THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Friday, March 29, 2013

BURR by Gore Vidal




 
I once read that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), the erstwhile presidential candidate, said that once upon a time she had been a Democrat, even working for the election of Jimmy Carter. However, while riding on a train one day, she experienced a political conversion while reading Gore Vidal’s novel, Burr.   


According to Ms Bachmann, she became so upset with the way Vidal depicted our Founding Fathers – mocking them, she said – that she dropped the book into her lap and said to herself, “I must be a Republican.”


I don’t know if that was before or after she became a tax attorney, which I am sure is beside the point.


I have owned two copies of that novel for years, and though I have read all of Vidal’s other historical novels, somehow I had never gotten around to reading this one. But after reading how it had exerted such a great impact on Ms Bachmann’s life (and she didn't even finish the book!), I decided that I had to read it – and right away. After all, it might change my life, too.


And now I have read it.


If I had the opportunity to discuss the book with Ms Bachmann, I would try to make the following points:


1). The author is the late Gore Vidal. He always went over the top in everything he said and everything he wrote, fiction or nonfiction. Always provocative, he was very much prone to exaggeration, even when his point was a valid one.


2). The book is written from the viewpoint of Aaron Burr. The man was a self-promoting scalawag. While he was vice-president of the United States, he shot and killed the very first secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel. President Thomas Jefferson later accused him of treason against the United States. He was prosecuted, but was acquitted.


Since the book tells the story from Burr’s viewpoint and presents his version of these events, it should come as no surprise that it places him in the best possible light and Hamilton and Jefferson in the worst possible lights. (Vidal even admitted in the afterword that he had a higher opinion of Jefferson than Burr did, and a lower opinion of Andrew Jackson.)


3). The book is a work of fiction – not history.

I am sorry to report that I have experienced no political conversion, no epiphany, and have reached no life-altering conclusions. None. Not yet.

Aaron Burr




Thursday, March 28, 2013

TOP 21 FAVORITE WESTERNS -- SHANE

# 3

SHANE (Paramount, 1953)






DIRECTOR: George Stevens;  PRODUCER: George Stevens; ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: Ivan Moffat;  WRITERS: A.B. Guthrie, Jr. (screenplay) and Jack Sher (additional dialogue) from a story by Jack Schaefer;  CAMERA: Loyal Griggs



CAST: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, Jack Palance, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Emile Meyer, Elisha Cook, Jr., Douglas Spencer, John Dierkes, Ellen Corby, Paul McVey, Nancy Kulp, Leonard Strong, Ray Spiker




THE PLOT.

George Stevens took an uncomplicated, slow-moving tale containing Western archetypes such as the gunfighter, the rancher, and the farmer, mixed in a typical conflict between cattlemen and sodbusters, and turned it all into a penetrating personal vision.  It was a refreshing and classic return to the themes of man vs. man and man vs. nature in the building of the West.



SHANE (Alan Ladd): “Do you mind putting down that gun?  Then I’ll leave.”

JOE STARRETT (Van Heflin):  What difference does it make?  You’re leaving anyway.

SHANE:  "I’d like it to be my idea."



A buckskinned horseman from nowhere, named Shane (Ladd), with a mysterious and undoubtedly violent past, arrives in a Wyoming valley in search of refuge – or a hiding place – or perhaps simply peace.  He hires on as a hand with a farm family (Heflin, Arthur, De Wilde) that is being threatened by a powerful anti-sodbuster rancher (Meyer), his tough brother (Dierkes), their arrogant cowhands (Johnson being the most prominent), and the hired gunslinger (Palance) they’ve employed to drive the homesteaders off the land.


Gunfighter wearing fancy gun belt and riding fancy horse meets hard-working homesteader


The movie and its plot are so well known that I don’t think I am giving anything away when I say that in the end, after exhausting every peaceable means, Shane finally confronts the powerful land-grabbing villains, gives them and their hired hands their just desserts, and rides away to disappear – wounded, possibly dying, but making the sacrifice because his dignity requires it: riding off, in the tradition of cowboy heroes, into the sunset, alone, with young Joey Starrett (De Wilde) calling after him, “Shane…Shane …come back Shane!”


