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Tag Archives: Westerns

Broken Arrow (1950)

1950 was an important year both for westerns and Jame Stewart. Stewart appeared in Winchester ’73, directed by Anthony Mann, and Broken Arrow, directed by Delmer Daves. Winchester ’73 is generally seen as the first of a series of morally complex westerns made by Mann and Stewart and which inaugurated a decade of such morally complex westerns by others. The importance of Broken Arrow, however, is that it inaugurated an increasingly more nuanced portrayal of American Indians in those westerns.

Broken Arrow plays fast and loose with historical facts, but it is based on (some) real people. Tom Jeffords (a real person, played by Stewart) is prospecting for gold when he comes across an injured Apache boy. There is currently war between the Apaches and the settlers, based in Tucson, but Jeffords stops to nurse the boy back to health. In listening to the the boy talk, he first realizes that Apaches are not so very different as he had thought.

In Tucson, however, the people exist in a state of virtual siege. They cannot even get the mail sent out without it being intercepted and the mail carriers are killed by Cochise, the Apache chief, and his warriors. Jeffords is disgusted with the general tone of hatred and desire to kill, so he sets out on a perilous journey to enter Cochise’s stronghold and talk with the chief, who has not been seen by non-Indians for years.

This meeting between Jeffords and Cochise did actually take place, though the reason for it is unknown. Some say he deliberately went to meet them and others that he was captured and impressed them with his bravery. Either way, Jeffords did meet Cochise and formed a friendship (though not as blood brothers, as in the film). In the film, Jeffords negotiates a deal with Cochise (Jeff Chandler) where the Apaches will allow the mail to go through, though the war is by no means over. He also meets and begins to fall in love with a young Apache woman named Sonseeahray (Debra Paget, a character created for the film).

The rest of the film follows Jeffords attempt, along with General Howard (another actual historical figure, played by Basil Ruysdael) to negotiate a lasting peace with Cochise. There is much resistance, however, from both the settlers and Apaches, to the idea of peace, even after a treaty has been signed.

Jeff Chandler and James Stewart

The film presents a simplified version of the tensions/war between the Apaches and settlers and historically the treaty that was signed did not last long, but the film is still a very interesting one (for a riveting account of the Apache Wars, read David Roberts Once They Moved Like The Wind : Cochise, Geronimo, And The Apache Wars). Although many American Indians were cast as Apaches (Jay Silverheels plays Geronimo), the two leads were played by non-Indians. They do, however, play their roles with a great deal of dignity and no condescension.

But what made the film especially interesting to me was how the script demonstrates how two groups of people could, entirely naturally and even understandably, be in the position of demonizing the other. American settlers were notorious for being unable to even distinguish between different tribes, let alone different individuals within specific tribes. But American Indians could also see the settlers as one entire group without distinguishing between individuals. Broken Arrow is about seeing people as individuals.

(Some Spoilers) My sister observed that the reason Jeffords is able to take a more rational and less emotional approach to the war with the Apaches is because he has not lost anyone. Rancher Ben Slade (Will Geer) lost his wife in an Apache raid and loathes the Apaches. Nearly everyone in Tucson (which is portrayed accurately as a rowdy, lawless town) has lost someone dear in the war. The same is true with Cochise and the Apaches. Each and every one of them has a real reason to hate, hence the killing and the hatred continues.

But when Slade attempts to destroy the treaty by murdering Cochise, he is unable to kill Cochise, but kills Jefford’s wife, Sonseeahray, instead. Now Jeffords is consumed with hatred and wants to see Slade murdered, showing that Jeffords is really no different from anyone else. It is then Cochise who rises to the occasion and tells Jeffords that he must yield his sense of entitlement to revenge and let the law takes it course. Otherwise, the treaty will never have a chance to take hold. In that moment, Cochise emerges as the true hero of the film.

Tragically, the Apache Wars were far from over and many treaties would be broken and many more people would die, ending with the removal of all Apaches from their homeland. But the film is a well-acted and well-made film and thoroughly worth seeing for its humane examination of how and why it is so easy to fall into self-perpetuating hatred.

The film was directed by Delmer Daves, an underrated director who made some excellent westerns, including a personal favorite: The Hanging Tree. His westerns tend to be thoughtful, as well as exciting, and I believe he definitely deserves to be better known as a director of westerns.

Broken Arrow is my contribution to “The Great Western Blogathon,” hosted by Thoughts All Sorts.

 

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Posted by on April 13, 2018 in Movies

 

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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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