And that would be about it, a far from notable footnote in the lengthy Wayne catalogue, if it wasn’t for the presence of co-star Oliver Hardy, here without his usual sparring partner, Stan Laurel, and playing fellow Kentuckian Willie Paine. It’s a rare non-Lauren and Hardy appearance for the corpulent comedian, casting Ollie in the ‘Walter Brennan’ sidekick role, and he appears to relish the opportunity of climbing out from his regular partner’s shadow. By all accounts, he refused the job of work initially, fearing it signaled a death knell to his famous yet declining double act, before Laurel himself persuaded him to accept it. Hardy brings a delicate sense of comic timing to the part, showing that he most definitely had ‘it’ in his own right. He and Wayne had appeared on the stage together beforehand, to fine effect, and clearly seem to enjoy reprising their double act, the latter trying to avoid corpsing into laughter as Paine uses his sausage fingers to carefully remove a speck of dust from his best hat. A scrap over the prize of a jug of rum provides one of the film’s highlights. To win it, the contender has to floor a champion wrestler. Hardy hauls himself forward as though up for the fight, only to run away with the rum and leave the resultant tussle to Wayne, which he decides with a number of trademark punches; at one moment, he pulls his fist back almost into the camera lens, a wonderful bit of perspective filming.

This is an unusual flourish for director George Waggner, who otherwise puts in a pedestrian body of work. Too many scenes are of the sort you’ve seen in endless Westerns, particularly during the chase scenes, reminiscent of a thousand episodes of Gunsmoke. The presence of Ralston is a further detriment. She’s certainly striking enough, yet there’s little chemistry between her and Wayne and the part she plays demands her to do no more than look pretty. In a much smaller role, Marie Windsor is instantly more commanding. The reality was that Ralston got the part, as she did in many Republic releases, thanks to her being married to studio head Herbert Yates, who then shoehorned her into many of the films he bankrolled. An Olympic Czech figure skater who moved to America in 1943, her thick accent ensured she almost always played exotic foreigners and in The Fighting Kentuckian, other Czechs were given parts as Frenchmen to make her vocals fit in better.

Republic was famous for its outpouring of B movies, but this one, like numerous others released during this period, had more money behind it and the presence of a decent budget becomes clear with the lavish sets and costumes. There’s a nice contrast between the rough and ready but essentially good hearted Kentuckians, and the fine dressing landowning classes. It’s no one’s idea of a great film, but it is entertaining and for fans of Oliver Hardy, or even those curious to see what he was like outside his normal environment, there’s good value to be had from it. George Antheil’s music is also to be recommended. As well as arranging the Kentucky marching song, the lyrics of which are repeated above (it goes to the tune of ‘Comin’ Round the Mountain’), he also worked samples of Le Marseillaise into some of the action scenes, to fine effect.

The Fighting Kentuckian: ***

How the West was Won (1962)

When it’s on: Friday, 2 January (2.05 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

It’s a neat comparison to suggest that Cinerama was the IMAX of its day. The latter, those colossal cinema experiences, are quite special in their own way, but with home cinema easily available and many big new releases available on IMAX, it can’t replicate the extent to to which Cinerama really was a big deal.

From 1949 to 1952, cinema audiences dwindled dangerously with the advent of television. As more American homes welcomed an ‘idiot’s lantern’, the number of people up for a night at the movies dropped by nearly a half, and Hollywood moguls scratched their heads over what to do about this crisis. The answer, inevitably, was spectacle. TVs invariably were 9″ screens, capable of producing black and white images, so the solution was to serve up something in theatres that the goggle box just couldn’t show you – sprawling films, featuring casts of thousands, made on a massive scale and in full, glorious colour. Little surprise, perhaps, that this was the era of the swords and sandals epic, the likes of Quo Vadis wowing the masses with expensively made feasts for the eyes. But it didn’t stop there. Ever earnest to undermine television, Hollywood came up with filming processes that widened the screen, given grandiose names like Vistavision and Cinemascope and offering more and more detail to awestruck audiences. ‘Widescreen’ was nothing new; as early as 1927, Abel Gance took advantage of a three-panel process called Polyvision to increase the scope of Napoleon and showed all those extras having at each other in contemporary military uniforms.

