Tag Archives: Dalton Trumbo

CAPSULE: THE LAST SUNSET (1961)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Aldrich

FEATURING: Kirk Douglas, , Dorothy Malone, ,

PLOT: Lawman Stribling (Rock Hudson) tracks killer O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) into Mexico; upon finding him they agree to defer their confrontation so they can drive a herd of cattle to Texas with female rancher (Dorothy Malone) and her husband.

Still from The Last Sunset (1961)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I suppose this is one of those cases where the subjectivity of weirdness comes into play. The Last Sunset strikes me as a fine, but generally conventional Western with some unexpected philosophy and Freudian melodrama thrown in. You have to squint too hard to find the minimal surreality here.

COMMENTS: The Last Sunset has cattle drives, desperadoes, macho posturing, runaway chuckwagons, Indian attacks, and a final showdown between a protagonist in white and an antagonist in black. Despite all the standard outfit trappings, however, Sunset is not a formula oater; it peels off the weathered exteriors of its cowboy archetypes and uncovers layers of pent-up, illicit passions underneath. Although Rock Hudson’s strict law-and-order Marshall Stribling is the putative headliner, Kirk Douglas’s O’Malley is by far the dominant character. O’Malley is a morally complex antihero, a whistling killer with a romantic streak who earns free drinks at saloons by spontaneously composing poetry. In fact, he may be too morally complex—the scene where he strangles a dog for growling at him seems terribly out of place (the cur later forgives him, like nothing ever happened). O’Malley’s in love with Dorothy Malone, who is married to the much older, alcoholic, presumably impotent Joseph Cotten. To make things even more complicated, Stribling, who has sworn to hunt down O’Malley for killing his brother-in-law, also falls for Malone, and Malone’s teenage daughter falls hard for the outlaw. And, quite naturally, O’Malley and Stribling develop a grudging respect and admiration for each other, which complicates things when it comes time to fulfill blood oaths.

The Last Sunset was one of the first scripts wrote under his own name after the Hollywood blacklist ended (1960’s classic Spartacus, of course, being the very first). The plot effectively merges Western conventions with elements of Greek tragedy and melodrama a la Douglas Sirk, although reportedly the suddenly busy Trumbo short-shrifted the project because he was more interested in writing Exodus for .

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the more ambitious and offbeat Westerns of the early sixties, THE LAST SUNSET (1961) is an odd duck… Even Leonard Maltin in his capsule movie review for his popular guide calls it ‘Strange on the Range.'”–Jeff Stafford, Movie Morlocks

(This movie was nominated for review by “The Awful Doctor Orloff” [who later wrote reviews here under the name Otto Black], whose explanation for his suggestion is so detailed we will list it in full here as a counterpoint to this review:

“On the face of it, this is just a bulk-standard horse-opera; the studio certainly thought so or they wouldn’t have made it. It’s ‘weird’ because writer Dalton Trumbo, annoyed by a pretentious magazine article suggesting that westerns were written by macho hacks who unconsciously riddled them with Freudian imagery, deliberately wrote a western containing as much screamingly blatant ridiculously over-the-top Freudian symbolism as he could possibly cram in short of calling the hero the Oedipus Kid!

Dorothy Malone is turned on by a herd of stampeding bulls with luminous horns, Joseph Cotten is forced to drop his trousers in a crowded saloon, and best of all, Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas debate the merits of Rock’s great big gun versus Kirk’s tiny little one! (Robert Aldrich recycled that idea when he co-wrote ‘A Fistful Of Dollars,’ hence Ramon Rojo’s very Freudian dialogue concerning his rifle). And after that it gets even worse… OK, it’s only borderline weird, but it’s certainly very unusual, and more than slightly surreal.”

Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (1958)

Writer Dalton Trumbo was one of the infamous Hollywood 10, that list of 10 Hollywood screenwriters whose political leanings got them blacklisted, jailed and kicked out of a guild they helped create. Hollywood did to them what the Germans did the “degenerate artists” twenty years before. Trumbo was probably the best of these writers and wrote a mind boggling number of excellent scripts, from his bathtub, as he smoked through 6 packs of cigarettes with his parrot on his shoulder, cheering him on. Only such an eccentric original could have fashioned Terror in a Texas Town (1958). Team Trumbo with B-movie maestro Joseph “Wagon Wheel” H. Lewis and a cast of idiosyncratic character actors and you get a peach of movie such as this.

Trumbo wasn’t the only victim of the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) associated with this film. Actors Ned Young and Sterling Hayden were also called before the committee. Young was also a screenwriter. Jailhouse Rock (1957), The Defiant Ones(1958), Inherit the Wind (1960), and The Train (1964) are among his credits, most of which he wrote under pseudonyms. Young refused to cooperate with the HUAC and was blacklisted as well. Hayden caved into the committee and gave them what they wanted, which cost him much in the long run. All this has given Terror in a Texas Town a cult status as a quirky reaction to the HUAC. The reputation is well-deserved.

The film opens to George Fried’s bizarre score as Swede George Hansen (Sterling Hayden) walks down a dirt road in the middle of Prairie City, Texas. George is mad as hell, he means business and he’s carrying a big whaling harpoon over his shoulder to prove it. George is followed by bloodthirsty, local farmers who are mad as hell, too.
Still from Terror in a Texas Town (1958)
They meet up with the object of their anger; southpaw gunslinger Johnny Crale (Ned Young, uncannily resembling Bogart and dressed from head to toe in black). Johnny is ready to face and kill George. Johnny taunts George, “You’re a little too far away. Come a little bit closer. You wouldn’t want to disappoint your friends. They all came here to see blood. Come a little bit closer so they can see. I want to give you a fighting chance. Five steps. One step, Hansen.” George hangs his head in shame. It seems this is something he cannot go through with.

