Young Frontier: John Wayne in THE COWBOYS (Warner Brothers 1972)

THE COWBOYS is not just another ‘John Wayne Movie’ from the latter part of his career. Not by a long shot. Duke had read the script and coveted the part of Wil Andersen, who’s forced to hire a bunch of wet behind the ears adolescents for a 400 mile cattle drive across the rugged Montana territory. Director Mark Rydell wanted George C. Scott for the role, but when John Wayne set his sights on something, he usually got what he wanted. The two men were at polar opposites of the political spectrum, and the Sanford Meisner-trained Rydell and Old Hollywood Wayne were expected to clash. They didn’t; putting their differences aside, they collaborated and cooperated  to make one of the best Westerns of the 70’s.

Andersen’s regular hands have all deserted him when gold is discovered nearby, leaving the aging rancher in the lurch. He heads for Boseman to look for recruits and, finding none, takes the advice of his old friend Anse (western vet Slim Pickens) and puts out the call at the local schoolhouse. Ten boys show up, green as grass but willing and eager to learn the ropes. An eleventh, the “mistake of nature” Cimarron, rides in, but after getting into a fight with another boy and pulling a weapon, Andersen refuses to take him along. Some older men, led by “Long Hair” Asa Watts, ask to join the drive, but when Andersen catches him in a lie he sends them packing.

Andersen’s in for another surprise when the cook he hired turns out to be a black man, Jebediah Nightlinger. The boys soon learn life on a cattle drive is no Sunday school picnic, and hardships are plentiful. Slim almost drowns crossing the river, until who rides up to save him but Cimarron. The wild child is then given a spot on the drive by Andersen, but there’s more hardship to come: Long Hair and his rustlers are following the herd, waiting for the right moment to strike…

Wayne’s Wil Andersen is an ornery cuss, tough as leather from his years as a cattleman, yet he shows a surprising tenderness toward the boys. The aging Duke gives yet another fine performance, and does marvelous work with his neophyte costars. Can you imagine being one of them, working with the legendary John Wayne! I would have killed for an opportunity like that! Wayne also works well with Roscoe Lee Browne (Nightlinger); the two have a grudging respect for each other that turns into something resembling friendship. Offscreen, the two actors discovered a mutual love for poetry – bet you didn’t know that about big, macho John Wayne!

Bruce Dern  was an actor on the rise when he made THE COWBOYS, and he’s one scary hombre. His character is mean as hell, bullying one of the kids he catches alone, threatening to slit his throat if the boy dares tells Andersen he’s being followed. When he rides into camp and menaces the youngster, Andersen loses his cool, and the two men engage in a brutal brawl.  Andersen, trouncing the younger man,  turns his back on Watts, who in a rage shoots the older man in the back five times… AND BECOMES THE MOST HATED MAN IN CINEMA HISTORY! Believe me, it was a shock to see Duke get killed on the screen back in 1972, and to this day, there are fans who’ve never forgiven Bruce Dern for murdering John Wayne – after watching that scene, I hated him for years! (But enough time has passed, Bruce – all is forgiven!)

The cowboys themselves are played by Alfred Barker Jr (Fats), Nicholas Beauvy (Dan), Steve Benedict (Steve), Robert Carradine (making his film debut as Slim), Norman Howell (Weedy), Stephen Hudis (Charlie Schwartz), Sean Kelly (Stuttering Bob), A Martinez (Cimarron), Clay O’Brien (Hardy), Sean O’Brien (Jimmy), and Mike Pyeatt (Homer). They’re all good, especially when they stumble upon an encampment of whores led by Colleen Dewhurst, a scene that’s both funny and poignant. After the death of Wil Andersen, the boys decide “we’re gonna finish the job”, and THE COWBOYS becomes a revenge tale, picking off their adversaries one by one until the violent climax where Bruce Dern gets his just desserts!

Director Rydell learned his craft in the world of episodic TV (BEN CASEY, I SPY, GUNSMOKE), and had previously made THE REIVERS with Steve McQueen . Rydell had his own personal vision of what the film should be and Wayne, whose clout was enormous and easily could’ve taken control of the production over, stepped back and just acted as part of the ensemble. For his part, Rydell and cinematographer Robert Surtees paid homage to Wayne’s films with John Ford in the composition of many shots; there’s even the familiar door motif from THE SEARCHERS, and a scene of Andersen at his own children’s gravesite that echoes SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON . John Williams , as he did for Rydell’s previous film, contributes a memorably majestic score.