But even by these standards, Cinerama offered something unique. Fred Waller, who previously had attempted a logistically ludicrous process that used eleven projectors casting their images onto a dome, developed a system in which three cameras recorded simultaneously. The results would then be projected separately onto the left, central and right panels of a huge curved screen, done in such a way to produce a single, seamless image. A seven-channel sound system was an accompanying innovation, all designed to give audiences the feeling of being virtually immersed in what was being shown on the screen. Early exhibitions of the process, the wildly successful This is Cinerama (1952) was a showcase of what it could do, opening with a Roller Coaster ride that was shown from the perspective of someone sitting in the front car. The experience for viewers must have been amazing; This is Cinerama was a huge hit, more so for the limited number of screens that could support it.

Travelogues that took cameras to parts of the world previously inaccessible to the public made up much of Cinerama’s output through the rest of the 1950s, until it was decided to make dramatic films specifically for the process. The first was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. The second, and perhaps the ultimate expression of what Cinerama could create, was How the West was Won. It cost $15 million, a vast investment for the time, employed a cast of thousands to rub shoulders with some very big stars, took in the work of three prestigious directors, and created a sprawling saga that ran for more than two and a half hours.

It’s difficult watching How the West was Won on a small screen to appreciate the impact it must have made on Cinemara audiences. The film was designed for those looming curved screens, so something is inevitably lost on an ordinary television, even on a modern LED. For certain, there are better Westerns. The tight plotting of the very finest the genre has to offer goes out of the window in favour of a smash and grab from classic Western stories – castle rustling, showdowns with Native Americans, train heists, gunfights. It’s all in here, stringing together a loosely arching plot that tracks the Prescott family over half a century as they emigrate westward. The story takes in their experience as pioneering emigrants, the impact of the Civil war on their fortunes, along with that of the railroad, and the brief period of lawlessness before civilisation catches up with the mass migration of humans across the continent.

The conversion of a film intended for Cinerama onto a flat widescreen format presents further problems. At times, it’s possible to see the ‘joins’ on the screen, particularly when the shot is filled with blue skies. Added to that is the strange sense of perspective; it’s a little like watching the film on a cylinder, objects moving horizontally towards the screen from the right background before appearing to veer off towards the left rather than simply straight across it. To compensate for perspective issues, directors made actors stand in the dead centre of the screen and could never favour close-up shots. When two people converse, they were unable to look at each other in order for the illusion to work on Cinerama, yet on a ‘normal’ screen the problem returns and characters talk whilst peering off into some middle distance.

These, however, are minor issues and never really ruin the film, rather it’s possible to sit back and luxuriate in some quite gorgeous photography. One of the enormous benefits of Cinerama was its ability to show off the American landscape in beautiful, crystal clear images, and How the West was Won features the west at its most brilliant, natural and barren, indeed much of the intention was to illustrate a land untouched by the footsteps of modern man. It’s a thing of staggering visual pleasure.

The show is helped by the presence of an excellent cast of actors, a compendium of some the Western genre’s leading lights. Some, like John Wayne and Harry Morgan as jaded Generals Sherman and Grant, are little more than high profile cameo appearances. Gregory Peck is fine as a card playing rogue who also possesses a heart. There’s James Stewart, too old to be the fur tracker who captures Carroll Baker’s heart, but bringing class to the screen, and he’s involved in one of the film’s best action scenes when he helps the Prescotts beat off river pirates led by Water Brennan (and including in their ranks Lee Van Cleef). The film’s second half focuses strongly on George Peppard’s Zeb, the son of Baker and Stewart, who fights in the Civil War before helping the security of the railroad’s building and coming across Henry Fonda as a cynical and grizzled frontiersman. Zeb also has moral struggles with that classic Western anti-hero, Richard Widmark, who oversees the railtrack’s construction at any cost and whoever it affects, and later fights physically against Eli Wallach’s train robber, Charlie Gant.

There’s a lot going on, so much that the film was split into five segments, three of which were directed by Henry Hathaway, with George Marshall taking on the railroad story and John Ford covering the Civil War. All three experienced frustration with the Cinerama filming, the needs of the camera taking precedence over their normal shooting style, and they all wound up using objects like tree trunks to cover up the bits where audiences might see the ‘joins’.

