western films

Kidnapping as a Way to Land a Bride… Plus Catwoman

Before I watched it, all I knew about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was that it was a musical (in fact, I thought it was originally a Broadway play). In my mind, the action took place in a Jewish New York neighborhood, for some reason. Imagine my surprise when it opened… it’s a Western!

As a 1950s musical, it’s pretty much innocuous all the way through. Bright colors and songs about love, combined with a few comic misunderstandings. It’s a film that, as it entertains you, also lulls you into a false sense that you’re not going to witness anything more than some virtuoso acrobatic dancing and perfectly normal musical comedy.

And then the six unmarried brothers decide to kidnap six unmarried girls and marry them. Now, this is softened by the fact that the girls actually ARE interested the brothers.

What, one might ask, is the rationale behind this insane bit of caveman-like behavior? Well, apparently, the book the film is based on was inspired by the rape of the Sabine women.

Who the hell writes a COMEDY based on the rape of the Sabine women (well, other than the Romans, of course…)?

Modern audiences will likely be either offended or amused by the whole thing. For my own part, I’m never offended by stuff that happened before I was born, but I still found it jaw-dropping. Sure, the fifties were a different time, but I never thought they were THAT different. Weirdly, no reviewers found anything unusual about a bunch of lumbering redheaded farmers abducting a huge number of women.

Of course, abduction is as far as things go, and the film ends on a happy note with a half-dozen shotgun marriages in which everyone is delighted to get hitched.

One of the hight notes for me is that Julie Newmar, the best Catwoman ever, by a huge margin, is one of the brides. To be honest, I didn’t recognize her… but then again, the bride characters are a lot less memorable than Catwoman.

Starting with Newmar who is still with us, this film featured quite a long-lived cast. Russ Tamblyn, Ruta Lee and Jane Powell are also up and about, and we take this moment to thank them for an enjoyable (if strange) film on the extremely slim chance they might be reading.

I still think Johnny Guitar is weirder… but it’s a close-run thing. I guess, like the noir formula before it, by 1954 Hollywood was running out of fresh ideas for Westerns and were really stretching it to stay surprising. And if surprise was the idea, they succeeded here…

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own work is A) almost never set in the old west and B) absolutely never set to music. However, it is often unusual, sometimes downright weird, and collected in a book entitled Off the Beaten Path, which you can check out here.

The Weirdest Western: Johnny Guitar

When watching the 1001 movies list, it becomes obvious that some films are chosen specifically for their weirdness factor. Johnny Guitar is at the forefront of these… a western in which a couple of female gunslingers hate each other to the point of death while the men act like thinking adults in a reversal of the usual Hollywood trope. It’s memorable, but not necessarily successful as a film.

That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. Though by no means a great film from any but a “diversity-first”, it’s still entertaining and tense, good enough to watch once without suffering through it. The action is well-paced, the villainess hateful (and believable) and the good guy utterly unremarkable. His laconic competence would have put even Shane to shame.

The thing that makes this movie watchable is that, despite the role reversal in which women play the part normally occupied by men in westerns, the movie isn’t about the role reversal per se, but about the utter hatred between two women. Unlike in Adam’s Rib, which was ruined by making the story about the role reversal, this one actually works as entertainment as opposed to eye-rolling political propaganda.

Audiences of the day apparently didn’t warm to this one, and it took a critical reevaluation for it to come into public notice, and I’m not surprised. More than the role reversal, I think it might be because the only truly likable character, Johnny Guitar himself, is not at the center of the conflict.

A final word about the reevaluation: like a lot of stuff being rescued from the trash heap of history lately, this one probably got reevaluated for the wrong reasons. Specifically, it is the only Western of the golden era in which the conflict is specifically between women. Does that make it worthy of canonization? Not in the least, but the reevaluators don’t care about that. Females in male roles are more important than ultimate quality when reevaluating for political reasons, and that is true in any genre… including film.

But don’t blame this one for the political excesses of modern fanatics. As a film, it’s decently entertaining and honest about what it wants to do. Both my wife and I enjoyed it, and we’re kind of reticent when it comes to westerns. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch (maybe just to say you’ve seen it), but don’t expect it to be Earth-shaking or significant. It isn’t.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a nice walk in the Russian wilderness. Except is isn’t very nice because some nutball released genetically modified dinosaurs into the woods, making it necessary to be surrounded by special forces soldiers if you want to survive. It’s called Test Site Horror and you can check it out here.

