Tag Archives: Western

248. DJANGO KILL! (IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT!) (1967)

Se sei Vivo Spara; AKA Oro Hondo

“That [If You Live, Shoot!] should be part of the small group of films that become a part of film history, embedded in the viewer’s imagination, obviously pleases me greatly… But I have to quickly add that it is a cult phenomenon for a few young likable nutcases. Every generation has a few of those.”–Giulio Questi

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Tomas Milian, Roberto Camardiel, Francisco Sanz, Piero Lulli, Ray Lovelock

PLOT: Two wandering Indians find a half-dead Stranger climbing out of a makeshift desert grave. They also find a bag of gold on his body, which they melt down and fashion into bullets for him. They then take him to the nearest town, which the Indians call “the Unhappy Place,” where the Stranger goes after the man who betrayed him, stole his share of the gold, and left him for dead.

Django Kill (If You Live, Shoot!) (1967) still

BACKGROUND:

  • Franco Arcalli served as editor and collaborated on the screenplay. Arcalli later became a big name in the Italian film industry, going on to collaborate with (on Zabriske Point), Bernardo Bertolucci (on The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris) while also collaborating on screenplays for Last Tango and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, among others. As his fame grew, he continued to work on Questi’s movies, as well.
  • Questi drew on his experiences as a paramilitary resistance fighter during WWII for the action sequences.
  • Italian audiences complained to censors about gruesome scenes where a man’s torso is torn apart to get at the golden bullets inside and another where a man is scalped. These scenes were immediately re-edited—in different countries, between twenty and thirty minutes of violence were cut out. Since they weren’t included in prints sent to the U.S., these scenes were never dubbed into English; therefore, when watching the restored version on Blu-ray, these scenes suddenly appear subtitled when the rest of movie is dubbed.
  • Originally titled If You Live, Shoot!, distributors later added Django Kill to the title (against Questi’s wishes) in a shameless attempt to cash in on the popularity of Franco Nero’s Django series. Thomas Millian does not play Django, and If You Live, Shoot! has nothing to do with the series.
  • Repo Man director is one of this film’s champions; he provided a 1997 introduction for a BBC series called “Forbidden Films,” where he he called it “the creepiest film I’d ever seen.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Based on sheer grisly shock value, it’s the scene where the villagers rip into Oaks’s still-breathing body trying to dig out the golden bullets inside it. Due to skillful editing, you don’t actually see as much blood and torn flesh as you imagine you do, but that’s part of what makes the scene so masterful—you and the filmmakers collaborate on building it in your mind’s eye.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Golden bullets; gay cowpokes of the Old West; alcoholic oracle parrot

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: With its ambiguously dead antihero who shoots golden bullets fights Mr. Sorrow and his gang of gay fascist cowboys, Django Kill‘s subversive, surreal subtext befuddled 1967 viewers expecting warmed-up Spaghetti Western leftovers. It still has the power to perturb the unsuspecting today. Go into it looking for weirdness, and you’ll be amply rewarded.


British DVD release trailer for Django Kill

COMMENTS: Halfway down the dusty road that leads from A Fistful Continue reading 248. DJANGO KILL! (IF YOU LIVE, SHOOT!) (1967)

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.)

228. LEMONADE JOE (1964)

Limonádový Joe aneb Konská Opera [Lemonade Joe, or the Horse Opera]

“What was before my eyes was both familiar and eerily strange.”–Danilo H. Figueredo, in Revolvers and Pistolas, Vaqueros and Caballeros: Debunking the Old West, on the experience of seeing Lemonade Joe in Cuba

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oldrich Lipský

FEATURING: Karel Fiala, Olga Schoberová, Rudolf Deyl, Miloš Kopecký, Kveta Fialová

PLOT: A lemonade-drinking cowboy rescues a beautiful temperance worker from rowdies in a tavern. Impressed with his heroism and trick shooting, the town opens an all-lemonade saloon, which upsets the local whiskey barons. With the help of a prostitute Joe has scorned, they scheme to kill the teetotalling hero and make Stetson City safe for intoxicating spirits once more.