Big John Wayne was nearing the end of the trail when he made THE COWBOYS. Of his six remaining films, only THE SHOOTIST stands out as a quality piece of filmmaking. THE COWBOYS is yet another testament to his acting ability, and a damn good movie. Surrounded by an unfamiliar cast and crew, ailing from the cancer that eventually killed him, Wayne is out of his comfort zone, and gives his all in the role of Wil Andersen. It’s not a “John Wayne Movie”, it’s a movie featuring John Wayne, actor. As it turns out, THE COWBOYS is one of his best 70’s cinematic outings, and a movie I can still watch and enjoy over and over.

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Western Zing: MY NAME IS NOBODY (Titanus 1973)

Sergio Leone  wasn’t quite done with the Western genre after DUCK, YOU SUCKER. MY NAME IS NOBODY is based on “an idea by Sergio Leone”, and though Leone’s former Assistant Director Tonino Valerii is given full credit,  the Maestro reportedly directed a couple of scenes as well as some second-unit action in the film. Whatever the case, the film puts a comic spin on Spaghetti Westerns in general and Leone’s movies in particular, with the comedic talents of star Terence Hill standing in sharp contrast to the old school Hollywood hero Henry Fonda .

Hill was the brightest star on the Italian horizon, having starred in Giuseppe Colizzi’s GOD FORGIVES… I DON’T, ACE HIGH, and BOOT HILL alongside burly Bud Spencer, adding elements of humor as they went along . But with 1970’S THEY CALL ME TRINITY, the duo went full-bore into comedy territory, giving the Spaghetti genre a needed shot in the arm. Some fans hold the Hill/Spencer films in contempt, crying too much funny business ruined the Spaghetti recipe, but I’m certainly not among them. The best Spaghettis always had a strong strain of humor running through them, from Eli Wallach’s Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY to the performances of Tomas Milian , and Leone himself never shied away from throwing in a good gag. To me, comedy is an essential herb for making a good Spaghetti, and box office returns on the Hill/Spencer vehicles proved that most fans agreed.

Hill’s ‘Nobody’ is basically an extension of his ‘Trinity’ character, a laid-back, outwardly goofy vagabond who happens to be quicker than he lets on in both his mind and his actions. He idolizes gunslinger Jack Beauregard (Fonda), the fastest gun in the west, whom we’re introduced to in a barber shop, where three killers have marked him for death. Beauregard beats the odds, and when the barber’s little boy asks who’s faster than Beauregard, the reply is, “Faster than him? Nobody!”, setting up the next scene where Beauregard comes across Nobody lazily attempting to catch a fish.

The plot involves a worthless mine used to fence stolen gold by outlaw gang The Wild Bunch, and Beauregard’s quest to snatch his late brother’s share of the loot, with Nobody urging the aging gunfighter to take on the Wild Bunch solo, “one against one hundred and fifty” and mark his place in the history books. But that’s all secondary to the images put onscreen by Valerii. Nobody’s ‘undercranked’ fighting scenes are throwbacks to the silent slapstick era (and resemble Hong Kong Kung-Fu movies), the direct opposite of Beauregard’s slo-mo killings, emphasizing the difference stylistically between the two Western brands. There’s a bizarre Street of Pleasure scene (reportedly Leone’s handiwork) which features a parody drinkin’ and shootin’ contest. Leone also did the scene with Nobody and a train conductor standing at the urinals, which in my opinion could’ve been edited out, but the Maestro thought it was funny. A ciascuno il suo. 

A Funhouse Hall of Mirrors scene is an obvious (but well done) homage to Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI , and Leone’s American spirit brother Sam Peckinpah  gets name checked during a graveyard scene between Hill and Fonda. Unlike most early Spaghetti Westerns, much of MY NAME IS NOBODY was filmed on location in the American West (both New Mexico and New Orleans). Many American actors appear in brief roles: Leo Gordon , R.G.Armstrong  (for some reason billed as R.K.!), Geoffrey Lewis, and future DALLAS star Steve Kanaly. Also in the cast in a small bit is Leone and Spaghetti veteran Mario Brega .

