Western Drama

Blackthorn

2011

Magnolia Pictures/Universal Pictures

Directed by Mateo Gil

Written by Miguel Barros

Produced by Andres Santana and Paolo Agazzi

Every Western fan worth a plug nickel knows the classic ending to the legendary 1969 “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.” Wounded, vastly outnumbered and running low on ammo, Butch and Sundance charge dozens of Bolivian soldiers. The movie ends on a freeze frame shot as the sound of the soldiers repeatedly firing on the pair gets louder and louder. The conclusion we can draw is plain.

But there have been claims that continue to this day that neither of them died in Bolivia but that Butch and Sundance returned to the United States and lived out their lives in peace. It’s certainly an intriguing theory and one that most people would like to believe as we all like to see likeable rogues and scoundrels get away with it. BLACKTHORN explores this possibility. It’s certainly not a direct sequel to “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” but there’s no getting around the fact that a lot of people are going to view it as such. And in truth the movie does have a couple of flashbacks to the young Butch and Sundance that attempt to recapture the mood and freewheeling attitude of the earlier film. But BLACKTHORN doesn’t need the flashbacks. It’s good enough to stand on its own feet without the earlier movie to give it a prop-up.

Twenty years after his supposed death, Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard) is still alive and well and living in Bolivia. Under the name James Blackthorn he’s had some success as a horse breeder in the region. Enough success that he’s got enough money to return to the United States at last. He wants to see familiar faces and places in whatever time he’s got left.

The plan goes gangaglay when Blackthorn is ambushed by Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noreiga) who claims he is being hunted by a posse and thought Blackthorn was with them. Apodaca tells Blackthorn that he’s stolen $50,000 from Simon Patino, a mine owner and the most powerful man in that region. Eduardo offers to share part of the money with Blackthorn if Blackthorn helps him get away from the posse.

The recovering of the loot, which Eduardo has stashed away hidden in an abandoned mine and evading the relentless pursuit of the posse revives his memories of his Butch Cassidy days and Blackthorn finds himself enjoying reliving his outlaw life. Maybe too much as he comes to the attention of former Pinkerton detective MacKinley  (Stephen Rea) who once followed Butch and Sundance all the way down to Bolivia. MacKinley never was convinced that it was actually Butch and Sundance who died in that showdown and he’s determined to get the Bolivian army to help him track James Blackthorn down and prove that the gringo riding with the Spanish bandit is actually Butch Cassidy.

BLACKTHORN has a lot going for it. First of all, the locations are absolutely gorgeous. It was filmed in Bolivia and the country is absolutely magnificent. Westerns should look big with plains that go on forever and mountains that scrape the bottom of clouds and this movie does have that. I liked the twists and turns the story takes, especially at the end where we learn a few truths about both Eduardo and Blackthorn. And yes, the movie explains what happened to both The Sundance Kid and Etta Place and I could have done without it. The fate of The Sundance Kid especially left a bad blot in my brain.

It’s easy to forget or overlook just how really good of an actor Sam Shepard is. I’m always a sucker for a story like this where a grizzled old gunslinger proves that despite his age he’s still one up on whippersnappers half his age. And apparently Butch has gotten better as a shot as in not only “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” but also “Butch and Sundance: The Early Days” Butch is depicted as being not a good shot at all. But here in BLACKTHORN he demonstrates astonishingly proficient skill as a marksman. Only Sam Elliot can play grizzled better than Sam Shepard who is most certainly no slouch here.  I like how as the movie unfolds, he first enjoys being back on the outlaw trail, especially in a nice little scene where he sings the old ballad ‘Sam Hall’ while riding with Eduardo to his hideout but quickly comes to remember why Butch Cassidy had to die and why he should stay dead.

Eduardo Noreiga is the weakest actor in the movie. He tries hard and it’s way too obvious that he’s trying to imitate the Butch and Sundance partnership from the earlier movie and it just doesn’t work. Stephen Rea is much better as the disgraced Pinkerton who has let his obsession with the outlaws turn him into an alcoholic wreck. I’d have loved to see more scenes between Shepard and Rea.

So should you see BLACKTHORN? I’m going to tell you right up front that it’s not a wall-to-wall-shoot-‘em-up and actually is quite slow in spots. But that was okay by me because it isn’t that type of Western. I’d recommend it just for the Sam Shepard and Stephen Rea performances and the amazing cinematography alone. I say give it a try, especially if you’re a long time Western fan like me. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

108 minutes

Rated R

Cold Mountain

 2003

Miramax Films

Directed by Anthony Minghella

Produced by Sydney Pollack, Albert Berger & William Horberg

Screenplay by Anthony Minghella

Based on the book by Charles Frazier

I like Jude Law as an actor a lot.  I liked him even before the yearlong Jude Law Film Festival of 2004 since he starred in two of my favorite science fiction movies, “Gattaca” and “eXistenZ”.  He played one of the most unusual hired killers I’ve seen in a motion picture in “Road To Perdition” and an android gigolo in “A.I.”.  So based on the strength of his past track record with me I figured that COLD MOUNTAIN  would be worth watching even though I had heard and read that the movie wasn’t all that good.  This was one time I should have listened.  It’s not that COLD MOUNTAIN is a lousy movie.  In fact, there are an awful lot of good things about it.  It just doesn’t add up to a movie that’s very interesting to watch.  And by the time the end credits came up I found that I really didn’t care much about what I had just watched.

