William Wellman – Action and Story

26 May

It has recently come to my attention that the ability to tell a story is not necessarily highly prized in the world of Art. I’ve been reading a book on the history of crime fiction and many author’s extraordinary ability to spin a yarn is frequently dismissed while any work that can “engage” with society or psychology is praised. The idea seems to be that “character” should not be imprisoned by plot. Style and psychology, the author suggests, are the necessary ingredients for literature. It’s been mentioned in other books I’ve read, too, and a similar principle is at work in film criticism. Which is why, I think, I never did find the actual plot of an Orson Welles film all that engaging.

The result is that directors without a distinct style or more workmanlike approach to film making tend to be dismissed. but I have to admit that I’ve always admired directors (or artists in general) who have the ability to tell a story…concisely. No dross, no self-indulgence, no excess sentiment or filler. A taut, exciting, engaging story. That is why I admired the original Terminator so much when I saw it this year (I liked it even more than Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which didn’t feel as focused). The ability to pare one’s story down to the essentials can leave an intensely punchy, focused, and vivid effect on a viewer.

William A. Wellman, for me, epidermises this ability as a story teller. If one looks at the lengths of many of his films, they are not that long (Wings is an exception). Rarely over two hours, especially early in his career where they are often less than 90 minutes. His Ox-Bow Incident is only 73 minutes.

Action. He tells his story through action. We remember the action. The grapefruit in Public Enemy, Barbara Stanwyck socking it to a drunken, neglectful mother in Night Nurse, the women trying to get their wagons over a hill in Westward the Women, the hanging in The Ox-Bow Incident, the kid getting his leg run over by a train in Wild Boys of the Road, James Cagney acting out a boxing match on the top of a moving train in Other Men’s Women, the image of Charles “Buddy” Rogers flying (and he really was flying) and fighting in Wings, Anne Baxter shooting a part in Gregory Peck’s hair in Yellow Sky, Fredric March socking Carole Lombard on the jaw (his films can be quite physical) in Nothing Sacred, even the moment when Janet Gaynor proclaims herself Mrs. Norman Maine at the end of A Star is Born. These are the sorts of things I remember about his films.

The Ox-Bow Incident

What Wellman also provides is a certain authenticity. He really was a daredevil (he was called “Wild Bill”) and was a pilot during WWI and his films about pilots ring true. The fact that his actors in Wings really flew their planes, that he was the stuntman for a plane he wanted crashed just so in the film, a certain kind of wildness that he possessed and made its way into his stories, all contribute. Just as King Kong, despite being a fantasy, also possesses the genuine spirit of adventure that directors and producers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack really demonstrated in their own lives.

Wellman also valued comradeship in his films (and in life) and although this is often manifested as being male comradeship, he also provides a splendid example of female comradeship in the wonderful Westward the Women. The story is simple. Robert Taylor is leading a large wagon train of woman across the America continent to be wed to men who live in California. When the men desert them, Taylor must teach the women how to drive and shoot. They drive their wagons, comfort each other when they lose someone, help a baby to be born, battle the elements together. It’s almost an epic film.

I’m not sure Wellman’s plots are ever especially complicated. They derive their power from their simplicity. The rise and fall of a gangster in The Public Enemy. The rise of one star and the fall of another in A Star is Born. His films are easy to summarize. Human endeavor and human support. What makes the stories go is the action as we become invested in the characters and their journey.

That leaves the question: can there be just as much truth in action and story as in character and style? I don’t think anyone will ever make the case that The Ox-Bow Incident is a greater film than Citizen Kane. Wellman didn’t change the face of cinema or create films that one will analyze intellectually in essays, but there is a truth to be found in story and action, a reality and it has value. I will never forget my first time watching The Ox-Bow Incident. I was stunned. The power derived from his inexorable storytelling, the inexorable feel of men riled up and determined to lynch a man. It begs the question – is it even possible to stop incidents like that once they get going?

This post is my contribution to “The Favorite Director Blogathon,” hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies  and The Midnite Drive-In. Be sure to check out all the other posts!


