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

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Legend of Hell’s Gate: An American Conspiracy (Lionsgate, 2012)

Difficult to follow

You might expect a movie entitled The Legend of Hell’s Gate to tell the story of the legend of Hell’s Gate, but if you do expect that, you will be disappointed. Indeed, if you are like me you will struggle to understand what is happening at all. At the start it consists of a series of apparently unrelated episodes: some thieves on foot escape from mounted followers, Mr. Ellsworth from Deadwood shoots a white buffalo, a church on the Chisholm Trail is burned down and a clergyman throws his collar down, and an Irish youth in a Dallas saloon has toothache. We later return to the fleeing thieves (indeed we are treated to a repeat) but Mr. Ellsworth and the self-unfrocked clergyman are never see again. It’s all very odd.
Jim Beaver shoots a buffalo

Perhaps this disjointed narrative is supposed to be all post-modern or something, I wouldn’t know. It was written and directed by one Tanner Beard, born in 1984. I don’t mind it when I hear that so-and-so is 34 years old, but mentioning a birth year makes me suddenly feel terribly old. 1984! That was just yesterday. Oh well.


I’m probably sounding like some old fogey here but there we are. Various famous figures of nineteenth century American history appear, in the credits at least. One is John Wilkes Booth (Henry Thomas), and his pistol, the one that killed Abe, plays a key part in the story. Another is a sick-looking Doc Holliday (Jamie Thomas King), practicing dentistry in Dallas and getting into drunken shooting matches with bar owner Champagne Charlie (Drew Waters). Holliday introduces himself and has a shingle to prove it. But Jesse James (Lukas Behnken) and Qanah Parker (Zahn McLarnon) also appear in the cast list. I suppose Parker is one of the Indians the thieves come across, but I don’t know. And I missed Jesse James completely. Did he appear at all?

I suppose one of these is Qanah Parker

One thing I will say, the Western looks good. So often in these recent pictures the characters all have gleaming teeth and clean hair and are very obviously wearing costumes. In this one, there is an authentic look to the characters, and the sets are gloomy sepia interiors that remind you of Henry Bumstead’s work for Clint Eastwood. Furthermore, the gunfights are well staged, chaotic and with most shots missing by miles.

Mr. Beard

Most of the movie concentrates on the three thieves, played by Eric Balfour (two episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman to his credit), director Beard and Lou Taylor Pucci (his only Western to that date). And they are pursued by a silent but implacable mountain man (I don’t know who the actor was and can’t work it out from the cast list), who wishes to recover his stolen whiskey. One of these characters appears to survive and enter the rocky Hell’s Gate, now a lake, we are told.

The three thieves
As I said, all very odd.



Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Tribute to a Bad Man (MGM, 1956)

Cagney's last ride

In 1956, the year after Bad Day at Black Rock, MGM wanted to put its big star Spencer Tracy in an A-Western – a proper one, not a contemporary story like Black Rock. He would be a big ruthless rancher, obviously, Sea of Grass/Broken Lance-style. Tracy actually did four days of filming. But he whined so much about the location shooting (set in Wyoming, the picture was shot in Colorado; Tracy complained about the altitude, the heat and the script) that the studio dumped him and, Clark Gable turning it down, cast James Cagney instead.

Cagney was far from a Western specialist, and indeed wasn’t very good in them. He had only done two, the pretty ropey The Oklahoma Kid back in 1939 (when, at 40 he was already a bit anno domini for Kid parts) and, the year before Tribute, Paramount's Run for Cover, which was uninspired at best despite direction by Nicholas Ray. In Tribute Cagney did his best to be Tracy, all domineering and all, but his diminutive stature and machine-gun Eastern diction didn’t help. Still, it was the best Western Cagney did. And he was good when beating up Stephen McNally. “I fight dirty,” he says, and he proceeds to use mostly his elbows, to great effect.