The movie starts just before The Civil War.  Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) and her father, The Good Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland) have just settled in the small North Carolina town of Cold Mountain where they are received warmly and Ada develops an interest in the broodingly handsome Inman (Jude Law).  Beats the hell out of me how they can be so interested in each other when they barely have conversations of more than twenty words at a time.  In fact, Inman comes right out and says to Ada that a relationship between them would be perfect if they never had to talk.  A notion that Ada agrees with.  Now I thought this was a Civil War drama I was watching but the notion of a man finding a woman who doesn’t like to talk skirts dangerously into science fiction territory if you ask me.

Inman goes off to war delightedly and Ada promises to wait for him.  And so she does as the town comes under the control of Teague (Ray Winstone) and his Home Guard.  Supposedly their job is to protect the town but instead they prey upon the women, old men and infirm citizens who have nobody to defend them since all the able bodied men are off fighting in the war.  The Good Reverend Monroe passes away and Ada goes a little nuts, dressing in her father’s coat and hat and letting the farm go to ruin.  Into her life comes a down to earth, no nonsense, take charge spitfire named Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger) who rouses Ada out of the apathy she’s let herself slip into and they start working the farm together.

Meanwhile, Inman has been seriously wounded in a hideously brutal battle and he receives a letter from Ada asking him to forget the war and come home.  Despite warnings from other soldiers that fellows who decide to take a long walk from the war are shot on the spot, Inman deserts and sets out on foot to return to Cold Mountain and the woman he loves.

Now this should be great material for a wonderful love story set against the backdrop of The Civil War but it’s anything but.  The romance between Ada and Inman didn’t work for me because there’s no chemistry between the actors playing them at all and it doesn’t help that Nicole Kidman and Jude Law spend most of the movie apart and since we’re talking about a movie that’s almost three hours long that’s a whole lotta time.  It’s almost as if Nicole Kidman is in one movie and Jude Law is in another.  There’s a sex scene between the two near the end but it still didn’t convince me that these two were madly in love with each other.

This is a movie where the supporting characters are more fun than the leads and Renee Zellweger takes top acting honors here.  She comes into the movie like a whirlwind and her first scene is priceless.  Informed by Ada that she believes that the farm’s rooster is possessed by The Devil since it keeps attacking her, Ruby calmly walks up to the bird, wrings it’s neck and turns to Ada with a big grin and a suggestion they put the bird in a pot.  Whenever Renee Zellweger shows up on the screen, the energy level of the whole movie gets bumped up several welcome notches.  Jude Law’s character meets his share of characters on the road as well: Philip Seymour Hoffman as a preacher who can’t keep his business in his pants where it belongs, Giovanni Ribisi as a sneaky farmer who uses his wife and her sluttish sisters to entrap, rob and murder deserters and Natalie Portman as a lonely widow woman.

COLD MOUNTAIN is one of those movies that led me for the longest time to wonder why Natalie Portman kept getting work as an actress.  She has one expression she wears on her face throughout this movie and it’s not a convincing one.  There’s a scene where she’s about to be raped by Union soldiers and I give the other actors in the scene credit for keeping straight faces during Portman’s horribly unconvincing hysterics.

What’s good about the movie?  Well, Nicole Kidman is as usual, almost supernaturally beautiful here.  Even under all the hardships her character goes through she continues to glow with an angelic aura.  Her scenes with Renee Zellweger are extremely good and have more conviction than her scenes with Jude Law.  The scenery is gorgeous and the way the whole movie is photographed is just terrific.  This is a movie worth watching just for the cinematography alone.  And the opening fifteen minutes has one of the most terrifying battles I’ve ever seen on the screen.  I suppose that knowing he was only going to have one big battle in the movie, the director decided to go all out and he certainly does.  It’s a brutally realistic depiction of men killing each other and after seeing it you can readily understand why Inman decides to say the hell with the war and goes home.

What’s wrong with this movie?  The lack of chemistry between the supposed leads.  Ray Winstone’s badguy Teague.  There’s no reason for him to be in this movie save to provide a threat to Nicole Kidman’s character and he plays the character on the level of an old silent movie villain.  I half expected him to be twirling his mustache every time he showed up.   And one of his minions is an acrobatic albino sharpshooter who seems more like a villain you’d find in “The Wild Wild West” television show than a realistic Civil War drama.  The uneven pacing of the movie doesn’t help due to the nature of Inman’s journey.  The movie is less a unified and complete story and more of a series of incidents strung together.

So after all this, should you see COLD MOUNTAIN?  If you’re a fan of Jude Law, Nicole Kidman or Renee Zellweger you’ll probably enjoy this one.  It didn’t work for me as a love story or as a drama.  I enjoyed the supporting performances and some of the situations Inman finds himself in during his journey are interesting but taken as a whole, I couldn’t recommend this movie as anything other than a time waster on a slow Sunday afternoon if you’re snowed in.

