“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Two – “THE WAY WEST” (1967)

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Below is Part Two to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1967 movie, “THE WAY WEST”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Two – “THE WAY WEST” (1967)

I. Introduction

Based upon A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s 1949 novel, “THE WAY WEST” told the story of a large wagon train’s journey to Oregon in 1843. The wagon train is led by a widowed former U.S. Senator named William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas). A former mountain man named Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) is hired as the wagon party’s guide and among the last to join the train is farmer Lije Evans (Richard Widmark), his wife Rebecca (Lola Albright)and their 16 year-old son Brownie (Michael McGreevey); who were living near Independence when the wagon train was being formed.

During the journey to Oregon, the movie introduced audiences with the other members of the wagon train. They included a family from Georgia named the McBees (Harry Carey Jr., Connie Sawyer and Sally Field), and the recently married Johnnie and Amanda Mack (Mike Witney and Katherine Justice). Personal friendships and animosities flourished during the 2,000 miles journey. Summers managed to befriend both Lije and Brownie Evans. The latter fell in love with the McBees’ extroverted daughter Mercy, who developed a crush on Johnnie Mack. The latter had difficulty consummating his marriage with a sexually unresponsive wife. Frustrated, Mack turned to Mercy for a brief tryst. Senator Tadlock proved to be an intimidating, yet manipulative leader. Only two people dared to question his decisions – Summers and Lije. Especially the latter. Although willing to question Tadlock’s leadership, Lije was reluctant to replace him as the wagon party’s new leader.

“THE WAY WEST” received a good deal of negative criticisms. It has also been compared to “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” to its detriment. I plan to write a review of “THE WAY WEST” in the future. But right now, I am more interested in how the movie fared in regard to historical accuracy.

II. History vs. Hollywood

The Tadlock wagon party headed for Oregon Territory in 1843, the year known as “The Great Migration of 1843” or the “Wagon Train of 1843”, in which an estimated 700 to 1,000 emigrants left for Oregon. The number of emigrants in Tadlock’s party and the year in which the movie is set, seemed historically accurate. “THE WAY WEST” also featured a few well-known landmarks along the Oregon Trail. Such landmarks included Chimney Rock, Scott’s Bluff, Independence Rock and Fort Hall. Fort Laramie did not play a role in the movie’s plot.

So far, “THE WAY WEST” seemed to be adhering to historical accuracy. Unfortunately, this did not last. One, the wagons featured in the movie came in all shapes and sizes. They ranged from farm wagons to large Conestoga wagons. I cannot even describe the wagon used by the McFee family. It was not as heavy as a Conestoga, but it was long enough to convey Mr. McFee’s peach tree saplings across the continent. The draft animals used by the emigrants turned out to be a mêlée of oxen, mules and horses. The movie did point out the necessity of abandoning unnecessary possessions to lighten the wagons’ loads. Only, it was pointed out when the wagon party attempted to ascend a very steep slope what looked like the in Idaho.

“THE WAY WEST” did not feature a large-scale attack by a horde of Native Americans. But the movie came damn near close to including one. The wagon party first encountered a group of Cheyenne warriors not far from Independence Rock. When one of the emigrants, Johnnie Mack, mistook a chief’s young son hidden underneath a wolf’s skin as a real wolf and shot him, the wagon train made tracks in order to avoid retribution. The Cheyenne caught up with the wagon party and demanded the head of the boy’s killer. The other emigrants declared they were willing to fight it out with the Cheyenne, until they discovered they would be facing a large horde of warriors. In the end, Mr. Mack confessed to the crime and allowed himself to be hanged, in order to spare Brownie Evans from being handed over to the Cheyenne by Tadlock.

Dramatically, I found this sequence to be effective. I admired how director Andrew V. McLaglen developed the tension between the emigrants, Senator Tadlock and the Cheyenne demanding justice. Historically, I found it a mess. The number of Cheyenne warriors that had gathered for the sake of one boy struck me as very improbable. The only times I could recall that many Native Americans gathering at one spot was the council for the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and the Battle of Little Bighorn. And considering that the Cheyenne nation were spread out from the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota to southern Colorado, I found this encounter between the Tadlock wagon party and the Cheyenne historically improbable.

“THE WAY WEST” fared somewhat better than “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” in regard to historical accuracy. But I found it lacking in some aspects of the plot. Like the 1962 movie, “THE WAY WEST” proved to be more entertaining than historically accurate.

 

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“SHANE” (1953) Review

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“SHANE” (1953) Review

The history behind the production for the 1953 classic Western, “SHANE” is a curious one. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Westerns ever made in Hollywood. And director George Stevens’ first choices for the film’s two male leads never panned out. Yet, despite the expenses and Stevens’ initial bad luck with his casting choices, “SHANE” became one of the most famous Westerns ever made in Hollywood. 

“SHANE” was based upon Jack Schaefer’s 1949 novel of the same title. Many film historians and critics believe the narrative’s basic elements were based upon a historical event, the 1892 Johnson County War. Although this was never acknowledged by Stevens, Schaefer or the film’s screenwriter, A.B. Guthrie Jr. And yet . . . the film’s setting turned out to be the same one for the famous cattlemen-homesteaders conflict, Wyoming. The plot for “SHANE” proved to be simple. An experienced gunfighter named Shane, weary of his violent past, arrives at a county in Wyoming Territory and befriends a homesteader/rancher named Joe Starrett and the latter’s family. Despite Starrett’s revelation of a conflict between homesteaders like himself and a ruthless and powerful rancher named Rufus Ryker, Shane accepts a job as Starrett’s ranch hand. Before long, Shane not only finds himself emotionally drawn to the Starretts, but also pulled into the range war that is raging.