He didn’t come back.  He couldn’t.




“There’s no living with a killing.  There’s no going back from one.  Right or wrong, it’s a brand…a brand sticks.  There’s no going back.  Now you run home to your mother and tell her…tell her everything’s all right.  And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.”  -- SHANE (Alan Ladd)



Yes, it is a plot that has been filmed many times, before and after SHANE, but never as well. The story is much more subtle than what a bare outline of its plot can portray. 



True, we have the age-old struggle between good and evil.  Both Shane and Wilson (Palance) are gunslingers, but there the similarity ends.  Shane has a conscience and is remorseful when he is forced to use his gun.  Not so, Wilson.  He enjoys what he does and suffers no remorse or misgivings about his line of work.  Shane may not enjoy it, but he is a killer.  Can such a person be totally virtuous?  Wilson, on the other hand, is evil incarnate.  Ambiguity is not one of the characteristics of his personality as it is with Shane.



It seems that Shane is searching for something – perhaps for himself – and the result is an inner war that he is destined to lose.  In the end, he realizes he is trapped, that it is impossible to break the mold.



There is also the struggle between the civilized life, as represented by the homesteaders, and the primitive life, as represented by the ranchers.  However, here the distinction is not as clear-cut as it often is in Western films. 



The rancher Ryker (Meyer) is not entirely an unreasonable man.  He even says at one point that he likes Joe Starrett (Heflin), the leader of the homesteaders.  He even offers to hire Starrett and Shane.  He is also correct when he says that it was he and his kind who defeated the Indians and tamed the land and now the farmers were moving in and attempting to take over that land, a free range that was suitable only for cattle ranching and not farming.  History would prove him correct on that last score.



So, why don’t we feel more sympathy for Ryker?  That’s an easy question to answer.  It’s because he hires the coldblooded killer Jack Wilson to do his dirty work for him.

 
poor Elisha Cook never stood a chance

RUFUS RYKER (Emile Meyer):  “I’ll kill him if I have to.”

JACK WILSON (Jack Palance):  “You mean I’ll kill him if you have to.”



THE STARS.

Director George Stevens’ first choice for the lead role was Montgomery Clift, whom he had directed in A PLACE IN THE SUN (Paramount, 1951).  Depending on the source, Clift either turned down the role or had a conflict.  William Holden was the director’s choice to play Joe Starrett.  However, he wasn’t available either.  The result was the casting of Alan Ladd and Van Heflin.



Holden would have been a great choice to play Starrett, but it is hard to comprehend how he would have been better in the role than Heflin.  With Holden in the role it would have been more difficult to accept the premise that Starrett’s wife Marian (Arthur) was attracted to Shane.  With Heflin, a great actor, but no lady’s man, in the role, the attraction becomes more logical.



Montgomery Clift was a tremendous actor and one of my favorites.  He gave some riveting performances in some the best movies ever filmed.  But (you knew that there was going to be a but, didn’t you?) – But I don’t think he would have been convincing as Shane.  It is probably sacrilegious to say this, but I didn’t find him convincing in his only Western role, that being RED RIVER (UA, 1948), a movie that is almost universally considered to be a classic. 



So, what about Ladd?  There was a time when I went along with the conventional wisdom that although SHANE provides Ladd with his greatest movie and best performance, that he nevertheless did not possess the personality and talent needed for the role of the lone gunfighter.  However, over the course of watching this film many times, I’ve changed my views.



Ladd is excellent in his scenes with young Brandon De Wilde.  I’m not sure anybody could have been more believable.  The same is true regarding his scenes with Jean Arthur.  He was always good in his films when it came to dealing with personal relationships.



It is true that Ladd was a man of small stature (his boyhood name was ‘Tiny’) and many critics have pointed out that there is no way that he could have bested Chris Calloway (Johnson) or Joe Starrett in a brawl.  That is a little hard to accept, but what did those same critics say about the fight between slightly built Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) and burly Tom Dunson (John Wayne) in RED RIVER?  I wonder.



