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John Wayne

Review: The Train Robbers

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Burt Kennedy is one of those fitfully interesting but dreadfully unreliable minor talents whose films are saved—when they are saved—by (frequently unassimilated) quirks in his style and treatment. Hannie Caulder, that bizarre European-based western of last year, included a wealth of outrageousness that seemed to presage a return to grace and a renewal of promise for Kennedy the director: Raquel Welch strutting around the desert naked under a poncho, Robert Culp prancing auspiciously out of the wilderness in El Topo hat and granny glasses to teach her how to shoot; brothers Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, and Jack Elam forming a manically inept criminal trio who nevertheless managed to be lethal for two of Hannie’s menfolk; Christopher Lee as a gaunt and happy gunsmith and family man living on the seashore; and a never-identified stranger in elegant black who materialized wordlessly now and again to collaborate in Hannie’s adventures.

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Review: Brannigan

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

There’s some terrific supporting material in that cast list, but everybody onscreen looks, and has excellent reason for feeling, pretty embarrassed about the whole thing. Brannigan is the sort of picture that gives John Wayne movies a bad name. Come to think of it, Brannigan is a bad name: it’s locked right in on the monolithic image of Wayne as 110-percent American tough guy with two fists and only one operational brain lobe, and whenever it takes four scriptwriters to come up with that kind of arithmetic, somebody’s in trouble.

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Blu-ray: ‘Red River’

RedRiverRed River (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) – Howard Hawks’ 1948 ‘Mutiny on the Prairie’ is a frontier epic, the sweeping tale of a journey that can’t be made and the story of a son forced to battle the father he loves and adores. Monty Clift made his film debut opposite grand old icon John Wayne, playing the adopted son of the self-made cattle baron, and the opposition of acting styles is electric: laconic elder statesman Wayne wearing his character like buckskin, dominating the screen as upstart method actor Clift’s intensity burns a star right next to him.

Hawks’ style leans more to Wayne: measured and easy-going, he seems to let the characters take the story along with them, but behind that easy pace is a tale of madness, betrayal and vengeance that heats to a simmer under the sun of the parched prairie. “I never knew the big sonofabitch could act,” remarked Ford upon seeing Wayne’s performance, and he started casting Wayne in more complex and mature roles. But Clift was the real revelation and his internalized, psychologically-driven approach arguably pushed Wayne to reach for colors he’d never brought to a role before. The release was delayed while Hawks fought a legal battle with Howard Hughes, who claimed the film was similar to his own The Outlaw. Hughes lost but in the meantime Clift made The Search, which beat Red River to theaters and earned Clift his first Oscar nomination.

There are two versions of Red River and the longer pre-release version, which features “diary pages” of exposition between scenes and minute or two of additional footage, has been the version on previous home video releases. Hawks himself has said that he prefers the theatrical release, with runs 127 minutes (six minutes shorter than the pre-release cut) and features Walter Brennan narrating in place of the journal pages, and Criterion features a new 4K digital restoration of this version as well as a 2K restoration of the longer cut on both Blu-ray and DVD.

The four-disc combo release includes both films on Blu-ray and DVD plus new video interviews with Peter Bogdanovich (discussing the differences between the two cuts) and historian Lee Clark Mitchell (on the history of the western novel and the film’s debt to the literary tradition) and a video essay by Molly Haskell. Archival supplements include audio excerpts from Bogdanovich’s 1972 interview with Hawks and an interview with novelist and screenwriter Borden Chase. There’s a booklet featuring a new essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1991 interview with Hawks’s longtime editor Christian Nyby, plus a new paperback edition of Chase’s original novel, previously out of print.

