Ulmer Out West: THE NAKED DAWN (Universal-International 1955)

A Technicolor modern-day Western noir directed by legendary low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer ? Count me in! THE NAKED DAWN probably wouldn’t be remembered today if it weren’t for Ulmer, who had a knack for making silk purses out of sow’s ears. Ulmer uses the outdoor locations and his trademark tight shots to disguise the budgetary restrictions, and creates a small gem of a movie. It’s not THE SEARCHERS  or anything, just a compact little drama with a rare starring role for actor Arthur Kennedy .

Kennedy plays Santiago, an ex-revolutionary turned bandito. He’s a drifter, unfettered by societal norms, whose lust for life and freedom are constantly threatened by the powers that be. A metaphor for Ulmer himself, perhaps? Santiago robs a train of some merchandise, and his friend Vicente is killed in the process. Stumbling upon God-fearing Maria and her husband Manuel on their modest farm, Santiago’s roguish charm enchants both. Manuel is struggling to make a go of things; he’s sunk his life savings into the farm. The purchase price included Maria, unhappy with her lot in life and longing to experience the outside world.

Santiago persuades Manuel to drive him to Matamoros to sell his ill-gotten gains, and the crooked customs agent tries to rip him off. But sly Santiago is no easy mark, and he quickly turns the tables, grabbing all the cash and leaving the agent standing on a chair with a noose around his neck! The two men celebrate at a local cantina (where we’re treated to some singing and dancing by the lovely Charlita of BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA fame!), getting drunk on tequila and involved in a barroom brawl. Manuel, tired of working like a dog, plots to kill Santiago and take the money for himself. Meanwhile, Maria has grown tired of being slapped around and treated like a servant, and throws herself into the arms of the carefree bandito…

Kennedy was usually relegated to second leads, and takes this opportunity to shine as the lusty Santiago. His Mexican accent may be a bit on the hokey side, but his performance is well nuanced enough to make up for it. There’s no denying Kennedy was a great actor – after all, the man has five Oscar nominations on his resume (though he never won)! Betta St. John (Maria) was a good actress who never quite got that one role that would put her over the top; the closest she came was probably in DREAM WIFE, opposite Cary Grant. She’s better known for her parts in a pair of horror flicks, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee , and HORROR HOTEL, again with Lee. Eugene Iglesias’ Manuel is written as a coward, and elicits no sympathy whatsoever – at least not from me!

THE NAKED DAWN won’t show up on any “Ten Best” lists, but it did have one very influential fan – French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, who claimed he based his characters in JULES AND JIM on Santiago, Maria, and Manuel. Edgar G. Ulmer may not have had large budgets to work with, but his films were admired by those who know good filmmaking when they see it. Include me among them!



Queen of the Outlaws: CAT BALLOU (Columbia 1965)

Lee Marvin  didn’t get many chances to show his comedic side; in fact, I can only think of two off the top of my head: the John Wayne/John Ford outing DONOVAN’S REEF (1963) and the 1976 spoof THE GREAT SCOUT AND CATHOUSE THURSDAY (I’ll be charitably silent about 1969’s PAINT YOUR WAGON!).  Then there’s the comedy western CAT BALLOU, for which Marvin won an Oscar in the dual roles of drunken, broken down outlaw Kid Shelleen and hired killer Tim Strawn. Marvin’s marvelous, but if the truth be told, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Marvin to play a hard drinker and a macho tough guy… there’s a little bit of Lee in both personas!

We know we’re in for a good time right off the get-go when the fabled Columbia Torch Lady morphs into an animated, six-gun packin’ cowgirl, a sure sign not to take things too seriously. CAT BALLOU concerns prim young Catherine Ballou returning to Wolf City, Wyoming to become a schoolteacher only to find her father’s ranch being threatened by the railroad company. When her father is killed at the hand of silver-nosed Strawn, Cat seeks revenge on the railroad along with her compatriots Clay Boone, a cowardly cattle rustler who’s hot for Cat, Clay’s Uncle Jed, who passes himself off as a man of the cloth, and ranch hand Jackson Two Bears. Cat hires a gunslinger of her own, the notorious Kid Shelleen, whom she’s read about in dime novels. What she gets is a broken-down drunk who literally can’t hit the side of a barn without a few belts in him!