How the West was Won is far from the best Western, but equally there’s nothing quite like it. Apart from the Cinerama aspects, it’s possible to see the film as marking the end of an era, a sort of compendium of the genre’s best bits from its classic era, before it moved into darker and grittier territory with the advent of the ‘Spaghetti’ films and Clint Eastwood.

How the West was Won: ****

And with that, readers, we’ve reached the end of the holiday fortnight. It’s been a blast writing these pieces, and I hope you have enjoyed reading them, perhaps one or two have even inspired you to watch a film you might otherwise have ignored. The bad news is that I can’t sustain this pace over a normal working week, however I have had too much of a good time to simply stop, and will be keeping FOTB going, probably on a reduced, two-three reviews per week basis. It’s your readership and support that has kept it going, so thanks for all the Follows, Likes and Comments, and I hope to see you throughout 2015!

Red River (1948)

When it’s on: Sunday, 2 September (4.20 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Rightly lauded as one of those Westerns that routinely makes it into Top Ten lists, Red River is an absorbing and epic piece of work, a retelling of Mutiny on the Bounty in post-Civil War America, and milestones for both director Howard Hawks and John Wayne, who reached into his dark side to produce an endlessly compelling and complex performance.

Wayne isn’t even the best actor in Red River. That honour goes to Montgomery Clift, making his film debut As Wayne’s protege and ultimately filling the ‘Fletcher Christian’ role. Clift is just perfect. Annoyingly handsome and clashing with Wayne’s acting style with his own more natural method, the camera clearly loves him and tracks his Oedipal challenge on the older man hungrily. I read somewhere that there’s a gay subtext to Red River, which I didn’t get, but I thought the tragic dimensions of Wayne and Clift’s relationship were writ large.

The Duke plays Thomas Dunson, who at the beginning of Red River is in a wagon trail snaking through Native American country to California. Determined to leave the trail and set up his own ranch in Texas, Dunson takes only his dogsbody, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), a fateful decision as, later, the wagons are ambushed by Indians and nearly everyone killed, including the woman he loves. The only survivor is young Matt (Mickey Kuhn as a boy; Clift later), a headstrong but loyal lad who joins Dunson’s fledgling cow-herding concern. The years pass. Whilst accumulating livestock and taking in a team of ranchers, Dunson realises there’s no money in Texas following the Civil War and decides to move his entire company north to Missouri. But it’s a trek plagued with perils. Hundreds of miles of hard journeying across unforgiving, harsh country, with the possibility of attack from nearby tribes and the sheer logistics of keeping the 10,000 strong herd moving. As the end remains a distant prospect and the men grow increasingly disconsolate, only Dunston’s stubborn determination keeps them going, yet as he drives them on he becomes an ever more alienated figure, especially with Matt.

Wayne prefigures his own revelatory turn in The Searchers as Dunson, and in certain ways is better because Ethan Edwards remains irredeemable and consistently rootless, whilst his character in Red River is an altogether more complicated prospect. In him is the raw determination to prevail in the developing and often hostile United States, mixed with the harsh treatment of his men, which overruns into outright bullying. The almost comic scenes where he reads the same oaths after burying someone again and again take on a far darker edge when he’s increasingly responsible for putting them there. It’s a real landmark for Wayne, playing against type and using his own inscrutability to make his character tougher and less malleable.

Clift and Wayne are supported by an excellent ensemble cast, including Harry Careys Snr and Jnr. There’s some really touching work put in by Brennan, who for the first half of the film is the comic relief, losing his false teeth in a poker game, but later emphasising Dunson’s loss of command when he finally stands up to him. If Red River has a downside, it’s in the lack of women. When they’re represented, in the feisty two minute cameo from Coleen Gray and Joanne Dru’s Tess, there’s either little to see or a sense, with the latter, of them being shoehorned in to provide a love interest that just isn’t necessary. Dru plays a pivotal role in the final clash between Matt and Dunson, one rewritten from Borden Chase’s original screenplay to give Red River a happy, redemptive ending, which is fine but isn’t the logical point to which the narrative has been driving.

