western films

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.

A Western that Managed to Make my Wife Forget She Hates Westerns

I watch the 1001 movies list with my long-suffering wife.  She normally enjoys the good ones (some of them more than I do) and sits through the strange, foreign or noir ones with long-practiced stoicism.  Mainly, she is an enthusiastic participant in the project and often asks for a film if we’re not too tired when our day ends.

But there is one exception: westerns.  She hates them and usually falls asleep in the middle, with clear instructions that I should watch the thing myself and not bug her.  She even abandoned My Darling Clementine halfway through.

John Wayne in Red River

Red River, however, was another story entirely.  After a couple of false starts we watched the entire movie until the end, even though I wanted to go to sleep and finish it the following day.

Why?

I think the answer lies in the unrelenting tension and the huge number of actual cows onscreen… and those two things are related.  Let me explain.

The tension is, to a certain degree, driven by the plot.  You have some guys trying to drive a herd a long way against all odds in an unforgiving land where both the elements and groups of bandits and indians are out to get them.  Then, in the middle of it, one of the main characters abandons the group in order to follow them and try to get revenge by killing he group’s leader.

I think what makes the whole thing seem real, though is that the cows are on screen a good chunk of the time.  There are lots of them, and they are really there.  They’re big, they’re constantly moving and, somehow, they make everything seem real.  There’s a stampede scene which is probably the most memorable scene in the film.

Red River Film Poster

The acting is superb and, of course, John Wayne is the ultimate tough guy who hides his deepest feelings from outside scrutiny.  It works spectacularly well, and there’s little question as to why the film was beloved from the word go.  It is most definitely the opposite of a chick flick, and all the stronger for it.

Of course, if you’re the kind of person who is offended by either John Wayne or the attitudes prevalent in the 1940s, this one will shock you to the core – Westerns of this era are not for the socially sensitive.  The rest of you should go out and find this film as soon as you can.

And enjoy what might just be The Duke’s best performance in a film so good even my wife approves.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has never written a western.  However he has recently launched a collection of short SF and Fantasy stories which you can check out here.