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Saskatchewan (1954)

Saskatchewan is the first western I have ever seen where a native tribe rides to the rescue of the cavalry. The first thing that is mentioned about the film by anyone, however, is the gorgeous location shooting done at Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. A typically entertaining Raoul Walsh directed adventure, Saskatchewan offers a chance for dashingly attired Mounties to take a scenic tour of the Rockies by way of avoiding the Sioux.

The second thing that is frequently mentioned about the film is that Saskatchewan looks nothing like Banff National Park, but is actually much flatter, so I am not certain if the title refers to the province of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan River (which does flow through Alberta), or if the fort in the film was called Fort Saskatchewan. Titles of films are often an enigma to me, but Saskatchewan does perhaps make a more catchy title than Alberta.

Alan Ladd is Thomas O’Rourke, an orphan who was raised by Chief Dark Cloud of the Cree (Antonio Moreno) and raised as a brother to Cajou (Jay Silverheels). He is now a Mountie, however, and his duty comes into conflict with his friendship with the Cree.

Early in the film, he and Cajou come across a wagon train that has been destroyed by the Sioux, who have come up through Montana after destroying Colonel Custer. The only survivor of the wagon train is American Grace Markey (Shelley Winters), who is fleeing a U.S. Marshall (Hugh O’Brien). But when the Cree are ordered to turn in their guns, leaving them without a means of hunting food for themselves, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull see an opportunity to persuade the Cree to join them in war. The Mounties set out with guns and ammunition, but the Sioux attack, thus providing the Mounties with the opportunity to escape picturesquely through the mountains.

A little mutiny (though Alan Ladd is the politest mutineer I’ve ever seen; “May I borrow your glasses, Sir”), an exciting canoe chase, a few battles and explosions, negotiations with the Cree, a little romance, conflict between the jealous U.S. Marshall and O’Rourke over Grace, all follows apace, not to mention lots of riding through the Rockies and looking out on shimmering lakes, rivers, trees and snow-capped peaks.

And I must say that O’Rourke seems remarkably complaisant about Grace being an accused murderer. She may possibly be a murderer, but he is always a gentleman, unlike the Marshall, who pushes Grace around and shoots a Cree in the back. But in truth, all the Mounties are gentlemen. The script stresses that in Canada the First Nations tribes are treated fairly. The only reason there is trouble is because the Sioux, who were not treated fairly, are stirring up the Cree to war, aided by the unreasonable attitude of the Canadian authorities about confiscating Cree weapons.

There’s something of the British nobility in the Mounties in general. One Mountie is even Scottish and the commander is played by Robert Douglas, a British actor, thus enhancing the impression. Perhaps a little like those British colonial adventure films meets the western in Canada.

Another connection to Canada is actor Jay Silverheels, who plays Cajou. He was a Canadian Mohawk who achieved his most famous role with Tonto in the Lone Ranger TV series. Before he became an actor, he was an excellent lacrosse player and did some boxing in America. He began in films as a stuntman and gradually was given better roles in a number of ‘A’ Westerns, though was always remembered as Tonto.

While Saskatchewan was being filmed, Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum where also at Banff National Park, filming River of No Return. Shelley Winters evidently spent some of her off time with Monroe and they got along quite well. Banff National Park has been a relatively popular location for filming. Other films at least partially shot there include Days of Heaven and 49th Paralell. I actually have all three films – Days of Heaven49th Parallel, and River of No Return – on my list of films to see in the future (which admittedly is a somewhat unwieldy list).

Saskatchewan is definitely not a classic western, but I tend to find that nearly all Raoul Walsh films have a good pace and interesting action and Saskatchewan has that. There’s not much room for intriguing character development, but the setting in Canada is fresh and lovely. In fact, it is safe to argue that Banff National Park is the real star of the film.

This post was written as part of the “O Canada” Blogathon,” hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy. For more entries, see the recap for Day 1, 2, and 3 of the blogathon.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2018 in Movies

 

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Band of Angels (1957)

band_of_angels_1957Band of Angels is an odd film. It has the kernel of an interesting idea wrapped up in an infelicitous combination of The Sheik and Birth of a Nation, with a few attempts to update the story to a more progressive era.

