doug-balch

IMDb member since March 2010
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Reviews

Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo
(1966)

Fourth Place All Time For Me
I recently watched the 2003 DVD that contains the fully restored three hour version of this classic western. For those of you not familiar with the storyline, it revolves around the attempts of three rouges to find a missing fortune in Confederate gold in New Mexico during the Civil War. The 2003 DVD has an excellent audio commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, who also collaborated with Eastwood on a definitive Eastwood biography. I gave this film a 10 out of 10 star ranking in IMDb. It scored 20 points in my ranking system, placing it in fourth place all time.

Here's the Good:

  • Eli Wallach and Leone created one of the great villains in the history of cinema. Tuco is equal parts amoral scourge, paisan sympatico and stand up comic. The only characters in the history of Westerns that compare are Little Bill in "Unforgiven", Judge Roy Bean in "The Westerner" and Joe Erin in "Vera Cruz". Gene Hackman and Walter Brennan both won Best Supporting Actor Oscars for those performances. If the Academy ever decides to start handing out retroactive awards, this would be a good place to start.


  • The movie is notable for launching Clint Eastwood to life long international superstardom. Eastwood went on to direct and star in two Westerns that occupy the second and third places in my all time list, "Unforgiven" and "The Outlaw Josie Wales." If not for the success of TGTBTU, those films might not exist.


  • The best soundtrack in the history of Westerns.....the signature laughing hyena, the eerie whistling, the soaring mariachi trumpets, and most importantly, the twangy guitar solo and macho male chorus constantly driving the plot forward. Other than the theme from "The Magnificent Seven", this is only Western soundtrack to become a part of the general popular culture. Hugo Montenegro's cover version reached number two on the Billboard charts in 1968.


  • I call Leone's counterpoint between the long, flowing episodes of deep sentimentality and short bursts of graphic violence "John Ford on steroids". Coppola would copy this technique several years later in an even more gruesome scene in "The Godfather".


  • Fantastic 10 minute opening sequence with no dialog, a homage to "Rio Bravo" and "Comanche Station". This is bookended at the film's climax by another spellbinding five minutes with no dialog.


  • I admire Leone's bold decision not to sandwich in a gratuitous female romantic interest. Last "all guy" Western until "Brokeback Mountain" (just kidding).


  • This may be the first "Vietnam" Western. This is impressive, since in 1965 when the story was conceived and written, opposition to the war was not yet fashionable.


  • This was a watershed film for Westerns in terms of realism. It wasn't the first one to completely break with production code restraints, but it was the first popular and successful Western to do so. There would be no going back to the world where justice always prevails in the end, everyone's wardrobe is perfectly pressed, bullet wounds are bloodless and there are no gratuitous graphic rapes.


  • Brilliant casting of Lee Van Cleef, a minor actor in many Westerns from the golden age of the '50's, including "High Noon", "The Bravados", "The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" and "Ride Lonesome". His presence is one of many Leone homages in the movie to classic Westerns (including a number of references to 1948's "Yellow Sky"). The presentation of Van Cleef's facial features as sculpture reminds me of Boetticher's use of Randolph Scott in the Ranown cycle of films.


  • The best use of the Civil War ever in a Western. The only competitors I'm aware of are "Dances With Wolves", "Major Dundee" and "Escape From Fort Bravo".


  • It's impressive that the portrayal of the Civil War battle is realistically based on the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which took place in New Mexico in 1862. It is often falsely thought that this movie is set in Texas, where there were no major Civil War battles. This misinformation, spread by Leone himself apparently, has deceived some critics into thinking the basic setting of the movie is implausible.


  • Finally, of the five Leone Westerns, this is the perfect blend of Leone's distinctive style with a clever, fast moving and entertaining plot. The other four movies are all fine films, but the first two "Dollar" movies were very low budget and Leone's style was still evolving. Meanwhile, in "Duck, You Sucker" and "Once Upon A Time in the West", Leone disconnected himself from the needs of his commercial audience. Leone was quoted by his biographer, Richard Frayling, as saying that he made OUTITW "for cineastes only". TGTBTU is satisfying for both scholars and popular audiences.


The Bad and the Ugly:

  • I don't have much negative to say about this film. I've read critics who feel it is too long, that the story's not interesting enough, that the Tuco character is irritating. that Wallach's acting is hammy and that the premise of three criminals riding around loose during the Civil War is implausible. I don't think any of these arguments hold water. When it was released in the U.S. in 1968, it was roundly panned for its excessive violence. These complaints seem laughably quaint today in light of the orgy of graphic cinematic gore and sadism that has engulfed filmdom since the late '60's.

The Bravados
(1958)

Good "chase" Western
This is a well made revenge yarn starring Gregory Peck as a small Arizona cattle rancher out to avenge the rape and murder of his wife. The bulk of the movie follows him as he leads a posse tracking four suspects attempting to escape to Mexico. This was a well done and compelling drama. I gave it six stars out of 10 in IMDb. It scored 14 points in my IMDb ranking. Both are good scores.

Here were its better points:

  • The four villains are played by very good actors: Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Lee Van Cleef and Henry Silva. More importantly, their characters are very well developed. The script manages to create sympathy for them, even though they have few redeeming qualities. Stephen Boyd is excellent and carries the movie on his back.


  • The bulk of this movie was filmed on location in a very attractive mountainous area of northern Mexcio. The exciting manhunt takes place against stunning vistas and is accompanied by one of the better musical scores I can remember. I particularly enjoyed the horns, including some intense passages by the orchestra's trombone section.


  • I'm not a big Gregory Peck fan, but he was well cast and credible in this role.


  • The movie is thematically interesting and complex. I'd rather not discuss in detail, as it would probably give too much of the movie away.


  • There were very well developed Mexican themes. This included Mexicans who can actually speak Spanish, if you can believe it. It reminded me of the extended French dialogue among the trappers in Howard Hawk's "The Big Sky".


Here's what kept the movie from being better:

  • Joan Collins comes close to sinking the whole ship as the gratuitous romantic lead.


  • Boyd's character should have had more screen time. I would like to have seen the outlaw group limited to just Silva and Boyd. His malevolent charisma was great counterpoint to Peck's grim, emotionally repressed assassin.


  • Peck is a cattle rancher. They should have explained why he is such an effective and experienced manhunter.


  • I found the presence of a 100% Catholic town in 1880's Arizona to be inaccurate. The majority of white settlers at this time were biblical Protestants, who wouldn't have been caught dead attending a Catholic mass. Certainly the town could have had an old Spanish mission and many Catholic Mexican residents who attended it, but I didn't see any Mexicans in the town. The congregants all appeared to be white. This was probably just Hollywood once again displaying its total ignorance of Christianity.


SPOILERS BELOW!!!!!!!!!!

  • There were a number of other plot holes. For example, Peck's character lives too close to town to appear as a "mysterious stranger". Surely rape/murders weren't so common in the area that the death of his wife hadn't been big news six months earlier. Same thing with the hangman, whom someone should have been able to recognize. At one point, Joan Collins teleports over 100 miles of rough country.


And finally, what is the justification for letting Henry Silva's character go free at the end? He was an accessory to two on screen murders and an the attempted murder of a sheriff. And let's not forget he had already been convicted and sentenced to hang for crimes committed before the movie began. Since the movie is supposedly a celebration of "doing the right thing", this must just be an idiotic mistake.

  • Production code rapes were really weird. This one was very similar to the one in "Rancho Notorious". The rapist makes sexually suggestive advances to the victim, the camera cuts away from them, there are a couple of screams from the woman, then the rapist almost immediately runs back on camera. The rape seemingly takes place in about 15 seconds of live time. This isn't a criticism, just an observation.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
(1957)

Burt Lancaster/Kirk Douglas Western
This movie is mostly notable as the only Western that Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas starred in together. It doesn't disappoint, as both Hollywood icons turn in fine performances. Douglas has a much juicier role as Doc Holiday, while Lancaster plays the strong and silent Wyatt Earp. I really liked this movie. I gave it six stars in my IMDb ranking. It scored 14 points in my ranking system, which is pretty high for a "town" Western.