More classics and catalog releases of Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Red River

Much in life makes for the anonymity of the individual human being and, not surprisingly, most people drift mindlessly with the current carrying them towards the final oblivion of death. But some men hate the very thought of drowning in the flux and flow of impermanence, of simply living and dying without indelibly marking their environment with some unmistakable signature. Whatever form it may take, that signature always translates: “I was here and it mattered.” Such men resist at any cost the drift towards oblivion by defining and delineating a sense of personal identity which can stand firm against all that would blur and obliterate its lineaments. American writers from Melville to Faulkner have been especially preoccupied with the theme of an individual at odds with whatever seeks to ignore or abrogate his assertion of selfhood: the adversaries may be nature itself with its massive indifference to human life, or other men bent on violating the self-defined perimeters of one’s identity, or even socioeconomic systems which, like nature, mostly manifest a profound disinterest in individual human existence.

John Wayne plays Dunson opposite Montgomery Clift's Matthew Garth

A man may also war with his own limitations which prevent him from measuring up to the standards he has set for himself. My guess is that the very configuration of the land in which the early settlers of America found themselves was partially responsible for the appearance of this insistent theme, with all its subsequent permutations, in American literature—and later, in American cinema. This immense sea of land, empty of the communal comfort of town or city, threaded only occasionally by Indian paths, its forests, rivers, and mountains contained both threat and promise for those early settlers. Such a country could swallow a man up without a trace that he had ever lived. Or a man might take possession of some part of that vast untouched expanse and make it subject to the shape and bent of his own mind and will. Howard Hawks’ Red River is the saga of such a man.

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Blood and Ashes

[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]

Don Siegel, a man with an impressive history of making competent, toughminded, fast-moving films, admits that he’s trying to alter his “image” as an action director. In his most recent film, The Shootist, we can feel the tug between action and reflection, violence and elegy, present and past—opposing qualities that find a meeting ground in Siegel’s view of what itself is a contradictory environment of change and anachronism. This is turn-of-the-century Carson City, Nevada, outfitted with harbingers of the future such as trolleys on tracks and horseless carriages, but also retaining iconographic refuges of the Old West like the spacious Metropole Saloon. Scanning the borders of heroism, time, and fate within this world, Siegel’s style ranges from the intimate and discreet to the epic, the legendary and mythic mode of end-of-an-era Westerns—divergent strains of perspective (and The Shootist is very much a movie about various perspectives, mixing the larger context of legend with the intimacy of self-knowledge) that can unexpectedly coalesce within a single shot. Towards the end of the movie, when J.B. Books (John Wayne)—an aging gunman dying of cancer—prepares to go out to the Metropole to meet with three adversaries he’s treating to a showdown, there is something about John Wayne’s gestures and Siegel’s eye-level and respectfully unobtrusive camera that is both epically cumulative and heartwrenchingly personal. Very slowly and selfconsciously, Books places his guns just so in his belt, takes his hat from the peg on the wall and arranges it on his head, and checks his watch so as not to be late to this last appointment. (Books has opted to go down in a blaze of gunfire rather than succumb to the cancer attacking him relentlessly from the rear.) It is a painfully intimate moment, one which we feel almost indiscreet in witnessing. Nothing very important is happening—nothing more important than all the accoutrements of a man’s life getting arranged, put in order for his passing.

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“You’re Goddam Right I Remember” – Howard Hawks Interviewed

by Kathleen Murphy and Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Howard Winchester Hawks was home the afternoon of July 12, 1976. For some time there, it looked as if it wouldn’t happen. Kathleen Murphy had finally taken the leap and declared Howard Hawks: An American Auteur in the Hemingway Tradition as her dissertation subject. Then she decided she’d better talk with the man himself. Phone calls were made, and friendly sounds, but Hawks could never plan “that far ahead” because he was “working on a story.” When “that far ahead” got cut to a little over a day and a half, it was on, and there was a frantic scramble for a borrowed tape recorder (courtesy of Ron Green), plane reservations, and an L.A. homebase (provided by Rick and Leslie Thompson). That was Saturday; Sunday, we flew; Monday morning, we were driving in a rental car to get to Palm Springs by noon.

