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: ****

A Man Alone (1955)

When it’s on: Sunday, 8 February (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Films about lawless men in the American west ‘new frontier’ are ten a penny, but things can get a lot more interesting when they focus on entire towns riddled with corruption. Enter Ray Milland, the star of his directorial debut, A Man Alone, as Wes Steele, the classic wanderer who has the misfortune of entering just such a community. We first meet Wes when he’s travelling alone through the desolate wilderness. Forced to shoot his lame horse, he takes the only possessions worth keeping – a gun and rather a lot of money – and heads for the nearest sign of civilisation. Before he can do so, he comes across a looted and abandoned stagecoach. All the people in it, including a little girl, have been gunned down in cold blood. Eventually, he hits a town and discovers, to his horror, that he’s the main suspect.

Wes has just enough time to learn that the real culprit is Stanley (Raymond Burr), one of the bankers, who along with his partners Luke Joiner (Grandon Rhodes) and hired gun Clanton (Lee Van Cleef) pulled off the robbery and murder for pure profit, sure they can pin the crime on someone else as they have effectively bought the town and keep what passes for its law on their side. Joiner is appalled by the killings and is himself shot dead, another murder pinned on the luckless Wes. Pursued through the dusty, windswept streets, he manages to find refuge in a cellar, which belongs to the house owned by Nadine Corrigan (Mary Murphy) and her father, Sheriff Gil (Ward Bond), the latter suffering from a bout of yellow fever.

Over time, Wes is able to convince Nadine of his innocence, though his reputation as a dangerous outlaw precedes him and he remains an easy target for the rest of the town, which slowly closes in on him. The only choice left to him is exposing Stanley as the real perpetrator, an almost impossible assignment given the banker has been the power for some years and has everyone, the Sheriff included, in his back pocket.

If A Man Alone has a natural ancestor within the genre, then it’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and whilst it isn’t as powerful as that earlier film, it has several elements going for it. The first is Milland’s direction. Whilst his work behind the camera ensures he isn’t the best thing on the screen, Milland keeps the action moving and excels in visual storytelling; preshadowing Sergio Leone, nobody speaks for the first ten minutes, and Wes is largely silent until almost a third of the film has taken place, meaning moments like him discovering the stagecoach massacre is purely what the camera shows and musical cues. Wes’s silence makes his character enigmatic. The sight of him covering up the corpses hints at his humanity, also when he feeds the kittens in Nadine’s cellar, but there’s an ambiguity about his past that gnaws at his reputation. Just what sort of man is he? Why he has so much money on his person remains a mystery, as are his skills with a pistol, and all this adds to the way people react to his name, like he’s every bit as dangerous as they’ve been led to believe.

Raymond Burr was always a reliable villain, the Perry Mason years just ahead of him, whilst gaunt Lee Van Cleef added a nice level of juxtaposition to the well fed banker as the pinched, almost feral henchman, doomed as always to go down at the film’s climax with a gun in his hand. Mary Murphy wasn’t a star for very long. When she made A Man Alone, she was at the height of her fame following The Wild One and made for a comely heroine with a fair degree of spark. It’s her character, suppressing her more feminine trappings by storing them in a trunk in the cellar, who does more than anyone to expose the corruption within her town. She supports Wes as she begins to love him, realising that he’s being set up for the stagecoach job and in turn questioning how her father has somehow gone from abject poverty to relative wealth.

The answer, naturally, is that he’s as much a part of the town’s sick underbelly as anybody, and it’s a casting coup to see Ward Bond, the fast living drinking buddy of John Ford playing the Sheriff. Bond, an ardent support of Hollywood blacklisting, supplies an uncomfortable undercurrent to this tale of bribery and moral depravity. As the endless wind whips drifts of sand through the community, it turns out that the physical desolation mirrors its very soul.

A Man Alone: ***

Drums along the Mohawk (1939)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 10 July (11.25 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

1939 really was the key year in John Ford’s development as a film maker. Turning to tales of American history for inspiration, he directed films covering late nineteenth century Western pioneers (Stagecoach), the events that helped build the character of one of the USA’s greatest presidents (Young Mr Lincoln), and Drums along the Mohawk, set in the Revolutionary era. Faced with the competition, and indeed that of Gone with the Wind, which dominated historical epics released that year, it’s tempting to see Mohawk as the lesser work, a footnote in Ford’s lengthy filmography.