Here are some positive things that stood out to me:

  • Both Lancaster and Douglas had a tendency to overact when playing extroverted characters ("The Rainmaker", "The Indian Fighter"). Playing a consumptive, Douglas was forced to tone his character down. The stolid Earp played to Lancaster's strength. He's usually at his best when quiet and subdued (one exception being his fantastic Joe Erin in "Vera Cruz").


  • Jo Van Fleet did a nice job as Kate the Whore. What better way to establish Holiday's character than to have his girlfriend pull a knife on him in the opening scene? You know you're a low life when......


  • There's not much in this movie that's spectacular. Sturges just does all the small things right and they add up to an enjoyable experience. The soundtrack's great, Rhonda Fleming is gorgeous, there are no plot holes, he regularly gets the movie out of town into some nice landscapes, he casts a great henchman in John Ireland, there's plenty of humorous interplay between Doc and Earp, there's an very well staged shootout at the end.


I've read some criticisms of this movie. I can understand most of them, but don't think any are that big a deal:

  • Probably the best criticism is that the wardrobes and sets are antiseptic. Everything looks beautiful...and that's the problem. There's not a dirt smudge, sweat stain or wrinkled shirt in the whole movie. But if you're going to dismiss a Western on this issue, you might as well throw out the whole pre-Leone lot. You just have to accept the fact the people in these primitive, ramshackle towns had access to excellent dry cleaning and hair dressing facilities.


  • It could have been shorter. They probably spend too much time developing the characters pre-Tombstone. Rhonda Fleming may have the archetypal Western gratuitous female role, but that never seems to bother me when the female looks as good as Fleming.


  • Some people seem to get wound up about historical accuracy. We see this a lot with Billy the Kid and Jesse James movies as well. Please. Get a life. Go make a documentary. Just stop whining.


  • I would like to have seen a stronger Ike Clanton. Sturges ceded the heavy role to Ireland as Johnny Ringo. Although Ireland is solid, there was room for another villain.


It's always fun to compare the three major O.K. Corrall movies, "My Darling Clementine", "Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall" and "Tombstone" (I'll leave out Costner's "Earp", which I haven't seen in a while).

My favorite argument is about which movie has the best Doc Holiday, since he's by far the most interesting character. I think Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas and Val Kilmer are all excellent. As they should, all three actors steal their respective movies. Douglas and Kilmer bring more wit and humor to the role. Sturges doesn't do as good a job developing Holiday's background as a Southern aristocrat.

Overall, though, my favorite performance is by Victor Mature. I thought it worked better that he was more of a menace than a wit. He communicated more pathos to me. The scene where he finishes Hamlet's soliloquy for the drunken thespian is one of the most moving I've seen in a Western.

Also, Mature is the the only Holiday who doesn't survive the climactic gunfight. Didn't they all three participate because they didn't want to die in bed coughing their lungs up? What's the point of Douglas and Kilmer surviving? The Holiday attempt to commit suicide by gunfight is fully credible, unlike some other characters I can think of, like "The Wild Bunch" foursome, or Richard Boone and Claude Akins in "The Tall T" and "Comanche Station".

Finally, although none of these three dentists ever pulls a tooth, Mature does perform surgery. He's the only one that earns the title of "Doctor".

Forty Guns
(1957)

Arty Sam Fuller Piece
Forty Guns 1957 Directed by Sam Fuller

"Forty Guns" is "Johnny Guitar" for heterosexuals. The warning "For French Film Critics Only" should flash on and off over the opening credits. There is practically no character development, mostly because the plot jumps around so fast you can hardly keep track of it. The only thing you're sure of is you don't give a damn about anybody or care how it ends. It must have done great business in France. Oh I forgot, the French public has enough sense not to watch art movies, which only play to audiences at NYU's film school.

Barry Sullivan currently has my vote for least charismatic gunfighter to ever appear in a Western (he unseated Yul Brenner). Boy were the sparks flying between him and 50 year old Barbara Stanwyk! Was that whiskey they were drinking, or geritol? Fuller claims Marilyn Monroe wanted to play Stanwyk's part. He should have taken her up on it and gone for pure camp. "Forty Guns" would probably still be selling out midnight shows in the West Village.

When Sulllivan goes into his supposedly intimidating "long walk" (a pale ripoff of Robert Mitchum's fantastic scene in 1948's "Blood on the Moon") he looks like Fred MacMurray in "My Three Sons" coming after Chip for the car keys, not a gunfighter playing "chicken" with a henchman.

"Forty Guns" did have one positive: it was short. A good thing, since you don't have Joan Crawford's bright red lipstick around to keep you awake.

Yeah, yeah, it's one of Martin Scorsese's favorite movies. When are people going to wake up and realize that Scorsese likes a lot of bad movies? "Duel in the Sun" is on his must watch list too, remember? I actually like most of the movies Scorsese makes himself, but even his most ardent fans have to admit that he's a sadistic pervert. Do I have to rattle off the sick, violent scenes he's put in just about every movie he's made?

I'm guessing that Marty found a kindred soul in Fuller when he saw the conclusion to "Forty Guns".

Johnny Guitar
(1954)

Worst Western Ever Filmed?
I honestly never thought I would see a Western as bad as "Duel in the Sun", but "Johnny Guitar" delivered the goods. Watching this "Twin Peaks With Spurs" is like having a root canal done with no Novocaine. I know it's very presumptuous and bourgeois of me to disagree with Martin Scorsese and Francois Truffaut, but I gave this movie zeroes all the way around.

Top Ten Laughable Things About "Johnny Guitar".

Number 10 - Comcast's online guide rated it four stars out of a possible four.

Number 9 - The Dancin' Kid.

Number 8 - Sterling Hayden proving his acting range is limited to Brigadier General Jack Ripper in "Dr. Strangelove".

Number 7 - Royal Dano's character reading a book while he's guarding the waterfall leading to his hideout.

Number 6 - The Dancin' Kid revealing that he's originally from New York.

Number 5 - Working title during production was "Plan Nine From Lordsburg". This is what Ed Wood's movies would have looked like if he had money.

Number 4 - The Dancin' Kid winning the William Shatner Career Achievement Razzie for bad acting.

Number 3 - The meticulously neat cabin where the Dancin' Kid's gang lives.

Number 2 - The Dancin's Kid's gang taking artillery fire from Nazi gunners as they attempt to cross the pass out of town.

Number 1 - Joan Crawford's bugged out eyes and fire engine red lips.

Blood on the Moon
(1948)

Great Film Noir Western
This is an excellent film noir Western. "Range war" Westerns aren't my favorite sub-genre, but this is the best one I've seen. I gave it an eight out of ten IMDb ranking. It scored 18 points in my ranking system, which is very high. I'll use this review to compare it favorably to "Shane", a film it shares a number of plot elements with.

  • Like Shane, Jim Geary is a drifter/gunfighter who winds up in the middle of a range war. However, Geary's role is a little like Jack Wilson's, the character Jack Palance played in "Shane" i.e. Geary's the hired heat brought in to drive off the homesteaders (in this case, the "good" rancher). While Shane's conflicts are mostly internal, Geary's are both internal and external i.e. he defects from the "bad" side to the "good" side. One of my main criticisms of "Shane" is that it is too boring. The difference in Geary's role is one of the reasons that "Blood on the Moon" is more interesting, well paced and exciting.


  • Robert Mitchum is just fantastic in this. Unlike Alan Ladd, he looks the part of a charismatic tough guy. More importantly, though, the script acknowledges that his character has a legitimately bad past. Do we ever for a minute think that Shane was a bad guy once upon a time? This is the implausible myth of the "poor gunfighter", which as far as I know, was first presented as Jimmy Ringo in "The Gunfighter". Jim Geary is more Will Munny than Jimmy Ringo.


  • Robert Preston's devilish charisma is on full display in his characterization of the heavy, Tate Riling. Emile Meyer was good as the heavy in "Shane", but his character can't compare to the color and complexity of Riling. In fact, Riling's not even the evil rancher, but a third party adventurer who is playing the ranchers and homesteaders off against each other. Again, this leads to more complicated and clever plot developments than in "Shane".


  • There are two romantic subplots in "Blood on the Moon", both of which take place with well developed (in terms of plot) female characters who are not gratuitous sex objects. Compare to "Shane", where there is no romance outside of the Starret's ten year wedding anniversary.