Cat and company ride out to the infamous Hole in the Wall to meet the fearsome Butch Cassidy, who’s not so fearsome any longer… Cassidy and his gang are all old and decrepit now! But Cat’s determined to avenge her father’s death, starting by pulling off a daring train robbery. Then it’s on to railroad boss Sir Harry Percival, where she disguises herself as a hooker named ‘Trixie’, and winds up accidentally shooting the lustful old codger, arrested for murder, and sentenced to hang…

Marvin first appears rolling out the back of a stagecoach, and proceeds to steal the show with his comic antics. He’s half in the bag most of the time, but my favorite scene occurs when Shelleen tries to sober up and get back in shape for a showdown with Strawn, assisted by Two Bears. He takes a bath for the first time in years, then is strapped into a corset and dons his old gunfighter clothing and pearl-handled Colts ready to do battle with the enemy. The fact that Marvin plays both Shelleen and Strawn means that Lee Marvin actually ends up gunning down himself! The Academy should’ve given Lee two Oscars for that!

Jane Fonda  stars as Cat, who goes from wide-eyed innocent to outlaw queen. The movie was made during Jane’s formative film years, and the surprise hit did a lot to boost her stock as an actress to be reckoned with in the future. Jane fits right in with the Western milieu, as befits the daughter of oater favorite Henry Fonda . Michael Callan (Clay) and Dwayne Hickman (Jed) get their best screen roles in this one, and Tom Nardini (Two Bears) is a favorite of mine from AIP exploitation fare like THE YOUNG SAVAGES and THE DEVIL’S 8. John Marley plays Cat’s dad, Reginald Denny is villainous Sir Harry, and sagebrush vets Bruce Cabot , Arthur Hunnicut (as Butch Cassidy), Jay C. Flippen , and Burt Mustin appear in small roles.

One fun aspect of CAT BALLOU is the presence of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as wandering minstrels acting as a Greek chorus throughout the film. If Cole’s velvet voice sounds a bit gruffer than usual, it’s because he was suffering from the lung cancer that eventually killed him, four months before the movie was released. The pair stroll along singing “The Ballad of Cat Ballou”, written for the film by Mack David and Jerry Livingston, which also earned the film an Oscar nomination. Frank DeVol’s score, Chris Nelson’s editing, and the screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson were nominated, as well. Director Elliot Silverstein marks his feature debut; he would go on to helm only five others, including the Richard Harris Western A MAN CALLED HORSE. Straddling the fence between comedy and Western can be tough, and most are played too broadly, but in CAT BALLOU Silverstein and his game cast (especially Marvin) and crew make it work, and it’s one of the genre’s best. This CAT is sleek entertainment, and a whole lot of fun!


Celebrity Hound: Gregory Peck in THE GUNFIGHTER (20th Century-Fox 1950)

By the late 1940’s, the Western was beginning to grow up. Films like Robert Wise’s BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948), Mark Robson’s ROUGHSHOD (1949), and William Wellman’s YELLOW SKY (1949) incorporated darker, more adult themes than the run-of-the-mill shoot ’em up. Henry King’s THE GUNFIGHTER tackles the still-relevant issues of celebrity culture and the price of fame, personified by Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a notorious fast gun whose reputation brings him the adulation of the masses but little peace.

Jimmy Ringo is weary of being challenged everywhere he goes by young punks eager to make a name for themselves. When one such punk (played by a young Richard Jaeckel) draws on him at in a saloon, he quickly learns how Jimmy earned his fast-draw rep. Problem is the punk has three brothers who “ain’t gonna care who drew first”. Ringo once again hits the trail, heading for the town of Cayenne, New Mexico, this time with a purpose in mind. His estranged wife Peggy is living there, along with the child he’s never met, having been on the run eight long years.

Cayenne is all a-buzz about the presence of the infamous gunfighter in their humble town. Saloonkeeper Mac (Karl Malden ) treats him like royalty. The local schoolkids, including Jimmy’s own, skip class and line the streets to get a glimpse of the famous Jimmy Ringo. But not all are so welcoming. Jimmy’s former outlaw pal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell ) is now town marshal, and wants his old pardner out-of-town ASAP. Peggy (Helen Westcott) refuses to see him. Yet another young punk, Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier ), wants to test his mettle against Ringo. The ladies auxiliary (led by Verna Felton and Ellen Corby ) demand he leave town. And those three brothers keep riding, hot on Jimmy’s trail and hellbent on revenge…

Peck cuts a menacing figure as Jimmy Ringo, with his perpetual scowl and dark moustache. By this time, he had become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, with credits like THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, SPELLBOUND, THE YEARLING, DUEL IN THE SUN, and GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT. More hits would follow, including his Oscar-winning performance in 1962’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Jimmy Ringo is tired of being hounded at every turn, whether by celebrity seekers or the next two-bit punk. Ringo’s an outlaw and a killer, to be sure,  yet Peck manages to elicit sympathy as a man who only wants to live out the rest of his life in peace and anonymity.

