Tag Archives: Western

CAPSULE: ZACHARIAH (1971)

DIRECTED BY: George Englund

FEATURING: John Rubinstein, , , Country Joe and the Fish

PLOT: The title character is a young gun on a quest to become a gunslinger in the old west, championing his way through the stock trials of a western shoot-em-up, complete with a sidekick; several rock bands come along along for the ride.

Still from Zachariah (1971)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a pity, but after you get past it being a comedy-western with great rock bands of the era in it, this movie ends up being a standard period piece of hippie tomfoolery, made to accompany a six-pack of brewskies and a well-packed bong… but a long ways from being weird, despite being connected to half the movies on this site.

COMMENTS: It’s hard not to get your hopes up when you check out the credits of Zachariah. First, there’s Don Johnson and the band Country Joe (McDonald) and the Fish—famous for the Woodstock “Fish Cheer.” Other bands include James Gang, White Lightnin’, and the Julliard-trained New York Rock Ensemble. Then you find out it was written by Joe Massot and the members of the legendary Firesign Theater, and that at some point even George Harrison discussed producing this movie on ’ Apple label. On top of that, it’s adapted from Herman “Steppenwolf” Hesse’s seminal Zen novel “Siddhartha,” and is also an acid western that’s not named El Topo (another Beatles-entwined production). Did we mention it has an early song from Michael Kamen, who would go on to contribute to soundtracks for movies such as Brazil? This movie has a lot of promise to live up to as “The First Electric Western.” Does it deliver? Well… yeah, kinda/sorta, but it turns out a lot closer to a three-years-earlier Blazing Saddles than a one-year-later El Topo.

And speaking of deliveries, that’s how our protagonist, Zachariah (John Rubinstein), gets his gun, in a mail-order package eagerly ripped open in the dirt while a nearby band in the middle of the desert plays our opening number. While practicing his butterfingered quick-draw skills, he encounters a “wanted” poster for an outlaw gang called “the Crackers,” and just like that, he has his first quest. But his first stop is to his blacksmith friend Matthew (Don Johnson) to order some custom-made bullets. No sooner are they fooling around with the gun than they chance upon the Crackers (Country Joe and the Fish), a singing band of robbers. Zachariah gets into his first duel with a gruff bar patron, bolstering his nerve enough to join the Crackers, who handle music better than outlawing. They’re best put to use distracting a town with a concert while Zachariah and Matthew make away from the bank with big canvas sacks with dollar signs on them. Soon the two young guns will part ways with the Crackers, and other gangs, eventually splitting apart themselves, only to meet again for a showdown when Zachariah is out to pasture and Matthew is now top gun of the west.

The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yet it could have taken itself even less seriously and been a whole lot more fun. The Firesign Theater distanced themselves from this project later, and you can almost see the gaping holes where their best jokes must have been cut out by some killjoy. You may find yourself thinking of funnier westerns as you watch this, wishing for somebody to punch a horse or take themselves hostage. The closest we get to weird is the corny cardboard set of Belle Starr’s cabaret, where a whole band serenades live in the bedroom while our hero gets his spurs polished. Fortunately, the tepid pace of the film doesn’t detract too much from the musical showcase, giving us moments that say “Holy crap, that’s Elvin Jones, the legendary jazz drummer!” and “Wait, was that Joe Walsh?” Zachariah has Heavy Metal syndrome: watch the movie once, but play the soundtrack until it wears out your iPod.

That being said, this film is to be accorded respect as the cultural museum piece it is. When Zachariah was in theaters, the musicals “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” were all the rage, the Vietnam War had yet to play out, and you could still get hassled for being a male with long hair in the wrong neighborhood. Musically, it captures the moment when country-and-western calved away from mainstream rock, doing so with such perfect timing that it’s a wonder the Flying Burrito Brothers or at least the Byrds didn’t manage to sneak onto the set somewhere. It’s often called the last gasp of the ’60s, on the cusp of ceding the old guard of comedy to the new ’70s era of Mel Brooks, Steve Martin, and Carol Burnett. There’s an attempt at symbolic meanings when the story gets serious; ponder that “Zachariah” is one of the final minor prophets of the Old Testament, while “Matthew” is the first New Testament disciple, and you catch a film seemingly aware of the turning page of history. It even hints at homosexual love amongst cowboys a long time before Brokeback Mountain raised the subject. Perhaps time has not been kind to this film; but then, The Monkees’ Head is three years older, and hasn’t lost a twinkle of its shine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An oddity then, certainly, but an enjoyable one.”– Anthony Nield, “The Digital Fix” (DVD)

CAPSULE: PARADOX (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Daryl Hannah

FEATURING: , Lukas Nelson, Micah Nelson, Corey McCormick, Anthony LoGerfo, Tato Melgar, Willie Nelson

PLOT: “Many moons ago, in the future…” a gang of cowboy-style fellows scratch out an existence on a remote farm; they’ve been exiled there by women-folk, who have proven better stewards of the earth. And there’s also Neil Young concert.

Still from Paradox (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This odd little film would conceivably make the cut (albeit waaay down the list) if it weren’t for the fact that, mid-way through, it becomes a Neil Young concert movie for about ten minutes. During the narrative bit, though, performer Neil Young and director Daryl Hannah (yes, that Daryl Hannah) have assembled a passable bit of amateurish art-house and strangely compelling “W.T.F.” meanderishness that’s not without its charm.

COMMENTS: What do you get when you combine a legendary country star, an environmental activist director kicking around, and down-time? Paradox is one possible answer. Neil Young, in his 21st acting role, narrates and stars in this 60 + 15-minute[1] diversion, bringing along with him a couple of scions in Willie Nelson and other outlandishly talented musicians who, after all is said and done, make a decent fist of playing post-apocalyptic versions of themselves.

Daryl Hannah makes full use of every camera filter at her disposal and every little bit of editing trickery to render, visually, what might have once existed as a campfire tall-tale. Random shots of animals create an ambience that is both cute and natural, as well provide the occasional “What the…?” moment. (One shot with a very quizzical-looking deer seemingly watching over the action is particularly effective.) Our lads, of all ages, burn time talking, gambling, and digging up trash-treasure while waiting around for the “Gray Eagle”: a bus full of women who, in Paradox‘s loose narrative, are the Earth’s stewards. And Neil Young looks cryptic. Then he wanders the land toting a rifle. Then he plays his guitar. Then he looks like he might partake in a quick-draw with Willie Nelson. You get the picture.

Stripped of its concert footage center, Paradox would have made a nice little entry in one of 366’s appendices. But as this brief review has remarked, it’s nothing more than the sum of its circumstances: Neil Young and company with a few days to kill, Daryl Hannah with a movie camera and time to spare, and an impromptu feel derived from the director’s “one take” methodology. Lives will not be changed (though the occasional preachiness of Paradox suggests they wouldn’t mind if they were), but the world isn’t worse off for having this odd little digression into music, philosophy, allegory, and black hats.

Available exclusively on Netflix (at least for the time being).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Once upon a time, a film like ‘Paradox,’ a vaguely hallucinatory sci-fi/Western hybrid with legendary rocker Neil Young at its hazy center, would have found its natural home on the midnight movie circuit. Alas, the midnight movie scene is practically dead, and it is therefore instead debuting on Netflix, which will at least make it more convenient for its target audience of Young completists, people too stoned to make it out their front doors and those who felt that ‘Masked and Anonymous’ was far too lucid and commercial-minded for their tastes.” – Peter Sobczynski,  RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

  1. The “movie” itself is about an hour; unlike many people who might watch this, I could have done without the concert interlude lifted from Young’s 2016 tour. []

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.