Ennio Morricone  delivers his customary unique score, his themes punctuating the characters and the action onscreen. Sound plays an important role in the film, as it does in all the Spaghettis (for better or worse, in some cases). Grizzled vet Fonda delivers a final message that says goodbye to the Old Hollywood West, along with some advise to the new breed of international stars like Hill. MY NAME IS NOBODY may have too much basil and not enough oregano for some intenditori, but for my palate it’s a tasty entry on the Spaghetti Western menu that’s a feast for the eyes and ears. Buen appetito!  

 

Ride Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (Warner Brothers 1956)

John Ford’s  THE SEARCHERS is without question an American Film Classic. I’d even go as far as saying it’s my second all-time favorite film, directly behind CASABLANCA. Every shot is a Remington Old West masterpiece, every actor perfect in their role, large or small, and not a minute of footage is wasted. The film has also stirred up quite a bit of controversy over time for John Wayne’s portrayal of the main character Ethan Edwards.

The plot is structured like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, but let’s get it out of the way right now: Ethan Edwards is no hero. He’s a mean, bitter, unreconstructed Confederate who’s been on the shady side of the law since war’s end. When he returns to his brother Aaron’s homestead, he makes no bones about his distaste for “half-breed” Martin Pawley (really an eighth Cherokee). His hatred of Native Americans even extends to their dead, as we see him shoot out the eyes of a Comanche corpse so his soul “must wander the spirit world between the winds”. He taunts Martin when the young man unwittingly marries the squaw Look, derisively referring to her as “Mrs. Pawley”.

Ethan is a hard man to get along with, yet for all his macho bravado (“That’ll be the day”, he intones whenever someone challenges him), he shows signs of compassion throughout the film. He’s tender with his nieces and nephews (and sister-in-law Martha; there’s a suggestion that they were once more than friends). He spares Martin the agony of looking into the burned out homestead to gaze upon the bodies of his loved ones. His love for family is delineated as he tries to shield niece Lucy’s grim fate from Martin and young Brad Jorgensen, and his response when Brad asks what happened is tortured: “What do you want me to do, draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me”.

Ethan’s search for surviving niece Debbie, captured by the renegade Comanche Scar, has a murderous purpose; he intends to kill the despoiled girl to save her from what he considers a fate worse than death – miscegenation. Yet when he finally tracks her down, blood in his eyes, he has a change of heart, and the softly spoken, haunting words, “Let’s go home, Debbie” never fail to mist me up. Ethan Edwards is a complex character, Kris Kristofferson’s “walking contradiction” come to life, as imperfect and flawed as the rest of us. It is indisputably John Wayne’s finest screen performance; the fact he wasn’t even nominated for the Academy Award is another in the long list of Oscar crimes.

Wayne’s dark Ethan Edwards is counterbalanced by Jeffrey Hunter’s sweet-natured Martin Pawley. A somewhat naïve young man, Martin longs for acceptance by ‘Uncle’ Ethan (Edwards disdains the term when Martin uses it), and is as dogged in his determination to find Debbie as the older man, though his intentions are more altruistic. Martin’s letters home to his sweetheart Laurie (played by Vera Miles) serve as narration to the story, and the scenes they share together as comic interludes to the film’s heavy tone. A 20th Century-Fox contract player, Hunter got his big break with THE SEARCHERS, and plays well off Wayne’s Edwards (Ford used the actor again in both THE LAST HURRAH and SERGEANT RUTLEDGE). Two of his most famous roles were in Nicholas Ray’s 1961 Biblical drama KING OF KINGS (which Hunter referred to as ” I Was a Teenage Jesus”) and the pilot episode of STAR TREK as Enterprise Commander Christopher Pike, later reworked into a two-part episode titled “The Menagerie”. Jeffrey Hunter continued his career in Europe, including a pair of Spaghetti Westerns (THE CHRISTMAS KID, FIND A PLACE TO DIE) before succumbing to a brain hemorrhage in 1969 at age 42.

By far my favorite character in THE SEARCHERS is the slightly crazy Ol’ Mose Harper, played by sagebrush vet Hank Worden. Long a Ford favorite, this was Worden’s biggest role, and he surely takes the tommyhawk and runs with it! The simplistic Mose greets every insult to his intelligence with a hearty, “Thank ya kindly!”, and holds the key to finding Debbie, wanting only in return “Just a roof over Ol’ Mose’s head, and a rockin’ chair by the fire – my own rockin’ chair”. Worden, best known to modern-day viewers as the waiter on the original TWIN PEAKS, was a member in good standing of the Ford Stock Company, and was used by Wayne in many of his later films (you can read my piece on Hank Worden’s career by clicking this link ).