Of course, a six-gun is an equalizer.  Therefore, a gunfighter doesn’t have to have great physical strength to be expert at that trade.  It is also true that real-life heroes do sometimes come in small packages.  Does the name Audie Murphy ring a bell?



Ladd’s presence didn’t hamper the film at the box office.  After all, he was at the peak of his popularity and was one of the most popular stars in Hollywood at the time that the film was released.



Although Ladd was not Stevens’ first choice, he did say that he thought the actor was perfect in the role.  That might be going too far.  There’s no doubt that a Gary Cooper or a Gregory Peck, for example, would have been better suited to the role, but I believe that Ladd was very good and a much better choice than Montgomery Clift.



At the time that SHANE was filmed, Jean Arthur had been off the screen for three years (five years by the time the film was released) and had appeared in only one film during the previous seven years.  Marian Starrett represented her last feature film role though she would later star in a brief TV series.



Despite being in her early fifties when the picture was filmed (Heflin was in his early forties and Ladd in his late thirties), she was very good as the homesteader’s faithful wife who is nevertheless attracted to the mysterious gunfighter.  The age difference between her and her two co-stars is not readily detectable and is of no consequence.



(L-R) Brandon De Wilde, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Alan Ladd
 
THE SUPPORTING CAST.

Brandon De Wilde, just nine-years-old at the time the movie was filmed, was considered to be a child prodigy – and deservedly so.  He debuted on Broadway at age seven and completed almost 500 appearances in The Member of the WeddingSHANE was his first film.  However, because it took George Stevens a year to edit the film, the movie version of THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING (Kramer/Columbia, 1952) was his first film to be released.  In 1953-54, he even starred in JAMIE (ABC), a weekly TV sitcom.  That would appear to be a daunting task for a youngster, but it was even more so since it was a live production.  If that wasn’t enough, he appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1952.



Other than SHANE, De Wilde’s best-known (and best-regarded) film is HUD (Paramount,1963). By that time he was twenty-years-old and had been acting for fourteen of them. 



Tragically, De Wilde died in an automobile accident.  He was only thirty-years-old.  (Two of De Wilde’s co-stars also died young.  Ladd was only fifty at the time of his death, while Heflin died at age sixty.)



For his performance in SHANE (his first film), De Wilde was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.  Jack Palance, with only about a dozen lines of dialogue, was nominated for the same award in what was his fourth film.  It was his second nomination, the first coming the previous year for his role in only his third film, SUDDEN FEAR (RKO, 1952).  Almost forty years after SHANE, Palance received a third nomination for the award, and this time he won.  The film was CITY SLICKERS (Columbia, 1991).



Ben Johnson, looking larger and more mature than he did just a short time earlier when he was making his mark in a trio of John Ford Westerns, turns in one of the best performances in the film.  As one of Ryker’s ranch hands, Johnson appears at first to be the most arrogant of an arrogant crew.  He is the first to goad Shane into a fight with the result being a knockdown-drag out brawl.  However, in the end, Johnson’s Chris Calloway is a decent sort and when the chips are down that decency rises to the surface.

Shane being challenged by Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson)
The rest of the cast is superb.  And why not?  It had to be since it included such stalwarts as Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook, Jr., and John Dierkes.







THE DIRECTOR.

SHANE was George Stevens only Western, unless one counts ANNIE OAKLEY (RKO, 1935), and I don’t.  A meticulous craftsman, it took him over a year to prepare the film for release, and the wait was well-worth it.   For his efforts, Stevens was nominated for an Oscar as Best Director and the film received a Best Picture nomination



I have only one quibble with his work on the film.  I didn’t like the fancy gun belt and holster worn by Ladd or his horse’s ostentatious bridle and saddle.  Both man and beast looked as though they belonged in one of Republic’s B-Westerns.  It is hard to understand how this happened, since Stevens took such great pains to ensure that the costumes worn by the other actors were authentic.  He even went so far as to build a historically accurate town from scratch out in the middle of Jackson Hole, Wyoming,  so one would think that he would see that how Ladd and his horse appeared in the opening and closing scenes was a touch anachronistic.