Anyone with any knowledge about old Hollywood or American Western films will automatically tell you that “SHANE” is highly regarded and much-beloved movie. The American Film Institute (AFI) has list it as one of the top three (3) Hollywood Westerns ever made and it is ranked 45 on the list of top 100 films. The movie earned six Academy Award nominations and won an award for Best Cinematography (in color). Many people believe Alan Ladd should have received an Academy Award for his performance as the mysterious “former” gunslinger Shane and consider the role as his best performance. How do I feel?

I cannot deny that “SHANE” is a first-rate movie. Who am I kidding? It is an excellent look at violence on the American frontier. And thanks to George Stevens’ direction, it is also brutal. Unlike many previous movie directors, Stevens did not stylized the violent deaths depicted in the film. A major example of this peek into life on the frontier is a scene that featured the brutal death of Frank “Stonewall” Torrey, a small rancher portrayed by Elisha Cook Jr., who was killed by Jack Wilson, a villainous gunslinger portrayed by Jack Palance:

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Contrary to what one might originally believe, I do not believe “SHANE” preached against violence. Yes, the screenplay written by Guthrie questioned the constant use of violence to solve problems. But the movie made it clear that sometimes, one has no choice but to fight. Does this rule apply to the situation in “SHANE”? Hmmmm . . . good question.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that I found fascinating was Shane’s attempts to put his violent past behind him in his interactions with the Starrett family. Whether Shane was working or riding beside Joe, befriending Joey and struggling to suppress his obvious sexual desire for Marian; it seemed pretty obvious that he had developed close feelings for the entire family. And it would also explained why he would hang around, despite the danger of being dragged into a range war.

I cannot deny that “SHANE” featured some first-rate performances. I also cannot deny that Alan Ladd was in top form as the soft-spoken gunslinger who tried to hang up his gun belt, while staying with Starretts. I have always believed that Ladd was an underrated actor. Many critics have regarded his role as Shane as a singular example of how excellent he was as an actor. Do not get me wrong. I also admire his performance as Shane. It was a prime example of his skills as a movie actor. But I have seen other Ladd performances that I found equally impressive. Van Heflin’s portrayal of the determined small rancher, Joe Starrett, struck me as equally impressive. I could never really regard his character as complex, but Heflin made it easy for me to see why Shane had no problems befriending Joe . . . or why other ranchers regarded him as their unofficial leader. Jean Arthur had been lured out of an early retirement by Stevens for the role of Marian Starrett. I thought she did a superb job of conveying her character’s complicated feelings for Shane. Thanks to Arthur’s performance, Marian seemed to be torn between her love for Joe, her attraction to Shane and her revulsion toward his violent past.

Brandon deWilde had received an Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the Starretts’ young son, Joe Jr. (Joey). Do not get me wrong. I thought deWilde gave a very good performance as the impressionable, yet energetic young Joey. But an Oscar nod? Honestly, I have seen better performances from a good number of child actors – then and now. Another Best Supporting Actor nomination was given to Jack Palance for his role as the villainous gunslinger, Jack Wilson. When I re-watched this movie for the last time, there seemed to be two faces to Palance’s performance. Most of his appearances featured the actor projecting the stone-faced villainy of his character. But there were moments when Palance managed to convey the more human side of Wilson – whether it was his boredom toward his employer’s other minions or weariness at the idea of facing another person to kill. It is strange that I had never noticed this before.

I also have to give kudos to Elisha Cook Jr. as the doomed Frank Toomey, who spent most of the movie aggressively expressing his anger at Ryker’s attempts to drive him and other small ranchers out of the valley. And yet . . . Cook’s best scene featured Toomey’s last moments, when he began to silently express regret at his quick temper and his realization that he was about to meet his death.“SHANE” also featured some first-rate performances from Emilie Meyer as the ruthless and greedy Rufus Ryker; Ben Johnson as one of Ryker’s ranch hands, whose early encounter with Shane made him see the light; and the likes of Ellen Corby, Edgar Buchanan, Douglas Spencer and Edith Evanson.

Despite my admiration for “SHANE”, George Stevens’ direction and A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s screenplay . . . the movie is not a particularly favorite of mine. I like the film, but I do not love it. There are certain aspects of “SHANE” that prevents me from fully embracing it. One is Loyal Griggs’ cinematography. I realize that he had won an Academy Award for his work. And I must say that he did an excellent job in capturing the beauty of the movie’s Wyoming and California locations. But I found his use of natural lighting for the interior shots very frustrating, especially since I could barely see a damn thing in some shots. Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was its message regarding violence. I have no problem with any story declaring the use of violence in certain situations. My problem is that I did not find the local ranchers’ situation with Ryker dire enough that they had to insist upon fighting it out. Granted, if they had agreed to sell their land to Ryker and leave, it would have meant his victory. I do not know. Perhaps I did not care. Or perhaps this feeling came from my contempt toward the Frank Toomey character, who had stupidly decided to give in to his anger and aggression by facing Ryker and Wilson.