When we walked in out of the 98° air about five minutes late, three dogs checked us over while our host continued strongly to advise the person on the other end of his phone line that the air conditioning equipment he’d installed wasn’t working, and that he, Hawks, had come to the conclusion “you’re a goddam crook.” Serious doubts about the enterprise set in when I took an indicated seat on the edge of a Relaxacisor chair and inadvertently tripped the activator switch, precipitating a non-Hemingwayesque movement of the earth beneath me; and when I failed to locate the switch by conscious means, I became the object of an icy blue stare that made me feel distinctly like the “Fancy Vest” who’d been dumb enough to sidle toward his rifle under the assumption that Cole Thornton wouldn’t notice. An attempt to start recording with side two of the first cassette almost came as an anticlimax after that.

Howard Hawks on the set of "Rio Bravo" with Angie Dickinson

Still, we were there—and we stayed there. We had brought along about 30 hours worth of tape; we could have filled nearly twice that, despite several gestures of willingness to depart if we were being too much of a bother. Mr. Hawks, who had turned 80 just over a month before, had driven 350 miles the previous day, taking his son to and from a motorcycle meet in the desert; and he frequently kneaded a stiffening hand he’d once broken on Ernest Hemingway’s jaw. He talked. We talked. Whenever he left the room to find a sketch or article that had come up in the conversation, we prowled around looking at the original Red River D belt buckle on the wall, the title painting from El Dorado, the mugs painted HOWARD, FROM DUKE. The dogs clicked in and out of the immediate vicinity on the cool flagstone floor, occasionally crowding up to Hawks for special attention; he put on his sternest manner to dismiss them, but when, about the third time it happened, we managed to remark out loud that he wasn’t being very convincing, he broke into a richly pleased smile, and from then on there was a lot of laughing.

We didn’t go to Palm Springs to interview Howard Hawks for Movietone News, but in listening and relistening to the tapes and seeing the more-than-pleasure they brought to other people, we finally decided what the hell. The following represents but a portion of what we recorded. The Hemingway material, while valuable and provocative, has been left out here. We heard some of the anecdotes that previous Hawks interviews have included, and some of them are reproduced here yet again—partly because they will be new to some readers, partly because they’re wrapped around other material, partly because even many months later they still seem different to us because we heard them from Howard Hawks himself and watched him while he told them. There are scads of questions we wish we’d asked. Some we did ask didn’t go anywhere (like what happened to Malcolm Atterbury and Harry Carey Jr., listed in the credits of Rio Bravo but not on view in the film itself). Sometimes the ways Hawks misconstrued, or chose to misconstrue, the questions were almost as interesting and suggestive as more direct answers might have been; but mostly these have been edited out.

As days go, it will be hard to top. Just about the time the cassette went into the machine right, Mr. Hawks was looking at a copy of MTN 26, containing the John Ford memorial, and remarking that he’d “seen it before—about 50 times.” He meant the Monument Valley butte on the cover. We’ll let July 12 take it from there.

RTJ

John Ford, John Wayne, acting like an old man, etc.

Well, Ford and I guess I were the only people that worked with Wayne that he didn’t want to know what the story was or he didn’t want to see the script—he just said, “When do we start?” … And of course he adored Ford. As a matter of fact, Ford came down here to die. And I used to stop in at his house and have a drink on the way to playing golf. One day I went in and he was laughing like hell, and I said, “What are ya laughing about?” and he said, “I was just remembering all of the things I’ve stolen from you.” I said, “I’ll make ya any kind of a bet that I’ve stolen more. Hell, you’d be dead before you’d even find out.” And one day—he was really laughing—he said, “I just thought of the best thing I ever stole from you. I had just a fair-to-middling picture up for an Academy Award [How Green Was My Valley] and you had a real good one [Sergeant York] and I beat ya out of it!” And when I went over to see him and he said goodbye to me about six times, I knew that something was happening and I phoned Wayne and I said, “You better get down here and see Pappy. If I were you I’d fly down.” He came down and he saw him just two or three hours before he died.
My opinion was that he was the best director in the picture business. It was very strange because we were both very pleased that the other one would steal from him. We didn’t have any feeling of jealousy or anything like that. When I made Red River with Wayne, Ford saw it and said, “I didn’t think the big son-of-a-bitch could act!” And he put him in two really good pictures immediately after, and within a year and a half Wayne was one of the biggest stars in the picture business.
Every time I made a picture with Wayne, Ford used to come down and stay with us on location, watching. And I’d say, “Can’t you wait to see it to steal something from it?”