  • Range war Westerns often get stuck out on the prairie and don't take enough advantage of Western landscapes. George Stevens solved this brilliantly by setting his movie at the base of the Grand Tetons. Still, the movie gets stuck going back and forth from the Starret ranch to the town. "Blood on the Moon" matches "Shane" by setting the story in the foothills of the Sedona mountains in Arizona, but avoids "Shane's" problems by moving the story around aggressively. There several cattle drives, two different towns and most importantly, a thrilling chase into the snow covered Sedona mountains. This is the only black and white movie I've awarded the maximum points in my landscape category.


  • Wise weaved important historical texture into his film by setting it next to an Indian reservation. The government Indian agent is a key player in the plot and they even work an Indian character in, something difficult to do in a "Range War" Western. I've criticized "Shane" for the lack of Indian themes, not because every Western should have Indian themes, but because a movie that was intended to be the "archetypal" Western and is reputed by many to be the best Western of all time, should have at least made an effort. "Blood on the Moon" demonstrates that it can be done in a range war context.


That's it for the "Shane" comparisons. Some other things I liked:

  • Walter Brennan is excellent in this. It's kind of funny, people of my generation only knew him as a comedic buffoon. From my point of view, he's always very effective in these early movies, when he mostly played against that type. It's one of the reasons John Wayne is so good in "The Searchers" and "Red River". Those are the only Westerns where he didn't play "John Wayne".


  • There's a fabulous scene where Mitchum faces down two of Riling's henchman. It's great because there's no gunfire involved. He marches across the street, calls them out and they chicken out. These are the kind of scenes that can make a movie (And not to rag on "Shane" too much, the same can be said for the Elijah Cook Jr.'s gripping murder scene in that movie).


  • I appreciate the fact that there isn't an uncomfortable age gap between Mitchum and Bel Geddes. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it is a rarity.


  • Not my cup of tea exactly, but I should point out there is an excellent fist fight between Mitchum and Preston.


  • There are several of great lines. Again these are the types of things that can make movies.


"I've seen dogs that wouldn't claim you for a son, Tate." "No law says a man has to go by the wagon road" "I always wanted to shoot one of you. He was the handiest." "We could've licked them you and me, but you always had a conscience breathing down your neck."

I don't have much to say on the negative side.

  • Riling's henchman were poorly drawn, especially in comparison to "Shane's" Jack Wilson.


  • It could have used some relief from the tension, maybe some music or comedy, but I guess that was the whole point of the film noir genre - to wind you up as much as possible.


  • It's a bit dated, but far less stiff and corny than most movies from that era (including "Shane"). In that sense, it was way ahead of its time.

Rio Bravo
(1959)

Good John Wayne Western, a bit overrated
Rio Bravo is a movie that has been gushed over by numerous critics (Roger Ebert's review is particularly unctuous). Frankly, I don't really get it. I thought it was a really good movie and gave it 6 out of 10 in IMDb, which is a good score for me. It also scored well in my ranking system with 14 points, but for my money it doesn't belong in the conversation of "best Western of all time".

Here's what I liked:

  • Obviously, Hawks is a great director. He's at his best here at the interplay between the characters, especially Chance and Dude. Stumpy and his relationship to everyone is well drawn also, as are Feathers and Colorado. You've got to like the names of all the characters too, right? Chance, Dude, Stumpy, Feathers, Colorado. Great stuff.


  • Really cool use of the haunting trumpet in the Mexican "Cutthroat Song", which Burdette orders the band to play in order to harass Chance.


  • One of Wayne's better roles, which is saying a lot.


  • Dean Martin is fantastic in this. There's an interesting story about how Hawks cast Martin, if you can dig it up.


  • Scored well in my Mexico/Indian/Civil War category with the well characterized Mexican hotel owners who come to Chance's aid. Also, town was well populated with Mexican characters, which was historically accurate.


  • Good use of comic relief.


  • Claude Akins was an effective heavy, although his brother, played by John Russell, could have been characterized a little better. Look for Russell as the henchman Stockburn in "Pale Rider" 25 years later.


Nothing about his movie was really bad, I just have some minor complaints:

  • I found Ricky Nelson very awkward in this. Too bad they couldn't get Elvis. That would have been really interesting.


  • Once again the stunning age difference between Wayne and Dickinson undermined the romantic subplot. Nice effort by Dickinson, though.


  • Could they have left that town set for just one minute? I guess claustrophobia was part of the theme. I hate claustrophobia


  • Songs by Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson were horrible


  • Does a stick of dynamite automatically explode when hit with a bullet? Not the best shootout at the end and the body count seemed a little on the high side.

Dodge City
(1939)

Stiff and Outdated
I don't recommend this movie to anyone who isn't a rabid Errol Flynn fan. From my point of view, he's too suave and urbane to qualify as a Western hero. I understand he ended up making eight Westerns. I can't say I'm looking forward to watching them, although I'm holding out a little hope for "They Died With Their Boots On". The movie has a good rep and George Custer sounds like a more suitable role for Flynn. We'll see.

It's hard to come up with a list of likes and dislikes for this film. It was so bland and cookie cutter, it didn't elicit much reaction either way. I gave it a three out of 10 in my IMDb and it only scored seven points in my ranking system, a bad score.

Here's what I liked:

  • There was a very large and well filmed barroom brawl. This is a stock Western cliché that doesn't really interest me much, but this was one of the better ones I can remember. I especially liked it because it took place between Union and Confederate Civil War veterans.


  • I don't know much about the history of color movies, but this must have been an early one. Not very impressive 70 years later , but it must have been a big deal back in its own day.


  • I'm at a loss really to say anything more positive about this film


On the negative side:

  • Like I mentioned above, I just didn't buy Flynn as a gunfighter hero.


  • I'm not sure why his character wasn't Wyatt Earp. I'm not an Earp historical expert, but it seemed to me this was the stock "Wyatt Earp cleans up Dodge" narrative, just with a different guy. Don't know why they did that.


  • The written preludes to these 1930's movies crack me up. Was it that audiences were so accustomed to the silent era that they were afraid not to let them read a little bit?


  • As is typical in movies from this time period, the romantic subplot is stiff and corny, the soundtrack is syrupy, the villains are purely melodramatic, there is a general lack of realism.

The Furies
(1950)

Film Noir Potboiler
This disappointing movie is a film noir version of "Duel in the Sun". It's much more intelligent and better acted than "Duel", but just like "Duel", it stretches the limits of the Western genre by introducing too much romance and soap opera.

I only gave this 4 out of 10 stars in IMDb. It only accumulated 8 points in my ranking system, well below average score of 12.

Despite its poor overall ranking, there were quite a few things to like about the movie:

  • Barbara Stanwyck may have played a lot of strong women in her career, but her character is quite unusual for a Western. She does a great job, but unfortunately her role is too hammy.


  • There's a very unusual plot element revolving around the issuance of a private currency and bank loans. The economics in the movie are sophisticated and realistic. Reminded me a lot of the accuracy of 1980's "Trading Places".


  • Barbara Stanwyck has a great line late in the movie, when a town dance hall girl introduces herself, saying, "Hi, My name's Dallas Hart, I'm new here". Stanwyck looks her up and down and says, "Honey, you wouldn't be new anywhere." Wouldn't be surprised if that wasn't an old Mae West line.


  • Nice authentic Arizona locations.


  • Pretty realistic interiors. i.e. when the scene shifts to a soundstage, the rooms feel small and have low ceilings. Ford was good at this also.


On the negative side:

  • As I mentioned, it's a pot boiling "Peyton Place with spurs" more than a real Western. This is a common problem in "Land Baron" dramas like "The Big Country".


  • Wendell Corey is very poorly cast as the central romantic lead. This movie desperately needed some charisma in this role.


  • It was obvious they were trying to fit a 1,000 page novel into a two hour movie, which is very hard to do. In this way, it resembles Mann's "Cimarron", which he made a complete mess of ten years later. This movie is much better crafted than "Cimarron", but the extensive summarizing of characters and time passage is obvious. They handle it pretty well overall, but can't keep up. For example, Stanwyck's brother simply disappears from the movie half way through with no explanation.