Still from Lemonade Joe (1964)

BACKGROUND:

  • The word “limonádový” actually translates to “soft drink,” not “lemonade,” but there can be no doubt Lemonade Joe has a better ring to it than Soft Drink Joe.
  • The Lemonade Joe character began his life in a series of stories by satirist Jiří Brdečka. The stories were then adapted into a 1946 play, a short series of animated shorts, and finally into this hit movie.
  • Co-screenwriter/director Oldrich Lipský was the artistic director of Prague’s Satirical Theater. He went on to direct several popular and critically successful films, including Happy End (a 1966 experimental film that plays backwards) and Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians (1981).
  • Although the Western had been a popular genre in Czechoslovakia in the early part of the 20th Century, largely due to the writings of German pulp author Karl May, Western films had been banned through the German and Soviet occupations. They only began to be screened again (and then rarely) in the 1960s.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted Lemonade Joe to the Academy Awards, but it was not selected for the Best Foreign Language Film competition.
  • This movie was a huge hit in its home country—the biggest-drawing film of the 1960s—and remains a cult movie there to this day.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lemonade Joe and his nemesis—who is outfitted in blackface because he has been posing as Louis Armstrong for a duet with Joe at the piano—square off in a shootout. The gunfire’s path appears onscreen as dotted lines so that we can see that the bullets are striking each other in midair, leading the duel to end in a draw.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fiddle eating; Czech blackface; dotted bullets

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Communist propaganda, surreal Czech sensibilities, and an honest appreciation for the entertainment value of early Hollywood films collide to create a homegrown retro-Western musical spoof that could almost have come from the mind of Guy Maddin.


Clip from Lemonade Joe

COMMENTS: You hear the names Milos Forman, , Continue reading 228. LEMONADE JOE (1964)

CAPSULE: RAVENOUS (1999)

DIRECTED BY: Antonia Bird

FEATURING: , Robert Carlyle, , David Arquette

PLOT: During the Mexican-American war, a cowardly officer is exiled to a backwater fort in California; a survivor from a doomed group of settlers appears and leads the fort’s complement to a grisly fate.

Ravenous (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With fine direction and A-list talent, Antonia Bird’s unlikely horror-comedy shows the positive effect a big budget can have on the splatter genre—but does not reach the necessary heights of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The tone for Hollywood’s foray into the realm of splatterhouse begins with Nietzsche’s quote, “He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,” followed immediately by a timeless quote from anonymous: “eat me.” An 1847 American flag flies in the opening shot, and soon we see a group of officers and troops sitting down to a celebratory dinner of very, very raw steak. Captain Boyd, recently promoted, stares at the meat and quickly runs from the table to vomit. Why is this soldier so adversely affected by the sight of blood?

After the opening credits, set over a journey montage jauntily scored by Michael Nyman, we see his new home and new comrades. Deep in the Sierra Nevadas is a shack of an army fort, populated by the military’s cast-offs. Jeffrey Jones plays the affable commander of the troupe, Colonel Hart; David Arquette plays the lowest ranking character as one of history’s earliest comic stoners. Literally stumbling into the mix of soldier eccentrics is Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who brings about the film’s main action when he relates his tale of desperation and cannibalism in a cave a few days march from the dilapidated fort.

What follows both makes the movie so wonderfully strange and, no doubt, made its box office takings so meager. (An investment of twelve million dollars from the studio resulted in box office totals of not quite two million). There is another journey, from the fort to the cave, again put to a jaunty soundtrack, and there is a horrible revelation that contradicts Colqhoun’s account. In a scene reminiscent of the opening nightmare in Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, the soldierly Private Reich discovers too many bodies, one of many grindhouse nods. A scuffle ensues and Captain Boyd flees the monstrous Colqhoun, eventually being forced to make a tough decision.

Between the set up and the payoff, we learn a number of things about the nature of cannibalism, the evils of man, and the nature of American Exceptionalism. Carlyle’s Manifest Destiny speech is one for (from?) the history books: “…this country is seeking to be whole. Stretching out its arms and consuming all it can.” The movie does not wear its metaphor lightly, but its message about the, shall we say, ravenous nature of America’s territorial appetites is the only element in the film that can be taken remotely seriously.