Still, it’s a relatively minor quibble, particularly because one of Red River’s chief joys is the astounding cinematography. Much of the film tracks the mobile herd’s trek north, filling the screen with perfectly composed shot after shot of the thousands of cows, antlike herders and the big country. Russell Harlan often filmed from a low perspective, which helps to force home the sheer scale of Dunson’s journey. Imagining the effort that went into keeping all those actors and especially cattle in check seems almost impossible. Hawks was persuaded by Wayne to shoot in all weathers, leading to rewrites that accommodate rainy scenes and underlining the mens’ privations as they are forced to travel and sleep in all elements. The scene, not long before Matt mutinies, where Groot is serving mean gruel and weak coffee to herders who have to eat and drink in the driving rain, is one of the best, emphasised when Dunson drinks a cup of the awful brew to demonstrate its qualities and you sense the yawning lack of loyalty being shown towards him.

Red River: ****

The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)

When it’s on: Friday, 13 July (12.35 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Whether there’s some conscious scheduling of good movies on Friday or I just happen to chance upon the right one, the end of the week often serves up a bit of a treat and today’s no different. I hadn’t heard much about Henry Hathaway’s The Shepherd of the Hills before watching it and, in truth, didn’t expect a lot going off its history of heavy pre-release cuts, liberal deviations from the novel and reviews suggesting I was in for a slushy 100 minutes. How nice to be so pleasantly surprised, to have found myself really enjoying a well made picture that features a fine cast, solid storytelling and some quite ravishing photography.

The 1941 film was the third version of The Shepherd of the Hills. It was based on Harold Bell Wright’s novel, published in 1907 and going on to fly off the shelves in selling over a million copies. A minister based in Missouri, Wright resigned and became a full-time writer after the success of Shepherd, and eventually turned his hand to film-making following an adaptation of his seventh novel, The Eyes of the World, which dissatisfied him. The resulting picture, which Wright scripted and directed, was the only one he ever produced, and he spent the rest of his days cussing later efforts to bring his work to the screen, especially as the deal he signed in selling the film rights allowed whoever adapted his work to change anything they wanted within the source material.

Hathaway’s version, with its screenplay by Grover Jones and Stewart Anthony, gutted the novel, changing entire characters and retaining little save the title, location and basic premise. I haven’t read the book, indeed Wright’s star has slipped into obscurity and his works aren’t the easiest to pick up. What I have gone through is the Wikipedia plot summary, which confirms the smash and grab job that was committed for the film. And a good thing too. The novel’s story is one of redemptive melodrama with strong Christian overtones. It bears little resemblance beyond certain names to the somewhat dark and melancholic plot that develops in the film.

The film’s shepherd is Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey), an old man who turns up at a remote, Ozark community in order to buy Moaning Meadow. The homestead lies empty and abandoned, and many within the populace believe it’s haunted by the ghost of a woman whose man walked out on her years ago. Howitt doesn’t care. He’s willing to pay the extortionate price demanded by Mollie Matthews (Beulah Bondi), who inherited the Meadow from her dead sister and has left the place to rot, like any good haunted house casting a dark shadow over the region. Howitt’s motives in buying the place, like his past, remain largely a mystery. How he acquired his wealth is a further question mark, yet pretty soon he starts gaining the community’s sympathies by saving people. A man whose been shot after falling foul of federal agents hunting moonshiners has his wounds tended to by Howitt. A sick girl is brought back to health; her blind grandmother is sent away for the cure, all paid for and overseen by Howitt, who asks for nothing in return. By his good deeds, he becomes the shepherd of the title, but it’s a mission of atonement. Some unspoken past compels him to do good, and whilst it’s easy enough to work out his reasons, the way they evolve is fascinating.

The wildcard is the dead woman’s orphaned son, Young Matt (John Wayne). For years, Mollie – who has taken on the matriarchal role – has been instructing him to one day kill his father, the man who upped and left and caused his mother’s demise, and sure enough he fixes on Howitt, who turns out to hold exactly the identity viewers will have guessed he holds. Wayne puts in a strong performance as Matt, holding the camera’s attention whenever he appears on screen. His breakout turn in Stagecoach had already turned him into a star, but he was still some years away from settling into the traditional ‘Wayne hero’ and there are dark intentions to Young Matt that wouldn’t resurface in his playing until The Searchers.