  • I won't give it away, but expect more of Anthony Mann's obligatory gore and sadism. I could do without all the shootings through the hand, draggings through the fire, spurs in the neck etc.

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys
(1969)

Good Burt Kennedy comedy
This is a very entertaining Burt Kennedy Western, very much in the mold of "The War Wagon", although it more often crosses the line into straight comedy. I gave it five stars in my IMDb ranking. I ended up classifying it as a comedy, which I don't rank in my all time great Westerns system (I haven't figured out yet why I don't, it just feels like comedies should be ranked against each other in their own category).

Here's what I liked:

  • Robert Mitchum and George Kennedy are very good in this as an aging lawman and outlaw who become "frenemies". Both of these guys are very underrated actors. I can't think of a movie Kennedy was in that I didn't enjoy.


  • Martin Balsam practically steals the movie as the corrupt mayor. A really great comedic performance that was clearly the inspiration for Harvey Corman's governor character in "Blazing Saddles" a couple of years later. This movie really got me interested in Balsam. Looks like he was one of the early Actor's Studio guys like Eli Wallach. I only remember him from "Psycho" and "Hombre". Dude had some range. I'm going to make a point of watching some more of his work.


  • Nice location filming in New Mexico.


  • Some pretty good action set pieces with a locomotive.


  • Story moves along nicely, it's easy to get involved in the characters, there are no gaping plot holes.


  • Kennedy plays a notorious bank robber who everyone thinks was killed 10 or 15 earlier. In reality, he got married to a Quaker woman, went straight and was living in Canada. After she dies from fever, he leaves an 11 year old son behind to return to the U.S. and resume his career as a bank robber. Sound like someone we know? Hint: Clint Eastwood played the part.


Here's what wasn't so great:

  • Ridiculous title


  • David Carridine has a part.

Young Billy Young
(1969)

You Can Skip This Onr
This is a very mediocre offering from Burt Kennedy. It is yet another remake of Rio Bravo, but without any added wit or star power to justify the exercise. I gave it 3 out of 10 stars in IMDb and didn't bother to rank it.

There were a few things I liked about it:

  • Robert Mitchum makes it watchable.


  • There aren't a whole lot of women who are sexier at age 38 than they are at age 28. Angie Dickinson is one of them.


  • This kid Robert Walker Jr., who plays the Billy Young in the title, has an interesting background. His mother was Jennifer Jones and his father, Robert Walker, was an excellent actor who is best known for his role as the creepy guy in Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train". He was also very good as the "spoiled, no good cattle baron's son" in "Veangance Valley". Unfortunately, his son appears to have inherited his mother's acting talent instead of his father's. Look for another poor performance by the kid in "The War Wagon".


  • Nice authentic location i.e. the film is shot mostly on location in southern Arizona where the film is set.


  • It's worth a very hearty laugh when you realize that Robert Mitchum is actually doing the vocals on the title song, which gets played over the opening credits and then again at the end. He sounds like a moose in heat.

Comanche Station
(1960)

Remake of Ride Lonesome
This is the third Boetticher/Scott Western I've seen, "Ride Lonesome" and "The Tall T" are the others. So far, "Commanche Station" is the best, followed by "The Tall T", then "Ride Lonesome". What's remarkable is how similar they all are. Same leading man, same Sierra Nevada location.......same plot.

I gave this movie 6 out of 10 in the IMDb rankings. It did well in my ranking system, accumulating 14 points, a very solid score.

Here's what I found admirable in this movie:

  • I don't consider Randolph Scott an "A" Western leading man, but I would put him at the top of my "B" list. Interesting and believable back story to his character also.


  • This was filmed entirely on location. I couldn't identify a single sound stage scene.


  • This 80 minute special was obviously filmed on a very low budget. I know of no director who has squeezed more movie out of so few resources.


  • The scenery on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range in eerily beautiful and Boetticher uses it to maximum effect.


  • The story has excellent dramatic tension. The characters are developed with mystery and subtlety. Unlike its earlier twin, "Ride Lonesome", there are no plot holes.


  • Claude Akins does a tremendous job as the heavy. His character is devilishly likable. I'm going to go so far as to say I enjoyed his role more than Richard Boone's heavy in "The Tall T".


  • There's some very good dialog, especially from Claude Akin's character. "Ma'am, if you was mine, I'd of come for you even if I'd of died in the doin' of it." A lot of stuff like that.


  • Good Indian themes. Indians are presented multi-dimensionally i.e they actually have a reason for killing white people. Again an improvement over "Ride Lonesome".


  • Some successfully executed subtle humor in the interplay between Aiken's two dimwitted henchmen. Another improvement over "RL".


  • Interesting opening sequence with no dialog for five or ten minutes. Reminds me of the famed opening of "Rio Bravo", which was a Hawks tribute to silent films. "RB" was released a year before "CS". Did Boetticher copy Hawks?


Now here's what kept the movie from being better:

  • Generally I am willing to grant directors artistic license for inauthentic locations, but I don't see why they didn't just set this story in the Sierras where they were shooting it, instead of pretending they were in New Mexico.


  • I'm not going to kill this for being a virtual remake of "Ride Lonesome", mostly because he cleaned up most of the obvious mistakes he made in the earlier film.


  • I hate his Indian attacks. Indians did not ride around in circles and form perfect shooting galleries for well dug in white people.


  • The soundtrack is awful.

Yellow Sky
(1948)

Solid Western
This is a good movie, a gritty drama about an outlaw gang on the run who get trapped in a ghost town. I gave this a six out of 10 rating in IMDb. It scored 13 points in my ranking system, which is slightly above average.

Here's what I liked:

  • I liked the realism and sophistication of the characters, considering the movie was made in the 1940's.


  • It was very well acted. This is about as good as Gregory Peck gets. This is also a good look at the younger Richard Widmark, starring in only his fourth film. Widmark should have played more heavies in his Westerns. Especially good is Robert Arthur, who nails the stock "crusty old prospector" role.


  • An unusually strong female role, well played by Anne Baxter. Her character is well drawn and serves a much bigger role in the plot than a simple romantic interest.


  • There is an excellent ghost town set.


  • Nice use of desert landscapes in Death Valley


  • Excellent Civil War references. Peck's character is a former Quantrill Raider.


  • Realistic use of Apache Indians.


Now here's what kept the movie from being better:

  • It's thematically a bit simplistic i.e. desire for gold leads to bad things. "Yellow Sky" came out a year after "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and it may be no coincidence that there are some similarities in the plot.


  • A bit too grim. Could have used a little comic relief.


  • Kind of shocking explicit rape theme running through most of the second half. Surprised that got through the censors.

Warlock
(1959)

Great Henry Fonda Western
This is a really good movie with a great script and great cast. I gave it a 6 out of 10 rating in IMDb. It faired pretty well in my ranking system for a "town" Western devoid of humor, scoring 13 points out of 24, which is above average.

Here's what I liked:

  • It was very strong thematically, deeply exploring the concepts of law versus order in the changing West.


  • The plot was very sophisticated and complex, with multiple heroes, multiple heavies and multiple romantic interests. It even had two climaxes, just like "The Tin Star" another Fonda movie from a few years earlier.


  • They managed to tell a very complicated story with few plot holes (just when did Clay and Jessie decide to get married, anyway?).


  • Fonda is masterful as he always is, Widmark is solid as he always is, but Anthony Quinn almost steals the movie as Clay's bizarre crippled friend/protector/implied lover.


  • If you don't believe there's an intentional homoerotic subtext to Clay and Morgan's relationship, why does the script go out of its way to show them sharing the same rooms? And the first thing they do when they move in is discuss redecorating. Now how many gunfighters would do that?


  • Unlike most "town" Westerns, Warlock managed to score a point in my landscape category. It shows you that "town" Westerns don't have to be devoid of Western landscapes. There are innumerable plot devices to get the characters out of town. Warlock does an excellent job of this.


  • The romantic subplots weren't completely gratuitous. Both women were fairly well developed, although in both cases the development of the relationships was rushed. I can understand why though. As it was, the movie ran over two hours already.