Henry Brandon as Comanche war chief Scar is Ethan’s opposite number; he’s as filled with hatred for the white race as Edwards is for the Indians. Unlike the noble opponents found in many Wayne Westerns (SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON,  MCLINTOCK!), Scar is as ruthless and uncompromising in his hostility as Edwards, and his reaction to the white man’s hatred and oppression is hatred and oppression of his own, which only serves to fan the flames of discord between the races. It’s a lesson neither Scar nor Ethan ever learn, and continues today on the extremes of the political spectrum (Left and Right).

The rest of the cast is equally superb, including Natalie Wood as Debbie, Ward Bond as Reverend/Texas Ranger Samuel Clayton Johnson, Ken Curtis as Martin’s love rival Charlie (they engage in a comic brawl over Vera Miles’ affections), John Qualen as Lars Jorgensen, and Harry Carey Jr as Brad. Harry’s mother Olive Carey is cast as Mrs. Jorgensen, and in that famous final shot in the doorway Duke pays homage to her late husband Harry Carey Sr. by grasping his right arm at the elbow, a pose Carey struck in many a Western. Wayne’s son Patrick appears toward the end as callow Lt. Greenhill, and it’s fun to watch The Duke watching Pat act opposite Bond; that bemused look on his face is priceless! There are other Familiar Faces dotting the landscape as well, Danny Borzage, Dorothy Jordan, Mae Marsh, Antonio Moreno, Chief Thundercloud, and Natalie’s sister Lana Wood (playing Debbie as a child) among them.

 Speaking of landscapes, DP Winton Hoch beautifully brings Ford’s favorite shooting canvas Monument Valley to life in breathtaking VistaVision and Technicolor. Additional location footage was shot in California, Utah, and Alberta, Canada, as well as Hollywood’s soundstages, all blended brilliantly by editor Jack Murray. And no one other than the great Max Steiner could do justice to a film of this magnitude; his score ranks among his all-time best.

As for the Old Master himself, John Ford was at the peak of his creative talent, his keen eye for detail making every shot a work of art. But THE SEARCHERS would be his last great masterpiece (though a case could be made for THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE). Ford was 66 years old, his eyesight failing, and his years of alcohol abuse were beginning to take their deadly toll. His pictures after this seemed to be losing their vibrancy, that distinctive John Ford touch. Thus it is that THE SEARCHERS is the note the director should’ve ended on artistically, but unfortunately life never truly imitates art, does it? It’s a film that consistently ranks high in critic’s and filmmaker’s top tens, and one worth repeated viewings to soak in all the nuances of characterization and mise en scene. THE SEARCHERS is a film I don’t just recommend, I implore you to watch. It is truly that damn good.

 

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)

(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser with manic mood swings and a violent temper. A real reprobate. But damn, he made some of the best films of the 60’s and 70’s! His takes on the western and crime genres were ultra-violent lyrical tone poems, influencing an entire generation of filmmakers who tried to copy his style, but rarely succeeded. Take a look at virtually any action-packed movie made in the last fifty years, at directors from Scorsese to Tarantino, and you’ll see the Peckinpah influence. Sam Peckinpah may have been a pain in the ass, but the man was an artist of the first order.

PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID concerns the familiar tale of two old friends, one an outlaw, the other now a lawman, and their final confrontation. The two leads are veteran James Coburn as Garrett and relative newcomer Kris Kristofferson, better known at the time as a singer/songwriter. Garrett has been hired by the powers that be in Lincoln County, New Mexico to rid the territory of Billy and his gang. The pair had ridden together as outlaws, and been on opposite sides before (Billy: “Wasn’t long ago I was the law, riding with Chisum. Pat was an outlaw. The law’s a funny thing.”). Garrett doesn’t want to kill Billy, but knows in his heart that’s exactly what it’s going to take.

Cinematographer John Coquillon got his start working on AIP horrors (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE OBLONG BOX ), and was a favorite of Peckinpah. There are marvelous location shots of the rugged Durango, Mexico scenery, notably the reflective river. A standout comes when Billy kills his religious fanatic jailer (a scary R.G. Armstrong), and at Billy’s capture, his arms stretched out like Christ on the Cross when he gives up. Coquillon and Peckinpah worked together on the director’s seminal STRAW DOGS, and later on CROSS OF IRON and THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND. They make a great duo, each man enhancing the other’s artistic vision.