Another aspect of “SHANE” that annoyed me was the Joey Starrett character. I have seen my share of on-screen precocious children in movies and television. But there was something about Joey Starrett that truly got under my skin. I do not blame Brandon deWilde. He was only following Stevens’ direction. But before the movie’s last reel, I found myself wishing that someone would push dear Joey into the mud . . . face first. If there was one aspect of “SHANE” that truly annoyed me, it was bringing the U.S. Civil War into the narrative. I can only recall three characters who were established as Civil War veterans – Shane, Frank Toomey and Jack Wilson. Of the three, guess which one fought with the Union? That is correct. The evil and slimy Wilson. And to make matters worse, Guthrie’s screenplay had Shane utter these words to Wilson before shooting him – “I’ve heard that you’re a low-down Yankee liar.” In other words, “SHANE” became another example of Hollywood’s subtle, yet never-ending reverence for the Confederate cause. And considering that only three characters in this film were established as war veterans, why on earth did Schaefer, Guthrie or Stevens had to drag the damn war into this story in the first place? It was so unnecessary.

Regardless of my frustrations, I must admit that “SHANE” is a first-rate Western. Director George Stevens, screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. and the excellent cast led by Alan Ladd did an exceptional job in creating a Western that many would remember for decades. If only I had enjoyed it more than I actually did.

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part One – “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

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Below is Part One to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part One – “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

I. Introduction

The sprawling 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” focused upon the fifty (50) years history of the Prescott-Rawlins family between 1839 and 1889. The movie was divided into five sections – “The Rivers”“The Plains”“The Civil War”“The Railroad” and “The Outlaws”. Westbound migration was featured in the movie’s first two segments – “The River” and “The Plains”.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” opens in 1839 (I think) with the Prescotts, a family from upstate New York, westbound to settle on new land in Illinois. After a trip along the Erie Canal, the Prescotts and their traveling companions, the Harveys from Scotland, build flatboats for the westbound journey on the Ohio River. During their journey, they meet a mountain man named Linus Rawlins (James Stewart), who is eastbound to sell his furs in Pittsburgh. The Prescotts’ oldest daughter, Eve (Carroll Baker), and Linus fall in love. After a disastrous encounter with river rapids that led to the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Prescott; Eve decides to settle at the very location of their deaths in Southern Ohio and accept Linus’ marriage proposal. Younger sister Lilith Prescott (Debbie Reynolds) decides to move on.

“The Plains” picks up over a decade later, with Lilith as a dance hall performer in St. Louis. She learns from an attorney that she has inherited a California gold claim from a now deceased customer. Lilith travels to Independence, where she joins a California-bound wagon train by becoming the traveling companion of a middle-aged woman named Aggie Clegg (Thelma Ritter), willing to use Lilith’s looks to attract eligible men for marriage. Lilith also attracts the attention of two men, wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) and a roguish gambler named Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck).

II. History vs. Hollywood

To this day, I never understood why screenwriter James R. Webb allowed the Prescotts and the Harveys to travel across the Erie Canal. It is obvious that he had every intention of having them settle in Southern Ohio, along the River. So why use that route? According to the 1840 map below, the Erie Canal was a waterway that stretched from Albany to Buffalo in upstate New York.

Erie-canal_1840_map

This meant that the Prescotts and Harveys’s first leg of their journey ended at Buffalo, along the shores of Lake Erie. Are we really supposed to believe that the two families then journeyed from Buffalo to the banks of the Ohio River, in order to reach Illinois, when they could have easily traveled near the U.S.-Canada border to reach their destination? And Webb failed to reveal how they reached the Ohio River without a wagon. He could have allowed Eve Prescott and the other surviving members of the family to settle in Illinois or Ohio near one of the Great Lakes . . . or avoid the Erie Canal altogether and end up in Southern Ohio. Unfortunately, the screenwriter settled for a convoluted route. Even worse, he had mountain man Linus Rawlins traveling toward Pittsburgh to sell furs. Really? In 1839? Linus could have easily sold his furs further west in St. Louis or more importantly, Independence in western Missouri, without having to cross the Mississippi River.

When Lilith Prescott traveled to California after inheriting her California gold claim over a decade later, she chose the correct route – the Oregon/California Trails. However, Webb, director Henry Hathaway, and the producers decide to include nearly every cliché regarding western migration.

One, gambler Cleve Van Valen tried to join Roger Morgan’s wagon train in Independence, in order to make acquaintance with Lilith. He was told to get lost. Cleve managed to catch up with the wagon train some 100 miles west of Independence. Yet, the terrain looked suspiciously arid for eastern Kansas. The wagon trains used in this production were very large. In fact, they struck me as looking larger than a typical Conestoga wagon. One scene in the movie featured Cleve and a group of male emigrants playing poker inside one wagon . . . while it was traveling. This was Hollywood history at its worse. And guess what? Those wagons were pulled by horses, not oxen or mules.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” never featured any well known landmarks along the Oregon/California Trails. I suspect this was due to the movie’s constraining time for each segment. However, there was time to feature a large scale attack on the wagon train by a horde of Cheyenne warriors. And this attack was made against a large and well-armed wagon train. In reality, there would have never been such an attack in the first place. And if such a thing had happened, the Cheyenne would have been seriously wiped out.

I cannot deny that “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was an entertaining film. But in the end, it turned out to be too much “Hollywood” and not enough “History”.

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“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review

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“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review

The year 2004 marked the umpteenth time that an adaptation of Jules Verne’s travelogue movie, “Around the World in Eighty Days” hit the movie screen. Well . . . actually, the fifth time. Released by Disney Studios and directed by Frank Coraci, this adaptation starred Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan, Cécile de France, Ewan Bremmer and Jim Broadbent. 