The name-dropping of two John Ford classics has some relevance in the sense this brought together the star from Ford’s early days and the one he would go on to produce some of his best work with. Carey, who commanded massive clout during the silent era, gives every impression of passing on the baton to Ford, never more so than in the film’s tender fishing scene, which has far greater resonance beyond the screen’s borders than the familial bonds it is intended to depict.

But the real pull of The Shepherd of the Hills is neither actor. Betty Field owns the floor as Sammy Lane, the young woman who befriends Howitt and obviously adores Young Matt. You get a real sense of the community by watching Sammy, who’s sufficiently cut off from the wider world to be ignorant of such everyday items as cheques, yet she’s part enough of her own environment to ‘get’ everyone who dwells within it. Added to the mix is an almost otherworldly beauty. Field is never less than gorgeously shot, like Hathaway knew just what a captivating screen presence he was filming and photographed her to perfection. Touching is her attachment to both men, to the rising tension between them, all blended with a lovely, naive attitude to Moaning Meadow, to which she won’t travel without speaking a blessing and covering her eyes.

The Shepherd of the Hills was shot in California’s Big Bear Valley rather than relocating to the Ozark Mountains, but this never becomes a problem. Every shot is ravishing, taking in the panoramic, natural splendour whilst suggesting how cut off and insular the community is. The dialogue, a rural dialect all of its own, similarly implies a separate body of people and exacerbates the ‘outsider’ in Howitt. Hathaway lamented in later years the ruthless editing of his picture. Despite positive test screenings, the scissors were applied again and again to his film, until so much was excised that extra scenes needed to be filmed. By now, the director was off the project and someone was drafted in to shoot some linking scenes in a studio, which included the economical happy ending. I’m left to wonder what a two-hour edition of the film – all Hathaway’s scenes included – would be like. In the meantime, we’re left with 98 minutes of drama that’s time well spent. It’s a marvellous film.

The Shepherd of the Hills: ****

North to Alaska (1960)

When it’s on: Thursday, 5 July (12.45 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

This week’s second Stewart Granger film finds our man playing George Pratt, a prospector at the turn of the twentieth century who’s struck lucky in Alaska. Along with his young brother Billy (Fabian) and business partner Sam McCord (John Wayne), George settles down to a life of gold mining and defending the vein against ‘claim jumpers.’ Sam is dispatched to Seattle in order to collect supplies and bring back George’s fiancé. She turns out to have given up on George and married another in the intervening years, so Sam does what any man would and visits a burlesque house to pick up a substitute for his friend. Enter Michelle (Capucine), an exotic French prostitute who, to no one’s real surprise, is quite happy to drop everything and follow Sam north. But here the complications arise. Michelle takes a quick shine to Sam. Once in Alaska, Billy falls for Michelle. Sam has underlying feelings for her too, but these are mixed in with loyalty to George, and it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll do about this turns of events…

None of these issues are quickly resolved in North to Alaska, a light-hearted adventure flick switching from farce to slapstick to romantic comedy with the kind of overlapping that suggests it wasn’t an easy film to make. A writers’ strike was underway, which left the project without a completed script and ended the association of Richard Fleischer, its original director. Fox instead turned to Henry Hathaway, who had to move things along on a day-by-day basis, sometimes working on bits of script for that day’s shooting before a camera rolled. It must have been a frustrating experience, and the seven screenwriting credits imply a chaotic process of turning John H Kafka’s idea into anything approaching a polished script. The film’s around half an hour too long, bloated to a running time of just over two hours – economy appears to have been a victim of the production difficulties.

Wayne needed a hit. His personal losses from investing heavily in The Alamo took their toll on his fortune and prompted him to take any project that offered an easy buck. By now a bona fide screen icon, Wayne was beginning to look like the pentagenarian that he was, but this didn’t stop him from accepting a role that had him playing the romantic lead with a French actress young enough to be his daughter, and the comic elements just about overcome any discomfort. Besides, Wayne developed on his skills of comedy timing, putting in a winning performance that subverted and parodied his usual screen persona. His easy chemistry with Granger, a similarly aged veteran, shone with the pair emerging on screen as natural pals, which just leaves teen idol Fabian as the odd one out. Movies of the time appeared to demand a young, proto-Elvis heartthrob to make a play for the teenage dollar, and Fabian is never bad, perfectly willing to make a tit of himself for Capucine and only really striking a bum note when he hopelessly serenades her.