The rest of the film’s tone is dictated by the mandates of one of the more difficult genres to tackle, that of the “horror/comedy.” When splicing chuckles and jolts, it takes a deft hand to make sure the mix is right, much like finding balance in a stew. Ravenous‘ stew has all the right elements in correct proportion: its universe is presented by actors who take their roles very seriously, with only Carlyle’s character being larger than life—sensibly so, for reasons explained by the film’s mythology. David Arquette stands out, taking a bizarre turn away from his previous teen drama/comedy fare to play an Idiot archetype. Jeremy Davies’ turn as the chaplain is a wonderful interpretation of a socially withdrawn priest who borders on autistic. Guy Pearce’s Boyd is strangely relatable as the protagonist, and Jeffrey Jones’ Colonel Hart is believable as a father figure who is key to the main character’s transformation. All these men are thrown into a mix of violent hilarity, and the characters come out both intact and convincing.

So is this movie is “weird”? The story is bizarre, but the narrative is very easy to follow. The gore and cheek go hand in hand, which is pleasing, but fairly conventional. Running through the background of the whole thing on screen is the mischievous Michael Nyman, providing one of the most refreshing and situationally ironic scores to be found in most anything released in the theaters. However, it adds more to the sense of “fun” than a sense of “weird.”

With all this in mind, the fact that this movie was made is far weirder a thing than any specific element of the movie. It may be best looked upon as a mainstream foray into the realm of the strange, and it is a very deep trek therein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ravenous is unlike anything else, and even if it’s not to my own specific taste, I have great respect for its unrepentant weirdness.”–Mike McGranaghan, “The Aisle Seat”

RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) BLU-RAY CRITERION

‘s two 1966 Westerns, The Shooting and Ride In The Whirlwind, have finally received due recognition in a Criterion edition. For years, Hellman’s “existentialist” Westerns (as they are often termed) have languished in execrable transfers on Z-grade DVD labels. Even these have usually been out of print, and only available at mortgage payment-level prices.

Both were produced by  (uncredited), , and Hellman, with Hellman directing both simultaneously. The Shooting was written by Carole Eastman, Ride In The Whirlwind by Nicholson. The writing proves to make the difference; Nicholson lacks Eastman’s sense of pacing and aptitude for coherent nonsense. Still, each film is sharply focused and securely grounded among films for the bourgeoisie to walk out on (a quick glance at the deluge of prosaic comments from banal IMDB users serves as a verification of Hellman’s provocative reputation).

Ride In The Whirlwind opens as a traditional Western, with a stagecoach robbery. Tradition soon gets thrown out with yesterday’s bathwater. The robbery goes askew, as do concepts of righteousness, virtue, honor, and frontier justice. The ensuing shootout between rival gangs lays waste to our inherent ideologies of heroes and villains.

Still from Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)Nicholson is shockingly subdued and vulnerable. Even better is , an overly familiar character actor villain, in his best celluloid role. Despite very good performances, Ride In The Whirlwind lacks  and Millie Perkins, who gave The Shooting its essential grounding.

Hellman is a Western grim reaper, as vital and original as Sam Peckinpah as a harbinger of the genre’s death. Comparatively, Clint Eastwood and his celebrated deconstructionist Unforgiven (1992) are obvious and unsatisfactory.

The films premiered together at Cannes and were enthusiastically advocated by  and other notable French critics. Alas, it was to little avail. Hellman’s twin opuses received scant attention in the States and only belatedly earned cult reputations.

The Shooting was previously reviewed here. Ride In The Whirlwind has received considerably less attention, but Criterion astutely treats the two films as inseparable. True to form, Criterion provides a definitive edition. Both films finally receive spotless, lush transfers. Among the plethora of extras are interviews with Corman, Perkins, Harry Dean Stanton, and Will Hutchins, an outstanding homage to Oates (written by critic Kim Morgan), critic Michael Atkinson’s equally excellent essay, and several commentaries by Hellman accompanied by film historians Bill Krohn and Black Lucas.

CREEPY COWBOYS: 4 WEIRD WESTERNS

Retro Media’s collection of “weird westerns” begins with Tombstone Canyon (1932) starring (already reviewed here). The Western, like that other indigenous American art form, jazz, ran the gamut from innovative to godawful. It goes without saying that this set of films falls in the latter category. Naturally, there are different degrees of awfulness. Cheap production, atrocious acting, pedestrian writing and, debatably, juvenile charm characterize the entries.

Tombstone Canyon was made before Maynard began ballooning up from booze, but he was already finding more empathy from his horse than from his fellow actors, which is perhaps why he spends much of the picture talking to his “wonder horse” Tarzan. The movie was made for the Z-grade studio World Pictures, whose mascot was a semi-nude blonde beauty holding two globe balloons over her breasts. No doubt, the 30s kiddies must have had their eyes bugging out.