This adaptation of Verne’s novel started on a different note. It opened with a Chinese man named Xau Ling (Jackie Chan) robbing a precious statuette called the Jade Buddha from the Bank of England. Ling managed to evade the police by hiding out at the home of an English inventor named Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan). To keep the latter from turning him in to the police, Ling pretends to be a French-born national named Passepartout, seeking work as a valet. After Fogg hired “Passepartout”, he clashed with various members of the Royal Academy of Science, including its bombastic member Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent). Kelvin expressed his belief that everything worth discovering has already been discovered and there is no need for further progress. The pair also discussed the bank robbery and in a blind rage, Phileas declared that that the thief could be in China in little over a month, which interests “Passepartout”. Kelvin pressured Phileas Fogg into a bet to see whether it would be possible, as his calculations say, to travel around the world in 80 days. If Fogg wins, he would become Minister of Science in Lord Kelvin’s place; if not, he would have to tear down his lab and never invent anything again. Unbeknownst to both Fogg and “Passepartout”, Kelvin recruited a corrupt London police detective named Inspector Fix to prevent the pair from completing their world journey. However, upon their arrival in Paris, they met an ambitious artist named Monique Larouche (Cécile de France), who decides to accompany them on their journey. Ling also became aware of warriors under the command of a female warlord named General Fang (Karen Mok), who also happens to be an ally of Lord Kelvin.

I might as well make this short. “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” did not do well at the box. In fact, it bombed. In a way, one could see why. In compare to the 1956 and 1989 versions, it took a lot more liberties with Verne’s original story. Phileas Fogg is portrayed as an eccentric inventor, instead of a Victorian gentleman of leisure. He takes on a bet with a rival member of the Royal Academy of Science, instead of members of the Reform Club. Passepartout is actually a Chinese warrior for an order of martial arts masters trying to protect his village. Princess Aouda has become a cheeky French would-be artist named Monique. And Inspector Fix has become a corrupt member of the London Police hired by the venal aristocrat Lord Kelvin to prevent Fogg from winning his bet. Fogg, Passepartout and Monique traveled to the Middle East by the Orient Express, with a stop in Turkey. Their journey also included a long stop at Ling’s village in China, where Fogg learned about Ling’s deception.

Some of the comedy – especially those scenes involving Fix’s attempts to arrest Fogg – came off as too broad and not very funny. Also, this adaptation of Verne’s tale was not presented as some kind of travelogue epic – as in the case of the 1956 and 1989 versions. The movie made short cuts by presenting Ling and Fogg’s journey through the use of day-glow animation created by an art direction team supervised by Gary Freeman. Frankly, I thought it looked slightly cheap. I really could have done without the main characters’ stop in Turkey, where Monique almost became Prince Hapi’s seventh wife. It slowed down the story and it lacked any humor, whatsoever. I am a major fan of Jim Broadbent, but I must admit that last scene which featured his rant against Fogg and Queen Victoria on the steps of the Royal Academy of Science started out humorous and eventually became cringe-worthy. Poor man. He deserved better.

Did I like “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”? Actually, I did. I found it surprisingly entertaining, despite its shortcomings. Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan made a rather funny screen team as the resourceful and clever Ling who had to deceive the slightly arrogant and uptight Fogg in order to quickly reach China. Cécile de France turned out to be a delightful addition to Chan and Coogan’s screen chemistry as the coquettish Monique, who added a great deal of spark to Fogg’s life. Granted, I had some complaints about Broadbent’s performance in his last scene. Yet, he otherwise gave a funny performance as the power-hungry and venal Lord Kelvin. It was rare to see him portray an outright villain. And although I found most of Bremner’s scenes hard to take (I am not that big of a fan of slapstick humor), I must admit that two of his scenes left me in stitches – his attempt to arrest Ling and Fogg in India and his revelations of Lord Kelvin’s actions on the Royal Academy of Science steps.

There were many moments in David N. Titcher, David Benullo, and David Goldstein’s script that I actually enjoyed. One, I really enjoyed the entire sequence in Paris that featured Ling and Fogg’s meeting with Monique and also Ling’s encounter with some of General Fang’s warriors. Not only did it featured some top notch action; humorous performances by Chan, Coogan and de France; and colorful photography by Phil Meheux. Another first-rate sequence featured the globe-trotting travelers’ arrival at Ling’s village in China. The action in this sequence was even better thanks to the fight choreography supervised by Chan and stunt/action coordinator Chung Chi Li. It also had excellent characterization thanks to the screenwriters and Chan, Daniel Wu, Sammo Hung and other actors.  One particular scene had me laughing. It featured Coogan and the two actors portraying Ling’s parents during a drunken luncheon for the travelers.

I wish I could say that this version of “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the best I have seen. But I would be lying. To be honest, all three versions I have seen are flawed in their own ways. This version is probably more flawed than the others. But . . . I still managed to enjoy myself watching it. The movie can boast some first-rate performances from the cast – especially Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan and Cécile de France. And it also featured some kick-ass action scenes in at least three major sequences. Thankfully, it was not a complete waste. In fact, I rather liked the movie, despite its flaws.