Did Anyone Ever Ride into the Distance as Well as Shane?

Shane (1953) is one of those films that, if someone told you the plot, you’d give it a miss. That would be a mistake, but you’d be hard-pressed to guess without actually watching the film. Even more, I’ll tell you that it’s a film that moves at the “western” pace, making sure everyone has the time to enjoy the scenery.

And yet, even modern audiences would enjoy this one–it’s that well-made and well-acted.

Every single Western cliché is present in this one. From the fair-haired, light-hatted good gunslinger to the black-haired, black-hatted bad guy (and Jack Palance, of course, is a cliché all by himself, no matter what role he plays) via the sturdy, proud farmer, his beautiful apple-pie cooking wife and the gang of dirty cowboys led by an old rancher.

But this is one of those films that reminds us why clichés are clichés. They are that way because, in skilled hands, they work spectacularly well. George Stevens was a skilled director, and this film is perfect.

Most of the time, when a family is in danger both from enemies and friends (the wife is very obviously smitten with the good gunslinger, and vice versa) a film is tense and unenjoyable in the viewing. Not this one. This one is easy to watch, flowing along despite the viewer’s knowledge that awful things could happen at any moment. It’s like the opposite of Strangers on a Train.

And it’s hard to describe why it works so well. Perhaps the title character’s laconic delivery through the entire film is what makes it, perhaps its something else that I can’t quite put a finger on, but the thing is just wonderful. It’s another of those Westerns that my wife actually enjoyed (she didn’t like one of my all-time favorites, though).

(An interesting aside, and something that not many people will talk about in the current day and age is that clichés work because they use stereotyping to function. While it isn’t politically correct to mention this – so don’t say it was me – science has studied stereotyping and found it to be one of the most accurate ways of predicting individual behavior known to man. If you don’t believe me, you can google it – ignore the political pundits, and sociologists who like to say “I know the numbers say one thing, but…” and look only at the statistically significant science – as I don’t want to completely derail this review).

A final interesting thing about this one is that the recurring character “Shame” in the 1960’s Batman series was, very obviously, lifted from here.

So go out there and watch it. It’s good, but perhaps the best lesson anyone can take from this is that sometimes, a string of clichés can be stronger than all the avant-garde, groundbreaking brilliance one can possibly dream up.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel, Test Site Horror, is a monster-filled romp through the Russian countryside where rogue geneticists fight the Russian army while a group of journalists is stuck in the middle. You can check it out here.

James Stewart Playing a Morally Ambiguous Character

We’ve all been there. Watching James Stewart Play one do-gooder after another. Mr. Smith, the father from It’s a Wonderful Life, and so many others. Hell, he even managed to play an inflexible do-gooder in a film where he was an obsessive running a manhunt.

We finally get rid of that in The Naked Spur.

This is the film where Stewart supposedly grows up in front of our eyes… and like puberty, it’s a bit painful to watch. Not so much because I enjoy excessive do-goodism, but because Stewart, at this point in his career just wasn’t very good at not being one. It’s easier, apparently, to be the moral compass than to give a believable portrayal of a flawed character. Of course, the critics and history disagree with me, which it’s why I watch the movies and review them for myself.

And there are reasons to like this film if you can bet past Stewart’s struggles. Technicolor might not be great for noir, but I really prefer Westerns to be in color if possible. The outdoors just works better that way, unlike the means streets of your average city which are pretty much black and white from the getgo.

Also, the plot is decent, although, again, the moral quandries of the characters are not exactly realistic, and certainly not as deep as the ones in The Ox-Bow Incident. The mistrust between the cast, which I didn’t particularly like, makes the second half of the movie–until the final shootout–a lot less entertaining than the first.

Still, it’s not one of those plodding Westerns. Stuff happens and you have plenty of shooting (as always, those who feel that art from seventy years ago should uphold modern sensibilities will probably want to look away during the scene where the Indians are killed).