Rated R: There are scenes of violence here that are depicted realistically as well as a graphic sex scene between Jude Law and Nicole Kidman.  I should also mention that there’s a scene where some soldiers threaten a baby that I found very uncomfortable watching.  I think that using a baby in a movie in such a manner is a cheap way for the filmmakers to show what despicable bastards the soldiers are and we could have gotten that impression from their attempted rape of the Natalie Portman character.

152 minutes

Silverado

1985

Columbia Pictures

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Produced by
Lawrence and Mark Kasdan
Written by Lawrence and Mark Kasdan

I absolutely love Westerns. Much as I love most genres of movies, if you gave me a choice between say, a Science Fiction and a Western or a 1940’s Murder Mystery and a Western or a Woody Allen comedy and a Western, 9 times out of ten I’ll take the Western. It’s a genre I grew up watching mainly because my parents were also in love with Westerns and one of my favorite childhood memories is when my father took me out to dinner at a fancy Chinese restaurant and then we went to see “The Wild Bunch” And my personal list of My Favorite Ten Movies Of All Time includes not only “The Wild Bunch” but also “Once Upon A Time In The West” which I think is the greatest Western ever made.

By 1985, the Western was a dead genre as far as major theatrical films were concerned. Only Clint Eastwood has the necessary clout to get a Western made back then and nobody even wanted to take a try at one except for an ambitious writer/director named Lawrence Kasdan who was riding a wave of good fortune due to his screenplays for “Raiders of The Lost Ark” “The Empire Strikes Back” “The Return of The Jedi” and a couple of box office smash hits he wrote and directed: “Body Heat” and “The Big Chill”

Lawrence Kasdan and his brother Mark were major Western fans since they were kids and really wanted to make one.   Lawrence used every bit of clout he had to get the film approved and I’m glad he did because SILVERADO is a magnificently huge Super Western that looks, feels and sounds as if it had been made back in the great heyday of Westerns when guys like John Ford and Howard Hawks were doing their thing. The story is one that I’m pretty sure has every convention and set piece you can think of in a western: gunslingers, barroom brawls, homesteaders being run off their land, sneaky gamblers with derringers up their sleeves, crooked sheriffs, saloons, cattle stampedes, wagon trains, pretty widow ladies, outlaw hideouts, evil cattle barons, gunfights on Main Street at high noon.  The only thing lacking in SILVERADO is an Indian uprising but I’m pretty sure that if Mr. Kasdan could have found a way, he’d have had that in there as well.

Emmett (Scott Glenn) is making his way home after spending five years in prison for killing a man in self-defense. After successfully fighting off an ambush by four desperados trying to kill him, he meets up with Paden (Kevin Kline) who was robbed of his horse, ivory-handled guns, stylish all-black outfit complete with beloved silver banded hat and left to die in the desert. The two men hook up and after making a pit stop at an Army fort where Paden gets back his horse and runs into a pair of old buddies, Cobb (Brian Dennehy) and the psychotic Tyree (Jeff Fahey).  From there they go onto the town of Turley where Emmett’s goofy kid brother Jake (Kevin Costner) is going to be hanged come the morning. They take time to help keep Mal (Danny Glover) out of Sheriff Langston’s (John Cleese) jail and after Emmett and Paden bust Jake out of jail Mal returns the favor by using his sharpshooting skills with a Henry rifle to chase Sheriff Langston back to town.

The four heroes then proceed to have a wild series of adventures that include rescuing a wagon train of homesteaders stranded in the wilderness and taking on a band of thieves who have stolen the life savings of the wagon train. Mind you, all this happens before we’ve even gotten to the town of Silverado, which is being controlled by the ruthless cattle baron Ethan MacKendrick (Ray Baker) who has hired Paden’s old pal Cobb to be Silverado’s Sheriff. Cobb is harassing the homesteaders to leave and if they don’t they’re burned out and killed, like Mal’s parents. It isn’t long before the four friends are pulled apart by their own separate conflicts and loyalties but soon come to realize that if there is to be any justice in Silverado, they are the ones who will have to join back together and make it.

Now that’s the bare bones of the story but there’s a helluva lot of subplots going on because this is a mollyfoggin’ huge cast Kasdan is working with and each of his four leads are just that. They’re all leading men and Kasdan treats them that way.  Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner are all treated as equals in terms of skill, courage and respect. And each of the four leads have more than enough screen time to explore their motivations for having a stake in the future of Silverado.

Emmett and Jake have a sister; brother-in-law and a nephew who thinks his gunslinging uncles are just the coolest. Mal’s parents were homesteaders who were run off their land and murdered while his sister Rae (Lynn Whitfield) has willingly become a prostitute in town, hooked up with the local gambler, Slick Calvin Stanhope (Jeff Goldblum). Paden is torn between his loyalties toward his old friend Cobb and the wild life he used to lead and his new friends who are men of honor and respect.  His growing friendship for Stella The Midnight Star (Linda Hunt), Cobb’s partner in the town’s largest saloon and prostitution emporium is also a large factor in his eventual decision.