The film is bookended with two fight scenes that take place in Nome, Alaska’s harbour town on the chilly Bering coast. These brawls are filmed as mass, slapstick affairs, and it’s no surprise to note that Richard Tamladge, whose career stretched back into the silent era, was involved in shooting them. A range of comedy sound effects used in these scenes are either irritating or add to the charm, depending on your tolerance. The studio backlot that doubles as Nome looks suitably muddy, the streets churned into medieval levels of sodden muck, but the gold mine appears to have come straight from a picture postcard. In reality filmed in California (naturally), the panoramic shots of Alaskan mountain ranges are quite lovely, particularly when an animated Aurora Borealis puts in an appearance.

Despite its length and the slowing of any progress in the mid-section, North to Alaska is entertaining enough, carrying just about enough charm to sustain it. Wayne at his most charismatic certainly helps, and I enjoyed him more here than in that other comedy Western, McLintock!, which seemed to me to really labour for its few laughs. Ernie Kovacs shows up in the film as a grifter and the tangled web of his history with Capucine’s character is only teased at, though guessing their past story isn’t difficult. Guess you must, as the focus here is on good clean fun, with even the cut-throat business of claim jumping playing second fiddle to the pratfalls and innocent romance.

North to Alaska: **

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

When it’s on: Friday, 8 June (1.05 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

According to his IMDb entry, Allan Dwan directed more than 400 pictures over the course of a career that spanned the silent era and lasted until 1961. Many of his entries were shorts, churned out during the production line of the 1910s. Whilst Dwan should be credited with some ground-breaking work alongside Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, he’s probably best remembered for Sands of Iwo Jima, his 1949 war film that became box office gold. More than that, the film’s lead role, taken by John Wayne, developed into the template for tough sergeants on the screen for years to come. Indeed, compare this with Heartbreak Ridge and it’s quite possible to see shades of John Stryker in Clint Eastwood’s character, Gunny Highway.

It seems completely impossible to talk about Sands of Iwo Jima without recording the fact that Wayne played no part in the actual fighting of World War Two. What that makes him as a man is entirely at the discretion of the reader, though his ability to act the part is never in doubt. Whether he puts in a superb performance or stands as an example of perfect casting, Marion owns every scene he’s in. Through a combination of personality, physical presence and natural charisma, he simply blows everyone else off the screen. The downside of this is that most of the men in his squad are reduced to one-dimensional characters, with the exception of John Agar’s Peter Conway. That’s inevitable in a 100 minute feature; Dwan didn’t have the space to explore the different people in any kind of detail. But it does force the emphasis to remain on Wayne, and he doesn’t disappoint. Hard on his men, never letting up in his discipline and rigorous training, we see another side to him when the squad get a rare night off and discover Stryker, blind drunk and helpless. The two sides to his character are explained at the end, by which stage the men respect and follow him because his leadership style has turned them into soldiers capable of surviving the Pacific theatre.

Unlike Heartbreak Ridge, the ‘training’ portion of the film isn’t overlong. The marines are soon off to whichever island the Americans are contesting with Japan. The invasion of Tarawa sees mistakes made, particularly by Private Thomas (Forrest Tucker) who stops for coffee when he should be taking ammunition to his comrades. They’re killed. Lesson learned. And then there’s Conway, the son of an officer Stryker once served under. It takes some time for the arrogant Private to find any liking for his Sergeant, even as the latter takes endless time and patience to pass on his advice and wisdom. These feelings are mixed in with a deep resentment at growing up the son of a decorated soldier and going to college instead of following in his footsteps.

The action eventually leads to Iwo Jima Island, with some excellent wedding of stock footage from the actual combat with shots of the actors. The impression of fierce fighting, the Japanese scrapping for every inch of land, is made with some force. Men fall dead in every frame, quite randomly, and whilst it’s the relatively bloodless standards of the time it remains a visceral and desperate sight. The point of the battle is undermined by one man’s description of the poor soil on Iwo Jima. Conway gets to save Stryker’s life, paying him back for the time in training when the sergeant knocked him away from the blast area of a live grenade.

