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

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount, 1962)

The legend dies



Since The Searchers, John Ford had been, frankly, churning out Westerns because that was what he did and he needed big money to keep his adored but aging yacht, the Araner, afloat. But the pictures were not a patch on The Searchers, not even in the same league. The Horse Soldiers was a run-of-the-mill actioner of uneven quality, Sergeant Rutledge dealt with important themes but Ford seemed to have lost interest, and Ford himself said that Two Rode Together was “the biggest load of crap I ever did.” But he did care about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a project dear to his heart, and he wanted it to be great.

It wasn’t.
Title reminds us of My Darling Clementine
Liberty Valance began life as a story by the great Dorothy M Johnson, of A Man Called Horse and The Hanging Tree fame. But it differs greatly from the motion picture made from it. Bert Barricune (renamed Tom Doniphon by Ford) not only kills Valance for Stoddard but acts as a fairy godfather to him throughout, assuring his later success in life so that Hallie may be happy. Ford bought the story for $7,500 and put Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah (who had collaborated on Sergeant Rutledge) to work on a screenplay.
Doniphon is a horse trader, Valance a stage robber: they are both outdated professions
Ford was determined to make it a low-key, atmospheric film, in black & white and mostly shot on the lot. Both Paramount and DP William Clothier (who was increasingly Ford’s creative muse) wanted color. It was pretty well commercially essential by 1962 and Clothier preferred working in color. But Ford dug his toes in. “Goddam it, we’re going to do it in black and white.” As the story was mostly set at night, perhaps Ford thought that the black & white would enhance the dark and somber look and feel.

Yet it wasn’t so much the black & white that sunk the picture – Ford was after all a master of monochrome – but the lack of big skies and open prairies. To confine a Western almost totally to sound-set interiors and studio street scenes is a dangerous, not to say, fatal exercise. Westerns depend on action and scenery and movement. John Ford knew this, too – he of all people. Yet The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance is static and over-talky, and it lacks movement. It is true that certain great Westerns have been similarly confined to studio sets – one thinks of High Noon or The Gunfighter – but they depend on building dramatic tension to breaking point, which Liberty Valance simply didn’t have enough of.
The man who shot
Despite Ford’s decision, the days of cheap pictures were past. Star salaries had gone through the roof. John Wayne would get $750,000 for the picture, to Ford’s irritation, against his own $150,000. But Paramount knew that Wayne was worth it. Producer Howard Koch there said, “The Big Cowboy was really the whole thing.” The star had been busy with Westerns since last working for Ford on The Horse Soldiers in 1959, with his own mega-project, The Alamo (1960), as well as starring in other Westerns to pay for it, North to Alaska (1960) and The Comancheros (1961). In Wayne’s absence Ford had used other Western stars like James Stewart and Richard Widmark. But Duke came back to ‘Pappy’ for Liberty Valance, and indeed, though James Stewart was fine, it was really Wayne who was the dominant presence on the picture.
Wayne, Ford and Stewart on one of the rare locations
Stewart as tenderfoot Ransom Stoddard and Wayne as tough Westerner Tom Doniphon both put in powerful performances, even if both were a bit long in the tooth to portray the young Turks they are supposed to be – though of course for key parts of the movie Stoddard is an old man and Doniphon is in a coffin. James Stewart was known as the man who brought law and order to Bottleneck without a gun in Destry Rides Again way back in 1939 so perhaps he was an appropriate choice to do the same thing for Shinbone in 1962. Stewart and Wayne worked well together (as they were to do on their final Western, The Shootist, fourteen years later - another film about the dying of the myth).
Wayne: dominant
Fortunately, Ford’s stock company of actors was by now tried and tested and the supporting cast is a veritable roll call of grand cowboy actors. Lee Marvin, though, who was new to Ford, was to be Valance. Ford took to Marvin immediately. The fact that Marvin was a periodic binge-drinker, had a passion for the sea, had seen valorous war service in the Marines and, like Ford, had quite liberal political views, as well as being descended from George Washington, all certainly helped. Ford also knew a fine actor when he saw one. Marvin was a superb actor and was splendidly bad as Valance, conveying deadly menace and snakelike charm extremely well. It’s a great part but Lee handled it brilliantly.
Marvin: superb
Further down the list, Denver Pyle and Strother Martin were again hired (they had been paired on The Horse Soldiers). Pyle got on well with Ford and became almost a confidant – while still, of course, addressing him as “Mr. Ford”. But Strother was terrified of the old tyrant. “I think Stroker’s getting used to me,” Ford said to Pyle one morning (he always called Martin ‘Stroker’). “He doesn’t jump as high now when I call him.” Whereupon Ford yelled “STROKER MARTIN!” and Strother duly levitated from his chair about three feet and rushed over. Ford turned to Pyle again: “He didn’t jump nearly as high as he used to, did he?” Pyle said that Strother regarded Ford as a god – “undoubtedly the God of the Old Testament.”
Strother henches Liberty
Denver was a bespectacled townsman, Strother and Lee Van Cleef were Marvin’s henchmen, and Edmond O’Brien is excellent as Peabody, editor of The Shinbone Star. Andy Devine is, as ever, entertaining, as the cowardly Marshal Link Appleyard of gargantuan appetite. Woody Strode is back, as Wayne’s 48-year-old ‘boy’ servant or slave, Pompey. John Carradine is there, as are John Qualen, Willis Bouchey, Carleton Young, OZ Whitehead and Paul Birch, Danny Borzage, Anna Lee, Jack Perrin, Uncle Tom Cobley and all – the usual suspects, you might say.
Devine, Strode