Cagney does his tough rancher act

There were other casting changes. Irene Papas, in her Hollywood debut, replaced Grace Kelly – which was a good thing. Kelly would have been all glacial and blonde, whereas Papas managed to bring to the part of the sultry Jocasta a feisty Katy Jurado vibe. And second billed Don Dubbins, 28 but playing a boy, replaced Robert Francis (tragically killed in a plane crash days after the start of shooting) in the juvenile lead and first-person voiceover. Dubbins was a Cagney protégé who would appear in two big pictures with Jimmy that year, this one, which came out in March, and These Wilder Years, released in August. New Yorker Dubbins is OK (he plays an Eastern greenhorn) and his narration provides a slight Vengeance Valley feel to the movie.

Youth is captivated by glam ex-saloon gal

The good news is that some excellent Western character actors were recruited to be ranch hands: Chubby Johnson as Baldy, Royal Dano as Abe and a rail-thin Lee Van Cleef as Fats. Always a pleasure to see them. McNally plays another ranch hand, McNulty, who woos the fair Jocasta and is fired for his pains, then joining forces with the rustlers. McNally, you will know, was James Stewart’s ne’er-do-well brother in Winchester ’73 in 1950 and also the marshal in The Duel at Silver Creek, so he had some Western pedigree.


It was done in bright EastmanColor and CinemaScope, and DP Robert Surtees, one of the greats, did a wonderful job on the Colorado locations. The vast majority was shot outside, in stunning scenery, and there were only two short MGM back-projection close-up shots (which disfigured so many of their Westerns). It was very well done, and there was clearly plenty of budget available. I love the work of the Surteeses, père et fils, and visually Tribute to a Bad Man is the equal of both Escape from Fort Bravo (Robert) or Pale Rider (Bruce). It is said that Surtees delayed the grim hanging scene four days, waiting to get just the ominous lighting he wanted. And it worked.

Surtees père

The story opens in 1875 with young Steve Miller, a naïve grocer’s clerk from Pennsylvania, riding west from Laramie, coming across rancher Jeremy Rodock defending himself from rustlers, and the young man digs a bullet out of Rodock’s back, earning his gratitude and a job. Rodock is one of those ranchers who rules the whole valley – in fact the only name the place bears is ‘Mr. Jeremy Rodock’s Valley’. Steve soon discovers that his new employer is as hard as nails and has a very short way with horse rustlers. The sensitive youth is affrighted but gradually hardens.

Colorado standing in (beautifully) for Wyoming

There is a definite The Virginian tone to the whole picture – the Wyoming setting and even the young character’s name, Steve, attest to that. The hanging of the rustler they catch is suitably grim, and the same arguments are put forward – that there is no formal law enforcement anywhere around and the law of the rope is the only effective way to maintain order. We're livin' in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred miles from any kind of law and order. Except for what I built myself. Ever since I started - and this you don't know - I've been badgered, skunked, bitten out and bushwhacked by thieves from everywhere. And now, one of my men's been killed. I find my horses, I find the killer. If I find the killer, I hang him. I gotta' keep my own reckoning, Jo. It's the way I built my life and half the transportation of the West.” Of course in The Virginian it is Steve who is hanged. Here, it is the young Steve who is offended by the lynching rather than the sweetheart, but back at the ranch Jocasta too is revolted by the deed. Indeed, she plans to leave.

Virginian-style lynching

Questions are also raised of the difference between punishment, revenge and even torture.

One of the rustlers, Barjac, is James Griffith, so that’s good. I always thought he was excellent in Westerns.

There’s a good attempt to describe the realities of the cowboy’s life. Never a chance for a family, or a home. In ten years, you're gonna' be like them - a nobody on a horse. That's what a wrangler is, a nobody on a horse. With bad teeth, broken bones, double hernia, and lice.” This is source writer Jack Schaefer coming through, and the theme prefigures Monte Walsh (published 1963). The screenplay was written up from Schaefer’s short story by Michael Blankfort, who had contributed to Broken Arrow.

Jack Schaefer wrote the short story upon which the movie was based

There’s a slight Jubal feel to the picture, especially concerning the jealousy of the rancher towards possible lovers of his beautiful companion (Columbia’s Jubal came out the month after), though director Robert Wise, famous for the likes of West Side Story and The Sound of Music, did not have the Western ability of Jubal’s director Delmer Daves.