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Talking and Doing in “Rio Bravo”

[Written for a November 14, 1972 showing of the film in a University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series on Howard Hawks. Reprinted in an all-Westerns issue of the film journal The Velvet Light Trap.]

John Wayne as Chance, Angie Dickinson as Feathers

I can remember my reaction to Rio Bravo upon its initial release in 1959.  I liked it, I guess, but I was rather distressed by several factors: everything happened in this Southwestern town, John Wayne spent entirely too much time coming out on the wrong end of conversations with Angie Dickinson, and everybody talked all the time.  Somewhere along the line I had been given to understand that Westerns ought to be full of chases and display a great deal of scenery, that love interest was usually imposed obligatorily on action scenarios, and that any movie in which the actors gabbed all the time was not a movie but a photographed play.  Besides, these people all talked so oddly; and because they sounded odd, I decided they were technically inept performers.  And oh yes, Ricky Nelson — Dean Martin didn’t bother me, but it was simply axiomatic that anyone associated with so many insipid televideo memories as Nelson could only pull a movie down, as for instance in obliging this Howard Hawks fellow to throw in a song interlude just to get his money’s worth and to please “the fans.” (Who were “the fans” who imposed all these strictures anyway? — no one I knew, but they were always Platonically ideal to have lurking in the background as an excuse for one’s peeves.)

Actually I wasn’t guilty of quite all the foregoing stupidities, but I harbored enough of them to make me (or my teenage alter ego) bear the additional symbolic burden of those other exclusionist theories I’ve run across subsequently.  I’m for Rio Bravo today, to put it mild­ly, and if I had to select just one film to demonstrate what Howard Hawks is all about, it would vie at the top of the list with Only Angels Have Wings.  Both pictures embody the essen­tial Hawksian rhythms of danger and security; clearly exemplify the strong bonds of respect and reliance that sustain the small society of professionals contained within the larger and scarcely seen society of undistinguished, uncommitted workaday types; suggest why love is as dangerous and as necessary to personal wholeness as flying or gunfighting; file lucid and affectionate briefs for good, personal, ritualistic humor and the healthier forms of craziness; and relate language, speech, and reason to action more definitively than any other films in the canon.  If Only Angels Have Wings is the foremost masterwork of the director’s early peri­od, Rio Bravo is that of the later, even more genial years.

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also-true ‘Grit’

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn (photo by Lorey Sebastian)

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, December 22, 2010]

Adaptations are always difficult – for the filmmakers, of course, but also for viewers who know the original and face a challenge in trying to meet the new movie on its own terms. With True Grit, the latest offering from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, there are not one but two previous versions: Charles Portis’ excellent 1968 novel and the famous 1969 film. I nearly wrote “well-known 1969 film,” but given some of the asinine things written or said about it lately, it’s clear many people do not, in fact, know the film; they just draw on a reservoir of cliché assumptions that pass for received wisdom.

The Coens’ True Grit is an extremely faithful adaptation of Portis’ book but not a remake of the earlier picture. Virtually all the dialogue – glorious, crusty, 19th-century ornate – comes from Portis and can be heard in both movies. Both tell the same story Portis did, with some not-ruinous softening in the 1969 version and none at all in the new one. Certain shot setups in the new picture closely resemble shots Henry Hathaway and his cameraman Lucien Ballard made 41 years ago, but the Coens aren’t imitating or paying homage. It’s simply that there’s only one vantage from which to frame certain moments in the story.