Ironically, Wayne turned down the role when first offered it, feeling he was too old for it and besides, what use was another war film within a saturated market? It’s fortunate that he didn’t. John Stryker turned into one of his most iconic portrayals, regularly making the list of ‘Top Ten’ Wayne characters and cutting through the two blocs of Westerns made by John Ford and Howard Hawks. There’s still the nagging sense that he was essentially playing himself, the tough guy with the rock hard moral code, yet there are moments in Iwo Jima when this is contradicted. Settling into a drinking session in a Hawaii bar, Stryker picks up a girl and heads for her apartment. She nips out for whiskey, which he has to pay for, and then he hears noises from another room. It’s the girl’s baby; suddenly any amorous feelings he might have had are gone. Instead, realising the woman’s penniless he leaves some money for the kid and moves on. Any lingering doubts over the melancholia underpinning his character are dispelled, and the source is confirmed at the film’s close. It’s to Wayne’s credit that he puts this into his performance in a way that’s entirely credible. It led to an Academy Award nomination, not to mention the countless rip-offs of his character in subsequent films.

Sands of Iwo Jima: ***

El Dorado (1966)

When it’s on: Saturday, 2 June (6.30 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

No Bond today, ITV focusing instead on the French Open and and an England friendly match. With Euro 2012 starting on Friday, one wonders whether 007 will be kicked around the schedules for several weeks to come – heaven knows what Q Branch would make of that…

Still, there’s plenty within the schedule elsewhere to chew upon. 5USA – a channel that remains relatively virgin territory where this site is concerned – serves up El Dorado as its early evening offering. A film made in 1966 but held back for the best part of a year (unless you were lucky enough to live in Japan) to give Nevada Smith a clean tilt at the box office and again to accommodate The War Wagon, it now feels like something from the previous decade. By the time it was released to American audiences, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars had been unleashed onto the States after a successful European run and the clash of styles was a jarring of old and new perspectives. Leone approached Fistful with a mind to deliver something fresh, vital, visceral and separate from the oft-stagnant production line of American Westerns. El Dorado remained true to its classical roots. The latter, while no slouch in terms of ticket sales, couldn’t compete culturally and has become a footnote in the careers of its stars (John Wayne, Robert Mitchum) and famed director Howard Hawks. The unavoidable impression that it’s a retread of Hawks’s own Rio Bravo didn’t help its critical summation as personifying a genre that had run out of gas.

In 2012, El Dorado can be enjoyed thoroughly on its own merits, of course, without needing to place it within the context of its initial release. And it is, at heart, a perfectly watchable picture that plays right into the affections of Wayne fans. The Duke plays Cole Thornton, a gunslinger for hire who rejects a contract with rancher Bart Jason (Edward Asner) when he realises it would pitch him against an old friend and the Sheriff of El Dorado, JP Harrah (Mitchum). The months pass. Thornton has teamed up with a young greenhorn named Mississippi (James Caan) and via him learns that a slick gunfighter has taken up Jason’s offer of work. Figuring the danger this spells for Harrah, he returns to El Dorado with Mississippi, who’s freshly armed with a fearsome shotgun, only to find JP in his cups and utterly unable to help himself, let alone anyone else, as the villains close in.

From here, El Dorado effectively becomes Rio Bravo, the three unlikely buddies holed up in the sheriff’s building alongside Harrah’s wisecracking deputy, Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt), and facing huge odds. As in Hawks’s previous film, it celebrates the diverse ‘family’ that’s been pitched together, and whilst it’s an idealised version of the Western it’s an altogether winning one. Wayne plays Wayne, naturally, but Mitchum is a more effective soak than Dean Martin and Caan wipes all memories of Ricky Nelson off the screen. Fortunately, the latter quotes Poe’s poetry rather than sing and is on hand largely for his comic asides. Apart from one utterly awful and dated gag (providing 5USA doesn’t cut it – which would be understandable – you really can’t miss it), he’s very good in the part.