  • Maybe somebody can help me out here, but Morgan basically commits suicide at the end when he outdraws Clay, but only shoots his hat off. Clay also rides off to eventually meet his maker as a wandering gunman. Is this the first "there's no point in going on" gunfighter suicide? The Magnificent Seven had a similar theme, as did "The Wild Bunch".


Now here's what kept the movie from being better:

  • Could have benefited from a more charismatic heavy than Tom Drake. He should also have had a henchman who put a little scare into Clay.


  • I don't think it was necessary for the movie to be so grim. There was not a bit of comic relief or musical relief .


  • The soundtrack was very intrusive and irritating.


  • While I'll give them credit for exploring their theme thoroughly, I'm not sure the theme is deep enough or relevant enough to warrant such a examination. "There's no more place for gunfighters and the law should be duly appointed by the government". Fine, I get it. It's not like the danger of vigilante justice is a big issue for me in my personal life.

How the West Was Won
(1962)

Excellent Epic Western
This is an excellent movie. I gave it 7 out of 10 IMDb stars, which is a very high score for me. It did very well in my ranking system, accumulating 17 points. This places it comfortably inside my top 20 all time Westerns, although my project is far from complete.

Here's what I liked:

  • I love multi-generational narratives i.e. stories that follow sets of families as they live and die through several decades. This is an extremely effective way to present historical fiction and was perfected by one of my favorite authors, James Michener. In 1974, Michener published his own excellent grand pioneer novel called "Centennial" . This was made into a pretty good TV mini-series in 1978.


  • I like the epic sweep of the film historically and geographically, telling stories from the Erie Canal pioneers all the way to the "end of the West" lawmen.


  • Many parts and scenes were very effective in terms of sentimentality, especially when George Peppard's character returns home from war and passes his mother's tombstone.


  • Those who are familiar with my ranking system will understand how much I appreciated an entire section devoted to the Civil War. The movie also treated its Indian characters multi-dimensionally. Although it did contain an important Mexican character (played very well by Eli Wallach), it failed to allude effectively to the broad Hispanic culture of the region. In a longer mini-series format, I'm sure this would not have been neglected. This omission kept the movie from busting the maximum three point score in my Civil War/Indian/Mexico category.


  • It's a great looking film, of course, with lots of big budget on location set pieces. It must have been quite an audio visual experience in the theater for 1962 audiences. Even on a home TV, the rapids scene, the buffalo stampede and the train wreck are quite harrowing.


  • The music and soundtrack were well done, with many period folks songs and lots of sweeping orchestral music to match the many natural landscapes that were filmed.


  • I thought the characters were well developed i.e. I was able to really care about a lot of them. The stories moved along nicely and there were only a few plot holes.


  • Gratuitous romantic female roles are a common fault in Westerns. This movie had two strongly developed female characters, the sisters played by Debbie Reynolds and Carroll Baker. The more I watch Carroll Baker, the more I like her. She was great in "The Big Country" and "Cheyenne Autumn" as well.


Now here's what kept the movie from being better:

  • This opinion might surprise some, but I thought the casting was a weakness in the movie. All star casts are awkward. It was kind of like watching a rock and roll Hall of Fame awards show, where Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Bruce Springsteen all get up on stage together and play a Beatles song. They all get in each other's way so much, no single musician has an opportunity to display his individual artistry. The result is usually an incomprehensible mess.


In movies, pairing so many superstars together doesn't present as big a problem as in music. These guys were all excellent in their cameos. I particularly enjoyed Henry Fonda as the "super scout". My point is simply that you're not getting the full benefit of having Henry Fonda in the movie when his role is so limited.

I'm also not against this type of ensemble casting. I had fun watching all these old pros, especially since they are the veterans of so many other Westerns. I just think it would have been a much stronger movie if they had turned over a primary role to Wayne or Fonda.

As it was, the real co-leads of the movie were Debbie Reynolds and George Peppard. Although they were both very good in this, the bottom line is that the weakest actors had the biggest parts

  • Even with almost three hours of running time, they bit off more history than they could really chew. This needed a six hour TV mini- series format, and that might not have been enough. As a result, the movie suffers from being "a mile wide and an inch deep".

The Ballad of Cable Hogue
(1970)

Huh?
The Ballad of Cable Hogue Directed by Sam Peckinpah 1970

This movie has several things in common with "Once Upon a Time in the West":

  • Similarities in plot i.e. guy marries a beautiful whore and tries to build his own remote desert transportation stop.


  • Both are directed by auteurs with cult followings.


  • Both are deliberately paced and favor atmosphere over dramatic plot development.


  • Both star Jason Robards.


  • Both failed at the box office, but enjoy enthusiastic cult followings today.


  • Neither has Indians (just kidding).


Peckinpah is one of the best action directors in the history of cinema, but he also excelled in character study/mood pieces. "Junior Bonner" is a modern Western he directed in a similar style to "Cable Hogue". While I liked "Junior Bonner" and his other mood piece "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid", "Cable Hogue" left me completely mystified.

I gave it two out of 10 stars in my IMDb rating. It got skunked in my ranking system with only three points. Only two movies so far have scored worse: "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Duel in the Sun".

I found almost nothing to like about this movie. However, I do have a list of criticisms:

  • While I think Jason Robards can be an effective supporting actor, I don't think he can carry a movie as the lead.


  • "Butterfly Mornings, Wildflower Afternoons" may be the worst song ever inflicted on mankind….and I've seen all of Elvis' movies.


  • I hadn't the slightest interest at any point in this movie whether or not Cable got the girl or didn't, was successful financially or wasn't, got revenge on his former partners or didn't, or lived or died.


  • In addition to the excruciating "Butterfly Mornings" love montage, there were a number of other non-sequiturs, including Benny Hill style film speed accelerations, Russ Meyers style closeups of breasts and Cable's death scene. Some claim this is Fellini-esquire. Fair enough. I hate Fellini movies. (That Russ Meyers, though, he had some talent).


  • I've read that this is the finest performance of Stella Steven's career. I agree. Much better than her work in "Girls, Girls, Girls", "The Silencers" and "Slaughter". Check that. We did get to see her nipples in "Slaughter". That remains my favorite Stella Stevens performance.


  • I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out what religion Peckinpah belonged to. He's extremely anti-Christian, but seems to believe in some kind of deity. His confused spiritual life was most likely ruled over by a God named Jack Daniels.


  • I found the co-themes of the "death of the West" and "societal outcasts are really superior to. hypocritical societal snobs" trite and poorly developed.


  • The setting here stretches the limits of the genre "Western". What is it, 1920? This is less of a Western and more of an absurdist romantic comedy with sagebrush and horses for props.


  • Oh, I did like one thing, For once, R.G. Armstrong does not play a crazy Christian. Nice to see him stretching his range a bit.

Bandolero!
(1968)

Underrated
This is an underrated Western that gets no critical respect. This is because the director Andrew McLaglen came from a TV background and took orders from Duke in a series of late Wayne Westerns. However, he also did some above average work, including both Shenandoah and Bandolero. This scored a 6 out of 10 in my IMDb rating, which is very good and tallied 15 points in my ranking system, a very good score.

Here's what I thought was good about this movie:

  • The co-leads, Dean Martin and James Stewart are great in this. James Stewart is just a wonderful comedic actor. It's a shame Anthony Mann didn't have a sense of humor. He underused Stewart in his 1950's Westerns. In addition to Stewart's wonderful part at the beginning as a fake hangman, there are a number of back and forths between he and Martin later in the movie that are as good as the dialog between Stewart and Widmark in "Two Rode Together".


  • George Kennedy is another very underrated actor and like Dean Martin, he's an underrated comedic actor. Kennedy really fills up the screen like few actors can.


  • I admit I've had a life long crush on Raquel Welch. She looks great in this and her character has quite a bit of depth. I bought the romantic subplot between her and Martin. Hostage/captor thing, you know.


  • McLaglen does a nice job of keeping the story moving. They don't get stuck in Val Verde.


  • There are extended location shoots in Glen Canyon in Utah that are absolutely stunning.


  • Excellent use of Civil War and Mexican themes.


  • Good music score


  • As mentioned, good use of comic relief throughout.