Titles roll through a typical Lewis shot of wagon wheel spokes. The farming townspeople are being bullied and driven out by local oil baron Ed McNeil (Sebastian Cabot, projecting slimy finesse in excellent form). McNeil likes the finer things in life and that includes women, food, champagne and land ownership; but the local farmers are uncooperative when it comes to their land, which McNeil wants to mine. McNeil utilizes the talents of gunslinger Johnny to get his dirty deeds done. Pa Hansen is one of those farmers, and he is murdered by Johnny. Pa’s employee, Jose (Victor Millan, also in excellent form) witnesses the murder, but his wife wants him to remain silent. At this point, Terror in a Texas Town may seem like a formulaic movie, but underneath the surface this is a bleak film, dripping in cynical parody. That becomes apparent when Pa’s son, George, arrives in Prairie City after being at sea for 19 years. George is returning to help his Pa, until he learns the awful truth that his Daddy has been shot and killed. With no help from the townspeople, George intends to find out who killed his Pa and why.

Both the Sheriff and McNeil attempt to coerce George into leaving, but his stubborn refusal brings Johnny in to handle the situation. George befriends Jose and his family, who also are being threatened to leave. After Crane and McNeil’s thugs beat Hansen and put him on a train out of town, Hansen walks all the way back, bloodied and more persistent than ever. Jose is inspired by Hansen and makes his stand. Millan gives a powerhouse performance as Jose when he overcomes his fear and faces Crane, knowing full well that Crane will kill him. The ruthless Crane does just that, but he is shaken by Jose’s courage. Young is equally superb in this scene and, little doubt, reacted to Millan’s Jose by tapping into his own courage when he faced the Hollywood inquisitors. Young makes Crane one of the most interesting, classic western villains, who can stand alongside Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance and Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson. Crane’s girlfriend, Molly (Carol Kelly) tells him that she stays with him because she can look up to see someone lower than herself. Molly is very attuned to irony. She sees Johnny as an anachronism, forced for years to use his left hand after his right hand was rendered useless in a gunfight. “You’re no good anymore,” she says, hinting at something far more than a paralyzed gun hand. Johnny knows it too; he’s a savage killer riddled with angst.

Aptly, George rallies support in a local church, grabs his Pa’s whaling harpoon and heads to one of the strangest shoot-outs in screen history. It’s an odd finale to an equally odd film and film career (it was Lewis’ final film). Terror in a Texas Town arrived at the tail end of a politically troubled decade made for this American genre. It makes for a helluva showdown.

This article was posted in a slightly different form at Raging Bull Movie Reviews.

42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)

“How can you tell what is a dream and what’s real when you can’t even tell when you’re awake and when you’re asleep?”–line from Joe’s internal monologue in Johnny Got His Gun

DIRECTED BY: Dalton Trumbo

FEATURING: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland

PLOT:  Joe is an ordinary young man with a sweetheart back home who goes to Europe to fight World War I and is blown apart by an enemy shell. The accident leaves him limbless, deaf, and blind; the doctors assume he is brain dead, but keep him alive in hopes of learning how to cure similar brain injuries in the future. Left alone in a hospital bed with only his own thoughts for company for years on end, Joe drifts in and out of memories and dreams, while during his lucid moments he struggles to find a way to communicate with the outside world.

Sill from Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dalton Trumbo wrote the novel “Johnny Got His Gun” in 1938; it won that year’s National Book Award for “Most Original Novel.”
  • Trumbo became a sought after screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. He joined the American Communist Party, and in 1947 he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (the “McCarthy hearings”). Along with 9 others (the “Hollywood 10”), Trumbo was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify on the grounds that he believed the First Amendment protected his right to political association. Trumbo served several months in prison and was later blacklisted by Hollywood. While the blacklist was in effect he wrote the script for The Brave One; the screenplay won an Academy Award, but no one showed up to the Oscars to claim it. The person credited for the screenplay was actually a producer’s nephew.
  • Luis Buñuel, whom Trumbo had met while in a self-imposed exile in Mexico, was originally set to direct the adaptation of the novel. The two men went so far as to collaborate on a screenplay. When the deal fell through, Trumbo decided to direct the film himself. The image of Christ driving the locomotive was one typically Buñuelian touch that made it into the final product.
  • Johnny Got His Gun tied for the Jury Prize (second place) at Cannes.
  • The movie inspired the popular Metallica song “One,” and footage from the film features heavily in music video (included on the DVD).
  • There is also a 2008 version of Johnny Got His Gun available on DVD, which is actually a film version of the stage play.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Jesus Christ howling out the window of a locomotive engine as he drives doomed doughboys to the front.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The bizarre flashbacks and fantasies Joe endures for years on end as he lies in a nightmarish paralysis. His dreamlike reveries—including conversations with Jesus and imagining himself as a freakshow exhibit in a carnival traveling though a barren desert—are never gratuitously weird, but always relate tightly to his psychology and to the antiwar theme.


DVD trailer for Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

COMMENTS:  It’s difficult to imagine a more nightmarish scenario—to be paralyzed in a Continue reading 42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)