The themes of Liberty Valance were those that had always concerned the famous director: East versus West, the creation of law and order in a wild land, nostalgia for a bygone time of freedom. The film has something interesting to say on pacifism and courage and the freedom of the press. Much of the dialogue is well-written and thoughtful. There is just too much of it.

The whole look and feel of Liberty Valance is old-fashioned, from the monochrome and studio sets to the Cyril Mockridge music and the almost William S Hart costumes. The commercially successful but bloated How the West was Won (a segment directed by Ford) came out the same year – what a difference! And big, colorful, commercial, action-packed vehicles like The Magnificent Seven were now the thing, or modern angst-dramas like The Misfits. Liberty Valance was stuck in the 1940s.


It’s an old man’s movie. And the old man in question was losing his touch. Even his standards of personal hygiene had declined embarrassingly. Of course even the least of John Ford Westerns is not bad, exactly, and Liberty Valance is not the least of them. Though visually ordinary and unfashionable, it does have intense themes and a melancholy sobriety which compensate.

The triangle of manhood linking Valance, Stoddard and Doniphon is mirrored by that of tenderness between Stoddard, Doniphon and Hallie (Vera Miles). It’s well-constructed and crafted alright. Hallie, though, is tamed and civilized – Ranse teaches her to read and makes her a Senator’s wife – just as the West is tamed. Almost the last words are Hallie saying, “It was once a wilderness. Now it’s a garden.” But she loses her fire and the joie de vivre that Tom would have nurtured.
Not half the man Doniphon was

In the last resort, Stoddard has lived a lie. The myth is dismantled. And for all Ranse’s worldly success and Doniphon's apparent failure (dying unknown and alone in a backwater), Stoddard is not half the man Doniphon was. And he knows it.

Fundamentally, it's a very sad story. As the train recedes in the final scene, with Ranse and Hallie going back East, Ford’s bleakest film ends.

The reaction to the picture was very mixed. Variety thought it ought to have been shortened by at least twenty minutes, and they may have been right. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times called it “a rather sinister little fable” and regarded it as an example of creeping Hollywood fatigue. He may have been right too. Europeans were more laudatory. The Observer in Great Britain thought it was “bathed in Ford’s talent and affection.”

The picture even made a little money – the last Ford film to do so. And many people are fond of it. A friend of mine, a lover of cinema but not, poor soul, a Western fan, thought it perhaps the greatest Western she knew. To me, it certainly isn’t. I am more in line with Brian Garfield’s view, as expressed in his splendid guide Western Films:

It’s a terribly old-fashioned film, rather wistful, lacking in energy. The characterizations are reduced to the simplicities of ‘B’ formulas and I find it a dreary, tired movie.