Jubal-style jealousy

Wise did, to his great credit, direct the very fine Blood on the Moon, a superb 1948 Western noir based on a Luke Short story and starring Robert Mitchum, but otherwise he only did another couple of oaters,  neither very good.

Robert Wise

Rodock’s conversion to decency and gentleness is not entirely plausible and the ending is slightly cloying. Still, all in all, Tribute to a Bad Man is a perfectly acceptable Western, Cagney’s best by quite a long way and an honest contributor to the psychological/family/coming-of-age/ranch genre.

Rides off into the sunset


Monday, March 19, 2018

The Last Day (NBC, 1975)

Coffeyville again

The Dalton brothers rode across our screens – big ones and small – several times. Their name has a 'Jesse James' ring to it, and their bloody demise, shot down in the streets of Coffeyville, Kansas in 1892, was ideal material for a Western movie. One thinks in particular of the gang led by the unlikely figures of Broderick Crawford as Bob and Brian Donlevy as Grat in Universal’s George Marshall-directed 1940 offering When the Daltons Rode, a fun farrago featuring Randolph Scott as the good guy. Actually, right back in the early days of Hollywood, Emmett Dalton, the youngest of the brood and only survivor of the Coffeyville shoot-out, produced silent movies such as Beyond the Law (1918) which he wrote and in which he appeared as himself, Bob and Frank. There were later junk B-movies too, such as Jesse James vs. the Daltons (Esskay, 1954) directed by William Castle, about how Jesse James’s son joins up with the Daltons (including the excellent James Griffith as Grat).
Bob, Grat and Emmett

In the 1970s TV gave us two Dalton stories, The Last Ride of the Dalton Gang, screened by NBC in 1979, with Dale Robertson as hanging Judge Isaac Parker gunning down the Daltons in Coffeyville (it was all very preposterous) but four years before that NBC wheeled Richard Widmark out to shoot down the Daltons in The Last Day.

Widmark was a great figure of the Western movie, and even if I myself never really warmed to him much I must admit he featured in some goodies. The two he did for John Ford were not among them, Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn being Ford’s last and least Westerns, but I thought he was strong in his first two, as member of Gregory Peck’s outlaw gang in Yellow Sky in 1948 and as one of the adventurers with Gary Cooper in Garden of Evil six years later. He was the ‘good’ son of Spencer Tracy in Broken Lance in 1954 and was excellent, I thought, in The Last Wagon, a couple of years later, directed by Delmer Daves. He did 19 Westerns in all, including a couple on TV (he was a first class Al Sieber in Mr. Horn in 1979). In The Last Day Widmark (by then in his sixties) is that classic Western figure, a once-feared gunman trying now to live the peaceful life but whose past comes back to haunt him so that he is obliged to strap them shootin’ irons on one last time.

He's hung up his irons

The best Dalton is Grat because he is played by our old pal Richard Jaeckel, a classic bad guy of Westerns since the year dot. Robert Conrad, frontier secret agent James West in The Wild Wild West, played an unshaven Bob. Emmett (who curiously only has one t in the credits and thus becomes an ant) is played by Tim Matheson, who would star with Kurt Russell on The Quest the following year. He has very 1970s hair which would have been greatly admired down at the Coffeyville disco.

Richard Jaeckel the Great

The brothers are joined on the raid by outlaws Dick Broadwell (Christopher Connelly, Franco Nero’s co-star on Django Strikes Again - fame indeed) and Tom Skerritt as the drunk Pistol Bill Powers.

Bob and Emmet(t)

Morgan Woodward is US Marshal Ransom Payne, always late and always just missing the Daltons, and good old Gene Evans is Marshal Charlie Connelly, who perishes in the gunfire, as indeed in reality he did. Barbara Rush from Flaming Feather is Widmark’s wife, who first wants to stay in Coffeyville despite the danger, then she insists they leave, then stay again, it’s really quite exhausting.

So the actors are there alright.