And both Paden and Emmett have a stake in what happens to the homesteaders as they’re both attracted to the extremely pretty and recently widowed Hannah (Roseanne Arquette) who likes the both of them a whole lot and is grateful to them but makes it perfectly clear that men who tell her she’s pretty come along every day. She’s looking for a man willing to help her work the land, make things grow and build a stable life.

Like I said, you would think that with this many subplots, characters and settings that SILVERADO would be a confused mess but nothing could be further from the truth.  The first half of the movie is a road trip in which we’re introduced to most of the characters so that by the time the wagon train, along with Emmett, Jake, Paden and Mal arrives in Silverado, we already feel as if we’ve been on the trail with these guys and feel comfortable with what’s going on. And once they reach the town itself, the rest of the characters are integrated smoothly into what we already know. It’s a remarkable job of writing and directing that shows that you can have a large cast and multiple storylines and not have the movie feel crowded or rushed.

The acting in this movie is top-notch. I don’t think I can remember right now a movie with this large a cast who were all so good. Scott Glenn and Kevin Kline are at the top of the list with performances that I believe they based on Gary Cooper and Errol Flynn, both of who made more than their share of notable westerns. Kevin Costner’s Jake is a goofy daredevil who is the best horseman and gunman out the four but who tends to get into trouble for kissing the wrong girls. Danny Glover’s Mal is not portrayed here as a sidekick to his three white co-stars but is a hero in his own right and I really liked his scenes with Kevin Costner’s Jake and in those few scenes they had a real rapport together that made me wish they had a few more together.

Now you all know how I love movies that have bad guys who love being bad and this movie is chock fulla them, led by Brian Dennehy’s Cobb who goes through the whole movie grinning from ear to ear behind a bristling white beard. The secret to any good bad guy is this: he doesn’t think he’s the bad guy and Brian Dennehy must understand that because Cobb is extremely likeable. Sure he burns out innocent families and kidnaps kids and murders without a second thought but he’s just such a damn nice guy while he’s doing it.

Jeff Goldblum is a real surprise. As the gambler Slick he is dashingly elegant and even though he has only a few scenes he makes ‘em work. Linda Hunt as Stella absolutely steals every scene she’s in and the relationship between her character and Kevin Kline’s is really sweet and feels genuine.  Who else is good? Joe Seneca. Earl Hindman. Pepe Serna. Brion James. James Gammon. And that beautiful musical score by Bruce Broughton is just perfect.

If you’ve seen SILVERADO then you’re probably a fan of it and if you aren’t, I urge you to go back and see it again in a new light. It’s the Western I recommend to people who claim they don’t like Westerns and after they see it most of ‘em come back to me and say that, yeah, they liked it a whole lot. Know why? Because at it’s heart SILVERADO is about four gun-slinging, hard-ridin’, two-fisted heroes riding from town to town having adventures and bringing justice to The Old West and if you can’t find it in your heart to like that then I’m sorry, amigo, you just ain’t got no heart.

127 min
Rated PG13

3:10 To Yuma

 

 

2007

Lionsgate Films

Directed by James Mangold

Produced by Cathy Konrad

Screenplay by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas

Based on the short story by Elmore Leonard

Those of you who have been reading these movie reviews for a while know that my favorite genre of movie is The Western.  I love movies, period and I am the type of movie nut that will literally watch anything.  Yes, even chick flicks.  But westerns…man, that’s my huckleberry right there.  Give me a Saturday afternoon, two or three good westerns to watch along with some cheeseburgers, potato chips and plenty of Coca-Cola and leave me alone.  Now some of the recent efforts to make westerns haven’t  been less than blockbuster but thankfully the remake of the classic 3:10 TO YUMA is a terrific movie.  It’s not one of these “Revisionist” Westerns or a Western where the director is really trying to tell an allegory about Our Modern Times.  It’s a horse opera, plain and simple.  Told extremely well with outstanding performances by Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a struggling Arizona farmer desperately trying to hold onto his land.  He’s lost a lot already.  Part of his leg was taken from him in The Civil War and he no longer has the respect of his oldest son William (Logan Lerman) or his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol).  Dan is determined to hold onto his farm even though his water has been dammed up and his barn burned down by the local land baron.  His chance to hold onto his land comes when the outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured in the nearby town of Bisbee.  Ben Wade and his gang have robbed the Southern Pacific Railroad 20 times and their representative Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) offers $200 dollars to any man who will help him take Wade to a town two days ride away where a prison train will take Wade to Yuma.  Dan is eager to sign up along with Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk) the sheriff’s deputy (Kevin Durand) and bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda) who was the only survivor of Wade’s most recent robbery and would rather just as soon put a bullet in his brain than see him hang.

The journey is not going to be an easy one.  Dan and the others are pursued by Wade’s gang, led by the terrifyingly dangerous Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) Wade’s right-hand man who seems to take it as a personal insult that Dan and the other have even dared to presume to think they’re going to take Wade in to hang.  And then Dan and the others have to take a detour through country infested with bloodthirsty Apache renegades.  To make Dan’s situation even worse, his son William has taken it into his head to come along against Dan’s wishes as the 14 year old boy is plainly infatuated with Ben Wade’s legend.