So I guess the verdict on this one is mixed. It’s not bad, but its attempt to give the characters depth stops just short of being effective, and muddies the waters. Entertaining, but perhaps not utterly memorable.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a monster adventure book entitled Test Site Horror. You can check it out here.

High Noon is the Perfect Cowboy Film

We’ve reviewed a lot of Westerns here on CE, most recently The Big Sky. They’ve increased in frequency over the past few months because the 1950s, the era we’re currently watching, is bigger on Westerns than other eras.

Now many westerns are similar. The actors spend a considerable chunk of the film traversing the majestic landscape, whether it be on horseback or, as in the case of The Big Sky, on a boat. There are a couple of gunfights–either with outlaws or with indians–and the boy gets the girl.

High Noon dispenses with all of that. The guy has the girl from the opening of the film, no one rides across majestic landscapes for interminable periods of time and the action sequences are contained in the last ten minutes of the movie.

And yet, it’s about a hundred times more entertaining than most of the slow-paced Westerns I hated as a kid (and enjoy now, but not quite as much as other kinds of films).

Loosely, this film, produced in “real time”–an hour in the film is an hour in real life–tells the back story of the departing Marshall we see getting married in the first scene, and the cowardly way most people discard loyalty when their lives are on the line.

It’s about one man against the world… and, this being a Western, that man wins.

It’s the best Western we’ve watched since My Darling Clementine.

I don’t want to spoil it for you by telling you the details (many people have seen it, but the new generations might not). Just track it down somewhere and watch it. You will enjoy it.

The only jarring note is actually the opening wedding scene, in which a visibly aging Gary Cooper (looking so similar to Tommy Lee Jones in face and gesture) marries… the angelic vision of a very young Grace Kelly in her first major film role. Even great actors have a hard time making that one believable.

A genre link in this one is the presence of Lon Chaney Jr, but my hopes that he would become a cowboy wolfman and take this film in an unexpected direction were sadly dashed.

Still recommended, though.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is an action-packed creature-feature entitled Jungle Lab Horror. You can check it out here.

Friendship, Courtship and the Big Sky

The phrase “Bro’s before ho’s” has several drawbacks. The most obvious, of course, is that you really can’t say it without feeling like you should be living in a 90’s exploitation film. Almost as bad is that you expose yourself to public censure and accusations of everything from cultural appropriation to rampant sexism. We live in delicate times.

But the worst part of all is that it’s never, ever true. Not in real life… and not even in that ultimate man and another man against nature genre, the Western. At the very least, not always.

The Big Sky (1952) is yet more proof that Kirk Douglas was taking over Hollywood. Apart from being immortal (or at least immortal enough to survive into his 104th year), the man was clearly also precisely what film audiences of the time wanted to see. Maybe his sneering attitude was a nice change of pace for audiences sick and tired of things being too wholesome. Or maybe they just knew a macho man when they saw one. Whatever the case, he seems to star in about half the decent movies from the era.

This one is a love triangle where bro’s most certainly do not come first. The alluring woman is the prize, and the trading journey and the wealth the men are chasing–the reason they’re crossing the country in the greatest of western traditions–is strictly secondary (even if it does provide most of the film’s entertainment value).

The interesting part of this one is that the “wrong” man wins the triangle, and his redemption–or lack thereof–is what keeps the tension going in the film after the initial objectives of the expedition have been met.

It’s a good film, gently paced but with enough action to keep it moving, and I found it amusing that not only did Douglas live to a truly advanced age, but that his main co-star and the other male corner of the love triangle, Dewey Martin, also lived into his mid-nineties, and died in 2018. The should have called this one The Immortals.

This is one I can recommend without qualms, even though my western-hating wife fell asleep within minutes during both of our attempts to watch it together (for one she enjoyed, see here).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t write westerns. What he does write are science fiction stories that challenge stale ideas of where we’re going and what we’ll do when we get there. His vision of humanity’s far future is best expressed in his well-received novel Siege. You can check it out here.

The Mustache of Discord and Weird Singing Interludes

Picture John Wayne.

Got it?  Now try to picture him with a mustache.  No?  Me neither, which is why it took me so long to believe that the Colonel in Rio Grande was the Duke himself.