The ensemble was directed by Vincent McEveety, a mainstay of Gunsmoke and other TV Westerns who never successfully made the transition to the big screen (Firecreek was about his best) but who was OK on TV.

V. McEveety

Of course with Dalton/Coffeyville stories we all already know how it’s going to end, so there ain’t much suspense, but never mind. It’s competently done and Widmark is appropriately tough. He does that “I have to stay” bit from High Noon through gritted teeth. It’s all watchable, though unlikely to set the prairie on fire.

The most amusing part is the voiceover by Harry Morgan, which gives the picture a Stories of the Century/Dragnet faux-documentary vibe.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

Children of the Dust (CBS, 1995)

Sidney as grizzled old gun hand

The other day I was reviewing Duel at Diablo and I said that Diablo and Buck and the Preacher were the only Westerns that Sidney Poitier did – more’s the pity because he was good in them. And that’s true, as far as big-screen oaters went. But, as reader Walter Severs pointed out, Sidney did do a TV Western, a two-part mini-series aired by CBS in 1995. So I duly watched that, and, I must say, I rather enjoyed it.

Mr. Poitier was born in 1927, so he could play the young slick gambler in Duel at Diablo, when he was still under forty, and in Buck and the Preacher he was a youthful 45, but by the time of Children of the Dust he was a more grizzled 58, so he plays a hard-bitten and experienced bounty hunter and gunman, and carries it off rather well. He really should have starred in a movie about Bass Reeves: he would have been excellent in that.

Sidney: very good in Westerns

The show was directed by Englishman David Greene: this and an episode of the TV Shane were the only Westerns he essayed, but he did a solid job. There are some pleasant Alberta, Canada locations nicely shot by Ron Orieux. The picture doesn’t look cheap.

It’s 90s-trendy pro-minorities, but that’s not a criticism of course. We start in Oklahoma, 1880 or so. Army scout and interpreter Gypsy Smith (Poitier) saves the young son of a chief when an accidental shot leads to a wild massacre by the soldiers. He delivers the boy to the care of sympathetic Indian agent Maxwell (strong actor Michael Moriarty, who as a rule avoided Westerns, though he was memorable as the decent and courageous miner in Pale Rider).

Moriarty excellent as decent Indian agent

There the agent’s two children Rachel and Dexter choose a name for the boy on a whim, much as they would do for a new family dog, and the three grow up together. The love between more adult Rachel (Joanna Going) and the Indian (Billy Wirth) is somewhat more than fraternal. The agent’s wife Nora (Farah Fawcett) is breaking under the mental strain of frontier life (echoes of The Homesman) and commits suicide; Rachel sees the hanging corpse.

Farah cracks under the strain

Time passes. Rachel comes back from a posh school in St Louis, a lady. Meanwhile the chief’s son has taken the name White Wolf and returned to his people, and ne’er-do-well Dexter (Jim Caviezel), a petty thief, has become the racist deputy of the bigoted and murderous county sheriff (Kevin McNulty).

Now a lady (though still a spoiled brat)

Cimarron Rose makes a brief appearance, impersonated by Grace Zabriskie. Because of her fling with outlaw Bittercreek Newcomb, of Dalton and Doolin Gang fame, Rose Elizabeth Dunn (1878 -1955) was elevated to the status of Western legend, and all sorts of nonsense was purveyed about her (see, for example, Fox’s 1948 movie Belle Starr's Daughter or their '52 picture Rose of Cimarron). She was in fact Oklahoma born and would have been about, though didn’t get involved with Bittercreek and the boys until about 1893 and wouldn’t yet have been a famed outlaw-ess, as in Children of the Dust. She warns Gypsy that the bad guys are after him, and Gypsy blasts them with a shotgun hidden in his bedroll and thanks Rose before she rides off into history.

Said to be Rose Dunn

Gypsy accepts the job of guiding a wagon train of “colored” settlers up into the territory for the coming land rush. Naturally he falls in lerve with one of the settlers, Drusilla (Regina Taylor). We have the traditional scenes when the starting gun is fired and with the obligatory speeded-up film we see wagons going too fast and crashing and, of course, the compulsory amusing bicycle taking part in the dash. But it’s just token (the budget wasn’t that big) so don't expect scenes such as in Tumbleweeds or Cimarron.