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“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” (2015) Review

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“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” (2015) Review

Following the success of his 2012 movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, Quentin Tarantino set about creating another movie with a Western theme that also reflected today’s themes and social relationships in the United States. However, due to circumstances beyond his control, Tarantino nearly rejected the project. And if he had, audiences would have never seen what came to be . . . “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”

The circumstances that nearly led Tarantino to give up the project occurred when someone gained access to his script and published it online in early 2014. The producer-director had considered publishing the story as a novel, until he directed a reading of the story the United Artists Theater in the Ace Hotel Los Angeles. The event was organized by the Film Independent at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as part of the Live Read series. The success of the event eventually convinced Tarantino to shoot the movie.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is at its heart, a mystery. I would not describe it as a murder-mystery, but more like . . . well, let me begin. The story begins in the post-Civil War Wyoming Territory where a stagecoach rushing to get ahead of an oncoming blizzard, is conveying bounty hunter John Ruth aka “The Hangman” and his handcuffed prisoner, a female outlaw named Daisy Domergue. The stagecoach is bound for the town of Red Rock, where Daisy is scheduled to be hanged. During the journey, an African-American bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren, who is transporting three dead bounties to the town of Red Rock, hitches a ride on the stagecoach. His horse had died on him. Several hours later, the stagecoach picks up another passenger, a former Confederate militiaman named Chris Mannix, who claims to be traveling to Red Rock in order to become the town’s new sheriff. The stagecoach passengers are forced to seek refuge at a stage station called Minnie’s Haberdashery, when the blizzard finally strikes. The new arrivals are greeted by a Mexican handyman named Bob, who informs them that Minnie is visiting a relative and has left him in charge. The other lodgers are a British-born professional hangman Oswaldo Mobray; a quiet cowboy named Joe Gage, who is traveling to visit his mother; and Sanford Smithers, a former Confederate general. Forever paranoid, Ruth disarms all but Warren, with whom he had bonded during stagecoach journey. When Warren has a violent confrontation with Smithers, Daisy spots someone slip poison into a pot of coffee, brewing on the stove. Someone she recognizes as a fellow outlaw, who is there to spring her free from Ruth’s custody. And there is where the mystery lies – the identity of Daisy’s fellow outlaw.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marks the sixth Quentin Tarantino movie I have ever seen. I also found it the most unusual. But it is not my favorite. In fact, I would not even consider it among my top three favorites. And here is the reason why. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” struck me as being too damn long with a running time of two hours and forty-seven minutes. I realize that most of Tarantino films usually have a running time that stretches past two hours. But we are talking of a film that is basically a character study/mystery. Even worse, most of the film is set at a stagecoach station – a one-story building with one big room. Not even Tarantino’s attempt to stretch out the stage journey at the beginning of the film could overcome this limited setting. And due to the limited setting and film’s genre, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is probably the least epic film in his career, aside from his first one, 1993’s “RESERVOIR DOGS”. At least that film did not stretch into a ridiculously long 167 minute running time.

I also thought Tarantino made too much of a big deal in the confrontation between Major Marquis Warren and General Sanford Smithers. Apparently, Warren had a grudge against Smithers for executing black troops at the Battle of Baton Rouge. I find this improbable, due to the fact that there were no black troops fighting for the Union during that battle, which was a Union victory. There were no black Union or Confederate troops known to have taken part in that particular battle. Tarantino should have taken the time to study his Civil War history. But what really annoyed me about the Warren-Smithers confrontation was that Tarantino thought it was necessary to include a flashback showing Warren’s encounter with Smithers’ son, which resulted in the latter’s death. I realize that the Warren-Smithers encounter allowed Daisy’s mysterious colleague to poison the coffee. But a flashback on Warren and Smithers Jr.?  Unnecessary.  I also found Tarantino’s narration in the film somewhat unnecessary. Frankly, he is not a very good narrator. And I found one particular piece of narration rather unnecessary – namely the scene in which Daisy witnessed the coffee being poisoned. Tarantino could have shown this on screen without any voice overs.

Despite these flaws, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”. It featured some outstanding characterizations and dialogue. And it seemed the cast really took advantage of these well-written aspects of the script. I am not surprised that the film had received numerous film award nominations for Best Ensemble. Although the running time for “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” might be longer than it should, I have to give Tarantino kudos for his well-structured screenplay. He took his time in setting up the narrative, the mystery and his characters. And although he may have overdone it a bit by taking his time in reaching the film’s denouement, Tarantino delivered quite a payoff that really took me by surprise, once he reached that point. Unlike many movie directors today, Tarantino is a firm believer in taking his time to tell his story. My only regret is that he took too much time for a story that required a shorter running time.

But what I really liked about “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is that it proved to be a new direction for Tarantino. In this age filled with lack of originality in the arts, it was refreshing to see there are artists out there who are still capable of being original. After viewing the movie at the theater, it occurred to me that is was basically an Agatha Christie tale set in the Old West. Tarantino utilized many aspects from various Christie novels. But the movie resembled one movie in particular. Only I will not say what that novel is, for it would allow anyone to easily guess what happens in the end. Although many of Christie’s novels and Tarantino’s movies feature a good deal of violence, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” featured very little violence throughout most of its narrative . . . until the last quarter of the film. Once the Major Warren-General Smithers confrontation took place, all bets were off.

I wish I could comment on the movie’s production values. But if I must be honest, I did not find it particularly memorable. Well, there were one or two aspects of the movie’s production that impressed me. I really enjoyed Robert Richardson’s photography of Colorado, which served as Wyoming Territory for this film. I found it sharp and colorful. I also enjoyed Yohei Taneda’s production designs for the movie . . . especially for the Minnie’s Haberdashery setting. I though Taneda, along with art directors Benjamin Edelberg and Richard L. Johnson, did a great job of conveying the Old West in that one setting.

