Cowboys and Indians

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.

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.