Certainly, there’s little of the earnest melodrama present in Victor Fleming’s lengthy Oscar vacuum. Drums along the Mohawk is less than half the length of Gone with the Wind and presents its main characters essentially as stoical pioneers with a collective ‘make do and mend’ approach in the face of considerable perils. The impression should be obvious enough – the Mohawk Valley settlers represent the American spirit at its steadfast, dependable and redoubtable best. When any of the settlers’ homesteads is ransacked and razed by Indian raiding parties, they simply move on to the next free plot and start all over again. At the film’s close, Henry Fonda turns to Claudette Colbert and tells her they’d ‘better be getting back to work, there’ll be a heap to do from now on’, which comes after a stirring, flag-raising sequence and sums up the idealised American mentality at its finest, indeed Fonda and Colbert’s characters are really nothing less than Mr and Mrs USA. He’s reliable and firmly believes in doing the right thing. She shows a fierce determination to rough it in the cause of standing by her man.

That these sentiments don’t melt the film into hopeless sap is a mark of Ford’s greatness as a storyteller. There’s a considerable effort to show the progress of Fonda and Colbert’s newlywedded settlers as something that happens organically rather than according to narrative conventions. Especially touching is their arrival at the log cabin he’s built, the first time Colbert’s seen it. It’s pouring down and the humble little house looks a world away from the fine living she’s enjoyed in Albany to that point. The arrival of Christian Native American, Blue Back (Chief John Big Tree) to welcome them is the final straw. Colbert gets uncontrollably hysterical and Fonda has to slap her in order to shock her into calming down. Blue Back promptly returns with a switch so that Fonda can maintain household discipline, but it’s clear he’ll never need to use it. Their love is too strong. Her despair is fleeting. Despite its lowliness, the cabin becomes an earthly paradise for the young couple, who are soon seen happily farming and planning their future together.

The film never quite manages to convey the loneliness and sense of great distance that tortured real life settlers, instead portraying the loosely dotted community as happy and there for each other, gathering at the fort for square dances, assemblies of the local militia and forging friendships. Prominent amongst them are Ward Bond’s eternally cheerful Adam Hartman, and Edna May Oliver as widowed landowner, Mrs McKlennar, who lets the young couple move in with her and help out when their home is torched. Oliver’s salty attitude steals the show. When it’s her turn to suffer an Indian raid, she forces her invaders to help her move the bed out of the room they’ve recently put to the torch.

Given the political realities of 1939, Drums along the Mohawk is careful not to cite the British as outright villains, instead labelling the American Tories with the ‘bad guys’ motif. This has some basis in the actual history of the Mohawk Valley. It was invaded by Colonel St Leger as a diversion to the main attack on Albany, much of the fighting carried out by Indians in the pay of Tory, Guy Johnson. In the film, Johnson becomes Caldwell, an eyepatch-wearing wrong ‘un played by John Carradine, who co-ordinates the attack on the fort, which during the exciting climax is defended by the local militia.

This follows the militia’s mobilisation and departure to aid the Revolution’s war effort. Ford’s focus remains on the women, the agonies they experience in waiting for their men’s return and inability to get any news in advance. When they eventually make it back, ragged and riddled with injuries, the reunification of Colbert with Fonda is an incredibly touching moment, due in no small part to the care in which Ford has shown their growing love and the pair’s on-screen chemistry. Rather than lavish money on filming an actual battle, Ford has Fonda relate his personal experiences to Colbert, which he does in gory, minute detail. Famously, the scene was filmed by the director asking Fonda questions and getting him to improvise his answers while remaining in character.

Fonda also carries off one of the film’s most blazing scenes, when he leaves the besieged fort to seek reinforcements. Pursued on foot by Indians, the chase lasts an entire day, Ford getting in some brilliant shots of the runners silhouetted against vast, dramatic skies. This was the director’s first colour film, and he took advantage by creating a gorgeous palette, never better looking than in the lengthy chase.

Drums along the Mohawk is simply a wonderful slice of entertainment. Both the director and his main star did more celebrated work together and Gone with the Wind took the plaudits for historical drama shot in colour, but the effort here to create a seldom seen part of American history on screen is beautifully put together, rarely gets overwhelmed with mawkishness and gives its female characters something to do beyond waiting for rescue. Colbert’s character grows visibly; as the Indians invade the fort and break into the room where the women hide, she waits for them with a loaded musket. Her development from the spoiled girl who cries at the sight of a Native American could hardly be expressed more clearly.

Drums along the Mohawk: ****

Only the Valiant (1951)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 13 June (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

Today’s update should have focused on Bigger than Life; unfortunately the DVD dispatched by LoveFilm didn’t play (it looked as though someone clawed the disc) and there wasn’t time to get my back-up film shipped out (The House on 92nd Street). I could have ‘winged it’ in both instances, but it’s a while since I’ve seen either movie and I would have been unable to do any kind of justice to them. To be honest, I wasn’t in the mood for the back-up of the back-up, John Woo’s Face/Off, so into the public domain I went for Choice No. 4, Only the Valiant.