If Tombstone Canyon looks like a backyard production put on by junior high school kids, then Vanishing Riders (1935) takes us a couple of years back, to fourth or fifth grade. It stars Bill Cody as the titular cowboy and Bill Cody Jr. as his adopted son. The fight scenes are laughable, the acting even worse, and the “scary” ghost riders, dressed in skeleton suits, are a hoot. There a couple of curly blonde cuties for window dressing, but the film, like many early poverty row westerns, is devoid of a score and is an unforgivably dull affair. It was directed by Bob Hill for Spectrum Pictures.

Security Pictures was such a low budget enterprise that it was and remains anonymous even among the infamous poverty row backlots. Its Rawhide Terror (1934) is saddled with three directors: Bruce Mitchell, Jack Nelson, and uncredited western schlockmeister Victor Adamson (whose son was horror schlockmeister Al Adamson). It is easy to assume Adamson, with his resume, did most of the work. Rawhide Terror started production as a serial, but when funding fell through it was converted to a 46 minute feature, despite its listing time as 52 minutes. It seems that six minutes have been lost, and let us fervently hope they are never found. The movie stars Art Mix. Adamson started his career by playing a character named Art Mix. However, he hired at least two different actors to also play Art Mix; that is, until  sued Adamson for capitalizing on his name. To get around that, Adamson searched for and found an “actor” with the real name of Art Mix. Apparently, this is that Art Mix. The plot of this truncated serial is even more confusing. White marauders, dressed as Indians, rob and kill a couple. The couples’ two sons, who have identical birthmarks, survive the raid. The elder son goes mad, wandering off with a maniacal laugh, which is as atrociously acted as one might imagine. Years later, the masked Rawhide Killer systematically kills each of the couples’ killers by strangling them with rawhide. Art Mix is the younger son, grown up. Describing the rest of the indecipherable plot is hardly worth the effort.

Still from Vanishing Riders (1935)
Vanishing Riders (1935)

Wild Horse Phantom (1944) wallows in its own silliness. Directed by Sam Newfield for the notorious PRC Studios, it co-stars that unlikeliest of western heroes: Buster Crabbe. With his blond locks (dyed black here) and baby face, Crabbe always looked out of place in oaters. Rather than taking on Ming the Merciless, Buster here confronts a Wild Horse Phantom. The title turns out to be a cheat, as there is no phantom horse. Instead, PRC dusted off the same flying rodent from ‘s The Devil Bat (1940). The flying rodent takes half of forever to make its appearance. It’s still equipped with the same screeching sound effect, and looks the worse for wear. It’s not after cologne this time. Rather, it’s a dime store Rhinemaiden protecting a gold mine (minus the gold). Stolen bank loot is the treasure, and Al  “Fuzzy” St. John is the slapsticky Nibelung dwarf ready to claim it. Fuzzy’s fight with a bat-on-a-string is tailored for six-year-old boys.  Kermit Maynard (Ken’s brother) fills out the cast.

These are strictly for the curious and, apart from that, to whom the “weirdness” of these might appeal remains the only mystery.

THE GUNFIGHTER (1950)

The late was a rarity of rarities among Hollywood actors in that he lived a life of authentic integrity, fulfilling a role of moral iconography that seems to be extinct now. The previous generation of critics were too preoccupied in assessing his occasionally dull virtuosity to notice that Peck was as vital a symbol, albeit a flawed one, as was . Peck’s rugged nobility was best conveyed when shaped and nurtured by the right director. In the wrong hands, Peck could be woefully miscast, such as his Captain Ahab in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) or worse, as Josef Mengele (complete with cringe-inducing accent) in The Boys From Brazil (1978). Peck, a moderate liberal of devout faith, could rarely generate the type of rudimentary excitement and screen charisma of conservative counterparts such as Wayne, , or .

It is well known that Peck, fortunately, turned down the part of Will Kane in High Noon (1952). Although, in hindsight, Peck counted it as a grave mistake, he graciously and correctly admitted Cooper had been the better choice. The reason Peck turned down the role was that he had recently finished what he felt was a similar film, with Henry King: The Gunfighter (1950). Peck, of course is best remembered for his Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan’s naive Hollywood version of To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), but some of Peck’s best work can be found in his inconsistent six-film collaboration with King. King often cast Peck against type. The results were usually better than normal: vivid performances in Twelve O’ Clock High (1949), the largely unsuccessful adaptation of Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), and The Bravados (1958). At the opposite end of the spectrum were embarrassingly inept misfires as the biblical King David in David and Bathsheba (1951) and as F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Beloved Infidel (1959), which makes the pair’s successful collaborations all the more valuable.

