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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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William Wellman – Action and Story

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!

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2017 in Movies

 

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In Old California (1942)

in-old-california-1942I tend to think of John Wayne as a man of action, either in war movies or westerns. A somewhat rugged man, a man who is better at socking the bad guy than making a speech. In Old California is certainly a western, but Wayne plays a slightly different kind of character than usual. He is a pharmacist. An educated, gentlemanly man from Boston who takes on the rough and tumble men from Sacramento. Though he can also bend a coin with his thumb and is a remarkably good shot…which makes one wonder what he was doing in Boston when he wasn’t learning to be a druggist.

John Wayne is Tom Craig, a druggist looking to open a pharmacy in Sacramento. On his way there, he incurs the animus of Britt Dawson (Albert Dekker), the local bully/would-be-land-owner who is bullying his way into wealth with a gun and a posse. Britt does have one redeeming feature, however. He is completely and sincerely nuts about saloon singer Lacey Miller (Binnie Barnes). She is engaged to Britt, but is much taken with the more refined strength of Tom Craig.

When Dawson warns the inhabitants of Sacramento not to rent a building to Craig to set up shop, Lacey rents Craig her shack, with the promise of 50% of the profits. She then falls completely in love, though it takes Craig a while to realize it.

There are a number of subplots and plot twists in the film. There is the triangle between Britt, Lacey, and Craig. Another triangle between Craig, Lacey, and the pretty (but spoiled) debutante from San Francisco who catches Craig’s eye. There is Craig’s sidekick, Kegs McKeever (Edgar Kennedy), who becomes Craig’s sidekick after Craig uses some of his fancy pain killer to ease a raging toothache. Kegs himself has a (sort of) romance with Lacey’s gun-toting, sharpshooting maid (Patsy Kelly). And then there is Craig’s power struggle with Britt and his brother Joe Dawson (Dick Purcell).

There is even a gold strike, a fever epidemic, a gunfight on the plains of California, a barroom brawl, a murder by poison, several moments of slapstick comedy, and an attempted lynching. I was also pleased to note that Binnie Barnes’ slightly common saloon singer was able to rout her ingenue competition with aplomb. Very satisfying

Everyone is taken aback by John Wayne with a bag full of drugs

Everyone is taken aback by John Wayne with his bag full of drugs

I think I would describe this film as broadly comic and agreeable. At times it made me think of Destry Rides Again. The local bully engaged in a land grab, his saloon singer girlfriend, the outsider who is more gentlemanly, but still tough. But there is far more comedy than drama in In Old California and it has an easy-going, unpretentious charm. The cast is good (I am always happy to see Binnie Barnes in a film), but part of the fun is watching John Wayne in a different kind of role.

Apparently, John Wayne’s father really was a pharmacist and in the movie Wayne seems to be having a lot of fun with the role. He is quite believable as the educated, well-spoken and polite pharmacist. He never takes offense, he never overreacts, he’s never threatened when people assume he is not as tough as they are (he seems to have an inner assurance that he is, in fact, much tougher).

I confess I was not initially much of a John Wayne fan, but the more I see his films over the years, the more impressive he becomes. I guess I never appreciated how he was able to draw all the attention to himself without even trying. He sort of inhabits a scene, without having to come across as aggressive or in-your-face. Even in In Old California, he is distinctly non-aggressive compared to Dawson, but your eye still watches him.

It’s interesting, because earlier this year I watched a movie called The Life of Jimmy Dolan, made in 1933 with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.. John Wayne makes a brief appearance in the film and he’s so young and callow and had none of the effortless presence he developed later. I guess he just needed time. My sister and I sometimes joke that an actor (or actress) doesn’t truly become interesting until they’re 30.

Not exactly one of John Wayne’s best films, but there is something winning about In Old California. It has a unique charm, as does John Wayne.

Thanks so much to Hamlette’s Soliloquy and The Midnite Drive-In for hosting The John Wayne Blogathon! For all the other posts, click here.

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Posted by on December 10, 2016 in Movies

 

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