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Two Rode Together (Columbia, 1961)


Ford only made it for the money (he said)

James Stewart is a corrupt and cynical but sympathetic Tascosa, Texas marshal in this, probably the least of John Ford’s Westerns. Of course, the least of Ford’s Westerns is still not really bad.

The theme owes something to The Searchers in that it deals with whites captured by the Comanche and ‘lost’, even when ransomed and returned. Society’s prejudice is faced full on. But unlike The Searchers, this movie is slow and has none of the power or the shock and awe. Stewart’s Guthrie McCabe has nothing of Ethan Edwards’s driven fury as portrayed by John Wayne. The film is weaker and more watered-down, although there is a grim lynching at the end (in which “civilization” barbarously murders the “savage”).

It is actually a very bleak film. As Donald Dewey wrote in his biography of James Stewart, “The Comanches are brutal opportunists, the army officers are crude, hypocritical racists, the civilians are a naïve conglomerate waiting only to become a rabid mob.”

However, Scott Eyman, in his biography of John Ford, wrote that Dewey’s description “promises something corrosive, but the film is actually a flaccid, mistimed dud.”

The Two of the title

The Two of the
title are Stewart (whom we meet in a Fonda-Earp/My Darling Clementine pose leaning back on his chair on the sidewalk) and an amiable, rather straight army officer, Richard Widmark (rather old for a young lieutenant) as they are obliged to ride together, a mismatched pair, as in The Searchers, to rescue the captives from Quanah Parker, played by Henry Brandon, who was Scar in The Searchers - and the connection with that movie is strengthened by the fact that the 1956 picture was, vaguely, based on the recovery of Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah Parker’s mother.
Cynthia Ann Parker
Stewart is outstanding and seems almost to ad lib, so natural is much of his delivery. The scene where he and Widmark sit on a log by the river bank (the camera was out in the stream) was a one-take semi-scripted masterpiece. Stewart himself was said to be disappointed that the more corrupt side of his character was not given more prominence. But in fact, he is never quite convincing as the drunk who will do anything for money. He’s Jimmy Stewart, after all. It’s rather like Gary Cooper playing bad men. Can’t be done. Stewart could do driven, almost manic characters for Anthony Mann but corrupt and cynical? Not really.

Quanah Parker and Henry Brandon impersonating him

Of the other parts, Shirley Jones, the least of Ford’s leading ladies, is weak as the settler girl for Widmark to woo and win, while Stewart finally and rather improbably falls for Señorita Linda Cristal, one of the rescuees, who is better. She is the woman of Stone Calf, an angry and muscular Woody Strode, Ford’s protégé and star of Sergeant Rutledge, miscast here but doing his best. John McIntire is excellent, as he always was, as the tough cavalry major who sends them.

Woody miscast

Annelle Hayes is feisty as the saloon madam with a stiletto in her garter who, nevertheless, loses Jimmy to Señorita Linda, and Andy Devine is entertaining as ever as the enormous Sergeant Posey (all Ford movies had to have an amusing sergeant character). The best acting apart from Stewart probably comes from Mae Marsh, ex young heroine of Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation, a Ford regular in small roles and here in a very short and sadly uncredited part as an old broken woman who is too afraid and ashamed to go back to the white world.

Mae Marsh fine
The usual rather unfortunate Ford slapstick is provided by her sons, the two hillbillyish brothers Ken Curtis (who did the oafish comic part for Ford in The Searchers) and Harry Carey Jr., Ford stalwarts, of course. Other members of Ford’s stock company present doing bit parts include Paul Birch, Willis Bouchey, Olive Carey, Anna Lee, OZ Whitehead, Danny Borzage, Chucks Roberson & Hayward, Cliff Lyons and Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan – the usual suspects, you might say.

The dances, so crucial to Ford’s films as representations of the community spirit, are pale imitations, for there is no community to portray.

On the set

It’s shot in Texas by Charles Lawton Jr. The George Duning music is unobtrusive to the point that you don’t notice it at all. Ford go-to Frank Nugent wrote the screenplay from the Will Cook novel Comanche Captives but Ford didn’t care for the script and made many changes as they went along.