The Gunfighter was best of the King/Peck collaborations, despite not having received the attention it deserved, which was due in large part to producer Daryl Zanuck’s lack of effort in promoting it. Zanuck was reportedly disgruntled with the screenplay (which was worked on by , Nunnally Johnson, , William Bowers, and William Sellers), feeling (correctly) that the script did not follow standard western formula. Zanuck first offered the part of Johnny Ringo to John Wayne, who declined, having the same grievances as Zanuck. As with High Noon, Wayne later did an about face and regretted that rejection. An older, gravely ill Wayne would play a slight variation of Ringo in his valedictory film The Shootist (1976). However, in 1950, Wayne’s persona was still too invincible, lacking the essential weariness the part required. The Gunfighter stands as one of Peck’s best roles and as one of the first psychological anti-westerns. Peck nails the nuances of an aged shootist whose past brashness has caught up with him. Fortunately, we are not privy to views of Peck as the younger Ringo. Such an exposure would have inevitably rendered both the performance and film uneven. Rather, we are given a Ringo who has barely enough time from being on the run to reflect on a life of bad choices. He is hoping against hope that he can evade the consequences of those choices and reunite with his estranged wife and son. Even while trying to set things right, Ringo is still pervious to making poor decisions, which continually puts his life at risk. The most telling difference between Ringo and Wayne’s later portrayal of J.B. Books is regret: Books is hated by many, but dies confidently with no regrets. Ringo has nothing but regret.

Still from The Gunfighter (1950)Several young thugs are pursuing Ringo, seeking revenge for the killing of their brother, despite the fact that it was in self-defense. A local father seeks justice for his son, whom he mistakenly believes to have been one of Ringo’s victims. The young Skip Homeier is the next generation of white trash (a type Homeier played well), seeking to gain a name for himself by killing the famous older gunfighter.

Ringo plants himself in a town that finds his celebrity a much needed break from their monotonous existence while, paradoxically, seeking his death for having disrupted their routine. Peck portrays Ringo with the right tone of desperation. He is virtually standing on his toes, fighting against time and his own reputation. Smartly, the screenplay does not succumb to any fatal misplaced sympathy for Ringo.

What makes Peck effective in the role is his against-type awkwardness. Several antagonists correctly observe: “Ringo doesn’t look so tough.” Indeed, the actor often looks hunched over, as if he has had a few nights on a misshapen bed, resulting in a bad back.

A foreboding clock occupies the claustrophobic space, yet it draws far less attention to itself than did the numerous timepieces in the noticeably tighter High Noon (1952). In hindsight, Ringo might also be compared to Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven (1992), yet there are, again, revealing differences. For all his self-proclamations of penance, Eastwood’s Munny never convinces us of his regret, because he is still as prone to one-note sadistic violence as his reputation suggests. In contrast, Peck’s Ringo throws away the firearms of would be assassins, jails another potential assassin, and grants dying clemency to his eventual killer.

It is the central performance and intelligent screenplay that assures The Gunfighter of its reputation as an underrated cult classic.  However, that does not mean it is without its share of flaws, mainly in the assignment direction of King and the substandard performances of Helen Westcott and B.G. Norman as Ringo’s estranged family. With such a dull wife and annoying son, one can’t resist wondering why the Gunfighter would risk his well-being to reconcile with them. Karl Malden as the awestruck, slimy barkeeper Mac fares considerably better.

WILL PENNY (1968)

From 1956 on, actor  kept an actor’s journal, which he published in two volumes, in 1976 and 1996. These are some of the most fascinating and valuable behind-the-scene writings published on the subject of studio filmmaking. In addition to these writings, Heston was also an exceptional and underrated visual artist. Often, when actors turn to painting, the result is less than memorable, and can even be downright painful. One thinks of Henry Fonda’s vapid watercolors or the recent, execrable “world leader” portraits by George Bush as painful examples. Heston’s visual art was an extension of his journals. His pen and ink drawings of makeup artists, stuntmen, cameramen, and technicians celebrated the unsung blue-collar workers. I was fortunate enough to attend a small showing of Heston’s extensive work and it remains of the most compellingly unique exhibits I have attended to date.