All the supporting cast are good, but I wanted to make special mention of Jean Parker in the role of Molly, a saloon girl once married to one of Ringo’s gang. Miss Parker, a promising starlet in the early 30’s, had been relegated to starring in low-budget films for Universal, Monogram, and PRC for a decade. THE GUNFIGHTER was her first movie role in four years, after replacing Judy Holliday on Broadway in BORN YESTERDAY, and she makes the most of her limited screen time. Some of my favorites with her are Laurel & Hardy’s THE FLYING DEUCES, Lon Chaney Jr’s “Inner Sanctum” mystery DEAD MAN’S EYES, and Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD (with John Carradine). It’s a pleasure to see Jean Parker in anything, and her presence adds to this film’s success.

Director Henry King made his first film in 1915, and was responsible for classics like IN OLD CHICAGO, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, WILSON , TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH (with Peck), and LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING, among many others. King keeps his focus on Ringo and the world he lives in, hunted and haunted by his notoriety. THE GUNFIGHTER is a genre classic, and helped the Western movie mature and move with the times. As relevant today as it was in 1950, in my opinion this is a must-see film.


Cold in Them Thar Hills: THE FAR COUNTRY (Universal-International 1955)

James Stewart and Anthony Mann’s  fourth Western together, 1955’s THE FAR COUNTRY, takes them due North to the Klondike during the Gold Rush of 1896. It’s a bit more formulaic than other Stewart/Mann collaborations, but a strong cast and some gorgeous Technicolor photography by William H. Daniels more than make up for it. The film is definitely worth watching for Western fans, but I’d rank it lowest on the Stewart/Mann totem pole.

Jimmy is Jeff Webster, a headstrong cattleman who drives his herd from Wyoming to Seattle to ship up north to the beef-starved gold miners for a huge profit. Webster killed two men along the way who tried to desert the drive, and barely escapes Seattle before arriving in Skagway, Alaska. There, he unintentionally interrupts a hanging being conducted by crooked town boss ‘Judge’ Gannon, who confiscates Webster’s herd as a fine for spoiling his fun. Webster and his two compatriots, talkative old Ben and boozy Rube, are then hired by saloon queen Ronda Castle to lead her on the trail to Dawson. Ronda’s more than a bit fond of the tall, laconic Webster, as is young French-Canadian tomboy Renee Vallon. But Webster’s got plans of his own, as he and his crew re-steal the cattle from Gannon and cross the border into Canada, where there’s gold in them thar icy hills…

Stewart’s Jeff Webster is an independent sort who has no use for either foolishness or companionship, save that of old Ben. Like all Stewart’s post-WWII characterizations, he’s aloof and bitter, claiming he doesn’t need anybody, but that changes over the course of the film. Walter Brennan once again provides his patented sidekick schtick as Ben, and you can’t go wrong with that in a Western! The women in Webster’s life are Ruth Roman as sexy saloon owner Ronda and pretty Corinne Calvet as Renee. Miss Calvet is an acquired taste; I’m not a big fan, but she’s more than adequate in her role.

John McIntire , never a big star but always a welcome presence, does a good turn as Gannon, a villain with charm and a sense of humor. Jay C. Flippen plays the souse Rube, a character who plays an important part in the proceedings. The main cast is supported by Familiar Western Faces galore, including Steve Brodie , Paul Bryar, Royal Dano, John Doucette, Jack Elam , Kathleen Freeman, Terry Frost, Connie Gilchrist, Cubby Johnson, Harry Morgan , Eddie Parker, Chuck Roberson (who was John Wayne’s stunt double for decades), Eddy Waller, and Robert J. Wilke.

Also in the cast is Jimmy Stewart’s favorite costar, a sorrel stallion named Pie, who Stewart rode in 17 films. The two were first paired in Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73, and worked together until 1970’s THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB. Stewart and Pie were so in tune that when the horse was called upon in THE FAR COUNTRY to walk down the street alone, foiling an ambush by the bad guys, all Stewart had to do was whisper a few simple instructions in Pie’s ear, and the stallion completed the scene in one take!

Screenwriter Borden Chase began his career writing for the pulps, and his short story DR. BROADWAY was adapted into Mann’s first film as director. Chase also wrote the scripts for WINCHESTER ’73 and BEND OF THE RIVER, but is more closely associated with the films of John Wayne: THE FIGHTING SEABEES, FLAME OF THE BARBARY COAST, TYCOON, and the classic RED RIVER. Daniels’ breathtaking location footage of Alberta’s Jasper National Park add a majestic realism to the movie, and Mann’s direction is on point. Though it’s not my favorite of the Stewart/Mann Westerns, these two could do no wrong together, and THE FAR COUNTRY still makes for an entertaining film.



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.

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.