The plaintive score, as you may already know, is by Bob Dylan, who also has a role as Alias, an enigmatic figure to say the least (Pat: “Who are you?” Alias: “That is a good question”). Dylan may not be an Olivier or DeNiro, but he’s just right in this role, saving Billy by throwing his knife at just the right moment, being intimidated by Garrett, and pretty much just being Dylan. The hit song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is featured on the soundtrack, which was released as his 12th album, and I’m sure you Dylan fans already own it!

The movie is stocked with some of Hollywood’s best character actors, all of whom get their chance to shine. Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado play a pair of lawmen (lawpersons??) aiding Pat, and Pickens’ death scene is played out to the aforementioned Dylan hit. Jack Elam is Alamosa Bill, who tracks Billy down and dies in a gun duel. Good Lord, there’s Luke Askew, John Beck, Richard Bright, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook Jr , singer Rita Coolidge, Jack Dodson, Gene Evans , Emilio Fernandez, Paul Fix Richard Jaeckel , L.Q. Jones, Jason Robards Charlie Martin Smith , Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Sullivan , Dub Taylor, Chill Wills, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood Familiar Faces!

The final, fatal killing of Billy the Kid is haunting for both its beauty and its ugliness. That pretty much sums up the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work, the dichotomy of beauty and the grotesque, the proud and the profane, walking hand in hand through a random, chaotic world. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was Peckinpah’s final word on the Western genre, and I’m glad it’s been restored to its original form, so future generations can study the cinematic artwork of this difficult, self-destructive, brilliant genius.

Rocky Mountain High: THE NAKED SPUR (MGM 1953)

 

 

(By sheer coincidence, this post coincides with the birthday of character actor Millard Mitchell (1903-1953), who plays Tate in the film. Happy birthday, Millard! This one’s for you!)  

James Stewart and Anthony Mann  moved from Universal-International to MGM, and from black & white to Technicolor, for THE NAKED SPUR, the third of their quintet of Westerns together. The ensemble cast of five superb actors all get a chance to shine, collectively and individually, creating fully fleshed out characters against the natural beauty of the Colorado backdrop.

Bitter Howard Kemp, whose wife sold their ranch and ran off while he was serving in the war, is hunting down killer Ben Vandergroat for the $5,000 bounty in hopes of rebuilding his life. Along the trail he meets old prospector Jesse Tate and recently discharged (dishonorably) Lt. Roy Anderson. The trio manages to capture Vandergroat, but he’s not alone… he’s accompanied by pretty wildcat Lina Patton. Now they must cross the dangerous Colorado territory to bring the outlaw back to Kansas, encountering danger and treachery at every turn, as Ben tries to drive a wedge of greed between them.

Lanky Jimmy Stewart plays Kemp as a conflicted man, at turns downright mean yet developing feelings for the untamed Lina. She’s played by Janet Leigh , the daughter of Ben’s dead outlaw buddy torn between loyalty to him and her growing fondness for Kemp. Though Lina’s a wild, feisty  young woman, she shows tenderness towards him when he’s wounded during an Indian attack. She cries as Kemp callously shoots her sick horse, not wanting to be slowed down in bringing his prisoner to justice, yet isn’t willing to let Ben kill him. Stewart and Leigh bring great depth to these two contradictory, all too human characters.

Robert Ryan  has a field day as the snickering, scheming Vandergroat,  using Lina to seduce Kemp, tricking gold-fevered Tate into freeing him, and working on everybody’s baser emotions to his advantage. Ryan gets all the good lines (“Money splits better two ways ‘stead of three”), and makes a charming sociopath. Ralph Meeker’s   Lt. Anderson thinks he’s a charmer too, putting the make on Leigh’s character from the get-go, and that Indian attack I mentioned earlier is a direct result of Anderson taking liberties (to put it nicely) with the daughter of the tribe’s chief. Meeker’s character is driven by lust, for both money and women, and the actor does well in the part.