The story of the making of Will Penny (1968) is a standout entry in Heston’s “The Actor’s Life: Journals.” Heston was handed an incomplete script. Under normal conditions, the actor would have refused to read an unfinished screenplay, but Heston was so taken with the fragment that he immediately expressed interest in taking on the role of the aging, illiterate cowboy Will Penny. Heston was then informed that the writer, Tom Gries, was insistent on directing. When Heston inquired on Gries’ directing experience, he found it consisted of “a couple of television programs.” Heston put up a mild protest, but quickly changed his mind upon learning that Gries’ demand was unconditional. While it is fortunate that Heston compromised in what turned out to be one of his best and most underrated roles, his skepticism about Gries’ lack of experience had some validity.

The central performances and an intelligent, sensitive script are the strengths of Will Penny; however, Gries’ television-like visual direction and an embarrassingly melodramatic performance from  are noticeable flaws. As excellent as Heston’s work is here, Joan Hackett is even better. She imbues her part with an unglamorous freshness (Heston amusingly related that several actresses turned down the role upon reading the description of Catherine as plain). Heston later counted Hackett as the best of his leading ladies, and for good reason.

Will Penny is not a Wyatt Earp type. He does not bravely face down the enemy to clean up a corrupt town. Rather, he is a fifty-year-old cowhand who works with cattle. It’s all he knows. He doesn’t even know how to write his name. When he gets into a fight with a younger co-worker, Penny uses a frying pan “because I use my hands to work.” When a trail job ends, Penny finds himself traveling with a young Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe in hopes of finding work. Majors is a bit of a nonentity here, but Zerbe gives a very good performance as a recently transplanted, thickly accented European immigrant who awkwardly shoots himself and then milks every ounce of sympathy he can.

Still from Will Penny (1968)Zerbe and Majors try to steal an elk from demented preacher Quint (Pleasance) and his sons (one of who is played by  in one of his worst and most cartoonish performances). Penny is inadvertently drawn into the conflict, which will have eventual and horrific consequences.The three men temporarily part company when Penny lands a seasonal job as a line rider. Penny finds his shack occupied by squatters in the person of Catherine (Hackett) and her young son (Jon Francis).

The romance between Penny and Catherine is authentic. They do not wind up in each others’ arms within thirty seconds. It is the building of the relationship between the two that gives Will Penny its substance. Even the inevitable conflict between Penny and Quint is in service of the understated chemistry between Heston and Hackett.

While Gries’ does not have the cinematic visual flair of the best directors, his strength lies in characterization and elegant writing. This was Gries’ first feature film. His subsequent films were mere assignments, lacking the personal vision of Will Penny.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN (1950)

Neither director William Keighley nor actor  are remembered as heavy-hitters in the Western genre, but the two collaborated for a low budget, remarkably grim effort in 1950’s Rocky Mountain. Flynn is, of course, remembered for being the king of the sound swashbucklers, even though he did a total of seven westerns. Flynn justifiably felt he was ill-suited to them, and with commendable self-depreciation he referred to himself as “the rich man’s Roy Rogers.” In his earlier westerns, Flynn’s disdain shows in his performances. However, it is in two later films, when the actor was well into personal and professional decline, that he briefly became an interesting, weathered star in the genre.

Flynn’s plasticity as an actor mars many of the films from his first decade, even including his certifiable masterpieces such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Modern audiences understandably have a difficult time with Flynn’s phallic brandishing and thrusting of his chest while he eeks out lines like, “come on men, let’s win one for Her Majesty, the Queen!” One can easily understand Bogart’s dismissal of the young Flynn’s acting as “phony.” Later, in his last three years, Flynn was a too-far-gone, cirrhosis-ravaged caricature in films like The Sun Also Rises  (1957) and Too Much, Too Soon (where he played his idol, John Barrymore). Critics of the time praised Flynn’s performances in these films as authentic, but today they register as a final, pathetic stab by an actor who realized that his hedonism had defeated his potential as an artist. In between these two extreme phases, Flynn gave a number of interesting, world-weary performances in mostly mediocre films.