Expect much I did not. The two-star review in the Radio Times wasn’t promising, nor the fact Gregory Peck considered it to be his worst project. Besides, the plot – plucky army misfits defend a mountain pass from thousands of bloodthirsty Indians – sounded like something I’d seen a thousand times, indeed it’s the classic tale of prevailing against huge odds that’s been reproduced since the Battle of Thermopylae.

The first portion of the film doesn’t convince. Peck plays Richard Lance, a straight shooting cavalry officer who’s respected by the men, but unloved for doing everything by the book. This includes his treatment of Tucsos, the captured tribal leader. Clearly, Lance should leave ‘the book’ to one side and ensure Tucsos meets a sticky end; instead he’s going to send him behind the frontline to a US prison. The Captain prepares to do the task himself, but his Commanding Officer advises him he’s needed at his post, so he hands it over to his Lieutenant. It’s a bad move. Tucsos is rescued; the man Lance sent returns minus a scalp and the soldiers’ dislike turns to open hate. Worse still, Lance has earned the enmity of his sweetheart, Cathy Eversham (Babara Payton), who believes he let the Lieutenant die to get rid of a love rival.

At this point, Only the Valiant plays like it wants to be a John Ford cavalry epic, only it’s in the hands of Gordon Douglas’s lesser talent. The shots are selected efficiently rather than with any sense of imagination. Some of the editing is terrible, leaving actors looking at nothing long after the cut should have been made. Barbara Payton*, clearly cast as eye candy, puts in an awful, histrionic performance. The chemistry between her and Peck is practically non-existent, which is strange considering the pair enjoyed each other’s company much more away from the set.

It’s here that Lance volunteers to defend the unmanned fort behind the pass, holding off the inevitable Indian attack until reinforcements arrive. He’s allowed to select his men and chooses the most unlikely bunch imaginable. They’re the regiment’s cream of insubordinate and useless soldiers, including those who might kill him before firing a shot at a Native American. Sure enough, potential attempts on his life are made. The men can’t be bothered to properly carry out his orders. But then the first Indian foray comes; then another. Lance’s men steadily dwindle, yet they hold their own. Slowly, they start to believe in their Captain, his leadership and tactical acumen winning them over until they begin to band as a fighting force.

Once the soldiers enter the fort, the splendidly named Fort Invincible, Only the Valiant becomes a very entertaining piece of viewing. Everything about it, all those elements that counted against it in the opening acts, start to work. A relatively low budget production that was filmed in black and white, the picture’s monochrome look turns into a very good thing. Fort Invincible, a virtual ruin, takes on a real claustrophobic feel, shadows and jagged building frames closing in on the men. The pass, wreathed in increasing darkness with each successive attack, becomes filled with portentous danger. All Douglas need do is point the camera at it, for moments showing us nothing but the inky blackness, and suspense is guaranteed. There’s no doubt the pass is filled with angry warriors, armed to the teeth and ready to pour out at any second, yet Douglas lets the tension mount.

It’s been suggested that Peck disliked the film because he’s given such a one-dimensional character to play. Lance is a fairly bland hero, only really worth watching because of the star’s natural charisma. Perhaps his problem was having to work with reliable character actors who walk away with the picture. Your choices begin with Ward Bond, the supporting actor’s supporting actor, someone who shines as Corporal Gilchrist. A boozy Irishman with a clear love for life, Bond’s happy go lucky performance is a joy. But even better is Lon Chaney Jr, here playing Trooper Kebussyan of Middle Eastern descent, referred to by his fellows dubiously as ‘the A-rab’ and calling Lance ‘Effendi’ as his respect for the Captain develops. Chaney hams his part deliciously, putting in a bellicose turn as the man who seems most likely to kill Lance but instead growing in affinity.

Only the Valiant isn’t a great film. The Native Americans are little better than mindless savages, present to be gunned down by the defenders. The relief force, when it arrives, expounds the virtues of the Gatling Gun, a clumsy Cold War allegory for the USA’s upper hand in the technology race. But it is good fun, a perfectly diverting piece of entertainment that has more going for it than first appears.

Only the Valiant: ***

*In my reading about this film, I couldn’t help but come across the cautionary tale that was Barbara Payton’s short life. Only the Valiant was her seventh film appearance in a career that appeared to be steadily on the rise; in reality it was already beginning to slide. Her off-screen lifestyle, which took in a string of affairs, heavy drinking and scandal, quickly overtook anything she did before the camera. By the mid-fifties, her tilt at stardom was over. A further decade of self-abuse and rough living followed, before she died from heart and liver failure in 1967. More information here.