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

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.

Nifty

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.

 

 

10 comments:

  1. Jeff, good review and I finally got around to watching the entire mini-series myself, on YouTube. I enjoyed most of it, especially gunslinger, bounty hunter, and eventually Marshal Gypsy Smith portrayed by Sydney Poitier. Yes, I agree that Poitier would have been an excellent choice to portray Deputy US Marshal Bass Reeves. I thought the scenes between Gypsy and Drusilla, portrayed by Regina Taylor, were very touching.

    Sydney Poitier saw his first movie when he was 10 years-old and it was a Western. The Western movie genre mesmerized him the most while growing up. His first dreams of Hollywood were of being a cowboy star.

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    1. That's interesting, I didn't know Sid was a Western fan as a boy. But then who isn't? Some of those boys never grow up, either.
      Jeff

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  2. Wow, doesn't Poitier look right for the part. What a shame he didn't do more westerns. A perfect Bass Reeves and - come to think of it - a whole raft of westerns wouldn't have been any the worse for a black lead and maybe better. For example, The Tin Star is already good and quite daring but imagine the extra depth to existing themes if a black actor had been cast instead of Fonda. It would have revolutionized a mediocre picture like The Train Robbers. When you think about it Burt Kennedy is re-creating the structure of Ride Lonesome and Commanche Station: 5 men and a woman on a journey. The trouble is the characters are underdrawn and barely developed. Wayne is too big and the others too small so dramatic tension within the group is virtually non-existent. If Kennedy was trying to go back to Ride Lonesome and Commanche Station not just out of laziness the whole thing could have been so much better with more imaginative casting. Wouldn't need to be a big star like Mitchum to balance Wayne. Casting Poitier or any black actor as one of the young guns would have set up deep tensions without needing an extra word in the script. I've always had a fondness for the picture but as it stands it IS - as you say - very weak. Anonymous Paul.

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    1. Yes, I agree, it would have brought a whole new dimension to the genre, though the conventions and mores of 50s Hollywood wouldn't have allowed using an African-American actor in the lead on those classic Westerns.
      Jeff

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  3. Paul, I think that you hit the nail on the head. Sammy Davis, Jr. and John Wayne always wanted to make a Western movie together. Davis and Aaron Spelling had a story where Davis was a Deputy U.S. Marshal and Wayne was a rancher. A conflict in their commitment schedules prevented Wayne from making the film, which was originally intended for theatrical release, with Burt Kennedy directing.

    Sammy Davis, Jr. loved Westerns. Deana Martin wrote of her Father and Sammy watching Western movies together at Dean's home. Sammy was a real good pistol handler and fast draw. He was a gun collector as well.

    Sammy did get his Western movie, THE TRACKERS, made in 1971, as an ABC Movie of the Week produced by Aaron Spelling and Davis, with Earl Bellamy directing.

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    1. That's really interesting, Walter. There's a part in The Train Robbers played by Christopher George. He's supposed to be a 'young gun' but he's obviously too old. He also has a certain seriousness that's far better suited to his role in Eldorado several years earlier. Any black actor could have taken his part in The Train Robbers and made much more of the tension between him and Wayne without a single change to the script. The film would have been massively improved and Wayne's credibility with the modern generation would have soared instead of being a good-natured old dinosaur. Why on earth not do it? Maybe nobody thought of it but Mel Brooks was on the case about the same time with Blazing Saddles.

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    2. Yes, SDJ did quite a few TV Westerns, as well as Sergeants 3 on the big screen.
      Jeff

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    3. Though Blazing Saddles didn't come out till the 70s, and Brooks was making a deliberate satirical point with a black lead. It really wasn't till the turn of the century that African-American actors could be used, or even lead, witout the taint of blaxploitation or Brooks-type irony.
      Jeff

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  4. Jeff, I recommend, if you haven't already seen it, "Mission" an episode of Dick Powell's ZANE GREY THEATER, which was Sammy Davis' first Western. It first aired on November 12, 1959. Sammy portrayed Corporal Smith in a company of Buffalo soldiers. Co-starring where some really good Black actors, James Edwards, Roy Glenn, Bobby Johnson, and Hari Rhodes. I find this episode interesting, because before 1959 you didn't see Black soldiers portrayed in Western movies or television. That was about to change. John Ford had just wrapped up filming SERGEANT RUTLEDGE in September and it would premiere in New York City on May 25, 1960. Although, Robert Parrish's THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY, which premiered on October 21, 1959 actually had Leroy "Satchel" Paige as a cavalry sergeant, and I think that baseball pitcher Satchel Paige was the first in Hollywood to portray a black cavalry man in a major motion picture. Also, I think that Sammy Davis, Jr. and his co-stars were the first to portray Black cavalry men on television. The "Mission" was written by Aaron Spelling and directed by William D. Faralla(production manager on THE WILD BUNCH).

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  5. Paul, there is a story that has been around for years about Mel Brooks offering the role of the Waco Kid to John Wayne. In 1972, Sometime between the filming of THE TRAIN ROBBERS and CAHILL UNITED STATES MARSHAL, Brooks gave Wayne the script to read. In an interview, which was given in August, 2016 to Daniel Bubbeo of NEWSDAY, Bubbeo asked Brooks, "Did you really ask John Wayne to be in BLAZING SADDLES?" Brooks replied, " I did. He had seen THE PRODUCERS and he came over to my table in the commissary one day and said, 'I love that movie. It was a such a great idea and so well done.' I said 'Thanks, Mr. Wayne.' I saw him again in the commissary and I said, 'Because you liked THE PRODUCERS, maybe you’ll like this,' and I gave him the script for BLAZING SADDLES. So he said, 'I’ll read it.' The next day, he said to me, 'Are you crazy? I can’t do this picture. I can’t do dirty movies. Are you nuts? My fans won’t stand for seeing me in a movie like this, but I’ll be the first one in line to see it.'

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