The town of Freedom is set up, near Guthrie, where Rachel now makes the acquaintance of rich (but obviously crooked) Southerner Shelby Hornbeck (Hart Bochner). She is wooed by the wealth and glamor and agrees to marry him though she still secretly loves White Wolf. This will lead to bloodshed and mayhem.

White Wolf loves her but she marries a rich white man

Meanwhile the KKK are active. There are no surprises, though, when the klansmen remove their hoods: all the previously flagged bad guys are there, the county sheriff, his deputy, and of course evil rich man Hornbeck. In fact it is Hornbeck who himself rather explicitly (for a TV movie) castrates our hero. Gypsy goes all moody after that, as indeed who can blame him?

Hornbeck gets his just deserts, though, at the hands of his new wife rather than Gypsy, who, once he has recovered, now hunts down the other klansmen to wreak his vengeance upon them (no blame again). There’s a good bit when Gypsy shoots the sheriff while he is feeding his hogs and leaves him dead with the other swine, but then the man’s wailing wife (now widow) and young son come out and suddenly Gypsy is made to ask himself if he has done the right thing. ‘Course he has. Up at the mansion Rachel uses on her surprised hubby a little pocket pistol very like the one the heroine packs in Louis L’Amour’s Showdown at Yellow Butte and the one Mark Twain had in Roughing It.


Anyway, after this daring and deadly deed White Wolf spirits Rachel away to a cabin, saying, “Nobody knows this place” but he is wrong because everyone who has watched True Grit (i.e. everyone) knows it; it’s just like Lucky Ned Pepper’s shack on the river. And Gypsy Smith knows it too because he goes right there. “Figured you’d come here,” he says. So much for White Wolf’s secret hideout. They set off for Mexico.

Well, there’s action aplenty from thereon in. Dexter, whose worthless life White Wolf has unwisely spared, gets up a posse and they track Gypsy, White Wolf and Rachel down to a cave very like the one Lee Van Cleef hid in till Henry Fonda routed him out of it in The Tin Star. This one is a very fake cave interior on a studio set, though. They are safe there until the posse brings up a cannon. Uh-oh. But Gypsy says it’s “a good day to die” (alternative title for the movie), quoting Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man.

He decides to go out fighting

Well, I enjoyed it.



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Duel at Diablo (UA, 1966)

The other face of Maverick

James Garner (left) was of course best known to 1960s Western lovers as the entertaining Bret Maverick, the hero who thought cowardice was the better part of valor (but not really) in the show which ran on ABC from September 1957 to July 1962 and then all over the world for very many reruns after that. But in fact he also had a parallel career as a tough Western hombre on the big screen, starting as Randolph Scott’s pal in Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend in 1957, being a gritty Wyatt Earp when John Sturges returned to Tombstone in Hour of the Gun, and being A Man called Sledge in 1970, which was a pretty dire spaghetti western but he was a real tough guy in it. Duel at Diablo falls into this mold.

We know that Hollywood loved Duels. Duel in the Sun, The Duel at Silver Creek, Gun Duel in Durango, duels all over the place. This duel was directed by Ralph Nelson (right), who was really a TV guy but who, Westernwise, would later do the difficult-to-watch Soldier Blue and the dire The Wrath of God. He was far from the best director of Westerns, I fear. Having said that, though, I reckon Diablo was his best.

It opens (after a 60s-trendy knife-slash through the United Artists logo) in a violent way with Jim Garner, sweaty and unshaven and therefore tough, gazing down at a man crucified upside down. Jim proceeds to save a woman from some Apaches. There are snazzy titles and equally snazzy music (Neal Hefti) to get us going. It’s all groovy, man.