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Dinosaurs in the Age of the Cinemobile

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway's 'True Grit'

WHEN BILLY WILDER’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opened at Christmastime 1970, no one would give it the time of day – literally. In my city, though a cozy relationship with United Artists forced the local theater circuit to book the film into one of the few remaining downtown movie palaces, they had no expectation that it would attract an audience. If you called the theater, asked “When’s the next show?”, and acted accordingly, you would arrive to find yourself in midfilm. Telephone lines had been juggled so that the staff could handle incoming calls for the sister theater across the street, where Love Story was doing land-office business. It never occurred to them that anyone might be interested in “the show” on their own screen, so they automatically gave out the Love Story schedule.

This was an extraordinary case – even if we set aside the outré management practice (I have never heard of a comparable instance of procedural hara-kiri) and the eventual recognition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as at the very least an enchanting entertainment, and at best one of the summum masterworks of the cinema. (On that first weekend, the only one the film would have, I watched the evening show with seven other people in the auditorium.) Yet the film’s complete failure in 1970 was, in several respects, definitive of that moment in film history.

For one thing, Holmes was just the sort of sumptuously appointed, nostalgically couched superproduction that once would have seemed tailor-made to rule the holiday season. Only two Christmases before, Carol Reed’s Oliver! had scored a substantial hit, and gone on to win Academy Awards for itself and its director (a “fallen idol” two decades past his prime). Yet in 1969-70, the mid-Sixties vogue for three- and four-hour roadshows – reserved-seat special attractions with souvenir programmes and intermissions – abruptly bottomed out. Indeed, after witnessing such box-office debacles (and lousy movies) as Star and Paint Your Wagon, United Artists demanded that Wilder shorten his film by nearly an hour before they would release it at all.

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John Ford’s Wilderness: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The poster that launched Liberty Valance
The poster that launched Liberty Valance

[originally published in slightly different form in Sight and Sound, Autumn 1978, Volume 47 No. 4; reprinted with thanks to BFI]

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been so widely discussed, dissected and applauded that by now it must rank as one of John Ford’s least underappreciated films. Its reputation is due in no small part to the obvious feeling Ford invested in the project, making of it his final meditation on a large part of the mythic territory he invented and embellished in more than four decades of film-making. Liberty Valance is particularly interesting for the explicit way it juxtaposes a characteristic Ford frontier West (cf. My Darling Clementine) with another West that, with its contemporary technology—telephones, electric fans and smoking train engines—is recognizably modern. Significantly, just as the “past” sequences are, apart from the explicitly revisionist world of Cheyenne Autumn, Ford’s parting look at the frontier, so too the “modern” sequences are, apart from a brief vignette in Donovan’s Reef, his parting glance toward contemporary America.

The standard critical approach to Liberty Valance has been to emphasize the contrasts between its two worlds and to characterize it as celebrating the mythic frontier and mourning its passing and betrayal by the corrupting forces of progress. This approach has produced a substantial body of perceptive commentary on the film, but somehow its operative word—“elegiac”—seems inadequate, implicitly neglecting as it does Ford’s ambivalence towards the past and the richness and complexity of his treatment of the post-frontier West.

Like many Ford films—most obviously those dealing with the military—Liberty Valance focuses on the struggle to subordinate the individual to achieve some greater communal good. Liberty Valance, however, not only presents such a struggle, to civilize the wilderness frontier, but explicitly shows the result, the modern town of Shinbone, and implicitly questions whether the sacrifices are justified. In that sense, the film is perfectly congruent with the notion of a Ford who became increasingly bitter and pessimistic with age, and ultimately challenged many of the moral tenets his earlier films had so eloquently affirmed. But what is not so well understood about Liberty Valance is its awareness of how the modern world is not simply a betrayal of what preceded it, but a logical extension of it; the flow of history is organic, the present an extension of the past. Ultimately, Ford professes faith in neither wilderness nor garden; he has considerable affection for the past, but no real belief in the viability of a society based on untrammeled individualism. Thus he undercuts his celebration of the mythic past with a corrosive revisionism that, far more than any lines of quotable dialogue, demonstrates his commitment to confronting and scrutinizing, rather than simply printing, the legend that is the subject of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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