There are a lot of things that makes 3:10 TO YUMA work for me but I’ll give you the main three: One is the story.  It’s a simple story, sure.  But in Westerns it’s the simple stories that work the best.  The motivations of the characters is the grease that makes the engine of the story run smoothly and everybody in this movie has a good reason for where they are and why they do what they do.  Second are the performances.  The actors in this movie all look as if they’re actually inhabiting the period they’re supposed to be living in.  The problem with a lot of recent Westerns I’ve seen is that they’re miscast and the actors look as if they’re playing dress up.  Not here.  And three is the location shooting.  3:10 TO YUMA was filmed in New Mexico and it looks absolutely terrific.  It has the look of vintage 1950’s/1960’s Westerns.

The relationship between Dan Evans and Ben Wade is at the heart of this movie and both Christian Bale and Russell Crowe do splendid jobs of acting.  Russell Crowe doesn’t play Ben Wade as a foaming-at-the-mouth-mad-dog killer.  Wade is surprisingly intelligent, charming, educated, artistic and talented.  In fact, he’s probably the smartest person in the movie and he has a scary insight into human nature.  He can sit down with you for five minutes and tell you things about yourself you’ve kept shut up deep inside yourself for years.  Dan Evans is nowhere near as smart or intelligent or talented.  But he has a soul.  A soul that intrigues Ben Wade and one he comes to respect.  One of the best things about the movie is seeing how the relationship between the two men develops in ways I certainly didn’t see coming.

Christian Bale is an actor that I think one day is going to achieve the status reserved for Brando and Olivier.  He’s just that good.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him give a bad performance and I’ve followed his career since “Empire of The Sun”.  I was really interested in seeing how he would handle himself in a Western and I enjoyed his performance a lot.  He takes to the Western like a duck takes to water and I certainly hope he does more of them.  As for Russell Crowe, this isn’t his first Western.  He did a great job in Sam Raimi’s “The Quick And The Dead’ and here he makes his Ben Wade a totally absorbing and interesting character, one that we watch just to see what he’ll do next because this is the type of guy who never does or says what you expect.

The supporting cast does a fine job in the roles and I really liked Peter Fonda here.  Peter has a lot of fun playing a tough-as-horsehide bounty hunter here.  Fans of the TV show “Firefly” will want to keep an eye out for Alan Tudyk who plays a horse doctor who discovers he’s also a man of action.

The action scenes are thrilling and just what I expect from a Western.  There’s gunplay aplenty, especially during the last half hour of the movie where there are a number of plot twists that kept me on the edge of my seat.  And I’ve said this about a number of recent movies but I’m going to say it again: much as I love CGI there’s some movies you don’t need it for and The Western is one of them.  Sometimes it’s a pleasure to go see a movie where it’s Real People doing the stunts.

So should you see 3:10 TO YUMA?  If you’re as big a Western fan as me, Hell, yes.  Even if you’re not a Western fan and just want to see a movie with great action, solid acting and stunning cinematography, yes.  If you’re a fan of Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, definitely.  They give wonderfully strong, fully characterized performances here.  3:10 TO YUMA is well worth your time.

120 minutes

Rated R

Valdez Is Coming

1971

MGM/United Artists

Produced by Ira Steiner

Directed by Edwin Sherin

Screenplay by Roland Kibbee and David Rayfiel

Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard

When you hear the name Elmore Leonard you might think of the current hit television show “Justified” which is based on a character he created for a couple of novels.   Some of you will know him from “Get Shorty” and “Be Cool” as he wrote the novels those highly popular movies were based on.  But way before then Elmore Leonard really bounced into popularity during the 70’s and 80’s with a bunch of very successful crime novels.  His novel “Rum Punch” was filmed as one of my favorite movies of all time: “Jackie Brown” starring Pam Grier and directed by Quentin Tarantino.  But even more way before then Elmore Leonard got his start back in the 1950’s writing western novels.  Plenty of Mr. Leonard’s westerns have been adapted into some classic movies: “Joe Kidd”“3:10  To Yuma””Hombre””Last Stand At Saber River” But my favorite Elmore Leonard western film stars one of my all time favorite actors: Burt Lancaster in VALDEZ IS COMING.

Bob Valdez (Burt Lancaster) is a Mexican-American sheriff who works the Mexican half of a small town on the Texas/Mexico border.  The Anglo sheriff is away on other business and so Valdez is called in to resolve a dangerous situation.  A black man living with a Mexican woman has been accused of murder by the powerful gunrunner/rancher Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher).  Valdez hopes to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the standoff.  The shack the suspect is holed up in is surrounded by the bigoted white posse who are using the shack for target practice  when Valdez arrives to do his job.  Due to a series of shockingly idiotic misunderstandings Valdez is forced to kill the black man, who turns out to be innocent of the crime.