The story follows Amantha “Manty” Starr (Yvonne De Carlo), who is raised by her white plantation owning father to believe that she is a white Southern belle. But when her fathers dies, she discovers that her mother was a slave and that (since her father evidently never thought to formally free her) she can be sold with the rest of the plantation.

She is bought, however, by Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), a tormented former slaver who is now trying to atone for his misdeeds by treating his slaves well (which is odd – apparently it never occurs to him to free his slaves or become an abolitionist?). She also meets Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier), who was raised and educated by Bond, but harbors resentment against Bond because, as he tells Manty, kindness can be used to enslave as surely as brutality. But Manty still becomes Bond’s mistress and then the Civil War begins.

One of the things that is odd (among many things that are odd) is that we never really believe that she is half-black. This is not only because Yvonne De Carlo was not black, but because of how all the characters (including the slaves, with the exception of Rau-Ru) treat her, like an “honorary” white person. She never evinces any interest in who her mother was or really attempts to grapple with her own identity. Instead, it comes off more like exploitation, an excuse to get a white woman into slavery and the power of other men. It’s kind of trashy in that way. She even suffers from Stockholm Syndrome and is molested by practically every white man who comes on the scene.

I think the film was trying to be progressive in that Hamish Bond really has no prejudice against Manty, but because it’s hard not to think of her as really a white woman, the film loses its edge. And in truth, the story would have been a hundred times more interesting if the romance occurred between Manty and Rau-Ru.

Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier

Yvonne De Carlo and Sidney Poitier

In an uncharacteristically turgid film by Raoul Walsh, whose films I otherwise always enjoy for their energy and pacing, the only real source of energy and tension comes from Sidney Poitier’s character. He despises how Manty continues to view herself as white and above the rest of the slaves (she becomes very angry at the suggestion that she is having an affair with Rau-Ru and always goes out of her way to remind people that she is a lady – which is understandable, because she was raised to think of herself that way). He also points out that, despite their education and relative freedom, neither of them has any identity outside of Hamish Bond. A working out of a relationship between them – if not a romantic one, at least one of mutual respect or understanding – could have made for an intriguing story.

Although we are evidently supposed to disapprove of Rau-Ru’s lack of gratitude to Hamish, he is right. If Hamish Bond had really cared, he would have freed him and all his slaves. No matter how much you may actually care for someone, if you do not respect them enough to realize that they are separate individuals who cannot be owned, then if push comes to shove, you will always exercise that power you possess over them. This happens with Manty’s father. He prides himself on never selling his slaves, but when one of the slaves hints about who Manty’s mother really was, her father sells him in a heartbeat.

Rau-Ru may have been raised like a son by Hamish Bond, but he still finds himself running from the dogs and hunters like a runaway slave after he hits a white plantation owner in defense of Manty.

I usually enjoy Clark Gable, but he seems tired in Band of Angels as the romantically tormented hero. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him, because of his guilt, having to burn his plantation when the Yankees come, but it is difficult to do so. Worse, in the film all his slaves love him, including Michele (Carolle Drake), who seems to have been his mistress before being casually tossed aside for Manty, who both he and Michele treat as being above her. And we’re supposed to feel more sorry for him than for Michelle? Or any of his supposedly happy slaves?

182-1200-630The film also suggests that the Northern army and the abolitionists were a bunch of hypocrites, no better than the Southern plantation owners. The myth of the hypocritical abolitionist shows up in a number of Hollywood films, which is frustrating, because there were few people less hypocritical than the abolitionists.

In short, it’s a very odd and frustrating film. Interesting idea; gives one something to think about. And it does illustrate the limited number of roles available for black actors in the 1950s, though it was improving. But it never would have occurred to anyone to write a romance between Poitier and De Carlo…or a romance between Michele and Hamish Bond. Or to cast a black actress as Manty. Which is too bad because, at the very least, Sidney Poitier would have been a great leading man for the film.

