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Posts Tagged ‘Westerns’

Lewis D. Collins’ Wild Stallion (1952)

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

Click here, or on the image above, for scenes from Lewis D. Collins’ White Stallion (1952).

As Frank Miller writes of this exceptionally odd film on the TCM Website, “many movies have been built around the pursuit of a childhood love. Heathcliff pursued his [lifelong love] Cathy in nine film and 13 television versions of Wuthering Heights, and Charles Foster Kane built a business empire while dreaming of his [childhood sled] Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941). In the 1952 Western Wild Stallion, Dan Light (Ben Johnson) searches the Black Hills for Top Kick, the horse he lost the same day an Indian raid killed his parents.

Wild Stallion was an early production from Walter Mirisch, who started his career at Monogram Pictures making low-budget Westerns and action films, most notably the Bomba series that Johnny Sheffield moved into after he ended his run as Boy in the Tarzan films. Mirisch shot the film quickly, during the month of December 1951, with the land around the Corrigan and Iverson Ranches in California standing in for the Black Hills of Wyoming. Even a windstorm that destroyed some of the sets didn’t keep him from getting the film into theatres by April 1952.

Like many films from Poverty Row studios like Monogram, Wild Stallion provided a showcase for young actors on the way up though leading man fame may have seemed far away for Ben Johnson at the time he starred in the film. A former cowboy and rodeo champion, he had come to Hollywood as a wrangler when Howard Hughes hired him to transport horses to the locations for The Outlaw (1943).

After years of stunt riding for stars like John Wayne and Randolph Scott, he was spotted by John Ford, who promoted him to ever bigger roles in his Cavalry Trilogy and the title role in Wagon Master (1950). Then the two quarreled while making the third Cavalry film, Rio Grande (1950), after Johnson’s agent tried to squeeze Ford for more money on an upcoming film. As a result, the director simply stopped working with him, and Johnson’s career stalled. He even left Hollywood for a year to work the rodeo circuit. He wouldn’t get his career back on track until Ford convinced him to accept the role of Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (1971), which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Leading lady Martha Hyer went to school with Charlton Heston, Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman, and, like them, went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. After being spotted at the Pasadena Playhouse, she started landing film roles, earning her first billing as Tim Holt’s leading lady in Thunder Mountain (1947). It wasn’t until she signed with Universal, where she was promoted as their answer to Grace Kelly, that the icy blonde started moving up the career ladder.

Her biggest success came with a loan to MGM in 1958 to co-star as the frigid English professor thawed by Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running. The role won her an Oscar nomination, but she had a hard time finding a suitable follow-up in a Hollywood changing rapidly with the decline of the studio system. Instead she found a more satisfying role off-screen as the wife of independent producer Hal Wallis.

Rounding out the cast of Wild Stallion [are several] reliable character actors caught between the decline of the studio contract system and the rise of television. Edgar Buchanan, co-starring as the horse tracker who trains Johnson, had been a staple of Columbia releases in the ’40s, most notably as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s closest friend in Penny Serenade (1941). He did well as a free-lancer in the ’50s, but is best remembered as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction.

Second-generation actor Hayden Rorke came to Hollywood after years on the stage and was a familiar face on movie screens in the ’50s, with small roles in everything from An American in Paris (1951) to Pillow Talk (1959). He entered television history as Captain Bellows, the suspicious commanding officer on I Dream of Jeannie.

In 1952, the cast of Wild Stallion was still far from the fame they would achieve in later years. As a result, ads for the film sold not the human characters, but rather the horse. Top Kick was billed as the ‘Untamed King of the Wild Outlaw Herds!’ and ‘Outlaw stallion defying man’s ruthless guns…battling snarling killer wolves!’ Hype aside, however, the taglines capture one of the film’s evergreen selling points, its focus on one of the animals that helped win the West. In most low-budget Westerns, the love story is of relatively minor importance. In Wild Stallion, it takes center stage, even if it represents a departure from the boy meets girl formula to create a boy meets horse epic.”