Wracked by guilt, Valdez seeks to do right by the dead man’s Mexican woman and thinks that it isn’t too much that she be given $100 so that she can move back to the Indian reservation and start a new life.  Valdez first goes to the town’s leading citizens who are of the opinion that since the whole thing was Tanner’s fault; he should put up the money.  But they’re willing to make a deal: if Valdez can get $100 from Tanner, they’ll match it with another $100.  Valdez’s attempts to get the money from Tanner results in him being laughed at, beaten like a dog and humiliated in a truly brutal fashion: he’s tied to a rude wooden cross which he has to carry on his back through the desert.   Valdez gets free and once he gets back home pulls out the dusty footlocker under his bed which holds his most precious possessions.  The uniform he proudly wore as a member of the United States Army when he was renowned as the most dangerous hunter/killer of Apache warriors.  His Sharps buffalo rifle with which he can shoot a man in the eye at a 1000 yards. And his fearsomely large Buntline revolvers.  His old battle skills reawakened, Valdez begins a guerrilla war with Tanner in which he starts killing off Tanner’s hired guns one by one, leaving them alive long enough for them to return to their boss and deliver a chilling message: “Valdez Is Coming”

What makes VALDEZ IS COMING such an interesting western is the racial bigotry theme behind the story.  Blacks and Mexicans are the victims here and Valdez is motivated not so much by personal revenge as you might think.  Although being tied to a cross and being forced to walk through the desert would be more than enough to piss me off, lemme tell you. But Valdez’s motivations are deeper than revenge.  His personal code of justice is outraged.  And he has an overwhelming desire to see that to see men act like men, own up to their mistake, do the right thing and acknowledge the innocent black man and the Mexican woman as human beings.  Or at least as much as can be expected in the Old West where life was cheap and the life of minorities was even cheaper.  What makes it even more interesting is that the posse Tanner puts together to hunt Valdez is primarily made up of Mexicans. Tanner’s own right hand man, El Segundo (Barton Heyman) is a Mexican and a pretty damn dangerous man in his own right who understands what Valdez is trying to do and tries to make his boss understand as well to no avail.

The performances in this are really good. Burt Lancaster plays Valdez with a dangerous understatement that fits the character well.  He goes through the first half of the movie as a shambling, quietly spoken man who has put his wild life and lethal skills behind him and is just trying to do a difficult job the best way he can.  But when they rouse this sleeping giant, oh baby, does he get payback in a big way.  Richard Jordan has a good role as a hired gun who oddly enough is conflicted about the way he feels about Valdez and has to put his feelings about Valdez as a Mexican and as a man in a whole new perspective as the hunt for Valdez becomes increasingly more deadly.  Susan Clark is really good in this movie.  Most of you reading this will probably remember her from the TV show “Webster” and I was surprised at how effective she is as Tanner’s woman.  There’s an interesting subplot with her character as it’s taken as a given by the townspeople that Tanner killed her husband so that he could shack up with her.  Valdez takes her hostage to try and bargain with her life for the $100 and through their time together the truth about that situation is resolved in a surprising way I really didn’t see coming.  Frank Silvera plays Valdez’s best friend and they have a really good scene that says everything that needs to be said about how whites view Mexicans that resonated for me given the current climate in the Unites States about Mexican immigrants and makes you think that maybe this country really hasn’t come so far in our racial views as we like to think.

So should you see VALDEZ IS COMING?  I think you’d enjoy it a whole lot if you’re a western fan like I am.  While it’s not as action packed or as purely entertaining as some of the other westerns Burt Lancaster has made such as “The Scalphunters” “Vera Cruz” or “The Professionals” it is a satisfying horse opera in terms of performances and story.  And, yes, it’s not PC to have an Irishman playing a Mexican but that’s how things were done back then so if you want to see the movie, make your peace with that.   There’s a whole lot more to VALDEZ IS COMING than the good guy simply blowing away the bad guys which is underlined by the ending which is one of the most unusual of any western I know but it so absolutely right that I can’t imagine any other way the movie can have ended.  If your cable/satellite provider carries Turner Classic Movies you can wait for VALDEZ IS COMING to show up there as it seems to be a favorite there of somebody in Programming as they usually run it on a Saturday afternoon and if you’re lucky you’ll find it paired with “The War Wagon” or “The Magnificent Seven”.  But if you don’t want to wait, by all means put it on your Netflix queue.  If you’re looking for a solid western with good performances, fine action sequences and a story that contains a little bit more thought to social issues than you might expect from the genre, VALDEZ IS COMING is my recommendation.

Rated PG-13

90 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Westward The Women

1951

MGM

Directed by William Wellman

Produced by Dore Schary

Written by Charles Schneer

Based on a story by Frank Capra

Here’s a movie that even fans of movies in general and westerns in particular have told me they’ve never seen or heard of when I mention it and I can well understand why.  WESTWARD THE WOMEN is by no means a traditional western and every time I watch it I’m kinda amazed that it was made in 1951 since the story is told in such a raw, unglamourized fashion.   It features women and minorities prominently in the cast and they are treated not as stereotypes but as honest human beings.  Sex and death are handled with realistic brutality and this is a movie where the happy ending is truly deserved by the characters and not just a manufactured one to make the audience feel good.  The characters in this movie well and truly go through Hell and when they come out on the other side we feel as though we’ve made every step of the hideously horrible journey with them.