The downside of the film is that it’s little more than comfort viewing. It says nothing new about the genre, simply retreading old ground and filling in the gaps with comedy (a fight between Wayne and a pissed Mitchum is played entirely for pratfalls). Most of the hard edges from Harry Brown’s source novel were smoothed out by Hawks and Leigh Brackett, only an early tragedy retained to showcase Wayne’s nobility and to remind us the Old West was a tough place. Not that there’s anything so wrong with its attempt to show us more of the same. Its ideals and values – really those of Rio Bravo – have been copied many times, showing there’s always life in this old dog. Speaking of which, Pauline Kael might have criticised Wayne and Mitchum for their ‘exhausted’, middle-aged performances, and she might even have had a point, but they seem entirely relaxed in their roles, at ease with the world their characters live in, which only adds to the film’s overall charm. And I think it’s with affection for Hawks’s old world vision that El Dorado should be viewed.

El Dorado: ***

The Sea Chase (1955)

When it’s on: Monday, 23 April 2012 (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Those who watch The Sea Chase out of a sense of intrigue are likely to come away disappointed. Yes, John Wayne plays a World War II German, but it’s quickly established he’s no card carrying Nazi; he even orders his men to switch off a radio broadcast of one of Hitler’s speeches early in the film. The Duke is Karl Ehrlich, captain of a battered German freighter, the Ergenstrasse. As news of the war breaks, Ehrlich and his men are docked in Sydney. Here, the captain meets his old friend, Jack Napier (David Farrar), a British naval commander, who introduces him to his German fiancé, Elsa (Lana Turner). Napier passes on the warning that the Ergenstrasse’s crew may need to be interned, but worse follows with the revelation Elsa is a spy, her role to use her womanly wiles on high ranking British officials and pass on their secrets.

Soon enough, Ehrlich is sailing out of Sydney harbour under dead of night, with Elsa on board and Napier in hot pursuit. The British feel capturing the Ergenstrasse won’t be a problem. It’s a hulk, low on fuel and supplies and no match for Britain’s finest. But Napier knows different, dropping hints that Ehrlich is a far more cunning and able seaman than his current post suggests. The scene is therefore set for a cat and mouse chase across the South Pacific.

The Ergenstrasse’s first stop is Auckland Island, home of a remote supply base. Ehrlich sends his First Officer, Kirchner (Lyle Bettger) for the requisition, who subsequently comes across some marooned British sailors and kills them. Unlike his captain, Kirchner is a proper Nazi, which broadly translates into being a nasty piece of work. His slaying of unarmed man will have fateful consequences for the ship’s crew, and for its honourable captain…

The story was adapted from Andrew Clare Geer’s novel, which in turn was based on the real-life tale of the Erlangen, a German freighter that gave its pursuers the slip and eluded capture all the way to neutral Valparaíso, Chile. A yarn that has the potential for great suspense never quite exploits it in the film. The evil Nazi on board commits no further atrocities. A crew on the verge of mutiny as the ship’s slim resources tell on morale resolves its issues as Ehrlich’s noble spirit wins everyone over. The Ergenstrasse stops for some time on the uninhabited – and fictional – Pacific island of Pom Pom Galli in order to gather as much wood as possible for the voyage to Chile. Here it stays, unmolested as the British are forced to check every South Seas island for their prey, even though Napier knows where they are likely to have gone. This makes for a tension-free chunk of movie, scenes of sweaty crewmen chopping down trees barely plugging the gaps; neither does the lukewarm chemistry between Wayne and Turner.

The Sea Chase isn’t without some worth, however.  John Farrow’s leisurely direction explores every inch of the Ergenstrasse, minuting the life of its crew in fine detail. The response of the shipmates to the death of one of their own following a shark attack is moving. The slow turnaround of Ehrlich’s popularity with his men makes narrative sense. He cares for them, making it clear he wants to get them home safely. The relationship between Ehrlich and Napier is also satisfying. There’s a mutual bond of respect, and the pain of betrayal is clear on the British officer’s face as he learns of the Auckland murder (though not its real protagonist). Wayne convinces as Ehrlich, the captain rather than the lover, and how Turner escapes more than some lingering stares as she struts around the ship in figure hugging sweaters is entirely beyond this writer. A pity none of it is as exciting as the posters (‘He was a skipper sworn never to be taken! She was the fuse of his floating time-bomb!‘) and publicity suggested.

The Sea Chase: **