Indeed, this is what’s oddest about the film; Ben Johnson’s character seems utterly uninterested in anything except his beloved white stallion, to the point that any romantic interest between Johnson and Martha Hyer is reduced to the absolute margins of the film. The other thing, of course, is that when watching Wild Stallion, the viewer is conscious of the fact that these are real cowboys in the film, doing most of their own stunts; it’s as if Hollywood in the 1950s was desperately recreating the American saga of  ”manifest destiny,” using ranch hands as out of date in their time as the cowboy drifters in John Huston’s The Misfits a decade later, in an attempt to hold on to the past.

A really bizarre little film, more “boy meets horse” than “boy meets girl”; worth seeing.

No Name on The Bullet

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

Here’s to director Jack Arnold, who deserves a second look.

I was watching Jack Arnold’s Tarantula last night on TCM, and was struck once again by Arnold’s economy in his shot structure, the simplicity and style with which he sets up his shots, the smooth and precise editing patterns, and the way in which he takes his material seriously, no matter how outlandish the basic premise. With such films as The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Space Children, and Creature From The Black Lagoon to his credit, it’s easy to forget that Arnold also directed one of the most interesting Westerns of the 1950s, No Name on the Bullet, starring World War II veteran Audie Murphy as hired killer John Gant who arrives in a small town, intent on killing someone for pay — but whom? Everyone in the town seems to have some secret in their past, some enemy who wants them out of the way, but Gant refuses to tip his hand, resulting in a complete meltdown of the fabric as the community, since everyone thinks Gant is after them alone. Arnold is a really underrated American director, and his work deserves a great deal more scrutiny; here, then, is just a tip of the hat to the man who defined 1950s science fiction, but was also capable of a great deal more, if only he hadn’t become so identified with one genre alone.

Jack Arnold, an American original.

The Reward (1965)

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Emilio Fernández (kneeling), Gilbert Roland (with gun), Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (lying on the ground), and Henry Silva (back to camera) in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward (1965).

Here’s my essay on the remarkable and deeply eccentric film The Reward in the Noir of the Week website; this is the beginning of the text, and you can read the rest by clicking here, or on the image above.

“If you are looking for the latest news, Señor, you’re out of luck. News reaches us like light from the stars – it takes a long time.” — Gilbert Roland as Captain Carbajal in Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward.

“I’m not going to deny that Serge Bourguignon’s The Reward is an odd film in many respects; it’s often classified as a Western, which it isn’t, despite the fact that most of the film was shot in Death Valley, and the film has a definite Western edge to it, with much of the dialogue spoken in Spanish with no translation. Produced as a West German/French/English co-production, the film seems to exist in no man’s land, a zone in which no nationality is dominant. Indeed, English is very much a second language here, and the equally eccentric casting of the film drives this home even further.

Top lining the film is Max Von Sydow as Scott Swenson, a down-on-his-luck crop duster whose plane isn’t even his own; as the film opens, Swenson is making one last flight for some much needed cash, but his plane crash lands after hitting an exposed pipeline, taking out a water tower and utterly destroying the aircraft. Crawling from the wreckage as the plane explodes behind him, Swenson coolly surveys the damage, and then walks to a local cantina, where he uses his last few dollars to buy some drinks. All of this is shown with almost no dialogue, and Bourguignon’s smooth CinemaScope framing makes the desert seem arid, endless, and infernal, a living Hell for all who inhabit it.”

It’s only a shame, as I note in my essay, that this isn’t on DVD; it runs occasionally on the Fox Movie Network in a “pan and scan” version that destroys the visuals in the film, but the real film is lost in the vaults, and will probably never get the restoration it so richly deserves.

Read the complete essay here.

Andrew V. McLaglen

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Andrew V. McLaglen and Yvette Mimieux on the set of Monkeys, Go Home! (1967), which McLaglen directed solely to work with Maurice Chevalier, in one of his last films.

As I wrote in Senses of Cinema 50, Andrew V. McLaglen is one of the last of the Hollywood professions, and as this interview makes clear, despite his long association with the Western, he has no particular affection for the genre, which is surprising, given that the bulk of his work falls into this category.