It’s just another nail in the coffin of the mustache (unless you are a 1970s porn star or a British Sergeant Major, in which case it is still the preferred mode of facial adornment).  This one will take me a while to recover from.

John_Wayne - rio grande - & Maureen O'Hara

Even the producers knew the ‘stache was a bad call, as the film posters show Wayne bare-faced, something that doesn’t occur in the film itself.

Rio Grande Film Poster - John Wayne

If all this talk about facial hair leads you to suspect that there isn’t anything special about the film, you are correct.  Just another Western.  It is a bit different from the last one we reviewed in that here, the indians are 100% the bad guys, but it could have been the Mexicans, a band of outlaws or the aliens from Mars Attacks, as they were just there to provide an antagonist.  At least the indians in Winchester ’73 were pissed for a very good reason (the fact that white settlers had stolen their land).

It’s kind of hard to spot why this one made it onto the 1001 movies list except to say that it was probably the second best of the westerns on the list so far.  This one is a cavalry flick as opposed to a cowboy film, as well, which might have helped its cause.  Entertaining, but not memorable.

The central part of the story tells about a mother whose son is sent to this particular frontier unit.  The woman, of course, happens to be Wayne’s character’s estranged wife, and the boy, the son.  But he is treated like any other trooper, etc.

The singing interludes are full of talent but completely out of character with the film.  They feature the Sons of the Pioneers (including Roy Rogers) and jarred almost as much as Wayne’s mustache.

Interestingly, one scene shows the indians kidnapping a group of kids which, combined with the fact that the character of Wayne’s son was also pretty young at the time of filming means I can give a shout out to two surviving actors on this one: Claude Jarman Jr. and Karolyn Grimes.  If either is reading, hello!

In summary, the acting is good, the film is entertaining.  Certainly a good film, and one I enjoyed watching.  But I didn’t find it terribly groundbreaking or particularly memorable.

Recommended if you like Westerns.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book is Jungle Lab Terror.  You can check it out here.

 

All About a Gun… Kinda

Winchester '73 Film Still - James Stewart

So we’ve reached the 1950s, and that means Westerns.  Lots and lots of Westerns.

While I don’t normally enjoy the Western as a genre, probably because it was a TV staple when I was a kid (anything that wasn’t a cartoon was considered, by 5-year-old me, to be a waste of air time but Westerns were particularly odious because they go so slow), the ones on the 1001 movies list are purported to be essential watching, so I’m giving them a fair shot.

We’ve had a few in there before, some good, some really, really bad, but the one thing that will shock modern audiences is the reason for the ever-present sense of danger whenever anyone is traveling from one place to another: them there hills are full of indians.  Always.

In a way, I’m glad the 1001 movies list I have dates from 2004.  Though I haven’t checked, I’m pretty sure any new editions would remove any film with a “Cowboys and Indians” theme for reasons of political correctness (it might be interesting to see what else would get removed.  I doubt Birth of a Nation would survive).  That is, of course, modern audiences’ loss, since some of these films are true gems.

Perhaps the constant threat of indians waiting to strike at any moment is what made me hate them as a kid (I loved the gunfights on horseback, of course, but not waiting for them).  Westerns could pace the action in a leisurely way because adults never knew when the attack would come.

Winchester '73 Movie Poster

The plot of Winchester ’73 doesn’t center around the indian threat.  It’s about two men who have a history between them and the pursuit of one by the other.  It also deals with a gun, the Winchester of the title, which changes hands a surprising number of times, and is used as the key to making men show what they’re truly made of.  But the big battle scene is basically a standard “brave cavalry surrounded by masses of indians” stock trope.  It’s a good fight, and it is necessary–if not central–to the plot.  I suppose you couldn’t have a Western without it.

The film is tense for other reasons, too, with a cast of villains and morally ambiguous characters (including the leading lady), serving to contrast with James Stewart‘s inflexible do-gooder.

If you can set aside your modern sensibilities for a while, this one is worth watching.  Not hugely memorable, but certainly an entertaining hour and a half, and better than most Westerns.

The funniest aside on this one is what the lead actress thought of the movie.  Shelley Winters basically said that she could have walked off the set and no one would have noticed, as the movie was about a bunch of men pursuing the perfect gun and paying very little attention to the beautiful girl.