There were a number of things that kept this movie from being better:

  • There was basically no heavy. The Mexican bandidos were almost completely undeveloped. This severely undercut the dramatic tension in the story, especially since there was so much humor. At some point, humor can cease to be counterpoint to relieve dramatic tension and a movie becomes a comedy. This almost happens to Bandalero and is one reason why it's not taken seriously by critics.


  • The night camp studio sets were very artificial looking.


  • The ending felt abrupt and contrived.


  • The body count in the final shoot 'em up scene was unnecessarily high. The bandidos are pretty ridiculously stereotyped. Maybe that's why they didn't shoot in Mexico. They wouldn't let them.


  • More on the final shootout, McLaglen commits the cardinal sin of having the stupid brown skinned bandidos ride around endlessly out in the open, making themselves perfect targets, while the white people pick them off from well protected hiding spots. Of course, 20 bandidos ride in, 40 are killed, and 20 ride out. They run like rabbits when their "jefe" is killed. All implausible and ridiculous


  • Finally, exactly what happened to the real hangman? Stewart must have killed him. Inconsistent with his character.

Major Dundee
(1965)

Most Disappointing Movie Ever
As I slipped the DVD into the machine, my expectations for Major Dundee were sky high. From my point of view, this movie has almost everything going for it:

  • Directed by Sam Peckinpah, one of my favorite directors,


  • A dream cast of Charlton Heston, Richard Harris and James Coburn with a utopia of rich character actors supporting them. Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor, I could go on..


  • Colorful setting during the Civil War in the Apache country of Maximilian Mexico.


  • Stunning location filming in Mexico.


  • A "frenemy" relationship between Union officer Heston and Confederate officer Harris, who warily join forces to retrieve kidnapped children from the Apaches, fighting their way through brigades of French lancers all the way.


This sounded like one of my favorite movies, "Vera Cruz" on steroids. Yet, I have never been so disappointed in a movie as I was in "Major Dundee".

It starts off OK, but as it progressed I started to get worried. By the middle of the movie, I decided that I was bored and didn't care about any of the characters. Then suddenly, the plot devolved into a series of almost entirely unrelated vignettes that had very little to do with the first half of the film. I would have laughed out loud at some of the scenes if I hadn't been so thoroughly bored and deflated. The proceedings dragged on for over two hours, although it felt like four hours.

It's hardly worth detailing the carnage, but here are some low lights:

  • There is absolutely no chemistry between Heston and Harris. Made me appreciate Burt Lancaster's performance in "Vera Cruz" all the more.


  • Heston is wooden, Harris is miscast. Both looked liked they knew the movie was going to bomb.


  • Coburn has to play the most uncharismatic "super scout" in the history of Westerns. And he commits the cardinal sin of wearing a ridiculous looking cowboy hat.


  • It's hard to even describe the absurd plot directions the movie takes in the second half. There's like two or three different movies going on inside the same movie. I'm used to plot holes in movies, but these were plot black holes.


  • Completely useless narration by bugler.


  • Senta Berger's presence is one of the most gratuitous and implausible romantic subplots in the history of film.


  • Peckinpah-philes like to blame this mess on studio interference. B.S. Nothing could have saved this turkey.


3 out of 10 IMDb rating for me. It fared better in my ranking system due to its great landscapes and colorful background themes, with 13 points, slightly above average.

Tombstone
(1993)

Disappointing Remake
This is a pretty well told and entertaining retelling of the Wyatt Earp story. I gave it only four stars in my IMDb ranking. It bombed in my ranking system, with only eight points out of a maximum of 24 points. That's well below the average ranking of 12.

Here's what I liked:

  • The story is well told. There are no plot holes. It moves quickly and is entertaining.


  • Val Kilmer did a great job playing Doc Holiday. I'm still partial to Victor Mature's rendition in "My Darling Clementine", but I can understand why some think Kilmer's is the best ever.


  • I just love Sam Elliot in Westerns. If he had been in his prime in the 40's or 50's I think he could have been one of the all time best leading men in the genre (the same could be said for Tommy Lee Jones).


  • This ends up being a real good buddy movie. The Earp/Holiday relationship in the older films is more "frenemy" than buddy. I really cared about these two guys at the end and their loyalty to each other was touching.


Unfortunately there were a whole bunch of things in this movie that chapped my grits:

  • I didn't feel film gave us any compelling reason for retelling a story that has be told in a number of very good films already.


  • I like Kurt Russell. Loved him in "Overboard". Wyatt Earp? No way. Didn't buy it. I'll give him credit for one thing though: he got the most he could get out of Kurt Russell for this. Also, he was very effective in the scene where he threw Billy Bob Thornton out of the bar.


  • They had too many heavies, none of which were characterized well enough. And what did they do to poor Ike Clanton? He was a blatant coward and the butt of what little humor there was in the movie. Walter Brennan must have rolled over in his grave.


  • The many female parts all felt gratuitous. There's only one interesting woman in this story and that's Doc Holiday's girlfriend. She gets very little screen time due to the cast of thousands. And did I miss something or did she just disappear from the story without explanation?


  • Besides some sarcastic remarks by Kilmer, there was no comic relief.


  • Very weak attempts to move the story out of the gnarly little town set into some interesting landscapes.


  • The body count was unnecessarily high.


  • And what's with the blatant reuse of the Book of Revelations "rider on a pale horse" sruff. Didn't Russell see "Pale Rider"?


  • There's a brief appearance by Mexican characters in the opening sequence, then the remainder of the film is 100% Anglo, which is odd for an area that is so heavily populated by Mexicans.


  • And as is typical in almost every post Vietnam Western, they punt on the Indian issue. To introduce an Indian character opens up a can of worms i.e. due to PC concerns, an Indian can't be shown doing anything bad anymore, so you have to make room in the story for a maudlin "aren't white people bad" theme. That in turn doesn't always help sell tickets to white people. Easier and more profitable to punt and pretend they weren't there.

Pale Rider
(1985)

Rare 1980's Western
I have to give Clint Eastwood some credit here for even making a Western in the 1980's. Along with the 2000's, it was the worst decade ever for Westerns. This is a good movie. It is a conscious remake of "Shane" and "High Plains Drifter".

I gave it five stars out of 10 in IMDb, which is average for me. It scored 13 points in my ranking system, way ahead of "Shane" and one point ahead of "High Plains Drifter".

Here's what I liked:

  • Mysterious stranger….Clint Eastwood. 'Nuff said. I'm in.


  • This movie improved on "Shane" in just about every respect, not just getting rid of Alan Ladd's $1,000 Hollywood hairdo and ridiculous yellow buckskins. What I liked best, though, was that Clint set things right in terms of the stranger's relationship with the child.


Shane had no interest in the mom, Jean Arthur, and director George Stevens focused on a creepy homo erotic relationship with a young boy. The Preacher, on the other hand, rejects an understandable crush by a pubescent girl and sleeps with her mom instead.

  • Nice "Shane" copycat location shoot. The Idaho mountains in the movie look eerily like the Grand Tetons from "Shane".


  • The central henchman, John Russell, is very effective, along with his six deputies. Again note the similarity between the murder of the miner in the street and the murder of Elisha Cook by Jack Palance in "Shane".


Now here's what kept the movie from being better: - I liked the idea of remaking "Shane". It really needed to be remade. But "High Plains Drifter"? OK, movie, but I think one was enough.

  • I didn't get Michael Moriarty and Carrie Snodgrass in this. Poor casting.


  • The mining valley sets were claustrophobic. Getting stuck in one place is always a hazard in "small settler vs. land baron" Westerns. Eastwood solved this beautifully in "High Plains Drifter" by building a set on the shore of Mono Lake in California.

The Shootist
(1976)

Duke's Last Movie
This is a special film for John Wayne fans because it was Duke's last film. This is an excellent movie and is indisputably the best Western of Wayne's post "Liberty Valance" oeuvre (my apologies to fans of "Cahill: U.S. Marshall". haha).

I gave it 6 stars out of 10 in IMDb, which is a good score with me. It accumulated 15 points in my ranking system, which is a very solid score.