As I noted in my introduction to the interview, “Andrew V. McLaglen (he is quite insistent on retaining the “V” in his name, as part of his authorial signature) is without a doubt one of the last of the classical Hollywood filmmakers who worked during the Golden Age of the studio system. Coming of age when his father, the gifted actor Victor McLaglen, won an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in John Ford’s The Informer (1935; Ford himself also won as Best Director that year, as did Max Steiner for his music score, and Dudley Nichols for the screenplay), young Andrew worked and lived with the cream of Hollywood’s most original and idiosyncratic artists.

In addition to John Ford, he knew and/or worked with John “Duke” Wayne, William Wellman, Budd Boetticher and Cary Grant, and later carved out a career for himself as a director in the Western genre that few can equal. Even now, he is still going strong, directing stage productions of such classics as Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, and keeps an interested eye on the business.”

You can read the entire interview here.

Mann of the West

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Above: Julie London and Gary Cooper in Man of the West; Anthony Mann, center, leans against the camera.

“Don’t you talk anymore, Claude? We used to talk, you and me, when we were kids. What happened? Things have kind of gone to hell haven’t they? And you’re still at it – stealing and killing and running.” – Gary Cooper as Link Jones in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958)

Man of the West gives one the impression that Anthony Mann is redefining the Western. It is, moreover, more than an impression. He does re-invent.” – Jean-Luc Godard writing on Man of the West after naming it one of the Ten Best Films of 1958.

Anthony Mann, whose violent, brutal westerns redefined the genre in the early 1950s, is long overdue for a retrospective, although he’s had many over the years. Mann, born Emil Anton Bundsmann is San Diego, CA on June 30th 1906, started out as an actor on Broadway, and eventually made the move to Hollywood, were he directed such standout noirs as Strange Impersonation (1946), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949), Side Street (1950), starting at the minor studios Republic and Eagle Lion. By 1950, however, he teamed with James Stewart for a series of violent, revisionist westerns; Winchester ‘73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country and The Man from Laramie (both 1955).

What sets these films apart from other westerns of the era is their extreme violence, pessimism, and fatalistic view of life; in Mann’s west, it’s not only kill or be killed, it’s also a world where no one can trust anyone else. James Stewart, back from World War II and his heroic service in the Air Force, was eager to re-invent himself, and get rid of the “aw shucks” persona which had served him so well in the past, and Mann was the person for the job. But eventually, Stewart found Mann’s films too violent, and backed off, leading to a falling out between director and star.

Thus, when it came time to shoot Man of the West, Stewart wanted the role of Link Jones, but he didn’t get it. Instead, Mann cast Gary Cooper, the symbol of integrity from Fred Zinnemann’s classic High Noon (1952), as Link Jones, a man with a past who’s trying to run away from his spectacularly dysfunctional family.

But with a surrogate father like the monstrous Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb, in a stunning performance), and Dock’s sidekicks Coaley (Jack Lord, later of television’s Hawaii 5-O, here, a truly villainous psychopath), Claude (John Dehner, as a ruthless gun for hire) and Trout (Royal Dano), cutting family ties isn’t going to be so easy.

This is one of Mann’s most brutal, uncompromising films, and he gets superb performances from the entire cast, including Julie London as Billie Ellis, a saloon singer who is swept up in the path of Dock and his clan. Even today, the sheer brutality of the film is still stunning, anchored by Cooper’s solid performance as the world weary outlaw (Cooper died in 1961).

Mann went on to direct more westerns, and then re-invented himself again with the huge spectacles El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), shot for maverick producer Samuel Bronston, after Kirk Douglas saw to it that he was fired from Spartacus (1960) and replaced by a young Stanley Kubrick.

Then it was on to the World War II action film The Heroes of Telemark (1965), before starting the spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic on location in Berlin. Sadly, Mann died from a heart attack during production, and the film was completed by its star, Laurence Harvey.

This is another must-see film, truly; Mann’s vision of the west is very different from that of John Ford or Howard Hawks, two of the genre’s most prolific practitioners in the classical age of Hollywood. Mann instead gestures forward, to the ultraviolent westerns of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone.

My sincere thanks to colleagues Christopher Sharrett and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for bringing this superb film to my attention.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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