Starting in the late forties, the plasticity in Flynn’s acting diminished in favor of a more subtle realism. He is much more interesting and mature as an actor in The Adventures of Don Juan (1948) than he is in his swashbucklers of the thirties, even if the film, as a whole, is not as good. Critics rightly praised his earthy acting abilities in the war melodrama Objective Burma (1945), but that film offended British with its omission of their contributions to the war effort, and it was yanked off screens after a short run. Likewise, Flynn is far better in the underrated Raoul Walsh directed Silver River (1948), than he is in any of his earlier Westerns, including the lavishly budgeted and decorated Dodge City (1939), in which Flynn’s superficiality is woefully apparent.

Poster from Rocky Mountain (1950)As good as Flynn is in the still frustratingly unavailable Silver River, he is equally effective in Keighley’s Rocky Mountain. Keighley is mostly known for being fired as director of the aforementioned Robin Hood. Apart from that, he competently directed a number of routine efforts, but never really showed a vision for any of his projects. Perhaps re-teaming with Flynn for Rocky Mountain was an inspiring chance to make amends for Robin Hood, since this is a cut above Keighley’s normal standard, even though his lack of an imaginative directorial touch is still apparent.

A poor choice was made in the film’s narration, and it is a serious flaw, even if there is a bit of unintentional irony in the movie being narrated by a character who dies. However, the producers made a good choice to omit the usual comic relief found in most of Flynn’s movies. Thankfully, the hammy antics of an Alan Hale are nowhere in sight to disrupt the decidedly downbeat milieu.

Flynn is the grizzled Lafe Barstow, captain of a rag tag Confederate army detachment, sent by his superiors to California to raise a guerrilla force. The New Mexico desert landscape is bleak, barren and strikingly expressionist, echoing the fate in store for Barstow and his unsavory team. Rocky Mountain prefigures the stark, flawed protagonists and character-driven, fatalistic plots that populated the Western genre in its 1950’s jubilee.

Barstow and his men sidetrack their mission to come to the rescue of a stagecoach being attacked by Shoshone warriors. Joanna Carter (Patrice Wymore, who became the third and last Mrs. Flynn shortly after filming) is the lone survivor of the stagecoach. She is also the fiancée of a Union officer who will soon appear to further disrupt plans. One expects a romance to follow between Barstow and Carter but, thankfully, that never materializes. Instead, Carter is taken hostage by the empathetic Barstow.

Wymore is effective in her equally empathetic performance, as is Slim Pickens and Flynn regular Guinn “Big Boy” Williams. Keighley admirably keeps the extroverted antics of those two character actors in check, eliciting surprisingly low-key performances. Keighley may not have been the most assured director in Hollywood, but he was an actor’s director who gave his star and cast well-rounded roles, making one wish Flynn had been able to work with this director more often. Flynn rises to the occasion, proving he could be a hell of an actor when given the opportunity by a director who wanted a bit more than the typical role of merely being “Errol Flynn.”

Rocky Mountain ends on a true blue note, but not before Barstow engages in a last act of heroic gallantry. However, this time Flynn’s on-screen heroism springs not from chest-beating, flashing teeth, or a Captain Blood-styled patriotic call to arms. Instead, his chivalry is a shrug, a final gasp, fully accepting the consequences for choosing a human life over the good of the cause. Barstow’s choices even impress Carter’s sourpuss of a fiancée. Of course, there is nothing more gallant than placing the individual over the movement. It’s downright Biblical.

FLAMING STAR (1960)

Hollywood’s model of taking pop music phenomenons and placing them in film productions began with Bing Crosby and accelerated with Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, producers were usually clueless as to how to tap the stars’ prodigious talents. The model petered out in Madonna’s whisper of a film career. In between Madonna and Bing came the biggest and perhaps most disappointing of them all: . Tinseltown did attempt to tailor its vehicles to Presley, which may have been one of its big missteps. Most critics and audiences concede that Presley’s early films were the best, though many might argue that is not saying much. Presley debuted in the Civil War era Western Love Me Tender (1956) with a supporting role, while Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) all had thinly disguised biographical elements. Yet, none of these films fully captured the unbridled energy and vitality seen in just a few moments of Presley’s documentary footage of the period. G.I. Blues (1960) began a deadly slide, placing the star in dumbed-down, misogynistic family fare. Blues reached its nadir with the king of rock and roll singing to a puppet.