Character actor Millard Mitchell plays the grizzled old Tate, who’s been searching for a gold strike for decades without success. His obsession with striking it rich is his weakness and ultimately his downfall when he finally breaks his word and attempts to aid Vandergroat. Mitchell played opposite Stewart in Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73, and enhanced many a classic film with his talent: KISS OF DEATH, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, THE GUNFIGHTER. He was the marshal in THE GUNFIGHTER and studio boss R. F. Simpson in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and an actor who deserves more recognition for his contributions to cinema.

There are no true heroes in the script by Harold Jack Bloom and Sam Rolfe, only five disparate characters thrown together by fate, a theme closer to Mann’s early work in film noir than the wild west. Both writers would go on to create popular TV shows; Rolfe was the man behind THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E and Bloom co-created the hit EMERGENCY!. William C. Mellor’s stunning outdoor photography provides the perfect picture of man vs. nature, both the terrain and his own baser instincts. Bronislaw Kaper’s score adds immensely to the film’s overall mood. Anthony Mann is in top form here, guiding his ensemble through their paces with a strong hand. THE NAKED SPUR is grand entertainment, and has gotten even better over time. This is a film that bares repeated viewings to absorb all that’s going on, and not to be missed!

Bloody Good Show: Franco Nero in DJANGO (Euro International 1966)

A solitary man is dragging a coffin through bleak, rocky terrain. He comes across a helpless female tied to posts, being whipped by a gang of banditos. A group of mercenaries, adorned in red scarves, shoot down the bandits. The group, members of ex-Confederate Major Jackson’s marauders, plan on burning the woman alive. The solitary man, watching all this, guns down her attackers with blinding speed, freeing her and offering protection. The man’s name is… DJANGO!

Any resemblance between Sergio Corbucci’s seminal 1966 Spaghetti Western and Sergio Leone’s 1964 A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS   is not strictly coincidental. Both movies are uncredited adaptations of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 YOJIMBO, though Corbucci’s version of the tale takes more liberties and  he succeeds to out-Leone Leone with the brutal, unrelenting violence, making this a must-see film for fans of the genre.

Django takes the woman, a half-Mexican named Maria, to a desolate ghost town inhabited only by saloon proprietor Nathaniel and a brood of colorfully dressed whores. The town is considered neutral territory for two warring factions, Jackson’s KKK-like rebels and “General” Hugo Rodriguez’s band of revolutionaries. When Jackson and his men enter the tavern, we learn what Django’s been keeping in that coffin… a mitrailleuse machine gun, which he uses to obliterate most of Jackson’s gang! Soon The General and his troops ride into town, and Django, who once saved Hugo’s life, has a plan to purchase more machine guns for Hugo’s cause, by stealing the gold hidden in the Mexican Army stronghold Ft. Charriba.

Django, Hugo, and two men hide in Nathaniel’s wagon, pretending to be the whores, and pull a bloody raid, witnessed by none other than the vengeful Major Jackson. Django is now ready to take his share of the gold and move on, but Hugo is reluctant to part with either it or Django right away so, while the revolutionaries revel in their good fortune, Django re-steals the gold, loading it in his coffin. He sets up his machine gun to thwart anyone attempting to enter its location and sets to ride off, but Maria forces him to take her along. Coming to a rickety bridge, Django prepares to part ways with Maria, only to have the gold laden coffin slide into the quicksand below! Maria tries to help Django extricate himself from the quagmire and is shot down by Hugo’s men. Django is pulled from the quicksand and suffers an even worse fate, viciously beaten with a rifle butt and trampled by horses, leaving him a broken, bloody mess.

Hugo and his pistoleros ride off, only to be ambushed and slaughtered by Jackson and the Mexican Army. Django and Maria, both still alive, make it back to Nathaniel’s, and Django confesses he must kill Jackson, the man who murdered his former fiance, or none of them will get any peace. The final confrontation in the cemetery between Django, broken hands and all, and Jackson is a masterpiece of Spaghetti Western cinema.

Corbucci’s judicious use of wide-angled shots, overhead views, and close-ups, while similar to Leone, are far from derivative, and the director stakes out his own unique style, making art out of all the carnage. There are shocking scenes like the one where Hugo cuts off the ear of one of Jackson’s men and force feeds it to him, then shoots him in the back. A barroom fight between Django and one of Hugo’s men is well-staged, and capped off by Hugo plunging an axe into his own soldier’s back! The sight of Django brutally beaten and trampled is both horrifying and unforgettable. Then there’s that cemetery finale, done by Leone and Kurosawa in the previous versions, but with a distinct Corbucci twist.