She may have been right but, like the indians, the plot would have suffered had she not been there.  The balance was just right for this particular film, which is why it earned its spot on the list.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has hundreds of short stories in print (even a Western / Scifi / Monster mashup, his only Western).  His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death a series of linked tales that make up a single narrative.  You can buy it here.

Too Slow and too Telegraphed

In our perusal of the 1001 Films to Watch Before we Die, every single Bogart vehicle so far had been met with my acclamation and my wife’s yawning wondering of what the fuss was all about.

So, of course, as soon as I thought one of the movies was drawn out and predictable, the film equivalent of getting a tooth pulled, she goes and enjoys it.

I mention that just to say that some people (the ones who choose the 1001 films, evidently) will feel differently about this film than I do.  Also, since I’m about to commit sacrilege by panning a classic, I wanted to make it clear that my wife isn’t to blame.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Film Poster

Yes.  That one.  I didn’t like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Why?  It’s been said that guys like for a lot of people to die very quickly in their films while women enjoy one person to die slowly over the course of a two-hour movie.  While I have no idea if that’s true, it’s certainly true for me–I consider those “uplifting” cancer films about as much fun as I do a good protracted dentist’s appointment.

I got the same vibe from this movie.  It was clear from the moment they set out to look for gold that Bogart’s character was going to end badly, specifically because the gold fever and the paranoia would get him–so all that was left was to watch the descent into madness.  Some people enjoy this sort of thing and look on, amazed, as the virtuoso acting therein.

It’s not my cup of tea in the least, even though the final half hour of the film does pick up the pace as the action comes to a head.

I always like to shout out to any of the cast members still alive today on the extremely unlikely chance that they might be reading.  Today’s actor is Robert Blake, who played a young boy in the film and who later went on to become a murder suspect (acquitted) and is in his eighties.  Talk about an eventful life…

This one is considered a classic, of course, and probably deservedly so.  It’s just that I didn’t enjoy it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His best-known work is Siege, which, he hopes, doesn’t telegraph the ending as much as The Treasure of Sierra Madre does.  You can check the book out (and buy it!), here.

 

Despite Bob Hope and Jane Russell, this one Didn’t Quite Make the Grade

The next film in our 1001 movies quest was The Paleface (1948).  This one is interesting, and entertaining, but not really as good as some of the other flicks we’ve had the pleasure of watching.

The Paleface Film Poster

It pales (yes, that was intentional) beside Red River, which we discussed here just a few weeks ago.  One can argue that that is because The Paleface is a comedy… but that’s not it.  After all, the screwball era had just passed in Hollywood, releasing such classics as Bringing up Baby, My Man Godfrey and The Thin Man.  

The problem isn’t that Hollywood had forgotten how to do comedy, but that public tastes were changing to what we would now recognize as 1950s wholesomeness.  And it’s… well, it’s not as fun as the edgier stuff from the 30s and earlier in the 40s.

That’s not to say this movie isn’t fun.  It is. But it feels hopelessly innocent, like something made for kids.  The cynicism, the acceptance that adults could deal with more of an edge seemed to be seeping out of Hollywood at the same rate as it would disappear from American society.

That’s probably a natural reflection of the way Americans had changed after the war as they entered the golden age of the nation, and I assume we’ll find a lot of this as we watch the 1950s unfold through the lens of Hollywood (I’m also sure Hollywood will find a way to get a little darkness in there, so looking forward to that, too).

This is one of those films which couldn’t be made today because of the way native Americans are portrayed.  While everyone is made fun of in the film, the mere fact that some of the jokes are about Native tribes would preclude its being redone.  Also, the fact that the conflict between settlers and natives is told from the settlers’ side would make it unacceptable to the modern arbiters of cultural acceptability.  If anything, the fact that it’s unrepeatable might make it worth watching even if it isn’t perfect.

Of course, most viewers won’t care about any of that and simply enjoy the film for what it is: a goofy western with excellent actors in a transitional era.  Perhaps not a defining classic worthy of 1001 film inclusion, but an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  His work spans several genres, from literary to science fiction, and has even set some stories in the old west.  His latest book is a collection of stories entitled Off the Beaten Path, and you can check it out here.