I viewed Band of Angels as part of the “90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon,” hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. Be sure to check out the rest of the posts celebrating his life and career, which can be found here.

sidney-poitier-blogathon-2

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2017 in Movies

 

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Distant Drums (1951)

220px-Distant_Drums_movie_posterDistant Drums is essentially a remake by Raoul Walsh of Raoul Walsh’s Objective Burma, a WWII drama with Errol Flynn. Objective Burma is the better film, but Distant Drums definitely has some things going for it, as well as some things not going for it.

The film is set during the Second Seminole War in the 1840s – not that the film especially gives one a historical sense of the time. It is narrated by the mildly disposable Lieutenant Tufts (Richard Webb), who has been assigned by General Zachary Taylor to bring a boat to Lake Okeechobee to ferry Captain Quincy Wyatt (Gary Cooper) and his men across the lake so they can attack an old Spanish fort held by mercenaries who are selling guns to the Seminoles. But once they blow up the fort – and rescue a few hostages – their escape via the lake is cut off by the Seminoles, led by Chief Ocala (Raymond Kentro), who seems to have a personal vendetta against Wyatt. Without access to the lake, they have no choice but to head into the swampy Everglades, with Ocala hot on the trail.

On the way, there is some beautiful Technicolor scenery from Florida (it was filmed on location in the Everglades) as well as a faintly dull romance between the rescued Judy (Mari Aldon) and Wyatt. What makes the film exciting are the action sequences. Action films are not usually my thing, but I’ve always found Raoul Walsh to be a consistent exception.

Watching Distant Drums gave me a very strong sense of deja vu. It was not only because it was a remake of Objective Burma, but so many other little things reminded me of later blockbusters. The transition wipes: Star Wars. The men running in the high grass: The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The heroes in canoes while their enemies run on shore in pursuit with drums beating: Lord of the Rings. And as the title suggests, there is a lot of use of drums, often in place of a score, and the effects is rather creepy (once again, as in Lord of the Rings). There is also a completely awesome knife fight battle in the water that didn’t remind me of anything (except those single combat battles of the heroes replete in “The Iliad”, though none that I know of ever took place under water).

distantdrumslc3Gary Cooper is perfectly fine as Wyatt, but there’s not much to the character. He was married to a Creek princess, who was murdered by soldiers, and he has a son he adores. Now he is just doing his job and is something of a superhero tracker/soldier (according to Cooper’s stunt double, he did nearly all his own stunts). Mari Aldon as Judy is a “cracker” who is pretending to be a lady and has a servant (slave? – this is the 1840s) who brushes her hair and bathes her feet in the swamps. Her servant (slave?) is named Amelia (Angelita McCall) and she doesn’t get a single line of dialogue. It was puzzling because Amelia seemed rather resentful of Judy and Judy seems to barely acknowledge her existence. It was such an odd relationship, I couldn’t figure out why Amelia was in the story and very much wished we’d learned more about her. I like to to think that at the end Amelia has enough of Judy and simply leaves her to her own devices (we do see her walking away with the soldiers). Judy can brush her own hair in the swamp!

Arthur Hunnicutt plays Monk, a trapper and good friend of Wyatt. Nobody else particularly stands out, though. Character development is not the film’s strength. The film is also noted for the debut of the Wilhelm Scream, which I confess to not having heard of before. Screams were recorded for when a man was dragged under the swamp by an alligator (and for a few other catastrophes and deaths) and was later used repeatedly in other films as stock sound affects (even in Star Wars and Indiana Jones – more deja vu).

I can’t think of anything else to say. It’s an entertaining adventure with a sense of tension that keeps you engaged throughout with some sensational Technicolor cinematography. It’s often called a western, though it certainly isn’t a typical one, but that is partly what makes it fun. I also enjoyed the score by Max Steiner.

The restored dvd and blu-ray look much better than this trailer.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2016 in Movies

 

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