He brings the woman, Ellen (Bibi Andersson, a Swedish former member of the Royal Opera, a Bergman regular, in her only Western) back to Fort Creel but there she is shunned by her husband Dennis Weaver because she didn’t have the decency to kill herself when she was taken by the Indians but had the temerity to survive. You can tell Weaver’s character (Willard Grange, merchant) is a bad egg because he wears a fancy silk vest and a suit (he looks quite Maverickish in fact) and is unkind to his wife, whereas Jim’s character, Jess Remsberg, has just been kind to his horse so is obviously a goody. Western semiotics at work, dudes. Weaver, who would also star with Garner in Sledge, was almost as well-known as Garner to fans of the TV Western, having been Matt Dillon’s factotum/deputy Chester for so long in Dodge from the late 50s through into the 60s. Anyway, Ellen knows when she’s not wanted and runs off back to the Apaches.

Merchant Weaver asks for Army protection from 'Scottish' Travers

At the fort a decent Army officer, Lt. Scotty McAllister, who wants to be a general one day and is a friend of Jess’s, gives him a scalp. It was taken from Jess’s presumably now former wife, and Jess is determined to get revenge on the villain who took it. Scotty is played by Englishman Bill Travers, in his only Western (fortunately). Mr. Travers’s ‘Scots’ accent is probably even worse than mine would be. Jess is told that the scalp was got from the marshal in Fort Concho, Clay Dean (John Crawford, frequently a heavy in TV Westerns). This Dean is a mean hombre, a hired gun with a star, but we sense that he will meet his match in Jess Remsberg.

We are now introduced to slick gambler Toller, who has also borrowed one of Maverick’s vests, played by Sidney Poitier, surprisingly good on a horse. Sidney only did two Westerns, this one and Buck and the Preacher. Pity: I thought he was rather good in them. Toller is inveigled into going along with the party setting off through Indian country to Fort Concho, along with Scotty, Jess and the evil Grange and his wagonload of goods. And naturally Ellen will join the party, because it wouldn’t be a Hollywood Western otherwise, would it?

Slick Sidney

It’s a Chato story, or Chatto if you prefer, though he is called Chata in the credits and is played by John Hoyt. He has broken out of the San Carlos agency and gone marauding. It was his son who had Ellen as a wife and Chato wants to protect his baby grandson. The real Chato (1854 – 1934) was a Chiricahua sub-chief and protégé of Cochise who carried out several raids on settlers in Arizona in the 1870s. This screen Chato/a is very cruel and the movie has a slight Ulzana’s Raid tinge to it (though is not as good as Ulzana’s Raid) in its dealing with the sufferings inflicted by the Apaches on the whites.


Hoyt in the role (looking a bit old for an Apache in his 20s)

Chata has 45 braves, we are told. A lot more than that are shot down in various battles but he still seems to have 45 more. Similarly, the soldiers are mown down in droves but droves remain.

While resourceful Toller takes command and holds off the Apaches in the canyon, brave Jess manages to get to Fort Concho – though on the way there is soft-focus heat to convey his ordeal. He meets the colonel there (producer/director Nelson in a cameo) and a relief force is prepared. Jess just has time to deal (rather roughly) with the wicked marshal in town and find out who gave him his wife’s scalp. The guilty party is… Yet nay, I shall not reveal this, for Jeff Arnold’s West does not deal in spoilers, as you very well know. Still, you may guess.

Love blooms, natch
Only four years later Nelson would make a purportedly pro-Indian picture in which the US Cavalry are the brutal aggressors but in this one he was still going for the old trope of the cavalry arriving at the last minute to save the few survivors (inc. Sidney & Ellen, obviously), so they duly do, Chato surrenders, and Jess ‘n’ Ellen can live h.e.a., presumably with Chato’s grandson adopted by Jim. Oh, that may have been a spoiler.

It was shot in impressive and arid Utah locations by Charles F Wheeler and visually the picture is strong. Garner and Poitier are good too. But it’s a pretty straight, rather old-fashioned oater for the time, spiced up with modern gore. The racial prejudice theme isn’t properly developed. For example, no mention at all is made of Toller’s skin color and no one calls him anything offensive. I wouldn’t go out of your way to see this at all costs, my dear e-pards, though you could give it a view if you were a Garner fan, as, indeed, who is not? I did consider giving it three revolvers, though in the end wisdom prevailed.