George Stevens, Director

Okay, so I don’t think the movie is perfect.  I do think it is nevertheless a timeless classic Western.  After all, I have rated it as my third most favorite Western.



CINEMATOGRAPHY, LOCATIONS, AND WRITERS.

SHANE was nominated for six Academy Awards, but won only one.  The winning Oscar went to Loyal Griggs for his breathtakingly gorgeous photography.  Of course, he had a lot to work with, too.  Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with its Snake River Valley and majestic Grand Tetons as a backdrop, is one of the most stunningly beautiful places to be found anywhere in the world. Griggs specialized in Western productions during his career, filming a total of eleven.



Two of the writers involved in the production of the film rank among the greatest of all Western novelists.  Jack Schafer’s novel, published in 1949, is considered one of the best Western novels ever written.  Although he later moved to Santa Fe, at the time that he wrote Shane he had never been anywhere near the region he wrote about.  Nevertheless, he got it right.  One of his later novels, Monte Walsh, was filmed twice – once as a feature film and once as a TV movie.  Both are very good.



A.B. Guthrie, Jr. is best known for three critically acclaimed novels: The Big Sky, The Way West (winner of Pulitzer Prize in 1950), and These Thousand Hills.  All three were filmed, but with mixed results.  None of the three films came close to the high standards set by the novels and in all three cases Guthrie was unhappy with the results.  There might have been happier outcomes had Guthrie written the screenplays, but he did not.



In fact, SHANE was his first screenplay, and though he was nominated for an Oscar for his work, he wrote only one other, preferring to concentrate his time on his novels.





REVIEWS:    



SHANE may well be the ultimate expression of the Western legend, but the film does have flaws….[It] strives too hard for its effects…and Alan Ladd wasn’t right for the part really….[but] despite its pretentiousness SHANE codified the essence of the Western, and it remains one of the few altogether towering movies of the genre….in the end it is a monumentally rewarding film on nearly any level: moving, entertaining, beautiful, even, perhaps, profound.”  -- Brian Garfield in Western Films: A Complete Guide



“Truly epic Western, among the best ever made….filmed with amazing skill by George Stevens, with some of the finest scenic values ever put on film.  There’s action, drama, fine performances.  A winner.” –- Steven H. Scheuer



“Shane wears a white hat and Palance [Jack Wilson] wears a black hat, but the buried psychology of this movie is a mottled, uneasy, fascinating gray.”  -- Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times



“…it is Master De Wilde with his bright face, his clear voice, and his resolute boyish ways, who steals the affections of the audience and clinches SHANE as a most unusual film.” –- Bosley Crowther in the New York Times



“Palance is unforgettable in role of creepy hired gunslinger.  Classic Western is splendid in every way.  Breathtaking cinematography by Loyal Griggs….” -- Leonard Maltin



And now for a couple of opposing viewpoints:



“While clearly it is a milestone film, if not a permanent classic, it is a film of diminishing returns and each viewing tends to leave one liking it a little less.  While the film rescued Alan Ladd from decline and made him a star again, his performance is still the weakest in the film when it should be the strongest….SHANE’s best performance comes from Ford’s protégé and player Ben Johnson.”  –- William K. Everson in A Pictorial History of the Western Film



Once celebrated for its realism, in retrospect, SHANE, with its snow-capped vistas, De Wilde’s arch innocence, Ladd’s archetypal white-fringed, buckskin-suited hero and Palance’s demoniac villain, is clearly a Western that yearns for the innocent verities of Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, et al….In short the film is less an exploration of such Western clichés as ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,’ than a mature version of ‘Heigh Ho Silver.’  -- Phil Hardy in The Western


 “Shane…Shane…come back Shane!  Bye Shane!" – Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde)