"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, December 18, 2017

Prairie Fever (RHI Entertainment, 2008)


Kevin is a homesman




 
 
One is tempted to be rather dismissive of Hallmark-style TV Western movies or low-budget straight-to-video oaters, and yes, they can be on the bland side and not terribly authentic. But to be fair, some are quite presentable and a few are even downright good. Certainly many are no worse than the old B-Westerns we used to see in movie theaters back in the day, and, just occasionally, one rises above the moderate standard.

Kevin Sorbo, Hercules no less, has only appeared in four Westerns (so far) but they haven’t been at all bad. He first starred in Avenging Angel in 2007 (not that hot), did Prairie Fever in ’08, was in Shadow on the Mesa in 2013 (quite good) and played a (rather unconvincing) 81-year-old Jesse James in Jesse James: Lawman in 2015. All of these are at least watchable. Mr. Sorbo has a quiet-but-tough mien which suits the Western.
 

Hercules goes West
 
In Prairie Fever he plays Preston Biggs, a washed-up lawman who has become a drunk after, oops, accidentally shooting his own wife in a bank hold-up in his town, Clearwater (a name beloved by Western writers). Now he just observes crime in the saloon, through a whiskey glass. Two thugs he had sent to the pen when he was sheriff come in looking for revenge now they are out, a fight ensues and Biggs beats them but lands up in jail, unable to pay any fine.

He is given an out, though. He agrees to take some mail-order brides who have “the prairie fever” by wagon to the take the train in Carson City (we know there’s a railroad there because Randolph Scott built it in 1952). "Prairie fever" is a euphemism for their having become mentally unbalanced because of the brutal lifestyle on the frontier. This notion of deranged women being taken ‘home’ – back East – was of course finely treated in Glendon Swarthout’s superb novel The Homesman in 1988, and a quality movie, also entitled The Homesman, was made of it with Tommy Lee Jones in 2014. I don’t know if the directors of Prairie Fever (Stephen Bridgewater and David S Cass Sr.) or the writer (Steven H Berman) had read this book, but there are certainly similarities.

Frontier life was undoubtedly extremely harsh for farming women in the late-nineteenth-century West and many cracked under the strain, physically or mentally. There were asylums, often in cities like St Louis, where those who had lost their minds were incarcerated. The whole notion of ‘mail-order brides’ seems obnoxious to us now but was common then. Men vastly outnumbered women as a proportion of the West’s population. The splendid film Westward the Women treated that theme with compassion and sensitivity. So many of the wives had no idea at all of what was in store for them out West and when they got there, many were treated practically as unpaid servants and worked beyond their capabilities. It is an unlovely story.

Various threats are added to the mix in Prairie Fever to make the trek more dangerous. Those two thugs turn up again, the ones that Biggs had bested in the saloon, and then there is the deadly gambler Monte James, whom card-sharping partner Olivia, abused by him (it’s a sort of Doc Holliday/Big-Nose Kate relationship) has trussed up before skedaddling, taking her share of their ill-gotten gains. He follows, bent on vengeance, and when Olivia joins Biggs’s party (luckily she has a soothing effect on the mad women) Monte becomes a real danger.
 
Lance in his best role

Now he puts Kevin in the same situation as before: will the hero react the same way?
 
Gambler Monte is played by the excellent Lance Henriksen, unforgettable as the cannibal gunman in Dead Man, who also appears (less memorably though) in The Quick and the Dead and Appaloosa (he is Ring Shelton in the latter). Sadly, however, he is written out for all the middle part of the movie, only re-appearing once they get to Carson, and even then kind of fading away before any proper showdown. Olivia is played by Jamie Anne Allman, more recently of The Killing, and she wears a man’s suit (stolen from Monte, I think) and is generally dominant and feisty in a 21st century way. Her skills with a rifle come in handy and she bosses Kevin about until finally it's lerve.
 
It's lerve
 
There are also two brothers, one of whom, Frank (Silas Weir Mitchell) has given over his crazed spouse to homesman Biggs. She has become a religious maniac, spouting endless scripture, enough to drive even the sane members of the party to the brink. Frank’s brother Charlie (Blake Gibbons) wants back the money that Frank had given Biggs for the transaction. It turns out that Charlie had forced himself on her; that was what drove her mad, and Leviticus 20:21 is her favorite text. This part is all a bit on the improbable side, it must be said - I mean the brothers pursuing, not the thou shalt not/brother's wife bit. But anyway there are quite a few menaces to the party of women + Biggs to be dealt with, one way and another.

The mad women are played by Felicia Day as the bible-quoting gabbler, Dominique Swain as the artistic Abigail and Jillian Armenante as the musical Lettie. All are gradually calmed by the kindness and care of Olivia and Biggs. Ms. Day is very beautiful; I’ve seen her before somewhere but can’t think where. I don’t know Ms. Swain, who has rather modern Californian diction. Ms. Armenante bears a remarkable resemblance to William Bendix, which is nice.

One fault the movie has, in common with all these recent TV ones, is that all the actors are clearly wearing costumes. This is one noticeable difference with Westerns of the twentieth century. The characters can’t carry off their Western garb; they just don’t look natural in it at all.

It all ends rather too neatly as the women regain their sanity, Biggs stops drinking, the badmen are killed (except Monte James who drives off for Kansas City leaving Olivia in the arms of the now sober Biggs with her share of the money) and they all lived happily ever after. Spoiler alert, oops, too late.

You could watch it.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

THE ACTORS


They rode the celluloid West



On Jeff Arnold’s West we have looked at the Westerns of quite a few actors, both leads and character actors. Others will follow. I thought it might be helpful for readers to have easy access to the career retrospectives, so they are listed below with links and you can always find the list, which I will update as new essays are posted, at the top of the sidebar on the right under aab WESTERN ACTORS.

 
 
 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

King of Texas (TNT, 2002)


Villains by necessity




 
 
You wouldn’t necessarily expect Hallmark and TNT to produce King Lear for TV. But in 2002 they did just that, setting the tale in post-Alamo/San Jacinto Texas and casting Patrick Stewart as ranch patriarch John Lear. Sir Patrick, when not commanding the Enterprise or managing the X-Men, has of course distinguished himself on the Shakespearean stage, though I am not sure he has ever been Lear in Stratford or London. He goes the whole hog in this movie, though, with a very un-Picardian white mane and other Old-Testament-prophet attributes too.
 
Stewart's Lear goes for a Willie Nelson/OT prophet look
 
Stewart’s Lear, however, rather pathetically feels victimized and he is pretty vigorous rather than the senile and doddery figure we are used to. He’s a Texas rancher who has built an empire, a figure we are well used to in Westerns. In oaters such men usually have weak and immoral sons, of course, and sometimes a decent, strong son-like figure who really ought to inherit – and sometimes does. Lear has not had the foresight to produce a son who survives so is saddled with his ghastly daughters.
 
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is To have a thankless child
 
The director, Uli Edel, known for TV movies such as Tyson and Rasputin, and his writer, Texas historian Stephen Harrigan (Murder on the Orient Express, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story, etc.) took considerable liberties with the Bard’s play but that’s OK. Actually, both had some track record in the Western arena, Mr. Edel having directed Purgatory and Mr. Harrigan having written The Colt, both of which have considerable merit.

Foolish, petulant and egocentric though Lear is, we can’t help feeling he didn’t deserve his appalling daughters, and Marcia Gay Harden, especially, and Lauren Holly give us really foul women with great skill, I thought, as Susannah (Goneril) and Rebecca (Regan). The Cordelia figure, Claudia Lear, played by Julie Cox, has a lower profile and comes across as a straight goody. In the end she is not hanged but falls victim in the battle to her father’s stupidity and disobedience.
 
Scheider excellent
 
The Gloucester figure is neighboring rancher Westover, played by the admirable Roy Scheider (what a pity he didn’t do Westerns) and it is Susannah who blinds him. There’s no king of France, of course, but instead there is Mexican landowner Menchaca (Steven Bauer). Lear has promised his friend Sam Houston that he will not attack Menchaca’s enclave but his ne’er-do-well family have other ideas, prompting invasion and the climactic battle in which Claudia is shot and Lear dies, finally, of grief, we are to suppose.

The king’s fool is rather good; he is the slave Rip (David Alan Grier) who, like all good fools, speaks wisdom, and truth unto power. Grier is known as a comic actor but there’s nothing comic about this fool.
 
Grier is the Fool
 
Visually, the movie is fine with Durango locations standing in for Texas photographed by Paul Elliott and Guillermo Rosas. It’s a good widescreen DVD with high quality picture.

Not the first adaptation or re-setting of Lear for the screen (one thinks of Kurosawa’s 1985 Ran and the 1997 A Thousand Acres), this one is certainly worth a look. Whether it is a Western is open to debate.

 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

WESTERN FILM DIRECTORS


In the chair


Jeff Arnold’s West has so far posted the following essays on the Westerns of some great directors. You can click on the links below to read them. As I write about others in the future I will update this list, which you will find at the top of the sidebar on the right under aac WESTERN DIRECTORS.

Not that I am one of those auteuristes who believes that a movie is the sole work of a man with a megaphone. I rarely refer to a Western as "Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur" or "Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow". Still, movie directors are obviously key people in the production of a Western and usually have a huge creative input, especially if they exercise control over the cinematography, screenplay and casting.



Can you match the pictures to the names?

 
 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

PIONEERS, LAWMEN AND OUTLAWS


PIONEERS, LAWMEN AND OUTLAWS –
 

Great Western characters in fact and fiction
 
 


So far Jeff Arnold’s West has posted essays on the following real characters of the old West, comparing their true lives to how they have been represented in Western movies.


There are thirty-odd. I will update the list, which you will find at the top of the sidebar on the right, under aad PIONEERS LAWMEN AND OULAWS, as and when I write new ones.

Click the links to read!
 

(You can also have fun matching the pictures to the names...)
 






Thursday, December 7, 2017

Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (Warner Bros, 1957)


Not Randy's finest hour




 
 
We’re getting mighty close to the end of that long trail which we have been following since May 2010, whose destination is the nirvana of having seen and reviewed all Randolph Scott’s Westerns. Only half a dozen of the sixty-odd remain, and one of those is about to be dealt with. The others, a few of Paramount’s Zane Grey second-features of the early 1930s and Warners’ Sugarfoot (1951) are not currently available either on DVD or YouTube, so they’ll have to wait.
 
Director Richard Bare, on set with one of his stars
 
Yes, Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend was a 1957 Randolph Scott Western. But the first thing to put out of your mind is any idea that this one was on a par with that year’s Decision at Sundown or The Tall T, for Columbia. We are not talking color, for one thing: this was a black & white B-Western released under Warners’ First National brand. And forget Budd Boetticher, too: Medicine Bend was directed, clumsily, by Richard L Bare, who did mostly TV, working on a number of different small-screen Western shows, but whose last big-screen Western this was of only a handful he did, all weak.
 
Actually, the poster is wrong: he doesn't call himself a preacher at all
 
So don’t expect too much. Furthermore, the writing was clunky, despite the contributions to the screenplay of DD Beauchamp the Great. The plot is implausible, verging on the silly. Some of the dialogue is leaden. Quakers feature strongly – they are called Brethren – and so there is much theeing and thouing, but Beauchamp and his co-writer John Tuttle Battle have no idea at all of the difference between the pronouns, so the characters get it all wrong. This was a common fault with thee-and-thou Westerns. One thinks of Proud Rebel, Angel and the Badman, Friendly Persuasion, and others.

But the movie does have interest. For one thing, it was an early Western of both James Garner and Angie Dickinson. It was in fact Garner’s feature Western debut. He plays an Army sergeant recently mustered out along with his pals, while Angie is a prim and prudish storekeeper’s daughter, who prefers to refer to sour-belly pork as sourbosom because it is more genteel. Such idiocies were of course common among women in the nineteenth century but they didn’t have to include them in the dialogue; it does Angie’s character no favors at all.
 
Sourbosom
 
It opens with the three recently ex-military amigos, Randolph Scott, Jim Garner and Gordon Jones, turning up at Randy’s brother’s farm and driving off Indians who are attacking it. Unfortunately, though, the brother is killed because he has bought faulty ammunition, which won’t fire at the vital moment. So Randy vows to go to Medicine Bend, where the farmer bought it, and get his own back on the crooked merchant who sold it. On the way, the three bathe in a pool and some Medicine Bend thieves steal their clothes and horses, so we have the memorable scene of Scott, Garner and Jones walking up to the camp of some religious brethren in grass skirts. The brethren kindly give them some clothes and they decide to keep wearing them once in town, disguising themselves as brethren.
 
He restrains Garner from enjoying himself too much in the saloon
 
See what I mean by a bit silly?

There are some enjoyable character actors in town. Trevor Bardette is the corrupt and lazy sheriff, Myron Healey is a henchman and good old Harry Harvey is Angie’s dad, the honest storekeeper. You might spot Jack Perrin as a customer in the saloon.

The chief villain, who owns the rival store and who sold the dud ammo to Randy’s bro, is second-billed James Craig (left), suitably attired in frock coat and silk vest and sporting a caddish mustache and oiled hair, but missing, sadly, a derringer, which would have completed the ensemble to a T. Craig was a poor man’s Clark Gable at MGM in the 40s but descended into B-Westerns before calling it a day and going into real estate. Fort Vengeance in 1953 was about his best big-screen oater but it was only relative. He is satisfactory as the crook who owns most of the town and wants the rest. Naturally he will get his come-uppance, along with his henchpersons, once Randy and his pards get going. Randy cheats rather, by exchanging his Quaker garments for some black duds stolen from the villain’s store and appearing masked in town from time to time exactly like the Durango Kid.

There’s another lady, a saloon gal with the required heart of gold, Nell (Dani Crayne) and she gets a song, Kiss Me Quick, and later helps out the hero, finding her employer (Craig) too skullduggerous for her liking. You see, it’s all pretty formulaic and by-the-Western-book. Actually, I think Ms. Crayne did a better job than Angie in this one, but then Angie’s part was saccharine to a degree.
 
Brother with a gun
 
Randy seems to have forgotten that he had been marshal of Medicine Bend only two years before, in A Lawless Street. Perhaps it was amnesia.

The basic idea seems to be that the best way to deal with thieves is to steal from them. That may be right, though I’m not sure the great philosophers (or indeed the Brethren elders) would quite agree with its moral foundation.
 
Awkward moment for Jim
 
Of course poetic justice prevails when at the showdown villain Craig loads his rifle with his own ammo and guess what, it won’t fire. I said he should have had a derringer.

I fear that Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend is far from Randy’s best oater. Of course it’s watchable; any Randolph Scott Western is (well, except Belle of the Yukon, maybe). But with the best will in the world (and anyone will tell you I have that, hem hem) I couldn’t give it more than two revolvers, even with Randy in it.

Thee has been warned.

These studio publicity stills...


 

 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Wild Wild West (Warner Bros, 1999)


Vorsprung durch Technik




 
 
Many readers will remember the late-1960s TV show The Wild Wild West (which I always felt needed a comma after the first wild), which ran for four seasons and a total of 104 episodes. It wasn’t my favorite, combining, as it did, an I Spy vibe with elements of The Man from Uncle and Jules Verney Victorian gadgets. But it was certainly popular.
 
The orginals
 
There were two TV movies spun off from it, in 1979 and 1980, with the stars of the TV show, Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, returning as James West and Artemus Gordon, secret agents extraordinaires to President Grant. The movies were slightly camper, though Conrad and Martin played them straight as ever.

Surprisingly, in a way, Warner Brothers thought in 1999 that the time was ripe for a new blockbuster movie. And although Mel Gibson was first announced to star, they finally got Will Smith to be Jim West, while Kevin Kline took the part of Artemus Gordon. If you are a Will Smith fan you will probably enjoy the movie greatly. Personally, I think it didn’t quite come off. Actually, nor did Will Smith; he kind of apologized for it later.
 
Where there's a Will there's a way
 
It was certainly big-budget. They had the famous train – a sure sign of $$$ these days – and of course late-90s special effects came into their own. The most famous arch-villain of the TV show had been Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless, played by Michael Dunn, a dwarf. This time they got Kenneth Branagh to be Loveless and the technicians cleverly cut him in half. This gives rise to a great many rather weak puns as Smith’s Jim West continually refers to his cut-down status. I must say, Branagh was highly amusing as a kind of camp Bond villain, an evil megalomaniac Confederate with Napoleonic ambitions who believes in a Western version of Vorsprung durch Technik.
 
Rather different from Hamlet
 
Kline’s Gordon goes in, as the original had, for a series of disguises, and of course comes up with endless scientific inventions with which to thwart the bad guys, including a flying machine built from Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. Star of the show is an 80-foot high steam driven mechanical tarantula. Kline and Smith, though, do not hold back, nor do they play it as straight as the originals did. Some of the humor is, um, broad.
 
There wasn't much chemistry
 
Derringers featured large in the TV show and I was very pleased to see Gordon’s belt buckle. He saves the day with what Loveless calls a “pea-shooter” but which achieves a fatal accuracy.
 
Excellent
 
The movie opens with the split-screen titles, paying homage to the famous 60s originals. There are other nods to the series.

Wikipedia tells us that

Robert Conrad reportedly was offered the role of President Grant, but turned it down. He was outspoken in his criticism of the new film, now little more than a comedic Will Smith showcase with virtually no relationship to the action-adventure series. In a New York Post interview (July 3, 1999), Conrad stated that he disliked the movie and that contractually he was owed a share of money on merchandising that he was not paid. He had a long-standing feud with producer Jon Peters, which may have colored his opinion. He was offended at the racial aspects of the film, as well as the casting of Branagh as a double amputee, rather than a little-person actor, in the role of Loveless.

The entry adds that

Conrad took special delight in accepting the Razzie Awards for the motion picture in 1999. It was awarded Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Original Song.

The movie was produced and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who started as cinematographer with the Coen brothers and went on to direct the acerbic comedy The Addams Family. I must say that later efforts like Get Shorty and Men in Black were pretty good. There is something slightly Men in Blackish about Wild Wild West.
 
That's no way to treat the President. But the deus ex machina approaches.
 
Some of the critics didn’t like it. Roger Ebert called it “a comedy dead zone. You stare in disbelief as scenes flop and die. The movie is all concept and no content.” Myself, I didn’t think it was that bad.

You could probably watch Wild Wild West. Once. Salma Hayek is pretty sensational.
 
Monstrous