Author Topic: Westerns  (Read 45578 times)

Corndog

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #330 on: April 11, 2018, 03:20:14 PM »
Devil's Doorway (Anthony Mann, 1950)

Just recently I commented on the use of "redface", wherein a white actor don's makeup in order to look like a Native American. That movie was Broken Arrow, and while that effect dampened my enjoyment of the film, which otherwise framed them as decent, honorable people, it was also one which I tentatively forgave knowing the climate of Hollywood at the time of production. With Devil's Doorway, we get another Hollywood star dressed up to be a Native American, and while it may be a little easier to deal with than Broken Arrow since the black and white photography makes it less obvious than the color of Broken Arrow, it still feels weird. At least Devil's Doorway goes that many steps further in portraying the Native American's here as decent people, people whom the United States government failed to recognize their rights.

After returning home to Wyoming after fighting for the Union army in the Civil War, Shoshone Indian Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) welcomes the beauty of his home and cattle ranch at Sweet Meadows. But he quickly learns that, even though he has long held great relationships with the townsfolk of Medicine Bow, including newly appointed marshal Zeke (Edgar Buchanan), there are new residents in town, namely lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who don't see the value of his kind. Poole, whose land is now threatened by homesteaders, employs a lawyer, and a woman no less (Paula Raymond), to help protect what is rightfully his land. But while the law doesn't seem to agree with him, Poole and Coolan, who represents sheep herding homesteaders, are setup for a fight over the Sweet Meadows.

The strongest aspects of Devil's Doorway are really strong. For one, it's portrayal of the disenfranchised Native American is particularly striking given the general feeling towards them up to this point. I've mentioned the sympathetic portrayals in Broken Arrow already, but Devil's Doorway really takes it to the next level. Poole is both a Native American in good standing in his community as well as a war veteran who has won the Medal of Honor (which also reminded me a bit of The Vanishing American, which features a Native American returning home after fighting in World War I). I can't help but think this film parallels nicely with the politics of the time, making this even more progressive. In 1950, World War II was fresh in memory, and the Civil Rights movement was just around the corner. I don't think this is coincidence as many parallels can be drawn between Poole's experience and that of African American's of the time. Again, released in 1950, that makes this concept all the more impressively bold.

As for the film itself, it consists of a bunch of actors I don't recognize, and nothing within the film makes me think I need to further explore their work, but the performance are fine if not notable. Taylor's Poole is just the right amount of cocky and passionate, bringing an edge to the character that doesn't make him instantly likable, but toes the line with him approaching the situation as a villain. Toes the line, I said. Of course Poole is right, and his nature should owe nothing the whether the land rightfully belongs to him or not, and of course I would be mad as hell and uncooperative too if my land was being infringed upon. I like too that in subverting the persona of the Indian in making Poole a war hero and community contributor, Mann also subverts expectations with a female lawyer. The filmmakers pull out all the stops in showing its viewer that people are people are people. And the film is stronger for it.

In terms of how I felt overall about the film, I unfortunately felt the ideas of the film far outshone the actual execution, which is to say that the story/script's ambitions were much more interesting and thought provoking than what was actually put to celluloid. As I mentioned, Taylor is fine, Raymond is fine, but their romance and on screen chemistry is just ho-hum. I also didn't particularly enjoy the action scene that featured in the finale of the film. It failed to thrill me or otherwise entertain me. The politics of the film are what are interesting, and what keeps my attention throughout. I think it's a very notable western for that specific reason, and should be applauded as such, but I also don't think it was an overwhelmingly great film. I've found through this marathon that there are often things to appreciate within movies, even when the film itself is not good. Devil's Doorway falls somewhere in the middle in that it's not a great film, but it's not a bad one either. But the ideas behind it are monumental, and could have made for a potentially even better film.

★★★ - Liked It
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Re: Westerns
« Reply #331 on: April 11, 2018, 04:42:52 PM »
According to ICM, I saw this in September 2013. I posted very briefly about it following PeacefulAnarchy's positive review. sdedalus and MartinTeller like it a lot too, so I'll give it a 2nd look tonight and report back.

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #332 on: April 11, 2018, 11:23:57 PM »
I didn't notice how fast and thick the Anthony Mann films would be coming. Three out of the last four, and they're all quite different on a first look, but he has a consistent visual style and a real strength for toughening his characters in a short amount of time.

I'm glad I watched this again because I liked it a bit more. Still wouldn't recommend it though because some of the scenes hit the plea for Indian tolerance too strong - that last minute is kind of laughable - and portrays anti-Indian sentiment in a fairly cartoonish way. I wish the sheepmen or Coolan had some of the same depth as Lance Poole. Zeke has some conflict being an old friend of Poole who must enforce unfair laws. (Love the way he remarks at the end of a tense meeting that it's the last time he'll ever be allowed that close to Poole.) Coolan seems to exist to just to stir up trouble, and while it's true to the attitude of many racists, it also makes for a boring villain character.