Naturally, I cannot discuss “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” without mentioning the cast. What can I say? They were outstanding. And Tarantino did an outstanding job directing them. As far as I know, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marked the first time at least three members of the cast have not worked with Tarantino – Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Channing Tatum and Demián Bichir. Otherwise, everyone else seemed to be veterans of a Tarantino production, especially Samuel L. Jackson. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marked his sixth collaboration with the director. It is a pity that he was not recognized for his portrayal of bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren. As usual, he did an outstanding job of portraying a very complex character, who not only proved to be a ruthless law enforcer, but also a somewhat cruel man as shown in his confrontation with General Smithers. Actually, most of the other characters proved to be equally ruthless. Kurt Russell’s portrayal of bounty hunter John Ruth struck me as equally impressive. The actor did an excellent job in conveying Ruth’s ruthlessness, his sense of justice and especially his paranoia. Walton Goggin’s portrayal of ex-Confederate-turned-future lawman seemed like a far cry from his laconic villain from “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Oddly enough, his character did not strike me as ruthless as some of the other characters and probably a little more friendly – except toward Warren. Jennifer Jason-Leigh has been earning acting nominations – including Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nods – for her portrayal of the captured fugitive Daisy Domergue. Those nominations are well deserved, for Jason-Leigh did an outstanding job of bringing an unusual character to life. Ironically, the character spent most of the movie as a battered prisoner of Russell’s John Ruth. Yet, thanks to Jason-Leigh, she never lets audiences forget how ornery and dangerous she can be.

Tim Roth, who had not been in a Tarantino production since 1995’s “FOUR ROOMS”, gave probably the most jovial performance as the very sociable English-born professional hangman, Oswaldo Mobray. Bruce Dern, who was last seen in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, had a bigger role in this film as the unsociable ex-Confederate General Sanford Smithers, who seemed determined not to speak to Warren. Despite portraying such an unsympathetic character, Dern did an excellent job in attracting the audience’s sympathy, as his character discovered his son’s grisly fate at Warren’s hands. Michael Masden gave a very quiet and subtle performance as Joe Gage, a rather silent cowboy who claimed to be on his way to visit his mother. And yet . . . he also projected an aura of suppressed danger, which made one suspect if he was Daisy’s collaborator. A rather interesting performance came from Demián Bichir, who portrayed the stage station’s handyman, Bob. Like Madsen’s Gage, Bichir’s Bob struck me as a quiet and easygoing man, who also conveyed an element of danger. I was very surprised to see Channing Tatum in this film, who portrayed Jody Domergue, Daisy’s older brother. Although his role was small, Channing was very effective as the villainous Domergue, who could also be quite the smooth talker. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”also featured excellent supporting performances from the likes of James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Zoë Bell, Keith Jefferson and Gene Jones.

Yes, I found “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” too long. I feel it could have been cut short at least by forty minutes. And I was not that impressed by Quentin Tarantino’s voice over in the film. I could have done without it. But despite its flaws, I cannot deny that I found “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” to be one of the director’s more interesting movies in his career. With a first-rate cast led by Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason-Leigh; and a screenplay that seemed to be an interesting combination of a murder mystery and a Western; Tarantino created one of his most original movies during his career.

 

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE THREE Commentary

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE THREE Commentary

Thanks to Episode Three, “HEAVEN AND HELL:  NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” ended on a solid note, thanks to John Jakes and Suzanne Clauser’s screenplay. A good number of NORTH AND SOUTH” fans have complained that the 1994 miniseries could have stretched into one or two more episodes. I have to disagree with that assessment. The 1987 novel was not as long as 1982’s “North and South” or 1984’s “Love and War”.

Episode Three began Charles Main’s confrontation with Scar and his discovery that the Cheyenne warrior was in no condition for any kind of duel. After mending Scar, Charles began to drink heavily in order to escape the failure of both his quest and his efforts to save the Cheyenne village from Captain Harry Venable and his troopers.  George Hazard and Madeline Main’s story blossomed into a romance that proved to be a lot more satisfying than what was depicted in Jakes’ 1987 novel. After becoming sober, Charles learned about Gus’ kidnapping from George and his friend, cavalry trooper Magic Magee. The trio set out into the Indian Territory to hunt for Bent and the kidnapped Gus. With George gone, Madeline was forced to contend with a double threat – a recently wealthy Ashton Main Fenway determined to take Mont Royal from her; and the local KKK and brother-in-law Cooper Main, determined to kill her and destroy her school for former slaves.

More so than the previous two episodes, Episode Three seemed to be pack with action. It featured Charles’ ill-fated duel with Scar, the hunt for the Hazard and Main familes’ nemesis, Elkhannah Bent and Charles’ kidnapped son Gus, and the Klan’s attack upon Mont Royal. And I thought that Larry Peerce handled these scenes rather well. Not only was I impressed by Peerce’s direction of the Klan’s attack, but also by Don E. FauntLeRoy’s night time photography of the swamp where George chased a captured Madeline, Cooper and Klansman Gettys LaMotte. This episode also featured some effective dramatic scenes – especially George and Madeline’s romance, Cooper’s hostile confrontation with his wife Judith, and Charles’ reconciliation with actress Willa Parker. But my favorite dramatic moment was Magic Magee’s attempt to distract Bent at a whiskey ranch, while Charles and George tried to rescue Gus. That particular scene seemed like an excellent mixture of drama, humor and tension.