Here's what I liked:

  • Unique movie about a man dying of cancer who actually was dying of cancer. Wayne had survived lung cancer ten years earlier and already had cancer again when this movie was filmed. Wayne's ersatz father figure, John Ford, died of a slow death from cancer a couple of years before this movie was made. Duke also watched his mom and brother slowly die of cancer.


  • One of the best acting performances of Wayne's career.


  • Inspired casting of Lauren Bacall. She brings the perfect tone of sadness and feeling to her role. Surprising how old she looks in this movie, though. She was only 52.


  • Great cameos by James Stewart, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, John Carradine and Hugh O'Brian. Watch for Bill McKinney as Cobb, the creamery owner/gunfighter (?). McKinney played the heavy 'redleg" Captain Terrill in "The Outlaw Josie Wales" that same year.


  • Nice representation of turn of the century Carson City, Nevada, replete with trolleys and early automobiles.


  • Excellent comic relief by Harry Morgan, John Carradine and Wayne. This is much needed in a story that is inherently dark and depressing.


  • Perhaps the only Western Wayne made in 20 years where there's not an obligatory group fist fight (this could be seen as a negative, depending on your point of view haha).


Now here's what the movie got wrong:

  • JB Books character is too one dimensional. Did he really develop such a large reputation and never, ever kill anybody who didn't deserve it? Always an angel of justice? No regrets? No guilty conscience whatsoever? This serious character development flaw of the "poor gunfighter" dates back to 1950's "The Gunfighter".


Eastwood got this right in his own Western swan song "Unforgiven". We like Will Munney, but he's still a legitimately disturbed and scary dude who's haunted by his past transgressions. JB Brooks biggest flaw is that he's a little grouchy sometimes.

  • They blew the heavy role by splitting it into three weak parts. The part should have concentrated in the capable hands of Richard Boone.


  • If Boone's character had been properly developed, then the final shootout might have made a little sense. As it was filmed, it almost ruins the entire movie. Why does Books feel it is necessary to kill these three men before he dies? What evil did they commit? Did the bartender have to die too? Wait a second, I thought Books only killed in self defense or if somebody was really, really, really bad. Again, compare to a much better film "Unforgiven". All those guys in the bar deserved to die because of what they did to Ned.


  • I didn't buy the Ron Howard subplot about his redemption from juvenile delinquency. It felt gratuitous and contrived.


  • Nice attempt to work some landscapes into this Burbank back lotter. Not enough for my taste, though.


  • 1901 Carson City setting is stretching the limits of the genre "Western". Took a hit in may rankings in the "Indian, Mexican, Civil War" category as a result.

Rio Grande
(1950)

Excellent John Ford Western
This is generally considered the lesser of Ford's cavalry trilogy, mostly because he reportedly only made it in order to finance "The Quiet Man". It was also shot relatively quickly and Harry Carey Jr. said that Ford was "not serious" about the movie. I don't believe this. First, Ford had to make a movie that made money if he was going to be able to pursue his pet project, "The Quiet Man" and second, when Harry Carrey Jr. says the set was relaxed, it probably just meant that Ford didn't pick on him too much.

Ford was a notorious sadist. In fact, he insulted Ben Johnson so deeply on the set of "Rio Grande" that Johnson didn't work with him again for 13 years, and that was just a bit part in "Cheyenne Autumn". I think "Rio Grande" is very underrated. It's at least on a par with "Yellow Ribbon" and "Fort Apache" and may be a better movie than both.

Here's what I liked:

  • The obvious themes of family, honor and military service are wonderfully drawn out, but most critics fail to recognize the political theme that was highly relevant to 1950 audiences and accounted in part for the film's popularity. When the movie was released U.S. soldiers were fighting deep into North Korea and there was a spirited policy debate about carrying the battle into Communist China. The use of the Rio Grande border by the Apaches as a safe haven for raiding into Texas is a metaphor for this aspect of the Korean crisis.


The film takes an aggressive right wing pro-intervention stance. This was also the beginning of almost 30 years of conservative political activism by Wayne. Previously, he had been neutral politically. This movie played alongside an even more popular movie, "The Sands of Iwo Jima", for which Wayne was nominated for Best Actor. Both movies mark the beginning of an entire generation in which Wayne was a global icon representing American military strength. Quite ironic, incidentally, since Wayne dodged service in WW2, while many of his Hollywood star peers risked their lives.

  • Maureen O'Hara adds a much needed feminine touch and star power. The female parts in "Yellow Ribbon" and "Fort Apache" were very weak. Some critics feel she was too young for her part, but I bought her hook, line and sinker as a mother of an 18 year old.


  • Wayne's acting is excellent.


  • In some movies, Ford had a tendency to overdo the comic relief. His humor can especially come off as dated and corny to modern audiences. I thought he got it just about right in this movie. Parts of "Fort Apache" were almost unwatchable in this regard.


  • Deep, deep Civil War themes, with a part even carved out for General Sheridan himself!! I laugh when critics write about this movie, "After the Civil War…" or "this post-Civil War drama…". The movie takes place in 1880, FIFTEEN years after the Civil War ended. Most of the film's characters are still traumatized by their experiences, as were many, if not most, of the settlers of the West during this time period.


  • A rare colorful reference to the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican American War, in which Kirby Yorke's father fought. This is the type of detail that separates Ford from directors like George Stevens, Fred Zinneman and William Wyler, who just dabbled in the Western genre.


  • A very rare portrayal of legitimate Mexican military forces. For every U.S. soldier who died fighting the Apaches, scores of Mexican soldiers died over the years.


  • An even more unusual depiction of the Indian scouts who worked hand in hand with the U.S. cavalry. Without the use of these scouts, there still might be some Apaches holding out in the mountains of Northern Mexico.


  • Outstanding horse riding stunts actually performed by cast members Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson, a nationally known rodeo star.


  • Nice Western ballads by Sons of the Pioneers and friends (watch for the uncredited Ken Curtis, who sang with the Pioneers before becoming Ford's son-in-law in 1952. He eventually played the part of Festus in the TV show "Gunsmoke")


Now here's what wasn't so great:

  • Natchez, the renegade Apache leader is not characterized at all. I liked the music in this, but there were too many songs. It would have been a much better movie if Ford had left out some music and fistfights and instead characterized his heavy.


  • This movie has been widely criticized for having a one sided portrayal of Indians. For me, the Korean War theme grants artistic license on this. character if he had been given an opportunity to air his grievances.


  • Also, the Indian portrayals were not entirely one sided. "Rio Grande" is a rare movie that depicts the Indian scouts who worked for the military. Unfortunately, they are referred to only briefly on three different occasions and are never shown actually doing their job. Yorke could have never tracked Natchez' band into Mexico without their help, yet is is Ben Johnson's character who somehow tracks them to their hideout, while the American allied Apache scouts are nowhere to be seen. This is a pretty ridiculous plot hole in the movie. For the full story of the Apache scouts, including their ultimate betrayal by the U.S. government, watch "Geronimo, An American Legend"


  • Sad they were too cheap to film in color. This is about as bad as Monument Valley can look. It still looks good, mind you, just disappointing compared to "Searchers", "Yellow Ribbon" and "Cheyenne Autumn".

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
(1973)

Excellent Peckinpah Mood Piece
Synopsis:

It's 1881 in New Mexico, and the times they are a'changing. Pat Garrett, erstwhile travelling companion of the outlaw Billy the Kid has become a sheriff, tasked by cattle interests with ridding the territory of Billy. After Billy escapes, Pat assembles a posse and chases him through the territory, culminating in a final confrontation at Fort Sumner.

Review

This is a very slow moving mood piece from Sam Peckinpah.. I enjoyed every minute of it. A seven out of 10 on the IMDb rating and 15 points in my ranking system, placing it just outside of my top twenty all time, along with movies like "Hondo" and "Broken Arrow".

Here are the positives:

  • Unlike more accessible movies like "The Getaway" or "The Wild Bunch", I think you have to be a true Peckinpah fan to like "Pat Garrett".


I just love this guy's whole idiosyncratic, weird vibe, from the anti- authoritarianism, to the obsession with guns and violence, to the super macho outlaws/gangsters, to the alcoholism, to the seedy bars, to the Mexican whores, to the misogyny.