Roy Whitman (John McIntire) is an extraordinarily wealthy landowner who owns an entire California valley that he’s turned into a thriving community.  Now the only things his men need are wives. ‘Good women’ Whitman insists and not the floozies and harlots his men have become used to consorting with.  Whitman intends to go to Chicago, recruit 150 brides and bring them 2000 miles across country to his valley for his men.  To accomplish this he hires Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) one of the best guides and wagon masters around.  Wyatt turns down the job at first and for good reason.  He’s a confirmed misogynist, doesn’t like anything about women, and doesn’t even want them to cook for him.  This guy’s not only a member of The He-Man Women Haters Club, he’s the president.  After Roy promises him a thousand dollar bonus, Buck agrees to take the job.

They go to Chicago and recruit the women for the journey.  Among them is Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel) a dancehall girl who wants to go to California, leave her past behind and make a new life for herself.  Patience Hawley (Hope Emerson) is a woman of Amazonian proportions from a Massachusetts whaling town who has recently lost her husband and three sons in a storm at sea.  Maggie O’Malley (Lenore Lonergan) is a bespectacled schoolmarmish type who turns out to be a better shot, rider and roper than any man.  She soon finds herself in a rivalry with Jean Johnson (Marilyn Erskine) whose skills easily equal hers.  Mrs. Maroni (Renata Vanni) and her young son Tony (Guido Martufi) are also determined to go along despite the fact they speak not a word of English.

Right from the start the trip doesn’t go well.  The sexual tension between Buck’s crew and the women would be obvious to Stevie Wonder and there is a brutal rape that Buck handles in an equally brutal fashion by killing the man in a scene that you don’t find in most westerns.  The guy says to Buck, “Aren’t you going to give me a fair chance to draw?”  Buck doesn’t say a word, simply pulls his gun and shoots the dude dead before his hand even touches his gun.

The next morning Buck and Roy awaken to find that Buck’s crew has abandoned them along with about a dozen of the women.  The only other men besides them is Ito (Henry Nakumura),  the Japanese cook and Sid Cutler, one of Buck’s crew who has fallen in love with one of the women and wants to be the father of her unborn child.  Despite Roy’s misgivings, Buck insists that he can get the women through to California and he’ll do so if he has to turn them into skin, bone and muscle.  “They’re going to hate your guts,” Ito warns Buck who answers back without missing a beat, “I hope they do.”  And the rest of the movie is a grueling marathon of suffering and pain as we watch these women encounter Indian attacks, deadly flash floods, starvation, hailstorms, deserts, and that’s just the easy stuff as they make their way across an America that back those days was really savage,wild and hostile.  Death could come without warning and frequently did.

There are a lot of things in WESTWARD THE WOMEN that makes it different from your average western.  First off, the cast is mostly women but they’re not all your average glamorous Hollywood starlets.  Except for Denise Darcel who is exceptionally gorgeous the other women are remarkably realistic looking.  Some are very pretty.  Some are just pretty.  Some are okay looking. Some are thin.  Some are fat.  Some are ugly.  Some look like something you’d buy in a live bait store.  But all of them have their share of screen time.  We’re not just looking at Denise Darcel all the time.  And even when we are we grow aware of some disturbing things about her character Fifi Danon.   Y’see, she falls in love with Buck and it seems that she spends most of her time deliberately pissing him off so that he can whomp on her.  Their whole relationship seems based on their mutual love of violence.   There’s a disturbing scene where Buck lashes her with a horsewhip as well as smacking her around with the back of his hand a couple of times.  “Is that what you wanted?”  Buck asks.  Fifi looks up at Buck, wipes the blood drooling from the corner of her lip and there’s obvious sexual satisfaction in her voice and eyes as she answers, “Yes.  I’m okay now.”

Equally surprising is Buck’s relationship with Ito, the Japanese who signs on as a cook but we never see him cook a single meal in the entire movie.  In fact, after the rest of the men leave, Buck finds himself relying more and more on Ito for friendship and counsel.  Ito isn’t played as an offensive coolie type spouting pidgin English.  For much of the movie he’s riding side by side with Buck and there are scenes where he and Buck argue as equals about how to handle the women and how they’re going to finish this insane journey.  They bond one rainy night over a jug of rum they’ve dug up out of a grave. They bicker and quarrel.  They make up. They watch each other’s backs.  And when and if you watch this movie notice how every suggestion Ito gives Buck, he takes and acts upon.

The performances are first rate starting with Robert Taylor and going all the way down to the pooch playing Tony Maroni’s dog.  I’ve never been a big Robert Taylor fan but I like him a helluva lot in this movie.  His character of Buck Taylor may not go from being a misogynist to a pro-feminist which I would have found highly unrealistic but by the end of the movie he has come to an understanding and respect of women he didn’t have before.  Hope Emerson is a standout as Patience who refers to everything in nautical/whaling terms and the relationship between her, Buck and the other women is paticularly interesting.  Henry Nakumura is wonderful as Ito.  I really liked the scenes he has with Buck and what I like even more is there never any mention made of Ito’s race outside of when he and Buck first meet and after that, we never hear anybody refer to Ito being Japanese and in fact, there’s quite of bit of Japanese, French (Fifi Danon is French) and Italian spoken with no subtitles which isn’t as much of distraction as you might think and indeed, is quite powerful in one scene where Mrs. Maroni breaks up a fight between two women and chastises them in Italian.  Nobody understands a word she’s saying but everybody knows exactly what she means.