Presley followed G.I. Blues with Flaming Star (1960), a progressive western, directed by that taut craftsman, . Presley desperately wanted a film career and envisioned one modeled after his film idol, Marlon Brando. Ironically, Siegel and the producers originally wanted Brando for Presley’s role of Pacer Burton. With Presley finally getting his chance at a Brandoesque role, he comes closest to the celluloid Elvis that he himself envisioned. Unfortunately, it was not what the American public wanted, and the result was a box office bomb, despite good critical reception. The public wanted Presley singing, not acting, and he only gets one song here (along with the title track). Despite the public indifference, Presley made another stab at dramatic acting in the Clifford Odets-penned Wild In The Country (1961). Miscasting aside, Presley, who was too seasoned to play a juvenile delinquent, gave a relatively good performance in a mediocre soaper. Again, the public did not respond, which signaled the star’s management team to take the reigns with Blue Hawaii (1961). This was Hollywood’s saccharine death kiss. A best-forgotten string of execrable movies followed, and it wasn’t until Presley left Hollywood that he became (briefly) vital again. With the “’68 Comeback Special” and several documentaries, Presley finally became an imposing film presence, simply by being the leading man in his own unique life. Of course, Vegas seduced the King, just as Hollywood did, but his second fall from grace was at least a more original and fascinating American parody.

Although Flaming Star is imperfect, it gets one aesthetic component of the Presley paradox: Siegel shrewdly pinpoints the desperation and conflict inherent within an ambitious artist seeking to overcome his white trash origins. Here, he transplants them to Elvis as a half-breed. There has long been an identification amongst some whites with the archaic image of Native American as savage. Rather than tailoring a vehicle to Presley’s public persona, Siegel gives the actor an identification point within an already framed narrative. Stepping into Brando territory, Presley gives a thoroughly convincing and enthusiastic performance, possibly his only one as a professional actor.

Presley and Siegel smartly and predominantly ignored the pop star’s fan base by tapping the star’s edginess and making him actually play a character in an ensemble. In the promo trailers, studio execs interpreted that “edge” as a shirtless Presley fighting a savage. The scene it’s culled from is actually brief, and renders the trailer grossly misleading. Rather, the real “edge” is Pacer nervously conversing through a door slat with unwelcome visitors, followed by his beating the hell out of two racists when they insult his mother Neddy (Delores del Rio). Siegel draws on Presley’s latent maternal fixation for the scene. (Interestingly, one of Presley’s most effective songs, amidst one too many Neil Diamond covers during his final John-Wayne-in-a-Shazam-cape phase was an intimate, maternal version of the rosary. Catering to the imagined mindset of the King’s alleged WASP fan base, Presley’s distributors usually omit it from the plethora of posthumously-released gospel compilations).

Still from Flaming Star (1960)Presley’s acting in Flaming Star is simple and not bogged down with the type of dialogue he would have been ill-suited for. While Brando would have given an excellent performance, Presley delivers a commendably natural one. As a half breed, he has divided loyalties in this tale about racism. Thankfully, Siegel and scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson do not lose focus. For the first and only time, Presley has no love interest. Here the trailers, again, were misleading, making it look as if a King was romantically entangled with a genie. Actually, Roslyn (Barbara Eden) is the “britches wearin'” girlfriend of brother Clint (Steve Forrest).

The entire Burton family is caught up in divided loyalties, and racism is seen from all sides. Neddy is shunned by her Kiowa tribe for having married the white man, Sam (John McIntire). Smartly, the film opens, like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), with an intimate look at the family, but it’s also a reason to show off Elvis singing. This is almost essential before the bleakness sets in.

An Indian massacre follows, which will eventually take victims beyond that single incident. Although the Burtons do not excuse the brutality of the Kiowas, they also refuse to be willing victims of community resentment and demonization. Hostilities quickly make their way to Neddy, even from friends and extended family, such as Roslyn. When the town doctor refers to an injured Neddy as “that woman” Presley responds: “That woman? Don’t she got a name, like white people?” Poignantly delivered, it’s one of his best acting moments, .

Flaming Star was shot on a modest budget, which is occasionally obvious (as in the day for night scenes). Siegel, as usual, is in his element with outdoor settings, regardless of funding constraints. Comparisons to The Searchers are inevitable, but while that film was grandiose (perhaps too much so), Flaming Star tells its smartly paced story in a far briefer running time, leaving no room for unnecessary distractions.