Scott Eyman summed up Two Rode Together:

…the film has a loose, jocular tone that doesn’t jibe with its theme; everything seems pitched a little too high – voices are too loud, actors are too broad, lighting is too bright. The film feels physically slack; the images are recessive, the locations are scrubby and uninteresting, there are mismatched cuts and the whole thing lacks any kind of dramatic tension. There could be no doubt no that the director’s gift was beginning to recede; the hand that had once been capable of the most finely filigreed detail was now working with a much broader brush.

Tough words. But actually I think that gift had receded before. The Horse Soldiers, three years after The Searchers, was a run-of-the-mill Western at best, and all Ford’s later Westerns, including The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (review coming Friday) were far weaker than those of the great period of the later 1940s and early 50s.
The riverbank scene
The film was a critical and commercial flop and Ford himself said that he had only made it for the money and it was “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years”. Harsh judgements for what is, after all, still a Ford Western dealing with serious themes, and with James Stewart in it. Harsh, but maybe justified.

Ward Bond had a fatal heart attack while Ford was on the set of Two Rode Together and the director went off for the funeral. On his return he walked up to Andy Devine and said, “Now you’re the biggest shit I know.” It was typical Ford black humor.
At the end of shooting Ford left for Honolulu on the Araner and went on an extended drunk, finally checking into Queen’s Hospital for alcoholic dehydration.

It was the last film in which Stewart wore that great hat. Stewart told a long amusing story at Ford’s funeral about how after a long battle Ford allowed him to wear it, saying, “If, by chance, you ever work for me again, I want you to have in your contract a clause that states you have hat approval.” Of course Stewart did work for him again, on Liberty Valance, but in that he didn’t wear a hat at all.

Stewart's hat

Monday, March 20, 2017

Sergeant Rutledge (Warner Bros, 1960)

The black sergeant



Very soon after the run-of-the-mill and non-great Western The Horse Soldiers (1959), John Ford began work on another oater, Sergeant Rutledge.

This began life as an original story entitled Buffalo Soldier by Willis Goldbeck. Goldbeck took it to short-story and script writer James Warner Bellah, a John Ford regular, and together they prepared a treatment for Ford. Ford took the project on quite willingly but he was, frankly, in decline. His former professionalism, last seen on the set of The Searchers, was on the wane. He seemed almost to have lost interest, and some of his pictures between The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers were downright bad – the stodgy British police procedural Gideon of Scotland Yard, for example. Westernwise, he never made a really great picture after The Searchers. Bellah said, “[Ford] had always been a real tyrant in story sessions, needling and picking away at you.  … But on Rutledge he was awfully mild. Whenever an important subject came up, he just said, ‘Whatever you think is fine,’ or ‘Just write it as you see fit, and I’ll get it on film.’ This wasn’t the Jack Ford that I knew.”

Warners were interested in the project but Jack Warner was insisting on Poitier or Belafonte as star and Ford wouldn’t play ball. “They aren’t tough enough!” Ford wanted an ex-UCLA football player named Woody Strode, who couldn’t act and couldn’t ride. Strode was a splendid physical specimen said to do a thousand sit-ups, a thousand push-ups and a thousand knee-bends every morning (he can’t have had time for much else). He had just finished fighting alongside Kirk Douglas as Draba in Spartacus but Ford knew him because his Hawaiian wife went to school with Ford’s children. Jack Warner finally backed down and Ford got his way. Woody it was.
 Jack Warner wanted Sidney or Harry

Ford acted out every one of Strode’s scenes himself first, to show the actor what to do, and often even went back to the silent-movie technique of calling out instructions during the scene. He bullied Strode unmercifully, as he often did with a chosen victim on the set, verbally and even physically abusing him, kicking him and throwing rocks at him. He was a very unpleasant man. But it got the results. Strode put in a magnificent performance as the buffalo soldier accused of raping a white woman.