For its purest expression, watch his semi-autobiographical "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia". What I like about Peckinpah is that he was a true original. For me, he's the opposite of Quentin Tarintino, whose work I find completely derivative.

  • This movie is commonly criticized as boring. I wasn't bored for a second. I was completely drawn into its stately, sentimental atmosphere. This was a good choice of story for this type of mood piece, because we know the beginning, middle and end of the plot before we buy a ticket.


  • A fabulous looking Western. The costumes are brilliant. You're not going to find a more grizzled collection of low life saddle tramps anywhere. For the opposite look, watch the laughably well groomed Alan Ladd in "Shane". .


  • The cinematography is gorgeous. This is quite an accomplishment considering little effort was made to film against stunning landscapes. I don't think simple sky, clouds, dirt and sagebrush has ever looked so good.


  • This may be the best role of James Coburn's career.


  • Like Duke, Peckinpah was a lifelong Mexico-phile, so his excellent use of Mexican characters and themes is not surprising.


  • This is probably the best original soundtrack in the history of Westerns. Besides the theme for "The Magnificent Seven", "Knockin' on Heavens Door" is the only song from a Western that has enjoyed an extended popular life outside of the movie. (I'm not counting the completely uncool "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" from "Butch Cassidy").


  • Usually in a strong buddy, or in this case "frenemy", movie, the co- lead relationship prevents the development of a strong supporting cast. Peckinpah solves this by bombarding us with a multitude of cameos by many veteran Western character actors like Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Chill Wills, Katie Jurado etc. Very effective.


Now here are the negatives:

  • It's obvious the stories are true that Peckinpah had this movie taken away from him and altered severely by a number of studio editors. We'll never know what the original film would have looked like, but we can assume it would have been longer and better. As it was released, the plot is too disjointed.


  • Peckinpah had an extremely disturbed relationship with women. This guy was in serious need of professional help. An effective romantic relationship would have fit this movie like a glove.


  • Many critics seem to have a problem with Bob Dylan. I thought he was fine. Peckinpah gave him a very appropriate role given his limited acting experience.


  • Another common criticism is that Kristofferson was too old to play Billy the Kid. This usually comes from fans who insist on historical accuracy. I don't get this. Guys like Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickock were wildly inflated media creations in their own time. At this point they are completely mythological characters and filmmakers have an artistic license to present them as they choose. Beside, "the Kid" as a nickname could easily have stuck to a guy who is now a little older.


"Don't die, Blondie. don't die. I'll get you water. Don't move. Don't die until later".

Vera Cruz
(1954)

"I don't trust him. He likes people, and you can never count on a man like that."
As far as I'm concerned, this movie is a home run. Nine out of 10 on my IMDb rating and 17 points in my personal ranking system (24 points is highest score possible, average point total through 70 reviews is about 12). Currently 17 points puts "Vera Cruz" solidly in the top twenty in my rankings of the best Westerns of all time.

Here's what made it good:

  • This is the best performance by Burt Lancaster in a Western, maybe in any movie. Whenever Lancaster played exuberant characters, he tended to overact, a problem he had in common with Kirk Douglas. He was always at his best when he was gentle and introspective ("The Swimmer", "Birdman of Alcatraz"). Here he manages to be energetic without overdoing it.


  • Gary Cooper has a solid presence as co-lead .


  • One of the great buddy/"frenemy" movies in the history of Westerns, maybe the best. They are a great contrast on many levels: old/young, introvert/extrovert, aristocrat/peasant and ultimately idealist/realist.


  • Great storyline, with lots of clever plot twists. No apparent plot holes. We care about the characters. We don't have any idea how it is going to end until it is over. Nice work by Borden Chase, who also wrote the stories for "Red River" and some of the Mann/Stewart Westerns.


  • Interesting and probably original presentation of both co-leads as cynical mercenaries. Nice obfuscation of good vs. bad characters. Way ahead of its time in this regard.


  • Interesting introduction of some Freudian psychology into the Cooper/Lancaster relationship i.e. Cooper is father figure in danger of being killed by son. Theme also supports casting of the otherwise too old Cooper.


  • nice elemental shootout at the conclusion - Colorful setting in the underused post-Civil War Maximillian Mexico.


  • Very nice movement of locations in the story. It never gets stuck in one place.


  • Solid attempts at the use of humor to provide counterpoint to the drama and violence. Only partially effective, though.


  • Good location shooting in authentic location i.e. they are actually filming the movie in the country where the story is set.


  • As is noted by all reviewers, this was an influential film. Large parts of "The Good, The Bad And The Ugly" seem like almost a remake of "Vera Cruz". Same with "The Wild Bunch".


Now here's what kept it from being better:

  • The romantic subplots fall flat, the Cooper/Montiel relationship because of the extreme age difference and the Lancaster/Darcel relationship because of a poorly written part and poor acting by Darcel.


  • There is no heavy. Lancaster is a lovable rogue and Maximillian is only a remote player in plot developments. This leaves the heavy role to a minor character, Captain Dannette, played by Harry Brandon. Even he is mostly the butt of jokes. There is absolutely no catharsis at the end when Lancaster, a deeply flawed character himself, runs a lance through his neck.


This may be is one of the reasons the movie isn't taken too seriously by many critics i.e. it's often patronized as a comic adventure yarn. The lack of a credible threat by a well drawn evil character drains much of the pathos and drama out of the story. A knock on effect of this is that attempted comic relief is less effective and the movie starts to feel almost like a comedy.

  • This isn't a fault, but it's often commented that the unrealistically good displays of marksmanship in this movie influenced the Leone Westerns. That may be true, but I wanted to give a shout out to Mann's "Winchester '73", which predated "Vera Cruz" by a couple of years and had a similar display of marksmanship in the opening segment. The scenes in both movies were written by the same author , Borden Chase, by the way.

The Undefeated
(1969)

Another entertaining Wayne/McLaglen film
This movie is fun to watch and has a lot going for it. It's pretty lightweight, however, and has numerous flaws

Here are the positives:

  • I don't think this movie would work without John Wayne in the lead. He pretty much plays the standard Duke character. That's a good thing.


  • Excellent fundamental storyline here, mostly employing the underused post-Civil War Mexico setting. This was in interesting and colorful time period, with French occupation troops, ex-Union soldiers turned cowboys, unrepentant Confederate soldiers, Indians, Mexican rebels and corrupt army purchasing agents. Nicely done.


  • Solid location filming. Authentic locations i.e. they actually filmed in Mexico where it takes place.


  • Some really nice segments with an enormous herd of horses on a long drive.


  • Solid attempts at comic relief, even if most of it falls a little flat.


  • Good supporting appearances by Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr. et.al.


Now here's what keeps this movie from being better:

  • Like most Wayne Westerns after "Liberty Valence", it feels too much like a poor imitation of a John Ford film. Heck, even Ford's formula was tired by then, and these movies copy it without his infusions of subtle intelligence, wit and heart.


  • Rock Hudson simply does not pull his role off as a Confederate officer and Southern gentleman.


  • The plot makes a lot of sense and works well for the first half of the movie, then falls off a cliff when Wayne and Hudson meet in the desert. There are a multitude of plot holes and implausibilities that aren't worth explaining.


  • Wayne's typical jabs against politicians and government are dated, simplistic and annoying.


  • Wayne's portrayal of Indians during this period is also annoying and simplistic (and make no mistake that these are Wayne's movies. McLaglen is just a glorified coffee boy). Indians are always the "good guys" whom Wayne's character respects. They in turn respect him. Apparently, Indians thought capitalist entrepreneurs were just great, it's Washington bureaucrats who were the problem.


This is a patently absurd and condescending view. Worse, it's flat wrong. The only people who made any attempt to protect the rights of Indians were certain parts of the Army and federal government. Private capitalists ran roughshod over them.

  • Female parts are under characterized, flat and gratuitous.


  • Wayne's 62 years old here and looks 72, after just surviving lung cancer. Yet, at the end of the movie, he's proposing to a woman who looks like she's 40 years old tops and is discussing starting a family. Do we need this?????


  • What are Los Angeles Ram football players Roman Gabriel and Merlin Olsen doing in this movie? Is Wayne trying to give back, since John Ford gave him his start as a prop guy when he was a football player at USC?

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