The only bad performance that turned me off in this episode came from Terri Garber’s return to an exaggerated portrayal of a Southern belle. I found this ironic, considering that Lesley Anne Down managed to avoid this travesty, for once. However, Garber more than made up her acting faux pas in a scene in which she very convincingly portrayed Ashton’s devastation upon her discovery of Mont Royal’s wartime fate.  James Read and Lesley-Anne Down were very effective in conveying George and Madeline’s romance.  Both Philip Casnoff and Steve Harris gave first-rate performances in the battle of wits between Bent and Magee. I could say the same about Robert Wagner and Cathy Lee Crosby in the scene featuring Cooper and Judith’s quarrel.  Kyle Chandler really shone in this episode, as he portrayed the gamut of Charles’ emotional experiences from the drunken failed man to a determined father and finally, a man at peace with the woman he loved and with himself.  Everyone else – including Rya Kihlstedt, Tom Noonan, Sharon Washington, Cliff DeYoung, Gary Grubbs, Gregory Zaragoza, Jonathan Frakes, Deborah Rush and Julius Tennon did some pretty solid work.

“HEAVEN AND HELL” is not perfect. Its production values were not as top notch as the first two miniseries from the 1980s. The miniseries included literary characters like Cooper Main without explaining their lack of appearances in “BOOK I” and “BOOK II”. And it featured moments of hammy acting – especially by Lesley Anne Down, Terri Garber and Keith Szarabajka. On the other hand, this miniseries was more faithful to Jakes’ third novel than “BOOK II” was to the second novel. Not only did “HEAVEN AND HELL” managed to feature excellent performances and outstanding action sequences, it featured what I consider are the two best scenes in the entire trilogy. And I still believe it was a lot better than most of the saga’s fans viewed it.

 

 

“FORT APACHE” (1948) Review

 

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“FORT APACHE” (1948) Review

Between 1948 and 1950, director John Ford made three Westerns that many regard as his “cavalry trilogy”. All three films centered on the U.S. Army Cavalry in the post-Civil War West. More importantly, all three movies were based upon short stories written by American Western author, James Warner Bellah. 

The first film in Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” was “FORT APACHE” released in 1948. Starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda, the movie was inspired by Bellah’s 1947 Saturday Evening Post short story called “Massacre”. Bellah used the Little Bighorn and Fetterman Fight battles as historical backdrop.

The movie began with the arrival of three characters to the U.S. Army post, Fort Apache, in the post-Civil War Arizona Territory – a rigid and egocentric Army officer named Lieutenant Owen Thursday; his daughter Philadelphia Thursday; and a recent West Point graduate named Second Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke, who also happened to be the son of the regiment’s first sergeant. The regiment’s first officer, Captain Kirby York, and everyone else struggle to adjust to the martinet style of Thursday. Worse, young Lieutenant O’Rourke and Philadelphia become romantically interested each other. But since O’Rourke is the son of a sergeant, the snobbish Thursday does not regard him as a “gentleman” and is against a romance between the pair. But Thursday’s command style, the budding romance and other minor events at Fort Apache take a back seat when the regiment is faced with a potential unrest from the local Apaches, due to their conflict with a corrupt Indian agent named Silas Meacham. Thursday’s command and his willingness to adapt to military command on the frontier is tested when he finds himself caught between the Meacham’s penchant for corruption and the Apaches’ anger and desire for justice.

“FORT APACHE” proved to be one of the first Hollywood films to portray a sympathetic view of Native Americans. This is surprising, considering that Bellah’s view of the Native Americans in his story is not sympathetic and rather racist. For reasons I do not know, Ford decided to change the story’s negative portrayal of the Apaches, via screenwriter Frank S. Nugent’s script. Although Ford and Nugent did not focus upon how most of the other characters regarded the Apaches, they did spotlight on at least three of them – Captain Kirby York, Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday, and Captain Sam Collingwood. Both Thursday and Collingwood seemed to share the same negative views of the Apaches, although the latter does not underestimate their combat skills. York seemed a lot more open-minded and sympathetic toward the Apaches’ desire to maintain their lives in peace without the U.S. government breathing down their backs. In the case of “FORT APACHE”, York’s views seemed to have won out . . . for the moment.

As much as I enjoyed “FORT APACHE”, I must admit that I was frustrated that it took so long for it to begin exploring its main narrative regarding the Apaches and Meachum. The movie’s first half spent most of its time on three subplots. One of them featured the clash between Thursday and the men under his command. The second featured the budding romance between Philadelphia Thursday and Second Lieutenant O’Rourke. Do not get me wrong. And the third featured scenes of the day-to-day activities of the fort’s enlisted men and non-commission officers. I must admit that I found the last subplot somewhat uninteresting and felt they dragged the movie’s narrative. I had no problems with the Philadelphia-Michael romance, since it added a bit of romance to the movie’s plot and played a major role in Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday’s characterization. And naturally the York-Thursday conflict played an important role in the film’s plot.

The ironic thing about “FORT APACHE” is that the plot line regarding the Apaches does not come to the fore until halfway into the film. Due to this plot structure, I found myself wondering about the film’s main narrative. What exactly is “FORT APACHE” about? Worse, the fact that the Apache story arc does not really come to fore until the second half, almost making the film seem schizophrenic. There were plenty of moments in the first half that led me to wonder if director John Ford had become too caught up in exploring mid-to-late 19th century military life on the frontier.