Even as late as 1960 the idea that a white girl may have been raped by a Negro was still deeply shocking (the color of the assailant’s skin was the shocking part) but the film prefigures the 60s civil rights movement by suggesting the prejudice and skirting round the issue and the terms. It’s a serious film which deals with serious issues. For once, the French film title may have been better: Le Sergent Noir.
John Ford
The civilians want to lynch Rutledge even before the trial. The officers’ wives (who include Mae Marsh) are titillated by the ‘spicy’ affair. Both groups are shown as overtly racist and rather repellent. To the colonel’s lady (Billie Burke), Rutledge, whom she cannot even name, is nothing but a dangerous sexual animal. Then there is the institutional racism of the court, who are surprised by the ‘not guilty’ plea; they assumed Rutledge had done it. Then, most troubling of all, there is the internalized racism that Ford shows in us, the (white) viewers. Ford sets the scenes so that we all assume too much, though this, of course, only works on the first viewing.
For them it is a titillating entertainment
Strode was fine. But paradoxically the rest of the acting, from the professional cast, is so-so, descending to the downright wooden when Lucy (Toby Michaels) is talking to the store boy (Jan Styne). Willis Bouchey doesn’t quite cut it as the president of the court - it needed Ward Bond. Jeffrey Hunter (Martin Pawley in The Searchers) is handsome as the defending counsel but little more.
Some of these studio publicity stills were really very silly
Constance Towers as the love-interest (returning from The Horse Soldiers the previous year) does not convince any more than she did in The Horse Soldiers. Judson Pratt, who had assumed the role of comic drunken Irish sergeant after Victor McLaglen died, is back, promoted to lieutenant. Carleton Young, who would feature later in the year in the episode of TV’s Wagon Train that Ford directed, is a captain. Really, the cast was much less than stellar and some of it wasn’t even competent. Hunter and Towers got top billing, rather shamefully, with Strode only fourth. In the publicity still for the movie (below), Rutledge himself only appears in third background.
Woody overshadowed in the casting and publicity
There is the usual Ford attempt at broad humor, clumsy and inappropriate in a case of this kind. It is thought amusing that the officers of the court martial drink while court is in session or adjourn to play poker.

So this movie is by no means top-drawer Ford. The fault is not really in the dialogue, although it does end very melodramatically. Perhaps the courtroom/flashback format was doomed to failure from the start. Because there’s too much studio recording and too little Monument Valley location work (only nine of the forty-three days were on location), and because so much of the action is set in the court room, this Western is static and slow. There are action flashbacks but the ensemble is really little more than a Western Perry Mason.

Or perhaps Ford just had lost his grip.

We are led to assume too much

Visually, it’s quite interesting. When Rutledge is under suspicion, early in the film, he is photographed (by Bert Glennon, a Ford go-to, especially for black & white but this time working with color) in dark flickering shadows. As shot by Glennon it’s almost more a noir than a Western. When Rutledge bravely and self-sacrificingly saves his fellow soldiers he is filmed in blazing sunlight. It’s a much darker film than The Horse Soldiers but it still elevates the community of the cavalry, where these buffalo soldiers find a kind of freedom they would not have elsewhere.

Sergeant Rutledge is essentially a 1950s Western in its look and acting. When you consider that it came out in the same year as the brash actioner The Magnificent Seven, for example, you realize how old-fashioned it was. Yet its theme of racial discrimination is very much a 1960s one.
A fine shot of Woody
It did miserably at the box-office, grossing less than $750,000. Though it did better abroad, it was still a financial failure. Ford blamed Warner Bros. for not promoting it. “Warners sent a couple of boys on bicycles out to sell it.” Suddenly Ford found himself with no offers. At a loose end, he went down to ‘help’ John Ford on the set of The Alamo.

Ford and Strode became good friends. The director (mis)cast Woody as an Indian chief in the later Two Rode Together and a Mongol warrior in 7 Women. For Strode the abuse he had received on Sergeant Rutledge was all worth it. “It had dignity. John Ford put classic words in my mouth. … And I did it all myself. I carried the whole black race across the river.” Strode spent time at Ford’s bedside when he was dying.

None of Ford’s later Westerns, including Sergeant Rutledge, was really weak. Had Ford not made The Searchers, My Darling Clementine or the cavalry trilogy in the post-war period we might remember these later works as outstandingly good. Maybe they only suffer by comparison. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Ford was churning out pictures because that’s what he did, and he needed the money, and the passion for the Western had departed.



Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Horse Soldiers (UA, 1959)

Not a dud but hardly recognizable as a John Ford Western


The Horse Soldiers was difficult from the start. Producers John Lee Mahin and Martin Rackin also wrote the screenplay and Ford’s reaction to it was to say, “If you think I’m going to photograph that goddam script, you’re mistaken.” He also told the producer-writers, “You know where we ought to make this picture?”
“No, where?”
“Lourdes, because it’s going to take a miracle to pull it off.”