Posted by on May 26, 2017 in Movies


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14 responses to “William Wellman – Action and Story

  1. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    May 26, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    Wellman is a director for whom I have a great deal of admiration and affection. I think you precisely analyzed a key component that makes his films so potent, so memorable. Those “action” sequences you highlighted are not in our memories as still life, but as living and breathing moments that weren’t simply watched, but experienced.

    I’m glad William Wellman is one of your favourite directors who inspired this fine article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 26, 2017 at 8:56 pm

      Ahh, I really like your phrase about how we “experience” his films. That makes a lot of sense. That we do not observe his films like poetry or painting, but as actual events we witnessed. Thanks!


  2. Quiggy

    May 26, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    Great review. I admit I never hooked on to Wellman as a director, although I have seen my share of his movies. Usually its something else that drew me to it, like Cagney in The Public Enemy… Thanks for joining the blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 26, 2017 at 8:58 pm

      And thank you for hosting! It was wonderful to have the opportunity to think through what I liked so much about his films. I think I first got into his films by watching by actors, too. Like the films he made with Barbara Stanwyck. He really worked with great, dynamic people!


  3. Michaela

    May 29, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    Brilliant post, Christina! I must admit that I haven’t seen many of Wellman’s films, mainly because I’ll read the plot synopsis and decide it’s not for me, but your well-written article has inspired me to give Wellman more consideration.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      May 29, 2017 at 7:12 pm

      Thanks! He definitely gravitated towards more action, gangster, western kind of films. Did you ever see Westward the Women? It’s a really unusual western and even though I am not always a western fan, I really enjoyed it for its unusual focus on a mostly female cast.


      • Michaela

        May 29, 2017 at 7:56 pm

        I like westerns, but I don’t really watch them a lot. I’m trying to get better at that, especially because it means I’m missing out on a lot of John Wayne’s films. (Not to mention Joel McCrea, Jimmy Stewart, Errol Flynn…) Westward the Women has been on my watchlist ever since I read about it a few years ago during a blogathon. I’ve heard only good things about it!

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          May 29, 2017 at 8:31 pm

          I know what you mean about westerns! I think it was because of Joel McCrea that I finally starting watching them; I resisted for years. Somehow, when people say, “let’s watch a western,” I demure, but if someone were to say,” let’s watch an Errol Flynn film” I would be all for it. 🙂


  4. Phyl

    June 2, 2017 at 1:37 pm

    What a fascinating article! A good story is hard to find nowadays, especially one that also has good character development.

    I just looked through Wellman’s filmography and I’ve only seen six of his films! *face palm.* I’m going to have to do something about that!! Westward the Women sounds really interesting! And I’ve been wanting to watch Wings fir some time.

    Thanks so much for participating in this Blogathon!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Phyl

      June 2, 2017 at 1:38 pm

      I guess that’s me saying “for” in my Carolina accent lol

      Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      June 3, 2017 at 12:02 am

      And thank you!

      Westward the Women is really a good one! I hope you get a chance to see it. And Wings! His films are kind of interesting because of how they span from silent to pre-code (he directed some zesty pre-code films) to code westerns and war films.

      I know what you mean – it does seem hard to have a good story, but still with compelling characters.


  5. Silver Screenings

    June 6, 2017 at 4:05 am

    I love William Wellman films. Like you said, he knows how to get right to the meat and potatoes of a story, which makes his films memorable. For example, I was surprised to read The Oxbow Incident was just over 70 minutes! Talk about efficient and memorable storytelling!

    As an aside, last night I watched “What Women Want” (2000) which annoyed me in every way possible. 30-40 minutes could have easily been cut from that film, which would have made it a bit more palatable. Wellman would have known how to handle that script – it would have been a much better film in his hands.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      June 6, 2017 at 10:34 am

      Oh dear, that is a lot of unnecessary plot! It seems like like a number of the movies I’ve seen from the last ten years or so have been a bit too long. We definitely could use another William Wellman today, to point the way!

      Liked by 1 person


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