Franco Nero became an international star with DJANGO, appearing in two more Corbucci  westerns (THE MERCENARY, COMPANEROS), and returned to the character in 1987’s DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN. There are over 30 “unofficial” sequels featuring Django, with actors Tomas Milian, James Philbrook, Franco Franchi (of the comedy team Franco & Ciccio), and Terence Hill all tackling the part. Mention must be made of DP Enzo Barboni’s stunning photography and the score by Luis Enrique Bacalov (who won an Oscar for 1996’s IL POSTINO), featuring a theme song by European pop star (and American ex-pat) Rocky Roberts.

The movie and character have influenced everyone from Quintin Tarantino (his DJANGO UNCHAINED even features the same theme song, and a cameo by Nero) to pro wrestler The Undertaker. DJANGO played briefly in Los Angeles in 1966 before gaining wider distribution in an edited version in 1972. The print I saw on Sony Classics was the uncut (though dubbed) original, and that’s definitely the one you want to watch. DJANGO is also available on both DVD and Blu-Ray, and if you’re into Spaghetti Westerns, rush out and buy a copy today.

 

 

Hell Bent for Vengeance: Randolph Scott in DECISION AT SUNDOWN (Columbia 1957)

I seem to have gained some new channels along with my new DirecTV receiver. I’m not sure why, but I won’t argue…  at least until I see the bill! One of them is Sony Movie Channel, featuring the Columbia Pictures catalog, and I recently viewed DECISION AT SUNDOWN, the third of seven Western collaborations between star Randolph Scott  and director Budd Boetticher. The plot and setting are simple, yet within that framework we get a tense psychological drama about a man consumed by vengeance and hatred.

Scott, still cutting a dashing figure at age 59, plays Bart Allison, who along with his pal Sam, ride into the town of Sundown on the day of Tate Kimbrough’s wedding to Lucy Summerton. Bart’s not there to offer his congratulations though; he announces his intention to kill town boss Tate. The reason: Bart holds Tate responsible for his wife’s suicide three years ago. Bart and Sam then hole up in the livery stable while Tate’s hand-picked sheriff and his men force a stand-off.

To reveal any more of the narrative would be doing a disservice to those who haven’t seen this little gem. Suffice it to say, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The film is expertly put together by Boetticher, DP Burnett Guffey (Oscar winner for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and BONNIE & CLYDE), and editor Al Clark (ALL THE KING’S MEN, 3:10 TO YUMA ), keeping the suspense tight as possible. Boetticher was a talented director who marched to the beat of his own drum. A trained bullfighter, his breakthrough film was 1951’s THE BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY. He directed the frequently overlooked noir THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956) before embarking on his seven Scott Westerns, then spent over a decade filming and finding financing for his documentary on Mexican matador Carlos Arruza, finally getting a 1972 release. An most interesting man, Boetticher died in 2001.

Scott gives an outstanding performance as Allison, driven by his lust for vengeance. Bart Allison is both a man of principal and tragic figure, and Scott maintains his balance between the two using few words, showing not telling. It’s a difficult role, but Randolph Scott pulls it off in his own inimitable style. His chemistry with Noah Beery Jr, playing loyal friend Sam, is palpable; one can only wish they’d made more films together. Tate Kimbrough is played by John Carroll, who looked and sounded so much like Clark Gable that MGM once tried to promote him as The Next Big Thing. He never quite caught on, probably because the resemblance was too close, and one Gable in Hollywood was enough. Carroll could hold his own in the acting department though, his best known films are probably GO WEST (with the Marx Bros), FLYING TIGERS (with John Wayne), and the Republic serial ZORRO RIDES AGAIN.

Rounding out the cast are Karen Steel (MARTY) as Lucy, Valerie French (JUBAL) as Tate’s former lover Ruby, John Archer ( ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK ) as the sympathetic town doctor, and Andrew Duggan ( THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET ) as the sheriff. Familiar Faces around town include veteran John Litel as Lucy’s father, Richard Deacon, Abel Fernandez, Bob Steele, Vaughn Taylor, Ray Teal, James Westerfield, and H.M. Wynant. If you haven’t watched any of the seven Scott/Boetticher Westerns, you’re missing out on some great filmmaking, and DECISION AT SUNDOWN makes a good  place to start.