The actual locations, in Mississippi and Louisiana rather than Lourdes, were unpopular with Ford and in the still-segregated South African-American members of the cast would not even be allowed to share accommodation with white cast members. Casting was problematic. John Wayne was preoccupied with setting up his mega-project The Alamo and William Holden, fine actor that he was, was a red rag to the bull John Ford. Holden was fond of the bottle and either didn’t know or ignored Ford’s rule about no booze on the set. Altogether it was unhappy project.
On the set
And whatever feel-good there was on the set was dashed one day when stuntman Fred Kennedy was killed. Kennedy hadn’t worked for some time, after breaking his neck, but Ford kindly hired him for The Horse Soldiers because he needed the pay. It was a relatively simple fall from a horse but it went wrong. Ford was devastated and blamed himself. Scott Eyman, in his fine biography of Ford, says that “there are those who believe that Kennedy’s death drained the last ounce of joy Ford found in the filmmaking process.”
The original
It is a Civil War story, loosely based on Grierson's Raid (1863), the Battle of Newton's Station (1863) and the Battle of New Market (1864). Union troops go behind Confederate lines during the siege of Vicksburg. Colonel Marlowe (Wayne) leads the force and Duke gives us his by now habitual gritty cavalry commander act. He stands for no nonsense and barks at his men, though of course beneath the crusty outer shell beats a heart of Jell-O. Holden is an army surgeon who falls out with the commander. Thanks to Wayne and Holden, the interaction of the commander and doctor is sparky. The film comes across as a sort of anti-buddy movie. They eventually come to mutual respect, of course.
They eventually respect each other
Constance Towers is southern belle Hannah Hunter who comes across as Marie Antoinette but coarse. Offering Wayne chicken and showing her cleavage, she asks, “What was your preference, the leg or the breast?" Quite daring dialogue for the 1950s. Wayne’s character falls for her (difficult to see why) when she is obliged to accompany them on the raid – this is one of the more improbable parts of the story.
A cheesy still of Wayne and Towers
Various members of the Ford stock company accompany Wayne on his raid, including Hank Worden and Ken Curtis, although Victor McLaglen’s role (he died that year) as comic drunken sergeant-major was taken by Judson Pratt. No Ben Johnson or Harry Carey either, sadly. Denver Pyle and Strother Martin, colorful as ever, get bit parts. Good old Russell Simpson is Acting-Sheriff Goodbody. Veteran screen cowboy Hoot Gibson is a sergeant too, in his last picture. Ford had made silent Westerns with Hoot in the old days and generously gave him the part aged 66.
Duke jokes with Hoot
Some of the Ford ingredients are there: pugnacious patriotism, low comedy, cavalry songs, symbolic moments (a white Union soldier dies while a Negro child is born into freedom with the help of the Army doctor), drunken Irish sergeant. In some ways it’s quite formulaic. A reprise.
Russell, Denver and Strother
But there is little of the old Ford magic. There is no Monument Valley and there are no Indians. It is extraordinary how different this rather ordinary (and rather old-fashioned for 1959) Western was compared with The Searchers only three years before. Some would say it was sad how far Ford had sunk.

The movie is mealy-mouthed about the slave issue, as most Westerns were. Maybe we had to wait till Django Unchained addressed that.
The film is well photographed, as any Ford movie had to be, by William Clothier, who became Ford’s stand-by cameraman and almost assistant director. But Ford himself seemed to have lost interest and it was often Clothier who had the creative input.

The best scene in the picture was not in the rather second-rate script but was improvised by Ford, namely when the boy pupils of a Confederate military academy, led by an elderly parson, march into battle against the Union troops and a mother (Ford’s old friend Anna Lee) grabs her young drummer-boy son and drags him back home. It was genuinely moving.
Child soldiers
The Horse Soldiers was not a dud but it was nowhere near the quality of Ford’s previous cavalry Westerns. All of Ford’s late Westerns were weaker than those of the glory days that started with Stagecoach in 1939 and ended with The Searchers in 1956.