Many have claimed that “FORT APACHE” is not specifically about life at a 19th century Army post in the Old West or the U.S. government’s relations with the Apaches. It is about the conflict between the two main characters – Captain Kirby York and Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday. In other words, one of the movie’s subplots might actually be its main plot. Both York and Thursday were Civil War veterans who seemed to have conflicting ideas on how to command a U.S. Army post in the 19th century West and deal with the conflict between the American white settlers and the Apaches, trying to defend their homeland. Captain York had expected to become Fort Apache’s new commander, following the departure of the previous one. Instead, the post’s command was given to Colonel Thursday, an arrogant and priggish officer with no experience with the West or Native Americans. What makes the situation even more ironic is that while York had wanted command of Fort Apache, Thursday is both disappointed and embittered that the Army had posted him to this new assignment.

The problem I have with this theory is that movie did not spend enough time on the York-Thursday conflict for me to accept it. Thursday seemed to come into conflict with a good number of other characters – especially the O’Rourke men and his old friend Captain Sam Collingwood. York and Thursday eventually clashed over the Apaches’ conflict with Silas Meacham. And considering that a great deal of the movie’s first half focused on the day-to-day life on a frontier Army post and the Philadelphia-Michael romance, I can only conclude that I found “FORT APACHE” a slightly schizophrenic film.

Despite this, I rather enjoyed “FORT APACHE”. Well . . . I enjoyed parts of the first half and definitely the second half. While I found some of Ford’s exploration of life at a 19th century Army post rather charming, I found the movie’s portrayal of the entire Apaches-Meachum conflict intriguing, surprising and very well made. Instead of the usual Hollywood “white men v. Indians” schtick, Ford explored the damaging effects of U.S. policies against Native Americans. This was especially apparent in the situation regarding Silas Meacham. Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent made it clear that both Captain York and Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday regarded Meachum as a dishonorable and corrupt man, whose greed had led to great unrest among the Apaches.

And yet . . . whereas York was willing to treat the Apaches with honor and consider getting rid of Meachum, Thursday’s rigid interpretation of Army regulations and arrogant prejudice led him to dismiss the Apaches’s protests and support Meachum’s activities because the latter was a U.S. government agent . . . and white. Worse, Thursday decided to ignore York’s warnings and use this situation as an excuse for military glory and order his regiment into battle on Cochise’s terms – a direct (and suicidal) charge into the hills. U.S. policy in the Old West at its worst. God only knows how many times a similar action had occurred throughout history. I might be wrong, but I suspect that “FORT APACHE” was the Hollywood film that opened the gates to film criticism of American imperialism in the West, especially the treatment of Native Americans.

Another aspect of “FORT APACHE” that I truly enjoyed was Archie Stout’s cinematography. What can I say? His black-and-white photography of Monument Valley, Utah and Simi Hills, California were outstanding, as shown below:

 

Thanks to Ford’s direction and Jack Murray’s editing, “FORT APACHE” maintained a lively pace that did not threatened to drag the movie. More importantly, the combination of their work produced a superb sequence that featured the regiment’s doomed assault on Cochise’s warriors. Richard Hageman’s score served the movie rather well. Yet, I must admit that I do not have any real memories of it. As for film’s costumes . . . I do not believe a particular designer was responsible for them. In fact, they looked as if they had come straight from a studio costume warehouse. I found this disappointing, especially for the movie’s female characters.

“FORT APACHE” featured some performances that I found solid and competent. Veteran actors like Dick Foran, Victor McLaglen and Jack Pennick gave amusing performances as the regiment’s aging NCOs (non-commissioned officers). Guy Kibbee was equally amusing as the post’s surgeon Captain Wilkens. Pedro Armendáriz was equally competent as the more professional Sergeant Beaufort, who was a former Confederate. Grant Withers was appropriately slimy as the corrupt Silas Meachum. Miguel Inclán gave a dignified performance as the outraged Apache chieftain Cochise. The movie also featured solid performances from Anna Lee and Irene Rich.

John Agar’s portrayal of the young Michael O’Rourke did not exactly rock my boat. But I thought he was pretty competent. I read somewhere that Ford was not that impressed by Shirley Temple as an actress. Perhaps he had never seen her in the 1947 comedy, “THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER”. Her character in that film was more worthy of her acting skills than the charming, yet bland Philadelphia Thursday. John Wayne also gave a solid performance as Captain Kirby York. But I did not find his character particularly interesting, until the movie’s last half hour.

I only found three performances interesting. One came from George O’Brien, who portrayed Thursday’s old friend, Captain Sam Collingwood. I thought O’Brien did a great job in portraying a man who found himself taken aback by an old friend’s chilly demeanor and arrogance. Ward Bond was equally impressive as Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, the senior NCO on the post who has to struggle to contain his resentment of Thursday’s class prejudices against his son. But for me, the real star of this movie was Henry Fonda as the narrow-minded and arrogant Lieutenant-Colonel Owen Thursday. I thought he gave a very brilliant and fascinating portrayal of a very complicated man. Thursday was not the one-note arrogant prig that he seemed on paper. He had his virtues. However, Fonda did an excellent job in conveying how Thursday’s flaws tend to overwhelm his flaws at the worst possible moment. I am amazed that Fonda never received an Oscar nomination for this superb performance.

How can I say this? I do believe that “FORT APACHE” had some problems. I found the movie slightly slightly schizophrenic due to its heavy emphasis on daily life on a frontier Army post in the first half. In fact, the movie’s first half is a little problematic to me. But once the movie shifted toward the conflict regarding the Apaches and a corrupt Indian agent, Ford’s direction and Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay breathed life into it. The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by John Wayne and Henry Fonda. I must admit that I feel “FORT APACHE” might be a little overrated. But I cannot deny that it is a damn good movie.