(d.henry king, 1939: w. tyrone power, henry fonda, randolph scott)
Went through a watching Westerns phase in the mid-90s (I was sweet on a girl who watched little else) but am finding there's much stuff now I overlooked then, primarily related to the massive donkey vs elephant in the 1870s room, viz the way the movie faces the Civil War (the historical james gang being touted in the 1870s as a robin hood-ish outfit of johnny reb guerilla resistance against carpet-baggers and The Man in general). In this version -- apparently first of a trend to soft-soap and romanticise the big-name outlaws -- the war is reduced to a near-invisible dog-whistle; the film's villains are corrupt and bullying railroad agents (who harass the james bros' loving old mom to death), and much of the action *is* pure robin hood-ery (dodging the posse by hiding underwater etc). Local pro-James newsman (Henry Hull) has the look -- weskit, pointy white beard -- of a retired southern colonel: peppery, proud and unbent by defeat. But it's never stated he is such. James family have a black "servant" called Pinky (Ernest Whitman), who adores them and supports them in their outlawry (but is himself rotund, fearful, comical). Required complexity: Scott is unbendingly uncorruptible as the sherriff after them, so that Jamesian outlaw badness is (as they say) "interrogated" a little; will stressed Jesse stop himself becoming mean and indeed evil? Luckily for his soul, one of his gang is a "a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here" (viz John Carradine of course). So he dies tragically on the eve of going straight (ish) and leaving for California w/his sweetie. Made the year of Stagecoach, so Westerns were on the move in a far less cheerfully swashbuckling direction...
2: red river
(howard hawks, 1948: john wayne, montgomery clift, WALTER BRENNAN, joanne dru)
Clift's debut (and IMO greatest performance, light, lithe and witty) as the adopted son of embittered lonely driven hardman Wayne, who is pioneering an overland cattle trail from Texas to Missouri. The Red River is named for a minor geographical feature; can't help feeling it better describes the vast herd of cattle that are present more or less first to last (9000 head), round and within which all the action takes place. Much Hawkesian business -- there are no characters with close-ups who are merely ciphers (the maurauding indians don't get ciphers, the main indian on the trail has cheerful comedy business with brennan, eg won brennan's teeth in a card game and keeps charge of them except at meals). Civil war is gestured at: Clift is returned from fighting in it (forget which side); the slump that necessitates the cattle trail is caused by it. Wayne -- damaged, unforgiving, self-sufficient to the point of sociopathic selfishness -- learns to recognise his son as an adult and unbend (Clift knows better how and where to run the cattle, and seizes command from his dad, who vows a murderous revenge that actually quite implausible last-second change of heart averts: this is the "moral", the happy ending; the underlying story is I guess actually the relative pragmatism the younger ex-soldier has learnt, in victory or defeat, and the setting aside of the old harsh unbending pre-war ways (Clift runs the diverted river of beeves up to the new railroad at Abilene, a tiny spatch-cock town where the final confrontation takes place, Wayne wading through a lake of living cow in his characteristic heavy-yet-light-yet-heavy way...)
3: the man from laramie
(d.anthony mann, 1955: james stewart)
Potentially interesting set-up -- stewart the driven revenger arrives to confront a dysfunctional all-male family, who is the true villain? -- that generates a couple of great scenes but no momentum. Stewart too busy being loveable to generate frisson of unsettling revenger self: the sadist dimwit of a brother (Alex Nicol) is way too cartoonish, cacklingly bullying and incompetent, so that the rational, level-headed adopted brother (Arthur Kennedy) has nothing to play against -- secretly angry bcz he's undervalued by the cattle baron dad (Donald Crisp). There's love interest and backstory, but it's all pretty ho-hum, which is sad in such a breath-taking setting, salt-flats, sagebrush, widescreen sunsets beautiful to the point of distracting irrelevance...
4: custer of the west
(d.robert siodmak, 1967: robert shaw, mary ure)
Siodmak, a pioneer of noir, is WAY outside his comfort zone in this sun-drenched technicolor historical epic, aimed at salvaging custer from charges of incompetent vainglory and ruthless lack of humanity. The pop-cult attitude to indians was shifting sharply in the US at this moment -- in 1970 the counterculture and the anti-war movement would make a best-seller of Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" --