My other big problem, like you said, is that action finale. Some of Mann's best scenes are minimal confrontations, like the bar fight when a law is passed forbidding liquor to Indians. His camera is great at getting tight and tense, but the finale is epic with lots of gunfire and explosions and it's really boring. Seemingly endless because there's too little of our characters going against each other, too many faceless obstacles. Compare that to the one-on-one finale of Winchester or even the wagon train fighting off the morning Indian attack where you know who everyone inside that settlement circle is.

Corndog

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #333 on: April 12, 2018, 08:29:54 AM »
Agree. It's a film whose ideas and sentiment is great, but that fails to translate on screen.
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Re: Westerns
« Reply #334 on: July 03, 2018, 10:36:37 AM »
I had the upcoming three westerns from my marathon at home from the library and had to return them unwatched!

Back on order, so hopefully this wagon train can hit the trail again soon after a lengthy hiatus.
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Re: Westerns
« Reply #335 on: July 04, 2018, 02:09:59 AM »
Ready when you are.

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #336 on: July 19, 2018, 12:49:21 PM »
Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950)

Rio Grande is the third and final film in the informal Cavalry trilogy from John Ford, featuring John Wayne in each film, and portraying Captain Kirby York in two of them (not sure why they didn't just go for the trifecta). This is a very informal trilogy as there is no through line in terms of story. It's true, they're all about the cavalry, they all star John Wayne and are westerns. There are similarities, but are only loosely thrown together as a trilogy. But none of that really matters, as each film is its own thing, each film stands on its own, and each film should be evaluated on its own merits. After a lengthier layoff from this marathon than I was hoping (after a broken Blu Ray player delayed me further), I was very excited that a John Ford film awaited my return. But like any journey which restarts, there is still a long way ahead for me.

Kirby York (John Wayne) is a military man who has served his country for many years. He is now stationed with a cavalry unit on the Rio Grande, but soon finds himself dealing with numerous points of drama. To start, his son (Claude Jarman Jr.), whom he has not seen in 15 years, has been coincidentally stationed with him after failing out of West Point and enlisting the very next day. He comes with a fresh group of recruits, not enough to help Kirby battle the aggressive Apaches, which includes brilliant horsemen Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) and Tyree (Ben Johnson), the latter of which is on the lam for manslaughter. Add to all this the presence of a lady (Maureen O'Hara), the mother of trooper York and wife of Kirby, whom she has been separated from for some time now. She has come to collect her son, but soon finds herself once again wrapped up with Kirby and the drama which surrounds her.

It pains me to say this, but this was not my favorite John Ford or John Wayne film. Ford has been a blessing to me and this marathon to this point, as he is a giant of the genre who has delivered the goods on multiple occasions (and I am sure he will continue to deliver the goods in the future), but with this outing, there is just something missing. Wayne is big as ever, inhabiting a character that is quintessential Wayne: large, in charge, country first and even a slight twinge of romanticism underneath the gruff exterior. Kirky York is likely not the issue with the film. But perhaps Maureen O'Hara, or rather her character Kathleen, is to blame. O'Hara delivers quite a nice performance in the role to be honest, but Kathleen's involvement in the story is very inserted. Without her there is no story, that much is true, but her presence feels so ingenuine that it makes the narrative fall apart for me.

Add to that I didn't particularly enjoy the dynamics between the principle characters all that much. The military York's relationship is so very cold, with Kirby showing some curiosity and warmth when he has a moment to himself (like measuring how tall Jeff is), but ultimately their duty to service outshines all else. But with that, the threat of Apaches along the border feels like such a manufactured and lazy threat created to heighten the drama, to insert stakes. The family dynamic is really where the stakes are with this movie, the Apaches are just necessary evil in order to complete the western trope. With all these factors coming into play, they never congeal in any satisfying way that makes me think any of the events unfolding happened organically. It's all a bit too made up and not nearly exciting enough.

Ford is good with the camera as always, and there's always something to take away from his films, usually action scenes. Apart from the thrilling horse riding scene featuring the talents of stuntman Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., the action even felt a little flat. All in all, Rio Grande just does not work out to be among Ford's best work, and I still am not exactly sure why this is a part of the Cavalry Trilogy, other than they wanted to name Wayne's character the same as in Fort Apache, wherein he takes a backseat to Henry Ford. Of the three, Rio Grande is easily my least favorite, which is all so very frustrating given the talent involved in the film. I suppose greats are allowed to make an underwhelming film every now and again. Let's just hope it doesn't become a trend as we've entered the 1950s of this marathon.

★★ - Didn't Like It
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Re: Westerns
« Reply #337 on: July 20, 2018, 12:02:13 AM »
I had to dig to find my review (and the link doesn't work) and along the way I found various posts where I speak highly of the film, because I blend it in with the other two films.