So should you see WESTWARD THE WOMEN?  I would certainly recommend that you do.  It’s a remarkably well-made movie that has a realistic feel and tone to it.  The filmmakers really tried to show how hard and difficult it was for people to get across the country back in the days of The Old West.  It was tough enough for whole families but for a bunch of women by themselves…well…lemme put it this way: there’s nothing in this movie that says it was based on a true story but it should have been because WESTWARD THE WOMEN is filled with enough heart and truth in it’s story to have been real.  And it probably was.  It’s a movie that you oughta put on your Netflix list.  Or if your cable/satellite provider carries Turner Classic Movies wait for it to show up there.

118 minutes

7 Men From Now

1956
Paramount Home Entertainment

Produced by Andrew V. McLaglen, Robert Morrison and John Wayne (uncredited)
Directed by Budd Boetticher
Screenplay and Story by Burt Kennedy

7 MEN FROM NOW is the kind of movie that my mother likes to call “a good ol’ fashioned western” and it’s easy to see why. First off, it’s got Randolph Scott starring in it and if there’s a Holy Trinity of Western Icons then Randolph Scott certainly must be in it (just for the record, my candidates for the two other members of that trinity are John Wayne and Clint Eastwood) and it’s a lean, bare bones movie that tells a highly suspenseful and compelling story in 78 minutes. Despite the short running time, the movie never feels rushed and there’s an amazing amount of characterization and psychological depth. It doesn’t require you to invest a lot of time in it. It tells its story of greed, revenge and redemption without unnecessary padding or wasted scenes and dialog.

Ben Strider (Randolph Scott) is a man on a mission. In the town of Silver Springs seven men held up the Wells Fargo office and made off with $20,000 dollars. During the robbery, a female clerk was shot and killed. The clerk was Strider’s wife. His grief over her death is further fueled by his guilt. Strider was the former sheriff of Silver Springs who lost the last election to a younger, savvier man who played politics better than Strider. Strider was offered the job of deputy but his pride wouldn’t allow him to take the job and so his wife had to go to work to make ends meet.

While on the trail of the seven men Strider encounters John Greer (Walter Reed) and his wife Annie (Gail Russell) on their way to a new life in California and they decide to travel together as they’re riding through a dangerous patch of renegade Indian country. They also encounter Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and his sidekick Clete (Don ‘Red’ Barry) who also ride along but for other reasons. It turns out that Masters knows who robbed the Wells Fargo office and he figures to tag along and let Strider kill the men while he makes off with the loot. He hopes that Strider won’t get in his way but if he does…well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do in The Old West, right?

The situation gets complicated by the obvious mutual attraction Strider and Annie have for each other, an attraction the quick witted Masters picks up on and uses for his own ends. And the seemingly meek John Greer is hiding a dangerous secret of his own that even his wife knows nothing about but when it’s brought to light changes everything between these characters.

Lee Marvin has the best role in the movie and makes the most of it. Bill Masters is a complicated character and for much of the movie you’re never really sure of whose side he’s on. He saves Strider’s life twice during the movie and calls him ‘Sheriff’ even though he has no official authority. Masters cheerfully admits that Strider locked him up twice but the way Marvin delivers the line you get the impression that Masters deserved to get locked up and Strider caught him fair and square. By the time the movie got to the climatic showdown between Strider and Masters there’s real emotional drama due to the time invested in the relationship between the two men. The relationship between Strider and Annie Greer is a little more complicated in that Annie is immediately drawn to the stoic, handsome Strider who bears so much tragedy with a sort of nobility that she’s fascinated by. Certainly Strider is more heroic than her husband who’s a nervous, talkative type who’s totally out of his depth in the savage wilderness.

If you’ve never seen a Randolph Scott movie then this is a terrific one to start with. You watch Randolph Scott and you’re seeing the template that Clint Eastwood based his western performances on. Scott is the quintessential western hero: a man of action and few words, a straight shooter with his own rough morality and code of honor that is unshakeable and unbreakable.

And for a movie with such a short running time there’s a surprising amount of action: there’s three or four major gunfights, an Indian attack, a suspenseful showdown in a saloon between Masters and the leader of the gang who stole the $20,000 and a couple of scenes between Strider and Annie where you’re really not sure if they’re saying what they think they mean or if they’re saying what you think they mean.

So should you see 7 MEN FROM NOW? If you like westerns at all and are a fan of the genre I’d say yes with no reservations at all. It’s not a classic of the genre but it’s a superior example and well worth you time to watch. If you don’t like westerns I’d still say to give it a try. The complex, suspenseful relationships between the characters as well as the great dialog may win you over.

78 minutes