Rio Grande (1950)
* * 1/2
I now get why I don't own Ford's Calvary Trilogy. I used to have trouble telling the films apart, but now I'll always remember this is the one with all the songs. Thanks to Sons of the Pioneers, this would count as a musical. They contribute over a half-dozen tunes, and the film nearly always stops to listen to all of them in their entirety. Sons have some classics, but I'll take the average Hoagy Carmichael number over anything in this film.

There's usually a base level amount of enjoyment with most John Ford/John Wayne films, and that's where this is at. It's a well-photographed film, and Wayne brings a weariness to the part without coming off like the actor is tired of the motions he goes through. The story is so empty of creativity and surprises, I can't imagine money being spent on it without the participation of Ford and Wayne. Ben Johnson and Chill Wills are the standout supporting players here. Victor McLaglen is probably the weakest, coming off like Eddie Murphy in those films where they just turn the camera on and hope his mugging will naturally be funny. Ford's portrayal of Indians in movies has numerous progressive examples. This is his most regressive film, setting up the Apache as nothing more than immoral savages who deserve to be gunned down.

As for the 1950s in general, Westerns become less classical at this point and it's going to be interesting watching you react to some of the tension between the genre's attempt to deepen while staying close to their populist roots. Eventually this develops into a complete deconstruction, subversion and reinvention, but that's another decade away.

Also, you're looking at a pretty big break before your next John Ford. Could be a year before you see him again.

Corndog

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Re: Westerns
« Reply #338 on: July 20, 2018, 07:09:09 AM »
You add some points I noticed as well but failed to mention, particularly about the films treatment of the Indians.
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Re: Westerns
« Reply #339 on: July 25, 2018, 08:26:59 AM »
Rawhide (Henry Hathaway, 1951)

The Western genre, while specific in its own way, allows for a great array of possible stories, which is one of the many attributes which attracts me to it. You have have huge, sweeping epics, but I think a lot of the charm of the western is in its smallness, not its vastness. The ability to tell the story of a small outpost town, or the contained, tense narrative of an outlaw is really a strength. Take films like The Gunfighter, or Yellow Sky for instance. They're small stories told extremely well, which makes for exciting narratives which pull the viewer into the film. But just like anything, it's possible for any story to fall flat, whether its big or small. The building blocks which make a film or story work are the same, so its less a matter of making a story big or small, and more a matter of making it the right way, in order to craft a truly entertaining and enriching narrative.

In this western, we find a pleasant stagecoach station named Rawhide, inhabited only by the station master and his assistant Tom (Tyrone Power). When a stagecoach carrying a single woman named Vinnie (Susan Hayward) and a child comes through, they must force her to stay at Rawhide, as there is an outlaw on the loose. As fate would have it, however, that outlaw, Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) soon shows up at Rawhide, detaining Tom and Vinnie in hopes of robbing the next stage through which is scheduled to carry a load of gold from San Francisco. Tom and Vinnie must work together to fight off Zimmerman and his band of outlaws in time to save the gold and save themselves.

The concept of this western is chock full of solid western tropes. Outlaw on the run, confined space, budding, unexpected romance, crazy sidekicks. The formula is tried and true and from a screenplay standpoint, Rawhide is the type of movie that should work, especially for my tastes, and yet it doesn't. There are lots of factors that go into making a movie, especially a good one, and while the screenplay/story is a major aspect of that formula, it plays but one part. I found the performances here as well as the pacing to be truly lacking, which ultimately doom what is an otherwise entertaining and intriguing premise for a western. I wonder what this film would look like if directed by a bigger name, if it starred bigger names. This is not to say Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward are not capable actors, I just found them ill-suited for this film.

They're both more supporting characters in my mind, but in reality they're fine here. There is nothing much wrong with what they bring to the table. My biggest problem is with the main villain, the outlaw Rafe Zimmerman played by Hugh Marlowe. His presence is just completely flat and not menacing in any way. His performance is monotone and unthreatening. I never believed for a second that he was a hardened criminal capable of killing. For a story such as this, this is a major problem, as it sloggs the rest of the proceedings as a masquerade. They're play acting. And while that is what they're really doing (they are actors), it's not what I should be seeing. I should be believing their story, along for the ride. The one acting performance that I genuinely enjoyed was that of Jack Elam as Tevis. His crazy eyes are perfectly suited for his characters menace, and he really brings an interesting dynamic to the story.

I wouldn't mind seeing more of either Tyrone Power or Susan Hayward. I wouldn't even mind seeing more from director Henry Hathaway. It just works out that this was not their best effort (one hopes). The elements are there, but the lack of energy, conviction, and memorable moments/performances sinks it to the level of completely and instantly forgettable B-movie fare. The kind during which the youngsters were likely loitering about the concessions and making out in their cars at the drive-in, waiting for the real picture show to start up after. Some of these B-movie types can be diamonds in the rough, but not this one. It is a throwaway movie if ever there was one, with bits and pieces which show promise, but not enough connective tissue to bring them all together into a worthwhile film.

★★ - Didn't Like It
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